Memes are a nuisance. Or at least a glance into the world of academic literature would suggest so. English ethnologist, Richard Dawkins conceived the term “meme” 1 to catalogue the power of ideas and how they evolve as well as look at units of culture, behaviour or style that spread from person to person. And since then, memes have been appropriated and have become the subject of constant academic debate, contemptuous ridicule and even outright dismissal. The rise in resounding popular discourse about memes in an era increasingly defined by Internet communication is not coincidental. While memes were conceptualised long before the digital era, the unique hallmarks of the Internet have turned their diffusion into an ubiquitous routine. This opens a new door into the world of literature and the rules and beliefs of their formation and acceptance, which resides within it. Communication through memes is the next quintessential step in the progression of the way in which members of the digital culture express themselves, however, do memes have literary value? I believe so.
In the defence of memes, I will reference literature to works of the creative imagination – fiction, poetry, drama, in whatever form these are expressed since technology now opens up so many worlds beyond the artefact we normally call a book, such as memes. So our concern here is with content. Literature, above all, stems from the power of narratives. Storytellers, poets, writers, have always found ways of confronting despotism, however we must keep in mind the purpose of it. With their ability to instantly capture the zeitgeist of society, memes serve to deliver a critical snapshot of the perks and norms that make up our world, allowing their creators to provoke us to reflect upon ourselves and the world that surrounds us- all of which are tell-tale signs of the purpose of literature. It is this narrative capacity that memes hold, which not only encourages the propagation of ideas, but also promotes their own literary value, ultimately allowing them to exist within the realm of literature. By exploring memes’ presence in politics, my project aims to contend their power to not only inform but also provoke our generation to educate themselves as memes themselves push the boundaries of the concrete rules of what is considered literature or to have literary merit.
Unpacking the Terms: What is a Meme? Originating from the Greek word mimēma meaning ‘that which is imitated’, a meme [ / miːm/ ] is an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means. Though the rationale of the word itself has evolved over the last decade, it seems as if it has finally reached its epitome. Memes, typically known as entertaining or abstract photos and videos that contain pieces of text on them, are rapidly spread through the billions of members of the digital culture that is the Internet. They are permutations of text, images and video and are ultimately remixed3, iterated messages that are rapidly proliferated and spread by Internet users for the purpose of continuing a conversation. These short texts in memes are supposed to express the way we talk instead of how we write, mirroring our speech patterns, so to speak. Therefore, when we communicate through memes, we are communicating with a graphic form of speech. And just as a person can be the dominant speaker in a usual conversation, this situation can happen with meme sharing as well. One person initiates communication with someone by showing them a meme through their phone or sending one to someone online. The other person is either inspired, dumbfounded or is impassioned to prompt change and it is this quality that memes have which allow them to step foot into the doorway of the literary world.
Much like how literature ultimately provokes us to reflect upon ourselves and our societies, memes possess a similar charm. With their propensity to critique, advance and reform the way we view and connect with the world around us, memes will ultimately become the cultivated foundation that our society is built upon, that much is true. Memes seem to be the black sheep of the literary family, but I believe that in the same way language and writing are an exemplary form of communication, memes too should be regarded as communicative literature without any doubt or even amusing derision associated with it.
The Fork in the Road
Memes are a popular method of communication amongst millennials, that much is true. And why wouldn’t they be? They exhort this generation’s expressions on a wide range of matters. Used for humour and protests, memes ultimately follow the footsteps of literature as they both subvert the par practice that govern whose words are worth being recognised as literature. They are on the pulse of society and serve the internet generation well as they are free, instantly obvious and loaded with cathartic qualities. So here in lies the problem as we approach the web that is society’s encompassed diversely, assorted opinions. Are memes a form of literature or are they just a form of entertainment that is aiming too high, and do its creators deserve to have a place amongst the great literary masters, side by side with Shakespeare and Dostoevsky? The answer is yes, memes do have literary value and it is time for society to finally admit it with conviction.
In literature, new genres and forms are born because people constantly try to find new and improved modes of communication, and for this generation, memes have allowed members of society to express themselves and their concerns. The meme culture is suddenly forcing us to re-think our worldviews, plunging a needle of hyper-self-awareness in the back of our brains that jolts us out of ignorant complacency. And this is the crucial role of literature.