The Generativity of Mememagic

This spring semester 2023, I am on research leave. As a Senior Fellow at CINEPOETICS – Center for Advanced Film Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, I mainly work on book publications as well as participate in workshops and give talks. My colleagues here asked me three questions about my research. You can also read my three answers as a kind of written self-portrait.

In a few words, can you tell us about your current research interest?

For some time now, memes in all their crazy abundance have dominated public and political discourse in mediatized and networked societies all over the planet – for better or for worse. Yet their sonic and temporal structure has been mostly ignored in comparison to the text-image combinations they offer. However, with the emergence of TikTok in 2016 and the use of parodies, remixes, reworkings, and musical sampling, it has become clear that sound and music are an integral part of meme culture and all “unruly media” (Vernallis) around us. The new genre that emerges from this viral vortex is what I tentatively call “meme music”: it resists a whole set of common characteristics of a musical genre while painfully adhering to others. In my research, I ask myself and others: How does meme music succeed in using its consumers as incubators, “memecubators”, so to speak? How does meme music actually manage to make its impressive contributions to politics and pedagogy, to art and music? Can the craft of “mememagic” be understood as musical practice in a narrower sense? At what point does meme music become a sonic vernacular of our present?

How do you relate the term poiesis to your work?

After studying comparative literature in the 1990s, my early research focused on poiesis in the form of a generative theory of artifacts. In my first three monographs, I examined a range of poetological approaches in 20th-century literature, visual art, music, film, and design. Using detailed work analysis, field research, and media phenomenological studies, these monographs proposed to understand the process of creating an artwork as occurring in three different arenas: improvisation and combinatorics generate the formats and mannerisms of modernist artworks through a variety of aleatoric games (“Das aleatorische Spiel,” 2000); artistic practices of reflection on driving forces, working environments, and the development of a form of movement within the genuinely material continuum of the work provide heuristic strategies for moving from a decidedly arbitrary, improvised sketch to a more coherently structured work (“Heuristik,” 2005); and the contemporary tectonics of public presentation and publication employ and shape creators’ identities as media personae, including their performative media narratives, and place all of this on media stages to make their works accessible to a wider audience (“Intimität und Medialität,” 2012). This early research then led me to focus further on generative practices within sound art, sound design, and music production.

Marius Michusch: 19:42 Bagger extrem nah an Arbeitern und Polizei. Strategie von RWE; Aktivistisch nutzbare Fläche schnell wegbaggern. #Luetzerath (January 4th, 2023, 7:44pm)
Which film or other audiovisual format has resonated with you lately and why?

Recently, an image by German photographer Marius Michusch was quickly and widely shared across all social media platforms. Taken in the coal-mining region of the Rhineland, at the site of the climate protest against the relocation and factual destruction of the village of Lützerath, it shows three police officers, heavily armored like black stormtroopers, that are protecting the gigantic metal cog of a mining operation that can only be partially seen behind them, looming giantly. Michusch’s photo immediately became a meme of the struggle against a violent culture of fossil fuel extraction and the combustion engine, a meme of resistance against the capitalist climate catastrophe. Although not an audiovisual format in the strict sense of the word, this image gained viral traction because it immediately captured the cinematic imagination of readers and viewers who recognized in this photo a scene from George Lucas’ “Star Wars” or Denis Villeneuve’s “Dune”: the overbearing, thanaticist Empire destroys the very substance of life in its greed for extraction, massive territorial gains, and the greatest possible financial and military revenues that alone keep the empire alive. “Thanaticism: a social order which subordinates the production of use values to the production of exchange value, to the point that the production of exchange value threatens to extinguish the conditions of existence of use value.” (Wark) Now, however you interpret the dynamics of this social and generational conflict, “mememagic” has once again worked wonders: it has transformed a rather random picture on rough terrain into a merchandise-friendly and sound-driven blockbuster movie. Can’t you hear the massive sub-bass of the metal cog in the glare of the paramilitary police operation?