‘Laughing at the universe liberated my life. I escape its weight by laughing,’ – Georges Bataille
I was going to title this column ‘we need to talk about memes’ in reference to Facebook pages I turn to most days to escape the gloom in the age of Brexit and Trump. I turn to pages like Humans of the Sesh at a time when I can feel guilty laughing, and an overarching sense of despondency. I often laugh in spite of myself when perusing the content of these pages, feeling a kind of guilty pleasure at some of the posted content. I laugh and think ‘why is this so funny?’ But beneath the laughter, and the residual affect it has on me, a certain curiosity has cultivated, a desire to know why my curiosity is elicited. One of the things to bring me back to these pages again and again is that I want to know more about this interactive practice. I want to assess their importance at a time when technology is changing at such a rapid pace.
Humans of the Sesh, described simply, is a Facebook page displaying memes, manipulated images, self-made home videos and posts that take the form of observations on photographs that have been sourced second hand from the net. The subject matter is the sesh: slang for collective acts of inebriation. A sesh is – technically – a sesh, when a night out among friends turns into a collective bender, and the night assumes a will of its own. When a night begins with certain good intentions- to have a few, socialise and hit the town- but ends in an apartment at 5am, we become, at least as I perceive it, a ‘human of the sesh’.
Humans of the Sesh, as a page though, is really a wry take on the Humans of New York blog that went viral displaying photos of New York’s inhabitants with an accompanied backstory. Strangers are plucked from anonymity on the streets and given a stage, the blog zoning in on the facets of the individual self. The premise of the blog, never declared as such, is that to be a human of the city is to be an individual first. Strangers also take to the stage on Humans of the Sesh, but, I think, for a different reason: in resistance to the forces of individuation all around us today.
I turn to Humans of the Sesh, along with Facebook pages such The Rubberbandits and Pintman Pintposting for other reasons: the DIY satire brings me back to my youth, my fascination with zines, posters and music mags. In some quarters, this is ‘low culture,’ facile as such. I don’t really care because the way the memes and posts surface is, in my opinion, a type of interactive creative practice that intrigues: the page’s followers send stuff in. Posts arrive from everywhere, a testament to the page’s draw. Humans of the Sesh, like other pages, offers a platform for followers to produce, becoming producer-authors of the page’s content. Unlike when I sat and listened to an unchanging New Order record on repeat as a teenager, this is a practice that actually solicits the fan’s involvement. Fans, or followers as they are known, are solicited to send in memes, making of the page a communal and interactive space.
The followers who send stuff in to the page are perhaps ‘producer-authors,’ evolving from the page’s socially engaged premise. But theorising too much risks draining the page of its authentic lure. Because page facilitators don’t reveal their real names, nor do those who send in the memes, a sense of the collective emerges: everyone can participate on the page (a masked identity is another reason for the popularity of The Rubberbandits; and the disgruntled Limerick native who appears on the page in the form of a talking trout). To visit these Facebook pages online is not unlike entering an old abandoned church where we can admire the weird embellishments, without having to know who authored them; all of which echoes a time when creative practices were less about individuals than the communities from which they came.
None of this, however, explains why, after dropping my kids to school, grabbing a coffee and sitting at my desk, I tune in to get the morning started. None of this explains why followers are drawn by their thousands on a daily basis. Humans of the Sesh also, I believe, attracts because it critiques the premise of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. To go online today is something of a lonely experience (how many of us have experienced one of our Facebook friends walk past us on the street without even a nod in our direction?) We know we are connected to others in a merely abstract way, with no sense of the other’s embodied presence behind a screen. The individualising-commercial forces that have colonised the internet have also drowned out a lot of the collective energy of the net in earlier incarnations. The popularity of pages like The Rubberbandits and Humans of the Sesh on a platform like Facebook, however (that is actually dedicated to preserving the cult of the individual, the on-line self), can be said to retrieve a little of the collective zeal of the net while – at the same time – subverting the way social media individualizes its users. A defining feature of The Rubberbandits is that the bandits’ faces are disguised from view; a critique, if ever there was one, of the ‘face’ ‘book’ they post on.
One of the most offbeat DIY videos to have made me laugh out loud, and in doing so compel me to think (why I laughed), appeared a couple of months ago on Humans of the Sesh with the title ‘The Two Sides of the Sesh.’ Two minutes in duration, the video consists of a camera moving up a stairs during a party, stopping to look in on a room of bare-chested men dancing to techno. The group gesture out towards the camera before the door is shut suddenly and the camera moves onwards to the next room, focusing on another group of men, this time sprawled across the beds listening to Simon and Garfunkel. It soon becomes obvious the second space of the house is the chill out room and the group there is stoned. Shaky camerawork gives the impression the whole thing is an amateur intervention filmed on the hop using a mobile phone.
It felt strange watching this video on a site so many of my peers believe to corrode our impulse to act collectively offline. ‘The Two Sides of the Sesh’ illustrates, in my opinion at least, an impulse. It illustrates a need to physically commune in rhythm, to socialise in a way that social media can only refer to. The need to expend energy in groups with little purpose led French theorist George Bataille to coin the phrase ‘the accursed share.’ For Bataille the ‘accursed share’ is the entropic energy that must be expended in collective acts, ritual-like endeavours: those activities that have no intended outcome other than to squander our accumulated resources. Bataille considered such energy ‘accursed’ because it has no intended goal other than itself. ‘Beyond our immediate ends,’ he writes, ‘man’s activity in fact pursues the useless and infinite fulfillment of the universe.’ ‘The Two Sides of the Sesh’ is funny in this regard. I’m fascinated by the way different rhythms attract different selves into a commune of energies. Both groups expend pent up energy at speeds and rhythms that are different to each other; bonding into a mood. But I find myself laughing aloud – as I sip coffee and watch – because the video is on a ‘social’ media platform that fails to provide the type of socialising the video reveals. And while there is comedy there is also an element of tragedy. The tragedy is that the camaraderie, the being-together of the group is found behind concealed doors, shut off from greater society.
Bataille believes the energy of the ‘accursed share’, expended in activities like that shown in the video, runs counter to the energy needed for the consumption of commodities in the capitalist world; the world of endless accumulation. There is little encouragement given to think about, much less philosophise about the importance of this. The ‘accursed share’ is energy we must expend together, for reasons that aren’t regulated by measures and goals. Outcomes, goals and performance ratios- the perseverance of a neo-liberalism that implies all of life can be understood according to a business logic has seeped into every walk of life. Life is about competing, and so much is defined by whether we can win or lose. How then do posts on these sites serve to awaken us to another world? How do memes lighten our load as individuals in such a culture? One such example I’m very fond of is the ‘animal’ posts by The Rubberbandits. Animals appear as business employees on their page. The animals are presented as executives, financial advisors, stock analysts etc. The point is to reveal how absurd a world defined by business and profit margins alone really is. When we laugh at animals presented as businessmen, our laughter is tempered by knowing that we are also animals; lest we forget. We are playful beings, animals driven by needs that neo-liberalism, with its logic of win or lose, cannot – in its totality – measure.
Most of the memes I’m drawn to seem to poke fun at the individuating forces, and the logic of win or lose, so prevalent today, while celebrating that part of us that resists; that is, celebrates a need to be communally outside of this. I am reminded, sitting at my desk, thinking of what I should do that day, of a need to commune with others outside of aims and outcomes; the market-driven world of profit margins and results.
Last summer I went to the Beara Peninsula in West Cork, to take part in a cycling sportive called ‘The Rebel Tour,’ an excruciating journey of cyclists across the mountains that took me eight hours. I stayed with friends the night before and found myself explaining the attraction of taking part in such sportives. I said they’re like ‘raves for the middle-aged.’ Suddenly, as I spoke, the analogy grew. We meet up in the backend of nowhere, wearing shiny sports gear. We spend hours expending energy that is kind of useless. We change group all the time, move from peloton to peloton, chat with people from all over the country, Europe even, and expend energy for no purpose other than the enjoyment of getting together to expend energy. Unlike marathons, where everyone obsesses about their times, I’m attracted to these events because times don’t really matter: getting around, taking in the scenery, is what matters. I immerse myself in sportives in my forties for the same reason I went to festivals in my twenties: it’s a sesh. But the sesh is really just doing stuff together that makes being together a process and not a goal. It was only when I drove home from Skibereen the next day that I started to reflect on things in detail. I thought about trying to make my way up the Healy Pass for the second time the day before. I stopped as I neared the top when a sixty-year-old man from Newry in Northern Ireland invited me over to share a bag of jellybeans with him. As we looked out at the beautiful landscape of the region, we both began laughing aloud. We were pursuing something that didn’t really matter, as fervently as we could, and were together for a brief moment in time. We never met again. After I crawled over the line that evening, I had a beer and reflected on the day. A lot of the cyclists didn’t stay around, preferring to take off home, perhaps in the knowledge that they had been on the sesh all day, cycling in pursuit of what matters a lot because it doesn’t really matter.