Trollin' Barthes:
Internet Memes and Deconstruction

by Jon Santos

In this series of essays, we finally ask the one question that's been nagging us for years: is the "internet meme" a postmodern masterpiece? Twentieth century French philosopher Roland Barthes may have our answer.

1. Of Myth and Meme

Take a good look at the image below. If you were asked to describe it, what would you say? Perhaps a more difficult question: what does it mean? What is its intended message?

Barthes's Famous Example of a Myth

You might say that the image exemplifies national pride among French youth. However (if you’re a cynical 20-something like me), you might also say that the image presents yet another example of black exploitation in the media—people of color treated as aesthetic spectacles rather than men and women. Or, having noticed French words that you don’t understand, you may have promptly decided this image was not intended for you at all. You may have scrolled right past it.

There are many ways to “read” this image, and a multitude of meanings which can be extracted from it. Roland Barthes, early in his career as a semiotician, wasn’t threatened by this sense of ambiguity. Instead, he sought a scientific method to reveal the true meaning of the image, a surefire way to read and interpret any text that one confronts. By his own admission, he was unsuccessful (Image Music Text 165). But, as these essays will argue, Barthes's theories of reading, writing, and the text—whether they hold up or not—offer a compelling baseline for the discussion of our most baffling contemporary art form: the internet meme.


Barthes’s Mythologies, published in 1957, is frequently cited by contemporary readers as an early example of cultural criticism. This collection of essays—with subject matter ranging from amateur wrestling to fancy steak dinners—sought to expose the social, political, and ideological systems hidden in various cultural phenomena. Barthes characterizes these phenomena as modern-day “myths”: those cultural texts that are mass produced, mass consumed, and politically motivated. Borrowing from the Saussurean model of linguistics, Barthes describes the mythical as a “second-order semiological system,” in which a signified concept is replaced by a second signifier ("Myth Today" 114). The danger, he believes, lies in these myths’ ability to disguise their motivations—their bourgeois ideologies—therefore making the political (social/cultural) appear neutral, natural, or transcendent. In one famous example, Barthes observes a magazine cover featuring a uniformed black child giving a salute. This image, in its literal or denotative form, could signify just what I have described. However, Barthes claims that the magazine has corrupted this formerly “innocent” image with a hidden political motivation: what was formerly signified—the saluting black child—is now employed as a signifier of French imperial power ("Myth Today" 116). In other words, the image’s denotation is hijacked and replaced by its connotation. It is therefore this process of hijacking, of appropriation, that defines and empowers the Barthean myth.

The savvy reader or viewer will undoubtedly notice a similar appropriative strategy at work in today’s media: a television commercial features Michael Jordan chugging Gatorade just before he shoots a career-defining jumper. Jordan’s on-court success is thus taken to signify the benefits of drinking Gatorade. A news show features a graphic of the planet earth, rotating endlessly, signaling to the audience the global importance and universality of the program. There are countless examples, and a general understanding of this appropriative scheme has left the public well-equipped to read and expose the many “myths” they confront daily. But, as this essay will argue, Barthes’s well-worn theory of myth is currently undergoing a radical, reformative development on the internet—particularly in the form of internet memes.

Internet memes, in their constant reuse and reassemblage of online content, function quite similarly to Barthean myths. Digital media scholar Limor Shifman defines an internet meme as “a group of digital items sharing common characteristics…which were created with awareness of each other, and were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet” (41). These "items" can take the form of images, videos, mash-ups, hashtags, or any other media that is shared across the internet. It should be noted, however, that Shifman's definition poses an internet meme as a group of associated digital items. This not only necessitates the mass reproduction of content in order to reach memetic status (“go viral”), but also the mass appropriation of this content. For example, a picture of your cat is not a meme. Shifman’s definition requires that your cat picture is first appropriated by other users of the internet. In a mythical framework, this involves the replacement of the denoted signification of the picture—what was perhaps formerly “your cat sleeping”—with a new signifier.

This process is clearly illustrated by a subgenre of internet meme, what Shifman has called “image macro” memes (122). These are memes in which internet users superimpose text over a fixed image. While the image itself remains the same, the text overlay varies from meme to meme, providing new significance to the image according to the text’s content (Milner 28). In the case of your cat picture, a text overlay reading “I only sleep between naps” would appropriate the image, empty and occupy its signification, and therefore produce an internet meme. It is this fundamental logic of internet memes, the required process of appropriation through imitation and transformation of meaning, that sets them in such close relation to Barthean myths.

But are these proper Barthean myths, or are internet memes merely “mythical” in their use of appropriation? To investigate this question, we must dig into the concluding sections of Mythologies, as the Marxist critic at the heart of the Barthes's early work reveals himself:

“Everything, in everyday life, is dependent on the representation which the bourgeoisie has and makes us have of the relations between man and the world.” (140)

Barthes warns that the mythical process, in its ability to naturalize or normalize political ideologies, is an especially potent weapon in the hands of—you guessed it!—the bourgeoisie. Bourgeois society, Barthes claims, relies on myths in order to make its influence appear neutral or invisible, to make the very title of the bourgeoisie disappear (138). Bourgeois, petit-bourgeois, capitalism—these entities are “the locus of an unceasing hemorrhage: meaning flows out of them until their very names become unnecessary” ("Myth Today" 138). Such a “quieting” of capitalist motivations is easily recognizable in the myths of contemporary mass marketing (Michael Jordan is now synonymous with his shoe brand). With internet memes, however, an underlying sense of irony, play, and ambiguity works to conceal ideologies in a new way (Milner 55). This makes a distinct political stance often impossible to track down.

Digital media scholar Ryan Milner owes the prevailing ambiguity of internet memes to their collective appropriation by multiple internet users (26). A single static image may be appropriated with multiple different intentions, within multiple different contexts, depending on the meme’s creator. Thus, competing ideologies, motivations, or intentions are as various as the internet memes they occupy. Milner also calls attention to the “ambivalent irony” of internet memes—that is, their tendency to blur the line between sincerity and satire (142). Your sleeping cat picture, once appropriated, may appear to be motivated by some bourgeois ideology (“I should get back to work at the ball-of-yarn factory!”), or it may have ironically employed this bourgeois register in an act of resistance. The meme may also, as is often the case, seem to be “just a joke.” Such is the dialectic of the normie and the troll.

But this is not to say that internet memes are never in the service of a political agenda. On the contrary, as the public has adopted social media as their chief means of accessing and engaging in national conversation, internet memes have become an increasingly powerful tool in online discussion. The adaptability of internet memes, in their simple reproduction and transformation of shared content, allows them to function in many different contexts and across the political spectrum. Milner sees this as a sort of lingua franca for those participating in online discussions: The structure of memes, he says, “is decidedly more polyvocal—more the realm ‘of the people’—than narrow one-to-many modes of mass mediated communication” (159). Rather than requiring any high level of political literacy, internet memes offer an accessible and populist form of communication, which allows for greater inclusivity and broader receptivity online.

But the apparent populism allied with internet memes, as Barthes may be quick to point out, remains vulnerable to bourgeois manipulation. During the 2016 presidential campaign, for example, Russian hackers reportedly planted “radical” political memes throughout Facebook, in an effort to spread misinformation and incite partisan division. These memes were soon picked up by unsuspecting social media users and posted to their own profiles. Even as seemingly authorless texts, as a freestanding and publicly accessible means of communication, the internet meme is still not immune to political intervention.

Within the ambivalent, versatile arena of internet memes, then, the political function of the Barthean myth appears to blur. The defining characteristics of internet memes depend upon their ability to change hands, and therefore to change in function, intention, and motivation. Barthes’s old myths, on the other hand, are somewhat more fixed in their structure: the “real” is used to conceal the constructed, or political. The saluting black child is used to conceal an endorsement of French imperialism. The sign in its most “innocent” form is appropriated with political intent. The problem that today’s internet memes seem to demonstrate, and what Barthes seemed to conclude later on, is the basic ambiguity of all language—the lack of fixed terms and hidden meanings, the lack of a “real” that precedes the “constructed.” It is this postmodern concern that Barthes would explore in his subsequent essays, as he attempted to redirect his mythical project toward something far more momentous than bourgeois magazine covers—a concern I will discuss in detail in the next section.