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Columns

Memes and the Art of Nonsense

By Serena G. Pellegrino, Contributing Opinion Writer
Serena G. Pellegrino ’23 is a resident of Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

I believe in the importance of nonsense. More specifically, that a little bit of nonsense in life is very valuable. Nonsense, in this case, being internet memes.

Usually, I’m quick to criticize the internet. I have dedicated a significant amount of time to blaming it for many of our generation’s social conflicts. And honestly, contemplating social media and the web at large frequently leads me down a path of existential desperation. But memes are, for me, an exception. They are deceivingly relevant and their function is more profound than their shallow perceptions afford them. Of course, not all memes are funny, many are pointless, and offensive ones are unacceptable. But the concept of a meme is significant. It is an authentic, unfiltered expression rarely seen elsewhere online. It is a sign of humanity, something we often try to erase from our virtual selves.

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene,” where he defines it as “a unit of cultural transmission.” From the Greek word “mimema,” meaning “imitated,” memes are contingent on imitating relevant cultural patterns. Dawkins considers memes to be cultural genes — they have heredity, undergo replication, and require fitness to survive. His analogy, while so unfortunately untimely, explains meme fitness in terms of virus: ideas worth passing on are contagious.

The fittest, most contagious memes allow us to feel and relate to others. Their images — the face of Sulley from “Monsters, Inc.” superimposed onto Mike Wazowski’s, Kermit the Frog drinking tea, or Baby Yoda — are so detached from reality, that we feel free to laugh at their captions because there is distance between us and them. Without feeling exposed, we empathize.

But memes are so refreshing because they remind us to take ourselves less seriously. When an online audience is constantly watching and judging, they render our every action a performance — an evaluation of self. So choosing what information to disclose and how we should look on our profiles is in itself an act. Who we so carefully portray is a character. However, memes are a break in character — a sigh of relief when we’re off stage. Through memes’ ridiculousness, we acknowledge the show can’t go on forever. We’re flawed and our flaws can be funny. We take off our masks to laugh at the fact that we can be a mess. Sometimes, relating to a comic of a dog sitting in flames drinking coffee insisting “this is fine” can be therapeutic.

This critique through parody is no novelty. In the early 1700s, Italian playwright Carlo Goldoni innovated the theatre scene and revitalized “commedia dell’arte,” a then-declining dramatic art form, to realize a vision proving quite meme-like. Just as memes unveil a more authentic emotional and human experience, Goldoni eliminated the use of masks and replaced stock characters with more realistic personalities. And like our trove of recycled meme images, Goldoni created a fixed set of these personalities. Their scripted jokes were scattered into improvised acting, functioning much like captions we apply according to context.

In addition to emotional release, Goldoni’s dramatic arts offered cultural commentary and political criticism. His productions were popular for their transgressive humour, actors often speaking in Italian dialects to criticize the different regions of Italy. And we see much the same online, memes calling out the odd idiosyncrasies of different states or disagreeing with our government. Especially in the COVID era, we are in constant disagreement with laws, politicians, and each other. As Goldoni’s productions did so many years ago, memes give us grounds to transgress. In the guise of ridiculousness, we can push the boundaries and express contentious opinions without direct, explicit confrontation. After all, where else would we be able to overlay a “Karen” wig onto Donald Trump’s hair?

Yet the real beauty of Goldoni’s art and the world of memes is their ability to pantomime and portray the world as it is. As viewers, we enjoy watching scenarios in which we can see ourselves — joyful, tragic, awkward, or hopeless as they may be. Experiencing objectively helps us process. It takes the edge off the lives we live so seriously.

But while history repeats itself to a large extent, it evolves, too. Memes are far more abstract than people playing parts on stage. That we can feel seen by seeming gibberish may go to show just how critical of ourselves we have become; we don’t like it when things get too real. Our solution, then, is both escape and catharsis. Teary-eyed cats, Spongebob imitating a chicken, or Bernie Sanders “once again asking” for something cushions the blow of discomfort or dissent.

The internet has become a place full of dividing constructs like artificial hierarchies, popularity contests, or assessments of perceived success. But we’re not walking LinkedIn profiles or Facebook bios and we all know it. We’re more memeish than we are post-like, so embrace the memeishness. To accept ourselves, organically human and imperfect as we are, we have to laugh a little. Of course, there are sides of us that are less than brag-worthy, but there is no need to deny them. No one is spared by the truth of memes; they’re an unexpectedly equalizing online presence. Regardless of status and online artifice, we naturally react and relate to one another in the same way. We all feel the joy of laughter when we come across that meme that resonates. The power of a meme shouldn’t be underestimated just because it seems like nonsense — nonsense isn’t worthless. It allows us to laugh together. And there’s no nonsense more meaningful than that.

Serena G. Pellegrino ’23 is a resident of Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.

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