‘The old is dying and the new cannot be born; now is the time of monsters’ wrote the great Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci from a fascist prison cell in 1930, but he could just as easily have been talking about the 2010s. And the myriad reflections of the various monsters that have rampaged their way through the last ten years can most easily be traced when viewed through the prism of the cultural form that has perhaps defined the decade more than any other; the meme.
To give a very brief history, the concept was actually coined by Richard Dawkins back in the 1970s, where it referred to evolutionary traits that spread rapidly due to their endless ability to replicate and reproduce themselves in new contexts. But when anybody talks about memes in 2019 they are almost definitely talking about the spread of memes within internet culture; something becomes a ‘meme’ when a template, an image, a saying or something similar begins to be replicated on different corners of the web; a process supercharged by the rise of social media. And in a period of almost unprecedented fragmentation in popular culture, the results of this have been, well… weird, but also often wonderful, always fascinating to observe, and occasionally just downright hilarious for reasons you have trouble articulating. ‘Dat Boi’ is just a weird drawing of a frog on a unicycle, but it was everywhere on the internet for a few months in 2016, and it still makes me laugh pretty much every time I remember it.
The nature of the internet meme has changed a lot over the course of the decade. Ten years ago, memes did not have nearly as much reach as they do now and were primarily associated with image macros that seem almost quaint to anyone fluent in today’s meme culture. If you were online at the time, you may remember the likes of lolcats, advice animals and rage comics:
These were all relatively straight forward formats where pretty much anyone could understand what was going on and what the joke was, but which had pretty much no traction outside of the Extremely Online. Since then, memes have somehow simultaneously become more mainstream but also a lot weirder. The niche coexists with the ubiquitous, often within the same meme. Indeed, to observe the development of memes in the last ten years is to observe several different, often contradictory stories. The story which in my view has been most illustrative of our times, however, is the thread of absurdity that runs through almost every corner of meme culture.
Looking at memes helps us to sketch out a story of a decade where previous sources of meaning and certainty were pulled apart. The shock of the Great Recession in the early part of the decade gave way to the recent populist explosions of Trump and Brexit, the looming climate catastrophe stands just off stage for now but is present and perceptible to all, and the world is just that much more difficult to make sense of than it was ten years ago. Memes have reflected this by taking on an increasingly absurdist edge, and even relatively straight forward jokes will within days be run into the ground and lose all meaning until that lack of meaning itself becomes the joke. Take the below meme for instance. The original version of the meme showed Kermit addressing a fellow muppet with the sentence ‘Ima keep it real with you chief…’ followed by some advice or criticism, which is itself pretty strange conceptually, but the below takes that to another level. There is an anarchic, almost nihilistic, absurdity to it; the sense is that something is being mocked here, but that there have been so many slight alterations and degrees of separation that what that something is has long since been forgotten. Instead all there is the form, being constantly and repeatedly run into the ground for no reason.
The questions raised are compellingly baffling; why is Kermit talking to the Prime Minister of Japan? Why is the text so poorly edited? Why is the image so compressed? And most importantly, why did someone spend time making this? Ultimately, this has been a decade where the stories we used to tell ourselves about where humanity was going, the sense of near constant progress and feeling that the world was gradually getting better, stopped making sense. And when stories stop making sense sometimes all that remains is to embrace absurdity and sometimes what keeps us sane is to make and laugh at completely, meaninglessly, absurd things. How else do we explain that a video which is just the Bee movie but every time a character says bee it gets faster has several million YouTube views?
This absurdist edge has also managed to colonise previous, more straight forward memes, as well as cultural artefacts that predate the rise of meme culture. The afore-mentioned rage comics from the early part of the decade have enjoyed something of a renaissance of late, but in a surreal, often irony-poisoned form. Below is a typical example of a rage comic template from 10 or so years ago:
There isn’t really much of a joke here; someone just wanted to make a meme that illustrated how much they like One Direction and that was all that’s going on. There were numerous iterations of this meme template, all of them expressing similar kinds of things. However, its recent iterations have taken this meme down an altogether more unsettling path, as seen below. It says a lot that the least strange development is that the protagonist of this meme is now a frog for some reason:
I have so far avoided mentioning the more sinister and overtly political dimensions of the rise of the meme this decade, the way in which it has been deployed by the alt-right. To be frank there has already been enough coverage of this, so all I will say is that it too draws heavily on absurdity, but it is an absurdity that is little more than despairing and as a result attempts to lurch back into the certainty of hate and reaction. This is by no means a necessary direction of travel though. The weirdness of meme culture in 2019 may well reflect our uncertain and fractured times, but there is a sense in which it is also thrillingly open ended and communal. Like much culture in the age of the internet, it can at its best and most vital feel almost democratic; ours to shape and make of it what we will. Regardless, it remains a singularly fascinating lens through which to view the decade.