Do not look directly at the internet.
Like a solar eclipse, it’s safest to observe the shadows it casts. In different ways, this philosophy underlies two of the best recent books about this world of ours that software has eaten. Uncanny Valley, Anna Weiner’s memoir of her years working for big tech companies, cleverly avoids mentioning a single company, product, or service. Instead, it’s “the social network everyone hated,” “a highly litigious Seattle-based software conglomerate,” and a pair of “unembellished, monochrome merino-wool sneakers.”
In No One Is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood applies a similar logic to individual memes. Rather than general descriptions for Facebook, Microsoft, and Allbirds, she renders the New York Times’ 2015 “Add green peas to your guacamole. Trust us.” tweet as:
Every day their attention must turn, like the shine on a school of fish, all at once, toward a new person to hate. Sometimes the subject was a war criminal, but other times it was someone who made a heinous substitution in guacamole.
Do you remember that guacamole meme? I do! But why? And to what end? Or as Lockwood asks:
What, in place of these sentences, marched in the brains of previous generations? Folk rhymes about planting turnips, she guessed.
The internet’s steady stream of candy-coloured nonsense is the algorithmically optimized product of a machine designed to grab our attention. As Weiner’s book concludes, we naturally make the mistake of focusing on the stories when it’s really about the system.
But once these brief flickers of electrons accomplish their goal of making us rub our thumbs against a smartphone, they don’t just die like spawned-out salmon. No, they take up residence rent-free in our Neanderthal brains, occasionally trashing the place. (This is the whole premise of the rich I Think About This A Lot series on The Cut.)
And in Patricia Lockwood’s brain, especially. The writer has previously diagnosed herself with “pun lightning,” a condition that makes her a Great Wit, as per GWQ No. 7. She defines it as “jolt of connection when the language turns itself inside out, when two words suddenly profess they’re related to each other, or wish to be married, or were in league all along.”
Her facility at making connections between words has been swamped with memes. “Should she follow with such avidity the compliments that rural sheriffs paid to porn stars, not realizing that other people could see them?” she asks, but the question is rhetorical. She absorbs every pixel of it.
“When caucasianblink.gif appeared, her eye traveled over it left to right as if it were one hundred thousand words.”
And in the end, she finds the jolts of connection. This is all ridiculous, but at least we are all experiencing it together. And occasionally, with effort and good faith, it can connect us back to real people in the flesh-and-blood world.
In the second half of Lockwood’s novel, the narrator finds herself reading a Wikipedia entry about Marlon Brando to her infant cousin, “how he looked like a wet knife in a T-shirt, the cotton ball in each cheek when he talked, rumors of him wearing diapers on the set of Apocalypse Now.” (When pun lightning strikes, it looks like “wet knife.”)
In the end, what do all these shadows of memes amount to? Patricia Lockwood does the math:
“Nothing useful, but one of the fine spendthrift privileges of being alive —wasting a cubic inch of mind and memory on the vital statistics of Marlon Brando.”
Quick quips; lightning
“We are here and it is now. Further than that all human knowledge is moonshine.”
— H.L. Mencken
“The man who can dominate a London dinner table can dominate the world.”
— Oscar Wilde
“Who at some point hasn’t set out dutifully for that fine foreign film and then ducked into the nearest piece of American trash? We’re not only educated people of taste, we’re also common people with common feelings.”
— Pauline Kael, who devoted many cubic miles to Marlon Brando.
This is just to say
If you leave a plum in the icebox for four years, it will turn into a prune. Of the many rabbit holes in No One Is Talking About This, the one I decided to dive into head first was this riff:
I have eaten
that were in
you were probably
they were blank
and so blank
This comes right after a passage that asks “wasn’t the new sense of humor just a little bit random?” And it is! And that’s good! Sometimes! As it was when William Carlos Williams’s 1938 poem about plums in the icebox became the source material of a thousand Twitter jokes in late 2017. First, it’s encouraging to see the hivemind process an actual work of art rather than, say, the claim that Helen Keller was actually a fighter pilot. And second, the poem’s combo of instant gratification + bad faith = the internet.
Some of the riffs from that 2017 golden age:
But perhaps the best interpretation of the poem came last year in parody of Reddit’s Am I The Asshole messageboard. This is the entertaining corner of the web where self-aware jerks bring their occasional flickers of remorse to be snuffed out by their fellow psychopaths. The parody board, Am I The Angel, is where “you post things where you obviously did nothing wrong and look for validation.”
And so William Carlos Williams’ poem was shared in its entirety under the headline “And I even started with an apology” and with this addendum:
“And instead of accepting this apology, [significant other] doesn’t believe I’m actually sorry at all because the lingering sensual description and delicate meter ‘implies’ I actually loved it.
... she knows. Somehow she knows.
So AITA how do I get this woman out of my life while keeping any of her further plums?”
That’s the 87th issue of Get Wit Quick, the weekly beam of memes that gleam with the occasional turnip recipe. Of course it’s no coincidence that the former guy who looked directly at the sun was kicked off the internet. On the bright side, blinking white guy Drew Scanlon used his meme fame to raise money for MS research at bikingwhiteguy.com. Do memes age well in print? Read Elements of Wit: Mastering The Art of Being Interesting to find out! You’ll never believe page 72! I forgive you for tapping the cold, sweet, delicious ♥️ below.1
Sorry, no footnotes this week!