Ugandan Knuckles and the Death of the Author in the Age of Internet Memesan essay by Kirk Mudle
This paper explores the implications of Roland Barthes’ 1967 essay “The Death of the Author” in light of the cultural and technological shifts brought on by the internet. The study of Memetics is applied to Barthes’ conception of collective writing to show how technological advancements influence the way humans interpret and iterate on texts. The internet meme is analyzed as the product of a new form of collective writing. The complex authorship of the Ugandan Knuckles meme is taken as an illustration of the way internet memes problematize the reading, writing and interpretation of texts in online spaces.
Kirk Mudle received a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology from the University of South Florida in 2014 and is currently pursuing a Master of Arts in Cinema Studies at San Francisco State University. His research interests include self-reflexivity and intertextuality in contemporary cinema and new media. In-between existential crises he enjoys watching obscure Japanese avant-garde films from the 1960s and pretending he understands the work of Franz Kafka.
In the early months of 2018, the popular free-to-play virtual reality game, VRChat, came to be patient zero in the spread of a problematic new meme. VRChat, an app released through Steam’s Early Access program in 2017, is a virtual chat room where players can take on three-dimensional full-body avatars to explore virtual worlds and interact with other users. Although some pre-made avatars are available from the start, the developers actively encourage uploading of user models and even released a free software development program alongside the game. Due to the service’s lax guidelines, regulations and general indifference toward intellectual property rights, it is not uncommon for users to import assets from other video games and fan created models based on real life celebrities or fictional characters from other media. It would not be out of the ordinary to see three-dimensional representations of Jack Sparrow, Ned Flanders, and Hatsune Miku all lobbing virtual frisbees at one another in an intense match of “Battle Disks”, or simply discussing the latest episode of HBO’s Westworld. In contrast with traditional video games, where players are working toward accomplishing some type of objective within a given framework of rules and boundaries, VRChat is more of a virtual playground. The program’s desultory nature means that user communities only self-moderate, fostering a level of freedom and anonymity that makes harassment and trolling commonplace. The most noteworthy instance being the spread of the Ugandan Knuckles avatar, a distorted version of Knuckles the Echidna from the Sonic the Hedgehog video game series with an added layer of blatant racism. Groups (sometimes numbering in the hundreds) began donning the avatar to participate in massive raids where they would harass random players, asking them if they knew “the way” in crude imitations of African accents. The meme continued to reach into more mainstream online communities as Twitch streamers would broadcast their participation in the escapades, and recordings of the live trolling incidents were compiled and uploaded to video services like YouTube. The phenomenon reached its zenith sometime between mid-January and February of 2018 with multiple news outlets calling attention to the racist nature the meme came to represent.
It is tempting to view Ugandan Knuckles as just another example of internet harassment in the form of an inane mash up of unrelated pop culture fragments; a systemic malady of online gaming culture. But behind the absurd façade, Knuckles the Echidna’s transformation from a 1990s video game icon into a symbol of racial animus reveals a deeper truth about the death of the author in the age of the internet. The author’s decay in service of the reader’s supremacy, and humanity’s lack of control over the art they produce was already recognized by Roland Barthes over 50 years ago, but now has much darker implications thanks to the unique properties of the World Wide Web. The technological and cultural shifts made possible by online communication has led to an environment where readers (in this case the entire vast internet userbase) have been given the power to collect and reinterpret information like never before. One would hope that this multidimensional cyberspace would be the ultimate destination where texts could be read and meaningfully reinterpreted through productive intercultural dialogues. However, the controversies surrounding Ugandan Knuckles show that the internet’s oversaturation of information, combined with the new ease of anonymous communication has only intensified polarization. Texts can be manipulated and remixed into internet memes; textual perversions absent (or in ignorance of) any coherent original meaning and with no ideology beyond their continued proliferation. The voidance of meaning created by the internet meme allows harmful coded meanings to be passed along by ignorant users on social media platforms where only the most evocative ideas receive positive reinforcement. To fully understand the implications of this phenomenon it is first necessary to connect the theoretical threads of Barthes’ claims about authorship with the scientific study of Memetics. Both theories use terms that will be shown to refer to very similar conceptions about the way humans copy, interpret and modify cultural ideas; what Barthes views as a text is evidently the same as what Richard Dawkins called a meme, with some important distinctions.
In 1967 Roland Barthes prophetically declared the author’s death. His influential essay “The Death of the Author” was highly critical of the dominant philosophy in literary criticism that treated the author as the sole progenitor of their creative outputs, and the final arbiter of a text’s ultimate meaning. In this view the text itself is the product of a single voice, its failings, successes, and genesis all attributed to the author’s history, personality, and intentions. By assigning all aspects of a text’s creation tyrannically to that of the author, the critic then seeks to discover the author beneath the work, to explain and “decipher” the text, effectively closing it off to a single interpretation and extinguishing the potential of fluid and productive interactions with individual readers. For Barthes, a text instead is always a collaborative product indebted to a “special voice, consisting of several indiscernible voices” (2). Rather than being birthed by a single creator, the text is a constellation of multiple writings, a “tissue of citations” made up of a near infinite number of overlapping and competing pretexts from several sources of culture (4). The writer is only ever imitating and combining these anterior writings into new formations. And so, any attempt to assign a text a point of origin or single voice is ultimately a fool’s errand, only the lineage of its various influences and modifications can be traced; “everything is to be distinguished, but nothing deciphered: structure can be followed, ‘threaded” (like a stocking that has run) in all its recurrences and all its stages, but there is no underlying ground; the space of the writing is to be traversed, not penetrated…” (5). To read a text is to do so with respect to the various overlapping pretexts that construct the writing, accounting for its creative genealogy without attempting to assign an ultimate meaning. The “true locus of writing” comes from this process of reading; the reader traverses the various levels of a text, discovering the voices that constitute all its manifestations to pull forth an infinite number of possible meanings. The destination where the citations of a text find their unity is then the reader, as only they have the unique vantage point to see a writing in its totality. To clarify this point, Barthes uses the analogy of the Greek Tragedy, where the writing is often ambiguous and double-coded. Words shared between characters will have multiple meanings, at least one of which is not understood by those exchanging them. Only the spectator is positioned in such a way to see this other meaning, able to view the text in its entirety as it unfolds before them.
Barthes’ essay also introduces the concept of writing as a “void utterance.” The “utterance” of a text (the moment of its dissemination into the world) is where the “disjunction” between voice and origin occurs, and the identity of the writer is ultimately lost (2). Each of these utterances opens the text up to an endless process of interpretation, manipulation, and play with the reading public. While the author’s voice is lost, it is not robbed from them. The implication instead is that they never had creative authority to begin with, as their art is always indebted to anterior artistic and cultural influences. Writing is “void” at least doubly; it has no authorial origin and is emptied of definitive meaning at the moment of its utterance. Writing is a voice with no source, a hollowed space to be filled by the transcendental reader. And so, Barthes declared the author’s death in service of the birth of this impersonal reader. The author dies in the sense that original intentionality (their voice) is nullified as the work is disseminated through culture and its new life begins through collective writing, re-writing and interpretation.
The recent scientific studies of Memetics and memes in fact share many fascinating parallels with Barthes’ theories about the nature of writing and the production of texts. The concept of the meme was first proposed by biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene in 1976. His intention was to create a new term for an intellectual, cultural or social idea that is copied, modified and passed down over generations. Distinct from a biological gene, which is a hereditary unit passed from parent to offspring, a meme is “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation” (192). A meme can encompass any idea that is copied from one mind to another. It could describe something as complex as a religion or field of linguistic study, like Catholicism or semiotics, or just a catchy tune or colloquialism. Just as Barthes’ texts are always a complex product of an artistic anterior lineage, the meme has its own ancestry owed to a process of imitation and evolution. Dawkins’ naming of the “meme” deliberately echoes “gene” to call attention to the similarities between their reproduction; memes mutate and adapt across generations in ways that best promote their survival and continued spread. The qualities of memes that are good at propagating are amplified while their less permeating aspects get pushed aside or eventually expunged entirely. To this effect, memes have been considered by some to be a viral phenomenon, mutating and spreading with no moral or philosophical agenda aside from their own survival. Scholar Kevin Kelly, considering human culture as its own “self-organizing system,” sees memes as viral units of culture that operate with no higher motive than a “primitive drive to reproduce,” modifying themselves and altering their environment to aid their spread (306). Scholar Susan Blackmore goes as far as to describe human beings as “meme-machines”; tools that memes use for their own propagation. The implication essentially is that memes operate and evolve independently of humans’ ability to control them.
When we look at the way memes are spread by human (and other) technologies, the connections to Barthes’ theories begin to become more obvious. Technological advancements have throughout history added new dimensions to the spread of information, and so to the spread of memes. The printing press, radio and television all allowed much more rapid and efficient memetic transmission. But above all else, the World Wide Web is truly the “most fertile vector in memetic history,” its creation far surpassing these other methods and overcoming many of their limitations (“Memes on the Internet”). The cost and resources that are required to publish a book or air an advertisement on television can be bypassed online. In the early days of the internet the creation of individual websites and registration of domains could be done with relative ease, and today social media platforms allow people to share opinions instantly with limited personal or financial risks. Additionally, the internet’s position as an inherently interactive medium greatly contributes to its potential for memetic spread. Print, television and radio are passive experiences where the spectator is subject to the presentation of a single audio-visual property at a time, while search engines give a user instantaneous access to diverse catalogs of information simultaneously. There is also the added potential of anonymous posting in chatroom services and communities like Reddit and 4chan that makes direct communication between users without the normal time-space restrictions of the physical world. People on opposite sides of the globe can easily connect with others of similar interests and views, giving niche memes a potential for reproduction previously impossible. This anonymity also enables users to express controversial or transgressive ideas without the fear of social repercussions.
If Barthes is correct that the moment of a text’s utterance is when its voice is disjointed from a point of origin, then all tools that amplify the spread of information inherently increase the reader’s supremacy. As technologies improve the speed and reach of memes and texts, those texts are exposed to an even greater number of interpretations by readers of various cultural backgrounds. The reading public will then traverse levels of a text, distinguishing its influences and pulling their own individual meanings based on their past knowledge and experiences to form unique interpretive communities. As the printing press and television broadcasts improved memetic transmission, they also nullified the author’s control over their creations. The unique properties of the internet grants readers the ability to access, copy and collaboratively reinterpret texts in a way that was unthinkable at the time of Barthes’ writing. One would hope then this would create an environment where the nuanced collaborative writing that Barthes envisioned would come to fruition. Instead, the internet’s oversaturation of information tends to exacerbate modernity’s’ divisions and encourage polarization. Online culture today, given the sheer amount of data collected, gives priority to the promotion of simplistic messages and encourages the distilling of complex ideas and texts into their most impactful forms. One fascinating, if deceptively juvenile, manifestation of this phenomenon comes in the form of the internet meme, perhaps the ultimate illustration of this new form of writing in the digital era.
The previous discussion focused on memes posted online, which has important, if somewhat oblique distinctions from the subject of the present analysis; the concept of the “internet meme”. In 2013, Dawkins differentiated the “internet meme” as being a meme that has been deliberately transformed through human creativity. While biological genes and traditional memes mutate through a process of natural selection akin to Darwinian evolution, internet memes are, according to Dawkins, a “hijacking” of an original idea through direct human interference. Dawkins also makes the claim that the internet meme leaves a traceable lineage through its iterations in online spaces. So, the internet meme usually refers to a more tangible artistic creation, whereas the societal “meme” can be more of an abstract idea or theoretical model. Many internet memes are rather simple; merely taking the form of an image overlaid with text, but others are far more complex and made up of multiple overlapping mediums. Such internet memes, while having complex intermedial structures, are still not necessarily more sophisticated in the messages they convey. As will be shown in the example of Ugandan Knuckles, it is in fact the overlapping of unrelated texts that instead confuses and voids the meme of coherent meaning. In the absence of a clear ideology, the only goal of such memes is to elicit humorous reactions that encourage their continued spread between users.
It could be said that the internet meme, while in some ways embodies Barthes’ vision of the nature of writing, instead represents a perversion of his idyllic writing process. For Barthes, texts are always formed from the collaborative writing of “several indiscernible voices” from a near infinite number of pretexts; cultural contexts, and anterior artistic expressions all “entering into dialogue with each other, into parody, into contestation…” (6). Similarly, an internet meme is the product of several voices remixing the pretexts of numerous cultures and mediums into parodic forms. However, the discourse of the fully realized internet meme is something more akin to the way that Barthes views the rhetoric found in advertisements. In the “The Rhetoric of the Image” Barthes uses a Panzani pasta advertisement to analyze the way the combination of signifiers (in this case image and text) can direct a reader toward calculated interpretations that restrict potential meanings. Barthes argues that advertisements like Panzani’s are constructed from series of signs into scenes that intentionally encourage a product’s consumption by potential consumers. As in most texts, the meanings taken from an advertisement’s signs are informed by the cultural codes of its audience. However, what makes this system unique is the number of readings allowed by the same “lexical unit”. These units, presented in their simplest and clearest forms, carry connotations that vary between individuals dependent on different kinds of knowledge (practical, national, cultural, aesthetic, etc.). The variation of readings in the images’ discontinuous elements does not limit the effectiveness of the advertisement’s mission, but is instead a fundamental feature of its rhetoric. Through the joining of these elements, all with their own connotations, the advertisements’ true purpose is masked by the fabricated “naturalness” of the scene. The image then operates on a delicate manipulation, intentionally directing particular interpretations and closing off others; “…the text directs the reader through the signifieds of the image, causing him to avoid some and receive others; by means of an often subtle dispatching, it remote-controls him towards a meaning chosen in advance” (50).
The internet meme is similarly a merging of discontinuous signs often in their most simple or striking forms. These signs, like those in the advertisement, all on their own point toward a multiplicity of meanings both within, and between individual readers. So just as the clashing of meanings in the advertisement does not detract from its goal, neither does an internet memes’ intermedial amalgamation compromise its continued spread. The variation of readings instead aids in the meme’s accessibility and openness to further reimagining. However, this comparison is not a perfect analog as the internet meme has its own interpretive perils distinct from Barthes’ advertisement. The advertisement is deliberately constructed to encourage capitalistic consumption, but the internet meme, as previously noted, often has no mission beyond its own propagation. If the confusion of meanings in the advertisement creates the potential for an increase in capitalistic consumption, the confusion in the internet meme instead leaves a void to be filled with any number of problematic clandestine meanings. An internet meme becomes the ultimate void utterance as any semblance of definitive meaning is further obscured by its spread on social media platforms where its literal and figurative reinterpretation continues. Ugandan Knuckles, despite its admittedly inane appearance is a fascinating example of such a meme, one who’s clumsy transformation from a 1990s video game mascot to a symbol of racist harassment foregrounds these issues of creative expression on the internet. Its appropriation of multiple authorial voices and signifiers creates a surprisingly complex intermedial dialogue, one that directly lead to its rapid popularity and subsequent controversies. It also shows how digital culture, through the encouragement of a text’s memeification, creates the potential for unintentional and harmful ideas to be transmitted through the most innocuous symbols.
Ugandan Knuckles is far from the first instance of a seemingly innocent symbol’s appropriation into a racist icon. Pepe the Frog enjoyed life as a non-political meme as far back as 2008 before becoming universally recognized as a symbol of the alt-right and white nationalism during the 2016 American presidential election. What originally was an innocuous cartoon frog is now officially recognized by the Anti-Defamation League in their database of hate symbols along with the Swastika and the “Blood Drop Cross” of the Klu Klux Klan. Ugandan Knuckles is similar in many ways but represents an even greater amount of “hijacking” of different artistic works. The meme in question, while still constantly branching into new and more obscure variations, will be analyzed in the iteration that captured that public’s attention at the beginning of 2018; the racially charged VRChat avatar.
Ugandan Knuckles is a parody of Knuckles the Echidna, a fictional character from the Sonic the Hedgehog video game series. Originally designed by Takashi Yuda, Knuckles first appeared in the 1994 Sega Genesis game Sonic the Hedgehog 3 as a foil for the series’ title character. He appears as an anthropomorphic red echidna with large white gloved fists and dreadlocks which grant him the ability to glide through the air. He has since become a staple of the franchise and one its most recognizable representatives. Knuckle’s design has officially gone through many changes across the series’ 27-year run, but the short, chubby Ugandan Knuckles is a parodic fan creation. Its earliest appearance has been attributed to a 2017 video review of the Wii U game Sonic Lost World (2013) by Youtuber Gregzilla. The fanart was used as part of an animated skit critiquing the games’ unpolished qualities.
Gregzilla’s depiction quickly gained popularity as a different meme entirely; Knuckles Sings, where it would be featured lip syncing to a variety of popular songs. Months later, a DeviantArt user by the name of Tidiestflyer created a three-dimensional model of Gregzilla’s artwork. While Tidiestflyer makes a point that he did not make the “original” design, he admits that he did not get Gregzilla’s consent to use it. His 3D model is what would become the basis for the Ugandan Knuckles VRChat avatar.
So, from a visual standpoint the character is a fan parody of a pop culture icon, who himself is an odd interpretation of a real-life animal, further transformed into a three-dimensional rendition of the fanart. However, even more intermedial elements come into play when we factor in Ugandan Knuckles’ behavior and catch phrases. This is also where the problematic racial connotations begin to arise. Players taking on the avatar would enter public rooms in swarms, accosting random people and repeating the line “Do you know the way?” in stereotypical African accents, referencing a line from the 2010 Ugandan film Who Killed Captain Alex?. Directed by Nabwana I.G.G., the film gained meme-status in 2010 for its incredibly low budget, the studio reportedly only spending $200 on its production (Anyangwe). However, the persona often goes beyond merely referencing the Wakaliwood film to mock Ugandan culture in general. The mobs will chant “Uganda” and “Ebola”, while making spitting and clicking noises intending to mimic certain South African dialects. When asked by other players what their purpose is, the trolls would claim they needed to “find the way” to save their queen. As the fad came to dominate VRChat and spread to other internet gaming communities, the controversy intensified and some of the individual artists attributed to the meme felt the need to weigh in. The creator of the 3D model strongly objected to its usage as a tool for harassment. On January 7th, Tidiestflyer posted a comment (which he later removed) on the model’s DeviantArt page with a message urging people not use it to harass other players, arguing that it is taking away from the spirit of the VRChat community:
Please do not use this to bug the users of Vrchat. Its community means a lot to me and it would hurt me to see the rights of other users taken away and possibly restricted because of how out of hand it can get. Showing off their creativity and what they are capable of… Its like that special place for me. To get away from the real world and be someone I’m not….. But right now. Vrchat has become a meme ground and I feel I have helped to dig a grave for Vrchat.
In contrast, the director of Who Killed Captain Alex? embraced the meme, making several posts on Twitter showing himself participating in some of the raids. In early January, the meme had become widespread enough for multiple news outlets to publish articles calling attention to the racial and ethnic stereotypes it was promoting. A Polygon article published on January 8th described the meme as “problematic” saying that “regardless of what the intention of the meme is, the result is blatantly racist” (Alexander). A Kotaku article titled “Racist Jokes Keep Showing Up In Overwatch League Broadcasts” described the meme as becoming “racist for reasons that are excruciating to explain” (Myers and Grayson). The Daily Dot, New York Magazine, and USA Today went on to publish articles all similarly damning the meme as a symbol of racial animus. On January 27th, the gaming company Razor received swift condemnation when it tweeted an image of the meme created by a member of their community. They removed the tweet the same day and issued an apology, promising to be “more mindful of memes in the future.” But as is to be expected in the year 2018, the backlash against the meme’s perceived racism itself received backlash, seen by some as an example of political correctness run amuck. Apologists argued that the catch phrases are merely a harmless reference to the Ugandan film and made pedantic distinctions that the imitation of an African accent alone isn’t racist as it does not inherently imply racial superiority. Gregzilla also received blowback when he attempted to capitalize on the meme’s newfound popularity by selling merchandise with his original Knuckles artwork. He played into both sides of the debate; saying that those who are offended have a right to be heard, but that he doesn’t believe the meme to be racist or harmful in nature:
What is captured here through Ugandan Knuckles is the new “nature of writing” in the age of the internet, where the collective reading of the World Wide Web completely nullifies the voice of the author and confounds a text’s meaning. Through every form of the meme’s utterance, an author’s voice is snuffed out, and any coherent point of origin is further obscured, allowing a problematic layering of superfluous signs. Yuda’s original character design was twisted into Gregzilla’s artwork which took on new life as another meme. The initial popularity of the Knuckles Sings meme forfeit the fanart’s ownership to the online reading public, so much so that a DeviantArt user felt no obligation to get permission from Gregzilla before turning his drawing into a 3D model. As the model came to be used by mobs of trolls on VRChat, Gregzilla’s voice was already extinguished, as notably a January 8th eBaums’s World article credited Tidiestflyer as the meme’s “creator.” Gregzilla’s attempt to reclaim some semblance of control over his character through merchandising was shown to be futile as it was already seen as a racist image by a large portion of his audience. Although Nabwana I.G.G. did not seem to disapprove of the usage of a line from his film, its incorporation into the meme is another instance of authorial death. The miming of “Do you know the way?” in a fake African accent was an esoteric enough reference that many users had no idea of its context and used it as an opportunity to add additional racial undertones. Tidiestflyer’s impassioned comments about the misuse of his model in VRChat also show the internet meme’s ability to appropriate platforms entirely independent of itself. The “memers” (as Tidiestflyer called them) turned VRChat from an escapist social experience into a minefield of harassment, players constantly having to navigate the possibility of being raided by unoriginal mobs. The developers of VRChat too were forced to reevaluate their creation and make changes to try and account for the problematic reality of its unbound anonymous userbase.
Once a text achieves status as an internet meme it ultimately is handed over to the impersonal reading public of the internet. Original authors, if they can be called that, may attempt to reclaim some ownership of their creations, but such actions have been consistently shown to be futile. The artist who drew the first Pepe the Frog comic went on a feverish, but ultimately unsuccessful, crusade to prevent the alt-right’s use of the character. Matt Furie and his lawyers filed multiple cease-and-desist letters targeting various online personalities that used Pepe’s image for profit. “Your use of Pepe the Frog in connection with your promotion of hate is unauthorized and unacceptable,” one letter said. “Pepe is a peaceful frog who represents togetherness and fun—not hate.” Furie also went on to publish new comics with Pepe, killing the character off and then subsequently “resurrecting” him as an effort to recreate his image. But these readings of Pepe have not penetrated the way his hateful manifestations have, as he to this day remains a hate symbol in the Anti-Defamation League’s database. In both the eyes of the legal system and the public consciousness, Pepe is a digital communal property. Furie’s new Pepe is, in the end, just one more mutation of the meme, another void utterance into cyberspace.
The internet, like Barthes’ impersonal reader, is indeed a field where all the voices of a text can be collected. But where this represented unification of a text for Barthes, the internet’s fundamental qualities disrupt any possibility of unity. Online the oversaturation of information combined with the simplicity of anonymous interactions between interpretive communities creates a fractured reading environment. Texts, and any variety of artistic works are taken and reformed into whatever manifestation is most likely to be spread regardless of meaning or worth. The metamorphosis of a cartoon echidna into an intertextual mosaic of hate is just one manifestation of the how problematic this digital landscape’s memeification can be. Of course, something as innocuous as a video game or comic book character being transformed in this way may not be of great significance in the grand scheme. But what happens when these powers of re-writing are turned onto more “consequential” memes? The internet is a part of human culture that is increasingly difficult to separate from our daily lives, and in many ways is becoming the default medium where artistic and cultural works are recorded for posterity. The collaboration allowed by the internet could still be, and often is, utilized in ways that are reminiscent of Barthes’ utopian textual vision. Certain online forums allow for spirited and thoughtful discussions and collaborations between people of varying cultural, economic, and social backgrounds. But social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit offer an immediate gratification that is far more appealing to the majority of users. It would certainly be foolish, and short-sighted, at this point to suggest a reversal of this cultural transition. What may still be possible however, is to limit our dependence on social media platforms that require the filtering of art, ideas, texts, and memes into forms that lack complexity and nuance. Until culture moves toward different methods of information dissemination, the output of artistic creations online will only intensify polarization. In the form of 280-character hot takes, faceless masses shielded behind avatars will be left to endlessly debate the redeemability of a cartoon echidna spouting racist epithets.
Maybe this is what digital culture is. A monstrous mountain of trash, the ash-heap of creativity’s fountain. A landfill with everything we ever thought of in it. Grand, infinite, and unsorted.Bennet Foddy, Getting Over It
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