Memes: Borderless, unbridled, and enthusiastically chaotic

By Corinne Laporte (School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies, University of Ottawa)

Politics is a laughing matter. Humour is at the centre of any given society, simply as a cultural reference, as critique, or sometimes even as both. Humour can also make sense of democracy today. As one proment collection about humour argues, “humor is deployed across various cultures to evoke emotions of anger, fear, despair, or a sense of the uncertain, as well as hope and solidarity.”[1] Humour can be “constituted in political anxiety, aggression, power and gender identity, but also as it becomes a tool to resist, repair, reconcile or make a moral claim.”[2]

As central as humour is, however, in-depth analysis of practices of laughter and, especially, politically driven laughter are rare.[3] The most prominent academic papers discussing political humour often look at humour’s effects on electoral behaviour or people’s emotions towards one politician over another (e.g., Holbert et al. 2011; Robert and Wilbanks 2012; Jones 2013). There is even less research that focuses on specifically Canadian topics or issues. The strong Anglo-Saxon cultural hegemony emanating from the United States through the mass production of digital and visual material overwhelms and pushes anglo-Canadian visual culture out of the spotlight. It is difficult to find articles pertaining to satirical humour that don’t mention The Daily Show, The Colbert Report or Saturday Night Live, all American-centric television shows.

While literature on memes in general is scarce, finding academic research that addresses memes in a context other than the US is like discovering a unicorn. This is why the Great Canadian Encyclopedia of Political Memes is not only important but vital: who are the Canadians who use memes? What issues spark their attention? Where do they discuss them and how? Additionally, do memes made by Canadians have the same resonance? Do they use Canadian content? What kinds of content? These questions form the foundation on which this encyclopedia hopes to build.

Unbridled Constellations of Expression

Memes, defined by Limor Shifman (2014) are “groups of items sharing common characteristics of content, form and/or stance, which were created, transformed and circulated by many participants through digital participatory platforms”; a meme is to social media what a caricature once was to the satirical press. Meme theorist Ryan Milner (2016) adds that, when it comes to politics, meme culture is a combination of pop culture and politics, a site where social and political issues are negotiated and debated.

In meme culture, participants make statements through multimodal grammar by assembling those statements from what came before. Reappropriation is therefore essential to memetic grammar as “multimodality,”[4] because images and videos require certain transformative social processes to become a meme. Indeed, participatory media requires extensive engagement, and a set of “messy interrelationships”[5] to have what it takes to become what we now commonly refer to as a meme.

Meme require its users to be versed in popular culture and a plethora of references. While this may be new to digital media, these practices closely resembles that of the bricoleur, a figure introduced by Claude Lévi-Strauss in 1962. Lévi-Strauss argues that bricolage is at the center of folk cultures, wherein oral traditions of storytelling are embedded. A bricoleur, Lévi-Strauss argues, is a participant in the culture “who works with his hands and uses devious means” and who produces “from within ecologies he does not control, with means he doesn’t own.”[6] When bricoleurs contribute to culture, they do so by “making do” with whatever’s at hand.

The bricoleur’s tools are “finite and heterogeneous” for they do not belong to the bricoleur, but merely compose a multimodal aesthetic event or, in this case, a meme. “Bricolage and poaching[7]—the social processes that guide these multimodal texts—demonstrate the inadequacy of an emphasis on imitation in memetics. At the least, they force us to acknowledge that imitation is only the beginning of reappropriation.”[8] Ergo, memes are pre-generic.[9] That is to say, they are made from material originating from popular culture to make them both easy to recognize and easy to reuse.

Meme’s meaning draws together multiple interpretations as well as sources. Memes enable the participation of many voices in the midst of persistent inequality and everyday antagonisms.[10] Milner uses a similar theorization for the multiplicity of voices. Be it “collectivism” or a “constellations of individual expression,”[11] he stresses the same community-led political expression, one through which the exposition of narratives different from one’s personal experience reinforces the collective affect of solidarity. In doing so, Milner highlights a simple fact: “Memetic logics . . . are at their best and most vibrant when they facilitate open, polyvocal public conversation. The conversational dimensions of citizenship are crucial; civil life is nothing without civil talk.”[12]

Simply put, memetic logics (e.g., grammar, lexicon, etc.) not only faciliate polyvocality, but also offer a populist structure where “participation intertwines with popular culture—as more and more people lend their voices to conversations about structural inequalities, about gaps in opportunity, about the haves and have nots—polyvocal public commentary can flourish.”[13] These vibrant collectives foster extensive communities and polyvocal debate from multiple nuanced perspectives. Images do not only represent perspectives, they have also “spawned intricate text-based discussion on the arguments they presented.”[14] As such, the spread of polyvocal assertions through image and video memes inspires complex public conversation and critique.

Chaotic Participation

Memes—by  mashing all experiences that are progressive together—create “collective ambiances.” Stephen Duncombe (2007) speaks to the smoothness of commercialism and situates the ethical spectacle as an “opposition to the spectacles of commercialism and fascism, whereas the public in an ethical spectacle is not considered a stage prop, but a co-producer and co-director.”[15] Because an ethical spectacle demands that the consumer participates, it goes hand in hand with humour which, more than any other form of communication, also requires participation in order for the joke to “create the message by providing its incomplete negation.”

As such, jokes create a sort of interdependency. Not only do memes have the capacity to create the “collective ambiances ” Duncombe references, which “encourage[d] participants to break out of the soporific routine of the society of the spectacle and participate in the situation unfolding around them,”[16] but they also define the “framework though which to engage not only with boredom per se but with a wider range of interconnected sociocultural phenomena that we all experience and are unable to ignore.”[17]

In fostering a space through which citizens can engage with one another and which insists on popular participation, memes become the ethical spectacle where citizens act in “both the production and the consumption of the spectacle.” As such, we as mememakers and consumers can transform a political and aesthetic form used to control—i.e., social and new media—and channel popular desire into one that can express it.”[18] The merged political aesthetic further reinforces the essentiality of polyphony, defined as an “evocation of multiple, independently-signifying voices in the text rupture and dislocate the seamless whole of a monologically-posited world of objects, events and consciousnesses.”[19]

The political aesthetic is most efficient when set alongside polyphony. This is best exemplified by Bakhtin, who calls for “participatory thinking and acting in opposition to indifference.” The philosopher presses for change and movement over inertia, and “invites us to contest received truths instead of resigning ourselves to hidebound ideologies” (2017: 165) and he argues that genuine understanding of one another involves an “emotional-volitional” and embodied engagement with the world rather than “affective neutrality.” Bakhtin calls this practice—or the idealization of it—“the great dialogue.”

Bakhtin’s understanding of polyphony evokes a multiplicity of voices coming together from different fronts in the interest of breaking through the bounds of societal “boredom.” In writing about polyphony, Bakhtin argues for an aesthetic that compels the mind to discern the radical separation that binds the self and the Other (i.e. Duncombe 2007; Milner 2016; Shulman 2013; Pearce and al 2014). Similarly, Stephen Duncombe also calls for this great dialogue in 2007. Despite the differences of discipline and era, both Bakhtin and Duncombe argue that progressive politics must, above all, foster a multiplicity of voices.

Borderless Otherness

According to Roland Barthes, the resonance of images is divided between the studium and the punctum: “the studium is connection with an image at a cultural level; it’s a socially coded appreciation. The punctum is a connection with an image at a personal level; it’s what Barthes describes as a ‘pierce’, a ‘prick’, or a ‘mark’ emanating from some distinct detail of an image that hits the person viewing it.”[20] The recognition of the Other’s struggles does not come at the price of personal sacrifice but opens the door to “political options previously not considered,” it “opens up new possibilities,” such as the opportunity to walk, albeit virtually, in another’s shoes which expands the potential for understandings and alliances markedly different than those now manifested in typical progressives “coalitions.”[21]

Furthermore, Duncombe argues that homogeneity makes for a “smoother” spectacle, wherein one can count on certain actions being understood and meanings shared. It is an easy brand to package and sell. Ethical spectacles demand something different: a commitment to plurality and contingency, and thus a bit of necessary messiness.[22] In creating spaces where members can discuss their experienced struggles without fear of retaliation for shedding light on an issue which may not be well known to others, a community is built. This community becomes the embodiment of solidarity among people and demands to go further than identity politics, and “this identification with the Other is not the banal ‘respecting difference’ of the multiculturalists: it entails embracing difference. It means transforming a distant object into an intimate object.”[23]

In giving everyone an equal voice, these groups foster environments where the struggles of people who may be erased from homogenic culture can be addressed while creating communal bonds that break out of the molds of the opaque spectacle of commercialism and fascism. Bordeless, unbridled, and enthusiastically chaotic, the ethical spectacle reveals its own workings, whereas most spectacle strives for seamlessness and smoothness. Indeed, “most spectacle employs illusion in the pretence of portraying reality; ethical spectacle demonstrates the reality of its own illusions.”[24]

Through the memefication of our lives, we have opened the door to new forms of satirical critique, which “lends to radical and innovative art that is subversive both at the level of its aesthetic form.”[25] In short, memes have not rendered our lives chaotic but more diverse and open to new narratives. The sensibilities developed through the reappropriation of cultural material create a mess of narratives that, once internalized, acknowledge the diversity of experiences and lives and thus serves to reinforce one’s political leanings toward justice. The aesthetic dive, alongside the emotional and affective resonance and the popular references, calls upon portions of one’s identity that may differ from one person to another but that—in all cases—creates the boundless and bordeless magic that is the meme.

In becoming the tool of the postmodern, or digital, bricoleur, memetic discourse has flourished on social and new media and manifests itself routinely nowadays, rendering performative citizenship an intrinsic part of one’s daily life. “With globalization, the compassionate person’s efforts to make his world more moral extend ever more readily across social and political boundaries, embarking on what have been called ‘borderless’ acts of compassion.”[26]


Ahmed, Sara. 2004. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. 1st ed. New York: Taylor and Francis.

Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The promise of happiness. Duke University Press.

Ahmed, Sara, Lauren Berlant, Melissa Gregg, Brian Massumi, Elspeth Probyn, and Gregory J. Seigworth. 2010. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham: Duke University Press.

Boyer, Dominic. 2013. “Simply the Best: Parody and Political Sincerity in Iceland.” American Ethnologist 40(2):276–87.

Boyer, Dominic and Alexei Yurchak. 2010. “American Stiob: Or, What Late-Socialist Aesthetics of Parody Reveal about Contemporary Political.” Cultural Anthropology 25(2):179–221.

Duncombe, Stephen. 2007. Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy. New Press.

Gardiner, Michael. 2017. Bakhtin, Boredom, and the ‘Democratization of Skepticism’. The European Legacy 22(2): 163-184

Knight, Charles. A. 2004. The literature of satire. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press

Kuah-Pearce and al. 2014. Social suffering and the culture of compassion in a morally divided China

Milner, Ryan. 2016. The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media. MIT Press.

Petrovic, Tanja. 2018. “Political Parody and the Politics of Ambivalence.” Annual Reviews of Anthropology 47:201–16.

Rehak, Jana Kopelent and Susanna Trnka. 2018. The Politics of Joking: Anthropological Engagements. Routledge.

Shifman, Limor. 2014. Memes in Digital Culture. 1st ed. Massachusets Technology Institute: The MIT Press.

[1] Rehak, Jana Kopelent and Susanna Trnka. 2018. The Politics of Joking: Anthropological Engagements, p. 2

[2] Emphasis added.

[3] Rehak and Trnka, p. 3

[4] Ibid., 65

[5] Ibid., 3

[6] Lévi-Strauss (1962) 1966. The Savage Mind

[7] Note: The poacher (similar term coined by Michel de Certeau in 1984, wherein poachers take from cultural systems that do not belong to them) (see Milner 2016: 60)

[8] Milner, Ryan. 2016. The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media, p.60

[9] Knight, 2004. The literature of Satire.

[10] Ibid., 6

[11] Ibid., 35

[12] Milner, 155

[13] Ibid., 157

[14] Ibid., 182

[15] Duncombe, Stephen. 2007. Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, p. 127

[16] Duncombe, 130

[17] Gardiner, Michael. 2017. Bakhtin, Boredom, and the ‘Democratization of Skepticism’, p. 166

[18] Duncombe, 133

[19] Ibid.

[20] Barthes (1980) cited in Milner, Ryan. 2016. The World Made Meme: Public Conversations and Participatory Media, 30.

[21] Duncombe, 58

[22] Duncombe, 141

[23] Duncombe, 59

[24] Duncombe, 151

[25] Shulman, 2013. Memes in Digital Culture, p. 12.

[26] Kuah-Pearce & al., Social suffering and the culture of compassion, p. 6