Remember Longcat, Jane? I remember Longcat. Fuck the picture on this page, I want to talk about Longcat. Memes were simpler back then, in 2006. They stood for something. And that something was nothing. Memes just were. “Longcat is long.” An undeniably true, self-reflexive statement. Water is wet, fire is hot, Longcat is long. Memes were floating signifiers without signifieds, meaningful in their meaninglessness. Nobody made memes, they just arose through spontaneous generation; Athena being birthed, fully formed, from her own skull.
You could talk about them around the proverbial water cooler, taking comfort in their absurdity. “Hey, Johnston, have you seen the picture of that cat? They call it Longcat because it’s long!” “Ha ha, sounds like good fun, Stevenson! That reminds me, I need to show you this webpage I found the other day; it contains numerous animated dancing hamsters. It’s called — you’ll never believe this — hamsterdance!” And then Johnston and Stevenson went on to have a wonderful friendship based on the comfortable banality of self-evident digitized animals.
But then 2007 came, and along with it came I Can Has, and everything was forever ruined. It was hubris, Jane. We did it to ourselves. The minute we added written language, it all went to shit. Suddenly memes had an excess of information to be parsed. It wasn’t just a picture of a cat, perhaps with a simple description appended to it; now the cat spoke to us via a written caption on the picture itself. It referred to an item of food that existed in our world but not in the world of the meme, rupturing the boundary between the two. The cat wanted something. Which forced us to recognize that what it wanted was us, was our attention. WE are the cheezburger, Jane, and we always were. But by the time we realized this, it was too late. We were slaves to the very memes that we had created. We toiled to earn the privilege of being distracted by them. They fiddled while Rome burned, and we threw ourselves into the fire so that we might listen to the music. The memes had us. Or, rather, they could has us.
And it just got worse from there. Soon the cats had invisible bicycles and played keyboards. They gained complex identities, and so we hollowed out our own identities to accommodate them. We prayed to return to the simple days when we would admire a cat for its exceptional length alone, the days when the cat itself was the meme and not merely a vehicle for the complex memetic text. And the fact that this text was so sparse, informal, and broken ironically made it even more demanding. The intentional grammatical and syntactical flaws drew attention to themselves, making the meme even more about the captioning words and less about the pictures. Words, words, words. Wurds werds wordz. Stumbling through a crooked, dead-end hallway of a mangled clause describing a simple feline sentiment was a torture that we inflicted on ourselves daily. Let’s not forget where the word “caption” itself comes from: capio, Latin for both “I understand” and “I capture.” We thought that by captioning the memes, we were understanding them. Instead, our captions allowed them to capture us. The memes that had once been a cure for our cultural ills were now the illness itself.
It goes right back to Phaedrus, really. The Plato dialogue. (You read that, right?) Back in the innocent days of 2006, we naïvely thought that the grapheme had subjugated the phoneme, that the belief in the primacy of the spoken word was an ancient and backwards folly on par with burning witches or practicing phrenology or thinking that Smash Mouth was good. Fucking Smash Mouth. But we were wrong. About the phoneme, I mean. The trickster god Theuth came to us again, this time in the guise of a grinning grey cat. The cat hungered, and so did Theuth. We’d already taken writing from him, so this time he offered us a new choice disguised as a gift. And we greedily took it, again oblivious to the consequences. To borrow the parlance of a contemporary meme, he made us a pharmakon, and we eated it.
Pharmakon, φάρμακον, the Greek word that means both “poison” and “cure,” but, because of the limitations of the English language, can only be translated one way or the other depending on the context and the translator’s whims. No possible translation can capture the full implications of a Greek text including this word. In the Phaedrus, writing is the pharmakon that the trickster god Theuth offers, the toxin and remedy in one. With writing, man will no longer forget; but he will also no longer think. A double-edged (s)word, if you will. But the new iteration of the pharmakon is the meme. Specifically, the post-I-Can-Has memescape of 2007 onward. And it was the language that did it, Jane. The addition of written language twisted the remedy into a poison, flipped the pharmakon on its invisible axis.
In retrospect, it was in front of our eyes all along. Meme. The noxious word was given to us by who else but those wily ancient Greeks themselves. μίμημα, or mīmēma. Defined as an imitation, a copy. The exact thing Plato warned us against in the Republic. Remember? The simulacrum that is two steps removed from the perfection of the original by the process of — note the root of the word — mimesis. The Platonic ideal of an object is the source: the father, the sun, the ghostly whole. The corporeal manifestation of the object is one step removed from perfection. The image of the object (be it in letters or in pigments) is two steps removed. The author is inferior to the craftsman is inferior to God.
But we’ll go farther than Plato. Longcat, a photograph, is a textbook example of a second-degree mimesis. (We might promote it to the third degree since the image on the internet is a digital copy of the original photograph of the physical cat which is itself a copy of Platonic ideal of a cat (the Godcat, if you will); but this line of thought doesn’t change anything in the argument.) The text-supplemented meme, on the other hand, the captioned cat, is at an infinite remove from the Godcat; it is the ultimate mimesis, copying the copy of itself eternally, the written language and the image echoing off each other, until it finally loops back around to the truth by virtue of being so far from it. It becomes its own truth, the fidelity of the eternal copy. It becomes a God.
Writing itself is the archetypical pharmakon and the archetypical copy, if you’ll come back with me to the Phaedrus (if we ever really left it). Speech is the real deal, Socrates says, with a smug little wink to his (written) dialogic buddy. Speech is alive, it can defend itself, it can adapt and change. Writing is its bastard son, the mimic, the dead, rigid simulacrum. Writing is a copy, a mīmēma, of truth in speech. To return to our analogous issue: the image of the cat that wants the cheezburger, the copy of the picture-copy-copy, is so much closer to its original Platonic ideal (Godcat) than the written language that accompanies it is to its own (speech). (“Pharmakon” can also mean “paint.” Think about it, Jane. Just think about it.) The image is still fake, but it’s the caption on the cat that is the downfall of the republic, the real fakeness, which is both realer and faker than whatever original it is that it represents.
Men and gods abhor the lie, Plato says in sections 382 a and b of the Republic.
οὐκ οἶσθα, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, ὅτι τό γε ὡς ἀληθῶς ψεῦδος, εἰ οἷόν τε τοῦτο εἰπεῖν, πάντες θεοί τε καὶ ἄνθρωποι μισοῦσιν; πῶς, ἔφη, λέγεις; οὕτως, ἦν δ᾽ ἐγώ, ὅτι τῷ κυριωτάτῳ που ἑαυτῶν ψεύδεσθαι καὶ περὶ τὰ κυριώτατα οὐδεὶς ἑκὼν ἐθέλει, ἀλλὰ πάντων μάλιστα φοβεῖται ἐκεῖ αὐτὸ κεκτῆσθαι.
“Don’t you know,” said I, “that the veritable lie, if the expression is permissible, is a thing that all gods and men abhor?” “What do you mean?” he said. “This,” said I, “that falsehood in the most vital part of themselves, and about their most vital concerns, is something that no one willingly accepts, but it is there above all that everyone fears it.”
Man’s worst fear is that he will hold existential falsehood within himself. And the verbal lies that he tells are an incarnation of this fear; Plato elaborates: “the falsehood in words is a copy of the affection in the soul, an after-rising image of it and not an altogether unmixed falsehood.” A copy of man’s flawed internal copy of truth. And what word does Plato use for “copy” in this sentence? That’s fucking right, μίμημα. Mīmēma. Mimesis. Meme. The new meme is a lie, manifested in (written) words, that reflects the lack of truth, the emptiness, within the very soul of a human. The meme is now not only an inferior copy, it is a deceptive copy.
But just wait, it gets better. Plato continues in the very next section of the Republic, 382 c. Sometimes, he says, the lie, the meme, is appropriate, even moral. It is not abhorrent to lie to your enemy, or to your friend in order to keep him from harm. “Does it [the lie] not then become useful to avert the evil—as a medicine?” You get one fucking guess for what Greek word is being translated as “medicine” here. Ding ding goddamn ding, you got it, φάρμακον, pharmakon. The μίμημα is a φάρμακον, the lie is a medicine/poison, the meme is a pharmakon.
But I’m sure that by now you’ve realized the (intentional) mistake in my argument that brought us to this point. I said earlier that the addition of written language to the meme flipped the pharmakon on its axis. But the pharmakon didn’t flip, it doesn’t have an axis. It was always both remedy and poison. The fact that this isn’t obvious to us from the very beginning of the discussion is the fault of, you guessed it, language. The initial lie (writing) clouds our vision and keeps us from realizing how false the second-order lie (the meme) is.
The very structure of the lying meme mirrors the structure of the written word that defines and corrupts it. Once you try to identify an “outside” in order to reveal the lie, the whole framework turns itself inside-out so that you can never escape it. The cat wants the cheezburger that exists outside the meme, but only through the meme do we become aware of the presumed existence of the cheezburger — we can’t point out the absurdity of the world of the meme without also indicting our own world. We can’t talk about language without language, we can’t interpret memes without mimesis. Memes didn’t change between ’06 and ’07, it was us who changed. Or rather, our understanding of what we had always been changed. The lie became truth, the remedy became the poison, the outside became the inside. Which is to say that the truth became lie, the pharmakon was always the remedy and the poison, and the inside retreated further inside. It all came full circle. Because here’s the secret, Jane. Language ruined the meme, yes. But language itself had already been ruined. By that initial poisonous, lying copy. Writing. The First Pharmakon. The First Meme.