Criticism

It Me

The trouble with memes

Marta Figlerowicz
Photo of a tweet using the "It me" meme formulation
Rachel Syme, Twitter, Oct. 5, 2015.

It me” appeared on Twitter in 2014, apparently coined by a user named Andrea Kats in a twist on James Franco’s texts with an underage fan. It rapidly became a popular way of signaling agreement and identification with other people’s tweets, photos, or found images. Today the phrase is part of our cultural vocabulary, firmly ensconced in urban dictionaries and casual diction. When used with an image or photo online, it quickly conveys a rapprochement that might otherwise need to be explained at length, but here achieves a telegraphic, kinetic clarity.

In these two words, “It me” also signals a rhetorical principle of meme culture so endemic and so intuitively understood that it is hardly necessary to spell out. Both the lack of a verb and the two pronouns are key. There is no verb because everything is stilled or looped. Most memes, especially visual ones, work through immediate, self-­objectifying identification—a nearly childlike, exuberant finger-­pointing.

“A unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation,” is how Richard Dawkins defined the term meme on his first use of it in The Selfish Gene (1976). Dawkins coined the term, an obvious portmanteau of gene and mimesis, to draw a parallel between the supposed “selfishness” of our genomes and of our cultures: while we might think of “selfishness” as an individual trait, he argued, both genetic tendencies and cultural trends gain their fullest expression on the level of large populations rather than individuals. And so any particular self serves merely as a temporary means by which a gene, or a meme, perfects itself and prolongs its survival.

Dawkins conceived this term broadly, as one that encompassed everything from miniskirts to images of saints and angels in Gothic churches. Though he could not have foreseen lolcats, it is to them and not to his chosen examples that “meme” owes its cultural survival and philosophical proof of concept. Like individual random mutations in evolutionary theory, any image or quip that becomes an internet meme begins as some particular user’s act of self-­expression. But if it is successful it evolves into a piece of cultural syntax, cycling through many people’s perspectives and becoming divorced from its original context. Soon that original context—or any other single iteration of the meme—matters little to its current or its fullest meaning. At its most interesting, a meme is a cloud of variants and reuses, coming alive in each reenactment but meaningful only when one thinks of the abstraction at its center. When we use a meme, we self-­identify with something that is both personified and rendered as other than a person, something at once more specific and more generalizable than a particular self. As people reconstitute themselves in memes, they often capture the id in motion: “It me” becomes “Id me.” This act of identification might paradoxically make us believe, for a moment, that we, too, under the right circumstances, could make our bodies give rise to an abstraction.

And it is here that the gene-­meme analogy starts to break down. As a meme’s circulation increases, it evolves—Dawkins concedes as much—but usually does so in apparently self-­conscious ways, growing ever more capacious and ironically reflexive. To take an example much in vogue in 2019–20: “distracted boyfriend” began as a stock image. Then it became a way of talking about distraction (and desire) in general. Then it became a way of talking about how we talk about distraction and desire.

An example of the distracted boyfriend meme
Antonio Guillem, Shutterstock.com.
An example of the distracted boyfriend meme, flipped
Antonio Guillem, Shutterstock.com.
An example of the distracted boyfriend meme in an alternate format
Antonio Guillem, Shutterstock.com.

When we consider the sly knowingness of such memes, a question arises: If we know that memes use our minds and bodies to perpetuate themselves to the point that we make jokes about it, why do we so readily allow them to do so? What intellectual or aesthetic pleasures do memes afford that might persuade us to keep co-­creating them, even though—more conspicuously than with genes—we have the means at our disposal to refuse to cooperate? What, finally, might it mean if the very thing that makes memes enchanting and liberating—the prospect of an ecstatic dissolution of the individual self into a grammar of gestures and images—were the very thing that made them dangerous?

memes may seem endemic to the digital age, emblematic of a twenty-­first-­century tendency to fragment and commodify our world. Yet the desire for self-­reflexive, lightning-­quick picture making that memes satisfy, and the dialectic between kinesthetic and visual identification that they tap into, long predates the internet. One can better understand meme culture by considering their striking similarities to a very old practice: pantomime. An art that simplified or even did away with language as a medium of expression, ancient Roman pantomime offers striking parallels to modern-­day meme culture, both in the uses to which it was put and the worries to which it gave rise. When imperial Roman authors worry about pantomime—or even when they praise it—they describe it as an experience very much like the one I associate with re-­creating and identifying with memes: a feeling at once of transcendence and degradation, of becoming more and less than one’s current self.

The analogy may seem historically distant, but conceptually it is hardly far-­fetched, and it may help us locate why memes both fascinate and repel us. More than their supposed vulgarity or addictiveness, I would argue, their promise of immediate, deeply embodied connection between ourselves and large cultural and affective abstractions gives modern-­day memes their ambivalent appeal.

The stillness into which the figures fall is the stillness of the dancer freezing into a memorable pose, becoming an inanimate, or less animate, version of the human, and also an abstraction of this particular human’s grief.

Today the word pantomime most readily evokes contexts other than imperial Rome. It makes one think of sixteenth-­century Italian commedia dell’arte or of the silver-­coated mimes who haunt European capitals’ downtown areas—or of the comic, not actually mute children’s Christmas plays of Drury Lane and the tragicomic pantomimes of Jean-­Philippe Rameau’s nephew, as imagined by Denis Diderot and analyzed by G. W. F. Hegel in The Phenomenology of Spirit. But it was in the Mediterranean during the first century ce that a new performative art form emerged; often centered on metamorphosis, it became known as pantomime, after the Greek for “imitating everything.” Under that term, this tradition of performance was theorized and metaphorized by ancient writers including Galen, Plutarch, Libanius, Lucian, Cassiodorus, Plotinus, and Ovid. In their reflections, pantomime became a locus for thought about the appeal as well as the dangers of vivid cultural generalizations.

Little is known about the origins of Roman pantomime. Several sources suggest that it came from the East, resembling in some aspects India’s tradition of Kathak, and was introduced into the Roman world around the first century ce by two Near Eastern Greek-­speaking performers, Pylades and Bathyllos. The aesthetic principles of Roman pantomime would seem to me to confirm its Middle Eastern or South Asian roots. Pantomime fuses an Aristotelian love of imitation with Sanskrit drama’s emphasis on tasteful emotional expression. The latter aesthetic style, centered on the concept of rasa (“juice,” “essence,” or “taste”), involved what the third-­century CE theoretician Bharata, in his Treatise on Drama, retroactively called the “savoring” of emotions rendered “stable” by their careful, dancelike stylization. Such extreme stylization defined ancient Roman pantomime as well; it was described by both its proponents and its detractors as a process of kinesthetic metamorphosis.

To a contemporary reader, pantomime can sound not unlike an ancient version of queer voguing, a combination of gender-­ and species-­bending movements and dramatically arrested poses. A pantomime involved musicians and occasional side actors, but it invariably centered on one principal, extremely versatile imitative dancer. “The same body represents Hercules and Venus, presents a woman in a man’s body, makes a king and a soldier,” writes the sixth-­century statesman and scholar Cassiodorus, with the result that “you think that in a single person there were many different people.” Seemingly aspiring to the condition of Proteus, such extraordinary performances could also—as the fourth-­century Greek sophist Libanius enthusiastically pronounced—reveal to us that the shape-­shifting Proteus was himself not a god but a superlative mortal dancer.

To get a sense of what these choreographed transformations looked and felt like, scholars of antiquity frequently turn to Ovid, whose Metamorphoses shares themes with Roman pantomime’s standard repertoire. Indeed, some scholars suspect that pantomimic performances directly inspired them. As the classicist Ismene Lada-­Richards puts it in a 2013 article for the Transactions of the American Philological Association, “What informs Ovid’s body-­centered poetic vision is the haunting materiality of the staged, dancing body.” In Ovid’s hands, pantomime is an imaginative mimetic activity that conjures up in its audience dreams of analogous and continued imitation. It makes the viewer feel as if she herself were changing into a plant, an animal, a god, or a person of the opposite gender.

Of Daphne, turned into laurel as she fled Apollo, Ovid says in the first book of the Metamorphoses:

Scarce had she thus prayed when a down-­dragging numbness seized her limbs, and her soft sides were begirt with thin bark. Her hair was changed to leaves, her arms to branches. Her feet, but now so swift, grew fast in sluggish roots, and her head was now but a tree’s top. Her gleaming beauty alone remained.

But even now in this new form Apollo loved her; and placing his hand upon the trunk, he felt the heart still fluttering beneath the bark. He embraced the branches as if human limbs, and pressed his lips upon the wood. But even the wood shrank from his kisses. [Trans. Frank Justus Miller]

The speaker’s eye, and our mind’s eye, moves from Daphne to Apollo and back again. Daphne becomes the poem’s still center against which Apollo must drape and adapt himself, expressing strength, resolve, despair, overwhelmedness, as she remains transfixed in a pose of rejection. Triangulated in this fashion, the feelings Ovid describes become ever more separate from any particular human or nonhuman embodiment; a tilt of the head, a crook in a branch, a muscular or a lithe body can all equally invoke them.

The swiftness, precision, and dexterity of Daphne’s and Apollo’s represented motions—the apparent ease and inevitability with which from a woman she turns into a tree, the dramatic flair with which Apollo kisses her new form—recall Libanius’s description of the ideal pantomime dancer’s near-­impossible training in strength and flexibility:

And when he has taken him on, the gymnastic trainer will twist him round into more numerous and more remarkable bends than a wrestler, bringing up both his feet over the back onto his head and in addition even forcing them back to project further past the face so that his heels approach his elbows. And when he has made the body into a circle, like some willow cane, he sets it in motion for running like a hoop, and it runs.… Hands and feet follow to whatever point of the rest of the body one brings them, just like, I imagine, the property of wax. [“Defence on Behalf of Dancers,” trans. Margaret E. Molloy]

The stillness into which the figures fall is the stillness of the dancer freezing into a memorable pose, becoming an inanimate, or less animate, version of the human, and also an abstraction of this particular human’s grief. “Outside my studio door, in my garden, is a tree that has always been a symbol of facing life, and in many ways it is a dancer,” writes Martha Graham in “I Am a Dancer,” comparing herself to it. Ovid seems to be making a similar discovery here, or, rather (perhaps), documenting it.

the thrill of associating oneself with a meme involves an analogous fascination. One recognizes oneself in a human body as it metamorphoses into something other than itself through a freeze-­frame or gesture. The latter is honed not by a particular person in relation to her or his individuality but by a collective of bodies that have not so much retold as redanced it.

I = x. This is my sophistication as Salt Bae sprinkling salt:

An example of the "salt bae" meme
Still from “Ottoman steak,” Nusret Gökçe, Instagram, Jan. 7, 2017. Tweet by @SheikhMyBody, Jan. 8, 2017.

My class status as a coffee order:

An example of a crying woman meme
© bowie15, 123rf.com.

Me “headed into Monday” as a corgi caught in mid-­flop:

A corgi leaps from a floating dock in pursuit of a tennis ball
Still from “Corgi Flop,” geddesd21, YouTube, Aug. 7, 2010.

These acts of identification are humorous, but, like the Roman pantomime, they also approach the ecstatic. They affirm some subjective (often irrationally subjective) feeling, while decoupling it from any specific social or psychological context. Though celebrities often feature in these images, identifying with themas celebrities is not the main point. When I post the famous “Hotline Bling” meme on Twitter, I do not see myself as Drake—not exactly—but as his frown, then his smile.

Stills from Drake's "Hotline Bling" often used as a meme
Stills from “Hotline Bling,” Drake, 2015.

to draw these parallels between an ancient genre and a digital one means acknowledging meme culture’s potential depths but also its intellectual dangers. Memes and images of mythical metamorphosis, and the uses they inspire, share a deeply ambivalent relationship to complexity and intellectual depth. This ambivalence stems in both cases from their practices of radical foreshortening and simplification. Memes and dancelike metamorphoses can seem infinitely complicated in their collective, insubstantial existence or in the inhuman, even godlike abstractness to which they raise everyday objects, random images, and contexts. But they also pander to our dream of encapsulating the whole of reality in a single, catchy emblem. Do these modes of simplification ultimately express either genre’s conceptual power or its low intellectual ambitions? Are the meme and pantomime complicated collective creations or a community’s lowest common denominator?

Think, for example, of Pepe the Frog, adopted by the alt-­right as a normalizing, anonymizing mouthpiece for its ideas. Pepe’s viral success as an extremist meme became so great that the cartoon’s creator, Matt Furie, killed him off in a 2017 comic strip in symbolic protest. The virulence he embodies also dovetails with an argument expounded by the American culture critic Lauren Michele Jackson in Teen Vogue, and extended in her book White Negroes, about what she and others call “digital blackface.” Many memes and gifs used to express strong feelings, Jackson notes, use representations of Black people. These figures’ exaggerated expressions, and the enthusiasm with which white users deploy them, put one in mind of blackface minstrelsy and the racist tropes associated with it.

Pepe and digital blackface exemplify how memes can tap into and reproduce older styles and expressions of prejudice. They also make one wonder whether such meme-­based simplifications are nefarious because of their underlying ideology or because of the form and aesthetics of memes as a genre.

In its day and age, pantomime’s popularity among both the higher and the lower classes provoked intense discussion over its salubriousness. To some, pantomime seemed like a heightened form of mimesis that matched, or even exceeded, the powers of language. “Shall I call you ‘orator,’ or name you ‘painter of realism’?” Aristaenetus of Byzantium wrote in the sixth century of the pantomime dancer Panarete, suggesting that her art combined the best features of both these media. In an empire of many languages, pantomime also provided a shared, language-­free form of entertainment, one whose dependence on dancelike gestures and on a shared corpus of Greco-­Roman myths rendered it eminently portable across Rome’s many colonies. The Greco-­Roman writer Lucian admiringly cites an anecdote in which one of Nero’s guests, who does not speak Greek or Latin well, is charmed by the emperor’s pantomime dancer because his is the only form of expression the guest can understand.

Other admirers of pantomime saw it as testimony to humans’ capacity to master and transcend themselves. In the Enneads, one of Late Antiquity’s most important Neoplatonist texts, Plotinus invokes pantomime favorably to describe the soul’s capacity to steer the body.

The dancer’s mind is on his own purpose; his limbs are submissive to the dance-­movement which they accomplish to the end, so that the connoisseur can explain that this or that figure is the motive for the lifting, bending, concealment, effacing, of the various members of the body; and in all this the executant does not choose the particular motions for their own sake; the whole play of the entire person dictates the necessary position to each limb and member as it serves to the plan. [Trans. Stephen McKenna]

In a dialogue in defense of pantomime, Lucian has his mouthpiece, Lycinus, describe dance as the embodiment of the primeval harmonic movements of the universe: “Those historians of dancing who are the most veracious can tell you that Dance came into being contemporaneously with the primal origin of the universe, making her appearance together with Love—the love that is age-­old. In fact, the concord of the heavenly spheres…their rhythmic agreement and timed harmony, are proofs that Dance was primordial” (trans. A. M. Harmon).

Yet this optimistic, lofty view of pantomime could not shake a negative counterpart. For early Christian writers such as John Chrysostom, as well as for some pagan elites, the philosophy of the self proffered by the pantomime dancer is flattened and overgeneralized, reducing us to our most basic urges, even while making these urges seem frighteningly omnivorous. As Ismene Lada-­Richards puts it, paraphrasing such views, “[Pantomime] gives a name and a shape to that furthest outpost beyond which rhetoric degenerates into another kind of discourse, lowly theatricalized mimicry.… Multiple and metamorphic, unbridled and incontinent, ‘sinewless’ and ‘soft,’ broken’ and ‘fragmented,’ fluid, bending, sinuous, and luxuriously adorned,…his is the body that belongs to the degenerate, the lapsed orator.”

Like a well-­executed dance, memes can momentarily trick us into believing that they were made for us, and in our image, alone—“it me.” They satisfy our desire for abstraction as well as for effortless sprezzatura, making us feel protean but also eminently clear. As we identify with them, like a Roman audience entranced by a dancer, we might momentarily forget the difference between ourselves and the signifier of our self-­expression. But we are also constantly reminded that the cost of such self-­forgetfulness is radical simplicity. Like Ovid’s characters, we can only metamorphose into something less complex and shape-­shifting than ourselves: a tree, a flower, an animal, one of the two (or more) initially available genders. Troublingly, memes also reveal to us what scenarios, perspectives, and identities we perceive as such simplifications of ourselves, and what implicit hierarchy of being we think we belong to. To see a tree, or a dog, or a gesture as a version of oneself less restrained by complexity is one thing; to see a person or a category of person as such a simplification, in the ways that Jackson identified, is another. Is the dream of simplicity and directness itself the problem or the means by which we claim to achieve it? Ultimately, the question raised both by pantomime and by memes concerns the ethics and epistemic reliability not of metaphor, as the title Metamorphoses might at first suggest, but of metonymy.

Marta Figlerowicz is an Associate Professor of Comparative Literature and English at Yale University. She is the author of Flat Protagonists and Spaces of Feeling.
Originally published:
May 19, 2021

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