Such linguistics. Very affect. Wow. Now, I have a theory about doge. I’m probably way behind Slate, The New Yorker and every other publication which regards the internet as a spur to thinkpieces about how technology is rewiring our brains and/or causing Dante to weep in his tomb. But the form of this meme- sorry, macro, there will be comments otherwise – stopped me in my tracks. Like a lot of good phrases and images which get passed around online, it’s very funny without it being precisely clear how. It’s also very adaptable, and I’m sure a quick rumpage through Google images could turn up multiple instances of Dogementors, dogestyle and dogeguerrotypes. (If it doesn’t, consider me Not Angry, Just Disappointed in the internet.) These days it seems you are never safe from the doge, even offline: the other week I heard the story of someone who was busily singing ‘O, Come All Ye Faithful” in church, reduced to helpless giggling when they got to the line “Very God, begotten not created” and a girl behind them whispered breathlessly “Such Christianity…” So far, so doge.
As I said, I think the form bears attention as well as laughter. There is surely an element of self-parody in the sharing of an image which seems to prefigure people’s responses to it, an uncritical and boggled “Wow” and the failure of syntax. It sits alongside “I can’t even” and “I forgot how to respiration” as expressions of a particular way which we react to images online. It’s a way which has come in for considerable criticism in the last couple of years, not only from vellum-based conservatives who believe that Twitter rots your brain and degrades your grasp of grammar, but from scholars like Sarah Werner, whose piece History Is Not A Toy makes a cogent and impassioned argument that passing round “HistoryPics” stops us engaging with the past.
I’ve written in the past about how the work of theorists like Felicity Callard and Constantia Papoulias calls attention to “affect”, our pre-verbal and even pre-emotional physical responses to things which we find exciting, terrifying or haunting, and how this seems to be echoed in the internet phrase “I HAVE ALL THE FEELS.” The Doge images and their associated words dramatise exactly this moment – being caught off-guard by something so remarkable or sublime that one cannot process it – but they do so in a medium which is designed (or often used) to deliver provoke that experience. Doge gawps at us. We gawp at doge. Impasse. (As Molesworth would say.) Unlike other meme images, doge is not often used to provoke a critique, make a political point or start a process of reasoning. It celebrates the foreclosure of any such process by repeating the same structure over and over again in different contexts, all of which end in the joyous aporia of “wow…”
I think it would be too simplistic to read doge as entirely a celebration of the ability of internet images to short-circuit your mind, though. The image’s repeated appearance in different guises, mirroring the gawping response which is prompted variously by a gif of bunnies, that poem about Idris Elba or any number of other images, contains an implicit satire on the frequency with which we surrender our critical faculties in the presence of the sublime. When you look into the doge, the doge also looks into you, and the similarities start to show.
A lot of doge memes read to me as a knowing commentary on the tendency for internet speech to break down into incoherent spluttering, even if it is the fourteenth time today we have been called upon to find our language wanting in the presence of the awesome. “Wow” both celebrates the ability of the internet to sling things at you that render you incapable of reasonable articulate response, and remarks ruefully on the burnout this causes in our appreciation of the world and its possibilities. Doge, we might say, has marked the limits of the limits of language.
I don’t, however, think this means we have to understand the doge meme as an attack on the internet, or “Tumblr culture”, or the way online communities have failed to live up to the promises we were made in the 90s. It might be useful to invoke Deborah Cameron’s idea of “verbal hygiene” here. Developed to move past the impasse between descriptive and prescriptive accounts of language use (and their tendency to sound remarkably like each other), Cameron advances the notion of “verbal hygiene” as a way to recognise that language use always has critical and reflective functions built into it. There is no pristine state of language with which either dictionary-botherers or slang-fetishists then interfere, since people are continually criticising, adjusting and legislating throughout their linguistic lives.
We might read doge as an act of verbal hygiene, an amusing and critical comment on internet language use from within that language itself. It points excitedly to the affective experiences which Twitter and Tumblr are getting ever better at providing us, reduces them satirically to a feedback loop in which we and doge stare wonderingly into each other’s vacuousness, and wryly reminds us that literature, acting and physics can only be fully appreciated via more articulate discussions. Wow.