The Poetics of Internet Memes

By Kai Blevins

I believe in low theory in popular places, in the small, the inconsequential, the antimonumental, the micro, the irrelevant; I believe in making a difference by thinking little thoughts and sharing them widely
-Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure

Internet memes (or “memes” for short) are probably my favorite form of digital media. I live for the sarcasm, the irony, the audacity; the way they make the absurd humorous and bearable, just when you think you might *literally* burst into tears. Memes are probably one of the most diverse and accessible mediums in the world today. While many scholars in the humanities and social sciences have explored memes, there is a need to more thoroughly theorize memes’ roles in social life and their potential for informing anthropological thought and method.

This article, the first in a series, aims to fill in that gap and provide a basis for incorporating memes into anthropological research and teaching. First, let’s talk about poetics and why I think a poetic orientation is an important way to approach memes. Poetics draws attention to form and genre, focusing on the various resources it provides to creators and audiences (Culler 1997). It examines “the devices, conventions and strategies of literature, of the means by which literary works create their effects” (Culler 2002, vii). In other words, a poetic analysis asks how a text works and why, rather than analyzing the text to discover its meaning. Think Pierre Bourdieu’s (1990) practice theory – where you look at the forces shaping actors and their social worlds (e.g., habitus, social capital, etc.) – versus Clifford Geertz’s (1973) interpretive anthropology – where you explore the ultimate meaning of a cultural practice (e.g., thick description).

For Geertz, anthropologists analyze culture in a way that is, “not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning” (Geertz, 5). While I agree with Geertz that we should not be searching for “laws” in the deterministic sense, we can recognize that structures do influence culture and action. In other words, we might think of memes as having a structure which afford certain opportunities for engagement and limit certain uses of it as a digital media, while also acknowledging that there are no “laws” determining how a meme must to be used (though there are certainly norms). Bourdieu’s practice theory, on the other hand, recognizes that creating, distributing, and reading memes all engage social practices which intersect with various structures simultaneously, both internal and external. This is most clear in his discussion of habitus, “a system of schemes of perception and thought” that externally cultivates how we understand ourselves and the world while also being internalized and reproduced through our actions (Bourdieu, 18).

Following Bourdieu, I’m not interested in exploring here what the ultimate meaning of the internet meme is, why it exists and what it means for our culture. I am more interested in what the internet meme does, how it creates opportunities to communicate, and how we might understand and harness its affordances for anthropological projects.

What Even Is a Meme? (Do You Even Meme Bro)

To begin, let’s start with a basic definition: A meme is an image, or series of images, accompanied in some way by text that is modifiable and becomes modified. I focus on visual memes, but other scholars have expanded what counts as a meme, defining them as “digital texts—verbal, visual, or audial—that share common attributes and undergo variations by multiple users” (Gal 2018, 529). The word meme itself came from British Scientist Richard Dawkins as an adaptation of the term mimeme. In Dawkin’s book The Selfish Gene, he defines memes as “discrete units of knowledge, gossip, jokes and so on,” going on to postulate that “cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes” (1976).

What’s important is that the image(s) can fit in a single frame—think a poster, not comic book (though two- to four-panel comic strips are often used as memes). Memes are metaphoric in nature, meaning that they represent one thing in terms of another. In the most basic sense, a meme represents experience in terms of an infinite combination of images and text. This representative quality allows us to understand aspects of the world in new ways, from the unremarkable to the (for more on the power of metaphor, see Lakoff and Johnson 2003).

The central aspect of the meme is its image, through which the text is interpreted. The essence of the image in a meme is two-fold. First, it is objectified—literally and figuratively made into an object. In linguistic terms, it is any image that is entextualized, or lifted out of its original context so that it can circulate in discourse (Bauman and Briggs 1992, 73). Second, the image is recognizable. This is a difficult aspect to analyze given that recognition depends not only on legibility, but also on prior communication. There is a whole lot to unpack here, and I have all of the questions about the recognition of memes and what that tells us about social life. What makes a meme image recognizable within and across social groups? What happens to reading practices when recognizability breaks down? How does this function within the dynamic of person-to-person meme-sharing as opposed to publishing a meme in a public forum?

In a later article, I will address how the ambiguity of the meme image and its potential meaning(s) can be a resource for anthropological thought and practice. But for now I’ll focus on what recognizability means as a communicative resource in memes and how it manifests. One popular way to source a meme image is through video stills, whether that’s from film, television, or a social media platform like YouTube. In some cases, what the meme communicates is made more powerful if a reader understands the context from which the image was lifted. Let’s look at the example of the Boromir meme, also known as the “One does not simply walk into Mordor” meme.

In this meme, the image does not have much meaning on its own, especially if the reader has not seen or read The Fellowship of the Ring. Boromir’s facial expression is not overly dramatized, his hand gesture not clearly legible as a tense, flabbergasted response to a suggestion he finds absurd, impossible even. Looking at the film still without considering its social context, Boromir might be in the middle of saying the word “zero” and gesturing the number. But placed in a social context, his response to the suggestion that the Fellowship go deep into an enemy territory (Mordor) that has not been visited for hundreds of years to destroy the Ring of Power, the image’s meaning is clear, as is his response: “One does not simply walk into Mordor.”

Another example of memes like this is the “Gru’s Presentation” meme, a series of stills from the movie Despicable Me.

This meme provides more context than the “One does not simply walk into Mordor” meme, since one might be able to infer what this series of images is communicating. However, the narrative trajectory of this short scene in Despicable Me structure the meaning and use of the meme. In other words, this meme still requires social context to understand how it is most often used.

This brings us to another way memes are used, which is without specific reference to the social context of the still. These memes rely on what can be inferred from the image itself—in a word, you don’t need to have familiarity with its original source. In this instance, there are a lot of (1) overdramatized expressions, (2) progressive sequences (similar to “Gru’s Presentation”), and (3) pairings of basic text that accompany the image before the creator adds text of their own. Here are some examples:

  1. “Surprised Pikachu” is a meme where text is written above the image, making Pikachu’s surprise the punchline, often in a sarcastic, ironic way.
  2. The “Two Button” meme is a progressive comic sequence of two panels. In the first panel, there are two buttons, and each of them is labeled with a mutually exclusive choice. In the second panel, we see a character who is sweating and clearly distraught, unsure of the difficult choice they face. When the second image is seen and the text of the buttons revisited, readers see the sarcasm, since the two choices are usually frivolous.
  3. “Is this a pigeon?” is a meme with text accompanying it where the user fills in the rest of the sentence. Since the character is pointing to a butterfly, this allows the meme creator to label the butterfly and then ask, through the text, if it is something completely different.

It’s not just about what the memes provide—it’s how their use across time and space have solidified their meanings. The repeated use of a particular meme creates a set of rules, often implicit, for the types of messages that should accompany a particular meme, as well as the typical placement for text on the meme image. The result is not only a typified use, but also the proliferation of subversive and transformative engagements with particular memes, revealing the inherently social nature of this digital medium. As one scholar notes, “Internet memes are texts, and like any other text, different readers will interpret them and put them to use in varying ways” (Miltner 2018, 414). This speaks to another aspect of memes, which is their ease of (re)production and circulation made possible through the internet and digital technologies. So, what makes memes so popular? How do they enable communication, and what types of messages does this medium make possible?

What’s In a Meme?

Memes can be used in many ways and toward many ends. I want to begin by discussing three ways I commonly see memes used: meme as revelation, meme as critique, and meme as ideation. This is not a comprehensive typology by any means, but it is a start at understanding the ways that memes are used in social life. These different ways of using memes also allows us to understand the different media ideologies associated with them. Media ideologies are, “beliefs, attitudes, and strategies about a single medium” (Gerson 2010b, 389). These ideologies show us, “the ways the medium shapes the message,” helping us to see “the communicative possibilities and the material limitations of a specific channel” (Gershon 2010, 283).

The potentially endless media ideologies associated with memes is, I believe, a product of their perceived informality as a form of communication, seen through their association with internet culture, “low” art, and post-GenXers. As Gershon (2010) explains, “media become perceived as formal or informal just as registers are perceived as formal or informal” (290). This perception has relegated memes to what Halberstam (2011) calls “the silly archive,” comprised of texts which “might offer strange and anticapitalist logics of being and acting and knowing” (20–21). This is what makes memes so deeply political—they are able to bypass the dominant cultural logics of “being and acting and knowing” that often constrain our imaginations and tie concepts and ideas to particular mediums.

Another reason memes are political is their accessibility. Not only are they simple—a user only needs to come up with a short description to fit a meme image—they can also be easily created on a number of meme generating websites. This democratization of meme production is what allows for the “subversive and transformative engagements” I referenced earlier. The accessibility of and creative engagement with memes reveal that it is not only meme images themselves that shape their message, but also the ways in which users understand memes as a medium, and the meanings they associate with or construct through specific memes.

We might also consider the production of memes through the model of the supply chain, thinking with Anna Tsing (2009) about the salience of global capitalism. While there are obvious differences in the circulation of digital media as opposed to material commodities, meme (re)production, like supply chains, “don’t merely use preexisting diversity; they also revitalize and create niche segregation through advising economic performance” (150). Here, I want to suggest that we add “social” to “economic,” which is seen through the creation of online communities and the multilayered shaping of subjectivities in local contexts. The meme economy is intimately related to media ideology, since the “beliefs, attitudes, and strategies” regarding memes influence motivations for the (re)production and circulation of certain memes, offering yet another layer for considering the importance of memes in social life.

With that in mind, let’s look at the three types of memes I suggested above.

Meme as Revelation

Meme as revelation refers to the way a meme can be used to expose underlying meanings, logics, and processes in an experience, event, structure, or institution. I’m thinking here of Horace Miner’s “Body Ritual among the Nacirema,” the first anthropology text I ever read (shoutout to Dr. Otañez!). In Miner’s piece, he “makes the familiar strange” by describing mundane practices like shaving as exotic, the way traditional anthropology approached non-Western cultures. These memes reveal the strangeness of everyday social practices that are so normalized we don’t question why we do them or if we even need them.

You might also think of this as a sort of “thick description,” an insight or interpretation made legible through the vernacular. Earlier I described the perception of memes as “informal,” and by vernacular I mean both informal and everyday. I think of memes as a type of “vernacular creativity,” which refers to “creative practices that emerge from highly particular and non-elite social contexts and communicative conventions,” e.g., the internet (Burgess 2006, 206). The revelation not only functions through the vernacular, it specifically attends to the vernacular by focusing on the normative. Here are two examples of what I mean:

In the “One does not simply walk into Mordor” meme, the creator is exposing the underlying logic of the event of purchasing girl scout cookies. It is a special event—obviously—but it is part of everyday life; and honestly, how many of us have ever bought just one box of girl scout cookies???

In the “Floating boy chasing running boy” meme, the creator is exposing the underlying meaning that non-binary people associate with the fact that “languages where everything is gendered” (as a non-binary person—same), which we can consider as an experience or a structure. This meme is revealing how our entire system of communication reinforces the idea of binary gender, which is part of our everyday (vernacular) speech and comes from “highly particular and non-elite social contexts”—non-binary people’s everyday navigation of language.

Memes as Critique

When memes are used as critique, they can focus on familiar, everyday practices that go unquestioned, while offering broader sociocultural, political, and economic critiques. Instead of just revealing that an experience or practice exists but often goes unnoticed, these memes are critical in some way. Here is an obvious example:

The “Lisa Simpson’s Presentation” meme is a classic critique meme. Here, Lisa Simpson is giving a presentation to the town, and given the added context that she is seen as a social activist, her presentation can be used to focus on the systemic inequalities that are normalized in capitalist societies.

Critique memes interrogate issues relating to equity, justice, freedom, liberation, and other sociopolitical themes. Here, a meme from The Office is used as a political and historical critique, showing the Boston Tea Party in the second frame:

Finally, this Patrick meme from “SpongeBob Squarepants” provides a historical critique of the US government’s response to HIV and AIDS under the Reagan administration:

Memes as Ideation

The final use of memes in social life that I propose is memes as ideation, or how memes are used to imagine new futures. Although similar to critique, these memes focus more on what a world might look like in the absence of a practice, system, institution, policy, etc., rather than focusing on injustice itself. Here is an example using stills from Avatar: The Last Airbender:

Despite its simplicity, here the focus moves us beyond critique and imagines a future where material resources are distributed more equitably. Here is another meme about potential representation in art:

I love this meme because it uses the format of the progressive sequence as a narrative device to take us from the present reality (“a character shows no interest in dating or sex”) to a potential future reality (“they actually use the words ‘asexual’ and ‘aromantic’”). I also love it because we need more asexual—referring to people who experience little to no sexual attraction—and aromantic—referring to people who experience little to no romantic attraction—representation in our media.

I want to note that while I’ve distinguished memes in these three ways, sometimes memes can be classified in one or more category at a time, particularly considering the author and the communities in which they circulate. For instance, the non-binary meme above can be used as critique from the perspective of non-binary people, and it can also be part of a broader conversation about the lack of acceptance of gender-neutral/neo- pronouns in English. In fact, there are ways in which all of these memes could be used in a different or multiple of the three types of memes I’ve explored here depending on particular social contexts or discourses. The adaptability of meme usage and messages doesn’t, I think, discredit the classification of memes, but it does reveal the inherently social nature of digital media, a fact that excites me as an anthropologist.

 

Kai is a poet and PhD student in Sociocultural and Linguistic Anthropology at George Washington University. Xe studies the psychedelic decriminalization movement in the United States and is super passionate about applied anthropology and participatory methods. Their research interests come from their ever-growing curiosity about consciousness, agency, intersubjectivity, mediation, identity, and the relationship between the biological and the social. Before coming to Anthropology, xe got a Master of Legal Studies from Willamette University College of Law focused on constitutional law, administrative law, and legal history, and a BA in Sociology and Political Science from University of Colorado-Denver focused on social movements. In addition to their academic work, Kai runs a consulting firm where they apply their anthropological knowledge and skills on public policy, organizational culture, capacity building, and strategic management projects. In their spare time they love to play video games, read, watch campy queer films, cook with their partner, and cuddle with their puppers, Sir Reginald the Duke of Doggydom. Say hello to xem on Instagram and Twitter @kairiverblevins or visit their website to find more about what their up to.

 

Works Cited 

Bauman, Richard, and Charles L. Briggs. 1992. “Poetics and Performance as Critical Perspectives on Language and Social Life.” Annual Review of Anthropology 19: 59–88.

Bourdieu, Pierre. 1990. Outline of a Theory of Practice. Trans. Richard Nice. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Culler, Jonathan. 1997. Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Culler, Jonathan. 2002 [1975]. Structuralist Poetics: Structuralism, Linguistics and the Study of Literature. New York, NY: Routledge.

Dawkins, Richard. 1976. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Gershon, Ilana. 2010. “Media Ideologies: An Introduction.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20 (2): 283–293.

Gershon, Ilana. 2010b. “Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Media Switching and Media Ideologies.” Journal of Linguistic Anthropology 20 (2): 389 – 405.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson. 2003 [1980]. Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Miltner, Kate M. 2018. “Internet Memes.” In The SAGE Handbook of Social Media, edited by Jean Burgess, Alice Marwick, and Thomas Poell, 412–428. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, Inc.

Tsing, Anna. 2009. “Supply Chains and the Human Condition.” Rethinking Marxism: A Journal of Economics, Culture & Society 21(2): 148–176.

Meme Citations 

Lisa Presentation Meme: https://www.instagram.com/p/CCy8rr_ALPn/

Protesters were vandalizing: https://www.instagram.com/p/CAy92T8lzmv/

Enbys scared of language: https://www.instagram.com/p/CAwQrNiheej/

One does not simply blank: https://imgflip.com/memegenerator/One-Does-Not-Simply

One does not simply original: https://knowyourmeme.com/memes/one-does-not-simply-walk-into-mordor

One does not simply cookies: https://www.memedroid.com/memes/detail/63253

Reagan Sucks meme: https://www.instagram.com/p/B7g4thDAJ8W/

Share the wealth meme: https://www.facebook.com/Feminist.Meme/photos/a.1001623739977427/1811508725655587/

Bernie supports aces/aros: https://www.instagram.com/p/CCm6YBFB4Ea/

Blank Meme Examples:

About Emma Louise Backe

PhD student in Medical Anthropology at the George Washington University and independent consultant, focusing on the intersections of international development, global health, reproductive health justice, gender-based violence, and the politics of care. Social justice sailor scout working on behalf of survivors of sexual violence, gender equity, and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health among vulnerable populations.

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