Banality and Transgression: An ongoing theoretical exploration of Internet memes

The meme is the defining visuo-textual medium of our time. Understanding how our society makes and consumes memes is a vital condition of participating in culture. Ignorance of this phenomenon means missing out on what’s going on. The modern trend towards information-dense succinctness is arguably an outgrowth of memes (or at least a concomitant result of the same set of cultural causes).

The ‘meme’ as we know it is in fact more properly termed an ekphrastic vignette – a short, usually pithy statement with an image and text. If a meme lacks either it is not a “meme” in the conventional sense.

Not a meme.

Not a meme.

Not a meme.

Not a meme.

Yup, it's a meme.

Yup, it’s a meme.

Since the presence of both image and text are inescapable formal requirements for a meme, the “ekphrastic” aspect of a meme – the requirement that it have both language and image – is the only clear formal distinction that can be drawn between ekphrastic-vignettes-as-memes and any plain old funny image or pithy sentence in isolation.

Using the word ‘meme’ for this type of specific connotation is a vulgarization of the original term. ‘Meme’ means a unit of transmission – an idea or a concept that spreads. It is not necessarly linguistic or even formalized at all. Religion based on faith, the phenomenon of copycat suicides and the notion of an unquantifiable but nonetheless tangible ‘jazz sensibility’ (seriously, what the hell is that, I’ve taken two music history classes and I still can’t articulate it) are all examples of memes that are not well-formed clear ideas but nonetheless distinct and inarguable units of transmission.

It does bear mention that ‘meme’ is neither correct nor informative for the informational and graphical phenomenon – the visual/textual THING – that is the subject of this essay. Nonetheless for ease of reference I’ll just refer to them as “memes”. Rather than condemning this conflation as a simple stupid misapellation (which it may nonetheless be!) we should look at what this conflation means for the people who consume and make memes.

The concept of meme, the way we use it today, is essentiallly an erasure of history. It is far from a phenomenon of the Internet age. The combination of brief, usually polemical text and image occurs frequently in modern art history; the comparisons to the modern forms of ekphrasis can be telling, as in the following:

Mel Ramsden, "100% Abstract"

Mel Ramsden, “100% Abstract”

Rene Magritte, "The Treachery of Images"

Rene Magritte, “The Treachery of Images”

It is a particular problem with the history of self-reflexivity in art that the history, itself, becomes in some measure an artwork itself. Beginning with the radical formal rejections of 20th century art and Clement Greenberg’s interpretations thereof, art criticism as a means of guided consumption increasingly has become the way that a gradually more and more abstract and detached art-making elite relates to the consumptive public as a whole.

Jackson Pollock is a classic example of this process at play. Without the two-way influence of theory on art and art upon theory, it is difficult to read Pollock’s mature style (post Guardians of the Secret) unless through the filter of abstractly expressed meanings that Greenberg provides.

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm

Jackson Pollock, Autumn Rhythm

The art-making elite attempted as if by project during the 1980s and 1990s to re-invigorate a kind of psychoanalytical, deterministic Marxian interpretation in art – Derrida’s attempts to unfix accepted assumptions of cultural objects by “de-constructing” them, Lacan’s “as-if” psychoanalyses of artworks and artists – while art-making activity grew further and further from its original traditional forms and media. Lacan’s work with Courbet’s L’Origin du Monde is a hallmark theoretical “move” from this age – part theory, part art performance, all impenetrably dense writing about what is essentially high art pornography.

Gustave Courbet, L'Origin du Monde

Gustave Courbet, L’Origin du Monde

The landmark Freeze show that introduced the famously savage Tracy Emin and Damien Hirst to the world reflected how art-making and indeed meaning-making activity grew increasingly reticent within the historical conversation that comprises art. An unmade bedroom was art; a series of shark cross sections was meaningful sculpture. It is a small step from the academic art of meaningless to the meaninglessness of blue-collar art.

Tracey Emin, My Bed

Tracey Emin, My Bed

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

Damien Hirst, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living

The effect of this retreat into Marxian – and sometimes politically Marxist – art theory, along with the disappearance and marginalization of traditional art forms, has created a modern culture that is lacking in any sense of “high art” or its importance. We live in a highly technologized age, a crazily modern one; but also an ahistorical one, and thus also an increasingly artless and unreflective one. Today, most Americans would be hard-pressed to name a single contemporary painter, philosopher or art theorist or even much less state why they should have any importance. In one sense – a rather judgmental one – we live in an age of savages; we are all savages.

The meme, then, as a symbol of these times, is a fitting one. The internet ekphrastic meme has its origins in wordlessness, solecistic misspellings and imputed cat emotions, after all. The meme bubbles up from a place of anonymous savagery; it is, in an important way, essentially an act of transgressive violence, creation of a meaning by means of a juxtaposition that covers and erases the original meaning of the image. A meme is more graffiti than a painting; it is an act of consumption and destruction of a picture, and creation of a new entity from the words inscribed onto the picture.

Within the violence of memes there are certain rules expressible as Chomskyan “conditions of possibility” – unquestioned, “background” assumptions about what can be considered expressible and what cannot.

Serious matters tend not to be expressed as memes, and if they are, the juxtaposition of the serious into a savage medium is a purposeful rejection – a kind of participation on the nature of meme even while repudiating it. Thus, while a serious 9/11 meme might be… well, serious and even meaningful, it is only meaningful because it is a small image and a few words, nothing that can encompass a broad national tragedy without overgeneralization.

A poor meme.

A poor meme.

And while there are some serious memes, this is the exception rather than the rule; it can be seen as a much truer rule that no one is going to make a meme about, for instance, seriously threatening someone with death. Memes, even when they attempt to reach the serious, can never really escape the banal.

Memes begin to fail when they become more and more prosaic, to the point that, say, a picture of Abraham Lincoln with the entire Gettysburg address over it becomes such a poor meme as to be a complete failure. A serious study of memes needs to examine and expose why and how some memes fail and succeed, and it needs to do so in a historical context.

Another poor meme.

Another poor meme.

We need a serious study of memes because the critique that memes and meme culture make of society is profound. The meme as a significant cultural entity suggests that the museum or the ivory tower art gallery doesn’t have the true “pulse of America” or the current of its thought but rather that the directed political and cultural speech of ordinary Americans as reflected in the uniquely democratic medium of memes is the true glimpse into the language understanding and production of our society at large. Few Americans have a favorite contemporary painter or philosopher; most have some kind of favorite meme they can recall. This is us; this is our image, these are our words, and this is our savage national art form.

This ongoing series will examine the hermeneutics and the cultural metaphysics of the meme and what it means about culture, and about us.

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