Memes as/and Cultural Transmission: Coping with The Dismality of Modern Life
Digital culture has become a staple of living in the 21st century, and memes have become a staple of digital culture—not as cheap, nonsensical jokes but as cultural artifacts that have functions, possess meanings, and gain influence through online transmission (Davison, 2012, p. 122). As COVID-19 cases continue to surge across the globe, denizens are encouraged—and at times legally obligated—to quarantine within their homes. As such, more time is being spent on the Internet than ever before. It takes only a quick social media search to find a plethora of memes about the virus, quarantine, and even political and economic policies. The question on the minds of those who are not digitally-fluent: why do youth turn to meme culture to cope with the dismality of modern living?
Visual mediums are powerful vessels of cultural transmission; humour, in particular, is an effective mechanism through which to express personal opinions about societal norms, values, and attitudes. Modern-day absurdist humour, conveyed most succinctly through memes (Figure 1), is a prime example of how content creators use visual elements to provide commentary about current events; often, memes are made in response to events that are largely perceived as being negative by the younger generation(s)—such as economic upheaval, pandemic politics, and the dismality of school and student living. Although meme culture is typically excluded from discussions surrounding art, resistance, and culture jamming, its surge in popularity over the last decade has proven one thing: absurdist humour is indeed a channel through which to criticize the status quo and disseminate (cultural) knowledge among youth.
Meme from 2019
Note. Source (fthatshiz, 2019)
From Dadaism to Absurdist Humour: the History of Artistic Dissent
Absurdist humour has its roots in the Dadaist avant-garde intellectual movement of the 20th century. The birth of Dada was a response to the atrocities committed during World War One: artists, appalled by what humanity was capable of, endeavoured to forsake logic and structure in their artwork (Pryce-Jones, 2015). Making sense of the odd stylistic choices that define Dadaist art, renowned artist Tristan Tzara said: “logic is a complication. ... Logic is always wrong” (Tzara, 1918).
At its core, Dadaism is nonsensical in that it does not adhere to conventional standards of colour, proportion, realism, or subject matter (Figure 2). The movement was created to celebrate disgust (Pryce-Jones, 2015), and, at its peak, served as the embodiment of societal disenchantment with the state of the world.
Kleine Sonne (Little Sun)
Note. Source (Höch, 1969)
Memes as Tools of Culture Jamming
Communications professor Joshua Harzman defines culture jamming as “an act of alteration in which a widely known artifact is transformed in an attempt to reroute the original meaning and engender awareness among [the] audience” (2015, p. 17). Typically, culture jamming strives to confront people with a reality that has been obstructed or concealed by the hyper-real imagery imposed onto the public by powerful corporations and institutions; for example, Banky’s 2015 art installation, Dismaland, forced viewers to rethink the paradisiacal imagery that is curated by the Disney company (Moser, 2017). The intent is to stimulate awareness about some hidden truth.
Internet memes are themselves pieces of content that are spread from user to user; their appearance and meaning change throughout the transmission process until the starting point and (temporary) endpoint are abstractions of one another (Börzsei, 2013). The reason why memes are a staple of youth culture rather than digital culture more broadly is because of a self-referential process by which current humour is based on the understanding of past humour; an understanding of current meme culture is often premeditated by years and years of participation in past meme culture, which is typically only possessed by those who have grown up in the digital age.
The fast-paced evolution and devolution of trends ensures that memes are less vulnerable to co-optation and commodification by normative society. When companies run ads that reference a popular meme, they are mocked by the very same youth audience they seek to endear; when professors insert memes into their introductory slideshows, they are critiqued for making references that have been outdated for years. Unlike Banksy’s Dismaland, for example, there is little money to be made from meme culture unless one is actively a content creator. It is simply too difficult for corporations to assimilate these fleeting trends effectively; even avid consumers of memes are often one step behind the current trend. Its intrinsic defence against co-optation by the status quo makes meme culture an effective cornerstone of cultural dissent.
Memes, like other facets of culture jamming, reroute original meanings; however, content creators do not always set out with the intent to engage in culture jamming. Youth use of social media is a complicated and varied issue that spans beyond the scope of this blog, but it can be surmised that many posts are created solely for the sake of gaining “Internet points”—popularity—from other users (Brailovskaia et al., 2020). The message is not the main concern, and that is why not every meme begins nor even ends as a modus of dissent. The ability for a meme to stimulate awareness about reality is dependent on who shares the image and how the meaning is changed between and interpreted by users. While not all memes actively engage in culture jamming, all memes have the potential to engage in culture jamming.
The Pinnacle of Absurdism: How Memes Convey Hidden Truths
Memes speak to the state of youth culture at a given moment in time; the progression of this culture can be tracked by trends in meme styles, formatting, and content (Börzsei, 2013), since these components tend to surge throughout a few, easily-identifiable months. Although memes have existed in some variation since the very first emoticon—created by Scott E. Fahlman in 1982 (Börzsei, 2013)—they have only recently devolved into the successor of Dadaism: absurdist humour.
Absurdist humour, though it is not considered an art form, can be viewed as being the millennial interpretation of Dadaism, sometimes but not always referred to as Neo-Dadaism. This popular style of content creation embodies the disillusionment of the current generation with issues such as inflation, unemployment, and terrorism (Hoins, 2016). Because many problems facing humankind stem from organizations that supposedly rely on logic and structure—for example, the capitalist political economy—artists have fought back by creating content that is rooted in “deliberate confusion and nonsense” (Hoins, 2016).
Anything following the basic tenets of absurdist philosophy—that is, surrealism and irrationality (Nagel, 1971/2012)—is more likely to resonate with the younger population that catapulted the movement into the mainstream. Memes, similar to Dadaist art pieces, are not meant to be beautiful or realistic. The focus is on the message, which is itself often conveyed by the lack of message (Börzsei, 2013). Although many posts appear to have nothing to say about anything, the nature of modern memes is such that those who are privy to the assumed knowledge of prior cultural artifacts will understand the implied meaning; this creates a subculture demarcated by feelings of solidarity (Figure 3).
2017 Absurdist Meme
Note. Source (u/MatiaQ, 2017)
Many absurdist memes are an abstract representation of personal struggles with life. The causes of these negative sentiments towards living are frequently left undefined, allowing users to superimpose their own narratives onto what is essentially a blank canvas. Because of this ambiguity, the sentiments evoked by absurdist memes can be appropriated by each individual to critique whatever or whomever he or she credits as being the source of existential frustration. Absurdist humour, like Dadaism before it, represents widespread exasperation with societal hypocrisies and questionable priorities; as such, it can be used both as a representation of comedy and of critique.
Memes function as a tool of (youth) culture jamming by allowing Internet users to transmit, evolve, and reinterpret meaning based on their own experiences with the social world. Disenchanted with the current state of being, Millennials and Generation Z increasingly seek refuge within meme culture, which simultaneously allow for escapism, coping, and critique. It is a space that is generally devoid of intrusion from economic, political, and social institutions—although these subjects may all be canonized within memes themselves—and thereby becomes a haven for individuals who have become cynical of the dismality of modern living. As COVID-19 sheds light on cultural disillusionment with political, economic, and healthcare policies, absurdist philosophies about irrationality continue toward monopolizing contemporary humour. The lesson to learn here is that meme culture, no matter how discredited or misunderstood as a visual medium or art form, is significant in its capacity to convey cultural knowledge, generate solidarity among subgroups, and mobilize critical thinking and dissent.References
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Brailovskaia, S., Schillack, H., & Margraf, J. (2020). Tell me why are you using social media (SM)! Relationship between reasons for use of SM, SM flow, daily stress, depression, anxiety, and addictive SM use – An exploratory investigation of young adults in Germany. Computers in Human Behavior, (113). 1 -9.
Davison, P. (2012). 9 The Language of Internet Memes. In The Social Media Reader (pp. 120-134). NYU Press.
[fthatshiz]. (2019, February 27). felt this [Photograph.] https://vsco.co/fuckthatshiz/media/5c76f4a0cd63b6050927c062
Hannah Höche. (1969). Kleine Sonne [ Collage]. Whitechapel Gallery, London, United Kingdom. https://www.artsy.net/artwork/hannah-hoch-kleine-sonne-little-sun
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Moser, K. (2017). Exhuming the “Dismal” Reality Underneath Banal Utopian Signs: Banksy’s Recent Parody of the Disneyfication of the Modern World. The Journal of Popular Culture, 50(5), 1024-1046.
Nagel, T. (1971). The Absurd. The Journal of Philosophy, 68(20), 716-727.
Pryce-Jones, D. (2015, March 23). The Birth of Dada. National Review, 67(5). https://www.nationalreview.com/magazine/2015/03/23/
Tzara, T. (1918, March 23). Dada Manifesto. 391 Issues. https://391.org/manifestos/1918-dada-manifesto-tristan-tzara/
[u/MatiaQ]. (2017). Often and Regularly. [Online forum post]. Reddit. https://www.reddit.com/r/surrealmemes/comments/67xhbt/often_and_regularly/