This week let us look at an example I have thought about every day since learning about semiotics: the meme. Specifically, the meme sometimes called the “Infidelity meme,” or “Distracted Boyfriend” meme.
Memes are interesting to look at in semiotic terms because of their layers of meanings beyond that of a simpler sign like a painting or a movie still (although it should be noted that many memes begin as movies stills).
Looking at the meme through the Peircean model (Chandler), the meme itself, text and picture together, when text is added, make up the representamen, which is simple, but the interpretant and the object are slightly more complicated. This is due to the nature of internet memes, specifically, their multiple layers of meanings. So while anyone looking at the meme would see the two people in focus, the couple, most likely holding hands, as well as their facial expressions and interpret it to mean that the man is checking out the woman passing by, and that his girlfriend has noticed his distraction. Thus, the object is that particular situation. However, once words are added to the image, meanings are also added to the interpretant-object-representamen relationship.
Take this variation of the meme for an example:
To those interpretants not in the know, this looks like a jumble of random letters and numbers pasted onto the image, nothing more. Photographers, though, would recognize that D750 and D850 are types of cameras and would, presumably, find the idea of “cheating on” their D750 cameras with D850 cameras humorous.
Some variations of the meme have a wider target audience of interpretants, like:
To fully understand this version, people really only have to have experienced some event, like a solar eclipse, when they were told not to do something but wanted to do it anyway, like staring at the sun.
Is this an example of what Irvine calls encyclopedic levels? Everyone looking at the original stock photo is expected to understand that the man’s facial expression indicates that he is interested in the woman passing by while the girlfriend’s expression means she sees his noticing and is upset by this. Without being able to interpret these facial expressions, the interpretant would not understand even the basic object of the representamen. Once someone adds text to the image, it adds another layer of meaning to the representamen.
When certain interpretants do not fully understand the meanings behind a sign, like these memes, can they still be considered interpretants? They are still perceiving the representamen, but they do not know all the meanings behind it.
Because the meme is primarily an image, ignoring for a moment the variations with added text, I found it difficult to apply Jackendoff’s theory of parallel architecture to the meme. I believe I understand how parallel architecture fits in with language systems, but not images.
I would like to note that as unsure as I am about the parallel architecture model, I did find it much easier to use Peirce’s terminology of representamen, interpretant and object to describe the meme.
Chandler, Daniel. Semiotic: The Basics. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007
Irvine, Martin. “Introduction to Sign Systems, Symbolic Cognition, Semiotics, and Technology.”
Jackendoff, Ray. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, USA, 2003