Niklas Luhmann’s Theory of Memes

Over at her blog Judgmental Observer, Amanda Ann Klein has a great post up about Internet memes, their workings, and their humor. In addition to the central themes of “cruelty” and “self-loathing” that she sees at work, Klein points to two formal aspects of successful memes: “recognizability” and “repetition.”

This reminded me of Niklas Luhmann’s theory of media, itself a sort of “remediation” of psychologist Fritz Heider’s distinction of medium vs. thing, which comes down to a distinction between a “loose coupling” and a “tight coupling” of elements of a given sort (see Heider’s Ding und Medium). For Luhmann, mediality consists in the relation between a loosely coupled “medial substrate” and the tightly coupled “forms” that it is capable of assuming — or, in other words, in the “operative deployment of the difference of medial substrate and form”  (Luhmann, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft 195; my translation), which is itself relative to an observer or system.

(For more on Luhmann’s theory of media, see Chapter 3 (165-214) of Luhmann, Die Kunst der Gesellschaft (translated as Art as a Social System). See also Chapter 2 (190-412) of Luhmann, Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft.)

The connection with Klein’s notions of “recognizability” and “repetition” as formal elements of memification comes when Luhmann, on one occasion, notes that one way to elaborate his distinction of medial substrate and form is “by means of the distinction between redundancy and variety” (Art as a Social System 105). He explains:

The elements that form the medium through their loose coupling—such as letters in a certain kind of writing or words in a text—must be easily recognizable. They carry little information themselves, since the informational content of an artwork must be generated in the course of its formation. The formation of the work creates surprise and assures variety, because there are many ways in which the work can take shape and because, when observed slowly, the work invites the viewer to contemplate alternate possibilities and to experiment with formal variations. (105)

“Variety through repetition” is the formal basis of the Internet meme, as well as being a principle of seriality and a formal description of mediality itself (following Luhmann). As I recently argued for Lady Gaga, Nyan Cat can also be dubbed a “serial media remix”: Nyan Cat is the instantly recognizable, iconically redundant substrate out of which ever new forms are produced; these forms become available, in turn, for sampling, and they serve as the substrate of a higher-order mediality, thus proliferating in a (non-linear) serial explosion.

Long live Nyan Cat: memifier of Internets, proliferator of serial forms, and media remixer extraordinaire! All your substrate are belong to us!!!11!

Works cited:
Heider, Fritz. Ding und Medium. 1926. Berlin: Kulturverlag Kadmos, 2005.
Luhmann, Niklas. Art as a Social System. Trans. Eva M. Knodt. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2000.
_____. Die Gesellschaft der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1997.
_____. Die Kunst der Gesellschaft. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1995.

2 responses to “Niklas Luhmann’s Theory of Memes

  1. Pingback: Discorrelated Images: Chaos Cinema, Post-Cinematic Affect, and Speculative Realism | initiative für interdisziplinäre medienforschung

  2. Pingback: Phenomenology Memes | initiative für interdisziplinäre medienforschung

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