Memes, at the moment of my writing, are increasingly difficult to define. The line between what we call a meme and what is simply viral content wavers. Until recently, there was a fairly recognizable format for the highly popular and widely circulated digital-media-based cultural objects we called “memes”; they usually looked like they were ripped from Twitter and featured pithy text above a low-res image. However, the formal qualities of memes have unraveled noticeably in the last few months. The classic model still circulates, but has birthed countless spin-offs and meta-mutations. Despite these formal shifts, things have remained largely the same from a structural perspective. The meme, at all stages—from its early image macro days to its coming of age—“sustains an appearance of individuality while being wholly deindividuated.”1 In the case of memes, the title of this exhibition could not ring more true: no image is an island.
Last year, I wrote an essay that explored memes and their relationship to black American culture.2 In it, I posited that memes and viral content might constitute a black diasporic collective being. This statement was itself complex, and not necessarily meant to police the borders of black culture online in practice, but rather, primarily to identify a resonance between blackness and memes at the level of ontology. Poet and theorist Fred Moten writes that as important as it is to think of blackness as it relates to the history of racism and violence inflicted against black people, we must also “recognize that blackness as a kind of aesthetic and social force is not determined and structured by what it is people have been calling the black/white binary.” He goes on: “Blackness is this other (no-)thing” that models “another mode of living on this earth.”3 Insofar as this is the case, and if we acknowledge that blackness has some relationship to memes, I would like to posit that memes, as well, model another “mode of living.” However, I would shift the statement to say that memes model or embody another way of “being” on this earth, one that troubles the ontology of the image as we have come to know it. So, here, I would like to step away from blackness as such for a moment and orient myself more toward the meme itself as structure, and toward non-philosopher François Laruelle’s concept of “genericism,” a phenomenon that I believe exerts a similar force to blackness. In my view, memes practice a Laruellian generic logic or ontology.
François Laruelle has embarked on the undertaking of illuminating what he calls “non-philosophy.” For Laruelle, “philosophy is a grand illusion.”4 He writes: “The duality of the discrete and the continuous, of the mathematical and the philosophical […] is a constant throughout history and permeates all of Western thought. The discrete regularly claims victory, even as the continuous continues to survive. […] Non-philosophy is, among other things, a way to register this survival without pretending that one side will crush the other. Rather, non-philosophy connects each to an instance that is neither the continuous (dominant in philosophy) nor the discontinuous (dominant in science).”5
While there are many other aspects to, and applications of Laruelle’s non-philosophy, what interests me is the precarious balancing of the discrete and continuous, a property that he describes as “the generic.” The generic is a logic, a style, an aesthetic, and a science, which Laruelle poses as a resolution to philosophy’s tendency toward distinction. He probably did not have memes in mind, or the circulation of images online at large, when he began to theorize the generic before the commercial internet. However, memes do model the seemingly paradoxical description of the generic that Laruelle offers, which aims to reconcile an abstracted version of the apparent paradox between the discrete and the continuous. He writes, outlining its four conditions:
“There are constants in the generic style. The first is a form of an average universal or middle-ground between the One-All and singularity or individuality: the generic is restricted, it excludes the extremes of the All and of the individual to which the All applies. The second is that the generic is capable of supporting a multiplicity of heterogeneous acts or predicates, among other things the thoughts of science and philosophy: the generic is endowed with extension but without totality or singularity, thus under-determined, non-absolute. The third is that it possesses a genealogical or critical power of [giving the] illusion or the appearance of the All. The fourth is to create truth from knowledge, that is to say, a form of hesitant and probable knowing [connaissance] out of supposedly confirmed facts of knowledge [savoirs]. In the end, it is a process of knowing: it is neither a philosophical act nor an act of posited knowledge. But the real question about the generic boils down to knowing what is the subject or who is the subject of non-standard aesthetics and what type of knowing can it generate?“6
The meme, in its simultaneous one-all-ness and individuality, becomes a model for a generic image ontology. This happens first at the level of language. A singular instantiation of the image-object is known as a meme, as can be an entire complex of related objects. When a given meme appears once on an Instagram feed, it is singular: a “meme.” But, it is also singular when referenced in its entirety, encompassing all of the image-objects that share an identifiable aesthetic or conceptual relationship to one another. Any definition of the meme—from its description by Richard Dawkins as a unit of cultural transmission or imitation to its contemporary pop-cultural instantiation—hinges on its relationality. Contemporary culture mutates this: the meme is both the unit of transmission as well as the message to be transmitted, both the structure and the content, the raw material and the product.
The meme also demonstrates Laruelle’s second condition, an endowment of “extension without totality or singularity, thus under-determined, non-absolute.” The meme’s only claim is often relatability (#relatable, #same), extending toward the possibility of universalism without ever quite settling anywhere. Here, we can apply artist Hito Steyerl’s description of the “poor image” as “a snapshot of the affective condition of the crowd.”7 Rather than making truth claims, the meme reflects a number of given truths back to the crowd itself.
This quality intersects with Laruelle’s fourth condition, which is to “create truth from knowledge”; the meme, as we are beginning to see in the American political sphere, is part of a different kind of knowledge structure. Whether or not the meme itself has actually engendered the shift toward more decentralized structures of truth and ideology that we’ve seen of late, it certainly has played a part in drawing beliefs from more extremist circles into more mainstream politics. Laruelle writes that the generic aesthetic is “a process of knowing,” and we can say the same for memes. Memes themselves might not be that process, but they have certainly workshopped it.
Laruelle undercuts his own definition of the generic by saying that the real question of the generic is “what is the subject or who is the subject of non-standard aesthetics and what type of knowing can it generate?” It would be shortsighted to argue that anyone who participates in the circulation of memes online is this sort of subject. Likewise, it would be too flattering to thinkers who identify with postmodernism to say that having accepted a decentralized and unstable notion of truth would either. So, who or what is the generic subject?
I am far from comfortable with saying that I know where to take Laruelle from here, or that I am anywhere close to knowing the generic subject. Referring to some artistic practices from the last decade or so, though, is instructive. There are many who, given more time and space, are very deserving of exploration in relation to this idea of the generic—not excluding the artists in this exhibition. Some of these artists have used the language of stock imagery—which we might all heavily associate with the generic, others have taken special interest in the making and remaking, and remaking and remaking, of images. The artists who come to mind were primarily once defined as post-internet artists who, at the time of the movement’s peak in the early 2010s, either self-identified with something that they called a “generic aesthetic” or had genericism attributed to them—sometimes as an insult, occasionally as a compliment, mostly as a fact tinged with derision.
As well, there are things other than the meme that certainly might serve as object lessons for a generic ontology. So, rather, this should be taken as a smoothed-over series of notes on the topic. “Generic” is still spoken with something of a sneer in contemporary culture—used sometimes as a metonymical way to call something derivative. It also seems to be used to accuse something of posturing toward sterile universalism. It is my hope that Laruelle’s generic can be taken up as a way of evaluating existing artworks, perhaps even retrieving those that have (rightly) become affiliated with colloquial genericism, breathing into them new life and political import.