Modal Ethos: Scumbag Steve and the Establishing of Ethos in Memetic Agents

Modal Ethos: Scumbag Steve and the Establishing of Ethos in Memetic Agents

Jonathan S. Carter (University of Nebraska – Lincoln, USA)
Copyright: © 2017 |Pages: 18
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-1072-7.ch014
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Traditionally, the artistic proofs center on the individual rhetor as the locusof ethos. However, as communication becomes internetworked, rhetorical phenomena increasingly circulate independent of traditional rhetors. This absence transfers ethos onto textual assemblages that often function as agents in their own right. This transfer of ethos is particularly apparent in memes, where fragmented images constructed across divergent networked media come together to form a single agentic text. Therefore, this chapter argues that a theory of modal ethos is important to understand this artistic proof's role in a networked media ecology. Through a modal analysis of the meme Scumbag Steve, this chapter argues that the modal construction of the meme gives it a unique point of view, complete with narrative history, affective representation, and social expertise—in short, its very own ethos. This allows networked participants to evoke the meme in controversies ranging from NSA wiretapping to the Ukraine Crisis, demanding new forms of political judgment.
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The arrival of an unwanted guest at a gathering can be terrifying, particularly when that guest has a history of unsavory behavior. However, in 2011, such an individual became one of the most popular figures on the Internet. Scumbag Steve, a meme depicting a discourteous young man, became an avenue for networked participants to identify the attitudinal and behavioral traits they found least desirable. In this capacity, Steve became the embodiment of the least popular ideas on the Internet (Brad, 2015). As one of the most circulated memes on the Internet (Popular Entries, 2015), Steve has strong cultural capital amongst participants in the networked public sphere. In fact, the meme has become so popular that the subject of the photo, Blake Boston, has adopted its persona to capitalize on the preexisting networked audience (Baker, 2012).

More than the propositional content of individual iterations of the meme or the strength of the humor, this meme functions through social understandings of Steve’s character as a disreputable and self-centered individual—a “scumbag.” Because of this meme's wide circulation, Steve's ethos has become a powerful resource for rhetors looking to criticize undesirable rhetorics in networked public spaces. Networked participants have imbued major figures including Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, and even Congress with the ethos of Steve as a method of criticizing these figures’ politics. Through the participatory invention of meme users, Steve has developed an ethos of his own—the ultimate scumbag. To be associated with Steve via inclusion in the meme suggests a sharing of this ethos.

Although these memes take the form of circulated jokes, they are more than trivialities. Rather, memes exert their own form of rhetorical agency. Moreover, just because the form of the meme relies on humor does not mean that Steve’s rhetoric is without political consequence. Hubler and Bell (2003) noted that humor is one of the dominant communicative modalities of networked discourse. Moreover, they contended, “Humor that conveys ethos pervades the rhetorical. The prerequisite knowledge and implied values of a particular style of humorous discourse have a determining influence on the structure of the community sharing the humor” (p. 277). The way that a networked public jokes about a subject, particularly its ethos, is constitutive of the communities that will emerge around that public. This shaping of attention then directs political action, as audiences are attuned by the meme to a particular way of viewing political events (Vie, 2014). Such influence suggests that memes have the capacity to exert rhetorical agency that does not stem from a single rhetor but is imbued in the meme itself.

Because the rhetorical force of Steve lies primarily in his ethos as a scumbag, he is a particularly interesting case for the evaluation of the political in networked rhetorics. Specifically, although ethos was traditionally considered a product of discourse, it is heavily reliant on bodies, space, and personal history—all concepts that are obscured or removed in networked contexts (Warnick, 2004). In an effort to better understand the shift of ethos in networked rhetorics, this chapter follows the advice of Damien Pfister (2014) to “theorize the kinds of rhetorical performances that prevail in networked media” (p. 187). Therefore, this chapter focuses on memes—and Steve in particular—because these texts are not only one of the most pervasive forms of communication native to the networked public sphere, but because their unique form offers a new model of networked ethos—the concept of modal ethos.

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