The War and Peace of LOLcats
Olga Goriunova is is a Senior Lecturer in the Media Arts Department, Royal Holloway, University of London.Read full Bio
The following text by Olga Goriunova was originally commissioned for The Photographers’ Gallery as part of its 2012 Media Wall project For the LOL of Cats: Felines, Photography and the Web. Further essays in the series include Somebody Else’s Cat: A Study in the Protohistory of the Internet Cat Meme by Dr Lop Lop and Cat Photographers [or the desire to see through animal eyes] by Daniel Palmer.
People with a gift or just a sensibility for writing, language and text fear wordly mediocrity. Ever-repeated phrases, like boulders thrown against a cobweb, destroy the meaning-making machinery as they hide, throwing into the void, rather than reveal or bring something to the surface. When so many people apply an expression that stands for something, it only becomes an indication of a longing to belong, scarce of individuality. As one cannot imagine English-speaking populations building their lives through a limited range of conceptual-linguistic constructions, the most popular, most often appearing phrases can only be recognized as indicators, signaling systems. They are mediocre, an agreed medium, like car signals for turning right and left, an extension of a smile, of a friendly gesture. They are for everyone to share, to hold on to, for stability, for belief in rules that work, for trust in causality.
Needless to say, in the era of digital networks, such medium, middle-signaling expressions become ever more powerful. In forums, there is a set vocabulary to signal love and abandonment, exhaustion and joy. Such vocabulary is often new; these are not the proverbs and phraseologies of the past. They are the new digitally born but already fixed forms of verbal expression.
But what about imagery, then? Does visual culture live along the same lines of difference, mediocrity or a multitude of in-between? For as verbal and textual inventiveness has its deserved place on the Web, so does the image. Multiplied by network connectedness to reach difference in terms of intensity, or the power of global outreach and popularity quicker than ever before, imagery leaves textual culture far behind in its struggle for the construction of meaning.
Memes are the objects that are caught in this dynamic. On the one hand, a meme, to become itself and produce a meme family has to be inventive, that is to say innovative, aesthetically concise, succinct; it needs to employ an aesthetic form of which all elements work in unison to produce the affect desired. In many memetic hubs, this would be an image macro with over-laid phrases or words in Impact sans-serif typeface. Memes can fail to become memes, i.e. reach an acceptable volume of mutations (re-makes, spoofs, etc) and exhibit a wide enough route of spread. On the other hand, a meme employs a de facto reference to subconscious or explicit imitation, machinic self-copying, tuning into the masses, reinforcing what is already there, working for the mainstream. As a term originally suggested by Richard Dawkins in 'The Selfish Gene' in 1976, a meme only survives and propagates terminologically in relation to Internet phenomena.
Not only are individual memes such problematic aesthetic objects, the genre of a meme is itself an amusing network creation. In the structural coherency of its morphology, it is closest to a fairy tale as analysed by Vladimir Propp.Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale (University of Texas Press, 1968); (originally published in Leningrad in 1928). Propp was a Russian Formalist literary theorist who offered a way of seeing fairy tales as strings of threaded beads consisting of typological elements such as ‘a shortfall’, ‘hero’s magical aids,’ ‘complication,’ ‘difficult task’ and others. LOLcats here are the digital people’s fairy tales on the subject of animals, and, more precisely, cats, following a formulaic structure in their making. LOLcats, as natively digitally born aesthetic acts exhibit features that are shaped in their succinct coherence by their processes of coming into being, by the ways in which LOLcats emerge and live on the networks.
Memes as an aesthetic genre are conditioned by the techno-social architectonics of 4chan (and some other imageboards, most notably, somethingawful). Not only were a lot of meme families, and LOLcats in particular born on 4chan, but I argue, the way 4chan is organized and run potentiates the aesthetic genre of the meme (and LOLcats) as we know it.Olga Goriunova, ‘The force of digital aesthetics: on memes, hacking, and individuation’ in Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, 8 "Medienästhetik", 2013. 4chan is an imageboard, that does not have an archive or a registration mechanism; the turnover of images posted is very fast. It is through endlessly re-posting an image, and luring others into liking, altering and reposting it, that the machinery of the production and habitation of such forms was finely-honed and begot memes as a genre. Here the techno-human way of being on 4chan engendered memes, something that itself leads to new socio-technical platforms, such as meme factories.
The processes through which human-technical ensembles germinate cultural forms that in turn engender new techno-social arrangements are novel forms of the coming out of our world. Here, masses of people work through technical infrastructures, some of which are of their own making, and engage with large-scale commercial networks to produce creative work that in turn produces new infrastructures. The tension between the unique and different and the generally liked that we find in memes is embedded in the genre itself from its very beginning. The production of the genre, the working out of its aesthetic language relied on mass and speedy liking in the relatively constrained space of a few imageboards, even when it was the unique creation of teenage boys.
Another forceful motif that memes and lolcats bring to light is their practicality towards the infrastructures they engage (these can be any that fulfill the need). 4chan is not a social networking site; it is not Web 2.0 with its associated financial revenues. However, memes became one of the most powerful aesthetic genres of the Web 2.0 era. The tension between the individual pre-web 2.0 and the mass web 2.0 is delineated here again. Whether LOLcats lose all the lulz when they move into commercial debris of SNS and memefactories is a question that plays on the tension between aesthetic expression with a difference and the mass-liking that is capitalized upon. To make it more complicated, LOLcats and memes work through variability, and performance. Memes do not become such unless they spawn a family, relying on mass-liking to come into being, to produce a difference in the first place. Here, it is not a question of how mass is mass and at what point popularity sells-out. The underlying conjunction whose surface condition is the commercialization of lulcatz is the current condition of creative expression that is foundational for subjectivation, the generation of subjectivity, as it not only draws upon technical systems, but thickens through their mutual interleakage. As creative expression is an unlimited well to be drawn from, such considerations often justly end in the discussion of forms of cooption, capitalization and capture.
What are LOLcats about? We might need to ask this question, if aesthetic as well as conceptual work are regarded as the one transposing, living out some of the structures of the world and the ways out of it. The territories that the LOLcats roam are those of carnivalesque male adolescence. There is too much to be said in a short text about the channels LOLcats are plugged into. Topics as diverse as children’s folklore, humour, fears and desire, the becoming of male subjectivity, both individual and collective, children growing up and into the ‘Internets’, the routines of everyday life and leisure, globalised culture industry, artisanship, the mythological history of felines, the fact that the cat is the most abused domestic animal - all of those inosculate with the networked computational underlays of various forms of contemporary life to produce affective forms of sense-making and of route- finding in the emotional-material environment run through computers. Here, a generalized word-picture, or aesthetic figure, or even better, an aesthetic species of the cat emerge as the acme of a form of consciousness and perception in transit characteristic of the age. As Anna Karenina descends, in some manner, from Ivan-the-Fool; the LOLcat proceeds from War and Peace.
Oscillating between difference and popularity, LOLcats as any aesthetic form, mark the tension of living in human company. Innovative language is brilliant as long as someone can understand it. Sharing a medium of expression, space, time and social fabric is the real tragedy of creators tied to people because unfortunately they are people themselves.In 1993, a cartoon caption ‘On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog,’ shot into fame. However, no dogs have been spotted online in the twenty years that passed. Please contact me if you’re a dog.
In many memetic hubs, this would be an image macro with over-laid phrases or words in Impact sans-serif typeface. Memes can fail to become memes, i.e. reach an acceptable volume of mutations (re-makes, spoofs, etc) and exhibit a wide enough route of spread.
As a term originally suggested by Richard Dawkins in 'The Selfish Gene' in 1976, a meme only survives and propagates terminologically in relation to Internet phenomena.
Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folk Tale (University of Texas Press, 1968); (originally published in Leningrad in 1928).
Olga Goriunova, ‘The force of digital aesthetics: on memes, hacking, and individuation’ in Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, 8 "Medienästhetik", 2013.
In 1993, a cartoon caption ‘On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog,’ shot into fame. However, no dogs have been spotted online in the twenty years that passed. Please contact me if you’re a dog.