“the breaking up of inwardness” – Knowledge, Dialogue and The Internet Meme as Saying

The process of internet memes might be described as follows (this is me improvising a bit). The circulation of images, gifs, screen caps, cartoons, animations occurs first of all as the sharing or repetition of a joke, and then as parody of the joke, then as more oblique and obscure self-reference. The meme then becomes the act of circulation as detached from recognisable signifiers of the original frame of reference. Meme culture is seeping into popular discourse, which means there are a lot people trying to “get” what memes do, when in fact the telos of a meme is the relational or circulatory structure of the meme itself.

I’ve been wanting to say this about memes for a while. Reading Levinas has led me to connect his conception of the”saying” with the concept of the meme. It was a particular quote used by Amit Pinchevski in his paper on Levinas and the ethics of communication that crystalized this thinking, and this piece is in debt to his excellent words which you can read here.

Levinas’s philosophy is quite intricate, almost web-like. It’s relational in both what it tries to do and how it does it. His phenomenology is much more like literature than other philosophers. This is because he was writing in a style which attempted to get away from the idea that you can and should fix communication as something like “getting across information” or “handing on knowledge” or “two people exchanging ideas”. For Levinas, communicating with an other is “an ultimate situation”, one which comprises the foundation stone for all ethical thinking. In the encounter with an other person, they address us and we respond. Importantly, however, this language must always retain a sense of the other person’s difference to us, their alterity.

Whenever we use language to mean in the world, it designates, becomes fixed. Levinas calls this designating of stuff in language the “said”. We can designate lots of things – we can explain that there is a particular set of rules for “right” or “wrong”; we can label someone; we can tell someone something we know. We can take what we think we know and understand and give it to someone else by fixing it in language. When things are in the “said”, you can know them, understand them – and you can also “thematize” them, own them. Imagine the “said” is a book – all the stuff in the book is fixed there on the page. It can’t be changed, it’s not in dialogue with someone else. This means other people can be made subject to that knowledge.

But that’s what knowledge is, that’s the point, you might say. But Levinas understood that there was always something outside of the idea of knowledge as fixed, as “said”, and that having fixed ideas can result in violence. There is an excess beyond the said, which exists in the alterity of the Other. This alterity, this difference, is the thing that can never be assimilated into knowledge. If we understand all knowledge as “said”, then we deny difference, and attempt to fix and make “the same” through language the alterity of the other. If we deny difference, we create a totalizing way of understanding the world. To return to our metaphor, if all knowledge is fixed in the “book of said”, how does it change, adapt or accommodate difference? It becomes totality, the social and political implications of which are clearly violent.

This is where the “saying” comes in. Imagine you picked up the book of all the “said” knowledge and started reading aloud from it – performing it, if you like. Your performance, your saying of the words, would add all kinds of differences. You might even alter or change some of the knowledge in order to make it fit better with the world you live in. You could start unfixing the “said” in order to accommodate difference. And it wouldn’t be to do with the language on the page – it would be other stuff, excessive stuff, introducing this difference. But it isn’t just to do with this particular oral way of “unfixing” things. Written language can enact a “saying” too, by being self-reflexive, and retaining awareness of where it fixes meaning. It can allow room for indeterminacy by using multiple phrases and terms for the same thing, it can use the structures and features of dialogue and interlocution.

The concept of the “saying” is that knowledge is always related in a particular way – it is not just the signs and signifiers of language which convey something, but in fact the very nature of the communication itself. One metaphor which Levinas uses to explain this concept in his earlier work, Totality and Infinity, is teaching. As all good teachers know, communicating to students is not just about telling them information – you are not just a conveyor of the “said”. Much of teaching is in “saying”. “Saying is communication” suggests Levinas “but as a condition for all communication, as exposure. Communication is not reducible to the phenomenon of truth”. When you teach, you perform the “said”, in the “saying”. One does not necessarily replace the other – the saying augments the said with the trace of alterity. I don’t just tell the student information – I acknowledge and understand their difference – and the asymmetrical nature of my relationship to them – through the performance of saying.

So back to memes. Memes are more saying than said. It appears that the “said” of memes – what they mean, what they signify – is always in the process being erased by the manner of their saying; the fact they are posted, shared, circulated virally. To misunderstand a meme, or to misapprehend the way that a meme communicates is, perhaps, to worry about getting the joke, or what it is trying to say. In fact, memes are a manifestation of a Levinasian ethics which emphasizes recognizing and responding to the alterity of the Other before any form of rational thought or cognitive act. Memes are first and foremost acts of relation, performances of “saying”:

The unblocking of communication, irreducible to the circulation of communication which presupposes it, is accomplished in the saying. It is not due to the contents that are inscribed in the said and transmitted to the interpretation and decoding done by the other. It is in the risky uncovering of oneself, in sincerity, the breaking up of inwardness and the abandon of all shelter, exposure to traumas, vulnerability.

Memes perform their relation within what Levinas would refer to as proximity, that is, the sense that we have an ethical responsibility to the other. They create vulnerability in the relationship between self and other online, in that they challenge the notion that we need fixed and clearly explicable signifiers to communicate. Memes are “irreducible” to what has come before. Memes break up inwardness, in that there is no interior psychological origin which acts as the progenitor of their supposed knowledge.

Pinchevski’s gloss of the above quote from Levinas is very useful to turn to here as a final word, as it gets at the idea of saying as establishing the ethical relation, rather than the said. The relational over the linguistic, if you will:

What is put forward is that communication is not only the process of giving signs; its effect transcends its content, for communication is always for someone and therefore already involves an unarticulated expression of relation. Thus, for Levinas, communication is ultimately irreducible to its contents.

There’s more to be said about the issue of the digital interface as a site of ethics here, and about whether the site of Levinas’s saying, the thing that “says” which is called “the face” is shown in the same way online as in face-to-face communication. I think this might be to do with what Levinas calls the “nakedness” or “vulnerability” of the face, which is what I’m going to do a bit of reading* about this week.

*after some liberal use of the control-f function

3 thoughts on ““the breaking up of inwardness” – Knowledge, Dialogue and The Internet Meme as Saying

  1. So two things I’d like to get at here.

    1 – the act of “saying” as explained above seems to be both integrally related to who is doing the saying. So to use the metaphor of a pipeline that might contain information, the pipeline is between two locations and the territory between them is intimately affecting the construction of that pipeline. The content is clearly important but it isn’t what the communication is. The medium is the message. Or at least a part of. I would say this surely relates to theories of poetry, especially perhaps works of surrealist writers who tried to de-content their work. Poetry is all about form and this “saying” concept seems to relate very closey with this particular idea on poetry – I am sure there is much more around this.

    I would say this also relates to how context is everything for information, information is nothing without a contextual framework to place it within and also information is nothing without being conveyed, without the necessity to convey that information, without the mode of conveyance, the motivation and the specific details elaborated on or suppressed. The saying is the embodiment of that information and that information can not exist without the act of saying.

    2 – my final point there is where memes come in. I would argue that memes do have a large amount of content. They are often nearly context free. Or rather free of any specific context but I would say that they, as forms of viral media (*accept that we agree what we mean by this before another can of worms is opened*) they have to be able to exist instantaneously and under almost any contextual framework. This instantaneous nature means they boil down their essence into as little as possible. They reach for the universal of their communication. This is again like poetry, in that surrealist poets found they couldn’t fail to convey information, see for example automatic writing etc. the subconscious etc.etc. So in the same way they attempt to often review some detail as a universal trait. This is why so many meme pages are thematic. I found a meme page dedicated to the crossover of bitcoin articles and Hollywood film posters.

    Memes are reaching for a universality with an instantaneous saying of information, often masked as a joke but frequently almost devoid of that too. For example Nihilist Memes or Garlic Bread Memes, these pages seem to be trying to tell us respectively that a) everyone is depressed and b) garlic bread is lovely. In the former case there is often a recycling of other jokes, this is certain part of a web of association (and I feel this tissue of meme culture is a whole separate discussion) but also acts as a self defence mechanism, as a way of trying to highlight again and again a certain kind of millennial-hopelessness. In fact this millennial despair is I believe a common theme on meme pages. Garlic Bread meanwhile is trying to share a joy in life, a joy at a side-dish. This itself if full of despair, full of self referentialality and highly context free. And that is part of the point.

    Viral media is by it’s definitely easily consumable and thus context free, or context transplantable. For humour to pass over this is natural. Humour often transplants itself from situation to situation. But for a universality to pass over is where it becomes special, where there seems to be some form of breakdown of the usual order of things and what makes memes different at a certain point.

    I think a lot of what you said above applies to viral media, to the sharing of memes and to the participation that the audience has to have in meme culture (without shares it is nothing). But I think memes by nature have this nugget of universality which is what makes them special, the thing that people wish to share.


    1. Really interesting about the universality of memes. It’s a good point, because that’s what the idea of meme-as-saying kind of ends up as; a universal circulation. Perhaps, though, that erases what’s important in them, the idea of memes circulation as containing an ethical element or idea.

      I think I’ve perhaps not explained the relationship between saying/said too well – they’re certainly not a dichotomy, they’re entwined with each other. It’s very interesting that you refer to “the medium is the message” because I’ve started thinking against that recently, in terms of how flattening it is, but it appears, perhaps, to fit with Levinas’s concept of saying. I need to think a bit more about the relationship between mediation and the saying (but this is a major question at the heart of my thesis).

      The comment about essences – This instantaneous nature means they boil down their essence into as little as possible – is my favourite. Probably because Levinas’s second major work is called “Otherwise Than Being or Beyond Essence”. The philosophical concept of essence was something he was writing against. Memes becoming “as little as possible” seems to me to echo the notion of trying to get beyond the “essence” of a communication.


  2. So I understood the “saying” and “said” situation to be the “said” is the content, the thing that is being “delivered” and the saying is “the delivery”. Now the use of “saying” rather than “delivery” is that “delivery” kind of implies a permanence to what is “delivered” whilst “saying” implies a transformation of what is “said” that could be distinct if someone else were to do the “saying”. I would generally agree with this concept, at least as I seem to understand it, but I would say it totally reinforces “the medium is the message” in that it concludes that “the saying affects the said” or “the delivery changes the delivered”.

    I would say I disagree in the idea that a universality, or a universal circulation ends up performing erasure of a central idea (I’m going to avoid the ambiguities in an “ethical element” just because I don’t want to go there right now – I choose my battles). I would say any argument of this could be equally labelled at bad 6 form poetry, stuff that attempts universality but ends up saying nothing. We are discussing what, I would hasten to describe, as a new art form, and as such the discussion is on the performed potentials within that rather than in specific failures. Perhaps.

    Moving on to your last point there – I would say that “essence” here is perhaps something a little more fluid than a central point of “ultimate” of an object. To try and explain what I mean I’m going to have to go a bit mathematical but please bear with me:
    If we agree that every-time something is said, or rather a “saying” has been performed that some information is transplanted into a new context, that it suddenly accrues all of the associations and context of the receiver (and perhaps the method of mediation) – this is now a “new” piece of information, it contains far more than was ever transferred. Now if we were to collect (in some ethereal way) all those chunks of information out of the brains of those receivers there would be commonalities and there would be differences – Dave looks at a Meme about dressing as a clown to get shot and thinks about an experience with Clowns and Susan thinks about someone she knows who got shot by mistake – but if we could somehow perform the intersection of all these ideas then we would get at a fluid form of essence.
    Since a meme is constantly being recreated and constantly interacting with news events, a meme rather than a specific meme – aka Arthur’s Hand – then that changes it’s essence over time, but also has a continuity of essence. It is fluid.

    To be instantaneous is to be easily understood is to jettison the unnecessary. There is still something beneath all of that.

    also I think there is a case to examine the difference between an instance of a meme, and the abstract of the meme.


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