Like, Memes: The unseriousness of ironic detachment
On the need for seriousness and what happens when we are controlled by cheap irony.
The internet meme has a style all of its own, a style called “internet ugly”. Features of internet ugly are low-resolution images, often crudely drawn faces or old photographs scraped from the corners of the web, with poorly photoshopped text crammed inelegantly over the whole thing. In spite of this anti-aesthetic, many memes are actually created by teams of professionals, hired by today’s glibly postmodern and safely iconoclastic companies to give their brand a veneer of creativity, which internet culture mistakes memes for.
One such group of meme engineers was visited by a journalist for Vox in a video on why memes matter. In the video, we meet a man named Sonny who’s asked about what makes a meme speak to a wide swathe of the internet audience. Sonny answers with candour, “I notice the stuff that I work harder on goes less viral than the stuff that I make in, like, two minutes.” The most telling part of his interview comes when he reflects on what memes are for and he says:
“Most of memes are just, like, things that a lot of people are thinking that they don’t say out loud. So they can just post it and feel like they’re saying it without being, like, personally attached to it.”
This reminds me of an article by Christopher Hitchens in which he considered the rise of “like” as a filler word, the California affectation that (much like a meme) has spread across the English speaking world. What struck me most when I first read the piece, because it so resonated with my experience of this vernacular tick, was a quote Hitchens provides from two linguists:
“One of the innovative developments in the white English of Californians is the rise of the discourse-marker ‘I’m like’ or ‘she’s like’ to introduce quoted speech, as in ‘I’m like, where have you been?’ This quotative is particularly useful because it does not require the quote to be of actual speech (as ‘she said’ would, for instance). A shrug, a sigh, or any number of expressive sounds as well as speech can follow it.”
Re-read Sonny’s statements on memes and notice the ways in which he uses “like”. He describes some of his work as being created “in, like, two minutes”. The usage here implies hyperbole, that to take him at his word that he means precisely two minutes is to miss the point – he really means that they were made “quickly”. This is the kind of “like” described by the linguists above, the kind that absolves the speaker from the responsibility of quoting verbatim or being precise in their language.
But he also uses “like” before supplying his definition of memes, as if to soften the declarative quality to his statement, hedging his bets so that if asked to defend the definition, he can shrug it off as if he never intended it to be categorical. He does the same before suggesting that what memes offer is detachment of the speaker from what they’ve communicated, as if he hopes to make this claim “without being, like, personally attached to it”.
So memes act in the same way “like” often acts: as a method of keeping oneself at a safe remove from the criticism or ridicule that sincerity might invoke. They offer ironic distance, a pose by which one can simultaneously make a point and ditch all responsibility for having made it. You can test the social waters, and if they are frosty and you aren’t well received, you can pull back and claim it was deliberate hyperbole. You can offer the smallest measure of a personally held conviction watered down with plenty of irony, and if it isn’t to the other person’s taste, that’s only because their intellectual palate isn’t refined enough to “get it”.
Rilke was alert to the dangers in overindulging irony. In a letter to the young poet seeking his guidance, Rilke wrote, “Don’t let yourself be controlled by [irony], especially during uncreative moments. When you are fully creative, try to use it, as one more way to take hold of life.” Used artfully, as the better among the postmodern artists have sometimes managed, irony is a tool with which life can be embraced, or even enhanced – Hitchens described irony once as “the gin in the Campari, the cream in the coffee”.
But what happens when we are controlled by irony? What happens when we are bound, as we increasingly are, by the strictures of bathos in a society that must undercut every sincere moment with a laugh? What is lost to us when we tether ourselves to the ledge of honest introspection – of ourselves, our communities, our politics – and are never brave enough to leap headfirst into the uncertain void, to risk ourselves or, at the very least, our pride?
It's worth reflecting on these questions, but here are just three of the most important things that I believe we have lost, or are in the process of losing:
1. The opportunity for meaningful encounters with other people, with art, and with life itself. In The Festival of Ignorance, Milan Kundera wrote:
“We’ve known for a long time that it was no longer possible to overturn this world, nor reshape it, nor head off its dangerous headlong rush. There’s been only one possible resistance: to not take it seriously. But I think our jokes have lost their power ... All you get out of it is weariness and boredom.”
“This flippant irony, this perpetual shrug, eventually demands a salve to its own boredom, which is provided by a cultural fixation on the ephemeral and the insignificant. Objects of mass culture that pop in and out of existence faster than anyone can keep up with, and which are engaging enough to distract but not so deep as to invite the discomfort of a meaningful meeting with reality – these are the amusements of a complacent culture.”
And so we sacrifice quiet for constant distraction, depth of experience for the immediacy of the infinite scroll, and we fend off anything – other people, great art, profound experiences – from reaching the deepest parts of our souls with a sarcastic parry and ironic riposte.
2. A basic understanding of the religion that formed so much of what we take for granted today. More of us are identifying as non-religious, and that on its own might not be a bad thing, but along with the rise in non-theism has come a devaluing of everything that got us here in terms of values and the architecture of some of our most important institutions. It seems as if a memorised list of the “gotcha” moments in the Bible (the various contradictions when read literally, scenes of genocidal rage from God, etc.) is all a person needs to know in order to reject the whole history and enterprise of Christianity.
I know atheists who still, in their thirties, smugly wish people a “happy zombie Jesus day” at Easter. Questioned about their knowledge of the Easter story, they will look at me like I am a simpleton who perpetually misses the point and redirect away from my question by saying, “It’s just a joke.” For such people, ironic detachment keeps them from having, in Jürgen Habermas’ phrase, “an awareness of what’s missing”.
3. Opportunities to discover, as the result of real struggle, solutions to problems we face as a society or even as a species. Problems such as climate change, abortion rights, the role of the government, not to mention the ethics of meat-eating, tech regulation, or sex reassignment surgeries. We often see these as such insurmountable problems that we doubt whether we can solve them. The temptation then is to slide into the cynicism of the world-weary, to adopt the pose of the postmodernist who has “seen through” the issue and knows enough to protect oneself with ironic detachment, to shrug off the weight of the argument with a flippant comment.
And so, instead of solutions, we get sarcasm. Instead of acknowledging pathos, we get lazy, boring bathos. Instead of the marvels of Art, we get Marvel movies. Instead of the seriousness that underlines all the best things in life, including the best comedy (however hard it makes us laugh, great humour always relates seriously to truth), we get what we might call “unseriousness”.
In Penelope Lively’s evergreen novel Moon Tiger, the main character intuits the degradations of unseriousness. She believes “there are certain sanctities,” a word rarely uttered these days in polite society. Her fear is that “by the time we have reduced everything to entertainment we shall find that it was no joke after all”. But for those of us who have not abandoned the conviction that there might be things of real worth to be discovered if we would only take them seriously, we still have Rilke. Here is his prescription against the cheapening effects of risk-free irony:
“... turn to great and serious objects, in front of which [irony] becomes small and helpless. Search into the depth of Things: there, irony never descends and when you arrive at the edge of greatness, find out whether this way of perceiving the world [through irony] arises from a necessity of your being. For under the influence of serious Things it will either fall away from you (if it is something incidental), or else, (if it is really innate and belongs to you) it will grow strong, and become a serious tool and take its place among the instruments which you can form your art with.”
• The Other L-Word, in “Arguably”, Christopher Hitchens (2010)
• Why Do Memes Matter? - Glad You Asked S1, Vox [YouTube] (2019)
• Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively (1987)
• Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1929)
• The Festival of Ignorance, Milan Kundera (2014)
• The Festival of Insignificance: On Asking Big Questions, for “Art Of Conversation”, Matthew Morgan (2020)