A Yiddish Meme

One of the memes in the Batman Meme Project is entirely in Yiddish. I have just finished the nearly six-week process of writing (a draft of) the commentary on it – and it has turned out to be the longest commentary, by far, yet written. (I suspect it will remain the longest, but who knows! I didn’t expect this one to be so long.)

When I was composing the meme, back in Spring 2016, I had help with the Yiddish from a friend of a friend. I had produced the Yiddish text by using Google Translate, but it didn’t look all that right to me and I had no way of knowing if it was idiomatic, or even basically correct. This kind person helped get it into shape and, as part of that, she changed the Romanization (Yiddish is written in Hebrew characters) according to a standard established by YIVO – a Jewish and Yiddish cultural organization founded in 1925. That, she said in an off-hand remark, gave the text a ‘Lithuanian slant.’

Although my commentary touches on many things (the relation of speech and writing, Jewish naming practices, the etymology of one particular Jewish name, Robin Jeshion’s proposed principle of Single Tagging – basically, you shouldn’t name something if you think it already has a name, and others), the thing I got most caught up in was this ‘Lithuanian slant.’

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The Anonymity of a murmur

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.

Becoming another

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.

Other voices

I have previously indicated that the spirit of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn hovers over my own efforts in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. I first read the Sebald six or seven years ago. In the course of his loosely connected, almost free associative, wanderings from one reflection on death and destruction to another, he describes a visit to Somerleyton, the seat of an unlikely magnate from the nineteenth century, now a crumbling cabinet of curiosities in which a guided tour takes one through rooms of bygone paraphernalia. A camphorwood chest which may once have accompanied a former occupant of the house on a tour of duty to Nigeria or Singapore now contains old croquet mallets and wooden balls… The walls are hung with copper kettles, bedpans, hussars’ sabres, African masks, spears, safari trophies, hand-coloured engravings of Boer War battles… Nor can one readily say which decade or century it is, for many ages are superimposed here and coexist… How fine a place the house seemed to me now, continues Sebald, that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion.

In order to avail myself of its riches in the execution of my own current project, I recently started to re-read Sebald’s work – with some trepidation, since time leaves nothing unaltered. And indeed my experience of it has been rather different. On my first reading, I recall being enveloped by a single sustained mood, utterly enchanted. Now, owing perhaps to the somewhat difficult circumstances in which I have been re-encountering Sebald’s melancholy ramblings, my experience has been highly fragmented. I have learnt to recognize, and hence occasionally be irritated by, some of his mannerisms. Parts of the book have moved me nearly to tears while other parts have felt forced and predictable. I have little doubt that the differences here come from me and do not reflect substantial variations in the quality of Sebald’s writing.

One mannerism, which I had either not noticed on my first reading or else had forgotten about, is the way in which Sebald mentions a work by some other writer and then begins, without any warning (and hence without the use of quotation marks), to quote from it. One does not always realize this is happening until one runs into the use of a personal pronoun which is clearly the original author’s and not Sebald’s. At this juncture, Sebald will insert text into the quotation that alerts the reader to the dislocation of the personal pronoun, as I did two paragraphs above.

I had determined that I would use this technique to incorporate some of Sebald’s own book into the commentary on a meme that refers to Sir Thomas Browne, who himself is the subject of some of Sebald’s reflections and whose own spirit evidently infuses his work.

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Meme that refers to Sir Thomas Browne
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Edition of Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn at an exhibition on Browne

How thrilled I was, then, when a friend and student, Ted Locke, suggested that I read a paper by the literary scholar Jane Tompkins called “Me and My Shadow.” Ted and I have discussed auto-theory off and on for over a year. Tompkins’s paper is an early manifesto of auto-theory. In it, she expresses a frustration with academic writing and a desire somehow to incorporate a more personal element into her work that exactly reflects (or I should say, preflects, since her essay was published in 1987) my own motivations for and aspirations in A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!. Having referred to Ursula Le Guin’s distinction between father tongue (which only lectures) and mother tongue (which expects an answer), she goes on to say:

I find that having released myself from the duty to say things I’m not interested in, in a language I resist, I feel free to entertain other people’s voices. Quoting them becomes a pleasure of appreciation rather than the obligatory giving of credit, because when I write in a voice that is not struggling to be heard through the screen of forced language, I no longer feel that it is not I who am speaking, and so there is more room for what others have said.

Sebald’s murmuring prose does exactly what Tompkins seeks to articulate in her essay; it blends the impersonal historical with the personal, it seamlessly incorporates other voices, and it never struggles to make itself heard through forced language. This incorporation of other voices makes his work itself a cabinet of literary curiosities – a work in which one cannot tell what decade or century it is, in which one is as likely to find oneself conjecturing about Sir Thomas Browne’s attendance at a scene depicted by Rembrandt as on the childhood of Conrad, or on the death of Edward Fitzgerald, whose translations of Omar Khayam are so distinctive that they have passed into the English language as something generic –  just one of the many ways English can be – in the way that the King James translation of the Bible has. I have yet to finish my second reading of The Rings of Saturn but the frustrations of my re-reading of its earlier parts will, I feel sure, be entirely reconfigured, and perhaps disappear altogether, owing to Tompkins’s invigorating essay. And for anyone keeping track, you might have noticed that I have been silent on my blog for some time now – this post, “Other voices,” is the first new parergonal material I have been able to create for quite some time.

Increasingly Verbose: Let’s eat(,) Grandma

Increasingly Verbose is a meme in which a number of panels are placed in a vertical column. Each panel has an image and some text, usually the text adjacent to the image. In the top panel, the image is rich in detail and the text sparse. In succeeding panels, the original image is rendered increasingly abstractly and the original text increasingly verbosely. (Other names for this meme emphasize the progression of the image component – “Deconstructed Memes,” “Meme Decay,” etc..) Here is an example, taken from the webpage linked to above:

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Quotation, camp, and Lagadonian languages

In my previous post, I wrote about proper names versus descriptions and how that issue is inscribed in the world of Batman from the character’s very first appearance in 1939.

Another theme that will loom large in my books, and that also is prefigured in the very first appearance of Batman, is the use and nature of quotation marks. Some of my memes will derive their humor (or ‘humor’) from how quotation marks interact with punctuation, and from words appearing both within and without quotation marks in the same sentence. Quotation marks are one of the primary means we have in English (and in many other languages) for referring to language itself. At least on the face of it, they provide a simple and standard way by which we can refer to any bit of language – simply take that bit of language and put quotation marks around it. We will thus establish instances of the schema: Continue reading “Quotation, camp, and Lagadonian languages”

M.1 “… a meme in which I’m being…”

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…

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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.[1] Continue reading “M.1 “… a meme in which I’m being…””

Names and descriptions

When I composed the bulk of my Batman memes, between January and March 2016, I knew very little of Batman except the 1960s TV series, which I loved and which defines the characters of Batman and Robin for me. (One of the memes uses the image of the Joker, as played by Cesar Romero

jingle-bells

and another that of Burgess Meredith’s Penguin.) In preparing to write my book A Certain Gesture: Evnine’s Batman Meme Project and Its Parerga!, I thought I should rectify that and so I was happy to find a recent book had been published on the history and cultural significance of the various incarnations of Batman – The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, by Glen Weldon. From that book, I learned that several of the themes I will deal with in my book are in fact pre-figured in the Batman corpus from the very beginning.

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Tweets and memes

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:

ulysses-third-version

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Challenges

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!)

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