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9/6/2016

HowHarambeBecamethePerfectMemeTheAtlantic

How Harambe Became the Perfect


Meme
The slain gorilla signies nothingexcept maybe our increasingly weird post-everything world.

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A bronze statue of a gorilla and her child at the Cincinnati Zoo where visitors paid tribute to Harambe the gorilla
William Philpott / Reuters

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HowHarambeBecamethePerfectMemeTheAtlantic

VENKATESH RAO

10:48 AM ET

TECHNOLOGY

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On May 28, Harambe, a 17-year-old lowland gorilla was shot and killed by a Cincinnati Zoo worker to save a small
child who had wandered into its enclosure. As such tragic incidents go, there was nothing particularly unusual
about this one. Just a week earlier on May 21, for instance, zookeepers at the Santiago Zoo in Chile shot two lions,
in an eort to save a man who had climbed in, apparently with suicidal intent. That event did not go on to make
meme history. But for some reason, Harambe did.
Over the summer, Harambe evolved from ordinary tragedy to perfect meme: dened only by its ability to
replicate; a medium of cultural evolution with no message, signifying nothing so much as its own virality. The
animal-rights outrage narrative (complete with a petition demanding the prosecution of the childs parents) ran out
of momentum in bewildered exhaustion. Unlike the 2015 case of Cecil the Zimbabwean lion, shot by a millionaire
American dentist who seemed like a perfectly designed target for outrage, there was no obvious villain in the
Harambe story. Many parents responded strongly with a counter-narrative emphasizing that the parent in the case
had not been unreasonably negligent.
The third narrative that competed to own the memecentering on the potential culpability of zoo ocialsfailed
to gain any traction. It soon became clear that the zoo ocials were no more culpable than zoo ocials anywhere:
the episode was simply an unfortunate accident.
While every party with a legitimate interest in the original episode lost the plot within a few weeks, what was
remarkable was that nobody gained control of it. The Harambe episode was too edgy for marketers to co-opt, and
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too dank for memesters looking to provoke predictable sentiments. But a ood of memes emerged anyway: the
late Muhammad Ali towering over a knocked-out Harambe, an oddly lewd one featuring actor Danny Trejo, and
one featuring Harambe in a version of the trolley problem. Harambe memes have spanned the gamut from darkly
humorous to poignant, from logical to surreal. There is, it appears, no limit to range of non-sequiturs that can ride
the Harambe meme.

Harambe is the message that became a medium,


capable of carrying any signal.
During its summer peak, merely dropping the word Harambe into an online conversation was sucient to
manufacture a surreal moment.
Harambe, in other words, is the perfect meme. In a reversal of Marshall McLuhans classic dictum, Harambe is the
message that became a medium, capable of carrying any signal, without becoming identied with any of them. A
meme in the original sense intended by Richard Dawkins: a cultural signier that spreads simply because it is good
at spreading. It is neither worth spreading the way a TED talk aspires to be, nor particularly worth resisting. It
spreads because it can.
Harambe marks the emergence of something akin to a true stock market for culture, where price movements
cannot always, or even often, be narrativized, either locally or globally. To be outraged by a Harambe memeas
those focused on the original conversation around animal rights and parenting continue to beis to confuse

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Harambe the meme, a stock in a memetic marketplace, with Harambe the gorilla who died a tragic and pointless
death.
It is perhaps the sheer meaninglessness of the original episode that made it an ideal candidate for memetic
perfection. There is no object lesson in the Harambe story. No greater moral or meaning. No nascent Clint
Eastwood movie. Yet the powerful video of a small child being dragged along by a large gorilla demanded a
response and emotional resolution. When that resolution could not be found within the limited original context,
Harambe broke out into the broader cultural marketplace, seeking, if not narrative interpretation, at least
emotional resolution.
The memes that situate Harambe within the wider tapestry of 2016 events oer some validation for this theory:
Muhammad Ali and Harambe. Harambe in a pantheon image alongside Ali, Prince, David Bowie, and other
recently deceased celebrities. Harambe and Trump in seemingly limitless combinations. The Harambe meme
became the carrier not just for the unresolved emotions surrounding the death of a gorilla, but for a larger pool of
emotions seeking resolution in the zeitgeist. Seemingly weird and anomalous events, it appears, become easier to
process in juxtaposition with Harambe.
Blogger Steve Coast oers a possible explanation in his viral 2015 post The World Will Only Get Weirder, arguing
that as the worlds technological systems get ever more advanced, expanding the reach of the normal, noteworthy
events can only get weirder. Non-weird events, even when rare, increasingly fall within the anticipatory
capabilities of the worlds social infrastructure. Media professionals can get in front of such events faster than they
can unfold. But as the world gets weirder, the stock of unmanaged weird events, and resulting unprocessed
emotions, can only grow, seeking outlets in Harambe moments.

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Any substantive ... collective response to the weird


is better than a fearful retreat to the normal.
If Harambe is the perfect signier of a post-normal weird world, its antithesis is perhaps the movie Sully, directed
by Clint Eastwood, and starring Tom Hanks as Captain Sullenberger, who in 2009 saved 155 lives by making an
emergency water landing of US Airways Flight 1549. The story of Flight 1549 is a tale of normalcy par excellence:
complex technological systems and institutions working as designed in the face of rare but anticipated
contingencies, with trained experts responding as they are supposed to, making good decisions and saving lives.
Arguably, the emotional content of the story is barely worthy of cinematic treatment. It certainly does not weird us
out in ways that require gorilla memes to resolve.
It makes sense that Clint Eastwood, who has made something of a second career out of tightly crafted little
morality tales that tell audiences what to feel about stories, has emerged as the unlikely steward of normal in a
world increasingly dened by weirdness. From Dirty Harry to Sully, Eastwood has always been something of a
force of emotional law and order, manufacturing clean-edged sentimentality out of ambiguous realities. There is
nothing unresolved or incomplete about the emotional landscape of a Clint Eastwood movie. His work as a
director may demand more emotional sophistication on the part of viewers than his work as an actor, but neither
weirds us out, nor does either attempt to.
If Clint Eastwood's Sully represents one extreme of the spectrum of reactions to a post-normal world, Harambe
represents the other extremean end where no normalizing narrative is possible because events play out as
nothing more than a string of non-sequiturs that admit no larger meanings.
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Yet, it would be a mistake to suggest some sort of equivalence between the two ends of the spectrum. Harambe
presages a world of digital ubiquity where anomie is a constant, not just a temporary phase between the decline of
one era of grand narratives and the ascendance of another. There is simply too much information beyond the tight
boundaries of normalcy, and it comes at us far too fast, for classical narrative techniques to keep up. No single
voice can manage the optics of a rapidly trending story on Twitter. And in most cases, there is no single party with
the right mix of incentives to even try.
It is perhaps Clint Eastwood movies that are out of place in this world, in that they oer no acknowledgement or
accommodation of the great weirding that denes our timesonly escapist fantasies set in worlds of moral
meaning and emotional closure. In a world dened by Harambe, Sully is emotional science ction.
Harambe is post-everything. Post-normal, atemporal, post-cultural, post-ironicchoose your favorite descriptor of
the zeitgeist: Harambe is an entropic heat death anti-narrative that can mean anything while signifying nothing.
And perhaps thats a good thing: any substantive and creative collective response to the weird, no matter how
incoherent, is better than a fearful retreat to the normal.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
VENKATESH RAO is a writer based in Seattle and the founder of Ribbonfarm.

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