Memes and cultural appropriation


While the contribution of the - mostly white and western - “chan culture” to memetics has been widely highlighted and studied over the past years, the crucial legacy of black communities to contemporary meme culture has been culpably ignored by most scholars. Far from being a case of casual amnesia, this siphoning of symbolic, cultural and financial capital is just the latest episode in a long history of cultural appropriation and exploitation, as U.S. artist Aria Dean brilliantly highlighted.

However, the cultural appropriation of the meme might also suggest unlikely paths towards liberation: “What if, in a crude transitive operation, we imagine blackness as a meme as a poor image?” Dean asks, referencing Hito Steyerl’s essay “In Defense of the Poor Image” and optimistically prefiguring the meme as a guide towards a “post-representational, post-identity politics”.

Picking on Dean’s invitation to follow the guide of the meme who, like the exploited black body collective, has to keep moving in order to avoid being commodified and policed, it seems only fitting to close this investigation of the memesphere with the most abstract meme format of all: the “Deep Fried” memes. And it surely is no coincidence that the practice of “deep frying” - that is, screenshotting, reposting and re-filtering a meme to the point it acquires a grainy, low-quality resolution - originated in the community known as “black Twitter”.

Every time digital data is copied, inevitably, a loss of quality takes place. This phenomenon, known as “generation loss”, has inspired digital artists and obsessed archivists alike. Similarly, every time a meme is transmitted from one user to another, or copied from one platform to the next, some information regarding its original meaning and history is lost. Only when we lose our memory as a community can our symbols be stolen and misused, commercialized and privatized, and in the worst case even weaponized against the very communities that originally created them.

For this reason, we want to close by thanking all the tireless activists, volunteers and meme lovers who archive, study and take care of memes and of the community that created them. Without them, this book wouldn’t have been possible.

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