A couple of weeks ago, I got into a freak gasoline fight accident.
Okay, well, not really. What actually happened was much less interesting. I went to fill up my car at a local gas station. My car’s fuel tank is on the left-hand side, but all the left-side pumps were taken, so I pulled up next to a right-side pump. I stretched the hose over the trunk of my Toyota Corolla and plugged it in. This maneuver creates some tension, but it’s faster than waiting for other drivers to finish, and I’ve done it dozens of times without a hitch.
After plugging in the nozzle, I made sure it was securely inserted into my tank, and flipped the little switch on the handle that keeps the fuel flowing without needing to hold down the trigger. I stepped away from the hose for a moment, and then, just seconds later, the nozzle popped out of the tank with a whooosh. Fuel arced everywhere, and I — in what felt like slow-motion dash with the Chariots of Fire soundtrack playing over the gas station speaker — raced after the pirouetting fuel hose. I slipped on the gasoline-wet floor and went down. Luckily, so did the fuel nozzle, which banged the switch out of place and mercifully stopped the spray. The whole micro-drama played out in about three seconds. I was fine, so was my car, and I only lost about $5 worth of gas. My hoodie and shorts smelled like gas for a week (word to the wise: do NOT wash gasoline clothes with other clothes. I know this now) and my elbow was a little sore, but it was an otherwise small price to pay
Later on, after my elbow felt better, I texted a few folks to relate the anecdote. I used the same line I used above — freak gasoline fight accident — to describe what had happened. Now, obviously, there was no actual fight. Rather, it’s a reference to the 2001 Ben Stiller vehicle Zoolander, which features a scene that ends — tragically but entirely predictably — with a fireball that consumes a bunch of male models, orange mocha frappucinos, and an open-top Ford Bronco.
In many cases, the people whom I texted hadn’t seen Zoolander in ten or fifteen years. And some folks hadn’t seen it all, but they knew the scene — from YouTube clips or memes on Twitter — or they knew about the scene, well enough that they could get the gist of the event: a semi-uncontrolled gasoline spraying experience with the potential for an ensuing fireball.
This experience — and the evocative way in which I could use a movie to describe it — concretized a theory I’d been harboring long before I watched gasoline spray around my ankles: the memificiation of everything.
In essence, there are certain cultural products — books, movies, music, etc — that lend themselves to being “chopped up” and redistributed across channels, dissociated from their original medium, removed from whatever context in which they originally existed; and yet they still maintain the message, the gist, or the vibe of their original context — even if the speaker or listener doesn’t understand or hasn’t experienced the “original text.” These inputs are often highly specific — perhaps just two- or three-hundred movies, songs, and books — that provide the basis for many of the memes, references, allusions and jokes that provide depth and nuance to conversations, both in-person and, increasingly, online.
“These inputs are often highly specific — perhaps just two- or three-hundred movies, songs, and books — that provide the basis for many of the memes, references, allusions and jokes that provide depth and nuance to conversations, both in-person and, increasingly, online.”
My theory begins perhaps with Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s seminal 2007 book, The Black Swan. Shamefully, it took me until 2022 to actually read it, despite having started it on five other occasions over the course of the last decade or so. When I did finally finish it, I felt a distinct sense of underwhelm. Not because I am now biased against Gaussian modeling — which, like Zoolander’s male modeling, I didn’t have strong opinions on, before or after the fireball — but because I felt as though I had already absorbed the gist of the book in various other cultural products before having actually read it. In fact, there’s a good chance that you’ve encountered — and understand! — the meaning of the term black swan event without having read Taleb’s book.
To wit, I have — unfortunately, and to my detriment — never read a book by Malcolm Gladwell, despite the fact that he has written in the New York Times, and the New Yorker, has his own podcast, among other endeavors. He’s more or less a successful version of what I’d like to be when I grow up. But I’m reasonably familiar with his work — via his own podcasts, his interviews elsewhere, his work in various magazines. To Gladwell’s credit, the term “Ten Thousand Hours,” has become so firmly embedded in the cultural lexicon that even Macklemore has a song about it. (If that isn’t making it, I don’t know what is.)
And so it turns out that if you exist on the internet in the West — and 2022-23 more broadly — you end up absorbing, almost by osmosis, many cross-cultural touchstones that spill over from one channel to another, one generation to the next, even without having directly experienced the cultural products themselves. There are podcasts about TV shows, TV shows about podcasts, and Netflix specials that chronicle both.
“There are podcasts about TV shows, TV shows about podcasts, and Netflix specials that chronicle both.”
Teenagers on Tiktok use clips from The Office (which premiered in 2005). Folks on Facebook use memes from Spongebob and the Matrix (both 1999). We all understand — without having seen — the implied truancy and innocent hijinks conveyed by the name Ferris Bueller, whose eponymous film premiered in 1986. And, in some contexts, some speakers might use the term “rosebud” as articulating a certain kind of vanished childhood naiveté, or the source of some lifelong raison d’etre — even if they haven’t seen Citizen Kane (1941).
Even the title of this meandering essay is itself a well-worn trope. We’re all familiar — and I say that with conviction — with the formatting: “[Essay Title]: Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love [insert object of surprising affection here].” But how many of us have seen Doctor Strangelove (1964)? And my allusion the Chariots of Fire theme music? We’ve all heard it, and know the mixture of triumph and anticipation it suggests, likely without having seen the movie or knowing what it’s about.
It’s not that these cultural products are all popular — The Office no doubt is; Kane, I fear, is seen less and less each year — but that, for whatever reason, these words, ideas, and phrases get stuck in our cultural lexicon, shorn of their original context, but still sufficiently pointed as to convey whatever it is the reader want to convey, or what the writer wants to write.
Our communication so often ends up including, or mediated by, a grab bag of highly-specific media products, a palimpsest of pop culture references, and of largely (here in the West) agreed-upon frames of reference. Everything is a meme.
This isn’t a particularly new idea.
In a 1976 essay, Interpreting the Variorum Stanley Fish seeks to explicate John Milton’s pastoral eulogy Lycidas and in so doing posits the idea of “interpretive communities.” He writes that interpretive communities “are made up of those who share interpretive strategies not for reading…but for writing texts, for constituting their properties and assigning their intentions.”
In essence, Fish posits that each generation “re-writes” a given text, ascribing it new meanings based on their own cultural context. It’s an intriguing idea, but I would only accept the first half of the theory. In fact, the very point of this is that these texts aren’t getting re-written from generation to generation. I’m pretty sure that the egotism and instability and specter of destruction conveyed in Dr. Strangelove is more or less as salient in December 2022 as it was in January 1964, and that the atom bomb in question is not a metaphor for something like a reality TV star becoming president. But what I will say is that each generation has reappropriated aspects of preceding cultural products and deployed them for their own use, while largely maintaining their original intent, even if they do discard the larger content or context.
“But what I will say is that each generation has reappropriated aspects of preceding cultural products and deployed them for their own use, while largely maintaining their original intent, even if they do discard the larger content or context.”
Moreover, this process of appropriation of cultural touchstones has been accelerated by the universal adoption of distribution mechanisms (particularly, visual media) like Facebook and GIPHY and (increasingly) Tiktok, as well as publishers/platforms like Netflix or Disney+, which, in spite of the long tail breadth of their catalogues, nonetheless mint or circulate a lot of the shared cultural currency with which we transact.
“Netflix or Disney+, which, in spite of the long tail breadth of their catalogues, nonetheless mint or circulate a lot of the shared cultural currency with which we transact.”
A question that has bothered me as I’ve written this is why? Why some movies, and not others? Why Anchorman and Zoolander but not Dodgeball or Wedding Crashers? How come The Office but not Scrubs? Why the Beatles but not The Beach Boys? How come Milton and not Marvell?
I don’t have a perfect answer for why we retain such affinity for highly specific cultural product, but I’d argue that there are a few factors: humor, embedded in culture-ness, timing “does it age well?”
Look, people like to laugh, and comedies — more so than dramas — lend themselves to better memification. Anchorman isn’t a particularly great movie on the whole, but the sum of its humorous parts are enough to ensure that insane, unpredictable, and hilarious lines like “60% of the time, it works every time” and “where’d you get those clothes, the toilet store?” have more or less entered the pantheon of Facebook responses, nearly twenty years after its release.
As in humor, timing is key. And sometimes, culturally, things just come around at the right time. The Office was a singularly brilliant TV show, but it’s also remarkably long-lasting. It premiered almost twenty years ago and went off the air in 2014, and yet it continues to be the thing that people watch the most on Netflix, and it’s found a second life as a various meta-podcasts, as reaction GIFs, as celeb endorsements on Cameo, and so on.
I think that the key to The Office’s remarkable and deserved staying power is the mixture of its profound humor and its relatability, and also that it feels to a certain extent, like a product of its time. At its core, the show is eponymously about a workspace setup that is far less of a given than it used to be, where video calls are few and far between, where Blackberries and iPhones only begin to get introduced. That it was on Netflix during the pandemic lockdowns of 2020-21 likely solidified the nostalgia-tinged affinity for the show. It feels like a show that captures many of the everyday struggles and triumphs of human existence and paper sales, but also seems like a documentary (haha) of a time that doesn’t quite exist the way that it used to. Also, Steve Carrell is a comedic genius.
Does it age well?
Why not Scrubs, or other shows from around the same time? Could be that it was funny, but not quite as funny as the Office. It could also be that it trafficked in elements of sexism and homophobia that one cringes at now. It might also be that the smart-but-emotionally-immature-male-in-his-thirties trope (another hallmark of certain films of the 00s) has finally been put to rest. Truth is, though, the theory of memification isn’t always fair, and lots of good, or at least solid, stuff gets left to the side for reasons that are sometimes inexplicable.
Time in the lexicon
My last reason would be “time in the lexicon.” Namely, the longer something exists as a popular, or referenced, cultural product, the greater likelihood it has of sticking around. Everyone knows who Shakespeare was, even without having read Macbeth. Everyone knows the gist of Romeo and Juliet, even if you haven’t seen the play or its myriad filmic adaptations. And so Shakespeare, like Washington Crossing the Delaware or The Importance of Being Earnest or Chekhov’s “gun on the mantle” rule gradually becomes something that everyone can reference, can use as a meme or a one liner or an essay opener or an aside on Twitter, without ever having absorbed the content itself — partially by virtue of the incomparable quality of the work, and partially because, well, it’s been around, and popular, for four-hundred years.
I began this post with a reference to Zoolander — a movie I am honestly meh on — and I’ll close with it, as well. In the movie, a bewigged Will Ferrell famously exhorts, “I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” when observing that no one seems to realize that Derek Zoolander only has one pose (it’s true — he does). This line has, of course, become a a profoundly popular GIF, not to mention a general cultural touchstone.
Ferrell’s line emphasizes, for me, word that quite possibly reached its apex this year: gaslighting, which Merriam Webster dubbed its “word of the year.”
Over the last few years — and fueled, likely, by a certain administration circa 2016 – 2020 — the term gaslighting has become the way to describe the act of normalizing bizarre or inappropriate behavior in seemingly normal contexts. Webster writes, “In recent years, with the vast increase in channels and technologies used to mislead, gaslighting has become the favored word for the perception of deception.”
The word is derived from a dark, thought-provoking 1944 film — named, predictably, Gaslight — which starred Ingrid Bergman, Charles Boyer, and an 18 year-old Angela Lansbury. The movie is a masterpiece, far ahead of its time, and yet I grimace every time I hear the word used today. Not because it’s used inappropriately — it’s typically used correctly — but because it feels entirely shorn of its history, of its Old Hollywood glamour, and thrust into the language of partisan politicking and dashboard confessionals on Instagram.
Considering the oil-soaked incident that sparked this piece, it feels appropriate to end it here. But I’ll add one final note. The passive process by which cultural products are either tightly wedded to, or divorced from, their creators, or their original contexts is something with which people have always grappled. Things just move faster and faster now, thanks to the tools we have at our disposal. We more rapidly dissociate the scene from the movie, the lyrics from the song, the quote from the book. Sure, we might be using the GIF correctly, but we have — benignly, passively, humorously — stripped it of a lot of its context, its history, and often, its charm. We’ve taken the text from the author, and reinterpreted it — at least partially — for our own age,
As William Butler Years wrote in Among School Children:
Oh chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,
Are you the leaf, the blossom or the hole?
O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?
It’s a hard line to memify, but I’ve no doubt 2023 is up to the task.