Here is a piece I wrote for the Oxford University Press blog on memes. There is some brief discussion of the Batman Slapping Robin meme in it.
The Parergon sat down for an in-depth conversation with Simon Evnine, the author of A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! (in progress).
TP: Thanks so much for talking with us about what sounds like a fascinating book. Perhaps we could begin with your telling our readers what the book will be like. It’s rather unusual.
SE: Thanks, yes, it is unusual. It is a kind of post-modern literary work that will have the form of, indeed will be, an art catalogue. The ‘art works’ are over a hundred memes I have made using the image of Batman slapping Robin. I will provide editorial commentary on these memes, written as if I, the editor, were not the same person as the one who made the memes. Within that outer form, the book will mix philosophy, psychoanalysis, and literary criticism with writing about myself.
TP: So, I have to ask, are you a big fan of Batman?
SE: Oddly, I am not particularly a fan of Batman. I never read superhero comics as a kid and although I think I have seen one or two of the many Batman movies that have been made since the 1980s, I couldn’t tell you which ones. The only ‘incarnation’ of Batman that has meant anything at all to me, and that still dominates my imagination with respect to the character, was the TV show from the 1960s with Adam West and Burt Ward.
TP: What do you like about that show?
SE: Well, everyone goes on about its campiness. I don’t know how much that was part of my enjoyment of it as young boy but I certainly think I…
SE: Er, yes. Right. All that. I’m pretty sure though that…
TP: THWACK! BOFF!!!
SE: Yes. May I finish?
SE: I think I did respond to its campiness in some way. And I think I was somehow, also, identifying with something in the show, perhaps with the character of Robin (I had three siblings quite a bit older than me) though perhaps also with Batman. I had a Batman mask, cape, and… I don’t know what to call them, but you put them over your forearms. Are those ‘greaves’? I got them as a birthday present.
TP: I see.
SE: If I might add, that show was also the site of early, indeed premature, sexual knowledge. I’m pretty sure that I learned the word “catamite” in connection with it. And my father would call Robin “Batman’s little buggery boy.” I would have been between 6 and 9 years old.
TP: Oh wow! And what about the particular image of Batman slapping Robin that features in your book? Does that have some special meaning for you?
SE: The slap. The slap is about shame. Robin’s shame for whatever he’s being slapped for, his shame for being the victim of the slap, Batman’s shame for his capacity for violence towards one he loves. The slap brings the blood to your cheek; it makes you blush – the visible mark of shame. A lot of the book is about shame.
TP: Shame over?
SE: You’ll have to read the book to find out. Seriously, though, I can’t really say over what. It’s an emotion that dominates my life. I could take a stab at some of the reasons… but really….
TP: In that image, what, reduced to their simplest reciprocal form, are Robin’s thoughts about Batman’s thoughts about Robin and about Batman’s thoughts about Robin’s thoughts about Batman?
SE: Well, he thinks that he thinks that he is a child whereas he knows that he knows that he knows that he is not.
TP: What is the thesis of the book? It’s a philosophy book, I think I’ve heard you say. And philosophy books are books written in defense of a thesis.
SE: Ah! Good question. Several times I have talked about the book and explained how it will be about many different things, connected in various different ways, only to have someone, in the question period, ask me “yes, but what is it saying? What is its thesis?” Let me state here explicitly, it has no thesis. Many things are said in the book, but the book as a whole says nothing. I think, though I’m no expert, that the Deleuzian concept of the rhizome may apply to it. The metaphors I myself use to think about it are free association (as in psychoanalysis) and the Wunderkammer or cabinet of curiosities. It goes from one topic to another, it meanders, it gathers together and juxtaposes things that are initially unrelated but, hopefully, undergo an increase in meaning by their situation. Both of these…
TP: Your book has… oh excuse me. Please go on.
SE: Thanks. I was going to say that both these concepts, free association and the Wunderkammer, will be explicitly discussed in the course of the book. In a sense, the commentaries on the memes will be about explaining the nature of the book itself, or helping the reader to read it.
TP: Oh, that’s interesting. I was going to ask you something about the word “parerga” in your title but I’d like to follow up what you just said. That idea of the book explaining itself. Could you say more? Also, you said above that the book is about shame, that it’s about explaining its own nature, that it’s a philosophy book, that it will be about yourself, that it will be about psychoanalysis and literary criticism. It’s very confusing. Just what is your book about?
SE: That’s really just a variant of the “what is its thesis?” question, no? It’s about all these things. It is a statement against totalization, in favor of the fragmentary, the incomplete, the dilettantish, all those things that are supposed to be suppressed by the totalization that dominates the academic work and the academic career. The totalization of the thesis, the research project, the AOS… My own philosophical career has been such a statement, too, in that I have moved around between many subjects. I have written several one-off papers on topics that I never return to. As a philosopher, I am not easy to categorize and it is only fitting that I should produce a book that is similarly hard to categorize. I could add one more “about” – the book is about my career and situation within the philosophy profession! No truer, but no less true, than all the other abouts you confronted me with. And don’t think we have completed that list!
TP: OK. Now let me ask you about “parerga.” The word appears in the title of your book. Perhaps you could remind our readers of what it means since it is an uncommon word.
SE: Sure. It comes from the Greek words “para” and “ergon” and it is used to describe things that are next to, or supplementary to, a work (usually a work of art). (“Paratext” would describe the special case where the ergon in question is a text.) So the frame of a painting, the title or the preface of a literary work, etc.
TP: And what associations do you have to the word “parerga”?
SE: Well, I first encountered it, as many people do, in the title of Schopenhauer’s book Parerga and Paralipomena. I don’t know much about Schopenhauer (though I will be discussing one of his parerga or paralipomena in my book), but the little I do know comes through lectures about him that I attended in London in the 1980s, when I was just starting out in philosophy. The lectures were given by Brian O’Shaughnessy. Brian was my very first teacher of philosophy and a wonderful and idiosyncratic man. There was a mystique about him and the first lectures in any lecture series he gave would be packed. But one thing he was not was a good lecturer and by half-way through the series only a few die-hards would still be attending. I was one of those die-hards in that Schopenhauer class. Brian was married to Edna O’Shaughnessy, a very important psychoanalyst in the Kleinian tradition. A lot of Kleinian analysis just sounds really crazy. Many years ago I read some of Klein’s Narrative of a Child Analysis. You just wonder what world you’ve stepped into! The splittings, the projections and introjections, a confusing world in which what is inside and what is outside is unstable and ever-changing, the ego being formed (ergon) through these vicissitudes while awash in paranoia over the projected, but now consuming, para-ego (parergon) that…
TP: I’m sorry to cut you off, but we have to stop. It’s been a great pleasure talking with you.
SE: Thank you! I’ve enjoyed it.
TP: Our readers can get an idea of what the book is like from an excerpt posted here, the commentary on this meme.
When I first started on the book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I thought to include all the memes (53) that I had posted on Facebook as part of the Batman Meme Project between January and March 2016 (including three that appeared only in the movie Evnine’s Batman Memes: The Movie that was the climactic finale of the Batman Meme Project). Among the parerga were to be six memes I had created at the same time but elected not to post on Facebook (there were others I excluded), and 61 memes I made subsequent to the Batman Meme Project. That made for a total of 120 in all.
I liked that the total was 120 (and determined on it even before finishing all the included post-project memes) for two reasons. First, it is the age by reference to which Jews wish on others a long life (biz hundert un tsvantsik, in Yiddish), in honor of Moses, who was 120 when he died looking over into the promised land he would never enter. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, it is the number of the apartment in London in which I was born and in which I lived until, at 18, my parents did cross over into that promised land unattained by Moses, leaving me alone in London, effectively (like both Batman and Robin) an orphan. In a sense, you could say that my delivery was prolonged by 18 years, the apartment being a prosthetic uterus. (I often reflect on the fact that for various periods, my bedroom in that apartment was the very room in which I had been born.) It wasn’t until I was forced to leave no. 120 that I finally, fully, tumbled from fetal grace. That event must have been (I say “must have been” rather than “was” because I struggle to remember my feelings) experienced by me as, well… a slap in the face! (Not that my childhood before then was especially happy. But I was sheltered.)
In any case, over time, I came to feel that some of the 120 memes were too weak to be included. I also created a few more which I was sorry would not find a place in the book. Finally, after much agonizing, and with the urging of the other University of Miami Center for the Humanities fellows last academic year, I decided to monkey about with the original selection, omitting and adding with the goal of getting the best memes and not trying to conform to this magical number, however personally significant it was for me. There are now going to be roughly 105 memes altogether. I think this is for the best, but I have to say that all of a sudden, the project feels somehow diminished to me. Not just because it has fewer memes in it. Rather, the work as a whole now seems to me less ambitious, less daring. Instead of the envisaged polyphonic texture, in which themes appear and re-appear, cutting across the division into discrete commentaries and the division between memes and commentaries, I now see a series of short essays interspersed with quite a few perfunctory commentaries in which I will have very little to say. Right now, the projected book strikes me as somewhat pitiful.
I am (fairly) sure this is just a phase and that I will eventually recapture something of the original, animating vision. All lengthy projects involve such phases, surely. The phases are the results of interferences between multiple currents. One current flows from the ‘oceanic feeling’ when the work is not fully formed and contains so much in potential to its birth as a diminished actuality. Another comes in bursts as new ideas unpredictably present themselves, new connections appear. A third involves the relinquishing of anxiety over whether one can actually do what one set oneself to do and a growing amazement at the real little fingers and toes that come into being. And all of these, of course, are superimposed on the currents of the rest of one’s life, with their own vicissitudes. Still, let no-one any longer wish me “biz hundert un tsvantsik.” That number is behind me, not ahead.
Here is one of the memes with the commentary that will form part of my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. (I published this on Facebook a while back but am now reposting it here on this blog.)
M.12 They’re Forgetting Slappy
M.12 They’re Forgetting Slappy Composed: February 24th. Posted: February 24th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Arial. TB1: “It’s great! Now there’s also Love, Haha, Wow, Sad…”, black. TB2: “They’re forgetting Slappy!”, black.
This was created and posted on the day that a range of new reactions, to augment the thitherto solitary Like, were introduced by Facebook.
Evnine seemed to devote a lot of thought to Facebook reactions. On the same day on which this meme was posted, he wrote another status update in which, because the number of available reactions were now six, he suggested using a die to determine which reaction to use. (His friend and former student Ryan Lake thereafter consistently responded to the postings of the memes with apparently random reactions.) Later, on May 8th, Facebook rolled out another reaction, Thankful (only available in some places, and temporarily, in honor of Mother’s Day), and this prompted the artist to post the following remarks:
I see today Facebook has a rolled out a new ‘reaction’ option – Thankful. My first thought was to post a joke about being thankful for the new option. But I’m not a thankful person in general and I will never use it – so I’m not thankful for it. However, all those who are likely to use it will, no doubt, be thankful for it!
What about the self-applicability of the other options? I do like the Like option, but I don’t love the Love one; I merely like it, and use it frequently. I do not laugh at (or with), or find funny, the HaHa option, though if it had been designed differently, with more verbal panache, I might have.
I am not wowed by Wow (though I often use it); it’s really commonplace in both design and function. And I am definitely not angry about Angry! As long as there are people who applaud between movements in classical concerts or who park across the sidewalk and force disabled people into the grass to get around them, we need Angry. So I’m thankful for Angry.
Am I sad about Sad? I am sad that there is sadness, and hence a need for Sad. But, as Gavin Lawrence used to ask (and maybe still does! I hope so, because it made a big impression on me, so thanks Gavin!), am I sad that I or others experience sadness when their loved ones are sick or dying? Do I wish for a world in which no-one dies? Would that mean wishing for a world in which no-one was born, or one in which the world got more and more crowded? I don’t know. So I don’t know whether I’m sad about Sad.
Finally, a plea for a new reaction button (are you reading this Ariel?): Grelling Paradoxical!
When I began work on A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, and attempted to describe the project to people, I would frequently find myself being asked “what exactly is a meme, anyway?” Like St. Augustine and time, it turned out that although I knew perfectly well what a meme was when no-one asked me about it, when I had to say what it was, I floundered.
But I will flounder no more! I am pleased to announce that the British Journal of Aesthetics will be publishing my paper “The Anonymity of a Murmur: Internet (and Other) Memes” in which I offer a theory of the nature of memes. Here is the final pre-publication version of the paper.
The idea for A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! was born with the impulse to (re)present the memes I had published on Facebook but with the explanations of their more esoteric aspects that I had purposely withheld the first time round. Thus, it was always going to take the form of memes with commentaries thereon. Something that was not built into that very idea, but that fairly quickly took hold of me, was that the commentaries should be written as if by someone other than the creator of the memes.
Why did I make this fateful decision? The whole character of the work is profoundly different from what it would have been had I written about the memes ‘in the first person’ and yet I hardly know why it felt so right to me to do it this way. In 1710, somebody said: “This was, among the ancients, that celebrated Delphic inscription, ‘Recognize yourself!’, which was as much as to say ‘Divide yourself!’ or ‘Be two!'”¹ Was the division of myself performed in unconscious obedience to a demand for self-knowledge? Certainly the project as a whole has been connected to the progress of my psychoanalysis, which is an extended exercise in gaining self-knowledge – but has that quest been abetted by my decision to “be two” in this work? Or has that decision served to help me keep my own counsel under the scrutiny of an over-inquisitve commentator? Both, is the likely answer.
The general form of the challenge raised by my self-division is this. A meme, to be comprehensible, must be supplied with context concerning my own life, thoughts, activities, or writings. The ‘editor,’ being ‘distinct’ from the creator of the memes, does not have automatic access to those elements of context that are not, in principle, accessible to anyone. How, therefore, can he introduce them into his commentary on that meme? I have employed a variety of different solutions to this common problem, ranging from manufactured (i.e. fake) documentary evidence to imaginative recreations of the artist’s state of mind on the editor’s part.
In attempting to solve this common problem again and again, now in one way, now in another, I have come to have the strangest experience. The memes on which I am commenting were produced about two years ago. (Yes, time really does fly.) As they recede further and further into the past, they really do come to appear to me as the work of another! In some cases, I no longer remember what I was thinking or what I meant. The fictional split between the artist of the memes and the editorial author of the commentaries is gradually becoming a reality in a way I had not anticipated. Perhaps, if the preparation of the book takes enough time, I will truly come to forget what some of the memes are about, or even whether I created them at all.
¹ The somebody was in fact the Earl of Shaftesbury, in section 2 of his Soliloquy: Advice to an Author.
Some time ago, before I started the dedicated Facebook page which turned into this blog, I posted several excerpts from my book-in-progress. Now I have this blog, I thought I would re-post them here. The first one I posted was the first Batman meme I ever made and will be the first in the book, accordingly. I re-reproduce it below, as close as I can to how I envisage it on the printed page. I now think, however, that the treatment of the philosophical issues in the antepenultimate paragraph is inadequate and will need to be rewritten at some point.
M.1 … a meme in which I’m being…
M.1: … a meme in which I’m being… Composed: January 27th. Posted: January 27th. Orientation: Reverse. Font: Impact, with font shadow. TB1: “I can’t help think of everything as part of a meme in which I’m being…”, white, with black borders. TB2: “Shut up, Robin!”, white, with black borders.
The technique of this, as of all the earliest memes (M.1-M.4), is crude. The default settings of the meme generator used by the artist (Impact font, with font shadow, all capitals, white letters with black borders) are left in place, almost certainly because at that stage, he did not realize they could be changed. They are highly unsuitable settings where there is a lot of text (see the technically disastrous M.3). Even here, where there is not that much text, Robin’s words are quite hard to make out. Continue reading “M.1 “… a meme in which I’m being…””
Last weekend, I opened a dedicated Twitter account to go with this blog – essentially as a way of informing people that there are new posts. But the involvement of Twitter in the epitextual writings around my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, also brings to the fore elements of the project that I have long been thinking about.
It came to me, during the heyday of my production of Batman memes in early to mid 2016, that the memes themselves were a little like tweets. That inspired me to make one meme, which I will not display here since I have to hold back a few good ones for the appearance of the book, in which Robin’s text is in the form of a tweet, #s and @s and all.
The resemblances stem from, though exceed, the limits to the amount of text one can use in both. With Twitter, the limit is hard and clear – 140 characters. With memes, the limit is what can be legibly imposed on the image. This is true for all image macro memes, but with Batman Slapping Robin, there is even less space than usual in the image available for text, if one wants to include all the text in the speech bubbles. I frequently struggled to pare down the text I wanted to use to one I could make legible. A few memes just could not be pared down enough and I had to resort to other measures. In this meme (M.29 “… he was a jew,” published on Facebook on March 7th 2016), I both strained legibility almost to breaking point and overflowed the bounds of the speech bubble:
One of the things I have most appreciated about working on A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga! is the way it has forced me to be creative when I have had to talk about the work or present it to people in formal or semi-formal settings. Very difficult, and not so rewarding, has been the presentation of the project in applications for sabbaticals, fellowships, and funding (with variable results!). This is, of course, because such presentations are petitions and one cannot stray too far from the traditional forelock tugging in making one’s petitions.
Much more rewarding have been the presentations made to people without goal of profit – in universities and private homes. The peculiar nature of the project, and its unsuitability to exposition in anything like a normal academic format, has flummoxed me right from the start and has thereby forced me to be creative in unexpected ways. Generally, I have had to make my presentations a performance. I suppose all academic presentations involve some element of performance, but in these cases, I really had to go way beyond my comfort zone, in both presentation and content. I have had, in my own limited way, to mug for the audience (something I detest usually), to act a part, and to embarrass myself by personal exposure. (Not of the taking off of one’s clothes variety!)
Earlier this summer, I went to meet a distinguished Israeli psychoanalyst, M.. I traveled by train from Herzeliya, where I was staying with my brother, and walked from the station in Tel Aviv to M.’s office, about a mile and a half away. The purpose of my visit was to discuss with M. the possibility of giving a presentation to psychoanalysts in Israel about my book-in-progress, A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. The book defies easy description; it is a strange, genre-crossing work that mixes graphic art, self-writing, and philosophy (understood in a very broad sense). I was to explain to him what the connections were between my book and psychoanalysis, connections which I was sure existed and about which I was prepared to talk fluently. M. is a little older than me and of course a very experienced psychoanalyst as well as a very knowledgeable philosopher.
Perhaps you can imagine how this felt. I am myself in analysis and I was acutely aware, as I entered M.’s office, that this was a place where psychoanalysis was conducted. The office was small, but there was the iconic couch in it. And two chairs, into one of which M. ushered me, stating (quite unnecessarily, you can be sure!) that this was the ‘patient’s chair.’ I was petitioning this older man for the chance to address a group of analysts. Petitioning this man who was vastly more knowledgeable about one of the subjects I wanted to speak about than I am; this man who was an analyst, in his own office, while I sat in what we had openly acknowledged was the patient’s place, but who even before entering the office was already investing this meeting with a lot of transferential feelings (as if it were a chance to have a friendly chat with my own analyst). If you guess that these were not propitious circumstances for me, you will not be wrong. Continue reading “…book-ends, or parentheses…”