Natalia Stanusch, John Cabot University
At their core, memes are provokers of laughter. You like or share a meme because it made you lol (regardless as to whether it was real laugh out loud or just a fleeting endorphin rush). Before you continue scrolling down, a meme makes you pause for a moment; it makes you laugh at the cuteness in a cat photo, the absurdity of a political promise, or the hopelessness of another lockdown. By using laughter, memes have the power to destabilize and deconstruct the human condition. In their use of laughter, memes share an affinity with the spirit of the Dada art movement. In this blogpost, I would like to compare the laughter memes produce to the laughter of Dada. I will not dive into all the complexities of Dada, but rather focus on using Dada as a point of comparison for talking about how the formal characteristics of memes direct the way we laugh at them.
Dada was an avant-garde movement born out of the turmoil of the First World War that often took the form of cultural re-appropriation: using symbols and expressions taken from mainstream culture in a way that disrupted the semiotic circuit. It was mischievous, wry, and provocative. Built upon a distrust of modernity, Dada was cynical about political and cultural norms of respectability. In its deep self-consciousness, it was even skeptical of its own modernity.
There have been several attempts to analyze Dada’s use of humor and how Dadaists practiced laughter in their art. One of the most useful of such attempts was made by art historian Daffyd W. Jones in his book Dada 1916 in Theory (2014), which looks at the role of “Dada laughter” in Dada formation. Jones characterizes the laughter produced by Dada as reveling in the absurd, both destructive of modern values and critical of this same destruction. It was cynical, unconstrained, expressive, and ambiguous. Jones’ “Dada laughter” can help us understand the hilarity and subversive potential of memes by breaking his idea down into three types of laughter that I will argue characterise meme laughter: 1) mocking and pointing; 2) laughter as weapon, and 3) laughter as process and not the goal.
Meaning Goes Everywhere: Visual Deterritorialization in Dada and Memes
Both memes and Dada rely on deterritorialization of meaning to create laughter, so let’s take a look at the deterritorialization of meaning as a concept and how it applies to both Dada and memes.
Deterritorialization implies an action of movement, of hijacking a cultural text and displacing it. For this analysis, a particularly useful characteristic of deterritorialization is that it is not only about displacing a cultural text, but also forcing it to enter a new field of relations. Rather than taking any cultural object away from its original context, deterritorialization implies a more emphatically deliberate attempt to force relations, for example, by making an image interact with a new constellation of imagery.
Following the theme of imagery, let’s have a look at Dada collage as a kaleidoscope of visual deterritorialization. Dada collage incorporates mass media texts and alters their meaning by mixing them with other texts. It exploits the cultural production of the industrialized media, stealing from advertisements, newspapers, photography. Let’s start with a visual example, such as Hanna Höch’s Cut with the Kitchen Knife through the Last Epoch of Weimar Beer-Belly Culture in Germany (1919).
The core of this work is a juxtaposition of image (mostly printed photographs) and texts (either as single words or phrases in print). Both the photographs and texts are quite literally cut-out from their original contexts and are forced into new relations on this seemingly chaotic plane. But the image is not accidental. Its structure provides a clear hierarchy of sizes and a compositional rhythm. It is capable of encompassing the collision of photomontage and collage, political criticism and cultural commentary, cynical laughter, and disjoined attack. The meaning seems stuck within itself, unable to escape, left partially undefined and unresolved, as if waiting for the viewer to act upon its unleashed potential.
A helpful way of understanding the force of Dada collage is to think of the background or pictorial field as an open space upon which the artist can place disparate, dissonant, and diverse images. It is a field of play in which images whimsically collude and collide, reinforce and deconstruct each other without challenging the viewer to decipher any specific, predetermined interpretation.
While the interpretive possibilities of a Dada collage may be rich and multiple, the collage itself is a fixed object, a finished work, in contrast to the digital meme which is always in flux, always in the process of morphing into something else. In Dada collage, there is no possible further expansion of the object after it is declared a finished artwork. Dada collage involves an open-ended form that results in the production of a closed-circuit object.
While memes are temporally free and constantly mutating, they are spatially highly constricted by the size of the screen on which the viewer encounters them. Therefore, it is not surprising that the collision and collusions of memes are often sequential rather than spatial. Only a few images can be legibly placed on the screen at one time, but images can be inserted into a virtually infinite sequence of images. That is why memes are relatively compact in their form. Compared to Dada collage, meme forms are deliberately simple; there is usually only one-image-one-text relation or juxtaposition required for a meme to signify. The content and form become one unit of meaning. This simplicity is crucial, for memes’ punch has to be quick to grasp: a meme has to handily allude to a genre of memes it belongs to among the flux of scrolling and refreshing of feeds to make you ‘haha.’
As opposed to Dadaist photo-collage, memes are opened-ended. Memes are inherently transitory, manipulable, and transformable. Hito Steyerl calls the phenomenon of remixing and sharing “circulationism,” meaning “not the art of making an image, but of postproducing, launching, and accelerating it.” The modification of content is not limited by anything, making memes potentially powerful psychologically and socially. When a meme is born, nobody is safe.
1. Laughing as Mocking and Pointing
The laughter of Dada oscillates between hilarity and disgust, or at least confusion. As Jones notes, Dada laughter nudges; it points, it mocks, and even surpasses its mocking target, remaining untamed by the circumstances in which it occurred laugher (181). Dada laughter was prescribed in Dada’s recipe for the production of texts, images, and performances. To remain in the realm of visual examples, let’s see how Dada laughter is present through mocking and pointing in Marcel Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q (1919).
L.H.O.O.Q is a postcard reproduction of Mona Lisa upon which Duchamp added mustache, beard, and a pun title ‘L.H.O.O.Q,’ which, in French, phonetically can be understood as “She has a hot bottom.” The text-image relation is central for the pun to make sense, but is not explicit. The deterritorialization clearly occurs, but its intended readings remain ambiguous. It is left up to the viewer to decipher the pun and to wonder about the target of the laugh: is it Mona Lisa, commodified art, the institution of museum, modern artists, or the museumgoers themselves?
While Dada laughter mocks all it approaches, memes tend to be more direct in their pointing and nudging. The example of an art-meme below is a twist on an iconic painting from the period of Romanticism. The laugh is directed at the grandeur of art canon, but, more significantly, it is the used/viewer who is supposed to relate to the situation proposed by image-text juxtaposition. The laughter occurs within a very definitive, simple, and ‘personal’ situation. However, both in Dada laughter and meme laughter, the viewer/user is invited to laugh along. In both Dada and meme laughter, the core of the laugh is to mock, but also to make the viewer/user participate in the mocking.
2. Laughter as a Weapon
Dada laughter is both aggressive and ambivalent, both obtrusive and nuanced. With its roots in the First World War, Dada’s aggression was sparked by the resistance to the widespread violence of the war. This did not, however, stop the Dadaists from embracing military-like tactics or from searching to attack the mainstream culture, politics, and society at large. This attack was as much an offense as a defense against the terrors and disturbances of the early twentieth century, both in terms of war and mass industrialization. In her book, Dada Bodies: Between Battlefield and Fairground (2019), Elza Adamowicz argues that laughter was “a survival strategy” for the Dadaists, and that “through laughter – a harsh mix of derision, scepticism and vitality – the Dadaists freed themselves from the despair of war, and their collective actions were acts of defiance, forms of self-defensive regression against the insanity of war” (32). From this point of view, Dada laughter is a crisis laughter: laughter that can function as a weapon and a shield.
While memes are not necessarily intrinsically aggressive, they do often share their ‘crisis factor’ with Dada laughter. “Crisis memes,” a term used by Sean Rintel in his 2013 article, have a social role in providing the public with a “voice” in crisis situations. But it is their laughter which provides the ‘public’ with more than just a voice or expression; it is the laughter which maintains a sense of common engagement in anxiety and uneasiness. The laughter of memes which relate to the COVID-19 pandemic relies heavily on satirical humor, or a ‘laughter through tears.’ The memes of lockdown are silly, nihilistic, absurd, and pointless. They tend at once towards hyperbole denigration in their engagement with the global/personal situation at stake. They provide a shield and a weapon of laughter against the reality which is at once too delusive and too dreadful to grasp.
3. Laughter as the Process-not-the-goal
But what if Dada laughter was laughter for laughter’s sake? Jones suggests that in Dada laughter there was little to no attention to any measure of success or a sensation of a goal-to-be-achieved. Rather, Dada laughter was a form of critical and cynical engagement with modernity. This engagement was performed both on the side of Dadaists (through their actions) and on the side of any (voluntary of not) participants which represented the ‘society.’ Dada was embracing a set of tactics of deterritorialization, but instead of attempting to seize or usurp any ‘space,’ they burst out laughing. By ‘space’, I am referring to the concept of cultural and political space, understood as the site where meaning production takes place. Dada laughter, in this understanding, functions outside of any fixed set of rules and instead moves freely for the sake of movement, or rather, for the sake of stirring within the space it was made to exist.
Does meme laughter move as freely as Dada laughter? In her book on memes, Limor Shifman makes a parallel between memes and a ritual model of communication introduced by a classic essay of James Carey, A Cultural Approach to Communications (1989). Shifman proposes that memes follow the same logic as ritual communications. Ritual communication provides an environment of shared space for meaning production. Rather than the direct transmission of a message as a fixed unit of information with a set starting and arrival point, the ritual model of communication implies that meaning is negotiated within community and the result of an individual and communal mediation. The laughter of memes is also negotiated within a common ‘space.’ While each meme laughs at a defective situation (political or personal), it can be renegotiated as it moves freely in the space of continuous deterritorialization.
Memes: the Ha Ha of Dada?
The answer to mass anxiety is often humor. This was part of Dada’s nihilist reaction to the Great War, to answer trenches and tear gas with dark, subversive hilarity. The Internet Age’s closest analogy to Dada art is the meme. The last twelve months offered an abundancy of anxious and disturbing events, which were swiftly translated into memes. Through the analysis of ‘meme laughter’ we can better understand how memes work. In terms of both its origins and functions, it is possible to see ‘meme laughter’ as a not-so-distant cognate of Dada laughter. Absurd, cynical, and aggressive laughter is achieved in both memes and Dada through the deterritorialization of meaning. In our reading of memes we should be open for further questioning and laughing.
Adamowicz, Elza. Dada Bodies: Between Battlefield and Fairground. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2019.
Carey, James. “A Cultural Approach to Communication.” Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989. http://web.mit.edu/21l.432/www/readings/Carey_CulturalApproachCommunication.pdf
Jones, Dafydd W. Dada 1916 in Theory: Practices of Critical Resistance. Liverpool University Press, 2014. http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt18mbcnc.
Rintel, Sean. “Crisis Memes: The Importance of Templatability to Internet Culture and Freedom of Expression.” Australasian Journal of Popular Culture 2 (2)2013: 253-271. DOI: 10.1386/ajpc.2.2.253_1.
Shifman, Limor. Memes in Digital Culture. MIT, 2014.
Steyerl, Hito. “Too Much World: Is the Internet Dead?” e-Flux, (49)2013. https://www.e-flux.com/journal/49/60004/too-much-world-is-the-internet-dead/.