Don’t Tase Me, Bro: Emergent Participatory Economies across Web Spaces

Don’t Tase Me, Bro: Emergent Participatory Economies across Web Spaces

Lynn C. Lewis


Lewis expands Critel’s commonplace of technology to instances of participation in online spaces. Inspired by Critel’s work on participation rhetorics in the classroom, she explores ways in which identity remains embodied in Internet participation. She analyzes recent and well-known instances of protest that became viral Internet memes, which she identifies as examples of cultural objects that depend upon participation to function. Lewis argues for “meme embodiment,” explaining that though viral memes can seem ephemeral and anonymous because of their velocity and temporality, a focus on their embodiment directs attention to memes not only featuring bodies as rhetorical content but also the ways in which they are created, circulated, and revised by a community of composers and audience members.

Introduction: Lonely Tree

Although acts of participation are performed by student bodies, embedded in specific times and places, the reality of those bodies is not addressed.

— Genevieve Critel, "Investigating the Rhetoric of Student Participation: Uncovering and Historicizing Commonplaces in Composition Studies"

Easily instantiated: a single human resisting the brute force of the State. The cultural commonplace is offered over and over, complicated narratives squeezed into a familiar, comforting form. Here an anonymous man stands still in front of army tanks in Tianneman square. And here, South African activist Nelson Mandela raises a triumphant fist as apartheid finally ends. Aung San Suu Kyi is not permitted to leave her house in Myanamar year after year, but becomes a focal point for the prodemocracy movement. She sits, head bent in study. The "woman in red" caught by cell-phone photo does not bow her head against the blasts of fire hoses on a public square in Turkey. These images of dissent circulate across Web spaces, inviting viewers to imagine themselves as lonely, proud resisters and to indulge in the comfort of commonplace. I choose the windblown tree image as metaphor for this commonplace (fig. 1). But, as Critel argues in her insightful dissertation, "Investigating the Rhetoric of Student Participation: Uncovering and Historicizing Commonplaces in Composition Studies," examining commonplaces is crucial work, perhaps the essential task of rhetorical studies.

Figure 1 is a black and white image of a windblown tree in a field.
Fig. 1. An image of a windblown tree in a field.

Critel's analysis, focused in composition studies, investigated how participation rhetorics emerge within first-year classrooms through concrete instantiations such as course syllabi, instructor responses to surveys, and College Composition and Communication (CCC), a primary journal of the field. However, her insights on commonplaces deserve broader application. Like Critel, I define participation as embodied performance. Participation is critical to the successful writing classroom, yet instructor-student power dynamics complicate participation contexts, as Critel points out. But what about outside the classroom? What happens to participation when this power dynamic is replaced by resistance to authority? Without the logic of course assessment to contend with, what determines how instances of participation inspire—or fail to inspire—dissent? In this essay, I build on Critel’s work in order to develop the concept of emergent participatory economies. While Critel focuses on the first-year writing classroom as a site where participation is privileged variously, I interrogate sites of student resistance through iterations of participatory Internet memes. Although Internet memes themselves are a familiar phenomenon to Web citizens, scholarly work defining and parsing how student dissent emerges and circulates on the Web through memes remains to be done.

Tap Root

The emergent participatory economy represents densely imbricated values, exigencies, exchanges, and contexts both embodied and virtual. In a capitalist system, economy connotes the exchange of goods and services for money. Certainly, the capitalist definition of economy has been argued to dominate the Web. However, Web spaces feature multiple economies, ones in which the measure of exchange may be social capital of one kind or another. Michele Knobel and Colin Lankshear focus on "mindsets" in the first chapter of their edited book A New Literacies Sampler and suggest that the mindset typical of new literacies focuses "increasingly on collectives as the unit of production, competence and intelligence," suggesting that here "value is a function of dispersion" (11). The emergent participatory economy participates in this mindset: it is in the process of becoming and dependent on circulation. Memes represent artifacts of this economy, although they vary considerably, as Knobel and Lankshear point out through their careful typology of memes (218).

I am most interested in participatory memes, particularly the unusual few that invite dissent. The Web site KnowYourMeme ( has been tracking and researching memes since 2008. Their vast and increasing data set is filled with images and videos inviting a quick laugh or headshake: angry cats, cute puppies, adorable babies, spoofs of actors and politicians, tag lines from ads or popular television shows, and careless or over-eager or inebriated men and woman caught in embarrassing pratfalls. But some memes differ, as I will show later.

The millennial generation, sometimes referred to as millennials, has been famously defined as passive, consumerist, and shallow. As Critel points out, student bodies are frequently constructed by rhetorics dependent on particular delimiting values (63). Students addicted to video games, goes the conventional argument, spend their time in small dark rooms with the light of video screens flickering on their absorbed faces. But passivity does not gain social capital and virtual spaces are constructed of communicative acts meant to inspire action. Scholars such as Collin Gifford Brooke, David P. Sheridan, Jim Ridolfo, Anthony Michel, Kristen L. Arola, Cynthia L. Selfe, and Gail Hawisher among many others have interrogated these acts. Like these scholars, I resist conventional warnings of millennial passivity, consumerism, and infantilism. I focus on investigating moments of genuine embodied student resistance accompanied by the virtual, a meme.

In this essay, I first consider the necessary components of dissent. I describe the history of the controversial bust of assassinated San Francisco mayor George Moscone. This history reveals how the opportune time and right place contribute to constructing a cultural object as symbol of dissent. I then move from the concrete cultural object to the virtual through a description of the "binders full of women" meme that circulated following presidential candidate Mitt Romney's debate gaffe.

Next, I examine two moments of dissent that were quickly recast into Internet memes. I describe Andrew Meyer, the Florida State student tasered by police for refusing to sit down, whose cry of panic, “Don’t tase me, bro,” became a meme. I contrast Meyer’s resistance with the Student Occupy movement at UC Davis, where students were mercilessly tear gassed by the now infamous Sergeant Pike. Pike’s image, tear-gas canister in hand, was photoshopped into classical paintings that sped across the Web, yet unlike Meyer’s cry, this participatory meme not only invokes dissent but inspires students to discuss social justice issues. How can we understand this contrast? What are the implications for embodied participation in acts of resistance? How might writing instructors “read” these memes with their students, and what might this suggest for composing work?

Critel’s participation topoi of technology, embodiment, and community are not static nor are they particular to a single context. Her insights on how these topoi apply to participation can be further extended. I will consider a context distant from the classroom and, certainly, from the assessment topoi also important to Critel’s work. Yet, reading and composing are central to the embodied performances of both contexts. Might reading and composing, then, be the currency of emergent participatory economies?

[Go to "Art as Dissent"]