Tuesday, December 14, 2010

The Zalgo Continuum

Presumably, you have all heard of ZALGO, the 4chan meme (or out-of-control viral marketing test project) who lurks behind the walls has been making the rounds for quite some time. The popularity of internet memes is difficult to attribute, but I will make the argument that this one has survived because it neatly integrates two other long-lived ideas: the cosmic horror and the cosmic schmuck.

Cosmic horror (and its poster-thing, H.P. Lovecraft's posthumous flagship Cthulu) has seen an upshot in popularity lately, perhaps piggybacking on uncertain times or future shock or the generally negative social and political vibes floating around. Whatever the reason, analysts (including Lovecraft himself) generally agree on one thing: cosmic horror derives its power not from the uncanny or from the unknown but from the unknowable. Cosmic horror is a recollectivisation of existential angst: not only are you insignificant (everyone is) and your actions meaningless (everything is), but there are things just beyond your reach that are so utterly alien and incomprehensible that they can destroy your mind just by daring to think about them. Not only that, but even on their much higher scale of existence they too are insignificant and their actions meaningless. Furthermore, cosmic horror is epistemic horror: each of the scholar-protagonists, after great efforts, briefly part the veil of Maya and have a short peek out of Plato's cave, and they quickly realize that everything they ever knew (and everything they ever could know) is wrong. Cosmic horror is, to the individual, what quantum mechanics and relativity were to the entirety of theoretical physics: a fundamental paradigm shift so extreme that it invalidated all bodies of speculation into its domain that had previously existed.

On the flipside, you have the cosmic schmuck. This idea, put forth first (as far as I can tell) by Robert Anton Wilson, is a bit more lighthearted. The cosmic schmuck has a completely wrong model of the universe, unknowingly. He doesn't know that his model is wrong because he hasn't tested the parts of it that are wrong. His quality of life may or may not be affected by the way in which his model of the universe is skewed, but he can't determine that because he doesn't know that it's skewed. The cosmic schmuck can become less of a cosmic schmuck by assuming that he is more of a cosmic schmuck than he thinks he is, because the mark of a cosmic schmuck is his unfounded confidence in his own model of reality. While Wilson attends to the aspect of introspective and epistemic terror involved in becoming less of a cosmic schmuck in Cosmic Trigger I, one still gets the general idea that becoming less of a cosmic schmuck is a good idea -- and presumably it was for Wilson, since he survived it with much of his sanity intact and made a pretty penny selling a book based on his experiences in seeking the Real Shit (which he insists is both plural and mutable).

Zalgo, given its origins (or at least the petri dish from which it eventually sprang, after a long incubation period), is firmly grounded in humour. It is more specifically grounded in what Wilson called the 'put-on', and what the internet calls 'trolling'. The creepypasta, taking copious obvious inspiration from cosmic horror and the Lovecraft style, purports to be true, or at least honest. Those who take it seriously (I am not sure there are many cases of this level of fail, Doctor) are prime subjects for ridicule, or at least identifiable as good targets for more put-ons. Those who pick up on it can play along or repeat the gag in another context. But, arguably, this meme has a ha-ha-only-serious nature embedded in the subtext. Cosmic horror is here in a far more pure form than that of your standard Lovecraft tie-in, and arguably in even more pure a form than the original works, which were still put forth in bindings marked 'fiction'. The Strange Times are upon us, and it is increasingly difficult to determine whether or not any given thing popping up on the internet is plausible, let alone legitimate. Zalgo reminds us that just beyond our mundane sphere of attention lurks things so alien that we cannot imagine them, and that even our most cherished icons of purity are not safe from the unknown and unknowable.

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