Against a backdrop of chaos that can only be described as unfathomable, there exists a swath of memes that share a counterintuitive message: Don’t think (:.
Tasked with processing so much news, so quickly, on such a high level, the Very Online in our midst—the ones who medicate Twitter vertigo by scrolling TikTok, who blunt the influx of heinous headlines with happy Instagram chemicals—are memeing about not processing anything at all. Their brains are too smooth. Their heads are too empty. It’s an aspirational peace of mind, like when a kid plugs their ears mid-lecture to say, “la la la, I can’t hear you,” but really, they still can; they’re just making a statement about what they want.
By June of this year, the jab-jab-uppercut of high-level happenings had stupefied many of the folks perennially jacked in to feeds: the Australian wildfires, the pandemic, police brutality, the economy’s collapse, hell, the murder hornets. It was a lot—more than any one person could process, let alone explain. Across the web, on Twitter, TikTok, Reddit, or Tumblr, commenters complain they are fed up with living through history, that they would please like to opt out.
Throughout 2020, flowing under the cultural wreckage, has been a hypercurrent of memes reflecting this tired cultural id. Reject humanity return to monke. No thoughts head empty. Smooth brain no weinkls. (In some iterations, “yuor brain” in which “thinks! = sad!!” is compared to “my brain,” which resembles an uncooked chicken breast but also “can’t think” and is therefore “no sad.”) On TikTok, a woman identified as It’s ya girl UwU covered Europe’s “The Final Countdown,” replacing the booming synth with dazed “nee noo nee noo” sounds and the lyrics with “It’s the final brain cell.” Hundreds of TikTokkers used the audio for their own clips, draping themselves with shapeless hoodies or blankets and expressionlessly bouncing up and down.
“It’s probably no accident this stuff is cropping up at a time when there’s nothing but complications out there,” says Ryan Milner, a professor of internet culture at College of Charleston and author of 2017’s The World Made Meme. “We have to know who the acting undersecretary of transportation is at any given time. It makes sense we have humor that offers this appealing take on putting your head in the sand.”
“Head empty” isn’t about choosing to disengage, though. Nobody’s telling anyone to stop grappling with complicated, sad realities or shoot their remaining neurons into the sun. It’s descriptive of the high-pitched, benumbing frequency that occasionally overtakes those closely following the calamities. Information overload. Instead of anxiety, smooth brain.
This month, going by data supplied by KnowYourMeme, the online world has entered peak Return to Monke. Existing somewhere between cultural shorthand and anarcho-primitivist creed, “Reject humanity / return to monke” memes feature a calmly beckoning monkey swinging from a sunlit tree. His hand reaches out to the camera as if to say, “I know you don’t want to be there anymore; I can take you back here.” Spin-offs include lush, green forests with the text “POV MONKE” or emotive primates condemning human society at large. Under last week’s New York Post headline “Scientists Splice Human Genes Into Monkey Brains to Make Them Bigger, Smarter,” commenters gleefully celebrated our collective “return to monke,” or more specifically, monke’s return to us.
“2020 has definitely been a year of ‘turn off your brain’ kinda memes,” says KnowYourMeme associate editor Zach Sweat. “Two of the biggest themes we’ve observed this year in meme culture are nostalgia and escapism. A desire to return to the past is one many people can relate to or share, so thus, it becomes a common trend in memes as well.”
The easy criticism of these memes is that the people sharing them earnestly are either very privileged or similarly out of touch. Historians will look back at 2020’s protests over racial injustice and unprecedented election turnout as paradigm-shifting moments in participatory democracy. How can anyone disengage in a moment like this? “Now is not the time for cynicism or hopelessness,” US representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-New York) wrote after Supreme Court justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s passing in September. “We must get to work. Everyone matters. Everyone has something to give.” To shut down is to fail to take the stakes of international calamity seriously. And it’s easier to do if you’re not one of the millions of people risking their health to earn the minimum wage in a global pandemic.
But the real smooth-brained move is to take memes at face value. “No thoughts head empty” isn’t a worldview. It’s somewhere between idle escapism and gallows humor. “It’s some people saying, ‘Wouldn’t this be great? Too bad it’s not real,’” says Milner. “If someone takes it as ‘I’m going to pull away and disconnect and not think through important issues,’ that’s someone who has the luxury to do so.”
On Tumblr, where the stereotypical user is fiercely passionate about social issues, people are still frequently sharing memes about not thinking. For those who spend a lot of time involved in activism, says Tumblr’s resident meme archivist Amanda Brennan, “no thoughts head empty” can be a form of release and self-care during a stressful period. The mentality, she says, is “acknowledging that you need your cup full to keep fighting.”
Only in a year like 2020 would it be completely legitimate to ask a friend to iron your brain. We look longingly at puppies captioned with “head empty” or monkeys making nonsense sounds at each other. It’s not out of envy for their ignorance. It’s out of envy for the reality they get to know.
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