SOCIETY: THE MEME GENERATION

Published May 21, 2023
Illustration by Sheece Khan
Illustration by Sheece Khan

Many of you may have seen, liked or shared memes while surfing on the internet, but have you ever thought of memes as an art form?

Have you thought about how effective they are in — apart from providing entertainment — shaping people’s opinions and worldviews? Or how they can be a popular tool of political subversion, propaganda and dissent?

Internet memes have become means of communication in today’s digital culture, through which a variety of things can be communicated. In short, meme culture condenses ‘serious news’ into digestible bites of information, accompanied with pictures.

Memes serve as a vehicle to express emotions, opinions, tastes, behaviours on the internet and have become a tool for political resistance.

Renowned biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in 1976 in his book The Selfish Gene, describing memes as small units of culture that are transferred from person to person by copying or imitating. Like genes, memes pass on cultural information and ideas from one person to another.

Memes do more than just provide comic relief to distressed consumers of news. They can challenge power, subvert propaganda and, sometimes, also spur real change

A FORM OF POSTMODERN ART?

Memes hold high value in modern, digital culture, prompting many researchers to investigate memes culture using different perspectives.

Because of their creative dimension, many researchers see memes as a form of postmodern art. They are seen as a product of the postmodern era, also referred to as ‘post-truth era’, in which art — and any other creative thing — is considered ‘a copy of a copy’; an imitation of an imitation; representation of a representation, and so on without reaching its point of origin — or true foundation. Postmodernity does away with the idea of origin, a centre or origin of things. Everything is seen as an artificial construct, maintained through difference that is created by language.

And so a postmodern artist has no burden of appearing ‘objective’ over his or her shoulders. Therefore, postmodern art shocks people the most because it is, by no means, bound to follow any established rules considered essential for an artwork. So, the work is made ‘unfamiliar’ — forcing people to confront what is not mundane and common.

And like any other art form, memes have what Russian Formalists called a ‘defamiliarisation effect’. The idea behind this is that in any art form — for instance, poetry for Russian Formalists — language (or any content) is arranged in such a manner that it defamiliarises people. And so political and social issues, opinions and other things are presented in a way that unsettles the usual way of perceiving things and seeing the world.

Memes hail individual expressiveness more than any other thing. The form generally remains the same while the content keeps changing from person to person. People share a meme if it appeals to what they feel. If not, they put in something of their own choice and share it.

Professor Limor Shifman in the Department of Communication and Journalism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, in her book Memes in Digital Culture says: “Internet memes can be treated as (post)modern folklore, in which shared norms and values are constructed through cultural artefacts such as Photoshopped images or urban legends.”

A few decades ago, art — mainly poetry — played a significant role in cultural politics and in spreading revolutionary ideas. Literary critic Jonathan Dollimore writes in his essay Art in time of war that, art, in reality, has nothing to do with morality or aesthetics. A veil of morality is only given to art just to escape censorship (of state, society etc.). In reality, art is subversive, he says.

Internet memes have become means of communication in today’s digital culture, through which a variety of things can be communicated. In short, meme culture condenses ‘serious news’ into digestible bites of information, accompanied with pictures.

With industrialisation, the spread of technology and mass culture, art and literature lost the value and importance they once had in society. But it seems that memes can effectively reinvigorate the role other mediums of art once played.

MEMES AS NORMALITY DISRUPTORS

Anastasia Denisova, who lectures on journalism in the University of Westminster in UK, says in her book Internet Memes and Society that, “Memes, as we know them today, are part of the common language that internet users employ to communicate on all possible topics.” She sees memes as part of online activism and ‘tactical media’.

Tactical media has its roots in art movements like ‘Dadaism’ and ‘Situationism’ — both of which use digital mediums, encourage inventiveness of expression and aim at disrupting normality, making people see reality in a different manner.

Interestingly, memes made in Pakistan have gone viral many times in different parts of the world. BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) Urdu has compiled Pakistani memes in a video titled ‘Pakistan Memes Ki Dunya Mein Wah Wah’ [Global Acclaim For Pakistani Memes] in 2022, highlighting their popularity.

Pakistanis resort to making and disseminating memes on almost every problem they find themselves in — be it personal, social or on national matters. Sharing experiences of social media users, the host of the BBC Urdu programme Sairbeen says in the video that, besides being a means of entertainment and fun, memes serve as a stress-coping mechanism for Pakistani users.

Instead of fretting over the country’s unstable conditions, they use these creative pieces to turn such situations into something comical, using satire, ultimately leading to catharsis.

But can memes really make a difference in the social and political sphere? Evidence suggests that they do.

MEMES AS CATALYSTS FOR CHANGE

An early example of online activism where memes played a significant role is that of Mexico’s Zapatista Army of National Liberation. They were an indigenous army of Mayan farmers in Mexico, known as the Zapatistas. They are generally considered the first revolutionary movement to successfully use the postmodern global communications network as an effective form of resistance.

Grant Kien, in her book titled Communicating with Memes, explains that the Zapatistas burst on to the global stage with the enactment of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on January 1, 1994, which required the abolition of collective land holdings and community farming in Mexico, and which threatened to destroy the Mayan way of life. Zapatistas did not conform and put up a resistance. But unable to fight the Mexican Army, they retreated into the jungles. Before retreating, however, the Zapatistas had managed to unleash an aesthetic of revolution that quickly swept through the global media apparatus.

From the very first, she says, the Zapatistas demonstrated a media savvy that very much saved them from annihilation through a global public awareness and created the template for activism in our globally networked era.

They became branded as postmodern revolutionaries in popular media and the meme of masked, wirelessly networked, horseback-riding, proud Fourth-World underdogs fighting on behalf of the common people against corporate tyranny went viral around the globe, both in popular and alternative media.

People began to use and perpetuate the images for their own purposes, making it seem like the Zapatista phenomenon had taken on a life of its own in the global media sphere. Thus, memes played a vital role in the movement.

Similarly, memes had an important role in the 2014 Crimean crisis. In Russia, memes were used by internet users to criticise the government. But, at the same time, memes were very much used by pro-government users for propaganda.

It is pertinent to mention that memes have no content of their own. All individuals are at liberty to shape a meme in any way they want and so they can also become quite sensitive and even dangerous.

Memes also played an important role in China during the rise there of the #MeToo movement, in which people publicise their experiences of sexual abuse or sexual harassment. In China, where there was fear of state censorship, Rice Bunny emojis and images were used as a form of coded language to avoid censorship on social media.

The Rice Bunny, pronounced as “mi tu” in Chinese, is now a nickname given to the #MeToo campaign by Chinese social media users. The #RiceBunny hashtag, accompanied by emojis of rice bowls and bunny heads, is used by Chinese women to expose sexual harassment.

Anastasia Denisova refers to one of the most viral internet memes: Pepe the Frog. Pepe, who was then a common cartoon, went to the bathroom to pee and put his pants down while another animal was watching him. Later on, he told the frog that he saw him, saying “hey Pepe — I heard you pull your pants all the way to go pee…” The frog named Pepe responded, “feels good man.”

The line “feels good man” has now been viral for years, with this line and meme being used in different ways, with the frog finally landing on the social network feeds of 2016, becoming visible in the politicised exchanges of users during the US presidential elections and becoming much involved in other political and societal issues in American society.

MEMES IN PAKISTAN

There was a time when poetry — considered the highest form of art — was a powerful tool for spreading revolutionary ideas and resisting oppressive regimes. In Pakistan, the poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Habib Jalib was often utilised like this.

It seems memes can now serve the same purpose in Pakistan as well, being used for social critique and commentary. Anything that can be turned into a meme is immediately used for this purpose in Pakistan.

In the political sphere, anything suitable to make a meme is immediately weaponised online and turned into an image that will go into the template of producing a meme, thus becoming an interesting and effective way to call out those in powerful positions of power who are immune to critique.

Just to take an example, Bilawal Bhutto’s commentary on rainwater in Karachi went viral throughout the country; his comments were turned into memes and resurfaced during the recent monsoon rains that almost drowned the city.

Whether it was the influence of this meme or not, work on the drainage system in the city was soon started and many nullahs are under construction. Therefore, things do look better than before.

Similarly, many politicians take the centre stage in humorous memes — which become a tool of social critique that is immune from censorship and hold the power to spread awareness. Hence, memes can play a part in larger issues concerning social justice and human rights.

Memes may not directly change the world but, nonetheless, they have a power of propaganda and critique, of raising concerns and shaping opinions on important issues. Therefore, the importance of memes cannot be undermined.

The writer is a member of the staff.
He tweets @WaqasAliRanjha

Published in Dawn, EOS, May 21st, 2023

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