Dawkin’s coinage of the term meme, rooted in Darwinian discourse, understandably failed to anticipate the nomenclature lending itself so readily to the theatrical hodgepodge of the internet. The proliferation of image-plus-text memes seems inexhaustible, and the enthymemic quality (or, “I get it”-ness) of memes have led to the emergence of of “meme literacy,” a system of knowledge that charts the operative and affective patterns of memes as an everyday, social performance.
Not all internet memes are photographic, but the majority of them involve the manipulation of an original photographic object, and its recontextualization through the superimposition of deflationary, melodramatic, ironic, political, or otherwise humorous text.
In these images/text amalgams, there is an extension – or disruption – of the studium/punctum relationship Barthes assigns to photographs. In the studium reading, photographs have implicit meanings based on convention, and are sometimes anchored by explicit meanings, like in the text in a magazine ad. But photos also contain unintentional, affective meanings that “prick” or disrupt a studium reading of a photo. Memes work against the sort of coupling of conventional meanings, disrupting the ‘traditional’ of photographs in the amateur and professional sense through playful exaggeration. Memes play on the potential punctum potential of a photograph by supplanting the traditional studim with a new, contemporary set of embedded references.
The result is a massive index of “found objects” for the average internet user to recognize on some level, to trade with like-minded members of one’s social group, or to decipher and replicate for the sake of inclusion. While critics like Lister offer panicked readings of the innumerable, redundant photos that clutter the internet, meme culture readily embraces the act of replication, modification, and quick abandonment of these culturally-loaded packets of information for the next “new” meme, in a cycle of hierarchical, regulatory practices.
I end with a prevalent example, the “first-world problems” meme. The meme pairs a stock photo of a crying person with melodramatic text of relatively minor inconveniences experienced by privileged subjects (usually white, financially secure people). The reading requires three levels of understanding: you need to understand the irony of the text, you need to possess an understanding heteronormative/everyone else binary, and you need to have an affective (dis)identification with what that photo means in its “original” sense. Thus, far from the signalling some meaningless wasteland of images prophesied by Lister, memes’ slight-of-hand disidentification (via sarcasam/irony) actually reinforces rules of competency and performativity, much like the societal (and photographic) traditions from which they aim to depart.