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