By Steve Holmes
They get it. This is the best unconscious and intuitive response that any digital rhetoric and writing teacher wants to have when experiencing a student’s multimedia project. The project’s authors state: “We believe that memes not only entertain, they also make claims about the world and how it does, could, and should work.” This comment indicates a shift in these authors’ understanding that mediums and viral ephemera are not just neutral vehicles for communication, but function as crucial and central parts of how rhetorical realities are created in networked spaces. Such comprehension is exactly what any teacher hopes to see reflected and manifested in any student project.
I intend these previous remarks with not a single element of condescension and in the form of a profound compliment. I do not know of any more direct way to highlight the fact that this project has dramatically gone beyond the hoped for “They get it” and toward the “They’ve gone beyond ‘it.’” The “Rhetoric of Memes” was the project that I was always already looking for as a model when I taught my English 488 special topics course in Fall 2013. I taught various networked compositions and web-based texts with respect to rhetorical theory. What I did not have access to was a project that made clear and concise connections between the former (memes) and the latter (Mikhail Bakhtin and Michele Zappavinga). In my opinion, “The Rhetoric of Memes” accomplishes this goal admirably.
When the viewer first encounters the vast array of memes on the homepage, she or he is immediately thrown off balance. The viewer perceives a vast photographic array of familiar meme icons from Hipster Jesus to Philosoraptor. What strikes the viewer immediately is that these icons are naked or stripped bare—divorced from their characteristic textual messages of satire and snark. The viewer is curious but not immediately aware of the palpable design of the array and so he or she clicks on a meme almost by unconscious or near random selection—a great rhetorical confirmation that even the most nonsensical of memes are created equal in terms of their importance for the forthcoming rhetorical analysis.
I clicked on “Philosoraptor” by Emma Kuslits the first time that I interacted with this webtext. I could say this of any of these entries, but Emma’s entry perfectly demonstrated this shift from theoretical understanding to analysis. In breaking down and analyzing four Philosoraptor memes, she declares, “There are many amusing memes on the Internet, but what makes them so enjoyable are the characteristics that one does not think to consider in the first glance. While Zappavigna claims that the qualities of a phrasal template, an image macro, and a recognizable catchphrase are helpful in making a series funny, all of these attributes are not necessary in order to make a meme comical. The Philosoraptor certainly can be identified and enjoyed through its analytical question model and the familiar face of the pensive dinosaur, without the need for a recurring saying.” This set of connections between theory and concrete analysis were precisely the “messages in a bottle,” to borrow Cynthia Haynes’s phrase from her essay, “Writing Offshore,” that me and my English 488 students were in search of last year. Kuslits effectively employed Zappavigna’s Discourse of Twitter and Social Media to call attention to a vast array of rhetorical techniques within memes, writing, “while many popular memes have a basic prototype that simply require the creator to substitute one or two words into a formula each time a new image is created, the Philosoraptor puts a twist on the concept of the template. Instead of replacing a noun or a verb here and there, the dinosaur meme is repetitive in the fact that each individual picture poses a philosophical yet humorous question. The top line nearly always gives a statement or fact that is generally known to be true, and the text below the image concludes by giving the actual joke or play on words that add the sparkle to the meme.” They get it. Again, my repeated insistence on this phrase simply reflects my level of teacherly enjoyment at having the privilege to review and respond to such an excellent and thought provoking project.
The second meme that I clicked on was the “First-World Problems” meme analyzed by Nadeem Parisco-Shammas. She writes, “Applying Mikhail Bakhtin’s concepts of heteroglossia and the carnivalesque to First World Problems (FWP hereafter) reveals their intention: The FWP meme parodies a society that complains about relatively minor inconveniences. But because the meme is meant to be shared across the internet, it simultaneously encourages these same complaints.” This analysis, like so many, is a very sophisticated analysis particularly at the undergraduate level. As someone who struggled with Bakhtin’s work as a master’s student, I was thoroughly impressed by how well this student (and the others as well) broke down these complex ideas and applied them accurately to discuss the rhetoric of memes. Thinking of the leg shaving and warm weather iteration, she writes “The meme does not question whether women should regularly shave their legs, but instead uses it as a platform of shared inconvenient experience in order to connect with other women across the Internet who also feel obligated to shave their legs.” They’ve gone beyond ‘it.’ Memes’ clichéd and satirical nature lend toward critical and commonplace associations of nonsense and apoliticality. It is easy for many (I suspect) to brush off “First-World Problems” as cheap humor without connecting it to a complex and problematic cycle of equally cheap emotional catharsis for a first-world audience. “The Rhetoric of Memes” collectively helps connect the rhetorical function of nonsense in memes to crucial ideological and rhetorical structures. In “First-World Problems,” the viewer desperately wants to appear like a caring progressive who is self-consciously ironic about her or her own (white, first world) privilege without actually identifying the economic and political structures that render these token acknowledgements essentially meaningless and, worse, further perpetuate the very problems that this meme seeks to acknowledge. These are the sorts of complex critical structures that “The Rhetoric of Memes” as a whole traces.
These sorts of thoughtful student commentaries are precisely why scholars such as Geoffrey Sirc keeps telling the field of composition studies to highlight and feature student writing wherever possible. Bear witness to the following sentences assembled from across this project: Timothy Faerber suggests “Bad Luck Brian, like many memes, works best when its ironic humor does not depend on an inside joke”; Sara Hamel, drawing on Bakhtin, states “The importance of the meme text in combination with the image will either make or break the carnivalesque environment”; Sydney Hamilton maintains “The Successful Black Man Meme shares an inside joke with a small community, mocks the stereotypical viewpoints of blacks with image macros, and uses internet slang to its advantage, to represent the irony of what is actually being said”; Tyler Hughes, unintentionally channeling the rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke’s notion of ‘identification’, details “If a meme hits too close to home or brings up a controversial topic that goes beyond socially acceptable norms, an individual may not find that specific meme funny”; Marissa Kaucheck, via Bakhtin’s famous notion of heteroglossia, highlights the multiple audiences that might respond differently to memes in her remark:
“The idea that is expressed in this meme becomes significant when you think about the relationship between what the actual meme is presenting and the way that a reader perceives it. I, too, think it is stupid when people simply say they are never drinking again as a way to make overindulgence okay. However, if I was someone who frequently used this “excuse” to justify my actions, I may find this meme offensive. This idea that language in and of itself has less meaning until someone places their own meaning upon it is what makes memes so successful”;
Sonya Kotov similarly concludes “The lens of the works of Mikhail Bakhtin reveals that in the Hipster Jesus meme, the language learned from and owned by society can actually be placed in a different context where it is used to assert agency as a non-Christian in a Christian dominated space”; Victoria Kuipers, implicitly echoing media theorist Henry Jenkins on spreadable media, offers “For example, repetition of the Most Interesting Man meme has allowed “I don’t always” and “but when I do” to become catchphrases. The image of the “interesting” man is no longer needed for people to identify these phrases with the meme; they have become memes of their own”; Philip Maxwell, on Conspiracy Ted, registers “While a meme’s image tend to imply a specific voice, they often have their own separate attributes. In this case, the image is the tie that brings together the voice and the language. The text poses a conspirative question, the voice leads the reader to read with Ted’s voice, and the image creates the tone”; and, finally, Jennifer Pirri tells us, “Personally, I find these memes funny because they describe behaviors that I would often engage in, such as cleaning up or being honest with my friends. Obviously I would not engage in these behaviors on Good Guy Greg’s level, but the overarching idea is what I am referring to. I chose these memes because they relate to my daily life.”
My bricolage of quotations arranged by virtue of what lines appealed to me most in each entry best performs or simulates the viewer’s experience with the project as a whole. Each entry invariably offered something original and compelling with regard to rhetorical considerations of meme cultures. Memes, this project argues, are some of the most critical and compelling rhetorical sites for contemporary cultural critics to examine. Memes are novel manifestations of what the great French literary theorist Jacques Derrida called “iterability”: the meaning of a text changes at each new moment of speaking (even when we think we are speaking, writing, or reading the same words). Despite their circulatory ephemerality and delicate balance between presence and absence, “The Rhetoric of Memes” highlights how memes nevertheless serve as an index for the negotiation and construction of rhetorical meanings in networked spaces.