If you know me at all (Hello, five friends!), you may recall my obsession with UCLA’s The New New Wight virtual art gallery. From the clip-art dogs to the WordArt to the midi elevator music, the whole thing is just brilliant.
But if you’re over the age of, say, 37, you’d probably hate it, fail to understand it (not that art exists to be understood, so maybe I mean understand its context), and bemoan another once-enjoyable thing ruined by Millennials. Either that or you’d dissect it and the culture that allows it to exist.
In today’s world of post postmodernism (you know, the horseshoe of the lack of irony of modernism on one end, the irony of postmodernism at the inflection point and the ironic irony of post postmodernism on the other end), we ironize irony to the point of onlookers confusing it with sincerity.
Wait, that’s confusing. Here’s a meme to explain (which also kind of makes my point).
Basically, post-irony is like a double negative. “Can’t not” means the same thing as “can,” but also it doesn’t. There’s an element of humor or irreverence toward grammatical purity involved.
Some people will argue that there’s no such thing as post-irony — that there are only extreme versions of irony — but I think that’s a difficult position to defend in practice.
If we look at the grand narratives offered by modernism and the skepticism that postmodernism introduces (though attempts to define postmodernism is the exact reason postmodernism existed) brought to the equation (see the surrounding smattering of memes), it’s easy to think of movements in terms of action vs. reaction, but post postmodernism fucks that up. Even the desire to call it a progression is reductionist, which explains the proliferation of the “meme.” It’s much easier to evoke the notion of post postmodernism through something seemingly meaningless than it is to try to define it conceptually. Modernism and postmodernism created the conditions for post postmodernism to exist, but that isn’t enough.
Enter: the Internet, and consequently, the obliteration of the canon. The netosphere offers an infinite number of entry points into the same sets of ideas, so there cannot be additions to canonical thought, literature, and art in the way there once was. It is as much a virtual impossibility as it is democratization. There is nothing to which to respond if every possible response is immediately accessible; we can always find what we’re looking for.
Modernism: a response to tradition and the institutions that upheld that tradition in search of a new but still universal narrative.
Postmodernism: the nihilism and inexplicability of something like WWII introduces skepticism of an overarching narrative of humanity.
Post postmodernism: having access to every possible response to and explanation of an event like 9/11 — even conspiracy theories — makes a metanarrative not necessarily subject to incredulity but nearly impossible to construct. There is an endless rabbit hole of information to corroborate any viewpoint even when facts are readily available. I think of it as each narrative being hyperreal (real and fake versions of reality become indistinguishable), and in the aggregate, the narratives form a kind of surreal (dreamscape and reality combined — alarming, absurd, weirdly attractive, etc.).
Post postmodernism is a cautious and perhaps pragmatic idealism. We have access to every conceivable utopia (modernism) as well as access to every conceivable way a utopia can be ruined (postmodernism), which brings me to the reason I even started writing this: the notion of the Millennial “snowflake.”
This subject is probably a twice-dead horse, but my freshly minted degree led me to read transcripts from an endless barrage of commencement speeches, which fell into, broadly, two categories: 1) Millennials, you defy your stereotypes and 2) Millennials, are you ready to leave your safe space?
Though an interesting portal into the ways the older set perceives us, I didn’t find myself nodding my head in agreement while reading either. That’s not to say I think my generation is somehow more complex or resistant to interpretation than pre or proceeding (can you believe it?!) ones. Something is always lost in the dissection of any whole into its parts.
Elements of the post-postmodernist zeitgeist — no, not that fucking ridiculous conspiracy thing on Netflix — have to at once capture and respond to that same zeitgeist.
“The History of the World” meme is an easy one here (also, it’s genuinely my favorite). Watch even three seconds of the below video to understand where the memes come from.
And the meme within the meme itself:
So this history of the world is part of the 21st century zeitgeist (unless you’re a new earth creationist, in which case, “wut”?), and so is the ironic use of early 00’s WordArt and MS paint to make purposely shitty memes. So this video captures and responds to both elements in a hyperreal way. (e.g., The Byzantine Empire didn’t literally call the Pope to ask for help, but also they kind of did? And because this particular version of the world’s history caters to Gen Y’s preferred aesthetic, this is the rabbit hole we will choose to follow.) And the memes that follow can be repurposed to the point of surreality and absurdity by taking them out of the original context (this video) and putting them in a new context that also just happens to make sense (below meme).
ANYWAY, that was relatively tangential, but context is important.
Back to the snowflake thing
There is a lot going on in the US right now — you know, like Trump and Comey and Russia and white supremacy and sexism and Islamophobia. Perhaps more importantly for this post, there are a lot of responses to what’s going on in the world right now, each inhabiting its own corner of the netosphere. It is the ultimate space for congregation — and for congregations of responders to the original congregation and so on.
~ Recursion ~
I could go into a whole thing about how political correctness and how dismantling symbols of systemic racism in one’s community is just being a decent fucking human being, but I won’t.
It’s more about the kick that older generations (and Millennial men who think toxic hyper-masculinity is a good thing) get out of calling us simultaneously apathetic and sensitive (ah, the post postmodern oscillation) for questioning their ideological axioms (e.g., The degree to which a country’s economy is capitalist might not be the cause for moral judgment older generations think it is. How very hippie of us.) and daring to forge a new path. (e.g., Ok, Baby Boomers ruined the economy and won’t take the blame, and now we have no job security. But MAYBE we don’t need a conventional 30-year career to live a financially stable life.)
So we have an unsettling political climate, a desire to see genuine social change, a slow-healing economy, and no real way to talk about these things separately and in tandem with each other without being called snowflakes.
At the same time, we fluctuate between idealistic and disillusioned because our reality doesn’t match the expectations instilled in us as kids, but ultimately, we still think that that reality might be possible even though we know we have to do something to make ends meet in the interim.
So, pragmatic idealism.
It is possible to criticize an institution in which we are currently living, working, and being educated. People who cry “snowflake” are the same people who say “don’t let the door hit you one the way out” when anyone says anything remotely negative about America. This, of course, is also the same group of people who were offended by a Starbucks cup for not being Christmassy enough, but I digress. There is no “hostility toward opposing viewpoints is just a liberal issue.” That’s a conservative pipe dream. Just look at Eric Trump’s latest titty baby meltdown.
Then, there is Gen X’s obsession with artistic critique of our current technological inundation or whatever else. Think Bansky and Steve Cutts.
Not only that but they try to foist that critique on us as if it’s our own, when truly, our aesthetic is the New New Wight gallery. We may see some truth in the picture to the left and the one above it, but we know that’s not the whole story.
We’re skeptical of anything that presents itself as profound, and it’s hard to imagine a meme ever masquerading as profound.
Older generations prescribe problems for us to have, but we’ve picked an entirely different focus for our disdain—social structures. They don’t like that. They want us to fear the very tools with which we organize our fights against the things that actually warrant fear. (Systemic racism, maybe?) When we make Facebook events for worldwide protests or spend an afternoon reading political philosophy on our phone, we are snowflakes. When we spend an afternoon tagging our friends in memes, we are apathetic.
I think they want to cut off our access to information — no, not like that. But when Fareed Zakaria and the New York Times corroborate this notion of liberal intolerance on college campuses, they fail to mention 1) that conservatives do the same thing and 2) that there is a difference between conservative intellectuals and the incendiary Milo Yiannopoulos/Ann Coulter crowd. Perhaps the left should do some soul-searching about distinguishing the two but no more than the right.
Millennials are finally trying to grapple with the gross imbalance of power that brought this country into being. People who pander to the Trump-like white supremacists deserve to be protested, and if that protest results in them not speaking on college campuses, so be it. They have to deal with the consequences of their speech now that students are recognizing the implications of their words and the centuries of imbalanced power structures that allowed their views to come into being.
Older generations want Millennials to accept the status quo that all ideas should hold equal intellectual weight, and we have access to a variety of anecdotes, data, and articles that say otherwise. Protecting those who have been long subjected to oppression is not suppression. It’s, again, being a decent human being. (Not that I’m condoning violent protests or anything. That’s not ok.)
Recognizing the absurd
If the Lost Generation was disillusioned by the nihilism of war, then Millennials are disillusioned by the absurdity of power structures that institutionalize racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, ableism, fat-phobia, and classism.
On the flip side, we’re also confident that their permanence is no longer guaranteed.
It’s not snowflake-y to put names to societal ills that have always existed in America. We can’t fight it if we can’t name it.
And so, the post postmodern meme becomes a way to name problems using the technique of a double negative. We understand that “I can do that” is grammatically correct. We understand that “I can’t not do that” is not grammatically correct but means the same thing as the former statement, while also offering a postmodern critique of the power structures that allow one version of English to have superiority over others. (If you want to overanalyze everything … I’m not really sure anyone is using a double negative seriously.)
I’m not saying it’s really helping us solve problems, but we can all nod in agreement and perhaps even use the fact that the older generations don’t quite “get it” as a way to subtly push back against their criticism. We’ve created a way to name societal ills without conjuring a lot of controversy because, hey, memes are funny. But as they say, comedy is a great way to get at truth.
We operate within the structure — the pre-ironic meme, Baby Boomer traditionalism, the capitalist hegemony, what have you — to try to point out its failures and ultimately try to change it — the post-ironic meme, social movements, reintroducing the capitalism vs. socialism debate, etc.
The post-ironic meme exists in the absurd, so decontextualized but still understood within the original structure that it can be placed in any other context and maintain its humor. In fact, it wouldn’t be humorous if the original pre-ironic didn’t exist. It’s basically Dada, which is what allows something like the New New Wight gallery to be nonsensical while also saying so much about our current day.
The New New Wight gallery doesn’t exist to make some grand statement about humanity like, say, Banksy’s Disneyland exhibit (below) tries to do. Banksy (and the ironic meme) gives us an incessant disillusionment with the preexisting structure — the senses of inaction and being stifled. The UCLA students (and the meta- and post-ironic memes) give us irreverence and absurdity but also lightheartedness and even a sense of mobility.
The meme is just a proxy for how we understand, disassemble, and reimagine tradition, but it’s a telling one. And it’s one I thoroughly enjoy overanalyzing.
(You can trace the progression of a meme from pre-ironic to post-ironic below. It’s very scientific.)
And that, friends, was a crash course in how to read too much into literally anything.