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.