Call it fake, call it Neo-Dada: Absurdist internet humor is an artistic movement

Wednesday, September 12, 2018 - 5:09pm

The most common explanation among people who critically engage with absurdist internet humor is to claim a resurgence of Neo-Dadaism. A quick Google search of the two pulls up an endless list of cultural think pieces that position the two artistic movements as parallels. The primary aim seems to be, more than artistic analysis, some proof of the validity of this specific movement.

“For an art historian, Neo-Dada is a very specific term for a few artists in the ’60s,” Art History lecturer Tara Ward said in an interview with The Daily. “People like (Jasper) Johns who were playing around, not only with popular culture, but using some irony.”

Johns, who’s also claimed by abstract expressionism and pop art, is best known for his depictions and recreations of the American flag.

“The great story about Johns is he produces a series of bronze beer cans that are a response to his dealer saying that this dealer could sell some beer cans that de Kooning had thrown away,” Ward said. “So Johns kind of goes, ‘Here sell them.’ And of course they did and made a fortune.”

“But this is all going back to earlier movements in the 20th century like True Dada, which goes in a variety of different directions, but was always aimed at being somewhat controversial, sometimes in very political ways,” Ward said. “And then there are people like Duchamp and Picabia who are posing interesting questions, but within an almost juvenile sense of humor.”

A movement of avant-garde art in the early 20th century, Dadaism and its precursors of anti-art sought to challenge what was considered art.

"Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp

"Fountain" by Marcel Duchamp Buy this photo
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“The thing that I was looking at this morning that would recall these words to me … the whole Kanye/PornHub thing that just happened, where he’s the creative director of their awards,” Ward said. “The question is: Is that a joke? Are we supposed to take that seriously or is that just so ridiculous that we’re supposed to react to it?”

Reaction is essential to, and the chief aim of, most Dadaist art.

A mere 28 years into the life of the Internet, it has become a society that has reached a self-reflexive stage. Absurdist internet humor, like absurdist humor and art of the early 20th century, rejects aesthetics of capitalism, logic and reason in order to pronounce the futile nature of existence. Only now the “world” that is dark and unrelenting isn’t necessarily the physical world at all. It’s the world of the internet.

The creation of the internet, in a sense, was the creation of a new world — a world that is moving through the same artistic movements as the physical world. Only the online world is privileged with the knowledge of the physical world. Even when its humor is self-referential, its modes of reference are learned from outside itself.

And absurdist internet humor is critiquing and parodying the society of the internet, even more than it is the physical world. Faux profundity is blown apart by memes like “we live in a society” and “fellas is it gay” that make a joke of the homophobic rhetoric and toxic masculinity that fills forums on 4chan and Reddit.

“Think about Rauschenberg taking essentially trash, but also pointedly historically meaningful trash. There is this latent meaning that then they’re remaking and sort of activating, but sort of not,” Ward said. “Which is, again, this really weird space of, ‘Okay, are you actually saying this? Or are you negating this? Where are we here?’”

"Bed" by Robert Rauschenberg

"Bed" by Robert Rauschenberg Buy this photo
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This constant regeneration is essential to this kind of humor. Memes are better when they reference other memes. Jokes are smarter when they reference other jokes.

“In my interaction with it, I guess I would define absurdist humor as the logical extension of an ironic/Postmodern conceptualization of culture,” Derek Triebwasser, an LSA and Music, Theatre & Dance junior, said. “My sense of this humor is that we, as content creators and consumers, are perceptually aware of the degree of abstraction of a meme … despite potentially being unable to voice this.”

Triebwasser interacts with absurdist internet culture primarily through Twitter and prides themself on their ability to curate content. Like many others in this corner of the internet, Triebwasser isn’t a content generator, but interacts with the community as a collector — the kind of collector that, Ward noted, existed before the internet.

“I’m not really a big fan of super, super dark humor, which I think makes up a lot of internet culture these days,” LSA junior Grace Toll said.

Another content collector, Toll finds herself drawn to the lighter sides of absurdist internet culture, favoring Wholesome Memes and what she calls “goofy” humor over the darker, more cynical sides of the internet.

“My favorite meme right now is the ‘Do y’all here sumn’ meme,” Toll said. “So it’s the picture of Squidward, and you use it if someone says something you’re choosing to ignore.”

“And all the sub-memes of it, like the one with the fish that’s ‘Girl, I hear sumn,’” she continued, noting how memes tend to communicate with one another.

Even in more benign forms, these memes are still operating under the same principles of absurdism and regeneration that Ward mentioned. They pull images, like SpongeBob and Squidward, who are recognizable even to users who haven’t seen the show, from the pop culture cannon and apply text that makes them more absurd.

We see this happening with cartoon characters precisely because they carry a certain degree of absurdity within the context of their show. Then, pulled out of context and paired with text, the absurdity is amplified.

That’s how many of these memes operate. Users identify images with some degree of essential absurdity — cartoons, stock photos, still from reality TV — and use them to create something even more absurd.

“Pre-internet, there was a lot of like, ‘How do I figure out the unknown musician?’” Ward said. “So there was this cult of people collecting X, Y or Z, going to specific places to learn about that.”

“And so there’s also something about these that has that in it. Can I find the weird thing? Can I be the first one to show you the weird thing? Can I trace where this came from? Where am I in the hierarchy? That really just echoes that person who knew all the obscure albums,” Ward said.

When looking for absurdist content, Triebwasser is most taken by the simultaneous abstraction and distillation of different meme formats.

“The galaxy brain meme is both more concrete and abstract than a ‘normal’ (Advice Animals) style meme as it makes a direct comparison between an established cultural scale and any number of new concepts,” Triebwasser said.

Advice Animals are — and, at this point, mostly were — an early meme format that employed simple stock images and impact font to create a cast of characters. Success Kid, Advice Dog and Conspiracy Keanu should be somewhat familiar to anyone who has been online in the past decade. They are simple and easy to regenerate formulas, each with a specific set of rules. Like comic superheroes, their monikers give users all the necessary information as to how to interact with them.

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But now, in the era of the Galaxy Brain meme, the rules are less clear, and the characters are less concrete.

“Because we have empty space, anything can be placed here, including other memes, references, conceptualizations, et cetera,” Triebwasser said. “This meme, I think, is a poignant example of the degree of abstraction as a scale for humor. As the galaxy brain expands, its comparisons on the left become more and more ‘abstract.’”

Triebwasser points to other popular meme formats — Guy Looking Back and Grasping Hands — as examples of this blank space abstraction. The “rules” associated with the Advice Animals are wiped away and the visual product is able to move into a space that is more abstract, and more absurd.

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“I think that the internet fosters this sort of ideation due to its accessibility and impersonality,” Triebwasser said. “Just as we abstract humor, the way of interaction on the internet is also bounded by ways of or degrees of abstraction.”

For Triebwasser, the Twitter profile is an abstraction of the Twitter user, and the platform itself is integral to its proliferation of this kind of humor. In that sense, the platform adheres more closely to a Dadaist rejection of authorship than a Neo-Dadaist celebration of it.

“When you see a really popular tweet, unless you already know the account you probably will never remember the account that tweeted it,” Triebwasser said. “I don’t know if you’d even look at their (Twitter handle), you just have the meme for itself.”                                      

This distance, Ward asserts, allows the internet to get away with a darker form of humor — like the Tide Pod challenge that dominated Twitter feeds earlier this year — that is harder to stomach in real life.

“If, sitting in the dining hall, I challenge the kid across from me to drink a gallon of milk … I have to sit there and watch the consequences of that kid vomiting,” Ward said. “But you don’t if it’s on the internet. So there’s a distance there that perhaps allows this to happen more or at least puts you in a different relationship to it.”

This distance between the subject and the consumer makes it easier to consume this type of humor. But consumers with different degrees of knowledge as to the validity and origins of the joke are placed in different positions. Especially when it comes to something like Tide Pods.

“That one was very pointedly, ‘You either know or you don’t.’ That was about getting other people to react,” Ward said. “The news covering Tide Pods struck me as exactly what that aimed at doing.”

A Twitter user can tweet a photo of a bowl of Tide Pods with the caption “Dinner” and have it taken two very different ways by different users.

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“Personally I thought it was funny for a little bit,” Toll said. “You look at one and you think, ‘That does look good. I do want to eat that.’ But obviously you don’t – that was definitely a meme that was popular with younger people.”

The divide of knowledge among internet users and Tide Pod challengers was also an age divide. Younger users — mostly teens — who grew up with the absurdist language of this community but had not yet developed the critical skills to understand all of its nuances drove the meme to more dangerous levels.

“Part of the pleasure of it was knowing that other people didn’t get it. I think where it gets dark is what are the consequences of not getting it,” Ward said. “Maybe it’s just that you’re old and don’t get it and maybe it’s death.”

Even in more benign cases, the distinction between who gets the joke and who doesn’t is constantly reaffirmed online — most prevalently through the label “local.”

“Locals” are Twitter users who post sincere content that can be seen as the direct opposite of absurdist Twitter. They reaffirm the very things Dadaism, Neo-Dadaism and internet meme culture are critiquing: traditional aesthetics of beauty, capitalism and faith in the world as a good and just place.

“Locals” are usually white, well-adjusted, suburban teens who retweet memes three iterations behind absurdist Twitter. Offline, they might be called “normies.” And offline, they wouldn’t necessarily interact with their darker, more cynical contemporaries in this way. But online, with enough retweets, your tweet can end up on anyone’s timeline. And next thing you know, your tweet about eating pizza and watching “The Office” that was a hit with your friend is the butt of some stranger’s joke.

“People who didn’t understand that kind of humor,” Toll defined when asked about “locals.” “The kind of people who would see a meme that was popular months ago and say, ‘This is hilarious, I’ve never seen this before.’”

People in weird or absurdist Twitter communities have latched onto “locals” as both antithetical to themselves and an additional stream of content production.

“I think that’s a combination of content lacking a specific intensity or direction of nuance, combined with either the ideals or the personhood that represents,” Triebwasser said.

Beyond the local/weird divide, Western culture has always been preoccupied with tests that create hierarchies of knowledge. People who know the most, who can tick the most cultural boxes, are positioned at the top. Then come those who don’t know or don’t know as much, and finally in last place are the people who discover the list only after it has lost its novelty.

Ward points to Tom Wolfe’s “Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test.”

“It has a list of all the things that can get you high, and I remember people reading that and it being like a checklist in sort of a similar way,” Ward said. “There was this play of: Do you know all of these? Have you tried all of these? What do they do?”

Meme culture operates in similar ways, but its methods of interactions and communication are intrinsically tied to the structure of platforms like Twitter and, to a lesser degree, Instagram. So while comparisons can be made to older forms of culture — literature, art and music — their power is tied to the way these sites are constructed and displayed.

“Most important for meme/Twitter culture specifically, I think, is the way of consumption,” Triebwasser said. “Cell phones have adapted our consumption patterns to be basically unceasing, and the content follows this habituation.”

Even the act of scrolling through a feed impacts the way the information on the feed is consumed and interpreted.

“The way of experiencing a Twitter timeline as a stream of consciousness really affects our cognition,” Triebwasser said.

The endless stream of content pushes humor toward the mundane. Not the blissful mundane of “Local” Twitter, but the ceaseless mundane tragedies of modern existence — what Triebwasser calls “the solidarity of day-to-day experience.” Accounts like sosadtoday play on a sort of communal existential dread, and rely on self-deprecating jokes about the user’s (or the user’s online persona’s) own mental illness.

“It’s best exemplified by short quips that become a vehicle for communication. ‘Might fuck around and (blank)’ ‘(Morning salutation), (blank) let’s get this (blank),’” Triebwasser said. “These formats for communication become not only a status for complexity and popularity of humor, but then are abstracted back into everyday life.”

Like “we live in a society” or “fellas is it gay,” these phrases become memes on and offline. But, this offline life is not limited to text-based memes. Vines have outlived their platform (uploads to the short-form video app were stopped in October 2016). Twitter users have taken the audio from these videos and turned them into similarly memed phrases. “My dick fell off” and “What the fuck is up, Kyle” recall both the audio and video of their original Vine format.

Triebwasser points to Vine as an integral platform in the transition from Advice Animals and other impact font meme formats to the more absurdist and abstract meme forms we see today.

But is this new, post-Vine, post-Impact font meme space Neo-Dada? Not exactly, Triebwasser says.

“I would say the comparison to Dada is apt due to Dada’s emphasis on irony, anti-capitalism, aestheticism, rejection of logic and reason, et cetera,” Triebwasser said. “But isn’t it more culturally and artistically accurate to conceive of it as its own genre?”

The main reason for Triebwasser’s assertion is that the internet is a “radial operator” with a speed and reach which cannot be matched in physical culture.

“If you conceptualize it as a format for communication, you see the way of communicating changes or evolves with increased interaction with it,” Triebwasser said.

Increased interaction is also colored by the way the platforms filter content. News articles and photos of friends are filtered in-between memes and jokes.

“You read some horrible news and there’s a joke after it and that is why something that’s really stupid on its own can make you laugh or make you want to show someone else,” Ward said.  

While a great deal of the content produced in this vein is self-referential or, at least, participates is an established “cannon” of images that make fun or critique the way people use and communicate on the internet, sometimes purely novel memes are developed.

Triebwasser is reminded of “Dat Boi,” a pixelated cartoon frog riding a unicycle that appeared online, seemingly out of nowhere.

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“There was no existing frog emoji or play on the word boy at that time,” Triebwasser said. “That was notable enough.”

It was, Triebwasser recalls, a purely non-referential meme — alone among its kind to rise to such viral levels. It proves this niche is also a generating force, a movement with the ability to recognize and generate absurdism and weirdness in the world.

While a majority of this culture is visual, the main platform through which participants interact is Twitter, a primarily text-based platform, Twitter’s days could be numbered.

Triebwasser sees parallels between the decline of Twitter and the decline of platforms like Facebook and Tumblr that used to hold the top position in the culture.

“The way that Twitter’s administration is handling anything is not happy or fun. Verifying Neo-Nazis, and recently there was a purge of Leftist Twitter accounts that all just got deleted,” Triebwasser said. “People I follow are on their third or fourth account because they keep getting deleted.”

Twitter users who are active in meme and absurdist culture don’t feel like the platform has room for them anymore.

“There’s a small but noticeable ideation on Twitter that we’re being edged out,” Triebwasser said.

Whatever’s next for the community, Triebwasser feels confident they’ll find a way to exist and thrive online.

“The culture as a social force will always exist and we/they/it will always find a way to exist,” Triebwasser said.

So, it’s clear that absurdist humor aims to generate a reaction. It rejects traditional aesthetics of beauty, logic and capitalism in favor of a visual language that reflects the darkness, absurdity and unknowability of modern life. Most of its content is referential — stock images, internet trends and visual culture in the Western canon — but some is novel.

While it may bear some of the skeletal work of the two, it’s not Dada or Neo-Dada. This thing, this Weird Twitter/Meme Culture/Online Humor thing is a beast of its own creation — an artistic movement that, like all, was born from what came before it, but has quite rapidly become something wholly its own.