Know Your Meme
The treachery of (internet) images: ceci n’est pas une pepe.
[Paper to be delivered at the ‘Pop Culture’ conference, organised by Milly Morris and Frankie Rogan, University of Birmingham, 28th February 2018].
In his book Wasting Time on the Internet, MOMA’s first poet laureate, Kenneth Goldsmith argues that in the digital age, “like” has come to mean something very different than our common or garden definition: ‘[w]e can support something, expressing ourselves by clicking Like or we download something we like. In this way, we build a rich ecosystem of artefacts around us based on our proclivities and desires.’1 Away from mere fondness, as in “I like watching Queer Eye,” our new social media “like” functions as the pressing of a button, an interactive action, a technology that assembles and organises entities into a specific mode of being Heidegger calls the standing-reserve.2 As such, technology (and “like”) takes hold of things and orders them in a particular way, not as good or bad, but only as “good for” something, as resources always at our disposal.
It may seem that internet memes serve no other purpose than to be the very entities we gather around us as standing-reserve: ready-to-hand as the perfect (re-)action for every situation, for each and every moment that is embodied, emotional, and intersectionally situated within cultures straddling mass-media and the niche. Tumblr user Maralie writes:
i love when somebody reblogs a picture of like, a lizard, and just says “me” and we all know exactly what they mean. the current online Humor Discourse is remarkable because we trade exclusively in [...] implications and nobody ever, ever says anything outright and yet EVERYBODY understands each other perfectly.3
This paper will argue that the “me” of meme culture in fact does something vastly stranger and more radical than Goldsmith’s technology of “like,” or Heidegger’s standing-reserve. To do this means doing away with a priori knowledge (the pre-given self in the pre-existing world) and somehow allowing for a consideration of both in their intra-active becoming: no small task. Away from somewhat futile attempts to trace the appropriated image-content of memes,4 or ventures to categorise them in terms of humour,5 and disputing previous attempts to explain them by reading them as semiotic texts:6 it is the specific combination of text and image that has yet to be appreciated. And in the honour of Urban Dictionary user “Lord Grimcock”’s definition of the word meme as being ‘used to give a bit of pseudo- academic gravitas to stupid viral shit,’ this new analysis will be explored via Jean-François Lyotard’s understanding of the real and a discussion of the task of art in the work of Michel Foucault.7
In what was (rather depressingly) Lyotard’s doctoral thesis, Discourse, Figure (1971) begins in criticizing the poet and dramatist Paul Claudel’s notion of reading the real as text, specifically Claudel’s observation of Japan’s Lake Chūzenji and the surrounding forests. Lyotard condemns Claudel’s ‘synesthetic notion of a listening eye, a metaphor that suggests that what is visible is readable, audible and intelligible.’8 He writes:
The two trees stand “at a great distance from each other,” yet the stem of the gaze skewers and sticks them together on an unspecified background, on any canvas. Very well, but this flattening makes the “picture”, not page covered in writing, which is a kind of table. One does not read or understand a picture. Sitting at a table one identifies and recognizes linguistic units; standing in representation one seeks out plastic events. Libidinal events.9
Lyotard argues that by reading the real as a text, its fullness and depth is denied since the visible world is not experienced as language, but as picture. Importantly however, he does not seek to contend that one (discourse or figure / language or image) is somehow better than the other. He also disputes Platonic idealism, that words or images are imperfect versions of somehow perfect abstractions, and the project of t/his early work is only in emphasising the importance of differentiating between the meaningfulness of linguistic signs and the meaningfulness of plastic arts. Neither can be reduced to each-others’ terms. Despite belonging to the same realm, these dualities, like oil and water, can never truly meet and the space between line and letter is an unbridgeable fissure. An image can never fully illustrate a text, and a text can never fully describe an image, and experience is always somehow “extra” than mere representation.
This is a similar project to Foucault’s short book This Is Not A Pipe (1973), which takes as its focus the work of surrealist master, René Magritte. We can imagine an interaction between Foucault and Magritte:
M: The famous pipe. How people reproached me for it! And yet, could you stuff my pipe? No, it's just a representation, is it not? So if I had written on my picture 'This is a pipe', I'd have been lying!10
F: But who would seriously contend that the collection of intersecting lines above the text is a pipe? Must we say: My God, how simpleminded! The statement is perfectly true, since it is quite apparent that the drawing representing the pipe is not the pipe itself. And yet there is a convention of language. What is this drawing? Why, is it a calf, a square, a flower. [...] No matter that it is the material deposit, on a sheet of paper or a blackboard, of a little graphite or a thin dust of chalk. It does not “aim” like an arrow or a pointer toward a particular pipe in the distance or elsewhere. It is a pipe.11
Here Foucault is addressing our “natural” connection of text and drawing – and asking, if it’s not a pipe, or the pipe, then what is it? Seemingly Magritte underestimates the scope of his own work and poses that instead of clever representations, these works are infact calligrams which ‘lodge[s] statements in the space of a shape, and makes the text say what the drawing represents.’12 The calligram looks like the meaning of the word written – like Windows 95-era WordArt – the word “waves” forming the shape of peaks and troughs for example. In Magritte’s work the calligram is dual, at play in the dimensions of (a) a drawing whose subject matter is writing (the pipe that is drawn is in fact not a physical pipe) and (b) writing that is a drawing (the message beneath the drawing is itself a trompe-l’oeil since the message is not really written but drawn). The drawing is and is not really a pipe, and the text below is and is not really writing. “This” (this artwork constituted of a written pipe and a drawn text) "is not" (is incompatible with) "a pipe" (the ambiguous, mixed element which springs from both discourse and the image). Importantly, ‘the calligram never speaks and represents at the same moment, the very thing that is both seen and read is hushed in the vision, hidden in the reading.’13 Like with Lyotard’s unbridgeable gap between discourse and figure, this double cipher brings text and image as close together as possible and still the object has escaped: we never share the actual referent: it does not exist.14 (Disclaimer here: I am about to say the word “pipe” a lot). Foucault exclaims:
From painting to image, from image to text, from text to voice, a sort of imaginary pointer indicates, shows, fixes, locates, imposes a system of references, tries to stabilize a unique space. But why have we introduced the teacher's voice? Because scarcely has he stated, "This is a pipe," before he must correct himself and stutter, "This is not a pipe, but a drawing of a pipe," "This is not a pipe but a sentence saying that this is not a pipe," "The sentence 'this is not a pipe' is not a pipe," "In the sentence 'this is not a pipe,' this is not a pipe: the painting, written sentence, drawing of a pipe - all this is not a pipe.15
“Pipe down, Foucault!” I hear you cry. But I ask, if there is no pipe, then what constitutes the content of an image? Furthermore, is there an art ‘more committed to the careful and cruel separation of graphic and plastic elements’, than the meme?16 The meme, in which is apparent the ‘slender, colourless, neutral strip’ between words and images, in which are ‘established all the relations of designation, nomination, description, classification.’17 For Foucault it all hinges on “this,” both as word and as signifier. In memes “me” = “ceci” of ‘this is not a pipe’ and it is this pointing, this “this”, this “me,” that sets apart memes from other types of internet images. Because speech is not uttered in the absence of the designated thing, but in its presence and the designated thing is not a thing but an opaque symbol (which cannot fail to also be a figure). Here the proper name is used in order ’to pass surreptitiously from the space where one speaks to the space where one looks; in other words, to fold one over the other as if they were equivalents.18 Lyotard’s strategy in exposing this rift is by way of showing that ‘the distance between the sign and the referent should not be understood as negation but as a form of expression.’19 Infact the radical heterogeneity of the encounter between language and the sensible (i.e. the sensory field) is a spatial position, an event which cannot be represented. So, it is not quite that there is no pipe, or there is no “me”, but as James Porter writes:
Rather we share versions of the referent: we share images of the referent, and in so doing the referent (and of course there never was one) slides, is distorted, becomes something else. It is not, as Foucault says, that “Nowhere is there the pipe [or the self, or me].” Rather our discursive community is simply in the process of making it; we haven’t finished yet. We’re still drafting.20
Overthrowing the classical assumption that the world exists before experience, the figural force of designation disrupts the possibility of thinking about history as a succession of moments. We do not aim to (re-)present some pre-given self, as a form of resemblance designating between an “original” object and its copy, but create and share images as a form of similitude.21 There is no one-on-one relation between language and the object. And we all get the joke. Just as Daniel Rubenstein commented on the “gift” of the selfie (which belongs to the same episteme as the meme), memes can open up a discourse about the self and the image ‘that is not bound to indexicality, representation or memory but instead suggests a meditation on the forces of the network expressed through the plurality of fragments.’22 We use each other’s image to express our own as a force of difference. The image cannot be fully explained but used and reused. And the self of the text is not pre-given but articulated anew in each new share while refuting the binary of time spent online and IRL.23 So while we grapple with the ‘“frightened bitterness” of the White Boy Internet,’ as Nina Power has described it, the potential of this ambiguous, dynamic nature of image and text, and its multiple, performative understanding of the self is both exciting and potentially transformative.24 Not just funny, or unfunny, or juvenile, or banal, but bound up with a new kinds of ethics and politics.25 As Amelia Tate wrote, ‘my generation is often criticized for believing that we are “special snowflakes”, but memes mean I can’t buy this argument. More than ever, we know we are not unique.’26 And more than that, memes insist that there are no unique beings, only unique instances of constructing and expressing the self.
1 Kenneth Goldsmith, Wasting Time on the Internet (New York: Harper Perennial, 2016), 20.
2 Martin Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology,” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, translated by William Lovitt (New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1977), pp. 3-35, 17.
3 Maralie, “wearebornwiththedead”, http://maralie.tumblr.com (blog) [original emphasis], available at: http://maralie.tumblr.com/post/138050564561/i-really-love-our-generations-joke- trend-of-like.
4 Attempting to describe the exact (appropriated) content of memes is doubly futile in the sense of trying to keeping up with hyper-fast culture of internet humour, which seems to embody fads, trends and change itself as the acceleration of acceleration. A meme that has become irrelevant or no longer funny, due to overuse or age is described as stale or dead, and seemingly naturally disappears from circulation, perhaps only to (re)appear in meme “graveyard” blogs or Reddit’s “pet cemetery” of dead memes.
5 See: Linda K. Börzsei, “Makes a Meme Instead A Concise History of Internet Memes,” Doctoral Thesis (Utrecht University: February 2013).
6 See: Patrick Davison, “The Language of Internet Memes,” The Social Media Reader, edited by Micheal Mandiberg (New York: NYU Press, 2012).
7 Meme, Urban Dictionary, uploaded by user “Lord Grimcock” (23rd June 2009). Available at: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=meme&page=2.
8Jakub Zdebik, Deleuze and the Diagram: Aesthetic Threads in Visual Organization (London and New York: Continuum, 2012), 77.
9 Jean-Francois Lyotard, Discourse Figure, translated by Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon (London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011). 4.
10 Harry Torczyner, Magritte: Ideas and Images (New York: Abrams, 1979), 71.
11 Michel Foucault, This Is Not a Pipe, translated by James Harkness (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), 19-20.
12 Ibid., 21. 13 Ibid., 24.
14 There is an opportunity here to discuss the difference between using a computer keyboard to type and also to make images in the form of ASCII art in terms of Foucault’s calligram:
“this is not a pipe,” Text to ASCII Art Generator (TAAG), www.patorjk.com/software/taag/.
Pipe image, Image to ASCii Art Generator, https://manytools.org/hacker-tools/convert-images-to-ascii-art/
15 Foucault, This Is Not A Pipe, 30. 16 Ibid., 35.
17 Ibid., 28.
18 Foucault, The Order of Things (New York: Pantheon, 1970), 9.
19 Daniel Rubinstein “Discourse in a coma; A Comment on a Comma in the Title of Jean François Lyotard’s
Discourse, Figure,” Zētēsis, Vol 1, Issue 1 (October 2013), 6.
20 James E. Porter, "This Is Not a Review of Foucault's This Is Not a Pipe," Rhetoric Review 4, no. 2 (1986): 210- 19, emphasised additions by me. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/466040.
21 The meme is not only similar to itself in all its iterations on various screens and devices, it is also self-similar to and different from all other memes. This series of lateral relations ‘circulates the simulacrum as the indefinite and reversible relation of the similar to the similar.’ Foucault, The Order of Things, 36-37.
22 Daniel Rubinstein, “Gift of the Selfie / Das Geschenk des Selfies,” Ego Update, (Dusseldorf: Alain Biebe, 2015), 175, available at: https://www.academia.edu/15718099/Gift_of_the_Selfie.
23 Since technology has now become omnipresent in our lives, it no longer makes any sense to differentiate between time spent online and time spent IRL (in real life). Our handheld mobile devices: phones, tablets, watches are always on and always with us, organising our time, counting our steps, uploading images into the cloud, or feeding our shopping habits into siren servers. Further arguments for the insperability of technology and the ‘real-world’ are found in discussions of the technosphere. Efforts to explore the strange, absurd, sometimes frightening transference of the digital realm into the physical world, which is affecting and permeating our lives to such an extent that it does not make sense to say that there is an “outside” of the internet, can be found in James Bridle’s on-going research-project “the new aesthetic”. See: James Bridle, “the new aesthetic”, http://new-aesthetic.tumblr.com (blog), available at: http://new-aesthetic.tumblr.com/about.
24Nina Power, “The Language of the New Brutality,” e-flux, Journal #83 (June 2017), available at: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/83/141286/the-language-of-the-new-brutality/.
25 A conversation could be had here about recent cases for ‘digital blackface’ in reaction GIFs: ‘Ultimately, black people and black images are thus relied upon to perform a huge amount of emotional labor online on behalf of nonblack users. We are your sass, your nonchalance, your fury, your delight, your annoyance, your happy dance, your diva, your shade, your “yaas” moments.’ See: Lauren Michele Jackson, “We Need to Talk About Digital Blackface in Reaction GIFs: Why is it so common?” Teen VOGUE (2nd August, 2017), available at: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/digital-blackface-reaction-gifs [accessed 23rd February 2018].
26 Amelia Tait, “It me: how memes made us feel less alone,” New Statesman (31st March 2017), available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/internet/2017/03/it-me-how-memes-made-us-feel-less-alone [accessed 23rd February 2018].
Foucault, Michel. The Order of Things. New York: Pantheon, 1970.
Foucault, Michel. This Is Not a Pipe. Translated by James Harkness. Berkeley: University of
California Press, 1982.
Goldsmith, Kenneth. Wasting Time on the Internet. New York: Harper Perennial, 2016.
Heidegger, Martin. “The Question Concerning Technology.” The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays. Translated by William Lovitt. New York and London: Garland Publishing, 1977. Pp. 3-35.
Lyotard, Jean-François. Discourse, Figure. Translated by Antony Hudek and Mary Lydon. London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011.
Meme. Urban Dictionary. Uploaded by user “Lord Grimcock.” 23rd June 2009. Available at: https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=meme&page=2.
Porter, James E. "This Is Not a Review of Foucault's This Is Not a Pipe." Rhetoric Review. 4. No. 2. 1986. Pp. 210-19. Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/466040.
Power, Nina. “The Language of the New Brutality.” e-flux. Journal #83. June 2017. Available at: http://www.e-flux.com/journal/83/141286/the-language-of-the-new-brutality/.
Rubinstein, Daniel. “Discourse in a coma; A Comment on a Comma in the Title of Jean François Lyotard’s Discourse, Figure.” Zētēsis. Volume 1. Issue 1. October 2013.
Rubinstein, Daniel. “Gift of the Selfie.” Ego Update. Dusseldorf: Alain Biebe, 2015. Available at: https://www.academia.edu/15718099/Gift_of_the_Selfie.
Tait, Amelia. “It me: how memes made us feel less alone.” New Statesman. 31st March 2017. Available at: https://www.newstatesman.com/science-tech/internet/2017/03/it-me- how-memes-made-us-feel-less-alone.
Torczyner, Harry. Magritte: Ideas and Images. New York: Abrams, 1979.
Zdebik, Jakub. Deleuze and the Diagram: Aesthetic Threads in Visual Organization. London and New York: Continuum, 2012.