Let’s Get This Dread: An Exploration of Nihilism in Memes
By Evelyn Perfall '19
February 2019 Issue
I could be defined as a daughter, a sister, a student, an American, or any of countless other labels people use to categorize each other. Among them would normally be the label identifying my generation.
As I was born in 2001, however, I am placed somewhat awkwardly between what society has termed the Millennials and Generation Z. As of now, I’m too young to identify with the economic difficulty and struggles in the job market all too familiar to Millennials, yet my childhood involved almost none of the technology Gen Z children use on a regular basis. If anything, though, this makes the commonalities between these age groups stand out to me more, the Internet being among the most prominent.
And over the last decade, a new form of humor
has been created, or at least better defined, one that shapes online communication and serves as a common language between Millennials and Gen Z. Memes are not taken seriously by most people, and indeed, most of the time they are not meant to be taken seriously – their purpose is to amuse – yet their dark humor does reveal the presence of a highly cynical world view among young people.
Know Your Meme: an excellent source of mostly reliable facts related to memes of all kinds, shapes, formats, lifespans, and so on. It was to this digital encyclopedia that I ventured when seeking nihilism-related memes to reference, and voilà – I was supplied a page on exactly that subject. For those who don’t know, nihilism is essentially the belief that life contains no inherent meaning, value, or truth. According to Know Your Meme, “philosophical axioms associated with existential nihilism have been paired with various pop-culture references and Internet memes for comedic effect in the form of anti-jokes.” In simpler terms, nihilistic jokes are often funny because they’re not funny. And they’ve been around for a long time.
One of the earliest known nihilist memes is a story about a piece of graffiti spotted 1968 in Paris, France, which referenced one of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s most famous quotes. The text of it read:
Nietzsche: God is Dead.
God: Nietzsche is dead.
In 2005, a definition of nihilism was posted on UrbanDictionary, reading, “It’s useless to define it,” and since then, nihilist memes have continued to grow in popularity. Wiki pages and subreddits were created, followed by Facebook pages and Tumblr blogs. In 2015, the YouTube video “Our Greatest Delusion,” “which espoused the intellectual and spiritual benefits of embracing nihilism,” gained over a million views and has since passed two million (Know Your Meme; “Our Greatest Delusion”).
This all occurred before I knew anything about memes, so though I lived through this development, I did not notice it. Now, though, I see some of its effects. My primary social media accounts are Instagram and Snapchat, and it is disturbing how often I open them and see some post about feeling lost in the world or hating the world or even wanting to leave this world for good. My generation, it seems, is desensitized to jokes about death. Gallows humor has become our norm.
Though nihilist memes may seem dark or depressing to some, for many they provide a way to deal with complicated emotions, forming a kind of escape. For example, this [DAB] meme was taken from a Nihilist Memes Facebook page, addresses the subject of death in a lighthearted manner, enabling people to more easily process their own fear of death. Similarly, posts from the twitter account Nihilist Arby’s can help people identify and deal with their frustration with life.
Personally, I find memes about depression comforting because, on some level, they help me accept my own struggles and tell me I’m not alone. I do not claim that meme accounts are intentionally therapeutic, or that people seek memes with coping mechanisms in mind; however, I do think they are popular in part because identifying what we find relatable helps us clarify what we feel. I’ve also noticed a trend where
people find comfort in nihilism itself. Both discuss “optimistic
nihilism,” the idea that if life has no meaning then we might as well live to the fullest.
Internet humor does more than just amuse. Memes are an underappreciated method of communication that Millennials and Generation Z use to process and make light of emotionally challenging situations, to become familiarized with unpleasant ideas, and to cope with mental health issues like anxiety or depression.
There are innumerable ways to see the world, nihilism being only one, but in the end we must all face the reality that the greatest of men and the lowest return to earth just the same. How we deal with this truth shapes who we are and how, someday, we approach our own deaths. Personally, I hope to find peace.