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Whence come memetic contagion, the uncanniest of all guests?

A sincere guide into ironic meme-verse


Richard Dawkins said, “Memes (discrete units of knowledge, gossip, jokes, and so on) are to culture what genes are to life. Just as biological evolution is driven by the survival of the fittest genes in the gene pool, cultural evolution may be driven by the most successful memes.” Nowadays, memes can demand pretty high standards, you have to be aware of multiple obscure events and fads to get a single meme, and even then, it may not be funny. The obscurity of references in the meme is the humour, sometimes. But the memes are not sediments of curated knowledge and archaic references only— at least, they’re not just that. They don’t just name things; they also create, collapse, and melt contexts. They don’t only shift a world every time the format shape-shifts but also birth a new one.

If the meaning of the word or meme comes from the way it is employed rather than some inevitable truth about the reality it is supposed to capture, then the question to ask is not what does this meme means, but what does this word do here? What is its use?

Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, itself a meme-like series of baroque prose poems, is sprinkled with concepts equally difficult for newcomers to grasp. What does Wittgenstein mean by “language-game” or “family resemblance” In some contexts, even familiar words can suddenly seem meaningless, or worse, give us the wrong idea. In Revolution of the Ordinary, Norwegian philosopher Toril Moi gives a remarkable instance of Spanish bullfighting jargon, in which ordinary Spanish words are repurposed to reflect small bullfighting nuances. To translate such language, a Spanish to English dictionary is not useful to the uninitiated- you have to be immersed in the technical use of the language. The same might be said of Know Your Meme, or Urban Dictionary, or overly serious essays explaining memes at-length like this one. See what I did there? A self-reference, another tool in the memetic universe.

A self reference is another cool tool

A meme, in its true essence, cannot be defined because defining is limiting and that fundamentally opposes the function of memes in a culture. Not only the endlessly replicable joke format is malleable but the form itself becomes repeated to the point where it loses any original meaning outside of the repetition itself — repetition becomes the humor. Moi describes use as “a practice grounded on nothing” and whether you hate or love Damn Shawty Ok! Memes, that is rather a good description of memes. “Dictionaries struggle to keep up with us, not the other way around,” Moi writes, a belief validated by anyone who has read about some dictionary declaring some ancient (just months old, but that is ancient in online reality) piece of internet slang the “word of the year.” These words and phrases often have a burst of innovative usage before they collide with the normie population (aka boomers but could be anyone). They simply acquire new meaning — or, it might make more sense to say, the same set of letters becomes a different word, a different move in the game.

Deconstructing memes is a meme in itself

But the point of this dive into meme-culture to explore how much they are shaping thought itself. Online conversation is like all conversation, is embedded with what Wittgenstein termed language-games. In Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein gives the following examples of language-games: reporting an event, speculating about an event, forming and testing a hypothesis, making up a story, reading it, play-acting, singing catches, guessing riddles, making a joke, translating, asking, and thanking. Here are some modern examples: attacking someone for political incorrectness, signal boosting, virtue signaling, shitposting, mocking ironically, etc. The online mere verse then is more a Deleuzian cluster of small language-games than a single overarching one capable of being systemized. The use of the word online as a noun mocks the conception that it could be one mode of speech or one place you could visit. To learn a language-game, even as an observer, is a continuous matter of understanding specifics, complexities, and nuances. It requires, Wittgenstein insists, a “training of our attention as much as of our vocabulary and style.” Being extremely online is precisely this form of training. It is to be attentive to the interplay of textual-games, to intuitively grasp how they are played, and to learn to freestyle communication in different contexts. Even if we are away from online reality, the dramatic shift in language birthed by online reality lives in us. As Wittgenstein puts it, “If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: ‘This is simply what I do.’” (Nice.)

That explanation, however, probably did nothing to make the practice at all funny to someone who doesn’t already get it and enjoy it. Trying to explain why something is funny often drains a joke of all comedic value; on the internet, where something can strike thousands of people as funny one minute and painfully trite the next, trying to force explanations is lethal. In many cases, the context of who is using a meme changes the landscape for other people interested in using it — consider how quickly a meme dies when a branded account starts deploying it or, God forbid, your parents. Being extremely online or in other words, shitposting is a keen disposition to speed up this process of churn, to push through all of the possible permutations of one game to delete it and move on to the next one.

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Shitposting, a subculture in mere verse is perhaps defined by its inherent ideological anarchy. It is elusive in the sense that any attempt to analyze it only ends up reinforcing the “shitpost” by amplifying its signal. Shitposters, who have no ideological foundations, set a rhetorical trap for their enemies, who tend to be bound by having an actual point. Any effort to analyze their posts or meaning is futile as it ends up repeating them. In their indifference to content coupled with fidelity to aestheticized irony, shitposters mirror the disengaged ironists the 19th-century philosopher Søren Kierkegaard discussed in texts like The Concept of Irony and Either/Or. Kierkegaard says, the ironist “poetically composes himself and his environment with the greatest possible poetic license” and lives “in this hypothetical and subjunctive way.” Every post is an act of continuous self-creation and self-consumption. Stories become a tool, bereft of any facts or grounded reality, for the ironist to manifest his power, his philosophical strength, his verbal dexterity. He says things just to be the kind of person who says them, templatizing his posture. The ironist maintains his power by being a in perpetual fluid position, taking no stances, starting every argument anew. “There is something seductive about every beginning, because the subject is again free, and it is this pleasure the ironist longs for,” Kierkegaard writes in The Concept of Irony. “In such moments, actuality loses its validity for him; he is free, above it.”

For that freedom, the ironist is willing to say anything, make any argument, unbounded by any fear of being accountable, responsible. That is, the classic ironist is an internet troll. Kierkegaard’s ironist became significant in an era of increasing technological production, urbanization, secularization, and — ultimately — alienation. Shitposters have come of age in a generation characterized by a global schizophrenic fracturing of meta-narratives. They too live in a time of economic uncertainty and spiritual apathy in which foundational myths about the self have been fragmented. To fill the depthless void of uncertainty, of fear, of directionlessness, the ironist and the shitposter both create and sustain a self-image characterized by the freedom to say and do anything, accountable to nothing and to nobody — freedom that finds expression through transgression, infraction, and offense, saying things (racist, sexist, etc.) “nobody else” will say — except, of course, for the shitposters. This is how the narratives the “alt-right” tells about itself assume an almost religious temperament. They are founded on a desire for a meaningful narrative of the world that allows for participation.

Read also: 2020 Popular Memes Collection

However, the real core question we should be asking ourselves is, what kind of deranged world is birthing conditions where people online are increasingly incentivized for detachment, irony, and indifference rather than active engagement? David Foster Wallace, in his gigantic novels, hoped for a new genuine cultural sincerity aching to emerge from postmodern irony, but is that even plausible when the culture itself has been ossified by ironic detachment? Are we beyond the point of return?

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  1. […] Whence come memetic contagion, the uncanniest of all guests? […]

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