Philosophy through memes

I am honored to have been asked to contribute an essay on philosophy through memes for the Wiley-Blackwell Companion to Public Philosophy (eds. Nancy McHugh, Lee McIntyre, and Ian Olasov), currently in preparation.


Writing the piece is a challenge. I don’t know of any literature on the topic and feel like I am having to think things through from first principles. (If you know of anything that might be relevant, do please let me know.)

You might think that because I am in the middle of writing a book, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!,  that itself does philosophy through memes, I would have a lot of fairly developed thoughts on the topic. And I suppose I do. But my own attempts to philosophize through memes are not all that helpful. First, they are impure. My medium is not the meme, but the meme plus commentary (and the commentaries are parts of an ‘art catalogue’ in which the writing is done by a notionally different person from the creator of the memes). So my resources for doing philosophy are much greater than the exiguous ones of a solitary meme (or even a sequence of memes). At the same time, those extra resources are so specific and idiosyncratic that they offer no basis for generalization. Finally, the image I use has a distinctive feature which is not as a rule found in memes and which is the source of much of the philosophizing I attempt through it: the speech bubbles that derive from its original appearance as part of a comic.

The original slap, from DC Comics World’s Finest #153, 1965. Art: Curt Swan Story: Edmond Hamilton

Speech bubbles allow spoken language to be represented by pictures of writing. It is the space between these three – image, writing, speech – that allows me to explore in a practical way the kind of philosophical issues raised by Derrida, in Of Grammatology, and more recently, by Alva Noë in Strange Tools. The difference between writing and a picture of writing, and the different relation each has to speech, became a major theme in the composition of the memes. (It is the topic of a talk I gave recently, available here in Italian and here in English.) Some of the ways in which it shows up in the memes are : footnotes (an exclusively written phenomenon) appearing in the speech bubbles; text represented in different alphabets, including Braille – a primarily tactile rather than visual alphabet); and text and speech bubble appearing in a mirror reflection. Even the use of punctuation in the speech bubbles raises issues since, like footnotes, it is a feature of writing, not speech. (In addition, the exclamation mark, which I came to use so frequently, is a written element that has distinctly pictorial qualities. From top to bottom, a whoosh and a slap!)

None of this, however, has any general application to philosophy through memes. What, then, is philosophy through memes? It is easy to imagine something bland and boring, like this:


A brief quotation from Paley’s version of the Argument from Design is, in very lightly edited form, superimposed onto an image of Paley himself. If this were the best that could be done for philosophy through memes, it would hardly be worth pursuing.

Perhaps we get to something more interesting with this:


The same text now appears over Salvador Dalí’s painting The Persistence of Memory. Putting the text over this surreal depiction of drooping watches now evokes pictorially an obvious objection to Paley’s argument: the ‘watch’ that needs explaining (i.e. the adaptation of means to ends found in the natural world) is not as perfect as all that and therefore hardly suggests the existence of an omnipotent maker. Furthermore, the positioning of the text itself, which echoes the watch on the left, reinforces the imperfection not just of the world, but of Paley’s argument about it.

Perhaps an even better example of philosophy through memes is evident in a meme which, unlike those above, was not made by me. (I don’t know who made it.)


A well-known meme with this image uses the text “The hardest prison to escape is in your own mind.” This Foucauldian sentiment is clearly at work in the present version but whereas the original has the image simply illustrating the idea, here we see the idea being alluded to by the little boy in his play. This emphasizes the super hetero-normativity of the image, thereby connecting the Foucauldian point to the specifics of white, middle-class American life. (I will be showing my students this meme when I teach the chapter of Ellen Feder’s book Family Bonds: Genealogies of Race and Gender in which she discusses the panoptic design of Levittown, a plausible location for the scene in the image.)

Clearly there is a lot more to say about philosophy through memes – but you’ll have to wait until the finished article to learn my thoughts on it. If you have any thoughts of your own, why not leave them in a comment?

Take dthat!

Next week, I am going to teach again David Kaplan‘s wonderful paper “Dthat.” David was one of my teachers in graduate school and although I did not work especially closely with him, I had enough experience of him to be smitten. He had, and no doubt still has, a luminous and humorous intelligence that was utterly beguiling, both personally and intellectually.

It’s a bit hard to explain what “dthat” is to those not immersed in analytic philosophy of language but I’ll give it a try. Kaplan, in the paper of that name, is discussing the semantics of the English demonstrative “that” and makes certain conjectures about how it might be used. Rather than argue over the substantive question of whether the English expression is used in the conjectured way, Kaplan employs a technique not uncommon in analytic philosophy (another instance of which I touch on in my post Shmidentity Politics) and introduces a neologism about which he can stipulate the features that are merely conjectured to apply in the real-life case. “Dthat,” (pronounced exactly like “that”) is a demonstrative device about which roughly the following is stipulated: when it appears in a sentence, what it contributes to the meaning of an utterance of the sentence is nothing other than the object demonstrated. This extends to its use when coupled with descriptive content. So in an utterance of “Dthat slap you just gave me really hurt,” the meaning of the expression “[the] slap you just gave me” does not enter into the meaning expressed by the utterance, but functions in something like the way pointing does, if I point to an ice sculpture and say “Dthat is going to melt pretty soon.” The pointing is, we might say, a parergon to the meaning of the utterance; and just so is the meaning of “[the] slap you just gave me” a kind of linguistic parergon – a paratext – to the meaning of the utterance in question.

A long-standing question for philosophers of language is whether proper names function, semantically, in a way similar to “dthat.” Proper names, Kaplan says, are a “theoretician’s nightmare.” He concludes that “if it weren’t for the problem of how to get the kids to come in for dinner, I’d be inclined to just junk them.” Perhaps because his character is so evident in this sentence, it’s always been one my favorite bits of philosophy! Of course, unsurprisingly, there is a very deep point there too. Names are used not only to refer, which is how almost all philosophers of language approach them, but to address as well, to interpellate (as Althusser puts it). It is, Kaplan suggests, their use as means of interpellation that makes it impossible to get by without proper names.

This the background to a meme, composed several years after most of the others that will appear in my book, that will be the final entry in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. In it, I combine the form of the Batman-slapping-Robin meme with that of another meme: Broke-Woke-Bespoke. This allows for some allegedly tired content (though I hope this post makes evident how inappropriate I think it is to regard Kaplan’s original formulation as in any way tired!) to be transformed into a ‘woke’ version, and ultimately into a ‘bespoke’ version, the acme of its possible expressions.

Image-Writing-Speech-Silence: Memes and Philosophy (The full lecture)

It was a real pleasure to talk to the Oxford University Philosophy Society last week (Wed 27th May, 2020). The quality of the recording we made of the event was not great. I have repaired a few of the problems here but you’ll still notice words skipping now and then.

I discuss how the memes in my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, attempt to ‘enact’ philosophy (rather than philosophizing discursively in the usual way) around the relations between speech and writing, when complicated by the fact that the writing is presented pictorially. I also read an excerpt from the book which deals with John Cage and silence.

Hear me talk live about the Batman Meme Project: “Image-Writing-Speech-Silence: Memes and Philosophy”

philsoc event draft (003)[6558]

I will be talking live about my book-in-progress A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! and reading an excerpt from it. The event is courtesy of the Oxford University Philosophy Society and will take place, over Zoom, on Wednesday 27th May at 7.30pm UK time (2.30pm US Eastern).

The talk will be an adaptation of the one I gave in Italian last October in Genoa. In it, I will discuss some of the ways that the memes in my book utilize the feature of the speech bubble (derived from the comic strip origins of the image) to explore the relations between speech, writing, and images of speech/writing.

I will conclude by reading an excerpt from the book that pertains to silence, and to my encounter with John Cage.

The link to the Zoom meeting will be posted here before the talk starts.

Excisions: 9 ( ██████ )

I mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I decided to excise a number of the memes that were going to be part of my book. It was sufficient for a meme to be excluded that I did not envisage being able to write anything of interest (to me) in the commentary on it. I have now set myself the goal of posting the excised memes here, in an occasional series, and trying to write something of interest (to me) about them, thus proving my decision to exclude them mistaken! Also, in this parergonal space around the book, I will write about the memes without the pretense that their maker is someone other than myself. I am curious to see how this affects the nature of my writing about the memes.

When, earlier in this series, I wrote about the excised meme “You forgot the little wounded duck,” I said I liked to think of it as a ‘ghost meme.’ This was because I had posted it on Facebook during the period of the Batman Meme Project (January to March 2016), only to take it down an hour or so later. It was a compulsion for completeness that led me to want to include it in the book – but good sense prevailed and I excised it from the manuscript.

There was another ghost meme,  called █████████, that was also removed from the initial line-up and hence must be dealt with in the Excisions series:


The meme is so bad that, as you can see, I have redacted its title and most of its text, leaving only the few worthwhile words in it and the final exclamation mark!

I am writing about this meme out of chronological order. It should have appeared after Excisions: 5 (Happiness) since it was originally posted, for that brief hour, on March 14th, 2016. I failed to write about it earlier because I couldn’t, for the life of me, think of what to say about it – and because I feel so ashamed of it! I finally decided to take the bull by the horns and was rewarded, almost immediately, with the idea of presenting it in a redacted version.

Even redacted, one can glean a fair amount about the meme. Robin is evidently reporting something he has heard. It is likely a rumor, given that it involves “they” and not some more precisely specified person or persons. That Robin may be trying to fool Batman is suggested by Batman’s “falling for that.” If Robin were trying to put one over on Batman, that would make sense of the slap. On the other hand, the slaps don’t always make sense. Perhaps Batman is mocking Robin for his gullibility. We cannot tell.

OK, there was never any prospect that I was going to make myself regret having culled this execrable piece of work. And in fact, I feel nothing but relief over my decision. I do regret, however, not having used the device of redaction in a meme. I think it looks pretty cool, having those black strips inside the speech bubbles. Redaction done by these means is an essentially visual phenomenon. The words inside the bubbles, though, are representations of spoken language, which would have to be redacted by a beep or something. I don’t see exactly how to do it offhand, but there is room for some creativity here with the different modes of redaction. A lost opportunity.


For the letter kills, but the spirit gives life

Seven or so years ago, near the beginning of my analysis, I explained to my analyst, after some frustrating experiences, how important it was to me that they always engage with the actual content of what I was saying. I took a huge amount of care in expressing myself – choosing exactly the right words, multiplying distinctions in order to communicate with laser precision – and I didn’t want to be ‘interpreted’ before the letter of what I was saying had been fully attended to.

Paul says in 2 Corinthians (3:6), distinguishing between Jews and the new Jesus movement, that “the letter kills, but the spirit gives life” and as a Jew, I have always understood that my job is to be for the letter. This has meant two things.

My measurement by a pauline gauge

By “the letter,” Paul means the old covenant, the Mosaic law and its development by the rabbis of his day, whose views are recorded in the Mishnah. This he took to have been annulled by the advent of Jesus with a new covenant. Accordingly, the text of the Old Testament could no longer be read literally, but only ‘spiritually,’ by means of allegory, typology, and so on. The Jews were stubborn in continuing, in the face of the new covenant, to read their sacred books by the letter. So, one part of being “for the letter” has been a determination to treat the language I am exposed to from other people literally and precisely – not to try and get the gist or spirit of it, not to look beyond it to see where its originator is coming from.

But there is, alongside this, another way of being “for the letter.” R. Akiva, a near contemporary of Paul’s, was said to interpret “mounds of rules from every tip of the letters” (TB Menachot 29b). The ‘tips’ were ornamental ‘crowns’ that adorned the Hebrew script of the time. This type of reading, truly and radically literal (perhaps we should say “letteral”), can stand as synecdoche for a panoply of more or less perverse methods of interpretation associated with the Jews. In the words of John Wilkins, the 17th century inventor of a ‘real character’ (an ideal language which mirrors the structure of reality):

Amongst the Jewish Rabbies, is not any opinion, whether in nature or policy, whether true or false, but some of them, by a cabalistical interpretation can father it upon a dark place of scripture, or (if need be) upon a text that is clean contrary. There being not any absurdity so gross and incredible, for which these abusers of the text, will not find out an argument.

(The quotation is from his The Discovery of a World in the Moone of 1638.)


So Jews were taken to task, under the guise of the letter, for being both too literal and too fanciful. I have endeavored to honor these twin heritages: a laborious literalism with respect to what I read and write, hear and say, and an extravagant letteralism, a willingness to associate anything with anything by means of some devious chain, to father monstrous conjunctions of words and meanings through textual abuse. It feels to me as if there must be some relation – quite other than monstrous conjunction – between these two ways of being for the letter, but I cannot easily identify what it is. They are, perhaps, both subsumed by the term “pharisaism.” The historical Pharisees, and their successors who compiled the Talmud, stubbornly adhered to the plain meaning of the Bible (in some of their moods) and yet developed complex and sometimes rebarbative methods of interpretation partly to reconcile that text with a much more humane standard of conduct. I would like, therefore, to re-appropriate the term “Pharisee” from the infamy with which the fevered Christian imagination has painted it.

Those seven or so years ago, when I implored my analyst to take me at my word, it was, almost needless to say, only the first way, according to which it contrasts with “spirit,” that I had in mind. Two or three years after that, well into the analysis, I was becoming more comfortable and more curious. The tight control over my words – the only real power I could exert to protect myself and ensure the analysis did not unleash anything too scary – came to feel constricting, even suffocating. It was, I suppose, a Damascene moment. I relented, and gave my analyst permission to listen to the spirit of my words and report back on what they heard. (I have no reason to think my analyst’s behavior was in any way affected by either my initial injunction or my subsequent permission!) It was around that time that I composed this animated meme, which will appear in my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! (perhaps even with commentary based on this very blog post):

White – Robin: “I assumed you meant…” Batman: “Listen to my words!”
Black – Robin: “But you said…” Batman: “Listen to what I’m not saying!”

Fast forward in the analysis to last week and a very exhausting and disspiriting session. At the end of the previous session, I had said I thought my presence in our sessions now was very different from how it used to be. My analyst agreed, adding that they, too, were a different analyst now from what they had been. The next day, I said that I would love – if not now, then perhaps towards termination – to hear about the ways in which they thought they had changed as an analyst during the course of my treatment. When my analyst asked what exactly I wanted them to explain, we set off on a frustrating tussle, lasting the whole session, in which I said, over and over again, in every way I could think of, what I wanted and my analyst kept alleging that they didn’t understand. Somehow, I don’t really understand how, I kind of got through; and my analyst conveyed how their attempt to hear the question behind the question kept them from seeing what I wanted to communicate. At the end I exclaimed “I’d like to go back to that injunction I made right at the start. Please make an effort to engage with the letter of what I am saying before trying to hear what is unsaid.” To which they replied, with some, subsequently confessed, hyperbole: “You do realize that is literally the exact opposite of what I’m supposed to be doing?!” (One reason to think that the designation of psychoanalysis as “the Jewish science” may be misleading.) In some sense, of course, what they said is obvious. They are listening for what is unconscious, which is unlikely to be found in the obsessively-controlled language that I wield almost like a weapon. But it startled me nonetheless and I decided to write this post to help work through it.

Unsurprisingly, being for the letter, in both senses I identified, is, deliberately, a large component of A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. It shows up in the commentaries themselves and in the relations of the commentaries to the memes they comment on. (I don’t think it anywhere shows up wholly within memes, which are too compact really to allow such devices.) Sometimes those commentaries pound away at the most minute aspects of a meme, trying to work out just what the artist (myself) meant by using a question mark where an exclamation mark seemed to be what was called for! Other times, they join with their memes in a monstrous conjunction. Occasionally, I confess, I even have something already written which I want to include in the book and so search out a dark place in the memes on which to father it.

After publishing this post, Eric Schliesser wrote a kind of response, On Analysis. I re-imagined his response in my follow-up, A Misstep of Monumental Proportions.

Excisions: 8 (That’s all folks!)

I mentioned in a couple of previous posts that I decided to excise a number of the memes that were going to be part of my book. It was sufficient for a meme to be excluded that I did not envisage being able to write anything of interest (to me) in the commentary on it. I have now set myself the goal of posting the excised memes here, in an occasional series, and trying to write something of interest (to me) about them, thus proving my decision to exclude them mistaken! Also, in this parergonal space around the book, I will write about the memes without the pretense that their maker is someone other than myself. I am curious to see how this affects the nature of my writing about the memes.


Like the previous meme in the Excisions series, “Holy Memes, Batman,” “That’s All Folks!” appeared publicly only in the film Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie.

It simultaneously closes two quite distinct openings, which makes it of some structural interest. First, as the last meme seen in the movie, it complements “Holy Memes, Batman,” the first meme of the movie. As the bookends of the movie, they share several features.

1. Not only are they the first and last memes of the movie, but they are about the beginning and end of the movie. Or perhaps I should not say that they are about the beginning and end, but that the first begins, or introduces and the second ends, or concludes, the movie. (This too requires some qualification but it’s too boring and unimportant to make. And here you can see that a different spirit is now animating my project – as I have spoken about recently – since some time ago I would have certainly laboriously spelled out the qualifications. I used to say that the whole project was a field for the free exercise of my obsessional pedantry, something I had always struggled, and am apparently again struggling, to keep in check.)

2. Each was made specially for the movie and each appeared only in the movie. (One other meme appears only in the movie but was not composed for it – “I Don’t Care!”.  It appears in the movie at a particularly climactic moment, around 2’22”, and stays visible and stationary for longer than any other meme in the film. It will be commented on at length in the book and is a very important meme in the economy of the whole project.)

3. Each has a specifically cinematic character. The first serves as the backdrop to the movie’s title and Batman’s response to Robin’s “Holy memes, Batman!” is “Yes, Robin, I fear it’s a movie.” The second uses the classic end of the Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons and shows Robin as sad that the movie is ending.

But “That’s All Folks!” is also the very last meme composed as part of the Batman Meme Project narrowly defined, for which Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie was the grand finale. All the further memes in my book will be from the parerga to the Batman Meme Project. Thus, “That’s All Folks!” is also a complement to M.1, “… a meme in which I’m being…,” the very first Batman meme I ever composed, and the first that will appear in the book. (You can see the meme and read the commentary on it that will open my book here.) Robin’s desire that “this” might go on and on can be seen as referring, therefore, to the Batman Meme Project itself, the project of making these memes and posting them on Facebook. (The parerga were undreamt of when the movie was made.) As first and last memes of the Batman Meme Project, M.1 and “That’s All Folks!” share a meta quality. In the first, Robin says that he feels as if everything is part of a meme in which he is being slapped. Although the rest of the Batman Meme Project was not envisaged at the point at which I made that meme (just as the parerga were not conceived of when I made “That’s All Folks!”), it made a very apt meta opening to the project. In “That’s All Folks!”, Robin casts his eye back over the project thus anticipated, recognizing that it must come to an end somewhere, sad that it is over, but perhaps also nervously excited about the prospect of life outside of a meme in which he is being slapped.

On another note, there is a formal feature to “That’s All Folks!” that I find very appealing. Many of the memes are about the interplay of between language and the pictorial depiction of speech that is engendered by the cartoon image’s speech bubbles. (I discuss this at some length in my [Italian] presentation “Image, Writing, Speech, Silence.”) In this meme, the picture of writing that represents speech by its location in a speech bubble is replaced by an image, but that image itself includes a pictorial representation of an utterance. (Recall that one often sees the line spoken, with or without the words’ being written at the same time.) So, there would have been lots to say about this meme in the commentary on it.

Well, once again, I have succeeded in bringing myself to feel that it was a sad mistake to omit this meme from the book. There would have been a lot of interesting stuff to write about it, and it would have played a kind of architectonic role that is now unfilled in the book. The Batman Meme Project will simply stop with a meme that has no special relation to the first meme of the project and that is not the performance of an ending itself. I guess my real reason for excluding it, since some of the reflections above were already present to me when I decided to leave it out, is that if I had included it I would really also have had to include “Holy Memes, Batman” and that, together, they seemed somehow of too ephemeral an interest – as if I couldn’t let anything go (which, to be honest, I couldn’t). I’m not sure I was right about that at all.

That’s all, folks!

The presentation of Immagine – Scrittura – Parola – Silenzio

[Italiano sotto]

So, I went to Genoa to deliver my presentation about A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. I presented four of the memes from the book and talked about how they played with the relations between speech, the written representation of speech, and the picturing of the written representation of speech – a theme that is quite prominent in the memes in the book and in the commentaries on them. After discussing these four memes, I presented another one, about John Cage and the anechoic chamber and read aloud the commentary on it that will be part of the book. It was an exciting challenge, all the more so since I did it in Italian.

You can see the talk below. There is a slight break between the two parts, so some of the presentation is missing. I finish talking about the meme “The Sound of One Hand Slapping” (and play the slap sound effect I wrote about here) and begin reading the commentary on the John Cage meme. The missing text of the commentary is presented below in Italian.


Allora, sono andato a Genova per fare la mia presentazione su A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. Ho mostrato quattro meme nel libro e ho parlato di come giocano con le relazioni fra il parlato, la scrittura come rappresentazione del parlato, e l’immagine della scrittura. E’ un argomento molto diffuso fra i miei meme e i loro commentari. Dopo questo, ho letto la traduzione di un commentario su un meme che riguarda John Cage e la camera anecoica. E’ stata una sfida eccitante, soprattutto perche’ l’ho fatta tutto in Italiano.

Ora potete vedere la presentazione. C’e’ una rottura fra le due parti, quindi qualche parola manca. Nella rottura, finisco di discutere il meme “Il suono di una sola mano che schiaffeggia” (e faccio suonare l’effetto sonoro su di che scrivo qui) e commincio di leggere il commentario sul meme “Il suono del sangue.” Il testo che manca e’ qui:

Robin: Questo rumore non lo posso sopportare. Se solo avessimo una camera anecoica, con sei pareti…

Batman: Cretino! Il suono del sangue nelle vene e il fruscio del sistema nervoso in funzione sarebbero assordanti.

Le parole usate nel meme sono una chiara allusione a una storia raccontata varie volte dal compositore John Cage riguardo una sua visita della camera anecoica di Harvard. La morale della storia per Cage sembra essere che dove c’è vita c’è musica (“sino alla fine dei miei giorni ci saranno suoni”) —  un pensiero che per Cage è motivo di gioia. Sembra che l’artista fosse affascinato da questa storia o dall’idea della camera anecoica, forse addirittura ossessionato, ma che le conclusioni che ne trabbe siano il contrario delle conclusioni di Cage. Quando era giovane l’artista scrisse un “libro” che chiamò L’incoerenza dell’incoerenza (il titolo ispirato da un’opera del filosofo islamico Averroè). Questo scritto, composto dall’artista quasi ragazzo, è un miscuglio strano. Per il momento mi limito a dire che il libro contiene un passaggio in cui l’artista ci dà la sua prospettiva dell’aneddoto di Cage:

The Savage Detectives and my irascible Yiddish expert

About one year ago, I had some contact with an onomast and linguist specializing in Jewish languages. (There are many Jewish languages: Hebrew ancient and modern, Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Italkian, and others.) I wrote about this in several previous posts about the Yiddish meme in my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. I have been wanting to write more about that experience for some time but have hesitated owing to ethical concerns that make it difficult, concerns that arise mostly (though not exclusively) from my irascible expert’s having forbidden me from publishing any part of their emails.

Robin: What is your Jewish name, Batman?
Batman: Call me *Mr.* Batman, Boy Wonder! And my Jewish name is Simcha Bunim.

Yes, you read that right. This expert ended by invoking the law, asserting their rights over the contents of their emails, and forbidding me from quoting anything from them!

The whole episode was on the way to becoming quite upsetting to me when my partner enabled a Gestalt switch that led me to find it both entertaining and enriching. “This is like something out of The Savage Detectives,” she said, referring to the Roberto Bolaño novel I was reading at the time. And it was! A literary ‘feud’ over esoteric scholarship, one party becoming more and more enraged precisely as the other party tries to assuage them. The affair was both heated and absurd!

Here follows as much of the story as I can bring myself to relate. (And even this makes me uncomfortable – not, I should add, on my own account.) Continue reading “The Savage Detectives and my irascible Yiddish expert”

On the matter of genre: auto-theory, in the form of philosophy, in the form of an art catalogue

Whenever I have to describe my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I find myself at a loss. I literally do not know what kind of a work it is. This is one of the things that makes work on it so exciting. But there are contexts – such as approaching a publisher – where I cannot simply enjoy my own flailing around and have to try to epitomize the book. Here is something I have written for just such a purpose:

My book defies easy categorization or description. Its outer form is that of an art catalogue in which an editor presents a body of art works and provides commentaries on their formal and material features. The art works being catalogued are over 100 memes, made by me, that use the image of Batman slapping Robin.


Though no secret is made of the fact that the artist of the memes and the editor of the catalogue are one and the same, as editor I write as if the artist were another person, imposing limits on myself about what I can ‘know’ of him and his intentions.

The commentaries, which make up the bulk of the book, vary in form, length, and style. They deal with issues in philosophy, both in a narrow sense (meaning, naming, the relations between spoken and written language, ontology, paradoxes, etc., couched in the idiom of contemporary analytic philosophy) and in a much broader sense, taking in literary interpretation, theology, Judaism, and, above all, psychoanalysis. Thus, at the next level in, the work’s form is that of a series of complexly interlocking essays and reflections, played out through the memes themselves and the commentaries on them, about broadly philosophical themes.

The description above notwithstanding, it is hard to say, more precisely, what the book is about. The main reason for this is that the book is, by design, a statement against the totalization that is characteristic of contemporary academic writing. Such writing is supposed to have a single identifiable subject matter, a thesis, and an organization around that thesis that leaves every part accounted for. My work deliberately defies these norms. Epitomizing my career-wide pattern of wide and unusual interests leading to publications in substantially different areas, this book is marked by an eclecticism that is theorized, in the book itself, under the headings of the cabinet of curiosities and free association (both of which are explicitly discussed). In this respect, the work is, in spirit and form, both pre- and post-modern.

The image of the memes is central to the book. It is a depiction of an act of violence by an older man directed at an adolescent. Before the idea of the book was born, I had made, and posted on Facebook, a number of memes using this image. The book began to take shape as I explored in my own psychoanalytic treatment why I was so attracted to the image. It thus came to serve as a focal point for many personal issues in my life. Some of these issues are confronted in the book, making the form of the book, at its innermost core, that of a piece of self-writing, of auto-theory, in which the personal and the philosophical are inextricably entangled.

So, auto-theory, in the form of philosophy, in the form of an art catalogue.

The tension between the actualities of my book and the norms of contemporary academic writing is encapsulated in the key notion of the parergon. A parergon (or paratext, when the ergon, or work, is a text) is both part of and outside its associated work. It mediates the work’s place in the world at large and defines its unity. The parergon functions at several levels throughout my book. In the title, there is a distinction between the Batman Meme Project (the first 40 or so of the memes, which were posted on Facebook between January and March 2016) and the memes created after the declared completion of the Batman Meme Project. The text in the book is also a parergon to the memes themselves, an editorial frame around them. And this is associated with the crucial split in the work’s voice between the ‘silent’ artist of the memes, the nominal focus of attention, and the parergonal editor whose official role of commentator is belied by his identity with the artist. Finally, the work of the book is itself continued in further writing around it, now published on my blog, The Parergon. In all these cases, the parerga function to put in question just what the work itself is, what is part of it and what incidental to it. Lacking clear boundaries, lacking an identifiable genre, lacking a single voice in which it is spoken, the work is barely a work. There is, instead, a field of activity, a rhizome, to use Deleuze’s and Guattari’s term.

 A Certain Gesture is cerebral, playful, social, and intensely personal. Parts of it are academic philosophy (though written with the non-specialist reader in mind); parts are funny or absurd; parts are intimate and personal; and parts are about wondrous things of general interest. Many parts are all of these things.