What’s up guys? Jared again. Everyone’s been talking about it. Every message board, every discord server,
every major news publication. We’ve even dipped our toes in on Culture
Binge. You’ve probably heard of the Storm Area
51 Facebook Event, in which millions of net nerds ironically vowed to Naruto run their
way into Area 51 on September 20th so they can finally “see dem aliens.” Now this is funny for a variety of reasons-
there’s nothing quite so satisfying as imagining some general at the Pentagon being briefed
on what a group of Kyles is. But it’s also a dark joke about gleefully
signing up for, what is essentially a suicide mission. Every 5 seconds a new meme pops up on the
Facebook event ironically strategizing their entrance, taking inventory of vehicles and
infantry and, of course, coyly commenting how people’s commitment to irony may outweigh
their desire to live. It’s this last class of memes that’s got
us thinking about a popular sub genre of memes dominating the land of shitposting: Depression
memes. Whether it’s people identifying with Bart
Simpson as literally nothing hits him with a wave of incredible sadness or a young boy
being visited by Teletubbies labeled anxiety, depression, loneliness, and overthinking,
depression memes seem to be millenials and Gen Zers new form of free therapy. But the more we thought about it, the more
we thought that maybe there’s something else to it, that maybe depression memes can
be considered the most modern development of a certain philosophical and psychological
sentiment described over 150 years ago in what is considered one of the first existentialist
stories. So welcome to this Wisecrack Vlog on Depression
Memes. And for the love of god don’t try to storm
area 51. Please. But if you do, send me pics of dem aliens. So what is a shitpost? There are a bunch of definitions out there
that often include the idea that they’re deliberately unproductive to online conversation,
that they exist for their own sake, and/or are made hastily and in poor quality. But the definition we found most insightful
comes from writer Gustavo Turner in Surface magazine: “What is a shitpost if not a pointless,
carnivalesque attack against meaning itself? Like every aesthetic that draws from the absurd
(Dada, surrealism, situationism, punk), shitposting is ultimately a cry of despair against impending
disaster.” While Turner is apt in likening the shitpost
to various absurdist art movements, we instead find a very specific flavor of existentialism
in the depression meme. It’s our contention that this phenomenon
of people posting memes about their despair is an extension of a philosophical and psychological
sentiment immortalized by Fyodor Dostoevsky’s novella “Notes from Underground.” Or more simply, the titular Underground Man
is functionally a 19th century proto-shitposter. To find out what we’re talking about, we’re
gonna have to dive in to a little recap of the book. It portrays the curmudgeonly musings of The
Underground Man, a tortured recluse who reminisces about a time he almost had an authentic connection
with another human. It’s starts off with him proclaiming that
“he is sick.” Not because he’s suffering from any physical
ailments, but rather from “hyperconsciousness,” or an extreme debilitating commitment to rationality. The first part of the book depicts his stream
of consciousness as he weaves an intricate labyrinth of arguments about topics like reason,
freedom, and European Utopianism before recounting an unpleasant interaction with his old schoolmate
Zverkov. He eventually meets a prostitute named Liza,
who he tries to “redeem” by telling her to change her ways. She’s able to get him to open up for a little
while, but he quickly turns back into an asshole and tries to humiliate her. As she leaves, he immediately regrets his
behavior and runs after her, but she’s long gone. The Underground Man has remained supremely
relevant over time. Dostoevsky’s metaphor of “the underground”
was a major development in modern literature and continues to be referenced as an embodiment
of rebellion against traditional value systems. Which is all well and good, but what does
this extremely lonely and extremely miserable man have to do with people on the internet
joking about the disposability of their lives via Area 51 memes? We think that the state of despair propagated
by depression memes overlaps with the sentiment of the Underground Man’s in four key ways: 1. Inaction. Both depression memes and the Underground
Man emphasize despair over action. The point of posting a meme like the cat in
the hat with the text “millennials and get z’s willingness to die” sneaking up on
a kid standing in for “Area 51 thinking this is a joke” isn’t to inspire the masses
to get off their computer and help Millennials or Gen Zers by pushing for economic reform
or greater public mental health options. These memes are often born out of reflecting
on what seems like an impossible, hopeless situation with no particular orientation towards
doing anything about it. The meme only offers a sense of identification
with hopelessness. The futility of action is key. Likewise, the much of the Underground Man’s
deep unhappiness is due to what he calls “Hyperconsciousness”- or a paralyzing sense of awareness. He claims to be so aware that he sees both
sides of any argument, so instead of choosing a side or defining himself through any meaningful
action, he does nothing. He calls this “conscious inertia.” “It was not only that I could not become
spiteful, I did not know how to become anything: neither spiteful nor kind, neither a rascal
nor an honest man, neither a hero nor an insect. Now, I am living out my life in my corner,
taunting myself with the spiteful and useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot
become anything seriously, and it is only the fool who becomes anything.” Like our melancholy hero, depression memes
are defined by a similar kind of inertia- a feeling of hopeless paralysis. 2. Like a good shitpost, The Underground Man
is kind of a troll. When he visits his old friend Zverkov, he
KNOWS that he and his friends don’t like him, but tags along to a party anyway and
acts like a drunken fool just to spread the misery around. Similarly, a depression shitpost looks not
only to express despair, but pervert the sunny optimism of traditional social media posts. If most people on Instagram are curating their
social media personas to project an image of a perfect life with attractive, successful,
and supportive friends, a depression meme looks to bring the grimy underbelly of feelings
to the forefront. Think you’re accumulating cultural capital
by posting about your sweet beachfront vacation spot with your sexy rich family? Fuck you. I eat depression for breakfast. 3. Like The Underground Man, a Depression Meme
is a paradox. Part of what has made the psychological profile
of the Underground Man so interesting and enduring is that he is constantly contradicting
himself. He says he loves being isolated, yet he yearns
for human connection. Similarly, a depression meme is a cry for
help, yet a resignation to hopelessness. The Underground Man looks down on normal people
like Liza and Zverkov, yet envies them, not unlike how a depression meme is a condemnation
of normie-dom, yet a desire to live a life like theirs. Finally, the Underground Man suffers, but
takes pleasure in it. And of course- people make depression memes
for the lulz. Why, suffering is the sole origin of consciousness. Though I did lay it down at the beginning
that consciousness is the greatest misfortune for man, yet I know man prizes it and would
not give it up for any satisfaction. 4. Finally, both the Underground Man and shitposting
represent a rejection of optimistic political ideals. The Underground Man spends a fair amount of
time refuting ideas put forward by Nikolai Chernyshvsky’s image of a utopia built out
of a devotion to reason that he referred to as “The Crystal Palace” in his work “What
is to be Done?” Similarly, depressing memes are often a reaction
to the post-Cold War 90s- a decade built on the promise of a better world, but, to many,
that didn’t happen and now we only look forward to “sunny” possibilities like
climate catastrophes, war with Iran, and Silicon Valley ruining everything under the guise
of “disruption.” Like the Underground Man, Millennials and
Gen Zers have grown up with the promise of a better future, only to be hit with sobering
realities that that has made us… depressed. As such, depression memes will often co-opt
positive elements of popular culture and impose sad realities on them via text. In doing so, it comments on the failure of
these images to deliver any actual happiness, and the lie of positivity that they perpetuated. So there you have it- The Underground man
is very much alive in the ethos of depression memes on the internet. But I want to emphasize here that depression
and other mental illnesses are a very serious thing, and while some may find levity in these
kinds of things, it’s not cathartic for everyone. For what it’s worth, I always remind myself
of the book’s end, where the Underground Man deeply regrets rejecting human companionship. Yes, the state of things might be dismal and
derailing meaning and trolling might give us the necessary dopamine hit to get through
the day, but it’s important that we don’t give up an incredibly important part of a
healthy psyche: human connection. And I just wanna end this vlog with a quote
from the text that will undeniably speak to anyone who’s ever posted a depression meme: “For we are all divorced from life, we are
all cripples, every one of us, more or less. We are so divorced from it that we feel at
once a sort of loathing for real life, and so cannot bear to be reminded of it. Why, we have come almost to look upon real
life as an effort, almost as hard work, and we are all privately agreed that it is better
in books.” Thanks to all of our patrons who support the
channel and our podcasts. Don’t forget to hit that subscribe button