Memeology, Dissident Aesthetics, and Sincere Romanticism
Essay by Henry Hogan. Memes and aesthetic evolution.
By: Henry Hogan
A certain dissident corner of the internet (namely 4chan) produces the bulk of internet trends, spreading across political lines and even into the “normie-sphere.” Old memes become reappropriated from their original use, get reposted on Reddit, and find their demise in a degenerated and overplayed Facebook Boomer meme. Some memes remain incredibly resilient and become reappropriated in an altered form, finding new life in an evolved state. Incredibly, all this action typically occurs uncoordinated; memes, one way or another, seemingly satisfy a subconscious itch in the collective brain.
Why do some memes catch on, and others do not? What makes a meme relevant to certain groups of people? Despite their humorous and casual use, internet memes are often reflective of broader psychological, cultural, and aesthetic trends. The Dissident Right (DR), the unspoken progenitor of most internet slang, remains a wrongly studied phenomena. Ivory tower intellectuals are incapable of proper reflection on this topic, despite their hilariously failed attempts to do so. Our self-proclaimed cultural analysts are unable to set aside their guttural hatred of the DR to consider the greater origins and implications of DR memeology.
Briefly, I will explicate the major memetic archetypes in the Dissident Right. Due to the nature of this work, I will be unable to provide a full account of all memes that have arisen since roughly 2014. The origins of such memes are disputed, and it would be misleading to pretend there are definitive “eras” of memes. Much overlap exists, and many memes are bastardized from their original intentions. To be clear, my analysis is simply my own reading; there may be a myriad of different interpretations of the aesthetic trajectory of the DR, if one can even be found. Admittedly, you may even find my analysis to be amateurish and exaggerated. Consider this piece to be one sincere reading of the DR and its memeological evolution since 2014.
The First Impact
The era from 2014-2017 will undoubtedly be recognized for the explosion of the “Pepe” meme. Pepe, our friendly green frog, emerged from a 2005 comic by artist Matt Furie. Around the year 2014 and even during the Gamergate scandal, Pepe became the genesis for many different memes. Known as the “feelsbadman” frog, Pepe was often depicted in a state of ennui caused by some internal longing and external disappointment. However, as Pepe evolved, he became the symbol of something more rebellious. Pepe memes typically depicted the green frog as the cause of mischief, impishly and smugly smiling while doing activities unapproved by what could be considered “normie society.” Pepe often displayed a masculine defiance of such societal restrictions, displaying a light-hearted whimsy while waving a certain German flag or showing a middle finger to a particular protected identity class. Pepe, in his charming and cartoonish appearance, symbolized the seedling of a distinctly White male rejection of obtrusive and humorless “SJW” culture. In this form, Pepe exemplified the “trickster” archetype of traditional Western culture. Later, Pepe’s evolution as “Groyper” would solidify these themes.
It is no surprise that Pepe became the leading symbol of the early DR, due to its simple and elegant rejection of liberal customs. Pepe’s likeness became associated with the 2016 Trump campaign, as 4chan and some Redditors used its artistic style as the basis for popular memes. Pepe found itself on the lists of the Anti-Defamation League and Southern Poverty Law Center as a “symbol of the Alt-Right,” quickly after one person defiantly yelled “Pepe!” at a Hillary Clinton campaign rally. The barrage of news attacks on Pepe transformed the green frog into a symbol of “white supremacy” for its association with the Trump campaign. But these characterizations were sweeping generalizations intended to stave off any deeper inspection. The Pepe meme signaled the first salvo in the “Meme War” against stuffy and tyrannical anti-Whiteness, becoming the icon for a humorous and strong-willed rejection of elite ideology by a growing (and influential) corner of internet shitposters.
Wojak, often depicted in memes alongside Pepe, found his greatest popularity between 2017-2020. Wojak, or “The Feels Guy,” was always the dour shade of the exuberant Pepe. Wojak was often depicted in some sort of internal pain, or an indifferent yet intense desire for a greater purpose. Pepe typically made fun of Wojak’s deep yet inactive emotions, against the frog’s more externalized rejection of the System. Unlike Pepe, Wojak grasped at something far more contemplative and deeper-rooted than the impish actions of his frog brother. Wojak appeared to be intensely hypnotized by the gravity of his situation, channeling his “strong feels” into an aspiration for a better future. Wojak, in his derivatives, all shared one thing in common: a deep yearning for lost futures and the eternal post, grappling with the disastrous consequences of the disillusioning present.
The timing of Wojak’s 2017-2020 explosion in popularity is not coincidental. Following Pepe’s role in popularizing the Trump campaign, Wojak ushered in a new era for dissident politics. The Trump presidency would ultimately reveal itself to be a failure during these years: from the 2016 cabinet formation, to the April 2017 Syrian missile strike, to the absence of the promised border wall, to the unwillingness to address problems of immigration, foreign policy, crime, and cultural decay. The Trump presidency forced his Pepe-driven adherents to face an enormous moment: what if our pure defiance was not enough? Was there any hope of turning the tide against a malevolent and destruction culture? Could we actually restore something greater, after the failure of Trump? Wojak faced the bitter reality of our condition. There would not be a miracle savior or a moment of revelation. Rather, the DR was forced to reconsider its previous positions and evolve if it hoped to progress into this new world.
This is perhaps the moment of the “Doomer,” “Boomer,” and “Bloomer” memes. Derived from Wojak, these memes offered a trifurcated path for the newly disenchanted DR. Would one become a “Doomer,” trapped in a desperate hopelessness? Would one become a “Boomer,” satisfied by living the best life possible but withdrawing from political life? Or, would one become a “Bloomer,” optimistic for the possibility of eventual victory and perpetual struggle? Following the Trump bust, these paths split the DR into rival ideological camps. The new political realities of the post-2016 age would birth new aesthetic horizons, hoping to synthesize the discoveries of the Pepe and Wojak era.
The Second Impact
The year 2020 brought a further extension of the Pepe and Wojak moments with the popularizing of the “Apu” meme. Apu, the diminutive little brother of Pepe, is a malformed green frog often depicted as somewhat autistic. Faced with the enormity of the Wojak moment, and combining the trickster archetype of Pepe, Apu signals a return to authentic emotions and a childlike sense of wonder. Apu is often cast in unlikely and varied scenes: gazing over the mountaintops, enjoying a sunset, playing with a cat, innocently enjoying a moment. Problematizing the deep yearnings of Wojak, Apu solves these challenges with a simple shrug and desire to restore a sincere wonder of the world recovered from his youth. Apu sometimes acts defiant, much like Pepe, but does so with no malice. Apu decides to compartmentalize Wojak’s trifurcated personas, bringing his honest and often childish emotions back into play. Despite the crushingness of the Wojak era, Apu reminds us that a seed of hope remains inside all of us. For the DR, Apu begins the process of revitalizing aesthetics away from depressing fatalism and back toward a vitalist reconfrontation with the future.
Coinciding with his twin Apu, the Gigachad meme became popularized in 2020. Gigachad, the gray bodybuilder of disputed personhood, represents the synthesis of Pepe’s defiance with the sincerity of the Apu moment. Gigachad can often be seen in this formulaic expression: “Why yes, I am [doing something that goes against elite ideology] how could you tell?” alongside a picture of his physical prowess. Gigachad unashamedly embraces his ideology with positivity, rejecting the stewing fatalism of Wojak while projecting a childlike honest of Apu. Gigachad is the height of the DR’s current aesthetic trajectory, which all culminates in his smiling acceptance of his worldview. Gigachad, having considered the longing of Wojak, does not fall into despair. Rather, he outwardly projects his sentiments and backs it up with a self-positive affirmation.
Interestingly, Gigachad memes often involve a conversation between him and “Soyjak,” the Wojak-derived liberal weakling who contradicts the naturalist sincerity of Gigachad. Soyjak is the Shadow of Gigachad, representing the other potentiality for young men of this age. Gigachad is comfortable in his skin and is in touch with his Nature. The Soyjak shrinks away from his instincts, has no true self-realization, and inserts a quasi-theological intensity to enforcing liberal hegemony. Where Gigachad is the muscular rebel, Soyjak is the eternal Last Man foil who is his opposite by every measure. Soyjak, representing the cosmopolitan social striver, is shown as a skittish and bug-like counter to the honesty of Gigachad.
The timing of the Apu and Gigachad memes is, again, of no surprise. After reconciling the failure of Trumpism and the realization of how difficult our challenge is, Apu and Gigachad forge a new path ahead for DR politics. Rather than wallowing in pity, or hiding behind trickster acts of ironic defiance, the DR moves into an honest and self-realizing space. Having dropped the weight of Republican politics, the DR understands it must craft something new for itself in its own space. Apu and Gigachad affirm this new ideology and understanding by crafting a mystical, joyful rebellion matched with a deep conviction.
Aesthetics and the Future
What does this memeological evolution mean for DR aesthetics? I theorize that the evolution of DR memes blazes the path for “Sincere Romanticism,” or the embrace of self-affirming adventures into the mythic future. The DR has learned from its previous mistakes and developed new ideological branches after several trials and tribulations. Sincere Romanticism, I posit, is based on several tenets: a rejection of post-irony and embrace of honesty, a joyful rebellion against unnatural political and social norms, an active search for the mythopoetic and mystical Nature, and a true desire to return danger, risk, adventure, and camaraderie to the world. Sincere Romanticism is not a simple reactionary return to some idealized past but confronts our actual state with a searing intensity. The Sincere Romanticist rejects materialism, unnatural social phenomena, insincerity, and speaks truth to power without hesitance. It is my hope that future works of literature will embrace this aesthetic, and channel DR energies in a productive capacity.
This brief analysis showed that the DR evolved greatly in the seven years from 2014 to 2021, creating several new memeological aesthetics along the way. From the trickster Pepe, to the yearnings of Wojak, to the sincere wonders of Apu and Gigachad, the DR is changing as new political developments occur. Surely, the future will bring new challenges and new memes; nothing is in stasis forever. There may be new moments that derail this aesthetic trajectory or add additional new avenues for creation. However, until then, it is clear that the dominant strain of DR aesthetics is in the growth of Sincere Romanticism. From here, it is our task to fulfill this aesthetic potential and become the Sincere Romanticists we were destined to be.