The guests came dressed to the hilt to Joe Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2021. A regular at official ceremonies, the photographer Brendan Smialowski turned his camera sideways and captured Bernie Sanders, the new president’s former rival. Sanders is seen seated alone in a folding chair, his legs and arms crossed, bundled against the cold in a Gore-tex jacket. His gaze appears meditative, and his face is masked. This image of an outcast at the ceremony is touching in its sincerity. It evokes the melancholy of the former presidential candidate, his fatigue and his solitude at a historical moment. It tells of the end of a battle.
Then something happens. Something unforeseeable. Within hours, this scene is replicated in thousands of viral images: Bernie Sanders has become an internet meme. Or, more precisely, the mittens worn by Bernie Sanders have become an internet meme. They steal the show from all the VIPs at the party, they outshine their wearer, and become a popular symbol (the meme now has its own Wikipedia page). Inspired by a worldwide craze, thousands of creators get onboard. Social networks are ablaze with the hashtags #berniemittens and #berniemittensmemes. In less than 24 hours, Bernie Sanders’s homemade mittens became the locus of symbolic power on an unprecedented scale.
By themselves, the mittens encapsulate a complex reality and metonymically condense a political drive. They embody the will to free oneself from conventions and to seek other models.
How did this happen? According to Frédéric Kaplan, a meme draws its power from the contrasting effect of a memetic motif which generates an immediate visual and iconic effect. In other words, the motif goes viral because of its ability to blend with elements in other environments. The photograph of the isolated candidate becomes a founding myth, adopted by Internet users who repeat it in a variety of forms and propagate images derived from the original photograph. The myth is taken up, transformed, and subverted to magnify its potential. But a meme does not go global for no reason. Is it a coincidence or a brilliant communication strategy? It’s hard to say, because the viral logic, so dear to communicators, is the result of a spontaneous and uncontrollable popular movement on the Internet.
Watching the torrent of memes breaking out in record time, one man decided to bring them together in a book entitled Où est Bernie? (Where is Bernie?), published by Éditions Adespote ran by Yannick Kergoat. Professionally, Kergoat is a committed film director and scriptwriter (he co-directed the documentary The New Watchdogs). Amused by the phenomenon, he took the time to gather 150 memes in a self-published book.
This meticulously designed book shows the creative explosion around an image which, from the start, was far from neutral. Produced in less than ten days and printed in six hundred copies, the book shows how the Internet becomes a forum for boundless creativity. Internet tools nourish a form of “global genius” by offering everyone the possibility of subverting, and thus playing with, popular culture (in just a few clicks, you can create your own Bernie meme at bernie-sitting.com).
Page after page, the book is immense fun, and we feel affection for the creators who took part in the movement. The photograph goes on a world tour: Malaysia, Korea, India, Europe, Africa. It conquers urban and rural areas. Bernie Sanders and his mittens are everywhere, but never quite the same.
The book offers a snapshot of the Internet at a point t in time. It uses facing pages to have images confront each other as in a mirror. The meticulous composition lends coherence to chaos. It is important to take the time and decipher its logic, because, while the memes are now part of our daily life, we are not always aware of their message, their ambiguity, or the imagination necessary to their creation.
Bernie Sanders and his mittens have stirred up such a response because they resonated among the young. For the author of the book, memes are a “coded freedom,” the freedom of creators who like to throw a wrench into the formal framework even while operating within it. All the meme authors (for the most part anonymous) participate in the creation of a viral phenomenon now catalogued at knowyourmeme.com, the world bible of Internet memes. This case study expresses something important: the Internet remains a unique space of freedom, creation, subversion, and circumvention.
Bernie in the photograph Lunch atop a Skyscraper by Charles Clyde Ebbets (1932)
The meme unites strangers in different corners of the world around a freely interpreted political photo. Every meme has a message. For example, in the field of sports, Bernie Sanders can be found on a women’s soccer team, next to Maradona, or at a wrestling match. He has been embedded on record sleeves, in classical paintings, or in historical black-and-white photographs. Bernie Sanders poses with Dr. Freud. He puts in a cameo in a Van Gogh painting or in Michelangelo’s The Creation of Adam at the Sistine Chapel. (That last one, frankly, is genius.)
Bernie also shows up in Banksy’s work, in an urban setting. Popular culture is itself hijacked. Next, he is off-balance on a skateboard. By making him perform the feat of staying upright, the meme’s creator sends an upbuilding message. All these memes awake tenderness. There are some moments of pure poetry (Bernie on a wire), which cast him into a positive character and participate in the construction of a myth. In these images Bernie Sanders is rarely in the foreground, you must go looking for him. The politician is not a star: he is just a modest person sitting in a chair, wearing homemade mittens to keep him warm. He is the anti-showoff; he embodies the people, he’s gone through a rough patch.
Leafing through this book also takes us to some iconic settings: Bernie and rock’n’roll; Bernie as a member of the Korean family in Parasite. With these memes, Bernie Sanders infiltrates our daily lives: he is a friend, he is on our side. He mans a market stall. He is just round the corner. He is a neighbor. Pictured in a black community, Bernie with his mittens becomes a spokesman. In another photograph, staging a mise-en-abime, he is positioned looking at himself as a younger man fighting for civil rights. These memes tell the story of his struggle and activism. They are a powerful tool at the fringes of scholarly culture and art history, a tool with a political force that is true to the convictions of the model.
Through this gesture of reappropriation, the Internet fulfills its potential: it allows for unabashed, decoded, free expression. It transcends borders and becomes the “public space” envisioned by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, who theorized this much-debated concept foundational to modern communication. This public space escapes the control of the rulers, it creates its own codes, its own aesthetics. It owns its stylistic means and shakes up a whole cultural field by establishing new representations and thus new political relations.
This is not the first time that Bernie Sanders has become a meme subject. His age, his wry humor, and his personality have been an inspiration to meme creators. Sometimes at his own expense, sometimes deliberately, the senator knows how to build his image. But rarely has a meme had such a resonance. Bernie Sanders seized the moment. He began selling derivative products based on his image.
Within thirty minutes, his site was out of stock. Bernie Sanders raised almost two million dollars in five days (insert exclamation marks!), which have been donated to various organizations in Vermont, the state he represents as a senator. This fundraising means a formidable act of legitimization in the political field in the post-Trump era. It shows how the Internet is a fierce battleground that can transcend politics and the traditional media. Of course, this doesn’t stop the media from picking up on it. Vogue, The New York Times, Elle Magazine, Le Monde… All media outlets have reported the story, including radio and television. Could an excellent communicator have invented such a mechanism?
Herein lies the force of this modest book: its ability to show, help to understand, and analyze a brilliant case study, that of a no-look turned into a fashion. It is a tribute to the often-anonymous creators and their work of composition, to their ideas as improbable as they are brilliant. The author sheds light on a form of popular image-making genius manifested in an explosion of creativity, joy, and audacity.
This book is a trace of a phenomenon already replaced by others. It was published during the summer and mostly met with indifference. Yet it is a living archive, and its discreet author speaks of the Internet as “a slow avalanche,” something that is constantly being covered over.
Without publicity and never claiming authorship, Yannick Kergoat brings us an exercise in astute observation and gently reminds us that humor remains one of the greatest forms of intelligence. For the record, the search engine Lyst recorded an increase of +311% in searches for mittens and +225% in searches for eco-friendly models. Aged 80, Bernie Sanders is one influencer to keep an eye on.
By Clara Bastid
Clara Bastid is a Development officer at La Gaîté Lyrique, in Paris, and an independent exhibition curator.
Où est Bernie ? Le tour du monde de Bernie Sanders, Les Éditions Adespote, €10.