Memes, Millennials, and Meaning (and Anaphora)


Elizabeth Bruenig has written an excellent piece in the Washington Post entitled “Why is millennial humor so weird?” While Bruenig is not the first person to diagnose the millennial condition through humor, her piece is the most clearheaded and insightful I’ve seen on the topic.

Bruenig focuses in particular on the aesthetics of absurdity in millennial cultural production, which, in contrast to absurdist aesthetics of the past, is not accented with outright pessimism:

Surrealism and its anarchic cousin dadaism are nothing new; neither is absurdism or weirdness in art. ‘The absurd,’ Albert Camus wrote in 1942, ‘is born of this confrontation between the human need [for happiness and reason] and the unreasonable silence of the world.’ Absurdity is the compulsion to go looking for meaning that simply isn’t there. Today’s surrealism draws aspects of all of these threads together with humor, creating an aesthetic world where (in common internet parlance) ‘lol, nothing matters,’ but things may turn out all right anyway.

I would add that millennial absurdism can further be defined against the cynicism and irony of postmodern cultural products (those belonging to baby boomers and gen x’ers). In postmodern culture, the central trope was self-referentiality–the practice of acknowledging production from within the production (think of the “S.O.B.s” episode of Arrested Development when the show found out it was going to be canceled). Here, we can go back to McLuhan’s distinction between hot and cold media. The postmodern aesthetic of self-referentiality was a bit like hot media in that its consumption was profoundly passive. It was so passive that its producers (writers, onscreen talent, etc.) positioned themselves as members of the audience, watching the production right along side us. In other words, even the producers removed themselves from the production. There was no need to go looking for meaning in context because, as the audience, we were the context. There was no meaning to be found outside of ourselves. Millennial absurdism by contrast takes the attitude that context is always yet to come; the audience must actively create the context by distorting the product.


In that sense, a show like Arrested Development actually straddles the line between postmodern and millennial aesthetics. On the one hand, it is deeply self-referential; however, the cult that grew up around the show after it got cancelled turned its humor into an endless series of memes. Fans produce new humor by interjecting phrases and gestures from the show into new contexts (e.g. discovering an appropriate situation in which to blurt out “I’m afraid I just blue myself”). This is a little different from, say, back in the 90s when we used to throw quotes The Simpsons into a conversation. Back then, we were still standing back and appreciating how funny the line was. Indeed, we often used intro tags like “It’s like when Mr. Burns said…”

Actually, though, the full manifestation of millennial absurdism goes beyond the meme-humor of Arrested Development fans because at least there there is a mutual recognition of the joke’s reference point, an acknowledgement of the community of Arrested Development fans. In other words, even as the consumers of the humor become producers, there is still a safety net of self-reference. As Bruenig pointed out in her essay, millennial absurdism tends to wipe away reference altogether.

It’s easy to think that millennials are either so ignorant or so cynical or so schizophrenic that they have given up on the idea of common cultural touchstones altogether. I found myself thinking this, for instance, last week when I was out visiting my mom and my 14 year-old sister. One morning, I found my sister recording a Snap Chat video which consisted of her saying “Oh hi, Mark.” It was obvious to me that she was quoting from Tommy Wiseau’s messy cult classic, The Room. But my sister had no idea what she was referencing, and so I got onto YouTube and showed her the clip. To which she shrugged. Then I showed her the preview from the upcoming spoof starting James Franco and Seth Rogen. To which she exclaimed, “That’s Dave Franco! I love Dave Franco!” (Yes, Franco the Lesser is in the film as well). To my mind, the gag only has meaning if you know what it’s referencing. To her, the meaning of the gag is derived entirely from its repetition and from the continuous production of similarity/distortion which that entails.

This brings to mind the insight (correct or incorrect) of twentieth century psychoanalysis that the mind is structured like a language. Desire is the unnamed antecedent in an anaphoric series. Derrida, on the other hand, points out that language (like writing) looks more like cataphora than anaphora. Meaning emerges from the deferral of a postcedent rather than a reference to an antecedent. It’s not just that language (and writing) is capable of breaking out of immediate context or deictic reference; it’s that language must remove itself from context in order to be language in the first place. The relationship between accounting and early writing provides an easy illustration of this. In Mesopotamia, people used to use tokens as promissory notes in trade. If I owed you ten sheep for the twenty barrels of beer you gave me, I could give you ten clay tokens, each with a little picture of a sheep etched into it. In higher volumes of trade, however, carrying a clay token for every single sheep I promise you becomes burdensome, so I come up with another token which represents ten sheep, and so forth. The ten-sheep token is not just another kind of token like a dime and a penny are different kinds of coin. Its initial appearance as a denomination makes the ten-sheep token another medium altogether, even though it is constructed out of the same sort of material as the original one-sheep token was constructed. Denomination as a new medium presupposes its own plurality and repetition. The “ten” in the ten-sheep token, in other words, has been “ten” before, even in its first appearance. And it is only “ten” because it will be “ten” again. Thus it is radically removed from the context of the one-sheep tokens which was supposed to serve as its reference. This mode of abstraction is what allowed graphic communication to morph into full-fledged writing, and it’s the same process that allowed whole deictic speech chunks to be analyzed into non-deictic grammatical functions (if you’re interested, seek out the work of Alison Wray).

It’s possible, then, that millennial absurdism (particularly in its production of memes) is using that same token-to-denomination process to continuously create new fields of context without the need or desire to seek out originary context. So, if twentieth century psychoanalysis discovered that the mind is like a language, perhaps twenty-first century millennial absurdist aesthetics have found–in practice–that language is like a meme. There is, I think, a profound, even metaphysical connection between the production of similarity and the elimination/appearance of context. My fourteen year-old sister has become my philosophy teacher.

Hats off to you, kiddo.



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