Discourse Theory as Explained by Memes

Rachel Roberie
Jun 5, 2017 · 10 min read

Discourse has been a pretty big concept for me to unpack over the past year. I’ve finished classes on communications research and theories of conflict and negotiation, and I wrote a paper about Bill O’Reilly’s debate about white privilege with Jon Stewart (before he left the Daily Show, RIP). Next I was amidst a rhetorical criticism course, working on a paper about Coca-Cola’s “America is Beautiful” ad and how it impacts immigration and race discourse.

I’ve read just about a hundred academic papers over the year, and successfully used some of their insight to more convincingly articulate my feelings and opinions. Efforts to talk about things that really matter in society were often frustrated before in shitty arguments and really poorly informed debates. I’m sure everybody is familiar with something like this playing out in comments on political Facebook posts.

I’m convinced that discourse would be a helpful tool for literally anybody — we are all trying to navigate the morass of media sources we consume on a daily basis, and discourse is all about how that impacts your view of the world. It can make you happier or angrier. It can persuade you that one event is a B.F.D. (big fucking deal, capitalized and punctuated), while you miss hearing about a whole bunch of other events altogether. And what you read, watch, hear about, talk about, know about… is all you have to work on when you form opinions about people, the way the world works, and how it ought to work.

And the way we think about the world, of course, entirely dictates how we act within it. Words ARE action in many ways. Knowing how language creates a SPECIFIC kind of thought and action, by hiding or minimizing some things and focusing on others, is just as important as knowing facts and statistics. Because no person ever acts solely on objective information, or even on a full set of facts, but on the subjective assumptions that fill in the gaps between the numbers and make them meaningful. One would be, and do, nothing without the other.

Anyway, back to the memes.

Memes are everywhere. Memes find their way into every facet of our lives. Moms send memes to their kids now. Presidential candidates, most famously Obama, have been using them to attract internet users as early as 2008 election. My professor talked about Pepe the Frog in a 3000 level COMM class the other day — since he found his way into the grips of the Alt-Right, a single meme might actually have an impact on the future leadership of this country. Thanks, Obama.

What the hell is a meme anyway? You can look most of them up at knowyourmeme.com for an informed and objective overview, but lots of them are documented elsewhere — from a deep memer’s lense at Encyclopedia Dramatica (tread with care) and from a more removed and analytical one at Wikipedia. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to focus on image macros, which you have definitely seen at least once. It’s just a picture overlayed with blocky text, usually meant to be relateable or funny.

Usually there’s a character — the first iteration was the ever-loveable lolcats (cheezeburgerz, lasers, Grumpy Cat, etc.), and “FAIL.”, for displays of incredible incompetence. Advice Animals are another familiar (cast of) faces, including rage comics, socially awkward penguin, Scumbag Steve, and your cousin’s science teacher, because anybody can make anybody into a meme now, at memegenerator, quickmeme, and any number of other sites, and share them anywhere across the internet, for the lulz.

The idea is to make the meme a character archetype, so others can copy the style of speech and personality, and then recreate the meme in a new and funny way, or apply it to a new situation. It’s easy, and very shareable. The predictable character means anybody who has seen that meme once can understand it and be a part of the big inside joke. If you’ve never seen that character, there’s usually enough info in the meme itself or the place you saw it to figure out the gist, plus your knowledge of all the other memes you’ve seen before.

The body of memes created for any single character or picture can’t really be viewed in full anywhere. If you thoroughly google stalk “Boromir One Does Not Simply,” and then delve into the archives of reddit, tumblr, 4chan, twitter, and facebook, you’ll still be missing the ones that are texted, emailed, or shared in smaller or private groups and forums. But most people only see a meme in passing — they read, laugh, and move on. We build up a general knowledge of a meme after multiple exposures to it in different forms, and we take our meme education into every new meme we have to interpret. (That’s what we call bias.)

Roughly, this is how discourse works. We’re still sharing an archetype, but instead of a character in an image macro, it’s a word. Instead of a cat or cartoon character, it’s “democracy” or “anarchy,” it’s “man” and “woman,” it’s “black” and “white.” It’s an idea (meme) that means something different to different people, and is connected to so many other ideas (memes), all of which are loaded with their own meanings and history too. Let’s take “Idiot Nerd Girl” as an example.

The girl is taken out of context, a teenage stranger with pretty features, glasses, and the word “nerd” written on her hand for some reason — it’s a strange way to express your self-identity, but we don’t know what she was doing it for. The first version of the meme told us why she was doing it: she’s hot, and she’s trying to pander to nerdy men by pretending she knows what they’re talking about and dropping names. Why is she doing that? Probably something to do with the ego of the guys that made the meme.

The second version of the meme showed up when people realized that the first one was pretty sexist. It proposed a different set of actions and motivations for the Idiot Nerd Girl: a genuine attempt to engage in nerd culture, from an experienced or inexperienced female. It associates the girl instead with the unfair exclusions, unavailable resources, and offhand dismissals that characterize her experience. Both of these interpretations are real for the people that made them, but one of them definitely resonated with more people, and now everyone pretty much agrees that the first one was “bad.”

The set of words and actions and feelings linked to the archetype, the sum of the new and old contributions from all the meme makers in the world, are the discourse. There’s a race discourse, gender discourse, sexuality, politics, legal, scientific, broadcast television, advertising, academic, any kind of way to think about the idea of “woman” from any of these different perspectives of interest. Google woman and any one of these words and you’ll get a brief example of how different a woman can be depending on who’s writing/talking/representing her.

But as with memes, you’ll never really see all of it. The version of a meme that gets shared the most is the one people tend to accept as correct form, the one that is most accurate and resonating as true. Its’ familiarity to the viewer is what makes it funny (or relatable). For our Idiot Nerd Girl, it was frustrated nerd guy version versus reclaimed feminist version. You’ve probably seen both, but a lot of other characters go through many more iterations, most of which can’t really be summarized so neatly. Try explaining any of this crap to your grandmother.

In discourse, the version that is shared the most is actually considered truth, and our familiarity with it is why contradictory discourses make us so uncomfortable. For example, people in America definitely still think it’s weird for a guy to use a purse. Gender discourse relates purses to women, and all the things that women are related to — delicacy, sweetness, vanity — and there’s no room for men in there. Men don’t want to wear them because they’re not “for men” and it would make them uncomfortable, but nothing about purses inherently makes them inappropriate for men, and nothing ever has. It was gender discourse, which you’ve been listening to and using since you were born, that told you that.

Interestingly enough, memes themselves are a part of discourse. They represent a special brand of internet discourse, of course, but Philosoraptor often draws on philosophical discourses, Scumbag Steve speaks to modern norms of politeness being violated, and poor Average Joe Pepe somehow became a Nazi hate symbol (according to the Anti-Defamation League).

As we watch the debates, scroll through tweets and read response articles, argue on our friends’ facebook posts, or like them and send supporting sentiments, we are engaging in discourse — whether we like it or not. We’re taking in a certain set of information out of the whole body of the CRAZY SHITSTORM that’s going on out there, and then churning out a combination of whatever we took in combined with everything else we’ve ever taken in. And this is true of everybody and everything that can generate words. Not to even get into the complexities of the context, but you should know that you react differently to a tweet than you do to a New York Times article, and the people that wrote them knew it too.

So when you read, watch, or listen to ANYTHING that another human being created, there’s a pretty good chance they’re telling you a little bit about how things “just are” and how they’re “supposed to be.” They’re drawing on a bunch of discourses that they’ve learned about over time, and combining them in new (and old) ways, and that’s how they support (or refute) the way a symbolic term should be interpreted. But as with memes, you don’t even have to add much for the meaning to get across. When you make a meme, all the other memes come along with it, whether you meant them to or not.

You should be careful to consider what discourses somebody is drawing on before you accept it into your mental database of truth… and you should consider what ideas of “truth” you’re bringing into something that sounds wrong to you. For a fun exercise in this, try reading some Fox News articles — about anything, not just politics — as they tend to be pretty polarizing for everybody. Figure out how other people within your gender, culture, political party, book club, college major, family, or Facebook feed would be MOST LIKELY to feel about the subject. And then consider whether even the smallest part of what they’ve told you about that feeling has made its way into your feelings.

Similarly, you should be careful what discourses you’re using when you put your thoughts out into the world. What are you really saying about… when you talk about…? Do you really know what you’re implying when you use a word you read in a couple of articles? Did both of those articles come from the same place? Do the other people you’ve heard use it share a lot of opinions? It might feel like truth, but truth has always been subjective. Science and the culinary field still disagree on whether tomatoes are a fruit or a vegetable, and we’re still not QUITE sure what coconuts are.

TL;DR — meme, and discourse, responsibly. You know nothing, Jon Snow.

Rachel Roberie

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Short. Blonde. Talkative & opinionated. Making art, making friends with animals, baking, writing, reading.