Katz, Y. & Shifman, L. (2017). Making sense? The structure and meanings of digital memetic nonsense, Information, Communication & Society, 20:6, 825-842, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2017.1291702
To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2017.1291702
Katz and Shifman explain that prior to digitization of memes, there were three perspectives of nonsense: pastiche, deconstruction of meaning, and a play with meaning. Pastiche is essentially to imitate for the sake of imitation: “the joy of creating the text derives from the imitation itself, without supplementing any new meaning to the referent” (p. 826). In deconstruction of meaning, “nonsense resists any attempt to reach a clear, synthesized meaning; it examines the ability of signs to create meaning and highlights their failure” (p. 826). Most of the instances of nonsense as play have to do with children and their attempt to create without regard to adult rules. There is another type, though, where there can be so many polysemic meanings that the text appears to be without meaning, or the meaning can appeal to so many disparate people that it appears without sense. The example of “Killroy was here” was given as nonsense that almost appeared as an inside joke.
The digital move has enabled more nonsense. In fact, it might promote it even more. The authors explain that because the digital memes are multimodal and each mode can add to the polysemy, these memes may be even more polysemic than non-digital memes.
I love this observation: “Almost a decade ago, Miller (2008) pointed out that the connections created in these platforms may be more important than the content of the messages being transmitted. This phatic communication, which aims to verify that the channel of transmission is open (Jakobson, 1960), may elicit a unique affiliation with nonsense. When the maintenance of social networks is the primary goal, the exact meaning of the texts may become less important, thus increasing the possibility for the creation of nonsense” (p. 828).
A grounded theory study follows in which they pull memes from the Know Your Meme site and try to group them as making sense or being nonsense (great discussion of Nicolas Cage’s face being added to random scenes). They then identify 5 categories of nonsense: linguistic silliness, embodied silliness, pastiche, dislocations, and interruptions. They end by emphasizing how memes act as a “powerful social glue.” “We thus claim that while digital nonsensical memes often lack referential meaning, they always carry affective meaning” (p. 837).
This article was chosen because I have been struggling to theorize the selection of image for concert totems. They need to be unique identifiers, but to increase the social capital and the ecology of the concert environment, there also needs to be recognition of the image, a something about it that allows the viewer to think, “Hey! I recognize that reference! I like you a little more for that!” This article will help me to express some of the social draw that is created by what really amount to some nonsensical choices on the surface. I am going to end up with a paragraph or so about Justin Bieber’s mugshot, and yet another about a suped up Mr. Potato Head, so you can see why theories of nonsense apply.