Article sidebarPDF Released 1. May 2019
Content of the main articleWan Yii Lee
The picture on the left is a post on Instagram, created by the poet Rupi Kaur. The contribution contains one of her illustrated poems, selected from her collection of poems Milk and honey , accompanied by a single hashtag (#love) as a heading. These words, short and simple, garnered 7,574 likes (as of December 3rd, 2017), followed by hundreds of comments in which fans tag their friends and claim that the feelings are so real and that it's deep (Kaur). Kaur's Instagram page is filled with posts that alternate between posts of her poetry and pictures of herself. In addition to having millions of followers behind her (and zero on her follower count), her published book Milk and honey has become a New York Times bestselling poetry collection almost unknown to a first author, let alone first author (Walker). This caught the eye of the 25-year-old who was born in Punjab, India and raised in Canada. She is even referred to as Instapoet, a label referring to her catapult for publicizing fame through the use of social media (qureshi). Their popularity and charismatic presence are undeniable and even reach adoration levels; The journalist Rob Walker observes that the fans fall under their spell during their poetry performances (Walker).
In contrast, the picture to the right is from Columbia University's meme page on Facebook, one of many university pages where students post relevant content about shared university experiences. A new trend is the Rupi Kaur meme, in which pages from Rupi Kaur's collection of poems are edited to fit them into a different context (Milk and Honey Parodies). In the specific example above, it changed the subject of the poem to the usual experience of overworked fatigue in the university library. Many others have jumped on the bandwagon and created memes by revising Kaur's simple words or just writing their own randomly jammed verse and signing it with the trademark - Rupi Kaur at the end. As her popularity as Instapoet continues to rise, memes that causticly mimick her art continue to emerge. Why was the verse of a celebrated poet on Instagram also used as fodder for memes on the internet? To understand these seemingly different trends in social media, we need to examine why Kaur's poems were so popular in the first place.
Kaur's popularity is so unprecedented that it has even caught press attention and up among the ranks of The economist , a respected magazine-sized newspaper that publishes current events as well as commentaries on culture. Because of Kaur's rise to star, it is said
Poetry is in the middle of a renaissance and is being driven by a group of young, digitally savvy Instapoets, so called because they can package their work in concise, shareable contributions. ( Rupi Kaur reinvents poetry
It explains Kaur's popularity as a rebirth of the genre of poetry itself, which is now available in a short package that, above all, can be shared. It is divisible because poets like Kaur are able to articulate emotions that readers cannot understand (Rupi Kaur Reinvents Poetry). In fact, the poem by Kaur shown above expresses how she felt when she left an unhealthy relationship: I left because / the longer I stayed, the less / I loved myself. And that clearly resonates with thousands of people, which is reflected in the number of likes and shares. This is even shown in a book review by Milk and honey , which says: A poem by Kaur that reads 'to fall in love / in your loneliness' is instantly digestible (French). Concise, digestible, divisible - these adjectives show that the readers of Kaur's poems love their universal accessibility.
The economist Article also highlights Kaur's accompanying illustrations to her poems, which are the aesthetic part of her Instapoet package. One example is the minimalist line drawing of the huddled girl illustrating the struggle described in the poem above. Kaur himself is very much aware of this concept of a package; When asked about her illustrations, she called it a very Apple method, a way to make the branding strong enough that people can tell this is a Rupi poem without the name there (Rupi Kaur Reinvents Poetry). Although the quality of her poems will always be controversial because it is subjective, one thing is clear: Kaur attaches great importance to branding her poems as an accessible and shareable package, and she has apparently largely managed to sell it.
She has branded not only her poetry, but herself. Kaur never fails to emphasize her ancestry as a Punjab immigrant and woman of color, making it part of her public role to represent the struggles of minority groups, and even based some of her poems on this experience (Walker; Manosh). Still, her social media remains a place of positive determination through her difficult struggles, as seen in a recent video on Instagram of healing (Trudeau) with Sophie Trudeau, an activist for gender equality. entertains. A marketing and sociological study could call this a perfect example of the underdog effect (Paharia et al. 775). Through extensive research, the study succeeded in confirming the effectiveness of brand profiles that highlighted factors (1) external disadvantage and (2) passion and determination in increasing brand loyalty (Paharia et al. 776). It is clear that Kaur does not simply accept being the underdog, but rather basks in it; When asked about the controversy she sparked among the established writers, she cheekily says: I don't fit into the age, race or class of a bestselling poet (Walker). There were people from the establishment, i.e. the traditional literary publishing world, who criticized the craft of their poetry (or lack of it), but Kaur replies casually: Good art will always break boundaries, and the gatekeepers (French) see that too. Based on marketing tips and tricks, Kaur successfully exploited the underdog effect and even protected it from literary criticism by the establishment.
This seemingly impenetrable shield is based on a rather problematic logic, as Chiara Giovanni, a PhD student in comparative literature at Stanford University, points out. In an opinion piece on BuzzFeed, she notes that when critics try to criticize Kaur for his artificiality, it is often reprimanded by fans and Kaur himself in the name of authenticity. When that happens,
It becomes impossible to discuss Kaur's work in a way that goes beyond the existing dichotomy of emptiness and raw honesty - and since the moral upper class will always prefer those who point to emotional authenticity over cynics who consider the poet 'stupid' this portrayal of unpretentious openness will ultimately benefit Kaur. (Giovanni)
It has one trump card: authenticity. This is the ultimate, non-fake selling point for your brand. Regardless of the actual quality of her poems, no one except Kaur himself can refute the authenticity of Kaur's emotions in her work. The establishment and all of its critics just look like more forces trying to bring them down, but what they are selling is a story of rising above them against the establishment. The most ingenious marketing move has turned any resistance into more ammunition.
However, this can also be key to understanding what anti-establishment their work really is. Aarthi Vadde, an English literary scholar, has written about the impact of the digital publishing scene on contemporary literature, particularly how it lowered the barrier to entry and allowed amateurs to enter the scene (27). However, she makes it clear that she does not see undermining the establishment as democratizing by making it available to the public. Instead, it notes that the public. . . [is] a space that has always been commercialized, industrialized and pluralized - in other words, the public can be seen as a different kind of establishment, just with a different set of rules (29). These rules are determined by today's modern sharing economy, in which the value of a commodity now depends on how well it can be shared by an audience (30). When it appeals to the masses and is worth sharing among the people, it becomes more visible and valued; if it is unpopular, it automatically goes out. And how The economist points out that a key feature of Kaur's Instapoetry is indeed to be shareable, a product that is carefully branded and packaged to thrive in such a world. For all its impenetrable underdog rhetoric, Kaur's navigation in the world of social media turns out to be a strategy clinging to another establishment, populism in the sharing economy.
This is where the meme comes in. The first conception of the term meme came from Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist, in his 1976 book: The selfish gene . He came up with the idea of the meme, a cultural entity (or idea) that selfishly seeks replication in order to seek its own survival in a competition to infect spirits as a vehicle for this replication, much like a gene in biological Evolution does (206). At that time he was referring to ideas like slogans, fashion, slang phrases and so on (206). Today the word is used to refer to a particular genre of online communication that involves re-shuffled, repetitive messages that are quickly spread by members of the participatory digital culture to continue a conversation, as suggested by Bradley E. Wiggins and G. Bret Bowers, media communications scholar (1886). This participatory digital culture refers to our online culture with relatively low barriers to entry in terms of participation, creation and sharing. It is this overall culture that makes the Memescape home; H. the virtual, mental, and physical realms that produce, reproduce, and consume internet memes (1891, 1893). Wiggins and Bowers specifically argue for viewing memes as artifacts of participatory digital culture to highlight the aspects of production and consumption associated with the life of a meme (1891). We can see how the example on display fits such a definition of an online meme. Produced by a member of the Columbia meme site's digital participatory community, the meme remixes by replacing the words 'stop love you' in the original poem with my homework and adding a fictional title - Butler Library - while the rest of the picture remains the same. It is consumed by other members of this community who like it and tag their friends in the comments to share it in conversation as quickly.
But many fail to create memes with this divisible quality. So what actually makes the Rupi Kaur meme successful? According to Know your meme , a comprehensive online catalog of memes, some online users who didn't like their poetry parody the Kaur meme; it was an intentional statement about Kaur's poetry itself ('Milk and Honey' parodies). This is similar to Greenpeaces Let's Go! Arctic meme campaign that some communications scholars use as an example of using memetic irony to delegitimize discourse (Davis, Glantz, and Novak 62). By imitating and mocking the corporate language of Shell, an oil company with oil drilling plans in the Arctic, Greenpeace has successfully set Shell as an institution in their memes, turning Shell's image from well-polished to ridiculous (77). Similarly, anyone who makes a Rupi Kaur meme cleverly sidesteps the debate between indissoluble emptiness and raw honesty (as raised by Giovanni). Instead, they use the meme to demonstratively de-legitimize it as an emblem of Instapoetry and the ruthless populist sharing economy, in which value is equated with divisibility. The memes mimick the brevity, transparency, and truism of their verses to highlight these very qualities. From authentic and profound looking, the poetry now appears ostentatious and superficial, generally applicable to any situation such as homework at the Butler Library. Even the illustrated image now instead resembles an emotionally exaggerated mock-up of a student who succumbs dramatically to despair in a fetal position. The meme serves members of the participatory digital community as an opportunity to delegitimize the institutions that Rupi Kaur represents in a humorous way.
Indeed, the meme communication genre lends itself uniquely as a response to Kaur's products. Using the case study of the Qin meme on Taobao, researchers Junhua Wang and Hua Wang identified some criteria for memes' successful dissemination and survival, with a key factor being simplicity (270). This feature made it easy to replicate the Qin meme and be quickly understood by users (270). So if Kaur's poetry is branded as uniquely personal and profound, what does it say if it also functions as a successful meme whose success is driven by simplicity? The meme is an adequate answer, for the magnitude of its own popularity is a subversive testimony to the thinly veiled simplicity of the original content. The use of the memes genre to undermine populist institutions carries its own ironic aptitude, as memes themselves also depend on their divisibility as artifacts or products for survival. Indeed, in analyzing how the Rupi Kaur memes are a digitally savvy way to criticize the original content, we cannot forget that even memes are no exception to the populist institutions that the Rupi Kaur meme indirectly mocks. The Rupi Kaur meme not only delegitimizes Kaur's poetry, legitimizes itself and the people behind it on an intellectual or cultural level in a hideous way, but also makes an ironic, self-ironic statement about how every cog in the machinery of divisibility, both Kaur's poetry and the meme genre should be critically scrutinized in this light.
This ironic self-irony is appropriate because the impasse between the authentic and the ironic is at the heart of Internet culture, says Jonathan L. Zittrain, current director of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society at Harvard and author of books on the subject of the Internet (392) . He gives the example of a player in World of Warcraft who had died in real life resulting in a virtual wake for her in-game character held by friends at her online guild, only to have her virtually massacred as a joke by another guild (392). Ironically, while seemingly unethical or unnecessary, the virtual massacre used the game to reveal another authentic truth, the fact that people take the game itself way too seriously. Rupi Kaur's meme also walks the fine line between authenticity and irony. Ironically, while a divisible meme is used to highlight the populist institutions behind Kaur's poetry, the attempt at authenticity is embedded in his indictment of divisibility assessment, even if the meme itself is no deeper or less divisible than the original Poem. On the line between irony and authenticity, the meme does not simply delegitimize Kaur's poetry while resting on a pedestal above populism; it stands as a self-evident and self-confident product of a world in which everything has value only if it is divisible, including the meme itself, and thus reflects our culture for what it is.
Further iterations of the meme along the chain of reproduction only show that it is hyperbolically expanded to exponential absurdity, as can be seen in the exhibits on Know your meme (An elegant example of this would be that I shoved a whole bag of jelly beans / up my ass) (“Milk and Honey” parodies). While seemingly irrelevant, the absurdity that memes are prone to may prove to be an indicator of intergenerational malaise. The French existentialist philosopher Albert Camus once identified the absurd as the result of this confrontation between the human need [for happiness and reason] and the unreasonable silence of the world, and it was this void of futility that made suicide the most relevant philosophical question ( 20). Although existentialism is not new in the 21st century, the rampant absurdity in meme culture could suggest that memes are a channel through which the digital generation deals with their unanswered calls for happiness and sanity, or in other words, meaning in Life. Elizabeth Bruenig, an essayist on religion, politics, and culture, seems to agree that this is an emerging language among youth today; she even mentions the trend millennial surrealism, referring to the surrealist trend of the previous century, but calls it a digital update in the language of millennials. Through hyperbolic and absurd memes, young consumers use their digital mother tongues to humorously cope with their struggle to find meaning in a more chaotic, postmodern world (Bruenig). Rupi Kaur's poetry and the populist institutions that make it possible are symptoms of such a world. The memes they parody are a coping mechanism for the fear that is generated when authenticity can simply be used as a populist trump card and divisibility is the new absolute measure of value. With one's worth and existence now so obviously assuming that one is liked and shared, it is hard to blame teens for worrying about the existence of independent authenticity and meaning. What better way to express this cross-generational fear than in a medium that is self-deprecating, but also self-confident in a relieving way?
The tendencies of Rupi Kaur's ever-increasing popularity and the proliferation of memes parodying her poetry are therefore not really surprising. Rather than viewing them as divergent trends, it would be more accurate to conceptualize them as parallel, driven by the same undercurrent of divisibility in a cultural world shaped by evolutionary memetic logic as first conceived by Dawkins, i.e. that only the best divisible can reproduce and survive. With that she really earned the title of a poet of the social media generation since The economist claims, but in more ways than one - while her poetry is raved about by fans who feel good about consuming her effective brand, even in today's digital participatory culture it is a perfect meme fodder, as a subtle statement of self-deprecating absurdity . In such an internet age, where you're practically surrounded by content like kaurs and absurd memes and everything in between, one can only wonder what it really means to exist and be truly authentic. But maybe this question is actually an eternal question that was fundamental to even being part of a social culture that has only now been renewed in the language of the digital natives.
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Wan Yii Lee
Wan Yii Lee’s 19GS is a Comparative Literature and Society major. Part of the dual B.A. Program between Sciences Po and Columbia, she spent her first and second years of study in Le Havre, France to study social sciences and law. Today she serves on the board of the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and the Columbia Association for Foreign Affairs with a special interest in Southeast Asian affairs. She is from Singapore and plans to return to public service political work after completing her Masters in Development Studies.