On this day in 2016, a gorilla was shot and a meme was born. But while the world went mad for Harambe, it makes even less sense in 2021.
Like many people, I made mistakes in my 20s. One particularly annoying one was a pair of shitty tattoos on each upper arm. Through significant, painful and expensive laser procedures, I’ve been able to all-but remove both of them. I was in a discussion with someone about this, a person considerably younger than I, who asked about the tattoos, as she could barely see them but knew that they were there. She, too, was inked (as they say), and tried to describe it (for she could not reveal it from under multiple layers), having had one done across the vast canvas of her back, of a Japanese demon character.
“You know,” she said, “like the meme.”
That’s pretty much where the whole conversation ended. In that I know what a meme is, but am not aware of ‘the’ meme, or that memes could become famous enough for people to get whole back tattoos of them. In the 1993 Sylvester Stallone sci-fi film Demolition Man, the citizens of the future sing along on the radio to old commercial jingles. Our own future may very well include history texts and analyses of various memes.
People, the future is now.
It’s becoming clearer as I progress that some things pass me by completely, as a natural byproduct of time’s forward march. Don’t get me wrong, I’m really quite fine with missing out on certain cultural phenomena, like whatever it is that the ‘Drake looking sideways, disapprovingly away from one thing, then looking approvingly at a different thing’ represents. It’s a meme, I presume, but as for its deeper significance, I don’t care.
Across my field of vision comes a story about it being the fifth anniversary of the death of a gorilla. That it came to pass that a gorilla named Harambe, was killed in its zoo enclosure when a small child climbed into it and zookeepers shot the poor beast to prevent it from hurting the kiddie.
The story, the gorilla, its name became a viral sensation back in 2016, apparently. As The Atlantic reports, “The Harambe episode was too edgy for marketers to co-opt, and too dank for memesters looking to provoke predictable sentiments.”
(‘Memesters’ and ‘dank’ look like annoying words in this context. But I continue reading the piece.)
“Harambe memes have spanned the gamut from darkly humorous to poignant, from logical to surreal. There is, it appears, no limit to range of non-sequiturs that can ride the Harambe meme.”
And again, I’m quite frankly glad that I’m either not online enough, or just having too much of a life in the real world to have noticed this as a phenomenon, or that of the many words I commit to the various pieces I write, I’ve never given memes that much thought. I’m really ok with this.
“Harambe, in other words, is the perfect meme,” says author Venkatesh Rao. “In a reversal of Marshall McLuhan’s classic dictum, Harambe is the message that became a medium, capable of carrying any signal, without becoming identified with any of them. A meme in the original sense intended by Richard Dawkins: a cultural signifier that spreads simply because it is good at spreading. It is neither worth spreading the way a TED talk aspires to be, nor particularly worth resisting. It spreads because it can.”
It goes on, and ends with, well, a whole other thing:
“Harambe presages a world of digital ubiquity where anomie is a constant, not just a temporary phase between the decline of one era of grand narratives and the ascendance of another. There is simply too much information beyond the tight boundaries of normalcy, and it comes at us far too fast, for classical narrative techniques to keep up. No single voice can manage the optics of a rapidly trending story on Twitter. And in most cases, there is no single party with the right mix of incentives to even try.”
It would appear from this high-level, smartly written, entirely reasonable deconstruction that such things, the photo with the Impact-font text at its top and base, is a medium worth significant deconstruction. To the point where we are to conclude from Venkatesh Rao’s prose that Harambe represents “any substantive and creative collective response to the weird, no matter how incoherent, is better than a fearful retreat to the normal.”
All this from a photo of a sadly deceased gorilla, with superimposed text witticisms on it. Memes, as a phenomenon worth deconstructing can, and will pass me by – perhaps the rest of my generation (X) will feel the same way. For future reference for the Gen Zs or younger millennials, I do know what a meme is, but I simply don’t care about them one way or another.