The size of things: biz hundert un tsvantsik

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.)

Screen Shot 2018-08-03 at 2.42.06 PM

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.

Simcha Bunim/simkhe-bunim

When I first created the Yiddish Batman meme, I had to come up with a ‘Jewish’ name for Batman.

Simcha-Bunim-revised

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

I don’t now remember the exact thought process that eventuated in “Simcha Bunim,” other than that I wanted something that would sound a bit comic. (Apologies to anyone whose name actually is Simcha Bunim.) I see now, for reasons briefly mooted here, that I may have taken a first, tottering step towards vicious stereotyping at that point. The question of the meme’s relation to stereotyping is something I have now incorporated discussion of in the commentary on the meme. I was greatly helped on my way to this end by my ‘irascible’ expert (introduced here and further mentioned here). Truth be told, he came to the conclusion that my meme, in the light of the commentary (of which he saw an earlier, unreconstructed version), was “repulsive”! (You can see I am still processing the trauma of this.)

But the point of the present post is not to linger on that calamity, but to express my amazement at just how much there has been to say about the name “Simcha Bunim.” I wonder if I just got lucky and picked a name that raised so many interesting issues, or whether any name would have yielded comparable riches.

Specifically,

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M.12 “They’re Forgetting Slappy”

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

Slappy

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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.

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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,[1] 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[2] 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?[3]): Grelling Paradoxical!

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… in which I am called out (for humorously linking Batman and Yiddish)

In the on-going saga of my commentary on the Yiddish Batman meme, I mentioned, in my previous post, an ‘irascible’ expert who found the draft of the commentary I sent him to be riddled with errors. af a nar makht men nit kin peyresh, he said. (“One doesn’t write a commentary on a fool.”) It turns out that at that point, he had only skimmed what I had written. Now he has read it fully and things have gone from bad to worse, though the focus has shifted from my scholarly shortcomings to my ethical failures.

At one point in my commentary, recounting a little of the history of Yiddish, I write:

Starting in the second half of the 18th century, Jewish proponents of the Enlightenment began to stigmatize Yiddish as merely a debased form of German that kept its native speakers from accessing European high culture. The image of Yiddish as a comic, backward, folksy language began to take shape, in contrast to dominant European languages, on the one hand, and Hebrew, on the other – an image that even many subsequent supporters of Yiddish have been happy to accept.

In earlier versions of the draft, I then inserted a footnote in which I mentioned a recent exemplar of the “Yiddish supporter accepting the comic view of Yiddish” phenomenon, a book that starts with a joke about a kvetching Jew on a train and then says: “If you can understand this joke, you’ll have no trouble learning Yiddish.” (Because the essence of the language is the ability to kvetch in it, and knowing that smooths the way over all the bothersome conjugations, declensions, etc.) I noted that “such works appear to extoll the virtues of Yiddish, provided one forgets that the works of Cervantes, Swift, Marx, Einstein, Gilbert and Sullivan, Whitman, Dickens, Shakespeare, and Milton (to name just a few) were all translated into it.” At one point, I even mentioned, in studied proximity to this footnote, Sander Gilman’s book Jewish Self-Hatred. However, I removed both footnotes because the implication about the book I objected to was clearly offensive.

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af a nar makht men nit kin peyresh

In my previous post on this blog I mentioned that I had just finished the commentary on a Batman meme that was in Yiddish. I had sought a lot of help in writing this commentary since, not to put too fine a point on it, I often didn’t know what I was talking about. Among those to whom I turned was a very distinguished but somewhat irascible expert on Yiddish. (Do I give away his identity, to those in the know, if I say that he prefers to call that language “Yidish”?)

I sent him the completed draft of the commentary, 8,000-9,000 words long, and, with amazing generosity, he read it all! In it, I briefly mentioned the role Google Translate played in my quest to obtain the Yiddish text for the meme.  I summarize this expert’s response to my commentary using a Yiddish proverb he himself used in reference to Google Translate’s Yiddish:

No-commentary-on-a-fool

I can only hope, on the basis of his kind offer to help me improve my text, that he does not think me too much of a fool! (But note, for future reference, the small “a” at the beginning of “af a nar.”)

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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.

number5
Meme that refers to Sir Thomas Browne
Browne2
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:

9f7

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