I am working with the assumption that memes not only originate often from Black online communities and borrow heavily from Black lexicon, but are themselves embedded with a Black vernacular expression that inflects their circulation, transmutation, and survival even when a Black person is not in the -- metaphorical -- room. In the vein of Toni Morrison’s unspeakable unspoken (1988/1992) -- Afro-presences in white silences -- and Alexander G. Weheliye (2006) and others’ studies on the intimacy of Black culture and technology, I observe memes (often the metonym for internet culture at large) and Blackness as undeniably interlaced such that a meaningful study of the former is untenable without the latter.
One of my favorite properties seemingly crucial to the survival of memes is what I here call “meme merge,” the tendency for memes to collaborate and absorb each other. Considering the social life of communities (Labov 1972) an important factor in how idioms develop, acultural approaches to memes is bound to leave gaps.
The improvisational quality of meme merge reintroduces or at least reminds us where the human user fits in the presumed suprahuman rapidity of circulated online content. As this slideshow demonstrates, meme merge requires creative decisions and deliberate editing that reflects a sophisticated relation between user and object. Meme merge might be a matter of fact of a competitive meme environment, but maybe a more benevolent, communal one as well. In the instance of two or more memes combined, both/all are using each other, needing each other, but also helping each other in prolonged affective engagement by enhancing each other’s most empathetic qualities -- a user-instigated symbiotic environment.
The instincts and methodology that guide meme merge can be usefully considered alongside the literary and academic canon on Black language(s). In a Black/Afro American context, Zora Neale Hurston, Amiri Baraka, Geneva Smitherman, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. commonly locate the Blackness of language in patchworking processes of improv and innovation. And studies on communities such as Black Twitter or movements like Black Lives Matter are looking at how Blackness iterates differently in online and/or social mediums. Memes present an opportunity to both recognize the influence of Black culture in the development of digital spaces that are still largely represented by the image of the white techbro and recognize memes as indexing certain kinds of communities even given the capacity to traverse networks at speeds that suppose cultural disassociation.