What do memes and a philosophical approach dating back to the 1800s have in common? Surprisingly a lot.
We all know that memes can get a little…unhinged. Strange references, and many meme formats layered on top of each other, often with niche meanings, all come to mind when thinking of meme culture.
We also know that culture comes and goes in cycles. Recently, we’ve seen the return of the mullet and low-rise jeans are also threatening to make a comeback. With nonsensical memes and stranger-than-fiction current events, one thing is certain: the internet is becoming an increasingly absurd place.
Absurdism as a philosophy
Immanuel Kant was the first to talk in terms that we would now consider absurdist. With the idea of phenomena and noumena, he distinguishes between how things appear and how they actually are. The absurdity of reality comes in part from how we will never truly understand existence.
These ideas continued in the writings of Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard:
What is the Absurd? It is, as may quite easily be seen, that I, a rational being, must act in a case where my reason, my powers of reflection, tell me: you can just as well do the one thing as the other, that is to say where my reason and reflection say: you cannot act and yet here is where I have to act... The Absurd, or to act by virtue of the absurd, is to act upon faith ... I must act, but reflection has closed the road so I take one of the possibilities and say: This is what I do, I cannot do otherwise because I am brought to a standstill by my powers of reflection.
— Søren Kierkegaard, Journals (1849)
To put this into modern day terms, it basically means that the things you choose to do day-to-day have no effect on existence as a whole. This philosophy states that the knowledge of unimportance should be taken as a good thing, and that you should enjoy the little things.
The philosophy of absurdism became more refined over time. Possibly the most famous absurdist writer and philosopher is Albert Camus. Those doing degrees in French may be aware of his book L’étranger (The Stranger).
Camus wrote The Myth of Sisyphus, an essay about the absurd nature of existence. He defined absurdity as the gap between humanity’s desire for meaning and the cold, meaningless reality of the universe. Sisyphus is the subject of the essay as he embodies perfectly the mundanity and repetition of life, rolling the boulder up the hill, only for it to fall and have to do it again.
Absurdism tells you that life is meaningless and mundane, but not in the same way that Nihilism does. Nihilism tells you that it’s futile to seek meaning, while by embracing absurdism, you can find your own meaning in life.
The Theatre of the Absurd
After the Second World War, there was a movement where playwrights wrote absurdist plays. Said shows dealt with the idea of the meaninglessness of human existence. The most famous example is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot where two characters engage in conversation while waiting for the titular Godot, who never arrives. It has been dubbed ‘the play where nothing happens’.
The influence of the Theatre of the Absurd can be seen in many modern examples of entertainment. Tim and Eric, The Eric Andre Show, and YouTube Poops all have a clear surreal and absurd influence.
Surrealism in times of crisis
It has been noted that art and fiction trend towards the surreal during and after times of crisis. Dadaism, a rebellious and surreal art movement, emerged after the First World War and the Theatre of the Absurd came shortly after WWII. You can also see this kind of trend after the 2008 global financial crisis, as well as in the wake of the Covid pandemic.
Shitposting as modern absurdism
I’m sure none of you need to be told what shitposting is, but just in case you do: putting content online that is nonsensical or exists to mock/satirise/evoke discussion. Sometimes it feels like internet culture is becoming more abstract by the hour. The layered levels of humour that only those immersed in meme culture can understand.
Bleak prospects and economic crises could be partly to blame here. As things become more dire, humanity turns to the surreal and rebellious. It’s only natural that digital culture also trends the same way.
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