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?

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.

Holy podcast, Batman!

My colleague from Religious Studies, Professor Robyn Walsh, is teaching a class Star Wars and Religion. Part of how she is continuing to teach her class during the plague is by making podcasts and she has done one with me, on the grounds that there are Baby Yoda memes.

Thing I learnt while preparing for the podcast

I had a very enjoyable conversation with Robyn and we talked about my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, autotheory, the ontology of memes, spirit versus letter in St Paul, Star Wars, and yes, Baby Yoda memes (it’s Robyn who has all the cool things to say about that!).

Parents with dirty hands

As it becomes apparent what a terrible company Facebook is, I feel more and more strongly that I want nothing more to do with it. Leaving Facebook would come with loss and with gain, both substantial. Beyond the obvious considerations, there would be a special loss to leaving connected with my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!.

I always publish on Facebook (both in my feed and on the special page devoted to my book) the eperga to the parerga that are these blog posts. Without the hits generated this way, what I write here would have almost no readers! But the book’s connection with Facebook goes beyond the latter’s role as a means of broadcasting.


Facebook has been a place where I get to share with others some of the quirky contents of my mind. Without it, I would never have begun to make Batman memes in the first place. Why would I, if I hadn’t had the immediate gratification of posting them and receiving some acknowledgement? The first idea for a book around the memes (for what eventually became the book I am now writing) came from the desire to explain what was not obvious in them to the people on Facebook who had been seeing what I published there and interacting with me about it. Even as the book expanded in scope, for a long time I conceived of it as the record of a social media art project that would incorporate  some of the conversations my memes provoked. The very distinction in the book’s title between the Batman Meme Project and its parerga hinges on which were produced and published in that burst of Facebook posting from January to March 2016.

For a while, I even entertained the fantasy that Facebook might publish my book on the grounds that it was born on and concerned their platform. I also reasoned (how foolish I feel admitting this) that if DC Comics tried to prevent me from publishing, Facebook would have the pockets to stand up for all those of its meme-making users who creatively rework copyright-protected images in a sub-culture that, as Patrick Davison puts it, prioritizes “creative freedom over security” (“The Language of Internet Memes,” p. 132).

Although the social-media origins of my book have somewhat diminished in importance, they are still there to some extent. One of the memes (pictured above) is even about Facebook. There is just no getting around the fact that my book owes its very existence to Facebook. And given how important the book has been to me, my analysis, and my conception of my place in the philosophy profession, you could say that who I am today is deeply, deeply dependent on Facebook.

I suppose I am in the position of a grown child who comes to realize that his parents are involved in something terrible that he cannot ignore.

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:

Immagine – scrittura – parola – silenzio

On Wednesday October 23rd, I will be giving a lecture entitled “Image – Writing – Speech – Silence” at the Museo Villa Croce (a contemporary art museum) in Genoa, Italy. I am going to talk about the ways in which some of my memes play with the representation of speech through writing and of writing through images.

I wanted to include in the presentation an extract from the book. The event was co-organized by Caterina Gualco, of Unimediamodern. Since she works with artists associated with the Fluxus movement, I thought it would be appropriate to read a commentary that deals with John Cage and silence. Here it is, in an Italian translation by Giovanna Pompele (transcribed by me, so little errors may have crept in). This marks the first appearance of any part of the book in a language other than its original English. (And I have nowhere made public the English original, so this is the only way to access it.) If you do read it, let me say that the footnotes, especially to the letter quoted at the end, are vitally important. *Le note a piè di pagina sono importanti!*


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:

“L’oscurità c’era, ma il silenzio no.”[1] Questa sembra una descrizione accurata dello stare in una camera aneoica con le luci spente.

“In certe circonstanze tecniche potrebbe essere auspicabile ottenere una situazione la più silenziosa possibile, ossia quell’ambiente chiamato camera anecoica, sei pareti di materiale insonorizzante allestito in modo da ottenere una camera priva di eco. Parecchi anni fa a Harvard sono stato in uno spazio del genere e ho sentito due suoni, uno acuto e uno grave, e quando li ho descritti al tecnico incaricato questi mi ha spiegato che quello acuto era il mio sistema nervoso in funzione, quello grave era la circolazione del sangue. Sino alla fine dei miei giorni ci saranno suoni.”[2]

Lettore, pensa al significato di tutto ciò. Un giorno, anche qui in città, prova ad ascolatre i suoni che ti circondano. La musica ad alto volume, il fragore del traffico, le urla della gente. Che frastuono! Che inferno! Ecco, scappa in campagna. Godi il frullio degli uccellini e il gorgoglio di un ruscello (lasciamo stare le zampogne e gli accenti volgari). Godili. Lasciali risuonare dentro una volta, due volte e poi ancora e ancora e nuovamante finché non diventano un clamore insopportabile, finché i grilli non ti chiassano nelle orecchie durante la notte e il gufo ti urla di morte.

Poi vattene dal tuo paese e dalla tua terra; alzati e vai.[3] Va’ nelle terre desolate o negli scabri deserti dove non ci sono ne’ bestie ne’ insetti. Ah, infinita solitudine: stiamocene insieme io e te in solenne silenzio. Ma, aspetta, cos’è? Cos’è che sto sentendo? Viene da là. No, adesso è qui. È lì, è là, è lì. È dappertutto. “Si, dappertutto,” grida il vento con vuota derisione: “fintantoché il pianetta girerà intorno al sole ci saranno sempre bolle di aria calda e di aria fredda. E l’aria calda rimpiazzerà sempre l’aria fredda ed io, sì, io, il vento, soffierò per sempre. E per me soffiare è urlare. D’ora in poi, per voi che avete visto i luoghi spogli della terra, ogni mio sibilo, anche se nessun altro lo sentirà, sarà come le trombe di mille elefanti, e quando alzerò il tono vi coprirete le orecchie e vi acquatterete nel terrore d’essere soprafatti.”

Via, via da qui, andiamocene! Ma dove andare? Dov’è che il vento non mi troverà? Dovrei fuggire dall’umanità dove c’è il vento, o dal vento dove c’è l’umanità? Ma un attimo! L’ingenuità umana non mi ha già fornito qualcosa con cui possa evitare sia l’uomo che il vento? Non c’è forse la camera anecoica, non ci sono le sue sei pareti di materiale unico, una stanza che più silenziosa la tecnologia non ne puo creare? La voce dell’Essere scoppia in risatte implacabili: “O uomo, porta le tue ossa mortali in una camera anecoica e sentivi il suono del sangue che circola, e sentivi il suono del sistema nervoso in funzione.”[4]

Questo scritto è strano e piuttosto convoluto (nel penultimo paragrafo c’è anche un cambiamento stridente dalla seconda alla prima persona), ma illustra con gran forza la lotta costante, quasi esistenziale, dell’artista contro il rumore.

Ma la storia dell’artista e del suo interesse in John Cage e nella camera anecoica non si ferma qui. Siamo in possesso di una lettera scritta da lui alla fine di maggio o all’inizio di giugno 1982. Qui è la parte che ci riguarda:

Mi è successa una cosa incredibile, strafighissima! Sono andato con Miranda ad alcuni degli eventi organizzati per il settantesimo di John Cage all’Almeida.[5] Nel intervallo tra due eventi siamo andati al bar di fronte per un tè. Ci siamo seduti a un tavolo grande e dopo un po’ abbiamo notato che proprio vicino a noi c’era Cage con due pirla che lo intervistavano.[6] Come sai, sono ossessionato dalla storia che Cage continua a raccontare di quando è andato nella camera anecoica. Così gli ho chiesto se era andato a quella di Londra. Mi ha detto che c’era stato fotografato ma che non era in operazione! Che peccato. Se funzionasse, c’andrei volontieri anch’io. Ci siamo messi a parlare di filosofia. Era assurdamente inamorato del memoir di Norman Malcolm su Witters.[7],[8] Solo che invece di pronunciare “memoir” alla francese, lo pronunciava “Miiimoir”, allungando la seconda lettera sia foneticamente che temporalmente. Era cosi strano. Poi, dato che Miranda e io stiamo cercando di mangiare macrobiotico e lui vuole scrivere un ricettario macrobiotico(!) ci ha dato questa ricetta[9] (la ricordo praticamente parola per parola): “Prendete una carota, una rapa, e una pastinaca. Mettetele nel forno e arrostitele. Saranno deliziose.” Ahahahah. Abbiamo provato a farla e vuoi sapere il risultato? Una carota, una rapa, e una pastinaca arrostite in forno. Niente di più, niente di meno. Spero che il suo ricettario abbia ricette più interessanti e più buone di questa.[10] Comunque era veramente simpatico ed è stato incredibile parlargli così. Mi sento come un servo della gleba scrofuloso che è stato guarito dal tocco di un re! Sarà una storia da mettere nella mia miiimoir.[11]


[1] [N.d.C] Questa citazione è l’inizio del “libro” dell’artista.

[2] [N.d.C] Cage, Silenzio, 2019, 41. Il passaggio continua così: “… e seguiteranno anche dopo la morte. Non c’è nulla da temere riguardo il futuro della musica.”

[3] [N.d.C] Possibilmente un riferimento a Genesi 12,1.

[4] [N.d.C] Cage, Silence, 1961, 51.

[5] [N.d.C.] “Cage a settanta” fu l’evento d’apertura dell’Almeida Festival del 1982. Consisté in una serie di concerti nella chiesa di Saint James a Londra da venerdì 28 a sabato 30 maggio (nella sua lettera Evnine dice che i concerti ebbero luogo al teatro Almeida, ma questo è incorretto).

[6] [N.d.C.] Questa reazione da parte di Evnine è, stranamente (o forse no), poco caritatevole verso due persone perfettamente innocenti che avevano senza dubbio contato di parlare con Cage e pensarono che fossero l’artista e la sua compagna ad essere “pirla”.

[7] [N.d.C.] Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir. Per lo stile di abbreviazione dimostrato da “Witters,” vedi il commentario su il meme Distinguo. Il filosofo Paul Grice racconta che J. L. Austin disse “A qualcuno piace Witters… ma io sono con Moore.” Dato che il libro di Grice fu pubblicato solo nel 1991 l’utilizzazione di questo termine colloquiale da parte dell’artista è quasi certamente una coincidenza.

[8] [N.d.C.] L’entusiasmo di Cage a quel tempo per quest’opera è comprovato da un passaggio da lui scritto a Ornella Volta, l’autrice di due opere su Satie, un anno dopo la conversazione qui riportata. “Ho finito di leggere il tuo libro (in francese; l’inglese non è arrivato); lo amo, ed è una cosa che posso dire di pochi altri libri. Questi, come il tuo, sono profondamente commoventi: il Memoir di Ludwig Wittgenstein di Normal Malcolm ed Erik Satie di Templier (non nella traduzione inglese, che trovo impossibile da leggere). Rendere materiale scritto commovente dev’essere ciò che la morte fa alla biografia.”

[9] [N.d.C.] Da un’altra lettera scritta non molto dopo la conversazione riportata: “Grazie a John e Yoko ho cambiato sia la mia dieta che quella di Merce Cunningham e abbiamo adottato una dieta macrobiotica.” Questo rende l’artista una specie di nipotino culinario di John e Yoko.

[10] [N.d.C.] Del suo futuro ricettario, Cage disse: “Invece di riguardare solo la cucina, sarà di tutto ciò che mi interessa. Però modificherò l’uso di processi aleatorici in modo che la cucina venga fuori più del resto.” (Come è possibile non amare questa seconda frase?) Il libro non fu mai scritto ma sul sito del John Cage Trust c’è una pagina con annotazioni di Cage sulla cucina macrobiotica, con alcune ricette. È sbalorditivo che in questa pagina, sotto il titolo Tuberi, ci sia il seguente: “Carote, rape, topinambur, ecc. Mettetele nel piatto di terracotta da forno e poi in forno caldo per un’ora o più con un po’, molto poco, di olio di sesamo. I tuberi possono essere coperti con porri e una mistura come quella suggerita per il pollo arrostito.” È possibile che Cage non abbia raccomandato ad Evnine l’uso del olio di sesamo; e anche possibile che gliel’abbia raccomandato, ma che l’artista abbia ignorato la raccomandazione.

[11] [N.d.C.] Malgrado il fatto che questo volume non sia esattamente un memoir di Evnine, è possibile che sia una “meme-oir,” pronunciata proprio come l’aveva pronunciata Cage. La profezia dell’artista, dunque, letteralmente per modo di dire, si è realizzata.


Excisions: 7 (Holy memes, Batman)

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.


This meme appeared only in Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie where it can be seen  behind the title, as the theme music to the 1960s Batman TV show blares. (Here’s the movie, where you can encounter the meme in its natural habitat. Be sure to have sound on, if you watch.)

There are actually quite a few interesting things to say about the meme. The title of a work is one of its acknowledged parerga (Gérard Genette devotes a chapter to titles in his book Paratexts) so this meme, functioning as a kind of ironic comment on the movie’s title, is a parergon of a parergon of the movie. And the movie is part of the parerga of the Batman Meme Project. No other meme approaches this degree of controlled distance from the first-order memes of my book.

The visual style of the meme is a deliberate throwback to the earliest memes of the Batman Meme Project and, hence, to the vast majority of Batman memes. Impact font, black outlines to the letters, font shadow, and all caps are the signature marks of the Batman slapping Robin meme (as of many others, too). Only the orange coloring is non-standard. I’m not sure why I chose that, but I think it works well here.

The meme’s language clearly picks up on the speech patterns of the 60s TV show, a fact that works in synergy with the use of the music from that show to accompany it. Significantly, it is the only meme considered for inclusion in the book in which Robin’s catchphrase “Holy [ ],” one of the most recognizable features of the 60s TV show, occurs. Batman’s response, with its somewhat pompous use of “fear,” is also distinctive. Finally, it is surely a feature of the TV show that the characters use each other’s names (“Batman” and “Robin” as well as “Bruce” and “Dick”) far more than is typical in conversation between friends. Here, both parties use the other’s name.

In all of these respects, the meme should be compared with the meme that appears, analogously, behind the title of my second Batman meme movie, Gone!:


This was, naturally, done in deliberate imitation of “Holy Memes, Batman.” Here, the use of “mimesis,” to imply (incorrectly, as it happens) that the second movie is just an imitation of the first, also allows the use of a word etymologically related to “meme.” (Unlike “Holy Memes, Batman,” “Holy Mimesis, Batman” was never destined for inclusion in the book, and hence it does not count as an excised meme and will not show up for its own entry in this on-going series. Very likely, this is the only acknowledgement this meme will ever receive.)

Once again, I have succeeded in making myself regret the excision of this meme from the book. I’m especially sorry not to have any left that use the “Holy [ ]” form. (It crops up, significantly, in the commentary on another meme.) The parergon of a parergon of a parergon thing is also kind of metal.

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.

Epigraphs: or, beating oneself with another man’s hands

As it stands, the manuscript of my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, bears three epigraphs. Those three are very dear to me and the fact that there are exactly three of them is important in the book. So I’m not inclined to monkey about with them.

Notwithstanding, I am repeatedly coming across other passages that would make fantastic epigraphs or that somehow encapsulate something vital about my project. Hence, I am currently considering adding to the front-matter of the book a substantial number of these passages, making up their own section. (Fittingly for a book that is so much about the parergon, I see an interesting copyright issue on the horizon if I do pursue this idea. Quotations in the body of a text generally do not require copyright permission but the same quotations, if used as epigraphs, do. On which side of this divide will my Moby-Dick-like collection of quotes about slaps fall, placed, as it will be, between the epigraphs proper and the main text?)

Here is one marvelous passage which so accurately seems to capture how I have used  the image of Batman slapping Robin that I gasped when I first read it. I will certainly include it in the envisaged section, if I do decide to go with that. The passage is from David Grossman’s bravura novel A Horse Walked Into a Bar and it concerns a stand-up comic who is failing to get a laugh from his audience:

Now he screams: “No? Not at all? No, no, no?” He slaps his face, ribs, stomach. The spectacle looks like a fight between at least two men. Within the whirlwind of limbs and expressions I recognize the countenance that has passed over his face more than once this evening: he is uniting with his abuser. Beating himself with another man’s hands.

Perhaps this theme is most clearly sounded in my book in the commentary I have provided to a meme in which Robin says only “I am being slapped by Batman” and Batman replies “I am slapping Robin.” The commentary itself is in the form of another meme, in the genre Increasingly Verbose. In this kind of meme a pair of image and text is iterated several times, the image becoming more abstract and the text becoming increasingly verbose with each iteration. Here it is, made public for the first time.