The Gutter, the River, and an Endless Hoop

Memes and Movements

Memes move through time. If they are these bits of culture that spread, across experiences, they certainly move through time. I could also reference to digital space, as Shifman does definitionally 1, when referring to memes traversing through platform to platform. While one might see this spacially, it is somewhat of an abstraction of our senses of memes. For simplicity here, let’s focus on the time-scale of memetics which is more grounded in our cognition.

When scrolling through the internet or moving from one platform to another, this is more interpretable as time passing than movements through space. It is fair to ultimately argue that the internet and the physical infrastructures which build them are spacialized across servers and screen pixels’ distances from each other. However, putting this aside for the moment, enables me to say something somewhat interesting about how memes become culturally embodied, and how this is somewhat joined to and differentiated from particularly spacial media: comics.

So for now, memetic “movements” here are time oriented more so than spacial.

Between Gutters and Rivers

Intuitively, visual internet memes are not too far away from existing like comics do. By comparison much of the same language Scott McCloud applies to comics can be applied to visual memes almost directly.2 Visual memes are collections of images, much as comics are. Between these images there are connections which signify the passage of time, a movement needed to get from one moment to the next. Across them, we imagine the action. Between them, the stitches of a narrative or a meaning are pulled together. In comics, when we see the stitch, it’s called a “panel,” but when the narrative seam disappears behind the page, it leaves a gap between panels called a “gutter.”

The “gutter” is where the invisible can be seen in two ways. The first way is within the page itself. As a seam, the thread must be there by physical necessity or else one image following from the next would be too much to assume. Since they clearly do, the seam exists inside the medium of the page itself. The page itself enables a connection from one moment to the next. The second way is by the narrative power of the viewer. As McCloud says, “Here in the limbo of the gutter, human imagination takes two separate images and transforms them into a single idea.” (2 p. 66). The viewer must make the cinema, the potentials of time, themselves. We make the virtuality of the gutter real. It is in these two ways, the seam is a multiplexed informational channel which is visible to us as a “gutter.”

For the comic strip, of course, this is modern, mechanical information flow. The system is a well glossed, illustrated, and stabled together contractual narrative agreement between the authors and the reader. The seam leaves little space by pulling the gutter taught and neat. The narrative is just as tight or loose as the author designed for the page. This leaves an intentionally limiting gutter offering the reader just enough material to play with. Information flows in parallel with the seam by the author. However it also flows parallel with the gutter and orthogonal to the narrative seam. Where those two flows meet, an idea forms at the cross.

But what happens when there is no mechanic to draw the contract for the viewer? The medium is no longer industrial production between the printed narrative and limited “human imagination.” The gutter becomes the virtual itself, a flowing river in all directions. No longer is the gutter designed between two images, but rather it is a river which erodes and builds its own two banks of the past and the future. The images are no longer authored and sewn together by the modernly contracted individuals who supply and demand a narrative. The narrative is joined together by the river of potential itself connecting the banks it finds itself between.

It is here that memetics is different from comics. Agency is no longer contractual designs of media and human. Agency is post-human. Memetics individuates information for us. It puts life into mechanistic communication and controlled mediation. In memetics the gutter becomes a river with a life of its own. As Dawkins3 and Wilkins4 put it, memes demand to be seen as akin to organisms themselves.

Seeing the Flood

While such extended metaphors are poetic, in this case, it is not simply theoretical pandering. Such an informational flood is one which can be empirically seen despite being understudied. However, it is understudied because of its difficulty in being seen by all people in decidedly systematically analogous ways. Consider the informational “flood” that James Gleick attributes to the meme: “[A]n object is not a meme. The hula hoop is not a meme; it is made of plastic, not of bits. When this species of toy spread worldwide in a mad epidemic in 1958, it was the product, the physical manifestation of a meme, or memes: the craving for hula hoops; the swaying, swinging, twirling skill set of hula-hooping. The hula hoop itself is a meme vehicle,” (5 p. 313). For Gleick, the meme is not objective and lifeless. Upon having a hula hoop, a human is enabled to become some cyborg-ish connection between the two which is afforded by the human and hoop joining together, becoming “hula-hooping.”

However, what “hula-hooping” is, requires potentials of action which are not defined by some modernist “gutter.” Albeit, a hula hoop is, in fact, a product with a supposed contract for consumption in a similar way that comics are a contract between writer and reader. However, because the hula hoop is nothing more or less than a plastic ring of a specific size, the way in which it does its “swinging, twirling” and even bending or flipping is defined more by the action made possible between it and the body which uses it. The action between the hula hoop and the body which uses it creates the banks in which information’s river can flood and reshape the banks of the river. And this, most certainly, is not entirely within the agency of the “author” of the hula hoop if we could even find a specific person to attribute its design to.

When the hoop was popularized in the “epidemic” of 1958 that Gleick mentions, this hoop was passed on to Wham-O. Joan Anderson introduced it to a opportunist profiteer at Wham-O, and this profiteer decided to cut her out of the business deal. To some degree a hula hoop was capitalized on as an toy object derived from the activities of indigenous peoples. Among Anderson and those at Wham-O, likely they had no idea the history of the banks which the hula hoop connected. They just saw an opportunity for profit through limited uses as a toy or exercise equipment. To suggest that any or all of these people fully understood every possible use case of a hula hoop would be assuming they understood every case of its use and the creative developments that arise from such uses. Such an assumption is absurd and “contractually” limited to the capitalistic notion of patents supposed by Wham-O. This also does not address the cultural appropriation necessary to dissect the “hula hoop” from its original cultural usage for indigenous peoples and put a patent on it.

Despite all of this, hula-hooping is a legitimate expression of self and often is raised to the status of a skilled performance which has different meanings when contextualized in different material ways. It is different seeing someone perform with a “hula hoop” at a circus than at an indigenous dance for example. These actions are contextually intended for different purposes. The indigenous dance is often considered about an expression of spirituality and connection to life suggesting an intentional metaphysical worldview. A circus performance with a “hula hoop” is more a show of skill in of itself or a part of a collage of circus entertainment, suggesting a different worldview dependent upon the circus’s collage and story.

As such, hula-hooping is performed between and among different actors which all play a part in deciding the “idea(s)” that the hula hoop carries: its “meme(s)” as Gleick suggests. These memes are materially expressed and interpreted through those connections in performance.

However, now, one person’s experience with a hula hoop might be years to the next one, in a totally different moment, with totally different connections. As such, how we individually interpret what the “idea” of hula-hooping is happens to be very time oriented for every individual. The gutter can suddenly be made excessively wide with room for interpretation that is less decided upon by anyone except that individual. If being fascinated by hula-hooping, I could make my next experience with a hula hoop buying one, I could go watch hours of YouTube videos of hula-hooping, or I could feel the inspired to express my own best skills and never intentionally come across a hula hoop again. This sort of flexibility of the gutter does not occur for the comic. Upon being impressed with one panel, I move to the next almost immediately. With memes, connections between the “panels” is where the magic happens. It is there that our cognition of the “idea” of a meme germinates into the next panel of the narrative. The idea is how cultural time happens differently than other sorts of time, and with memes, the idea is more faceted and potentially more intense than any designed “gutter” in a comic because no one is contractually designated to be in control of that idea, by patent, by authorship, or otherwise. The “gutter” is free to be a river of thought even if a patent intentionally tries to steady its banks and direct its current.

Cultural Novelty

There are some who suggest caution here with good reason. Dawkins’s “selfish” origins of cultural units have a tendency to rhetorically align with adversity of culture and capitalistic competition. That is, memes initially appear to align evolutionary principles with capitalistic production and cybernetic control of information channels. As information theorist Kane X. Faucher puts it, “reducing cultural information to meme-units does seem to suggest that experience and memory are simply mechanistic,” (6 p. 31). While Faucher does not go as far as to say memetics is mechanistic, much of the Darwinian analogies developing out of Dawkins’s theory is. Even Daniel Dennett’s theory of cognition, including his use of selfish genes and meme, comes across as overly determined machines.

In contrast to this, Faucher forwards and evolutionary account of information which derives from philosophers Gilbert Simondon and Gilles Deleuze. In this setting, post-cybernetic information is developed by giving cognition to the information itself. Information is not entirely defined by the matter or energy in the world (physicalism) nor is it defined by pure forms (idealism), and further it is not defined by some functional connection between the two positions. Rather, information is something between and connecting matter/energy and form, but also connecting the virtual to the actual. That is, information carries potential outcomes which can never be said to exist in an a priori sample space: i.e. a bag of options where all options are known. In this way information can always carry the ability to express some virtual possibility that is unknown presently.

The memetic river is this kind of information. Memes can actualize in new things in culture in this way. And thus, novelty can exist which is not mechanistic, but depends on the way in which actions are embodied in the flow of things. For example, a hula hoop can happen across a new context where, unknown to the actors in the context, time gives the context meaning that was previously distant from the hula hoop. Such a differentiating expression enables us to know more about the meme connected to the hula hoop, but we can never fully know the hula hoop meme without having all of time connecting all the contexts of hula-hooping. It is in this way that the hoop is a closed circuit, but we can never claim every point connected to the hoop will be actualized. It is this way that memetics circumvents Faucher’s warnings of mechanistic determinism. It is in this way that the meme has an agency and a semantic unto itself.


Cover Image Attribution: Scott McCloud, Blood in the Gutter. Understanding Comics, p. 67, 1993

  1. Shifman, L. (2013). Memes in Digital Culture. The MIT Press. 

  2. McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. HarperCollins.  2

  3. Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press. 

  4. Wilkins, J. S. (1998). What’s in a Meme? Reflections from the Perspective of the History and Philosophy of Evolutionary Biology. Journal of Memetics, 2(1), 2–33. Scopus. 

  5. Gleick, J. (2011). The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood. Vintage. 

  6. Faucher, K.X. (2013). Metastasis and Metastability: A Deleuzian Approach to Information.Sense Publishers. 

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