In the digital age its becoming of becoming of greater importance to understand the idea of “meme” — a unit of cultural information.
The concept has been neatly expressed in Henry Jenkins’s white paper, If It Doesn’t Spread, It’s Dead. On his blog, Henry briefly explains the history behind the idea of memes and its confusion with the buzzword “viral”:
Talking about memes and viral media places an emphasis on the replication of the original idea, which fails to consider the everyday reality of communication — that ideas get transformed, repurposed, or distorted as they pass from hand to hand, a process which has been accelerated as we move into network culture. ( HenryJenkins.org )
The appropriation of images today is one of the essential techniques of contemporary art. The recent discovery of Ion Barladeanu, the Romanian artist who constructed subversive pastiches out of magazines he found on the street during the Ceausescu regime is a case of the artist’s work surviving into the times that can understand them. Almost all the well known American artists of the present use the technique of re-appropriating pre-existing images.
Richard Prince and Jeff Koons are noteworthy for their cut and paste takes on American iconography and porno. These transformations often do not require radical reorganization of the material. Hank Willis Thomas takes ads targeted at African-Americans during the 1970′s and removes the products from them; the effect is oddly moving. Without the soda pop or cigarettes perhaps its normal these people seem so happy. The pleasure in reorganizing images is not new; shifting arrays of contradictory images recalls the work of Maxfield Parrish’s whose work with pastiche techniques defied categorization since he was part of no traditional movement or school. He achieved unique three dimensional appearance glazing techniques enhanced by building up depth in his paintings by photographing, enlarging, projecting and tracing half- or full-size objects or figures.
Parrish then cut out and placed the images on his canvas, covering them with thick, but clear, layers of glaze. It was a cut and paste method that in turn, may have had its origins in Victorian photocollage. That is, radical social critique may may have been predicated by the parlour activities of Victorian ladies. Though these collages were made in a world far removed from our own sensibility and time, Victorian photocollage fits perfectly into the age of the internet, to which the comparison of the web as a vast and expanding work of bricolage is not without justification.
”Parrish devised many innovative techniques which no other major artist has successfully copied. A technique which Parrish used frequently involved creating a large piece of cloth with a geometric pattern in stark black-and-white (such as alternate black and white squares, or a regular pattern of black circles on a white background). A human model (often Parrish himself) would then pose for a photograph with this cloth draped naturally on his or her body in a manner whic
So, its not surprising that the most popular parlour art of our time also involves mash-ups of one form or another. YouTube, Daily Motion and several others are merely refinements of the Victorian and other early experiments such as Picasso, Parrish and Georges Braque; the expansion of the pleasure of photocollage and expands it into the world of video and its popularity reveals how pleasurable the power of reorganization can be.
”i’ll be honest, when it comes to most things victorian, i’m usually not the most enthusiastic girl on the block. i think i’m missing that gene that makes me love victorian art, jane austen adaptations, and anything horse/riding related. but man am i glad that amy suggested we go. from the moment i walked in i was completely glued to the walls, staring at each of these amazing little collages….when i think of victorian women, my rather limited knowledge of the era makes me think of stuffy ladies in corsets sitting around sipping tea. but this show taught me that not only were the doing more than sipping tea, they were spending their time creating amazing photocollage albums that combined cut photographs of their families with whimsical illustrations and watercolors of landscapes and household objects.” ( designspongeonline.com)
There is a certain craving for control over images; there are too many of them, its overwhelming and there is a need to personalize them and appropriate them in order to identify with them in our own manner. The parodies of the German film ”Downfall” is a great example, in that they brilliantly contrast the silliness of everyday life with the fall of the Nazis; a joke on the superficiality of our own time and a means of weakening or amplifying the power of images through humor and altered context.
Oliver Hirschbiegel,the director of ”Downfall” has reacted to the parody productions of his work, positively. the Vulture section of New York Magazine Online reported that Hirschbiegel approves and supports these mashups of his film:
As for the idea of such a serious scene being used for laughs, Hirschbiegel thinks it actually fits with the theme of the movie. “The point of the film was to kick these terrible people off the throne that made them demons, making them real and their actions into reality,” he says. “I think it’s only fair if now it’s taken as part of our history, and used for whatever purposes people like.” He adds, “If only I got royalties for it, then I’d be even happier.”
These reactions from the director seem to go against the actions that his film company have taken in having videos removed from YouTube, but it’s a particularly interesting relationship of producer-consumer that is particularly heightened because of the ease of access to video editing and sharing hubs online.
”The confusion behind comprehension of Internet memes tends to be that they belong to an informational subculture of digital (mostly) youth inhabiting spaces such as 4chan (an anonymous imageboard) and Something Awful (a popular forum). Unlike some subcultures in which participation is through the association of fashion or philosophy (eg., goth subculture), this online subculture thrives in information appropriation, management, and consumption. It is, basically, a media subculture. And in consuming an infinite amount of media, authenticity in the subculture amounts to recognizing references made to these multiple films, games, music, celebrities, etc.”
As a subculture, it makes sense that an outsider will not be able to understand references made within the subculture. Its difficult to blame people for ”not getting it” with the Hitler Meme. They were never part of the process of assimilation/acculturation that produced the variant, and a negative reaction is not unexpected and perhaps even welcome. For the critics, the humor simply doesn’t work,as a structural issue there is an emotional rub; but it thrives as a subculture since it subverts a taboo. In this case, The Hitler Meme particularly makes immediately association with the meme a bit of a sticky wicket, since it deals with potentially objectionable and obscene material, unlike say Twilight or Star Trek where poor or mediocre work is simply repaid with a trashing in mashup form. Obviously, it is unlikely Holocaust survivors would find these Hitler parodies funny in the least, or even whether lower level Goebbels and Eichmann’s could be seduced into Falstaff like mirth.Would hannah Arendt call these memes a ”banality of evil”? Before a memetic video titled “Hitler’s Ultimate Downfall” was removed from YouTube, it was initially blocked in Germany and Poland, among a few other countries, according to YouTomb.
Professor Christian Fuchs writes of his viewing: probably another influence here is that my cultural background is the german-speaking world, so i tend to view all media content related to the nazis with great care. But as with most Internet memes, especially since they promote humorous situations, the association of the new meaning connoted by the meme tends to be displaced from the original meaning of the appropriated media. In his close reading of the video, Fuchs writes:
The video is making two false analogies. The Nazis would today probably support Internet censorship, Internet surveillance, etc. And actual Nazi groups are trying to use the Internet for their own propaganda, but most of these sites work in a traditional way without much employment of “social media” and “web 2.0″. One can argue if this video is funny or distasteful – these are unnecessary moral discussions, but one thing is for sure: the clip is unintelligent. Yet Fuchs has glowing and well thought out praise for Inglorious Basterds which applied memesis, incongruity, and collage in a similar manner that showed Tarantino’s own fanatical pleasure in pastiche and reorganizing images:
”But there is one element that for the first time becomes Tarantino’s central element and that is the absolute strength of this film: politics, anti-fascist politics to be exact. The combination of absolute bestiality, charm, politeness, opportunism, and educatedness in the form of the figure of Nazi colonel Hans Landa, whom they call the Jew Hunter and who is played by Christoph Waltz in such an impressive manner that might well bring him an Oscar (see for example the very first scene in the movie that shows the rationality of irrationality typically for the Nazis), poses the negative pole of this film.”
However,Jeremy Hunsinger at Virginia Tech points out that a close reading is the wrong approach, and retorts:
The clip has nothing to do with Nazi’s or evil or censorship. The meme is playing purely off the emotional portrayals. … It is the reproduction and reconstruction of those meanings in relation to the emotions that make this work. … As I indicated, some people might not be ideal for this meme, audiences differ. However, if you are going to read the meme, you should try to do it justice within its own genre, that is my basic argument.