Response 2 – Rhetoric of Memes

Mêmesphere Sociopoet­ics
by Gary Hink

“Literacy produced an ontology out of natural language. Electracy takes up where literacy left off to produce an ontology out of popular culture multi-modality discourse.” —Ulmer, Avatar Emergency (80)

“don’t you even spend time on the Internets?”

[Transcript to “What’s a Meme?” video above]

As I am completing this response, this week, there appears online a new Keyboard Cat video. While it probably will not “go viral”—especially to the extent of the 2007 original—Web mixers (“users”) surely will deploy this video in unexpected fashion, akin to the “play off [x], Keyboard Cat!” practice that subsequently emerged. Thus, the web mixes are perhaps not wholly unanticipated in participatory culture (cf. Jenkins, Arroyo) as “rhetorical velocity” (Ridolfo & DeVoss) is re-distributed and/or re-composed through circulation and in network exchange(s), beyond original intent and iteration. As I imagine new deployments of the video (and expect them to appear soon, given Internet speed), I wonder what Interwebian uses of “96 Tears”1 Charlie Schmidt (Key Cat’s creator) envisions; as well, how I might craft an apt response to The Rhetoric of Memes, and how mêmesphere circulation has become a key component of multimodal composition, needing further theorization for praxis as digital rhetoric.

Noteworthy in several ways is that The Rhetoric of Memes presents analyses of Image Macros, a particular type of meme, especially concerning their “grammar”—as well, to lesser extent, their social deployment as mediated communication. In this website, there are two critical perspectives of memes, not mutually exclusive; both views could be taught and practiced in Rhetoric & Composition (e.g. “writing in the mêmesphere”) and examined as digital network rhetoric in courses and scholarship. The first, demonstrated by all 18 analyses, describes the grammar of the media content, e.g. the communicative components of image macros. The other, indicated by a few student authors, recognizes memes as (one type of) our digital rhetoric; these have undeniably become part of “our” (?) network patois, our “sociolect.”2 Moreover, such practices in multiple modes illustrate a “sociopoetic” process or experience (Saper)—a trajectory, writing with personal resonance (signifiance), more promising than analysis and taxonomy. In his 1971 essay “Change the Object Itself,” Barthes posits that “it is sociolects which must today be distinguished and described ” (168). I recall Barthes upon reading The Rhetoric of Memes as a generative relay for how to proceed, particularly recognizing the moment of his structural semiotics as transitional (toward poststructuralist theorizations): taxonomy might aid innovation, especially if avoiding the systematic denotation of linguistics (e.g. Austin). In other words, just as Barthes called for in 1970 (“The Third Meaning”), a new metalanguage is necessary for “criticism” and scholarship about digital rhetoric (which we are inventing). Helpful as guides are Barthes’ concept of signifiance—third meaning beyond denotation and connotation—and his proposition of “the Text” as “plural” (159) “network” (161), with metonymic logic (158); “a “tissue of quotations” (146) with “stereographic plurality” (159). To repeat, a key question and task is whether we can progress beyond denotative (descriptive) “critical” discourse toward generative (innovative) efforts—and a taxonomy, however loose and initial, such as The Rhetoric of Memes, might be a step in this direction.

As rhetorical analyses of Image Macros, the project mostly presents a linguistic (communicative) metalanguage—“what image-macro memes say and how they say it” (Contributors)—in entries’ discussion, similar to the website Know Your Meme (although less comprehensive). This type of discussion appears due to the approach, focusing upon “message,” voice, and (in several entries) text-image effects to present analyses and propositional conclusions: “We believe that memes not only entertain, they also make claims about the world and how it does, could, and should work” (Contributors). This approach is less curious upon recognizing the students’ attentive application of analytic framework from two critical sources. Most entries identify taxonomy and nomenclature like memetic humor, “phrasal template,” and “slot-level humor” from Michele Zappavigna’s Discourse of Twitter and Social Media. Recognizable macros discussed this way include Good Guy Greg (and similar variations), Success Kid, and Philosoraptor. Additionally, several students use Bahktin’s terms heteroglossia, “the carnivalesque,” and “the chronotope” to explain memes like Condescending Wonka, First World Problems, Hipster Jesus, and Socially Awkward Penguin. Finally, notable are ambitious entries that present analyses using terms from both scholars, including Most Interesting Man in the World and Successful Black Man. In one of several highly perceptive entries, Sydney Hamilton observes a common sociopoetic: “Whether we are having a bad day or just want to express an emotion that we think Internet users can relate to, Internet memes have taken over the way we communicate. We all look forward to the clever comebacks, witty question, or challenging statements that Internet memes are known for. The Successful Black Man meme is an excellent example of a viral Internet meme due to its relatability and its humor” (“The Clever and Successful Black Man”). On this note, only a few entries mention platforms—e.g. Reddit, Something Awful (forum), Quickmeme—and practices explicitly concerning social exchange & circulation; this strikes me as a key area of further exploration in future work, especially in classes modeling The Rhetoric of Memes.

Image of Doge meme, shiba dog with text in various neon colors, created by author of linguistic analysis article, Gretchen McCulloch. Text reads in red,

Image by Gretchen McCulloch (with permission), All Things Linguistic

Akin to these students’ analyses, Gretchen McCulloch discusses in her extensive analysis of the Doge meme the subtle indications of “internet language these days,” for instance the “stylized verbal incoherence mirroring emotional incoherence” (06-Feb 2014). In our multimodal, often textual sociolect, there is a different metalanguage at work in the “grammar” of images. Or, considering the logic of imaging (electracy), as Ulmer proposes: “The entire Internet archive is the ‘natural language’ for an electrate metaphysics, using bachelor machine (cabaret) logic. The name of flash semantics is aura (Benjamin), ordering ‘air’ or ‘manner’” (Avatar 80). Observable in sociopoetic process is an emergent digital rhetoric, developing and transforming through social practices (often communicative) and cultural forms (logic of memes): canons of delivery (“flash semantics”), arrangement, style are supplementing and perhaps supplanting memory and voice, with circulation (and “rhetorical velocity”) being an especially significant feature in the networked media ecology. While most student analyses privilege linguistic components, images are discussed distinctly in several analyses, including Hipster Jesus, Socially Awkward Penguin, Philosoraptor, You Had One Job, and Most Interesting Man. Toward understanding “Mêmesphere Poet­ics” (Hink, assignment) for application, a start is our recognizing a sociopoetics of Image Macro’ing and how this “combines multiple languages together to create a new style,” as student author Victoria Kuipers notes. She further comments, “The Success Kid meme has achieved popularity not only for its ability to imitate, but for its successful use of literary forms such as Mikhail Bakhtin’s heteroglossia, the carnivalesque, and chronotope while integrating an image to create discourse” (emphasis mine, Kuipers).

Image of the philosoraptor meme, the head of a green velociraptor posed as The Thinker with a claw touching his chin. Background has two shades of green contrasted and divided in four sections. Top left and bottom right are light green. The other two corners are a darker green, but brighter than the dinosaur's dark green.

The key “take-away” from this project, and the trajectory I am advocating, is that understanding memes as digital rhetoric enhances theories and praxis of multimodal composing as participatory & networked. Memes have become, for some—an issue left to another discussion—“our” language and grammar: especially images, but also sound clips and gestures3, particularly in GIFs. Composing through emblematics (“icon-writing”) goes beyond quotation, not for reference (academic citation or jargon) or for cultural effect (pastiche, irony, sampling): “Doesn’t all this stitching de-personalize writing, making it nothing more than a collection of snippets and fragments put together any which way?” Rice asks (emphasis mine 273). Although the canonical and over-privileged category of “voice” might disappear in this type of writing composing, Rice asserts that “the personal element of rhetoric materializes” (273) through our “stitching together” heterogeneous elements in rhapsodic “process of assemblage” (273)—less with voice than by “‘listening’ for their connections” (277), our attunement and resonance. In this way, the dimension perhaps most productive to explore (scholarly) and experiment with (in practice) is the assemblage logic(s) of multiple modes; whether reference, story, lyric (expressive), or ergodic, the “gap” in sense and “nonsense” in memes of varying types appears an especially generative element, as opportunity for personal interjection or innovation. Admittedly, besides their rigorous analysis, the students’ not re-creating or remixing (that I can tell) examples (let alone iterations) of the image macros is most striking and puzzling to me: applying and performing the logic discerned seems a crucial part/step in participatory composition. This puzzlement can be accounted for in the project’s approach, as mentioned. For example, Jenn Pirri discusses “The Most Interesting Man”: “The context of this meme allows a variety of viewers to find humor in the situation by making connections with heteroglossia, while at the same time the meme serves as a unique example of the carnivalesque, not by performance, but through reference.”4 This framework highlights the “point of departure,” for subsequent work, perhaps as performance.

Image of the meme Advice Dog, a golden lab puppy's head on a kaleidoscopic neon-bright rainbow background with the text 'Create an Advice Dog Spinoff' above his head, 'Brand New Meme!' appears beneath his head.

“…those who idealize memes as some kind of ‘hip’ ‘underground’ knowledge,
often feel it’s lost its appeal when…” —Know Your Meme

Although its taxonomy of “Advice Animal” is indirectly featured, one Image Macro not discussed is Bad Advice Dog; the above image is not an example, as the meme conventionally features a “gap” in sense between image and caption. As noted by several students regarding expectations and disparity, our uses of memes are both conventional and creative, especially breaking linguistic rules (e.g. semantic reference) as afforded by the aesthetic paradigm. Stated otherwise, our sociopoetic processes innovate in rhetorical practices and cultural forms, mediating experience. In the analytic video about this image macro, Know Your Meme points out, fairly obviously, the rhetorical velocity of network processes: “Those who propagate the most, win. And those who create the content that propagates the most write their way into Internet culture history” (“Advice Dog”). We also should keep in mind that mêmesphere conventions, once-and still-novel, are kairotic and chaotic; for instance, in comment replies—governed by rules of good sense for communication—I have replied with macro-images and other network signifiers in class discussion. And when theorizing “the next generation of internet language,” which McCulloch discusses Doge recently as indicating (, we might also or alternatively consider understanding via the logic of imaging (electracy) emerging beyond Literacy. We are inventing digital rhetoric through innovative practices, ranging from simple “recapshun” to audio-visual remix, mashup, supercut—all, to varying extents, performative and expressive. Indeed, “a [mashup] performs the argument,” to mix-quote Brown: “The argument is in the [meme], not in the explanation of the [meme]” (86). Perhaps I am not performing this proposal-as-argument well, resorting to Literate explanation-discussion rather than the “Dromological writing”—using both dromos and scholê, Brown explains (83)—suitable for the network, digital rhetoric which I can learn from/by/through the mêmesphere.

The Rhetoric of Memes and analytic projects of this sort are a key first stage in this process of invention; moreover, the transitional time of the present is markedly evident in such work. A hybrid approach both critical and creative might innovate digital rhetoric using sociopoetics (technology, media, rhetorics) as well as the complementary behaviors, identity, and experiences. The latter is a compelling area of inquiry—only slightly mentioned by The Rhetoric of Memes, for other efforts to take up— particularly considering the composing practices respective and perhaps reciprocal in institutions (assemblages?) of school and the Web; furthermore, I strongly encourage future work in this way in assignments and particularly as projects that might be featured by The JUMP. Viewed thus as “public pedagogy,” memes and network conventions are methods of learning through and of experimentation with mediated experience and participatory composition. In this regard, Lessig’s point indirectly about participatory culture5 is especially germane: “anyone who thinks remixes or mash-ups are neither original nor creative has very little idea about how they are made or what makes them great. It takes extraordinary knowledge about a culture to remix it well” (93). Ultimately, it is important to keep in mind that we are inventing digital rhetoric at present: composing in multiple modes, expressing through media, in participatory networked ecology—thinking and expressing through assemblages of sense and nonsense.

Now, Keyboard Cat, play me off the page/stage and onto the network…

1. Historical Intertext: Keyboard Cat’s new jam, unexplained, is “96 Tears”: a 1966 song by Question Mark & the Mysterians (also known as ? and the Mysterians). I recall The Crying of Lot 49 (1966)—published the same year Derrida delivered “Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourse of the Human Sciences”—as I read Bleeding Edge. Yet, even still more apt are Roland Barthes’ Image-Music-Text essays from the mid-60s and early 70s; concurrent as the finale season of Mad Men (1969/2014) begins its conclusion this week… (Image logic gathers simultaneously at the speed of my contemplating not where but when am I?—in the info-media database, the networked dromosphere. Can thinking get “up to speed” with our techno-ecology…?) -BACK-

2. Barthes is worth quoting further: “Will we be able to render precise a notion which seems to me essential, that of the compactness of a language? Languages are more or less thick; certain amongst them, the most social, the most mythical, present an unshakeable homogeneity […]: woven with habits and repetitions, with stereotypes, obligatory final clauses and key-words, each constitutes an idiolect, or more exactly a sociolect […].” (Image-Music-Text 168) -BACK-

3. Emma Kuslits observes this partly about Socially Awkward Penguin: “The penguin also expresses the celebration of the image of the body—another characteristic of Bakhtin’s definition of carnivalesque. The actual penguin in the frame of the meme has a recognizably awkward stature, similar to the circumstances he portrays in his memes.” (“Bakhtinian Analysis”) -BACK-

4. Likewise, although analyzing the phrasal template and frame-level humor (Zappavigna), Victoria Kuipers also remarks, “If I were out on the street and used the phrasal template of the Most Interesting Man in the World, people would be able to find this rhetoric funny in light of the meme.” (“Meme Mechanics”) Indeed, poetics performed. -BACK-

5.In a totally different context, Lessig (like Jenkins) connects closely to Rice’s and Brown’s discussion of contemporary composition: “Text is today’s Latin. It is through text that we elites communicate (look at you, reading this book). For the masses, however, most information is gathered through other forms of media: TV, film, music, and music video. These forms of “writing” are the vernacular of today. They are the kinds of ‘writing’ that matters most to most” (68). And concerning sociopoetics in electracy, emergent practices aided by technology, Lessig observes: “these other forms of ‘creating’ are becoming an increasingly dominant form of ‘writing’. The Internet didn’t make these other forms of ‘writing’ (what I will call simply ‘media’) significant. But the Internet and digital technologies opened these media to the masses. Using the tools of digital technology— even the simplest tools, bundled into the most innovative modern operating systems— anyone can begin to ‘write’ using images, or music, or video.” (69) -BACK-

Works Cited

Barthes, Roland. Image-Music-Text. Trans. Stephen Heath (Noonday, 1977)

Brown, Jim. “Com­po­si­tion in the Dro­mos­phere.” Com­put­ers and Com­po­si­tion 29.1 (2012)

Lessig, Lawrence. Remix: Mak­ing Art and Com­merce Thrive in the Hybrid Econ­omy (2008)

“Bad Advice Dog.” Know Your Meme.

McCulloch, Gretchen. “A Linguist Explains the Grammar of Doge. Wow.” The (06-Feb 2014)

Rice, Jeff. “The Mak­ing of Ka-knowledge: Dig­i­tal Aural­ity.” Com­put­ers and Com­po­si­tion 23 (2006)

Ridolfo, Jim and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss. “Composing for Recomposition: Rhetorical Velocity and Delivery” Kairos 13.2 (2009)

Saper, Craig. “The Felt of Mem­ory on YouTube” Encul­tur­a­tion 8 (2010)

Ulmer, Gregory L. Avatar Emergency (2012)