John Heartfield, a German artist active in Berlin’s Dada scene, designed covers for the Communist weekly Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung, lampooning Hitler and other high-ranking officials in the Nazi party with funny juxtapositions of image and text. Ara H. Merjian, an art historian who researches Fascist and anti-fascist aesthetics of the twentieth century, sees a parallel between these century-old collages, which came from Dadaist experiments spurred by the increasing presence of photography in the press, and the memes that proliferate on social media today. Mike Rugnetta, host of a PBS series on YouTube and an Apple podcast about cultural criticism, joined Merjian for a conversation on Zoom to tease out what memes and Dadaist collage have in common, and what sets them apart from each other.
ARA MERJIAN Though the meme is a digital phenomenon, the language used to describe it is organic, even biological: mutation, transmission, extinction. Out of curiosity I looked at the Wikipedia entry for memes, and among other things, it says “memes spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts.” From an aesthetic point of view we might think of the meme in terms of what Umberto Eco called the “open work”: unfinished, unresolved, in process, participatory. On the other hand, the notion of memes spreading through the behavior generated in their hosts sounds decidedly posthuman, as if we’re merely physiological hosts to a virus that is autonomous even as it’s contingent on human behavior.
MIKE RUGNETTA It makes me think of William Burroughs’s idea that “language is a virus,” which he explored through his cut-up technique of writing that approaches words as found objects. His point, I think, was that your capacity for making meaning gets adjusted by the material that you consume, willingly or not. But when you’re talking about memes in these terms, you have to be careful not to remove the agency of the people who are creating and responding to memes.
MERJIAN The question of agency is a really thorny one. An aspect of the meme that is celebrated in progressive circles is its collective, almost authorless shareability. In that regard it’s related to the utopian thinking of some members of the early twentieth- century avant-garde—that there would be a progressive death of the author, as the artist’s hand and individual voice became less important. But at the same time, the evacuation of agency is inevitably framed by questions of race and gender, even when that framing isn’t acknowledged. Aria Dean writes about the meme’s “tactical similarity” to historical Black cultural forms. The meme is another instance in American media where content is generated by a Black subculture that then gets appropriated. Of course, the meme is intrinsically about appropriation. That is its essence. But the few people who have been remunerated for their memes through licensing or sponsorship deals have tended to be largely white, middle-class internet users, rather than the users who generated the original—if we can call it that—content.
RUGNETTA There have been several high-profile creators of formats or phrases who have not been compensated, perhaps the best-known being Peaches Monroee, who coined the phrase “on fleek.” As for your point about the utopian promise of the meme, as a recovering tech-utopianist I can say that was definitely my mindset in 2007–09, when I was working at Know Your Meme, the meme cataloguing website, as a writer, producer, and host of their YouTube show. We often discussed memes as a widescale creative collaboration that posed a meaningful challenge to the media property regime. I was excited to prove that people do amazing things when media is freely available. I didn’t grapple meaningfully—until embarrassingly recently—with the fact that some of the same people who were doing what we labeled as an impressive collaborative art project were also making Nazi jokes and spreading racist beliefs, with the same media creation techniques they used to make memes.
MERJIAN The web’s anonymity means that individual voices and different political subcultures can be subsumed into a kind of hegemonic culture. Dislodgement and displacement are the very engines of meme-making. The form remains the same, while its framing is changed. That operation creates irony. That’s how memes work. They’re defined not just by their iterability, but also by irony. And that relates to what we could call an avant-garde genealogy of collage and the readymade, of objects and images that are dislodged from their original context and thereby ironized. That shift isn’t declarative and strident, but subtle, almost undetectable. In his essay “Is Space Political?” Fredric Jameson says that it’s the condition of irony to remain invisible. I wonder if we might think about how that irony can be a weapon in the hands of political subcultures and communities that want to use the meme for positive change.
RUGNETTA Before this meeting, I followed the Canadian Leftist Meme Stash Instagram account and saw a picture of a werewolf labeled “[Justin] Trudeau selling $14 billion of weapons to Saudi Arabia while they commit genocide in Yemen” next to a cute little dog labeled “Trudeau wearing goofy socks.” In a way, you could say this is irony. It is trying to make a very serious, meaningful point through a very silly picture that is not of the highest quality. It only says what it does because words have been added to the top. It is a very serious point that people should know and care about, but it’s a picture of a werewolf and a silly dog. Irony allows you to make important points with silly images, because you can say: “This not a dissertation. This isn’t an ad council spot for broadcast television.” It’s something people are meant to look at quickly, laugh, and understand.
MERJIAN A visual sound bite.
RUGNETTA There’s also this really Millennial or Gen Z attitude that everything sucks. The whole world is bad, and there’s nothing you can do about it. So this funny dog and this stupid werewolf are Justin Trudeau ruining the country and the world. Have a nice Monday! Blergh!
MERJIAN It’s significant that Heartfield started out making collages with George Grosz, a fellow German Communist, by engaging with low culture and recontextualizing images that were being disseminated through the abundantly illustrated print media, in cacophonous and riotous compositions. As his work became no less political but what we would call more propagandistic, he started keeping the images intact, and the irony was more forceful through its simplicity. Context is king. A lot of them graced the cover of Arbeiter Illustrierte Zeitung [AIZ], the weekly Communist paper, but again, these are not lengthy disquisitions on politics but images that are meant to be absorbed almost instantaneously into the collective consciousness and agitate the viewer. This is the argument art historian Andrés Mario Zervigón makes in his book John Heartfield and the Agitated Image . Sabine Kriebel’s similarly incisive book on Heartfield, Revolutionary Beauty , looks at the “sutured illusionism” of his photomontages, how he covers up the rupture of mass media imagery and leaves us with a deceptively seamless image.
RUGNETTA It makes me think of when someone on Twitter shares a screenshot of a particularly egregious New York Times headline, like one where they repeat a lie from Trump without identifying it as such, and the body of the tweet is just: “I—.” That’s all you need to frame a headline for people to know what you mean. You’re tired, you’re sick of it, and you don’t know what to do. We can do better—but maybe we can’t, I don’t know! But for this to be communicated effectively, the account’s followers need to know the tweeter’s perspective. That’s the AIZ. And there needs to be the slightest adornment to show it has been editorialized. That’s “I” and a dash. Memes don’t do or mean a specific thing on their own. They operate very specifically in a community.
MERJIAN There was a story in the Times about how Pepe the Frog—a cartoon character that became a right-wing meme in the US—was deployed to a completely different end by protesters in Hong Kong.
RUGNETTA I love that the protesters in Hong Kong have no idea.
MERJIAN I’m sure that there are counter-Pepe memes.
RUGNETTA Yeah, the creator, Matt Furie, went to lengths to rehabilitate Pepe the Frog. He won a lawsuit. But fighting semiotics is like shouting at the ocean. The OK hand gesture became a white power symbol. A campaign was waged on 4chan to add that to its meaning. You can’t un-add that meaning. You just have to wait for it to fade.
MERJIAN What if a Black Lives Matter activist decided that they wanted to détourne Pepe the Frog, to make him a Black Lives Matter meme? Would it be just a question of the quantity—a barrage of reuses? Or does it have to be more organic? A semiotic virus that takes on a life of its own, regardless of anyone’s intentions?
RUGNETTA Changing the meaning of a preexisting symbol is a tactic used by many internet shitheads. They’re often successful. That’s how Pepe the Frog became a racist mascot. Whether or not a community on the left could do something similar comes down to the question of whether it truism that the right is better than the left at meme-making. Like all truisms, it’s repeated regardless of whether it’s true or not. It’s a tautology. The right is better at creating memes because their memes are given visibility, and they’re given visibility as demonstration of the success of memes on the right.
MERJIAN I was convinced that meme-making was largely the domain of the left. I think of it as intrinsically creative and ironic— all the things that the right wing isn’t, at least in my own, admittedly limited, purview. I think that limitation has a lot to do with my intellectual and informational bubble. We get catalyzed by our own feeds. The algorithm tells us to look at more of what we’re already looking at. Perhaps I was also inclined to see things in that light because of my art historical background. Memes share many aesthetic—or anti-aesthetic—strategies with Dada and John Heartfield’s work, which are decidedly left-wing. Dada’s use of photography—cut from mass-media publications and inserted into new contexts—compels reflection on both the original source of images and their new pictorial “home.” Hannah Höch’s collage Cut with the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany  alludes to the cultural and gender politics of the fraught new Weimar government. She shows heads of prominent male politicians, as well as a map of those European countries where women possessed the right to vote at the time, along with ballerinas, crowd scenes, ball bearings, an elephant, and so on. What’s striking is the discrepancy of scale, and the lack of anything that might conceptually link these images. The viewer has to come up with that connective tissue. Heartfield’s photomontages for AIZ were produced at a different political moment, a time of emergency for the left. They become increasingly mordant and politically charged in inverse proportion to their formal effects. That is, Heartfield hides his hand, or his scissors. Photographs of Göring, Goebbels, and Hitler take on new, scathing meaning precisely in the understated nature of their transformation. Instead of the gymnastic frenzy of Höch’s montage, we get popular images that Heartfield has adjusted only slightly, or to which he adds text or a title that ironizes the new image and its meaning. A famous example is his The Meaning Behind the Hitler Salute: Little Man Asks for Big Donations. Motto: Millions Stand Behind Me! , where he puts a man in a suit thrusting cash toward Hitler’s raised hand, so the “millions” in the Fuhrer’s slogan refers to money, not people. Heartfield’s proto-memes depend on the mass replication of their source images. That’s what makes them comparable to the memes of today. The unlimited repetition of meme formats—like “the most interesting man in the world” meme, the evil Kermit meme, the distracted boyfriend meme, or Drakeposting—relies on the familiarity of the frame. Lest these contemporary examples seem pathetically apolitical in comparison to Heartfield (especially when our moment faces ideological threats no less dire), we might recall that these formats are themselves routinely used for political messaging. I’ve seen one satirizing the symbolic rewards for essential workers that fail to compensate for the lack of material ones: Drake recoils in disgust from the prospect of paying them a living wage and health insurance, then smiles at the gesture of daily applause.
Pop art was also about the iteration and multiplication of received images, and there’s an irony to its strategy of making us look more closely at things that we take for granted in everyday life. But Pop is more ambivalent politically than Dada. Dada was aggressively countercultural and rooted—at least in its Berlin strain—in radical Communist politics. So that definitely bears on my sense of the “memes” of the historical avant-garde, which is not necessarily true of memes today. By the way, I had never seen 4chan before I looked at it ahead of this conversation. It’s so low rent! I thought I’d stumbled upon the internet circa 1999.
RUGNETTA Their software hasn’t been updated much. It’s like the punk rock bar that smells bad and doesn’t have working bathrooms. You’re proving that you really want to be there by putting up with the lack of amenities. It’s hostile to outsiders, which is ideal if you don’t want normies coming to your space and seeing what you’re up to. You want to make it kind of weird. And that message-board technology is quick. You want to have a very fast-paced, dense set of interactions, and the simplicity of the technology allows that to happen. I’m sorry that you went to 4chan. But it’s interesting what you say about the genealogy of the meme on the left as going back to Dada. It makes me wonder what could be the genealogy of memes on the right. Where does that lead to? Does it lead to Futurist proto-Fascist collage? Or does it lead to conservative political comics? Nothing comes to mind. Maybe it’s the prevalence of technological capability. MS Paint and Photoshop—the tools for making memes—are widely available to everybody. They’re part of what it means to be a computer user, whether you’re on the right or on the left.
—Moderated by Brian Droitcour
This article appears in the November/December 2020 issue, pp. 18–20.