Stop memeing. Memes are fun but ultimately they’re mental junk-food – throw them out in favour of actual nourishment.
I know that I’m making a bold claim here, but I’m being just as harsh on myself. Recently I’ve written a lot of articles criticising internet memes, specifically, trying to show that – though they feel convincing initially – they’re mostly groundless. See memes on the effects of belief, on whom gets the blame for terrorism, on the nuclear deterrent, and most recently on working class Tories.
I’ve noticed, however, that I am often what I am criticising.
Share, but Don’t Think
I showed my girlfriend my article on working class Tories, which criticised this meme:
Her response was words to the effect of: OK, fine, but what about the meme you showed me the other day? And this meme was? See below (this is a tweet I know, but in most important respects it is also a meme):
— Godfrey Elfwick (@GodfreyElfwick) March 27, 2017
For those who aren’t familiar, Godfrey Elfwick is a satirical Twitter account that mocks the social justice brigade. His tweets and the conversations he has with unwitting Twitter users are funnier than this meme.
Anyway, my girlfriend asked me what was funny about it, and I realized that I didn’t know – this doesn’t mean that it wasn’t funny, just that I hadn’t actually thought about what it was about before showing her. When I actually explained the joke I realized that it was, all-told, third-rate. Most importantly, meanwhile, I realized that I had taken the trouble to share with her something that I hadn’t actually thought about.
This is part of the problem – internet memes encourage us to share without thinking.
If you’re wondering, my girlfriend – who is an avid feminist – thinks those pink hats are trivial.
Some Forms of Expression Are Better than Others
The brain is like a muscle: use it or lose it. The ideas, art and forms of expression that you feed your mind condition whom you are. Interacting with forms of expression that introduce new ideas and concepts, new ways of doing things or even difficult patterns that aren’t at first clear, is mental athletics.
This is because the stress of not understanding forces you to think, building your mental muscle – internet memes, meanwhile, barely require you to wave up from the social media stupor.
the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions.
Ever had that feeling, after experiencing a truly excellent book or film, of being satisfied. These stories take us on a journey and we’re relieved to return having gone through the motions of difficult or distressing events and feel renewed.
Memes like the Tory one rely entirely on what we already know and feel, offering nothing novel. Moreover, there’s no build-up and no release – we’re given a barely formulated fragment of an idea or feeling and, without an outlet, we move on. This is, I’m sure, part of the reason why we spend hours scrolling: in a world of memes, nothing is satisfying but the mind keeps frantically searching for release.
To continue the food metaphor, memes are like sugary snacks – fun for a moment but never satisfying.
Get outside of Yourself
Martin Amis, asked whether reading trash novels could actually harm people, responded to say that all fiction is nourishing in some sense, as it forces us to imagine new experiences and other lives, it forces us to get outside ourselves. Trash memes are different, as most of them rely solely on feelings that you’ve already experienced and just write the feeling down next to an image.
At least sloppy romance books are about someone else. Reading a series of trash fiction will at least force one to experience a series novel stories – scrolling through a Facebook or Twitter feed of memes, meanwhile, is effectively to scroll through a series of your own feelings, chopped up so small as to be barely meaningful then reflected back to you.
What about Cartoons?
So, what’s so different about cartoons, those amusing images accompanied by text, featuring characters we already know and feelings that are familiar to us? Take the Dilbert cartoon below, my favourite:
Though compact, the strip actually has a story, with the first two panels setting up the corporate irony and the final one releasing the tension. The fact is, however, comic strips can be just empty calories and there’s nothing stopping a careful memelord from injecting catharsis into their creations. However, the origin of cartoons is story and the origin of memes is stasis (captioned images, screenshots etc.), meaning that the actual medium of the meme encourages a lack of depth.
This is only part of the story, however. Imagine logging onto social media to find that 50% of what people posted was cartoons, not only that people were sharing them as status updates but were replying to ideas via cartoons and even using cartoons as images for their profiles and groups. This is absurd, but it would be superior to the situation now.
The point being that cartoons are fun, sometimes great, but if the bulk of your discourse were cartoons something would be very wrong. We’ve passed this point with memes, and memes are degenerate cartoons. During a public conversation, someone mentioned to Christopher Hitchens the benefits of the satire of The Simpsons – he responded with words to the effect of, The Simpsons is a great show, but if it’s where you get your satire you’re in trouble.
The Hierarchy of Things
To take a break from memes, let’s focus on music, as this allows for a clearer presentation of how there really is a hierarchy in the quality of the creative that you witness. It really matters what sort of music you listen to, because of music’s capacity to challenge the listener, introduce new ideas and provoke sympathy.
At the top of the hierarchy we find composers like Bach and Beethoven:
I use the last part of the Hammerklavier sonata as an example here – not only is it stunningly beautiful, but there are facts about the music that test our perceptions of what music actually is. In this work Beethoven trains the listener to maintain concentration for longer periods and across highly complex thematic material and (I argue) sets up symmetries with what we know about order and chaos.
By listening to and trying to understand music like this, Beethoven’s genius can help us to improve ourselves.
Beneath this you find music that is great but not outstanding, such as Nine Inch Nails:
Below that, music that’s fun but not really improving, like some good old fashioned rock from AC/DC:
Then we have the empty calorie equivalent, and, to prove to you I’m not being unfair to modern music:
At this level we have music that is almost free from ideas, unchallenging and relying almost completely on repetition. And to show I’m being fair, I actually like this song, but I’d be stupid if I tried to argue that it’s not trash.
Overall, one should spend a significant portion of one’s listening time on first-rate music: music through which to commune with the universe – I know that I don’t do this enough. Obviously, first-rate music isn’t always feasible or desirable, sometimes we need to relax and be unchallenged. I’m also not saying that it’s always obvious what’s great and what isn’t. I don’t know whether EyeHateGod is great or not – but I know that it’s not groundbreaking in the way that Bach is.
However, it probably wouldn’t hurt to avoid music that’s completely free of ideas or story, music that relies only on repetition or even vulgarity. Meanwhile, if you only listen to fourth-rate music, or avoid outstanding music, you avoid the opportunity for personal growth – I want to confess, again, that too much of the music to which I listen is not challenging enough.
To bring this back to memes, memes are almost always the equivalent of fourth rate music – they’re repetitious and rely on what is already known. Looking at a meme won’t kill you on the spot, but shunning them in favour of deeper forms of expression will help you to live better.
The meme above is attention grabbing because it pretends an analogy between two things you know: the policies of US states and the popular Political Compass test. However, it doesn’t stand a moment’s scrutiny. This is a good summary of the problem, and another reason why our modern obsession with the image is so crippling. Like advertising, images engage us without making us think.
Memes are the pop culture shadow cast by consumer marketing and image-focused media. Being engaged but unthinking and never satisfied might make one a good consumer, but is very unlikely to make one a good person.