Not despite but because of its reputation for lulzy pranks and bursts of memetic irony, Anonymous is “serious business.” As in the eponymous internet meme, the designation is ambiguous. In fact, even the term “serious” itself is ambiguous: it can mean that something is humorless, but it can also mean that it is consequential. These two senses are often conflated, with the result being that the humorous is devalued as inconsequential and vice versa.
Such thinking tends to underlie accounts of Anonymous that treat its lulz as wholly distinct from its political efforts. In this way, Anonymous is often portrayed as having two sides: a prankish side carrying on the tradition of 4chan and its anonymous trolls, and a socially progressive political side engaging in operations, for example, in solidarity with the “Arab Spring,” Occupy, and the Black Lives Matter movement. The two sides represent a divide between Anonymous’ culture—humorous—and its politics—consequential.
This divide seems to be reflected in the structure of “Anonymous’ LulzXmas.” The first half of the video pays homage to the collective’s culture with a flashy retrospective of lulzy memes. A 2011 Anonymous time capsule of sorts, it includes over 9,000 penises, Boxxy, Nyan Cat, PedoBear, and lots of Guy Fawkes masks.
In a radical break from the first half of the video (3:39), the second half is devoted to Charlie Chaplin’s famous speech from the end of The Great Dictator. The closing lines of which are characteristic: “Let us fight to free the world—to do away with national barriers—to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance. Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! In the name of democracy, let us all unite!” Following the speech is a quote (perhaps spuriously) attributed to Thomas Jefferson: “A government afraid of its citizens is a Democracy [sic]. Citizens afraid of government is tyranny.” And then a parting message: “Prepare youself [sic] for 2012.”
While the second half of the video may seem straightforward, it too stands in need of decoding. Chaplin famously bore a resemblance to Hitler, which he used to mock the dictator. The speech comes as the result of a comic sequence involving mistaken identity in which a Jewish barber is taken to be the dictator, and it is performed by an actor, who, in stark contrast to the particular speech performed here (although evident throughout the rest of the film), was notoriously humorous in his acting. Thus, politics cannot be neatly disentangled from humor here. In fact, it cannot be in the first half of the video either as images from the operations, as well as distinctly non-lulzy political symbols such as the swastika, hammer and sickle, and circle-A (the symbols seem to have been deployed in an effort to evoke political history rather than as a kind of endorsement), appear among and often feature, the various memes.
Chaplin later said that he “could not have made The Great Dictator” had he known the nature of the concentration camps. Hannah Arendt offers a different perspective when she insists, drawing on Brecht, “What is really necessary is, if you want to keep your integrity under these circumstances, then you can do it only if you remember your old way of looking at such things and say: ‘No matter what he does and if he killed ten million people, he is still a clown.’” While Arendt would certainly agree that there is nothing funny about the camps, there is, in her estimation, something to be said for viewing the Nazis themselves as humorous, as it strips them of what she describes as the mythic “greatness of evil.” Going beyond Arendt, Anonymous’ lulz—with its often vulgar and absurdist elements—brings humor directly into the political realm in the form of an Arendtian critique, not simply, or primarily, of individual clowns, but of the pretensions of hierarchy more generally. Operating as a kind of “force multiplier,” the lulz can enhance political action by breeding an atmosphere of possibility, and it is for this reason that Anonymous is serious business.