The unexpected power of the meme

Anyone with any internet presence whatsoever will know how fast memes evolve, likely noticing their progression into the absurd. The philosopher Albert Camus believed that individuals need to embrace the absurd condition of human existence, whilst rebelling against it through a continued search for life’s meaning. In many ways, is that not what this online generation is doing through memes?

Absurdist humour, or surreal humour, found its popular roots in the Dadaist movement of the early 20th century. Dadaism was a reaction to World War I, rejecting and criticising reason and the aestheticism of the modern capitalist society. Their response was to question the purpose and legitimacy of art, utilising their work as mediums for criticising the violence of war and the politics that had enabled it.

Thus, Dadaism grew beyond an art movement into a protest against the status quo. To reject logic and reason was to reject the very foundations of the rationale that had allowed the destructive power of war to thrive in Europe.

What do memes have in common with Dadaism then? In many ways, memes are a neo-Dadaist art form. The drive behind them is comparable: millennials have every reason to be frustrated and discontented with the state of the world, just as Dadaists were before them. Instead of traditional art forms, they critique modern culture via the Internet with gifs, short videos, and memes. The threshold to create art has been made lower than ever, thanks to the virality of the Internet, allowing almost anyone to express themselves and communicate it to others.

Absurdist humour is an attempt to reconcile the disconnect between what millennials believed to be true, and the reality that they were given instead. The idea that the millennial generation was promised everything but given nothing is not anything new; “follow your dreams” became “study an employable field”. Social media is, therefore, where attempts to resolve this dichotomy come to a head.

Millennials have grown up in an era of rapid technological progress, political turmoil, environmental catastrophes, economic recession and frequent national and international tragedies. From this, a generation has arisen that feels entirely disconnected from the way older generations saw and experienced the world. As a counter to this, absurdist humour offered both escapism from a nonsensical world, and a chance to criticise it.

When it comes to looking for meaning in the world, millennials struggle. Studies suggest this is because traditional sources of meaning, such as family formation and religious devotion, are far less pertinent to millennials’ lives than they were to prior generations. Young people accumulate debt from studies and thus give up lasting and fulfilling careers in favour of job-hopping, hopeful to pay off their loans. This leads to a generation constantly in a state of waiting – waiting for the ‘right time’ to settle down, have children, buy a home, realise their ambitions. It’s a generation that drifts, struggling to find meaning in an apparently meaningless world.

Individuals naturally seek humour that identifies with their cultural values. For instance, our parents’ generation vastly enjoyed family sitcoms, potentially because it aligned with the importance they placed on family units and relationships. Contrastingly, millennials enjoy absurdist humour because their values are constantly undermined by contemporary society and the political climate, and such humour simply rejects the reasoning behind the system in which they’ve lost faith.

Straightforwardly, it makes sense that absurdist humour would resonate with the millennial generation and that they find expression in a neo-Dadaist art form through the medium of memes. The Internet has become the most accessible tool for this generation and has given individuals the creative power to process and communicate their thoughts with like-minded virtual communities. Memes offer connections and understanding between disparate people and are a way to process a chaos that previous generations simply don’t experience in the same way that millennials do.

 

Image: Georgie Harris via Presidential Memes for Democratically Inclined Teens

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