Issue 34 of InVisible Culture, “Invisible Memes for Cultural Teens,” is our first issue both conceived of and released during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. While the pandemic is not a direct focus of the included works, it is the editorial specter haunting the issue’s discourse. Today, the words “lock down” and “online” are inextricable. As the most democratic, common, and effortless form of online visual culture, memes seem, if not more important, then more present. The articles and artworks each stand on their own, but, for posterity’s sake, it must be acknowledged that these works were written, edited, and published under truly strange circumstances. The CFP was written in Spring of 2021, a time when many were first emerging from their lock-down cocoons and the images of January 6th were fresh. We publish this issue a year later, at a point when endemicity seems close, and it’s even more difficult to describe online culture as separate from, simply, “culture.”
For this issue, we sought writing and artworks broadly related to memes and the emergent field of “memetics.” We hope this issue meaningfully addresses a form and phenomenon that has become embedded in popular culture and politics, and has come to define participatory culture in the digital age. But memes are notoriously hard to pin down. They remain a “conceptual troublemaker” in their variance and vernacular specificity, in their cycles in and out of salience, and in the many ways they are defined.1 The works selected here exemplify the multitudes within memes, and the different avenues we might take to their creation and understanding. Like the complex transmedial process to which this issue is devoted, it’s sometimes impossible to know where to begin unspooling the knot.
Memes circulate through every community, every discourse, every debate—changing, gathering contexts and histories, and being read through the irony-poisoned eye of the beholder.2 One person’s dank meme is always another’s cringe.
In the years since the shocks of Brexit and the elections of fascist leaders across the globe (conjured into reality by the “Great Meme War,” or so the mythology goes) researchers have turned their attention to what was once thought of as a novelty of niche spaces for the terminally-online. We want to better understand how memes work, and more importantly, how they work so well. Are memes just the visual artifacts tossed off by the feverish prosumption of platformed subjects, externalities of the attention economy? Do they represent a radical potentiality within that machine; memetic discourse can subvert repression, rapidly convey ideas, and provide new expressive capacities to people historically denied them (even while extending the same capacities to the racist trolls and recruiters of the chans). Any discussion of memes always hold this ambivalence, as the troublemaker defies simple understanding.3 Memes are at once spectacular and incredibly mundane; vehicles for horrors, wonders, and absent-minded chuckles. Like the additive process of memeing, it seems like the answer to any question about memes is always “yes.”4
This issue includes three articles from scholars who study aspects of memetic communication. Morten Bay’s piece, “The Political Life of GIFS: The Common Emotional Displays that Let Us Disagree More Consummately on Social Media” considers reaction GIFs using Stuart Hall’s foundational “Encoding/Decoding” model to think through their transmission and reception, and follows the divergent paths of affect theory in the development of a typology of GIF reactions. Lucy March focuses on one creator, best known by his Instagram handle @teenagestepdad, in “‘You Say You’re Anti-Capitalist…Yet You Earn a Living!’: Teenage Stepdad and the Memeification of Culture Jamming.” By invoking the radical detournement of culture jamming, including its pre-online forms, March questions the political efficacy of such practices when contained in a virtual space on a corporate-controlled platform. Finally, Nate Sloan looks to the production of irony and sincerity in an era of “hyperreferentiality,” where the whole of human cultural production is seemingly available for our unending appropriations. In, “Beyond Based and Cringe: An Examination of Contemporary Modes of Irony and Sincerity in Cultural Production,” Sloan grapples with the possibility of self-expression on social media.
While they take quite different approaches at first glance—Bay’s piece forwards a framework for understanding reaction GIFs’ affective and communicative qualities, March offers an ambivalent case study of one prominent leftist memer, and Sloan uses aesthetic theory and literature to meditate on the performances of irony and sincerity in memes—surprising echoes can be found across their work. Ultimately all three discuss the potential for memes to invoke an immediate, and at times complex, feeling that exceeds language: Bay in the cathartic effect of posting, and Sloan in the catharsis denied by the ungraspable archive of the internet as modern sublime. March asks what political potential there can be for aesthetic nostalgia in the memes of Teenage Stepdad, noting the excitement of identification for his many Instagram fans. Stepdad offers little more than a shrug as he churns out political memes steeped in ironic cringe. Perhaps this is a step toward the kind of Hegelian sublation that Sloan sees as a way out of the cycles of irony and sincerity in culture. Based and cringe imply and co-create each other. The GIFs Bay discusses elide this binary too, in the contextual condition of their posting and reading. It’s sometimes impossible to tell whether the intention of a GIF is simply to pantomime reaction, to ventriloquize its subject, or to make an ironic joke.
Each author grapples with memes in their own way, all ultimately concerned with how we make sense of them and how they impact day to day reality.
Likewise, the artists who contributed to this issue seem to emphasize the strange dual reality of being “very online.” Molly Soda’s In the Garden combines footage of the artist engaged in the slow, meditative activity of weeding with footage of a scrolling Tumblr page. Like weeds in the garden, the clickbait advertisements pop up unexpectedly, requiring similarly passive, ongoing attention. Wanna Know My Secret? layers the absurd, performative positivity and vague solutionism of online Multi-level Marketers with the artist digging through bags of broken and used makeup products. Both seem to represent the ever-expanding trash heap of consumer culture in the digital age. Eva and Franco Mattes’ sculptural works bring to mind the “Cute Cat Theory” of web 2.0, and the incredible proliferation of cat memes and pictures in its early days5 and the strategic use of animal memes to avoid censorship in China.6 Ceiling Cat forces gallery visitors to crane their necks upward to see the physical recreation of the memified image above, perhaps a reminder of the ways online life pushes into all areas of once-disconnected existence. Catt and Half Cat enflesh digital artifacts of the LOLcats era. Half Cat is especially striking as it recreates a fake example of the kind of distortion seen in many automated imaging processes when faced with unruly, moving creatures like cats.
Both artists’ work demand we think critically about the platforms where we spend our days and the productive consumption in which we engage. As a journal of visual culture, we’re as concerned with artifacts of the banal and everyday, as we are with visual objects sequestered as Art. “Culture,” as Raymond Williams cautioned, “is ordinary,” and the means to produce representations of it has never been so accessible.7 Humanity is still in the throes of reckoning with such a fundamental inversion of that visual scarcity. But despite farcical attempts to impose virtual scarcity on images, the fix is in. We all understand digital objects as infinitely manipulable and eternally reproducible. There for the taking. Memes are perhaps the ultimate example of this techno-cultural shift, a kaleidoscope looking back through the panopticon.
The contributing editors of this issue are Byron Fong, Wade Keye, Jacob Carter, Catalina Segú Jensen, and Tierney Hamilton.