Philosophical Meme Pages And How They Subvert Themselves
“Hegelians When They Write an Essay“
But is there a method to the madness? Maybe one must actually know the teachings of Hegel, or have read Kierkegaard in order to understand this content. Hegel, Deleuze, Foucault, Heidegger; all of them formed opinions on irony and satire that built off of each other's work, and now the term irony seems to go hand-in-hand with internet culture. Ironic pages and the communities they foster are a foundation so embedded in the modern internet that the functionings of them seem organic — that describing them, how they operate and why they’re successful, is so abstract and difficult that one might need to look back at the teachings of old philosophers to gage what they are doing successfully. These philosophy irony pages on Instagram, through their process of name-dropping philosophers that studied and birthed irony, use their likeness as a means of irony. These pages historicize themselves, and consequently, attract new followers everyday.
This “ironist” trope and ideas of what is called Socratic Irony date back to Socrates originally, but the ideas were further molded by Kierkegaard, Hegel, and others in the 18th and 19th centuries. Ironic and existential writers began to challenge ideas of art and authority, creating work that existed at the end of art, this being based on what Hegel believed about irony. Hegel, as a philosophical godfather following Emmanuel Kant in a long line of German idealists, is someone most students of philosophy are forced to read in preliminary college courses. Anyone looking to get into the world of philosophy scholarship will likely read Hegel. Even if they aren’t a philosophy student, at the very least they’ll hear of his incomprehensible writing style from their fellow classmates, maybe their roommate, who spends days in the library slaving over the Lectures on Aesthetics only to come back to you and make fun of Hegel and say, “I’d rather be a postmodernist.”
So even if one’s never read Hegel, there’s an impression that most people have in their mind of him which might be synonymous with the image most people have in their mind of philosophers in general; male, brooding, and intellectually untouchable. To the average internet user, these traits might hit close to home. To internet people, philosophers are relatable; they’re like the doomers of history. So when their names and terminology and likenesses are put into and cemented in meme format, endlessly referenced in the feed of an enigmatic profile, the internet person, inherently drawn to the enigmatic as well as to philosophy in general, is bound to lean in and follow.
But beyond this initial shock-value that draws people in, the old-timey names in new-timey memes, and the already inherent curiosity that surrounds philosophy on the internet, do these meme creators that reference Hegel go beyond just using his likeness? Do they delve deeper into the modes and undercurrents of Socratic irony, performing them in a 21st century context?
Hegel believed that irony existed now only because art is dead — because art cannot represent truth like it once did. In his opinion, this is because of the rise of aesthetics, like how many people idolize Greek architecture but something built with Greek features in a modern setting is empty of its origins. Rather, the aesthetics of the building are a mere signifier to the time, not made out of practicality or time-period-specific necessities/references. Those are lost when replicating ancient Greek aesthetics in the 21st century.
Irony works within these same constructs of aesthetics. Irony replicates or simulates aesthetics in order to turn them on their head. Ironists, in Hegel’s age, were mostly writers, like Jonathan Swiftor Kierkegaard, who pioneered existentialist writing and further built upon Hegelian notions of irony. Nowadays, irony exists in many forms, not just writing, and people have argued for the role of meme creators as the most crucial modern ironists. Giachomo Bianchino, for example, a graduate student at the City University of New York, wrote an essay published last year in the collection, “Post Memes: Seizing the Memes of Production,” by Punctum Books called, “Simulation and Dissimulation: Esoteric Memes Pages at the Limits of Irony.” In it, he relates notions of irony from Hegel, Foucault, and Kierkegaard to Pepe the Frog and its creator. He basically brings Pepe into conversation with Hegelian notions of irony, arguing for “‘the infinite absolute negativity,’ of subjectivity,”(371) within its form, and relating the creation of it to how, “the ironic writer is at the behest of the reader and their context”(371). He then uses this to argue how Pepe the Frog exists between the subjectivity of the creator and the objectivity of its audience, and how, “the esoteric ironist seems to have ceased the search for any tangible center of their own… the real center of their task is the desire of the Other; the reality of the Normie at the discourse of Truth” (381).
Of course, he argues that these functions of irony operate within Pepe memes, but Instagram pages like @esoteric.fishing, @dankdelueze, @the_philosophers_meme_mk24, and @funticles are much better indicators of this form of irony in modern memes; how they are able to perform the notions of irony, as well as reference its origins.
Take a page like @esoteric.fishing, which has a small following close to 5,000 followers, but in the endless scroll of its profile, meme after meme references Hegel, or postmodernists, or the same edited version of a philosophical cartoon — a boy and a tree — playing with ideas of signifier and signified; how each new edition of the edited format alludes, in a new way, to the undercurrent of the page that only the admin must truly understand. In this, there is a push and pull between the creator and the followers — who understands the page best? — or how Bianchino puts it, in Hegelian terms, “this act of supplementation is governed by a dialectic of desire which edges into political problems of power” (379).
Power is an element here; who has power over this knowledge? The followers of the esoteric meme page engage in a struggle to know the hidden meaning, to have power over the creator. It’s an “attempt [by them] to be initiated into the inner sanctum of the conventicle”(373). This is why they stay, they follow, they engage. But the creator, in order to keep their power, must “elevate their subjective position by mystifying the world” (373). This is done through enigmatic image posting. These philosophical irony pages create their own languages and systems of inside jokes/references that the followers hope to gain power over, and through this struggle, the followers stay and keep engaging.
But the ability of this page to remain enigmatic and esoteric for irony’s sake works only through the dichotomy of being both legible and mysterious. The ironist meme creator must stay close to the aesthetics that their followers know — Impact font, small cartoons, other templates that appear on an Explore page — and going back to Bianchino, “The hyperreality of esoteric meme production creates a critical culture of materialism, where the object is not material reality as the factual precondition of consciousness, but a mere attention to the materials with which consciousness is working”(374). Finding this balance is what the good irony page does. It’s not like watching a TikTok or Youtube video that is blatantly weird to the point of being cringe. These pages remain just untouchable enough to not be fully known.
They weren’t the first to use these tactics however. Other meme pages, or groups of meme pages, have existed at this same threshold of irony between signifier and signified, alienating themselves from a normative other through the aesthetic representation of that other. Groups of irony pages like the nba2khoodmoments pages on Instagram have done the same, using these same ironic tactics. But most likely, these nba2k admins have never read Hegel or Heidegger. Through their actions and instincts alone, they play out what these thinkers envisioned many years ago in social media form, through copying the aesthetics of NBA2K suburbia and “Hood Moments” to highlight that world’s absurdity.
Philosophy-irony meme pages do this same ironic dance, but at the same time, exist on top of the self-awareness of their own irony through using the likenesses of its “original creators” as their aesthetic plot points. All the pictures of Hegel with impact font, and references to biblical passages and philosophical doctrines. Even Hegel said that the aesthetic fetishization of the old is irony. So, inherently, making a meme about an old philosopher in a modern context is inherently ironic. Image after image on their profile of the same cartoon brain in a tank, each post edited differently, each another stepping stone added to the timeline experienced day by day. These blatant references to philosophical masters and keywords, even in their own usernames — like how @funticles seems to be a play on the term “conventicles” — shows how they exist on another level, on top of Instagram, looking down at all the people scraping for their meaning. This phenomenon of irony that Hegel originally constructed is acted out through Hegel’s likeness here, edited, chopped up, and now it’s just a picture of poop in a banana peel on your screen with the word “Hegel” in both captions. And while you’re scrolling through the maze of it, the page is holding up a mirror and causing a feedback loop, showing every layer of it’s forethought being performed. These philosophical meme pages seem to be a step ahead, or maybe, they’re just itching for analysis, through an essay; a completion of their form.
click here to read this article in the December 2020 Meme Insider issue.