Meme-making as theory-making / critical meme reader #2 contribution WIP

an ongoing memetic manifesto

Hi! I am working on a creative contribution for the upcoming Critical Meme Reader #2 (published by the Institute of Network Cultures), and I’d like to use this post to share my work in progress. This is to me a way of developing it (as I think this fits very much with the ideas I’m taking as a basis), as much as a way to share knowledge and foster conversation.

Instead of approaching my contribution as a more orthodox essay, I’m taking meme aesthetics as a methodological reference for crafting theory, somewhat rejecting the notion of a structured text.

Sometimes memes are compared to language, and we may also think of writing itself as remixing. I feel some meme-making practices can be resemblant to theory-writing. I think we can understand this kind of theory-making as theory coming from a subaltern or precarious condition, often in the margins or completely outside of academic institutions. I think of meme-makers as artists, poets and theorists of the hacker class, producing “ever-new expressions of the actual” (McKenzie Wark).

As Mark Fisher jokingly put it, “only prisoners have time to read”, but everyone has time for memes, as they leak and merge into daily life through social media, hijacking attention and always making space for themselves. In this precarious, micro-fragmented and accelerated condition where it’s difficult to locate oneself or form a cohesive discourse, memes may be a creative and collective approach to theory. When we live in a context where the possibility of longform theory is hard to foster, we might just make memes.

I see meme pages as heterogeneous, unplanned, additive, experimental, fragmented manifestos, always incidental, always in continuous construction. This kind of writing is distanced from the idea of a closed, unitary text with cohesive meaning, embracing instead this accelerated condition as a space of possibility. (I’m not really familiar with it, but this may be similar to schizoanalysis?)

In my artwork I constantly quote, remix, and appropriate other memetic artifacts, text snippets, tweets or comments, etc., so these “memes” are like complex collages or compositions (sort of like what is described in Memes are not jokes, they are diagram-games) that do not seek to convey or “package” a single unitary message, but make connections and spread in various directions.

The topics I intend to deal with are broad and disperse, and, fittingly, I haven’t fully figured them out to be honest, but I think that for now I’ll summarize them here in these questions:

How can memes make sense of memes? Can meme-making be a form of theory-making? Can meme-making practices help dismantling the memetic episteme (see the picture below)? In which ways can we rethink memes with this purpose in mind? How can we build memetic places that make possible other types of interaction that work against the logics of memetic immunology?

I feel that sharing my process and unfinished outputs, receiving feedback, and using this material to spark conversations may be very helpful to me (especially as I tend to be very unsure of my own ideas), and it’s completely aligned with this way of writing as remixing. Writing (like meme-making) ceases to be something you do as an individual. Therefore, I’d like to open the process and expose it to this community, making it subject to “cross-contamination”, to open source it, as to say. I intend to take the conversations around these WIPs as a basis to further develop the project (I may even include some of them in the artworks themselves, if you are ok with that). So (hopefully) I will be sharing my process periodically through this thread as I make more artworks, and I’d love to hear your thoughts and readings on them.

PD: please feel free to recommend texts, memes, and whatever comes to mind!

Anyway, this is the first composition I’d like to share (an unfinished 2 page spread, I hope everything is readable):


I like the open peer review approach you are taking with this work. It's radical to let the community comment on the work as it's being drafted.

It's very much an orthodox memetics approach to attempt an answer at the "what is a meme?" question by asking what things memes are like, and then considering what other things these meme-like things are like. I think it's extremely telling that one of Dawkins' primary motivations for introducing the meme concept was to clarify the gene concept, which by no means is totally clear nearly half a century since The Selfish Gene. And so, if memes are like languages, and languages are like art, perhaps we can indirectly examine the nature of memes through what we already know about art and language.

@jayaoyama is currently working on his thesis about the ontology and epistemology of memes, and one of his key references is Wollheim, whose Art and Its Objects presents (I think) one of the most compelling theories of art ever.

Wollheim suggests that one might identify objects which are artworks without relying on a definition of art: we can identify art by first picking out certain objects as primary works of art, and then use them to identify derivative works of art by using some rule or another. I don't think this is how we typically identify and experience works of art; but this is typical of the way that we identify and experience works of meme. And this bears resemblance to a Quinean theory of language acquisition in which (pre-linguistic) meaning is facilitated via ostension (e.g. learning the word "water" through pointing at water and associating it with the utterance "water"). I wonder how well this model fits with how memes are experienced.

I know that there has been a huge amount of debate and criticism branching out from Quine's account, but I don't know the details. @Conner has written his Master's and doctoral theses on memes from a linguistic perspective, although he doesn't "suggest that memes are a language unto themselves". One of his main themes was ostension, so he will know a lot more about this.

I think that makes sense. It reminds me of how digital living documents and sites (e.g. wikis, "digital gardens") are sometimes described. Are social media platforms also "heterogeneous, unplanned, additive, experimental, fragmented manifestos, always incidental, always in continuous construction"? What about software, which can be patched and updated? Inasmuch as we consider memes as recursively identified by prior exemplars of memes (as when we apply Wollheim's theory of art to memes) and posting memes (or any other digital content for that matter) seems to involve some ostensive dimension that goes beyond making stuff visible to other users, I would wager that you are right to consider memes as constantly "making sense of memes".


@Seong thanks for the effort put in your comments!

I'm very curious about @jayaoyama's work! Although from what I read in their post I think that we may be focusing on different topics here. When I talk about "memetic episteme" I am referring to the epistemology that stems from memetics as a worldview, which internet memes (as a cultural phenomena) had a great deal into popularizing to the point that I believe that memetics operates as an ontology of the network society. I'd love to see their thoughts about this!

Either way, I'm very interested in analyses of memes through art theory, which is a very wide field with a much longer history from which to extract analytical tools for meme studies. I'd also like to see it the other way around, with memes eventually integrated into wider artistic theories, though I fear that too much inclusion in artistic institutions may strip them of their radical difference to other art forms more ingrained in the system of the art-world, which is one of the things I find more precious of them.

I've yet to dive into it, but I'm interested in how we can think memes from Arthur Danto institutional theory of art, as I believe that a great part of what makes a meme a meme is context (the digital interface may be to the meme what the white cube is to an artwork) and consensus (subcultural communities play the role of art institutions and critics), and I think this is related to what you explain of Wollheim, that an artwork is defined as such in relation to other artworks (thanks for the reference!). It is indeed interesting to apply this to memes: maybe recognizing something as a meme implies a learned way of seeing, culturally constructed by ostension? This meme comes to my mind:

There's a few things at play here: first, the joke is about how that learned way of seeing, in which we come to interpret every image on our feed (that is, because of context) as a meme, may fail us because very often what looks like a meme is not a meme, as memes are remixes of diverse artifacts with varied looks. Second it reinforces the distinction between normies and literate memers that serves the function of delimiting subcultural communities.
This also reminds me of this picture:

It is not a meme. I found it a while ago as a product photo, it's a bitcoin mining rig. Impact font and wacky aesthetics make it look like some sort of absurdist meme that has appropriated a product image. The usage of the word "support" makes it seem to convey some kind of incomprehensible political message, which to me it makes it really funny. I like to think of this as a meme trouvé, something that is not a meme, but if presented as such (in a particular context) could be perceived as one. But I think that this case is better described by the Wollheim based approach you describe, because I saw it first in the wild and mistook it as a meme because of how it shared characteristics with other memes, and not the contextual approach; it is not defined by context like a readymade, it already looks like a meme. I guess both explanations of how we may identify a meme could be complimentary?

Btw, @Conner's work also seems super interesting! But I couldn't find anything online, maybe you could point me to some text? I guess that more than language what interests me here is more specifically memes as writing or texts. I wrote an essay about copypastas for a literature class on my Master, and I found some concepts of comparative literature, such as interpretive communities or literary heritage to be very useful when applied to meme analysis.

I think so! I'd say that it was actually social media profiles (as personal curated spaces that were supposed to represent one's identity) which became this kind of "heterogeneous manifestos" in the first place, and then meme pages hacked into this platform design "weirding" it out, kickstarting an auteur turn in meme production. The figure of the meme-maker as author seems to gain relevance, and meme pages become exercises of continuous and unplanned curation, developing kind of a more narrative or holistic production, where meaning is located not just in the individual meme (or in the collective remixing process), but on the whole sustained production of the page.


I am now working through Reza Negarestani's book Intelligence & Spirit which deals with a lot of concepts, but one i think may be useful here is what he refers to as "Toy Models" and, within them, "Meta-Theories".

So a part of his project is creating a theory of the development of intelligence (here meaning strictly the interaction between subjects and the intelligible world), and a thing he thinks is important is asking the right questions regarding the development of AI. To that, he puts i that human intelligence should be the model of AI, on the level that we understand that our view of ourselves should be open to change and redefinition. He puts it by saying that Humanity is like a "toy model" (a concept he gets from physics i believe) for AI, and he puts it like that because "toy models" make explicit the meta-theories that we take as implicit in everyday life. In simplifying the theory of living and being a being imbued with intelligence in these models, we can take a step back and see the kind of pre-conditions, structures and transcendental meta theories (here being economy, capitalism, gender, what have you) so that we can properly separate what is natural and what is arbitrary.

So how does that relate to memes? To me, i think that meme-making comes with, if not this sort of semantic distance, at the very least, a new set of rules to normal communication that make it so our standard living becomes a bit warped.

With memes, we always assumed that some level of unoriginality is in effect (we're always re-telling or reworking the same jokes over and over again). At the same time, nothing is more glaring as a social faux pas than posting a dead meme. So the way in which we think we act as consumers is shown in its hyperaccelerated form (we are always sold things with slight, incremental changes as something new and exciting - cf François J. Bonnet when he talks about the idea of synchronized living in the digital age). Though most meme-makers and meme-sharers end up reproducing this cycle, i feel like there is a personal level of whiplash in realizing that a meme you are still taking enjoyment out of is dead. I personally noticed how many meme pages ended up making fun of the "they're doing surgery on a grape" meme were sharing them like crazy before - there is a degree of self-hypnosis into being "with it" that i think is interesting to look into.

I feel like Memes being a shared language is a level in which they exist as collective but not quite as a community, which i think makes projects regarding to them a bit hard. I think by design, they have two very important formal structures :

1 - They create an in-group and out-group mentality - there is the ones that get it and the ones that dont (i think looking into the facebook group What Does It Mean? is very useful - it is a group where people share posts, jokes and such that they dont understand in the hopes that someone explains them. Seeing these formal aspects broken down into sort of "plain-text" create that effect that, well, explaining a joke makes it unfunny)

2 - They're nearly by definition very dense - meaning that they compress as much referential power in as little space as possible. Which in turn means that if there is a missing link in the chain, it all kind of falls apart. I think this is part of why people make fun of leftists memes being walls of text - they break that rule of compression!

Those two structural aspects i believe make it so communities can get stronger with the spread of memes, but the spread itself ends up causing a qualitative differentiation between who gets it and who doesnt. Its probably not impossible to build communities with them, but i think their strenght lies in reinforcement.

In any case, very good luck on your findings!


I love this. Not only can anything be a meme, but everything is always-already a meme.

One of the most enjoyable moments I had with this kind of "readymade" meme was this diagram (Diagram Memes post):

The group then riffed on the diagram and made a bunch of memes:

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