Tuesday, 9 June 2009

What's behind the popularity of the lolcat meme?

Yeah, what's behind the popularity of the lolcat meme?

With memes, there's an element of play (see my Variations on a meme blog post from December). So what's being played with in lolcats?

In part, I think it's the cheesy, naff, sentimental stream in popular culture (think Hallmark cards, kittens playing with balls of wool on Xmas calenders etc.). Memers are having a bit of a laugh at the expense of these sorts of texts (and their audiences). The language used - and there are web sites on how to write lolspeak (e.g. The Definitive Lolcats Glossary) - is the deliberately grammatically incorrect 'baby-speak' used when talking to, well, babies and pets.

However, I also think it's possible to read the lolcats pictures and texts unironically: look at the fluffy kittens in adorable funny poses! They're cute, adorable and they make us laugh! The baby-talk we use to speak to them is fun and an integral part of the pleasure we experience.

I don't know how to 'read' lolcats: first- (irony-free) or second- (ironic) degree?

They make me think of Roland Barthes' comments on flaubertian irony:

... in wielding an irony fraught with uncertainty, [Flaubert] brings about a salutary uneasiness in the writing: he refuses to halt the play of codes (or does so badly), with the result that (and this is no doubt the true test of writing as writing) one never knows whether he is responsible for what he writes (whether there is an individual subject behind his language); for the essence of writing (the goal and meaning of the activity which makes up writing) is to prevent any reply to the question, who is speaking? (Quoted in Culler 2006: 204)

Who is speaking in lolcats? The ironist or the cat-lover?


Culler, J.(2006 2nd ed.). Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty. Aurora CO: The Davies Group.


Anonymous said...

Can't it be both at once? Interweaving identities instead of one or the other?

Tony McNeill said...

Both at once? Yes, I think you're right. Like one of those Dali pictures - am I looking at a picture of an elephant or the bust of Voltaire? - the possibilites of both interpretations are simutaneously present.

The laminated identity idea is interesting too. I can be both ironic (I read Private Eye, The Onion, watch Have I got News for you, The Daily Show etc.)but am ridiculously sentimental about my children.

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