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.

Eva-Marie Dubuisson on her new book, Living Language in Kazahkstan

Living Language in Kazakhstan

Interview by Meghanne Barker

Meghanne Barker: Your initial fieldwork on aitys — a performed genre of Kazakh poetry — looked at issues of politics and performance within this form that you describe as inherently dialogic. Living Language expands your study to examine Kazakhs’ relationships with ancestors not only through this poetic performance but also through other everyday blessings, bata. How did you decide that “dialogic” was the best analytic term to caption the phenomena you examine here, as opposed to, say, “intertextuality,” since both bata and aitys seem to get framed through enxtextualizing re-contextualizing processes?

Eva-Marie Dubuisson: We are always writing against a silent strawman in a way, and for me that was the presumed immutability of a conscribed or repressive environment – where overt political opposition is often met with jailing or death. In terms of my engagement with a notion of power, I want to understand not ‘how repression works,’ but ‘how change is actually possible,’ and how worlds function outside the apparatus of the state.  I wanted to write about alternative sources of authority, and in how they become present or enacted, and in that sense, it is the idea of coming into being which is singly most important for me, and that led me to a focus on dialogic emergence, which was most compelling and the best fit for what I wanted to express.

If we look at generic reproduction in the case of any one single tradition, we could certainly say that what I describe in my ethnography are instances of “intersubjective entextualization” with all its constituent uncertainty (see Silverstein and Urban 1996).  But in my analysis I am ultimately concerned not so much with the existence or  content of any one given text, but in the emergence of a particular role across a variety of contexts, traditions, and speech genres.  I am focused on the way in which ancestors are not just available for interaction, but actually moving into that space – my concern is not with the particular content of any one message, but on the quality and position of those interacting, and in roles and the emergence of ancestors as participants in interaction.  For example, in conversations, how is it that ancestors might actually participate – in what moments, in what modes and mediums of communication, in and through which interlocutors, in which contexts?  In other words, how are they ratified as participants in interaction (see Goffman 1981)?

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Meghanne Barker: What contribution do you see this focus on ancestry making to our understanding of dialogism?

Eva-Marie Dubuisson: The answer to the questions you have posed here also lies not only in the temporal and spatial dimensions, but also in the representative capacity or potential of a voice, and in its constituent parts (heteroglossia). In my work, we see a variety of speakers and collaborators bringing to life the invocation, words, and presence of ancestors in a variety of ways, and for me there are two related theoretical questions here.  First, when exactly could we say that an ancestor becomes present in those forms of social dialoguing? I examine this in the case of everyday blessings (bata, explained above), the miracle stories and prayers at shrine sites, and the performance of public poetry. But second, given the obviously multivocalic nature of various oral traditions (like bata, prayer, miracle stories, public poetry, and even statist rhetoric), what is the political work being done in any claim to monologism? Continue reading

Plagarize, let no one else’s work evade your eyes

By Susan Blum


The first real glimpse American audiences got of the potential First Lady associated with presidential candidate Donald Trump exploded into a circus. As Melania Trump read a speech that had several paragraphs directly lifted from the same sort of self-introduction performed by Michelle Obama in 2008, President Obama’s former chief speechwriter recognized some of the exact wording. Chaos ensued, along with denials, protests, strange claims that the speech was not really plagiarized, claims that Melania Trump had written it herself, then admission that a “former ballerina and English major”—sexist shades echoing here—had taken the responsibility.

Along with understanding the notion of intellectual property, authorship, and citation, I think Goffman and the notion of participant roles (or production format or participation framework) helps us sort things out here. To summarize: the speechwriter is the “author,” the one who composes the text. The person giving the speech is both the “animator” and the “principal” although the “principal” is also the person seen to benefit from the speech, in this case Donald Trump. (The use of the term “surrogate” captures this distinction.) Whose words were uttered? Who profited from them? Who is responsible? What are the moral and ethical obligations that accompany each role? What are hearers’ expectations and beliefs about these roles?

Americans tend to like spontaneity as it gives evidence of an authentic self lying beneath the words that simply bubble up. Artifice, rehearsal, teleprompters, professional speechwriters—all these are seen as reducing the glimpse into the heart and soul of the speaker. Actors are masterful at portraying apparent spontaneity, as are practiced politicians.

The niceties of notions of intellectual property, citation, and providing credit for authorship, as well as the desirability of speaking authentically on her own (collapsing all participant roles) that were in some sense acknowledged when Ms. Trump initially claimed to have written her speech herself. Later, the respect for Michelle Obama was seen as explaining the error.

There is a bit of an additional irony here, as Mr. Trump has been one of the principal agents aiming to discredit Mr. Obama and to incite racist claims that he was not born in the United States. Quotation and attribution of Mrs. Obama would have had additional challenging responses at the Republican National Convention, don’t you think?