Memes and the Absurd: Modernity’s Opium of the People

On Youtube, there’s a video of author Patricia Lockwood reading her piece, The Communal Mind, at the British Museum. It’s witty, insightful, and unlike many written pieces about the internet, a completely immersive, self-aware, and nuanced piece of writing. You can watch it here. Just as a preface, I’ll be similarly carrying on in her absurd and confusing style, in some sort of a post-modern exploration of the internet and the meaning of life.


On Youtube, there’s a video of author Patricia Lockwood reading her piece, The Communal Mind, at the British Museum. It’s witty, insightful, and unlike many written pieces about the internet, a completely immersive, self-aware, and nuanced piece of writing[1]. You can watch it here. Just as a preface, I’ll be similarly carrying on in her absurd and confusing style, in some sort of a post-modern exploration of the internet and the meaning of life. That being said, you don’t need to have watched the video to come along for the ride.

At the end of Lockwood’s reading, a member of the audience asks her, “Do you think humour’s gotten weirder as a response to politics or has politics gotten weirder as a response to humour?” I’m now going to try and somewhat answer this question, and explore my ideas surrounding it.

Part I – The Absurd

So, the Absurd. What is it? Absurdism is the philosophical idea that human beings are constantly trying to find meaning in life when there isn’t any. According to my favourite sexy French philosopher, Albert Camus[2], to live at peace within the Absurd, one must look the meaninglessness of life in the face and continue on in spite of it!

My opinion is that Absurdism is the norm of modernity. Subsequently, the internet and culture encompassed within the internet (as explained in Lockwood’s piece) act as evidence of this fact.

There’s a part in The Communal Mind where Lockwood talks about trying to get off the internet:

“When she shut the portal down, the Thread tugged her back towards it. She could not help following it. This might be the one that connected everything, that would knit her to an indestructible coherence.”

What she’s saying here is that it’s not just dopamine addiction that’s got us hooked, but a greater search for meaning.

We’ve all heard the spiels about how the chemicals that get released when we scroll through Instagram at 3 am, in a weird unnecessary procrastination of sleep, affect our brains in a similar way to that of a drug addict. Nobody in their right mind denies that the internet is super fucking addictive. But the internet is also a pretty extraordinary and interesting way to cope with the everyday. As subconscious as it may be for most of us, the things we see make us laugh, help us relate to other people, and ultimately, know that we’re not moving through this big scary world all alone.



This overstimulation and bombardment of knowledge that we’re continuously exposed to (in such a personalised corner of the internet that nobody else is ever privy to) can understandably lead to a coinciding superiority complex and crushing existential crisis. Think of a time you’ve shown somebody a meme you thought was hilarious, assuming it was universally funny, and then they just don’t get it. It’s like making a reference to your favourite movie or TV show in conversation, and nobody realises you’ve even made the reference. It’s no wonder this ironic ‘I’m-the-main-character’ meme that we’ve all thought about for years, but never put into words, has emerged recently. We’re all desperately clinging to any reassurance of self-importance, whilst being entirely aware that it doesn’t exist.

“Everything tangled in the string of everything else. When her cat vomited, she thought she heard the word praxis.”

The combination of the two makes my head spin, but fortunately, we’ve found a – maybe not healthy, but certainly healthier than some of the other possible responses presented by Camus – coping mechanism, even if we don’t realise it.

Part II – Art and Life

Lockwood recalls a headline she saw about a woman who was swallowed by a hippo.

“A few years ago, that would have been talked about for weeks…But now, they had all been swallowed by a hippo. Big deal. That’s life.”

It’s common knowledge that most people our age have a shitty attention span. Just look at TikTok or Vine (rip), both of which function as crack for a group of people who can’t get through a movie without checking how much longer it has left at the 45-minute mark.

I’m sure some people out there might say we’ve reduced our capacity to consume ‘meaningful’ art, or whatever the hell that actually means, but art is about the cultural communication of ideas and creative self-expression. Therefore, memes are art.

Additionally, in our post-post-ironic landscape, I think we’ve come to realise that guilty pleasures don’t really exist. If you enjoy something or find meaning within it, that’s all the justification needed. That isn’t to say this is a new idea either, this kind of art and outlook has been around since Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’, it’s just become normalised within contemporary culture. There’s an interesting essay on this topic by Dean Kissick called ‘The Downward Spiral: Popular Things’, where he talks a lot about memes and NFTs (non-fungible tokens)[3], saying, “With NFTs, we’ve made another leap from art that’s easy to post, to art that simply is the post…”

To clarify, I’m not here trying to suggest we compare the Mona Lisa to Instagram affirmation memes. Not all art is created equal, I recognise, as I’m sure you do too.

But, isn’t there something kind of fantastic in the careless and exhausting nature of meme creation? We’re okay with things not making any sense; we’re at peace within the Absurd. Herein lies the conclusion that art imitates life. Obviously, this isn’t an original thought in any capacity, however, when applying this to Gen Z humour and current internet culture, it brings me a lot of joy.


As an example, I present to you one of my favourite memes, ‘john is kill’:


I mean, what the fuck is this? I couldn’t explain it to you, but it’s hilarious.

Courtney Love gets it, sort of. As sweet as this post is, Love’s appreciation of both of us, and the widespread obsession with shit-posting accounts like @on_a_downward_spiral, simultaneously highlights how in touch she is whilst excluding her from ever truly being in our world. Gen Z humour is not something you can, nor should ever, try to explain. That’s its beauty.

i.D had some things to say on the topic, which sum it up pretty well, “Shit posting accounts…are exactly what the name promises: a place for sharing shit with no commonality from one post to the next, bound together by nothing but their sporadicalness…chances are, if you’re following accounts like @on_a_downward_spiral, you derive enjoyment from things lacking any sort of value or real-world context. Something that just exists.”

Dear i.D,

Yeah, pretty much.

These kinds of accounts have killed meme accounts because they don’t follow trends, they stick with the absurd, the modern norm, and are thus, timeless (and hilarious).

In an interesting swing of the pendulum, we’re ALSO in an age where life seemingly imitates art, or rather presents itself in a form that could easily function as a meme.

To quote an anonymous Late-Night show writer, “Donald Trump as the president is like a sketch that I would have written for UCB’s Sketch 101 class in 2005.”

And a non-Trump one for good measure.

As a generation, we do a pretty good job at turning everything, particularly important things, into a massive joke. Whether this is a good thing or a concerning case of mass irony poisoning is a whole other debate.

Coming back to the original question posed to Lockwood, I think the simple answer is entropy. It’s all just a big whirlwind of chaos and disorder. Everything is more absurd because everything is more absurd.

Part III – Growing up in the age of the internet

My condolences to everybody else who was ruined by Tumblr, Pinterest, and WeHeartIt. Left with hyper-aestheticized ideals of beauty and the everyday, an overwhelming compulsion for sorting images found on the internet and an  kink for bruises (or is that just me?).

Much like Lockwood, we grew up here.

Can you imagine having never been on the internet and then being dropped into the depths of Reddit and having to try to make sense of the world around you?

Imagine seeing these with no background knowledge of memes:

(Side note: for the sake of my own pride, I find the second one terribly unfunny, but it gets my point across.)

Trying to explain a meme to your parents (if this isn’t something you’ve already tried, I don’t recommend it) is like trying to understand the Wasteland by T.S. Elliot, which, in all honesty, would probably be easier to do because 1. at least you’d comprehend the references once you were familiar with them and 2. it’s not humorous; no joke (particularly a meme) is funnier once you explain it.

All of this bleeds into the real world. I have a friend who incessantly uses internet speak in his day-to-day life. To be fair, we all slip up and say lol or lmao out loud once in a while, but his most recent vocabulary addition has been Kekw[4]

I’m sure you can infer how terribly obnoxious, but equally fantastic, this is. I think it kind of sums up how I feel about all of this.

Adaption to the internet and its influence means the awareness and acceptance of the Absurd, and thus, the meaninglessness of life. I find this to be a pretty great solution, a new form of distraction, one that is certainly more accessible and entertaining than religion. Memes are modernity’s opium of the people. No need for ideas of the afterlife to manage the crushing collective existential crisis, just self-aware shit-posting. If nothing else, that’s what we’re all good at: being self-aware. As long as we’re self-aware, we’ll be fine. Right?


[1] Which eventually grew into her phenomenal 2021 novel ‘no one is talking about this’

[3] A form of cryptocurrency which is used to tokenise a unique item such as art, collectibles, real estate, etc. To clarify, this doesn’t mean one holds actual ownership or intellectual property rights to an item, but rather the NFT connected to the item. There can only be one owner of an NFT at a time, and they are not interchangeable with other items, so you can’t pay for things in NFTs. Think of them like a one-off trading card.

[4] As defined by said friend, a Twitch emote, is utilised as a reaction to a humorous (but slightly unbelievable) situation.

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