An Earnest Thought About Memes as Cultural Salvage

I had an earnest thought about memes (a form i am intrigued by but from fringes, not a producer) as cultural salvage:

The significance of memes to culture, and therefore politics, is understood, but I usually only hear one use talked about: political memes as a kick of satisfaction for recognizing something one already believes obvious, displacing Real Discourse, perhaps planted by (eg Russian or alt right & Neo-Nazi) Trolls – this is a common phenomenon and danger and I’m glad it’s being examined; but there’s also a thread of simple luddite fear of a new form of communication, ignoring the variety of what’s said in it. One other use of memes, also common and perhaps beautiful, is all about cultural salvage. Especially queer & trans people have formed a culture on websites, like this one, of making heavy use of overloaded, filtered, collaged, photoshopped, images – as headshot and cover photo: snapchat filters, pastel WordArt about depression, Sonic the Hedgehogs condemning consumerist ethics of capitalist consumption, shaggy orange monstrous mascots tripping on ice. I’ve seen this appropriation of pop-culture content talked about around fandom, and fanfiction, eg writing gay relationships in shows that Wouldn’t Dare Alienating An Audience by doing so, before film studios found methods of profiting from segmentation / difference, but not so much with Memes. And i think several important experiences, defined primarily in the negative, including queerness and diaspora (not being heterosexual, or sexual, or comfortable in gender, not being rich, not being white, not being a citizen, etc.) are all about this way of salvaging and constructing a life or sense of personal coherence (a stable language) in the face of a culture committed to erasing & denying it – pieced together from cheaply licensed sitcoms, thrift stores, used books with notes in the margins, & stock images: it’s a meme way of thinking, collaging sense from puns on waiting-room-magazine cutouts. This was generally not where i looked to assemble a self-narrative: pretentious asshole, i prowled the Teen Classics section of the Gilroy library, its CD racks, and what Hulu Student / the Pirate Bay gave you from the Criterion Collection: but i think i understand the impulse.

This is not without problem: it too excludes those who haven’t watched Spongebob / Friends, didn’t have someone in their childhood home pay for a computer with Word 2003 with its chatty paperclip; even as Aragorn passes through Cairo and Budapest the original cultural artifacts are usually produced by corporations in LA or NY (some come from accidents though – Pepe, Kappa). Most memes, as is obvious with hyperniche philosophy/math/science memes, are about a smug shock of recognition emphasized by the rarity of getting the joke about, say, cohomological chains or sad lamp bears or potato epistemology: shibboleths. But sometimes we do just need the vaIidation of common images, passed between strangers to suggest communities of common looking, you know? The problem is not the territory / medium but who is using it & for what (_memes are necessarily overdetermined_).

And, these days, high/low cultural distinctions are socioeconomically real but quite untenable aesthetically: one of the biggest names in my current discipline, New Media Art, is the artist / writer / philosopher Hito Steyerl, and her recent work is all about this way of making / thinking: the video project How Not To Be Seen “about” surveillance appropriates & remixes stock film and free sounds, not to mention the Monty Python sketch; her book Wretched of the Screen explores this way low-res images, quickly photoshoped, proliferate and mutate through digital and physical spaces without discernible original author. And ugly narrative, flarf, net.art all are preoccupied with presenting messy, fraying, cultural salvage as poetry/art/literature, often in a third mode, attempting total rejection of deliberate semantics. That’s cool too! But i’m more excited by the scraps we traded in the back of the classroom, seeking implausible recognition

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *