Marcel Danesi discusses his book on memes and pop culture

Cover Memes and the Future of Pop Culture

Interview by Leila Mzali

Leila Mzali: How did you initially become interested in the study of youth and pop culture? How did you realize that memes, while perhaps often dismissed as trivial, were a rich area of research?

Marcel Danesi: I have been teaching pop culture for over two decades. As a young person, I was a musician who played in all kinds of bands. I developed a “feel” for pop music, relating it to my classical training. From this, I became intellectually interested in pop culture as it is based on musical trends. In the last decade I became aware that trends no longer emerge and spread through the traditional channels and media, but that they start as meme fragments online and then migrate and grow into full-fledged movements, which, however, given the nature of cyberspace, often dissipate quickly. So, a “mainstream” musical trend may evolve out of a meme, but it tends to be short lived. The technology has changed the way pop culture is evolving.

Leila Mzali: You touch briefly on Carr’s research on the affects of technology on our brains. Some of the most notable adverse effects you described include shortened attention spans, and reduced recall. While this research is alarming, do you believe that there is anything that we stand to gain through immediate access to information? Specifically, is there anything beneficial to the ephemeral nature of meme exchange?

Marcel Danesi: Yes there is. We can access information quickly and broadly without having to go search for it physically in real space. This allows us to use more information than ever before. Te problem is that it is difficult to extract from the information meaning and relevance. And it seems that we are becoming more and more addicted to information for its own sake. This means that without a meaning-making template to assess it, the information quickly goes from memory, and this mindset may be spreading to other forms of human cognition.

Leila Mzali: You discuss a few examples of violence that were directly or indirectly linked to the Slenderman meme that rose to popularity in the 2010s.  How does this example of media’s potential impact on our brains and behavior differ from other historic examples of pop culture inciting violence (ex: Surrealist art and the Black Dahlia murders)?  In the context of Baudrillard’s hyperrealism, what do you think it is about meme culture that has arguably launched this phenomenon into overdrive?

Marcel Danesi: This is a great question for which there is no answers–since an answer can only come from a retrospective point of view. We are living in hyperreality right now, guided by technology. This likely means that what happens on a screen, such as a video game, is directive of how we perceive actions and then how we behave accordingly. We have gone through the “looking glass,” to use Lewis Carroll’s metaphor. And what is on the other side is more alluring than real life, which is chaotic, boring, and much more dangerous physically.

Leila Mzali: You note that meme culture allows for amplified access to a ‘Global Village’ and obsolesces national boundaries.  Taking into account the participatory nature of meme culture, is there a regional or national society that you find interacts with meme culture in particularly noteworthy or interesting ways?

Marcel Danesi: I am not sure. Memes that are translated soon seem to lose their value or impact. This includes interpreting images, which are subject to cultural coding.

Leila Mzali: You ultimately conclude that meme culture may be an organic and precedented transitional phase of pop culture, according to McLuhan’s media laws. As a scholar who has devoted much attention to pop culture, do you think that we stand to lose something grave by transitioning out of elements of pop culture into new elements meme culture? Considering the typically unintended consequences of reversal and obsolesce that accompanies these transitional phases of media, would you say that there is a public plea or call to action in your work?

Marcel Danesi: I do. Pop culture, as such, and as different from folk culture is a modern experiment. Ironically, it became possible to have a mass pop culture because of early technologies (recording, radio, and so on). It is now technology that may be rendering it obsolescent and ultimately obsolete. That experiment may be over, and there is likely to be another one around the corner, as technology and the marketplace form a new partnership through which artists, thinkers, musicians, etc. may find new ways to make meaning.

Sujatha Fernandes talks about her new book, Curated Stories

Interview by Ben Ale-Ebrahim

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: What led you to first start thinking about storytelling and its relationship to political economy?

Sujatha Fernandes: I was doing research about migrant domestic workers in New York and their labor struggles. What was striking to me was that the workers were being asked to tell their stories over and over in legislative campaigns, but they didn’t feel that it made any difference to their situation. I began to look at other sites too, undocumented students, an Afghan women’s project, and I noticed how storytelling had become a key mode of operation in all of these sites. In fact, in some cases the same storytelling manuals and trainings were being used, many of them originating with the election campaign of Barack Obama. There was something about the neoliberal self-making central to the Obama presidency that was driving these storytelling campaigns. So that was how I connected the storytelling to the neoliberal moment.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: Throughout Curated Stories, you provide evidence for how the personal narrative has emerged as an important genre for the construction of hegemony in the contemporary neoliberal era. You discuss how the stories of the marginalized, more than those of political elites or dominant classes, are critical to this process (p. 13). Why are the stories of the marginalized so important to “curate”?

Sujatha Fernandes There is much scholarship that focuses on how the dominant narratives of elite intellectual and artistic production have been key in the construction of hegemony – Hollywood films, literature, monuments, museums, political speeches, and so on. I think those are important to study, but the corollary has often been a valorization of the stories of the marginalized as conversely being authentic and getting at the truth of their experience.

That valorization was burst apart by Gayatri Spivak’s essay, “Can The Subaltern Speak?” where she talks about how the voice of the subaltern is itself composed of dominant myths and tropes. Voice is a construction. In the book, I follow her and others to argue that we have to look to the ways in which the stories of the marginalized are shaped and harnessed, through trainings, workshops, and protocols, in order to understand their import. It is precisely the notion that marginalized stories are uniquely authentic that gives them their hegemonic power.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In chapters 3, 4, and 5, you describe how neoliberal storytelling projects work to decontextualize and individualize the stories of Afghan women, domestic workers, and undocumented youth, thereby avoiding critiques of broader oppressive political and economic systems that these stories might otherwise imply. Yet, you also describe moments of resistance in each of these cases. What does resistance to neoliberal modes of storytelling look like? As scholars, do we need to look beyond the text to see resistance?

Sujatha Fernandes: In the book, I am looking at the period of the Obama administration, and during this time the resistance to neoliberal storytelling is quite small and momentary. It may involve an Afghan writer going off script to talk about the role of powerful warlords in a post-invasion Afghanistan. It might mean a storytelling trainer who deviates from asking people to tell their stories to re-elect Obama, by contemplating how Obama betrayed the immigrant rights movement by not passing immigration reform. These moments signal a breach in the system but they usually yield to the ordering of the protocol or the training.

We need to learn to read the silences and contradictions in the texts. It is also important to look beyond the text, to employ ethnography to understand how people might be subverting or deviating from the narrative they are being given. The training manuals, protocols, and stories only give us one side of the picture. They don’t show how sometimes those narratives are fiercely contested. For instance, one domestic worker in the Domestic Workers Bill of Rights campaign refused to conform to the limited protocols that required her to only talk about working conditions, hours, and pay. She argued with the advocates leading the campaign, and then in her submitted testimony she went off script to talk about labor exploitation and the global conditions of domestic work. She was not allowed to read out her testimony at the hearing. By looking beyond the text, we can see these moments of resistance.

In a Trump era, this resistance looks quite different. Migrant workers and undocumented students in groups like Movimiento Cosecha have bypassed the path of storytelling advocacy in favor of more direct action and confrontational movements that put forward radical demands. We are also seeing a return to modes of storytelling that link personal experiences to forms of structural oppression. So while the Obama campaign stories linked people’s personal lives to vague values such as hope and family, now we are seeing stories that connect the hardships in people lives directly to problems such as poverty, student debt, and medical debt.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: In chapter 6, you discuss the Misión Cultura program in Venezuela as an example of a storytelling project that challenges neoliberal ideologies by making connections between the personal narratives of individuals and “political and collective registers” (p. 161). To what extent can this project serve as a model for alternative modes of storytelling, ones that challenge neoliberalism?

Sujatha Fernandes: There are aspects of the Misión Cultura program, as well as others such as the Andean Oral History workshop in Bolivia, that could provide some fruitful ideas. These include non-linear modes for writing personal stories, where one’s life is represented in terms of spheres instead of a chronological or temporal order. In this alternative narrative model, the individual is not centered on a unitary subject as in western-style biographies, but is rather located among spheres of people and communities. These stories re-link the personal, political, and collective registers; they are shaped by participants themselves rather than being edited by others or limited by protocols; and they are located in spaces of the barrio and community-based struggles. I think that these projects might provide some generative lines for rethinking how we tell stories and for developing alternative modes of storytelling.

Ben Ale-Ebrahim: What do you hope scholars and activists interested in storytelling can take away from your book? What is entailed in moving from “curated stories” to “mobilizing stories” (p. 171)?

Sujatha Fernandes: I hope that they might cast a more critical gaze on many of the storytelling platforms that have come to dominate our lives, from Facebook to Ted talks, and the plethora of story coaching agencies, social movement and legislative storytelling models out there. But while many activists themselves have come to reject the dominant storytelling advocacy, I’m hopeful that we might be able to renew a storytelling approach, one that uses art and literary-cultural spaces and methods to convey issues of social injustice. There are strong traditions of this: farm worker movements, Latin American testimonios, and feminist consciousness-raising all used storytelling to great effect as they brought attention to class inequalities, patriarchy, and imperialism. In moving from curated stories to mobilizing stories, it is precisely this attention to the structural conditions of oppression that we must include. And this probably means rethinking the venues where stories are told – away from courtrooms, and the media, and the advocacy organizations where stories can get distorted and compressed for another agenda, toward the small activist circles and the streets where they can change minds and hearts.