What are memes doing to literature?

memes destorying literature illustration
Columnist Caleb Owens unpacks the decline of literature.


When I think back upon my every formative intellectual moment, I sort of want to vomit.

The 16-year-old in sandals and a Hawaiian shirt, biking through 30 miles of corn to read Ayn Rand on a sand dune. The same kid, sitting on a bench downtown — or, even worse, in a cafe — raising an eyebrow as he sifts through Camus. From Nietzsche, to Vonnegut, to Sartre and so on, you can fill in the rest.

Now, I don’t want to throw up for the reasons I should. If I am to wince at all, feel the deep pang of embarrassment that I do, it should be on purely intellectual grounds, because I was once naive enough to become enamored of a Howard Roark-type rugged individualism and the shallow morality beneath it, or because I once, at a time when the philosophy’s central concept of death was a notion too distant to be real, vocally and publicly self-identified as an “absurdist.” I should cringe because I once found Nietzche adequate in his critique of Christianity (and, even worse, his alternative), or because I thought Satre could tell me the meaning of life. And, the real source of embarrassment: I proudly and pretentiously expressed all this to the world around me.

These are good, informed reasons to want at least to roll one’s eyes, to cringe in a kind of humiliated agony, but the kinds of things you can write off as the sort of indignant and pretentious but necessary beginnings of any attempt at academic seriousness, the crucial initiations into an ongoing intellectual conversation.

But these aren’t the reasons why I want to vomit. Rather, I am overcome by embarrassment because, in that former self, I see a meme.

The internet is rife with memes like me. We are all familiar with them. That is, the ironic caricatures of pretentious millennials with their conspicuous literary predilections, the dude who whips out “Infinite Jest” for show at a cafe, the newly minted libertarian hipster wielding his copy of “Atlas Shrugged.” From Salinger and Hemingway to Foster Wallace — all victims of memes, broadly construed, that I have encountered — the internet seems intent on eviscerating our cultural and historical inheritance and any attempt to engage with it, and shows no signs of stopping.

It is strange that, of all things, literature has become a primary victim of memes. It likely has something to do with the ever-more-highly educated academic background of Twitter’s lightweight intelligentsia, though we shouldn’t take this too far and give the meme-generators too much credit.

For there is an easy and available debate to place this into the context of, one that is very much alive on the internet today. Memes, however, shouldn’t be confused with the canon wars, which also endeavored a hatchet job on the canon and Modern seriousness, using the tools of postmodernism — “ideology,” “phallogocentrism,” “myth,” “patriarchy” — to effectively gut 2,000-plus years of hard thinking. If Man or Religion or Capitalism produced it, let it burn with the vanities of Modernity. Though both forces, memes and postmodernism, are destructive and often shot through with irony, they are different in nature.

Because the canon wars, unlike memes, never posed any existential risk for literature itself. If anything, they presented, and continue to present, new and useful challenges. For the Classical Educator, the task is to defend Moby Dick against these assaults, to demonstrate that the book is a timeless contribution to human knowledge and understanding rather than an expendable patriarchal contingency. The task of their opponent is to find something produced within the past 20 years by a Non-White-Male that parallels the imaginative and allegorical power of Ishmael and Ahab’s sperm hunt through the high seas.

No matter which side you fall on, the debate is nonetheless an enlivening one, bringing with it pressures to engage with both old works and new ones, whether to defend or attack, and generally at the level of substance.

But what’s happening today is disabling literary seriousness altogether. Nothing until now has threatened thought, threatened real and deep debate, like the Meme. The destructive power of postmodernism is wholly unmatched by that of Memes, which are something like grotesque but dumber outgrowths of postmodern ideology, leaving a ruinous vacuum in their digital wake.

Because Memes are a virulent, incapacitating force unlike anything culture has yet brought us. There is nothing a millennial fears more than becoming a meme, making concrete that pathetic, mocked entity circulating on the internet. Even if the meme does not yet exist, anyone who has even briefly inhabited the internet knows how quickly you can become one. If television was, as David Foster Wallace put it, irony institutionalized, memes are irony mobilized, the “tyranny” of irony engulfing any attempt at seriousness or sincerity.

More so than television, memes permeate an active social ecosystem, ironizing not just private life but public life online, creating a crippling self-consciousness among everybody on Twitter that crosses subconsciously over the effaced boundaries between digital reality and life IRL. The tyrannical nature of memes rests most clearly in their capacity to constantly and completely surveil.

And there is a sick, informal irony itself behind all this. All those tried-and-true, morally instructive books, those tested avenues for solitude, are getting tossed just as millenials hasten their plummet into an empty and infinite sadness. Having not read a single page of DFW, being utterly unfamiliar with Ayn Rand or Vonnegut, they only perpetuate this aimless cycle of destruction, engaging in bad faith and ill-informed takedown of everything that might, just might, do a better job of filling the void than also-ironic mental health memes and Chai Lattes, or at least get people on the right track.

The cycle is driven by some fatal concoction of angst, anger and jealousy, our destructive Tweeters compensating for their own envious half-literacy with a veneer of ironic power. On the rare occasion that I do end up on Twitter and encounter these creatures, I often imagine them sobbing uncontrollably behind the cover of that self-assured retweet.

But, curiously, there are attempts to compensate, and this part I can’t understand. The barren path left by these pernicious phagocytes, the Memes and their hosts, gets rebuilt with an edifice that cannot and will not withstand the inevitable cruelty of life. In the wake of digital destruction, a new canon emerges. Melville and Hemingway get replaced by the likes of Rupi Kaur and Malcolm Glaldwell; Kierkegaard and Tolstoy get scrapped for horoscopes. Somehow, third-rate authors and pseudoscience receive the blessing, offering feeble cliches that are supposed to get people through their days. (Though I’ll confess to being something of an occasional Gladwell reader, at least his New Yorker stuff, he certainly can’t and shouldn’t fill any voids.)

And from literature to religion, this ceaseless streak of destruction is indiscriminate in its targets. Take anything nobody’s actually read — the Bible, Marx, Thoreau, whatever — and ironize it to death online, making impossible any subsequent attempt to engage with it. All those sources of things that once imbued life with a certain seriousness, those now-cliche beliefs in things like Hope, Love and God, become ever-thoughtlessly, even instinctively, dismissed, at a time when a little belief in hope, love and god seems to be precisely what people are missing.

And when, in college and among the college-educated, the incapacitating force of the Meme proves stronger than anywhere else, prevents people from doing everything they’re supposed to be here to do and do when they leave, it’s hard to see a way out.

The one solution I can identify — the end of Twitter — is even harder to conceive of. On this, I hope, and can only hope, that I am wrong.

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