Dank Memes and Tactical Media

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

This paper will consider how during and following the 2016 US Presidential election internet memes transformed from fairly frivolous digital artifacts into a potent form of tactical media capable of eliciting passionate responses. Though this is not the first occasion that memes have veered toward the political, there is a marked difference in the rhetorical strategies employed in political memes in what we might call the Trumpian era. In essence, memes have lost their sense of humor. Bad Luck Brian has been replaced by a post-ideological alt-right frog.

The exchange value of Internet memes is based in a heightening of the alienation effect -- to borrow from Brecht -- their being made progressively more strange; their rhetorical claims more extreme perhaps. This is the fundamental currency of memes, their cultural capital if you will -- their shareability as gestic artifacts; as the commingling of performative gesture and attitude. In more traditional forms of internet memes (if there is a tradition), namely image macros, the iterability and alterability; the portability and flexibility; the idiomatic extensibility of the meme as meme is based on a correspondence between central, archetypal figure and rhetorical content in the form of captions.

What emerged during the 2016 election season, and has continued since is a different sort of correspondence; a correspondence where the central figure, the candidate is detached from the artifact, replaced by a sort of speculative character -- an assumed stereotype -- generated through partisan, attitudinal hyperbole. The candidates do not appear as themselves, but as monstrous, damaged gods to a mythos of division. As such, political memes in the Trumpian era form something of a tragic-realism, or a “semi-literature” for a “semi-literate”, though digitally savvy culture.

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Li Yi