For those of you who aren’t familiar, the Death of the Author is a theory that can be aggressively summarized like this: A creator’s interpretation of their own work is not definitive, but rather one among many interpretations generated by the people who experience the creation.

Therefore, a given piece of art doesn’t “mean” anything in a be-all-end-all sense. The meaning resides with the viewer. A sufficiently compelling interpretation may end up dominating public discourse, but whether it’s “true” is beside the point. “True” is not always a relevant or adaptive quality for an idea. Information spreads based on other factors.

"Pepe the Frog was already a perfect demonstration of The Death of the Author, but now it's even funnier"

Tweet by @drethelin.

The average person who recognizes Pepe’s woeful face has no idea that he was first drawn by Matt Furie for a comic called Boy’s Club. The internet is practically an author-killing machine, since it’s so easy for content to be pulled out of its original context. That’s how memes work — both the image-plus-caption kind and Dawkins’ original formulation.

Now Furie has symbolically slaughtered Pepe, and I really mean symbolically, since the rest of the Pepe-using internet will ignore this. (Except… it’s possible that Blepe will become a robust replacement? I dunno, y’all, 4chan has unpredictable whims.) To his credit, Furie does seem to understand how it works:

Before he got wrapped up in politics, Pepe was an inside-joke and a symbol for feeling sad or feeling good and many things in between. I understand that it’s out of my control, but in the end, Pepe is whatever you say he is, and I, the creator, say that Pepe is love.

I think the phenomenon actually goes further than the Death of the Author. First the author dies and then their body is resurrected and defiled, or spliced into a Frankenstein-style army. (Sorry, I’m butchering the metaphor, and yes, pun intended.)

Alt-right jokesters aren’t passing around the original “feels good man” reaction image anymore. Well, they are, but it’s not the dominant use-case for Pepe. He’s been remixed and morphed beyond what Furie created — internet denizens took the idea and ran with it, like they did with Slenderman. (As far as I know, Pepe hasn’t motivated a murder yet.)

I mentioned in my previous missive that I want to investigate how information flows up and down the cultural stack, from subcultures to the mainstream and back again. The process that Pepe underwent — is undergoing — constitutes one pattern. I suspect that authors who make meme-able content will lose bets on their own survival.

Header artwork by Matt Furie for The Nib.