Weekend Reading : The Meme Generation

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Tod Kelly

Tod is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. He is also serves as Executive Producer and host of both the 7 Deadly Sins Show at Portland's historic Mission Theatre and 7DS: Pants On Fire! at the White Eagle Hotel & Saloon. He is  a regular inactive for Marie Claire International and the Daily Beast, and is currently writing a book on the sudden rise of exorcisms in the United States. Follow him on Twitter.

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39 Responses

  1. Avatar Will H. says:

    I have similar feelings about the direction of journalism.

    I have similar feelings toward the I-V-IV progression and 12-bar blues.
    Makes me puke.Report

  2. Avatar Fnord says:

    “You can only comment on recycled content in a finite circular universe for so long before you begin to lose all meaning.”

    The most recycled piece of content is the “it’s not real art” screed, which is seen with every new cultural development.Report

    • Avatar Will H. says:

      I’m not so sure about that; as evidenced by my own monochromatic movement.
      Succinctly, monochromatic art is a square depicting one shade of undifferentiated color.
      But the titles are magnificent; eg Glint of the Spear-Tip of Patrochlos in Deadly Confrontation with Hector at the Gates of Troy, a solid block of nothing but purest white.
      The idea is that it is really only the very glint of the spear-tip that interests people anyway, and so only this portion will be depicted.

      The art itself is really in the manner of thinking up the fanciful names for what otherwise might pass as carpet samples.
      But it was really conceived as a mockery of modern art.Report

  3. Avatar greginak says:

    “TIVOed the top three rated shows from both FOX and MSNBC”
    Egads…..i hope you have insurance.

    FWIW, i haven’t watched any MSNBC in 3 or so years, but Maddow is far better then all of them and not as comically partisan.Report

  4. Avatar Dan Miller says:

    My problem with this perennial is the utter lack of contrast to what came before. It’s not like most people were creative visionaries before the rise of Internet cat photos. In fact, if your goal is to get people to create culture rather than just consume it ala TV, memes are no doubt a step forward.Report

  5. Avatar dhex says:

    even though in the history of the internet zines and “zine culture” is lionized (in part because the history of the internet has thus far been written by zinesters), but a good 99% of all zines were as aggressively stupid and insular as lolcats, etc. what’s changes is the speed of transmission.

    the real tragedy here is the changing of dawkin’s useful metaphor for cultural transmission (taken way too far, as labash notes, angrily) into whatever you want to call this stuff. and that labash ignores the incredible increase in access (largely due to self publishing/promotion) to all the traditional forms of art, especially music. this would seem to completely undercut his larger point, except his real point is “lolcats are dumb” – we are as one on that topic. (still kind of a fan of gooby plz though)Report

  6. Avatar BlaiseP says:

    Robertson Davies: To be apt in quotation is a splendid and dangerous gift. Splendid, because it ornaments a man’s speech with other men’s jewels; dangerous, for the same reason.

    Most of this Meme-ing is borrowed ornamentation, attempting to glom onto another’s glory through the Miracle of Trackbacks. But there’s no denying those jewels are indeed glorious and lose none of their lustre in quotation.

    Labash errs greatly in saying this New Dumbness. It’s ancient, hoary dumbness. It’s afflicted mankind since a few humorous Egyptians had some fun at Tourist Herodotus’ expense, saying the ibex had only one horn, thus giving us the legendary unicorn. I feel certain half the legends started out as jokes. As for kitty videos, the Egyptians were the biggest kitty fans of all time, sincerely mourning their moggies and embalming them in their thousands.

    He rolls his eyes in vain, does Labash, a tiresome Young Fogey if ever there was one, afflicted by the very Nostalgic Malaise he so plaintively moans about, like some demented Smoove Jazz Saxophonist who has never learned to play beyond the natural key of his instrument.

    As someone who posted a YouTube video which has now gone to 337,211 views, I’ve gotten some interesting email over time. None of those images were mine. Nor was the music. It was hardly my fault some people find it haunting and beautiful. All I wanted was to show something I found beautiful. Got a nice note from the guy who took those images, says it helped the sales of his book. But more importantly, I got a message from YouTube, saying they’d noticed how popular my video had become. They offered me an option to run an ad in front of that video. I refused. They weren’t my images and it wasn’t my music and I had glommed both without attribution though I did give extensive credits and urged people to buy both the book and the music.

    That’s what memes are all about, kiddies. Page loads.

    So here comes Matt Labash, with three page loads to read the whole of his little screed, featuring at least three ads per load, to crank up his own Meme-o-Matic, snarkily intoning his intellectual superiority “He still reads books (books!)“. Gosh, I sure wish I was as bolted-in as Matt Labash.Report

  7. Avatar Rufus F. says:

    “You can only comment on recycled content in a finite circular universe for so long before you begin to lose all meaning.”

    Reminds me of this line by George Trow: “The work of television is to establish false contexts and to chronicle the unraveling of existing contexts; finally, to establish the context of no context and to chronicle it.”

    Of course, television is what came before the Internet, and the Internet is the television-steeped culture talking back about its ideas and interests. For the most part, it looks like you’d expect it to.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      There’s something that gets in the fabric of people’s souls with memes.” These aren’t just Internet-fame’s lottery winners, says Lashes. “The memes are art. This is the kind of s— Warhol prophesied.”

      Everybody knows the “in the future, everybody will be famous for fifteen minutes” line but he got sick of hearing it really, really quick. He stopped saying it and started saying “in fifteen minutes, everyone will be famous.”

      Looks like we’re here.Report

    • I kept thinking about “The Context of No Context” as I wandered around Vegas, which seems to be the municipal instantiation of the concepts expressed therein.Report

  8. 1) Being parodied by “South Park” is the very antithesis of a “plum” in Russellworld. I would rather be dragged across carpet tacks and dipped in rubbing alcohol.

    2) This is one of those subjects that makes me wish David Foster Wallace were still around to write an essay about it. *sigh*

    3) I can’t watch either MSNBC or Fox, though I find the former marginally more tolerable. I appreciate your taking one for the team, buddy, and will start soliciting recommendations for good mental health providers in the Portland area now so you can transition right into intensive psychotherapy when it’s all over.Report

  9. Avatar Kolohe says:

    “You can only comment on recycled content in a finite circular universe for so long before you begin to lose all meaning.”

    This reminds me of some of the conversations around here on deconstruction . It’s true as far as it goes that you can only deconstruct something so far before you need to start constructing something, but that only goes so far.

    I agree with the ‘Young Fogey’ criticism of this piece. Even if they are derivative – because who isn’t – the meme-basers are being intellectually active in the way that cultural critics have long derided the masses for explicitly not being (“All your Vast Wastelands are belong to us”). Like Fnord said, this criticism is not new, and it’s not even correct. Heck, Chaucer and Shakesphere were meme generators and remixers par excellence.Report

    • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

      My problem with this criticism is that it seems to take a phenomenally rare truth and assumes it universal. It is indeed true that Mozart was not appreciated for his true genius in his time; it does not therefore follow, however, that all people that are not appreciated as geniuses are the next Mozart. (Similarly, just because many scientists initially scoffed at the theories of relativity does not make creationism the equivalent of E=MC2.)

      When I look at people that clip together, say, every time Fonzie says “Aaaay!” into a 20 minute mashup (or whatever), I am not reminded of the advent of TV or the novel so much as I am that hipster art form of my college years: performance art. Each kind of assumes that you can approach art by quickly throwing together a few random ideas with vert little creative work; that the very fact that anyone could have done it regardless of experience or talent level (which just ain’t the case with Chaucer and Shakespeare) assumes that it is therefore artistically “edgy.” And like performance art, it is assumed that “old people just don’t get it” and that one day the young hipsters will have the last laugh. And maybe that’s true. Maybe in 20 years, you’ll be taking your children to see a live stage reenactment of a guy redoing every time Fonzie ever said “Ayyyy!” Tickets will be almost impossible to get if you don’t “know someone.” But I suspect these things will end up being closer to scrapbooking (i.e.: things that people do for personal hobby every now and then) and will not be seen as “art.”Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        We worry often around here about drawing false equivalences between the left and the right. It would be good not to draw them between the past and present either.Report

        • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

          Um… how is me comparing mashups to performance art a false equivalent, but comparing mashups to Shakespeare and Chaucer not? Confused.Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. says:

            I was agreeing with you.Report

          • Avatar Fnord says:

            Of course they’re not equivalent to Chaucer and Shakespeare. You get one Shakespeare in a generation, and that’s if you’re lucky.

            But a drama club putting on a Shakespeare play (who borrowed that plot from Author Brooke and William Painter, who in turn were taking from an Italian story, all based on a theme that goes back to antiquity, and incidentally has been further adapted by such talentless hacks as Stephen Sondheim, and how’s that for remixing). Geniuses? Probably not. Somebody going to be watching a recording of that performance 20 years from now, or even 5? Only their mothers.

            So what does that make the guy sitting in a back saying they’ve got nothing on the Royal Shakespeare Company, and they should write their own damn play anyway?Report

            • Avatar Tod Kelly says:

              I would say that you are 100 % correct, that the mashup guy is the equivalent to a community theatre production of You Can’t Take It With You.

              My understanding is that those people are not being flown to MIT amid discussions that they are somehow the new edgy art form that we must pay attention to. If your assertion is as you state above, I do not think Labash’s criticisms are directed in your direction.Report

              • Avatar Fnord says:

                Every university has a drama club or three; there are numerous statewide community theatre festivals. The American Association of Community Theatre certainly has nationwide conferences. Every community needs a support network. I doubt most community theatres send even one person to a national conference on a regular basis, but it’s not like everyone who ever slapped a caption on a picture of a cat was in Cambridge, either.

                As Labash himself admits, ROFLcon isn’t taking itself too seriously (unlike Labash). I didn’t hear about this until Labash wrote an article and you linked to it. The only person demanding people pay attention is Labash, so he can tell everyone how superior he is to the “New Dumbness”.Report

            • Avatar Kolohe says:

              Fnord says here exactly what I was getting at. I’m increasing disdainful of those who disdain other peoples hobbies, especially when the hobbyist approaches them with passion and joie de vivre. Of course (the vast vast majority of) it is not high art, so what? High artists are as rare as a snowflake on the moon, or an honest politician in Washington.Report

      • Avatar Liberty60 says:

        I would pivot off Tod’s second paragraph into a criticism of avante garde culture more broadly.

        One of the proudest achievements of the modern art movement was to break the grip of the cultural authorities to define art; art could be whatever the artist wished it to be.

        Or so the history books tell us. In fact,what happened was that the defining authority of culture was moved from Church and State and popular opinion, to simply the peer group approval of fellow artists; if gallery owners and academics said your work was important, then it was. If they didn’t, it wasn’t. The Church and popular opinion didn’t matter anymore.

        The internet memes and mashups are a continuation of this trend, except it is now transferring cultural authority away from gallery owners and academics, via the internet; if enough people declare your Fonzi mashup to be Relevant and Meaningful, then it is.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          I’ve a theory that societies that lose authority as a common cultural currency eventually make power their common currency.

          (Actually, I’m pretty sure others have had the same theory before.)Report

          • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

            I would have said “money” rather than power (though money being the common currency does sound redundant.) This is especially true in films, where there are no more Pauline Kael or Vincent Canby figures; the closest thing left is the wonderful but extremely middle-brow Roger Ebert. In general, the only thing that’s written about a film is how much money it made. The second Star Wars trilogy is more familiar and more often discussed than most of the good films of the previous decade, even though there’s almost universal agreement that they were terrible, purely because they made so damned much moneyReport

            • Avatar Rufus F. says:

              I suppose I was thinking of money as close enough to a synonym to be implied by the word ‘power’. Maybe I’m thinking of Trow again, and his idea that the most important cultural question in nearly every situation is becoming “Who won?”Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                I think we’re in violent agreement.Report

              • Avatar Rufus F. says:

                Incidentally, it’s funny you mention her because I’ve been thinking of Kael a lot lately . I’ve an acquaintance who ‘s working on the Quentin Tarantino slave movie and I keep getting these Facebook updates about it and getting more depressed, mainly because it sounds like a complete travesty in the making, but since there aren’t any reviewers around (that I know of) who write that way about the cultural, moral, or historical meaning of films, I suspect the travesty factor will be overlooked in lieu of lengthy reviews about how cool the soundtrack was and which characters “kicked some serious ass”.Report

              • Avatar Mike Schilling says:

                And how much money it makes. (Not to beat a dead horse, or anything.)Report

              • Avatar dhex says:

                The new yorker? Armand white?

                Heck the onion av club is pretty solid.

                I’d have more examples but i only watch documentaries about fonts.Report

  10. In addition to “Within the Context of No Context,” this all makes me think about Screwtape discussing the causes of laughter. We can laugh for joy, we can laugh from fun, we can laugh at a joke, and we can laugh at flippancy.

    This is all just so much flippancy, with joy pretty damn thin on the ground.Report

  11. Avatar Maribou says:

    “more and more time is spent discussing what one pundit said about what another pundit said about this other thing this other pundit said”

    I find this phrase contextually ironic, because I came to the Labash article hoping for something more insightful and less caught up in itself than Lanier’s _You Are Not a Gadget_ (which I finished reading a week or two ago), and then found that it’s basically a rehash of / paean to Lanier, with a fresh set of those-internet-people-are-weird anecdotes to hang the arguments on.

    *sighs her most tired-old-curmudgeonly sigh*Report

  12. Avatar Kazzy says:

    “** I’ve been thinking more and more about this subject, and as a result this weekend I intend to do one of the existentially scariest things I have ever done before. I have TIVOed the top three rated shows from both FOX and MSNBC, and in an effort to see what partisan cable TV is really bringing to the table will be watching all six (holy mother of God, six!) hours of the stuff and write about what I find. Pray for me.”

    What shows??? Maybe a group of us can all do this together, book club style, and post a roundtable discussion on the matter! The more ideologically diverse, the better!Report