MAN'S SEARCH FOR MEMEING:
NEO-DADA AND AUTHENTICITY IN THE DIGITAL AGE
SCRN291: Resisting Media
December 15, 2017
15 December 2017
Man's Search for Memeing:
Neo-Dada and Authenticity in the Digital Age
Dada arose in the wake of the first World War from the group of disillusioned young peoples who had lived through a complete disruption in the conventional world order. Demographers William Strauss and Neil Howe named this collection of individuals born between 1883-1900 “the Lost Generation,” as they lived through and came of age during World War I. This group was not lost in the traditional sense, as Samuel Hynes, author of A War Imagined: The First World War and English Culture writes, but “disoriented, wandering, directionless—a recognition that there was great confusion and aimlessness among the war's survivors in the early post-war years.” These disillusioned young people would grow into the flappers and Dadaists of the 1920s. After living through the misery and tragedy of the war, the Lost Generation collectively challenged the normative lifestyles of their parents' Victorian time and instead embraced lives of transgressive decadence.
In the current Digital Age, Millennials and Generation Z have cultivated a surreal absurdist brand of satirical humor similar to the Dadaists in both form and content; dubbed “Neo-Dada,” this movement serves as a response to a cultural environment where the traditional social order has collapsed into chaos due to rapid technological advancement, economic downturn, and endless war. While the Dadaists of the 1920s used surreal absurdism to respond to their traumatic experiences of the first World War, the neo-Dadaists of the modern day utilize similar tactics in humor, art, and media in attempts to create meaning and truth in the Digital Age of media overexposure and inauthenticity. The Neo-Dada movement is the result of Millennials' and Generation Zs' constant overexposure to media, a breakdown of authentic connections, and disillusionment with the realities of the world.
The cultural climate and historical period in which Dada emerged are of as much importance as its stylistic elements, if not more so. In the early 1920s Europe was collectively baffled at the dawn and consequences of the first world war, witnessing the terror and carnage of chemical warfare and machine weaponry. American veterans were particularly disillusioned by the version of Europe they observed that was radically different from the idyllic continent they had studied, read about in childhood, and deified in their minds. During the war, young Americans reported feeling “called” to “save” the European cultures that represented the naivety of their youth. When they returned to America, the ex-military were aimless and confused; their trauma and PTSD were undiagnosed and untreated, they lacked a sense of self and purpose, and they questioned the morals and values instilled in them by the previous generations, including patriotism, faith, and morality.
Many members of the Lost Generation emigrated to Paris, France in search of inspiration. Dubbed by the French as the “Generation in Flames,” the expatriates produced the greatest concentration of art and literature in the twentieth century. Artists and authors filled the gap left by the generation of French who were wiped out in the war, and the affordable lifestyle and a lack of stigma surrounding the pursuit of creative professions made Paris the paradise the expatriates needed to begin to cope with the horrors of the Great War.
In this migration, the Lost Generation began critiquing the Victorian traditions and cultural notions of their parents' generation which they felt held responsibility for the horrors of the war. A feeling of betrayal permeated these individuals: post-war isolationist policies and President Woodrow Wilson's decision to not join the League of Nations left the young Americans wary of conservatism. It is in this wake of anti-traditionalism that the Dada movement formed.
Dada represented a dual attitude of the Lost Generation: a denouncing of the establishment and a desire to enact change. Dada acted as both an artistic style and a way of life with the primary goal of challenging and critiquing the established social order and advocating for a shift to full communism in Europe. Dada also served the invaluable role of a therapeutic outlet for a generation traumatized by war and its effects; as words failed to express the terror and pain experienced and witnessed by the youth, the creation of art served as a process of healing for the victims of trauma.
The Lost Generation's contribution to the literary movement and the Dadaists' to art occurred in response to the Great War, and a similar rejoinder emerged with the literary Beat Generation of post-World War II in the 1950s and 60s. The cycle of wartime horrors prompting rich periods of artistic and literary contributions can be extrapolated to the modern age. While not having experienced another world war, both Millennial and Generation Z youth have been exposed to an oversaturation of the horrors of the modern world in a constant stream unlike any generation before thanks to the pervasiveness of the rise of digital age beginning in the late 1990s. A dual disentrancement with the state of the world alongside the disillusionment and distrust of the cultural norms instilled by their parents, led to the creation of a particular brand of satirical, absurdist, and often surreal humor embraced by these generations in the form of memes.
This “Millennial humor” of surreal absurdism shares similarities in both motivations and content to the Dada and Surrealist movements of the early and mid-twentieth century. This “Neo-Dad” is the result of three distinct concepts: overexposure to media, a lack of authenticity in both interpersonal and digital interaction, and disillusionment with the realities of the world.
The oversaturation of media noise in the digital age poses a troubling dialectic: while information is omnipresent and accessible, it is becoming exponentially more difficult to discern fact from fiction. This break in the symbolic order has been deemed the era of “post-truth,” a word named Oxford Dictionary's word of the year in 2016. With this oversaturation of media and increased accessibility to any content one desires, Millennials are no longer entertained in the normative sense. The birth of surreal and absurd memes is a testament to the degradation of traditional senses of humor.
With the pervasiveness of media in the everyday life, corporations have capitalized on the increased potential for advertising. When tech-savvy Millennials and Generation Z's were able to see through and ignore traditional advertisements and marketing tactics, brands were forced to find alternate methods to influence young people. Sponsored content and ingenuous brand interactions on social media have blurred the lines between friends and corporations, between the real and artificial. Surreal and absurd memes and content are much more difficult to commodify because of their very nature of being inexplicable and strange. Meaning is created in meaninglessness.
Rather than trying to restore meaning and sense where they have gone missing, this brand of humor aims to play with the moods and emotions of an illegible world. Millennials and Generation Z experience a similar disillusionment with the state of the world as did the Lost Generation a century prior; the narratives sold to them by their parents' generations – hard work will lead to success, a college education will bring economic comfort, good will triumph over evil – were false. To cope with these realizations, young people embraced the illogicality of the world. A shared sense of anxiety and near-cynicism unite Millennials in their memes, and their acknowledgement of the meaninglessness of the symbolic order is in fact the first step in the creation of a newly-constructed sense of meaning and purpose.
There are several examples of media in the digital age featuring similar themes to the 1920s Dadaists' absurdist art. A desire for authenticity and the embracing of camp birthed the branch of memes known as shitposts, some of which are barely differentiable from Dadaist song and poetry; Dadaist critique of technology and the styles of collage and pastiche are paralleled in modern Vaporwave and Aesthetics art; and the accessibility of understanding (or a lack thereof) and production are central tenants to the original Dadaist pro-communist agenda as well as current trends in far-left memes and “high-art.”
Internet culture has given rise to memes, shared in-jokes understood by a specific online audience. The evolution of memes follows a linear trajectory; beginning the late 2000s, traditional memes gained popularity. These images often featured reoccurring characters (e.g. Grumpy Cat, Foul Bachelorette Frog, The Most Interesting Man in the World) as well as included top and bottom text captions in the Impact font and a “memegenerator.net” watermark. Traditional memes were humorous and easily digestible to mainstream internet audiences.
Beginning in 2014, traditional memes were replaced by so-called “dank memes.” The meaning of the term meme shifted to include not only macro images but also Twitter tweets or Instagram posts accompanied by captions. The content of dank memes was slightly more esoteric and transgressive than its predecessors, yet still palatable to the mainstream. Memes such as Dabbing Squidward, Crumping Marge, and Spongegar originated on message boards such as 4chan, Reddit, and Tumblr before trickling down to Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
In 2016 the culture shifted yet again to produce ironic memes. Most content creators cite the advent of ironic and surreal memes as a gatekeeping function within meme culture and internet communities to prevent “normies” (average mainstream users) from consuming and understanding the incomprehensible nature of the images. There is no punchline, and it remains impossible to articulate exactly what makes these memes humorous. Popular characters in ironic and surreal memes include the Meme Man, a 3D floating head who acts as the unofficial mascot of the genre, and his companion Mr. Orange.
Shitposting, the textual version of ironic and surreal memes, employs senseless text and image posts that are inexplicable yet amusing. Shitposting utilizes absurdity and surreal to deconstruct the hegemonic discourse. This brand of meme can be viewed as a backlash at consumerism and an attempt to prevent a piece of Internet culture and humor from becoming a marketable commodity. Shitposting also serves as a modern-day parallel to Dadaist song and poetry, embracing the concept of verbal collage to create humorous, unintelligible content.
Romanian artist Tristan Tzara popularized his method for the creation of Dada songs and poetry, which involved cutting out individual words from a newspaper or magazine article, putting them into a bag, shaking it, and arranging the words of the poem in the order removed from the bag. In the end, Tzara states “The poem will resemble you. / And there you are—an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.” Dadaists saw irrational randomness as superior to rational control, which they equated with the moralities of the generation that began the Great War. Thus, there was a sort of beauty in complete chance and randomness.
Austrian artist and writer Richard Huelsenbeck utilized such a senseless method to name the movement; he threw a knife at a dictionary, where it landed on Dada, a French term for a toy horse. His poem “The Cylindrical Gable” followed Tzara's formula to create a piece of art from arbitrary arrangements of words:
Yes yes that makes you marvel you earthly louts and blindworms that makes you rub your nose on the petroleum tank but that's not the last we've heard of that Somebody came with an accordion and played for the elephant dance
I am the meteorite dropping out of the nipples of the moon
Ninety-eight years later, Twitter account Horse_ebooks published the following tweets: “I wanted to make love to her like a weasel. I wanted to make love to her like I was an aroused teenage bear at dinner,” “Their negativity only served to push me deeper into the realms of soap making,” and “Pyramid energy is REAL – it's sacred science! Just like the computer.”
These nonsensical quips in 140 characters or less ran from 2011 to 2013. Original doxing of the account led to the belief in the creator being a Russian e-book salesman posting tweets that vaguely relate to the content of self-help e-books to advertise the marketing agency ClickBank. The account's 200,000 followers believed it to be a spam bot, an algorithm that published tweets in the form of sentence-like arrangements called Markov chains from a selected list of random words and phrases. In 2013 Horse_ebooks was revealed to be a performance art piece designed by Buzzfeed creative director Jacob Bakkila, who tweeted a piece of spam every two hours for 742 days. Followers were devastated at the revelation that a human was behind the beloved tweets.
Both Huelsenbeck's and Bakkila's poetry embrace the randomness and senselessness at the heart of Dada. While both were created by human hands, Bakkila utilized predictive word software on his computer to create the tweets for Horse_ebooks. Unlike his 1920s predecessors, Bakkila was able to amass an enormous “vulgar heard” of users who understood the joke––or at least that there was no joke.
There is a stark contrast between this methodology of randomness in the production of Dada song and poetry than the highly intellectual and symbolic role of satirical Dadaist art. Dada was, at its core, a form of satire aimed at critiquing prevailing cultural norms and conventions. For example, German artist George Grosz's 1920 Republican Automatons (fig. 1) served as a critique of the meaninglessness of post-war Berlin.
In Grosz's piece, the two figures stand on a deserted urban street, contrasting the parades and pageants that had taken place in the streets of Berlin in the years prior to the war. The sidewalks and buildings behind the men is barren and lifeless. The male figures wear fashionable business clothing; the man on the right's jacket features an iron cross, a symbol of honorable military service in the war, and his head acts as an empty container. The man on the left wears a bowler hat and waves a German flag. The figure with the hat's arms are made of cylinders that do not properly fit together and has only one hand–a metal claw. His leg was amputated mid-thigh and replaced with a peg, a common occurrence in veterans of the war.
The barren, precise architecture utilizes geometric lines and lacks character or dynamism. Grosz's scene is a dystopic rendering of how human identity was taken away by the Weimar Republic, the governing body from the end of the first world war in 1919 until the rise of the Nazi party in 1933. He paints the figures, upper-class businessmen, as unthinking and unfeeling, only interested in a false sense of progress.
Grosz's figures are reminiscent of modernist French painter Fernand Léger's tubular figures of his early Futurist works of the late 1910s. His 1917 piece The Card Players (fig. 2) marked the beginning of his “mechanical period,” during which the figures and objects he painted were characterized by sleekly rendered tubular or machine-like forms. Léger explained his ambivalence towards his time at war which prompted this shift in his style and subject matter:
…I was stunned by the sight of the breech of a 75 millimeter in the sunlight. It was the magic of light on the white metal. That's all it took for me to forget the abstract art of 1912–1913. The crudeness, variety, humor, and downright perfection of certain men around me, their precise sense of utilitarian reality and its application in the midst of the life-and-death drama we were in…made me want to paint in slang with all its color and mobility.
Grosz satirized Léger's modernist tube people into the automatons with empty heads and meaningless words, critiquing the “robots” complicit in with the Weimer Republic's policies.
Shitposting often involves satirizing marketing attempts in order to challenge the pervasiveness of advertisement and the commodification of online cultural capital. A form of digital culture jamming, shitposting effectively critiques hegemonic ideals through a medium that is not viewed as “serious” by the establishment. As Asa Wettergren writes in her essay, “Fun and Laughter: Culture Jamming and the Emotional Regime of Late Capitalism,” “humorous protest forms are useful in oppressive regimes, because they dilute fear and may escape the severe repression of openly political demonstrations.” Culture jamming satirizes a concept by taking such a notion or technology meant for a coherent purpose for a specific narrative and turning it back on itself; this is apparent in the Tumblr users' exploitation of the Madden Giferator in September 2014.
The Electronic Arts (EA) Sports company released the online gif generator to promote its 30th installment in the Madden football video game series. The web application allowed users to add text captions over customizable backgrounds featuring the football player characters to create animated gifs. EA released the following statement on the Giferator application page, titled “Gif Your Rival in the Face:”
The Madden Giferator is a highly sophisticated NFL gif engine. Our aggressive, bleeding edge technology fuses live NFL data with Madden NFL 15 footage to kick out real-time gif highlights for every game, all season long. The result is an ever-growing arsenal of customizable gifs football fans can hurl in the face of their rivals.
The wording of the description is particularly masculine and abrasive (“aggressive,” “kick out,” “arsenal,” “hurl in the face of…rivals”), which is appropriate considering the primary consumers of EA Madden video games are overwhelmingly male (78%) and middle-aged (44% compared to 21% of general video game consumers).
However, the web application's popularity skyrocket occurred mostly due to its cooption by Tumblr users, demographically opposite to EA's target audience: 66% of Tumblr users are under 35, and over half are female. Rather than utilizing the Giferator to communicate with other football fans or popularize plays in the video game or the real world, this young, primarily female base created and shared of millions of absurd and humorous gifs with no connection to actual football culture (fig. 3). Madden Giferator images became the most reblogged memes of 2014 on the site. EA Sports, in their official Case Study site for the marketing campaign, cite the application as a success, yet there is little effect on sales for that year. EA maintains that the application was used to communicate between football fans rather than serve as humorous and ridiculous images on a website with little interest in the sport. The cooption of an application designed to sell a product by an opposing demographic and utilized in a nonsensical fashion illustrates the media literacy of the Tumblr users and their rejection of marketing.
Dadaist art often provided a nuanced view of technology, exploring its dual nature as “both blessing and curse.” Modern-day vaporwave aesthetics movements reflect a similar critique laced with nostalgia to the technologies present at the advent of the digital age. Dadaists were obsessed with the technological aspects of Modernity, newspapers, industrial mechanics, and factory-made clocks, while vaporwave iconography centers on the aesthetic of technology and the Internet at the beginning of the digital age.
Vaporwave originated as an synth-fueled electronic music style that called upon 1980s nostalgia in the early 2010s, primarily via Tumblr. Based on this musical genre, an aesthetic style followed. Common elements of the vaporwave aesthetic include graphics and sound samples from 1980-2000, Greco-Roman architecture and busts, Japanese characters, corporate logos and advertisements, and computer-generated graphics hailing Windows 95 operating systems, VHS tapes, and early personal computers.
The clock in Dadaist art acted as both a symbol of the uplifting beginning of industrial relations––as one of the first complicated machines made by manufacturers and as the symbol of mankind's ability to triumph and analyze nature and better themselves––and as the deified symbol of horrific modernity––of demarcated time, labor hours, and the oppression of the working class via managerial time. Vaporwave has a similar relationship with early computers, which symbolize the utopian attitudes with which culture entered the digital age, and the reality of the current age, where the digital is ever-present and deified.
German artist Hannah Hoch's 1920 collage The Beautiful Girl (fig. 4) is similar in both content and form to a modern vaporwave meme (fig. 5), uploaded to Know Your Meme in 2015. Hoch's photomontage includes elements clipped from both automobile and women's fashion magazines in order to illustrate her opinions on industrialization as well as “superficial female progressive trends” of the Weimer Republic––legislation granting women the right vote and to equal pay was enacted, but the economic downturn of the failed republic prevented women from utilizing these new economic and social privileges. A bicycle tire flanks a woman whose head has been replaced by a lightbulb. These symbols, alongside the BMW logo in the background, represent the disillusionment of the German peoples with the auto industry promised by the Republic to stimulate the dismal economy of the 1920s and the betrayal they felt because of the lack of such progress.
Vaporwave memes and images regularly incorporate elements of collage and digital photomontage. Figure 5 features several elements typical of the vaporwave aesthetic. Digitally rendered water serves as the background of the bottom quarter of the image, while three dolphins rest at the center, offset by a screen cap of the early Microsoft PC game Minesweeper and the company's Paperclip Helper from the first Windows operating systems. The image illustrates the familiar duality of technology expressed in Hoch's photomontage: early computer programming provokes a sense of nostalgia in Internet users' familiar with early generations of Windows operating systems from the 1990s to early 2000s while simultaneously reaffirming the senselessness and banality of the hopes of technological progress. Technological advancement did not necessary guarantee the utopic paradise it promised.
Perhaps one of the most important elements of Dada was its goal of making art accessible to the common folk and disrupting its conventional role in only bourgeois society. Absolute nonsense is highly accessible, in contrast to that of highly-structured barriers to entry for mainstream humor. This concept was a prevalent aspect of Dadaism which rejected conventional criteria for the creation of art and favored accessibility and participation by and for the people.
MFA candidates at the University of California, Los Angeles constructed the digital gallery New New Wight: the gallery is naked in June 2015. The ingenuity and transgressive nature of the online exhibit challenge the notion and definition of art analogously to the Dadaists a century prior. The creators designed the gallery is naked in order to “challenge conventional forms of art.” The gallery is presented as an interactive walk-through of a three-dimensional landscape with various rooms of crudely-rendered digital images and figures, including piles of Burmese mountain dogs and giant holographic penises. Entertainment and art writers dubbed it an “orgy of niche Internet spaces.” There is no symbolic meaning to the elements included in New New Wight, and the absurdity and surreal nature of the exhibit certainly prove distinct from traditional gallery exhibitions, even those hosted digitally.
Dada artists often sparked the debate over what could or should be defined as art. Dadaists and surrealists were often far-left advocates of full communism and sought to break down this barrier between so-called “high art” and that which was created by the everyday folk. Mick Gold's documentary Europe After the Rain chronicled an anonymous Dadaist's view on the accessibility of the art, as they wrote, “The answer to the question whether or not our work can be called art depends on whether or not the future belongs to the working class.”
Twitter user Obi-Wan Jabroni illustrates this fusion of art, absurdity, and communism in their untitled meme image featuring portraits of Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, and the Dancing Hot Dog Man character popularized by the mobile application Snapchat (fig. 6). Pro-communist memes are widespread within both normative and ironic meme circles, signifying further overlap with the Dadaists and Surrealists. Humorous quips involving the seizing of the means of production or the deification of Karl Marx act as subtle yet effective methods in spreading leftist ideology. An administrator of Crunchy Continental Memes, a Leftist philosophy meme page, agrees: “If there's a takeaway for young people or activists looking at our page, it's that that continental philosophy isn't just academic abstraction,” he says. “It can inform and reinforce leftist political practice in a really vital way.” Memes by their nature are egalitarian and democratic, produced by anyone who desires to contribute to internet culture; the very definition of the term states its role as a method of exchanging cultural ideals in the digital landscape.
Douglas Davis' thesis “The Work of Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction” asserts that originality is, in effect, through. Though Davis' article, published in 1995, referred to the digitation of art and its resulting removal of the physical piece of art's “aura,” his ideas can be extrapolated to the revitalization of artistic styles and content thought to be long dead. To view this digitization as a purely negative effect of technological advancement would be naïve, for the revitalization of past concepts is perhaps the most educational and instrumental of roles of the technology in the digital age. If “the dead replica and the living, authentic original are merging, like lovers entwined in mutual ecstasy,” then the lost sense of aura Davis writes of can be seen alternately as the theoretical concepts and intent of the original movement. The aura of Dada –– of critiquing the established social order in the hope of the construction of an egalitarian and peaceful future –– is as alive in John Heartfield's buttocks with ears (Berliner Redensart) (fig. 7) as in Tumblr user AllSassNoAss' masterpiece, This Man governs the Clapp™ (fig. 8).
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