Technology | 30 May 2024

Technology Series: Kyle Parry


Kyle Parry is Associate Professor of History of Art and Visual Culture at UC Santa Cruz. He is the author of A Theory of Assembly: From Museums to Memes (University of Minnesota Press, 2022) and coeditor of Ubiquity: Photography’s Multitudes (Leuven University Press, 2021).

A New Way of Looking at Memes

One of my favorite memes started with a picture of a blue dog. Someone got the idea to place an odd bit of personal testimony over the dog’s seemingly very intense face: “i’m neither joking nor serious but another secret third thing.” The “secret third thing” concept proved inspiring; it became what is known as a “snowclone,” or a simple verbal formula open to endless variation. People started to tweet their own versions, only now without the dog picture, and not always polite: “not an alcoholic nor sober but a secret third thing,” “not polyamorous or monogamous but a secret third thing,” “u are not a more secret complicated third thing you are 32.” 

The earliest known instance of “secret third thing,” posted to Twitter by @snafuqd on May 25, 2022.

I like this meme because it’s both funny and philosophical. Rarely do the possible labels for our circumstances feel adequate. It’s fun, if also a bit tragic, to imagine that there are better, hidden labels waiting to be revealed. It’s also fun, if a bit ironic, to imagine that there are secret third things that won’t be or shouldn’t be revealed. These are treasures only you and your in-group know: little gems that will never make their way into the mainstream. Binaries don’t hold, and belonging feels good.

When I arrived at UC Santa Cruz in 2016, I was neither into memes nor not into memes. Instead, I was in some secret, more complicated, third relationship with memes. On the one hand, I knew that they fell squarely under my job description; I’d been hired to teach the impacts of technology on art and visual culture, and memes surely were among those impacts. On the other hand, I had no idea how to teach memes well. They seemed both too silly and too vexed. New memes emerged every day; they could mutate in the middle of a lecture. Worse, with the election of that certain former president, memes had become the face, and maybe even one of the engines, of hyper-aggressive, “post-truth” politics. Teaching memes would have me forever failing to keep up with the fraught digital now.

Cover of Kyle Parry’s A Theory of Assembly: From Museums to Memes (University of Minnesota Press, 2022).

Eight years later, thanks in large part to the generous responses of my students, I find myself in a very different situation. I now regularly teach a course that I quixotically insist on calling the “from memes to metadata class” and that my students rightly insist on calling the “memes class.” I’ve also joined the academic conversation about memes by way of my first book, A Theory of Assembly: From Museums to Memes. 

The academic conversation A Theory of Assembly joins is richly interdisciplinary. Memes have been compared to everything from public conversations to street art to Dada to poor images to postmodern folklore. Their linguistic dimensions have been studied; so have their aesthetic and political ones, including the vital history of memes and Black visual culture. Some critics emphasize the pernicious sides of memes: their roles in scourges of inattention and in rampant consumption, or the ways memes can serve as vehicles for racism and bigotry. Other critics adopt a more sympathetic lens: they find progressive potential in memes, or they emphasize the satirical joy they bring to the struggles of daily life.

My own take on memes focuses on how we see them. I don’t mean the platforms we use, but our ways of looking at memes: what we think we are seeing when we see a meme, what attitudes we take in talking about them, whether or not we think they have precedents—in other words, our underlying premises about memes and crucially, how those premises need to be revised. 

With the rise of digital technologies, the very possibilities for how people communicate have changed.

For a long time, the dominant way of looking at memes has centered on the idea of going viral. While that’s an understandable focus, given how quickly many memes spread, it misses something crucial. With the rise of digital technologies, the very possibilities for how people communicate have changed, and one of the most overlooked and yet powerful of those possibilities is essential to how internet memes operate. I call this mode of communication “assembly.”

I can give you a quick sense of what I mean by assembly by going back to the “secret third thing” meme. Consider the post that got the whole thing going. As common as media like this have become, we still don’t really have good terms for what we’re looking at here. Is it a representation? (Of what?) A story? (Who are the characters?) An image? (But what about the “secret third thing” sentence on top?) My take is that we should think of what we’re looking at as an assembly and more specifically a “discrete assembly.” I call it discrete for the simple reason that you can experience it in one place, likely on your phone. I call it an “assembly” because that’s the best way to understand its form. What you’re looking at is an expressive arrangement of expressive parts—an image and a sentence—in which the parts are clearly kept apart. Your eyes dart back and forth between the words and the inscrutable look on the dog’s face, and out of that activity emerges some kind of meaning or feeling.

A student-made “distracted boyfriend” meme from the Spring 2019 version of From Memes to Metadata: An Introduction to Digital Visual Culture, taught at UC Santa Cruz by Kyle Parry.

Other examples, such as this student-made meme that makes light of my desire to get the class to care about metadata, rely on the very same formula. This formula—selecting and arranging expressive parts kept apart—is the basic, aesthetic DNA of all those millions of funny images we call memes. To make image memes is to develop variously funny, banal or disturbing arrangements out of a giant repertoire of possible materials, or what I call “constituents.” Part of the joy (or the horror) of memes is seeing someone assemble something you didn’t quite expect to be assembled, or seeing them assemble in a way you hadn’t seen somebody assemble before.

We can say the meme manages to link people; it brings them into a loose, decentralized, and by no means inherently positive assembly.

But there’s much more to memes than individual creations, and hence the other term I use in my book: “distributed assembly.” Unlike a discrete assembly, which can be experienced in a single place, a distributed assembly can only be experienced over time and space. “Secret third thing” is a clear example. The original, discrete meme—the post of the blue dog—transformed into an unfolding, distributed meme—all the various creations that played off the concept of a secret third thing. I call this distributed meme an assembly because of a paradox: despite the fact that the meme grows and evolves, it manages to maintain its cohesion. There is cohesion in terms of the ingredients: the kinds of constituents and arrangements the meme involves. There is also cohesion in terms of the people involved. Not unlike diverse citizens converging for a protest, the participants in this virtual gathering of media know and feel others participating in the same expressive event. Without falsely equating political and digital assembly, we can say the meme manages to link people; it brings them into a loose, decentralized, and by no means inherently positive assembly. So too do internet memes in general: memes are a massive, heterogeneous, hyper-distributed and sometimes corrosive assembly of assemblies, not just of images and text, but of bodies and minds, too.

An unauthorized reassembly of Christ in Limbo, a 16th century painting by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch, as posted to r/HistoryMemes on Reddit in 2022.

If you page through the examples I gather in my book, you’ll find that I go one step further by not restricting this lens of assembly to memes. I see assembly at work in many other settings. There are thematic counter-maps, satirical Venn diagrams, and social movement hashtags that gather images, feelings, stories, and calls for justice. There are also more subtle versions of distributed assembly that infuse everyday digital communication, as well as events that fuse virtual, distributed assembly with political, in-person assembly, such as the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. I even argue that this cultural form of assembly precedes the internet; we can put the most seemingly banal memetic arrangement alongside certain poignant works of art, such as the triptychs of Hieronymus Bosch, not because they are the same in theme or value, but because both involve putting known elements into expressive arrangements that provoke and move us. Although they work in extremely different ways, they both somehow ask for their constituent parts to be read as expressive constellations, and in the digital context, they are readily available for reappropriation and rearrangement.

It’s clear that digital media have dramatically altered the speed and abundance of communication on our planet, with extraordinary and often very negative consequences. But digital media have also dramatically altered the shared communicative palette, the possible ways of sharing meaning, conveying feeling, and expressively connecting. Now more than ever, it seems, how you arrange the world matters as much as how you narrate or represent it. Part of the challenge of our present moment is distinguishing the digital assemblies that matter most from those that only serve to reinforce the unacceptable planetary status quo. We can take pleasure in the silly expressiveness of much assembly while also asking how that widespread, ephemeral ingenuity might sometimes carry in it a spur toward something else: toward enduring forms of aesthetic and expressive alignment with the drastic political, economic, and ecological transformations the world sorely needs.

The Humanities Institute’s 2024 Technology Series features contributions from a range of faculty and emeriti engaged in humanities scholarship at UC Santa Cruz. The statements, views, and data contained in these pieces belong to the individual contributors and draw on their academic expertise and insight. This series showcases the ways in which scholars from diverse disciplinary perspectives contend with the issues connected with our annual theme. Sign up for our newsletter to receive the latest piece in the series every week! 

Banner Image: Inigo Montoya meme made by TedCollins on Imgflip