Friedrich Nietzsche was a 19th German philosopher who further developed the prominent philosophy of Nihilism and grew a ridiculous moustache. These two aspects of the person of Nietzsche are perhaps the most characteristic. Ask any undergraduate student of philosophy about the person of Nietzsche, and you’ll immediately get responses such as, “the coiner of ‘God is dead’,” or “that guy with the moustache.” Both, of course, are true.
Nietzsche was a young professor of philology who eventually suffered from insanity in the later years of his life. The most prominent element present in Nietzsche’s career, and probably the most recognisable, was his famous philosophical statement, “God is dead.” This phrase was not understood to be taken literally as if an omnipotent, eternal deity had suddenly taken ill and passed away; rather, it was a phrase intended to resemble Nietzsche’s rejection of Christianity – and religion as a whole – as a meaningful indicator of morality and contemporary life. Religion may have acted as a beacon of hope for those in antiquity, indeed, but in the modern age of science, the intellect of man has transcended the need for a god to dictate right and wrong. Man will, therefore, continue to ascend the heights of moral development until he is capable of establishing a system of values independent from any form of supernatural revelation. To this ideal man, Nietzsche has attributed to title Übermensch.
If one were to spend more than five minutes on the internet, it would be obvious to them that a sizeable portion of the web today is filled with internet memes. These internet phenomena come and go, from rage comics to Pepe the Frog, all varying in origin, meaning, and duration of popularity. Although at first glance, these memes are intended to convey a laugh, it becomes apparent that there is an existence of Internet humour that is very politically-oriented. In these particular memes, there is a profound nihilistic presence. Are we gravitating towards Nietzsche’s idea of the Übermensch? The deeply-embedded themes of the meaningless of life and the lack of an objectively founded moral compass penetrate many dark recesses of the internet today. Perhaps it is through this rejection of traditional morality, and the adoption of Nietzsche’s notion of arriving at separate conclusions based on our collective experience opens the door for Nietzsche’s ideal human being to emerge. Based on its current trajectory, it is entirely reasonable to believe that the cornerstone of the internet, that is, memes, are the legacy of Nietzsche and will carry his philosophy to its fullest possible end.
In my humble opinion as a religious man, nihilism in the contemporary approach to politics proceeds from the postmodern trend to abandon organised religion, and in doing so, gives up any traditional and institutionalised moral pretext. This has introduced a fascinating new sandbox for political philosophers to play in, allowing thinkers to disregard religion’s historical position on any given subject and seek to find an internalised approach to morality. One writer at Quartz claims that professors and intellectuals have given rise to this social and political nihilism by offering “stringent criticisms of neoliberal society” while failing to suggest “viable alternatives.” Ultimately, this leads to the perception of the world as meaningless, and this perception can, and has, sunken into every black and white area, providing a moral spectrum with a mostly grey hue.
This largely grey spectrum has led to a profound presupposed principle of meaningless in the world, even in the realm of politics. Many internet memes exemplify this by depicting sadistic, depressing, or even hopeless pieces of art. Sure, it’s all in good humour, and I laugh along as I become more and more aware of the meaningless that encaptures my existence, but the painful truth is that through our modern age of technology and the invention of the internet, many are unconsciously adopting Nietzsche’s philosophy. “Life is meaningless,” the internet chimes, “so look at this picture of a cat instead.”
The internet has led to the doom of localism and devalued the meaning of community, witnessed by the increasingly isolating effects that the web has had on those captured by its seductive net. Nietzsche’s understanding of meaningless in the universe and the lack of an objective source to provide value to the human life is now being coupled by the solitude experienced by many internet users today. What is the result of this interesting combination? Memes, the fascinating digital images that often contain lines of text on its top and bottom that provides us with both a guilty chuckle and vicarious despair. Is this the legacy of Nietzsche? A contemporary expression of his nihilistic anguish conveyed through a diverse army of jpegs? The current philosophical, sociological, and technological narrative seems to assert as much.
This leads us to take a long, hard look at the millennial world today and its approach to the political realm. Many of those engaging in political, economic, and sociological discourse do so out of an increasingly nihilistic framework. In doing so, themes such as the meaningless of life and the subjectivity of morality prominently herald the defensibility of their respective ideologies. Yes, ideologies. Millenials today find themselves an incredibly diverse political landscape, with many opting for far-left and far-right persuasions. In both cases, a dismal outlook on the state of the world and a profound sense of despair seep through any contemporary political commentary. Those with far-right persuasions, such as neo-Nazis, traditionalists, and other neo-reactionary groups, are capable of expressing this type of existential dread through the digital art of memeology.
A culminated example of the far-right’s expression of nihilistic philosophy within the political world is the phenomenon of Pepe the Frog. Yes, during the 2016 American Presidential Election, the green anthropomorphic frog created by Matt Furie took center stage of several newspaper headlines as a digital insignia of the alt-right. The Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish organisation based in the United States, added Pepe the Frog to their “Hate Symbols Database.” A writer at Forbes described the amphibious menace as a “smug, fat-lipped face” and “an unlikely poster child for intolerance.” These depictions of Pepe the Frog, a meme that started out as an innocent and good-natured chuckle, manifests the profound sense of dread experienced by millennials today, inarguably caused in part by the philosophy of Nietzsche trickling down from the higher levels of academia to the common populace. Pepe the Frog is only one of hundreds, if not thousands (internet users generate memes on a daily basis, so it is possible that there are an infinite amount of memes in circulation), of memes extent that the alt-right has used to express the sense of hopelessness and existential dread.
By shedding light on the alt-right’s usage of internet memes as a coping mechanism in the face of growing cultural nihilism, we can witness that by venting such existential dread through online satire the alt-right has created an outlet for harmfully applying such a theory in society. The far left, however, is incapable of creating memes that carry the sort of nihilistic weight that creations of the alt-right possess, because memes are in their nature politically incorrect. And we all know that the left fetishizes political correctness. In this way, the legacy of Nietzsche is expressed on the internet primarily by the alt-right, whereas it is carried on by the far left through chaotic acts spurred by a sense of dissatisfaction with authorities enforcing certain moral values. The former manifestation provides a sort of vetting outlet for unwitting nihilists to express the pain that they feel deep inside without negatively impacting society while the latter directly applied Nietzsche’s disdain for objective morality into the sphere of social life.
Internet memes are a crucial element of nihilistic manifestation, and without possessing the ability to meme due to resistance to political incorrectness (i.e. calling things out for that which they are), the left will inevitably doom itself to a future of meaninglessness that devalues any form of objective morality. The alt-right, on the other hand, has proven itself to be more than capable of cranking out offensive and crypto-nihilistic content, and in doing so healthily carries out Nietzsche’s legacy while simultaneously acknowledging the traditional need for social order and national identity. Internet memes are the ageless successor of Nietzsche’s philosophy, and the alt-right is doing a phenomenal job at producing such content to vet their (perhaps subconscious) nihilistic tendencies without bringing about the deconstruction of society. The same, however, cannot be said of the regressive left.
After all, the left can’t meme.