The Internet has had its way with the mugshot of Jeremy Meeks that was released earlier this week. Through some rough Photoshop edits, he’s suddenly become the face of Dolce and Gabbana and Calvin Klein, further exciting to the growing number of people dreaming about his future modeling career. Some agencies, TMZ reports, claim that Meeks could be making 30k a day, as “gangsta” models are currently the vogue (which is, by the way, abysmally idiotic).
Others have been less enthusiastic. The image of Meeks, a simple headshot against a pallid wall, has provoked just as much discord as it has adoration. A large number of people see the Meeks story as a glamorization of crime. Meeks was arrested on weapons possession, but has a long past of run-ins with the law. The convict’s wife has weighed in, expressing her fury over the public lust for her husband. Commenters on Twitter and Facebook have implored their fellow women to gain self-respect, the argument being that to find Meeks attractive is wrong; certain reaches of desire, they argue, are off limits.
Social media has gone back and forth between these two positions. Many have redoubled in celebration of Meeks’ beauty, while many have also exaggerated the situation as an example of our collective moral failure. Neither of these positions is all that enticing: one runs the risk of making light of the situation, while the other similarly renders the convicted a pariah unworthy of one our most basic attentions. Why participate?
I tried to evade the conversation altogether, but something about it interested me. Nearly every headline I saw concerning the news story was anchored by the subject of Meeks’ attractiveness. Estimating how hot he is, I thought, was a distraction from the real issue: the corrupt criminal justice system. The public’s fetishistic relationship to his image could’ve only shifted attention away from the horror of our current prison system. As I return to the Meeks story, however, it seems as though the debate about his attractiveness is very much part of how power is furthered emboldened.
Since the 60s, critics have documented the way ideology services power. We can think of “ideology” as an instruction, not a single one but rather a lifetime of them. It might go something like this, in the most reduced format: You are American; you are black; your gender is male. Or maybe something like this: this discussion is productive; continue this discussion. Ideology’s cunning lies in its ability to say these things without actually saying them, which is an important thesis of a major work on the subject, “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses” by Louis Althusser. Through tactics that we rarely identify, he claimed, ideology causes us to act in accordance with a dominant social order.
That was decades ago, but the idea has a special relevant to this case. We need not look any further than the original photograph itself. All the various fashionable permutations of the image seem to further its status as a fun toy, which seems to be the point of all memes. One image is taken and manipulated ad infinitum, like a spectacular Swiss army knife: “Look what it can do!” A picture, it seems, is worth one thousand jokes.
In a piece on memes for the Washington Post, Caitlin Dewey claims, “there is a sort of casual dehumanization inherent whenever ‘the Internet’ — that is, us — turns a real live person into a hashtag or a punchline.” I was struck by this claim. It would seem to strike a chord of moral clarity, especially for those who fall on the negative side of the debate that has its roots in state power. But what Dewey says reveals something more revelatory about the potency of ideology. If it can start a conversation, it can also regulate the way it unfolds. Here, Dewey situates blame with “us,” as if the genesis and life-span of Meeks’ current fame is our making entirely. Ideology’s trickery is its ability to cover its tracks, to create a fantasy of our supposedly autonomous action. Indeed, we decide to share, yet that is but the midpoint of a long process.
So let’s try to trace the mugshot’s origins. The police department involved in Meeks’ arrest posted the small, plain image to Facebook. One posts an image to Facebook so that it is seen. This act moves the photograph from its original documentary purpose into a new province of digitized enjoyment. To be more precise, the police department—an agent of the local government—launched Meeks’ image as a social moment, a conversation piece to be discussed, shared, liked, and enjoyed. Today, rhetoric around social media discusses the power of the people. Certainly, the explosion of the Meeks meme would seem to support this notion of a Web that is open to the endless sovereignty of its users. The decision to share Meeks’ mugshot, however, suggested that we continue a conversation that had already been implied as soon as it appeared as someone’s newsfeed.
I want to return to Dewey’s article to highlight a special phrase: “the divorce of the photo from its relevant context.” Through Meeks’ wardrobe changes—from Givenchy to Hugo Boss—the context of his mugshot has also been changed and mutated. Every Photoshop imagination moves the image from this relevant context at breakneck speed. This “context” is not only the crimes Meeks has committed, but also the physical and political reality of the prison itself. It’s the institution incarcerates black men at alarming rates. It’s the small surrounding of gray backdrop that surrounds him as he peers into the camera, back at us. We meet his blue eyes in an encounter set up by means that are not our own.
An erotic desire for Meeks’ image on our screens arrives through similar means; it is neither neutral nor natural. We engage an objectified Jeremy Meeks, voided of personal history; his mugshot captures him in this way “dehumanized” way, to use Dewey’s language. We consent to this image of someone else, an Other who is set apart from the general populace within the parameters of a 146 kilobyte image. What this situation has produced is not a fetishization of crime or the criminal. Rather, we’re forced to deal with a fetishization of the power that showed us his image in the first place.
The image of Meeks was released to the public by the Stockton, CA. police department on June 18th in conjunction with headshots of his accomplices.