Pedestrionics: Meme Culture, Alienation Capital, and Gestic Play

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

This presentation considers the rhetoric and poetics of meme culture and social media

Internet memes, in their essence, are methods of expression born from the attention
economy of networked culture. At times they can be epistolary, aphoristic, polemic,
satirical, or parodic; and they may take the form of performative actions and photo fads
such as planking, teapotting and batmanning or iterative processes such as image macros
and advice animals including lolcats, Bad Luck Brian and Condescending Wonka. In either
case they are conditioned by rhetorical formulas with strict grammars and styles.
In the case of image macros, the rhetoric is sustained through correlations between the
image and its caption. If we line-up the thousands of Condescending Wonka memes side
by side, we will find very little difference between them aesthetically – the same image is
repeated, along with captions at the top and bottom of the image. In the captions we find
a specific tone that is also repeated one image to the next.

For the Condescending Wonka meme this tone is sarcastic and snarky, which is a reflection
upon Gene Wilder’s portrayal of the title character in the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the
Chocolate Factory. The top caption presents what might be a sincere question, and in the
bottom caption we get a snarky response. The completion of a truncated mock-dialogue
circuit… To understand the context of the Condescending Wonka meme, one must have
a generalized understanding of Wilder’s portrayal of the character to allow for the
attitude of the character to operate as a sublimated vehicle for humorously couched
insolence. In this regard, the meme is not simply an artifact, but a conduit through
which cultural references are conducted.

It could be said that memes are not artifacts at all. As Dawkins defined memes, they can
be "an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture."
Though we can see how these operate in the Condescending Wonka example – the idea,
style, and rhetorical behavior are clear, where we locate the meme as differentiated from
the artifact is not so plainly defined. If we disregard the meme as any given individual artifact and
start to examine their dialogistic function -- memes as sets of
social relations, they begin to take on the additional aspect of
social gesture, or what Brecht has dubbed the gestic. They
present a framework for attitudes that must be shared, expressed,
distributed, and put into circulation. For, as Brecht has stated,
“…it is what happens between people that provides them with
all the material that they can discuss, criticize, alter.”

Though we maybe tempted to think of meme culture as frivolous and disposable (and
certainly meme constructions can lead rather short lives); that its content is
fundamentally banal, puerile, or adolescent, it is important to consider their function as
frameworks for the communication of human ideas and attitudes, along with their
methods of persuasion.

(Source: Author's introduction)

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Thor Baukhol Madsen