As budding dramaturgs, we’ve already been taught that we should go forth and feed ourselves on culture. But what if all that’s for dinner these days is commonly referred to as “the lowest form of culture”? Should this growing subset of our 21st-century cultural identity – internet memes – be able to whet our appetites? Apparently graduate student Kate Miltner, future recipient of a master’s degree in internet memes, thinks so.
Miltner first got my attention on the Independent’s online Life & Style section, in an article about her carrying the unfortunately apt title “Memes: Take a look at miaow.” The 29-year-old London School of Economics student, who has devoted her years as a graduate student to the “often trite viral images and films” we call memes, has just handed in her dissertation. As her profile on the Independent says, “Miltner will soon be qualified to say ‘I can has master’s degree’, having completed a qualitative audience study of lolcat users.” Shocked as I was to read this much of Miltner’s profile, an explanation of this new field of cultural study given by one of her colleagues stopped me in my tracks: “The short answer [to why meme research is important],” says NYU grad student Patrick Davison, “is because these are the kind of cultural interactions that people participate in these days.” Do I wish I could argue with Davison, and contest this artistically disheartening “short answer”? Yes. Can I? No. As much as it pains me to admit it, no.
As an academic field of study, what Miltner has devoted herself to is completely legitimate. Culturally, her endeavor holds as much weight as any artists’ might. In a strange, Warhol-esque kind of way, she is studying what the people consume as a culture, legitimizing it therein, and making a living off of it. And it seems to be teaching her a lot about the people themselves, lestaways the trends they follow. So then what is it about this article and this brand-new field of study that is so maddening to me, a growing artist of the theatre? I suppose a large part of my angry confusion stems from a resentment that, as Davison says, people have chosen pictures of plump felines wanting ‘cheezburgers’ as a method of interacting culturally with their fellow man. Or rather, that they’ve chosen that cultural medium, and not mine. Or hey, who knows, maybe I’m just upset that Kate Miltner thought of LolCats as a way to make a living first. So should we praise the industrious Kate Miltner and follow her meme-tastic example? Should we as theatre artists continue to work with those in her field to further the relevance of our own art form? Or is there a cultural shift and separation the theatre should make for preservation’s sake?