There is a meme that I see circulate often on a small scale in social media. It’s a meme in spanish. On the face of it, it has a dark tone of ironic comedy: it’s a meme that actually parodies another meme. Ours is a simple meme but poses a universal enigma. It presents two clothed, mysterious figures, standing face to face. They are life and death, and in the middle of both, there’s a rooster wearing modern sneakers (it’s a gallo con tenis). With these characters, a text in three panels explains that life continually sends gifts to death. In the third panel, the text laughs at the absurdity of the rooster wearing sneakers. This is the gift of life to death. It humorizes the existential enigma and the universal drama of living beings: death.
In the binary representation of the meme, life and death are presented as polar opposites. Death, an unknowable mystery, a pure negation, life, on the other hand, the vital affirmation of being. Some may say that the absurd and ironic humor of a rooster wearing sneakers is characteristic of this moment of hyper-connectivity to social networks. However, this meme is a contemporary iteration of a dilemma perhaps as old as the human species itself. The first version of this meme was painted during the Paleolithic, 17,000 years ago, with mineral paints (iron oxides) by a group of hunter-gatherers in the caves of Lascaux, France.
This argument is advanced using the ideas of Georges Bataille (1897-1962) regarding life, the gift or culmination of life, and death. Bataille argues that the true opposition is not found between life and death. There is a more accentuated expression of life. But for now, let’s clarify something about death.
Death is the inevitable result of the play of living matter in general, which is always presented as an extravagance of energy. Everyday natural phenomena such as the energetic gift of the sun, the abundance of flora and fauna, seasonal pests or destructive natural phenomena (such as storms, earthquakes, volcanoes), etc., exemplify the inevitable, squanderous waste; energy consumed and redirected. Death is the final term for beings, which, apparently, are only born to die, a negativity that cannot be recovered.
“Death, then, is as much part of the inherent wastefulness in nature as life. Death seems to us like the most wasteful form, but for Bataille, such a conception is to be left behind (not ignored or overcome): «the luxury of death is regarded by us in the same way as that of sexuality, first as a negation of ourselves, then—in a sudden reversal—as the profound truth of that movement of which life is the manifestation»” .
However, the difference between animal life and human life is that human life is not reduced to survival or biological reproduction. It is often said that people adapt to any environment, but the opposite seems true: the subject shapes his environment, through work he adapts his environment to his needs. The human does not solely seek to survive, rather he seeks well-being.
Connecting the erotic with death is going beyond where only sex is linked with death. Embracing death signals an economy of intersubjectivity where subjects are lost (for example, in orgasm, often called “little death,” petit mort), instead of facing actual death. Our biological constitution makes us individual beings who seek sexual reproduction as a means of transcending our individuality. We also look for other means to try to go beyond individuality: sacrifice, erotic activity, laughter, drugs, meditation, etc. Eroticism opens the way to death. Death opens the way to the denial of our individual self .
We arrive, therefore, at the true pole, the most suitable opposition to the radicality of death is not life, but eroticism. Eroticism is the one that sends gifts to death. And what gifts does life send? A rooster with sneakers.
Chris Gabriel of Meme Analysis says that anyone can find humor in animals, especially when they’re presented in unusual, anthropomorphic situations. So much so that among the first internet memes that existed are advice animals. Animals will always be identifiable, they’ll always retain a certain degree of humor. We can always identify with an animal doing something unusual . So much so that our meme in question is accompanied by a laugh, a text that acts as a stream of consciousness laughs absurdly (“jajjajaj”). Laughter is a vital affirmation, an expression of pleasure. This meme speaks to the viewer and he recognizes what he finds funny.
So how is it possible that our technologically fast-paced 21st century humor in spanish could have anything in common with prehistoric humans? Let’s take a closer look at the painting in the Lascaux caves. We find a man, dead from what can be seen, he is lying, prostrate in front of a heavy, immobile and threatening animal. This animal is a bison. He is mortally wounded by a spear that has gutted him. From under his open belly his entrails are spilling out. Apparently it was this lying man who struck the dying animal with his spear. But man is not quite a man; He wears a mask, or at least his head is that of a bird with an elongated beak. A stick lies on the ground at his feet; and next to it there is another stick or staff that has at the end, again, the image of a bird. Nothing in this image justifies the paradoxical fact that the man’s phallus is erect and points at the pierced bull .
In Paleolithic rock art, all animals (except humans) are painted with almost supernatural attention to facial, muscular details. Furthermore, the humanoids painted on the cave walls are faceless. They are representations that, by the standards of our time, do not radiate triumph. The human representations in cave art, compared to the representations of animals around them, are excessively modest, human figures have a weak, pathetic appearance. Studies of Siberian cultures automatically associate the symbolism of the rooster with shamanism . Many cultures through time identify the rooster as a symbol of light. Bataille, for example, says that the cock’s scream has a solar significance and the sun is the highest conception . Other cultures, such as the Yoruba, compare the figure of man with that of the rooster . In Tibetan Buddhism, the rooster symbolizes lust, attachment, and greed .
These facts suggest that Paleolithic people had a sense of humor not different from ours. After all, we seem to share an aesthetic sensibility towards these absurd representations, as evidenced by the abundance of animal memes in funny, anthropomorphized situations. “Paleolithic artists, despite their penchant for naturalism, rarely chose to represent human beings, and then when they did, it was done with a crudeness that smacks of mockery” .
Could it be the case that we have the first version of the rooster wearing sneakers in front of death meme in Lascaux, 17,000 years ago? Interpretations of Paleolithic art find something humorous arising from the awareness of the place of humans in the world which was not high. The prehistoric human was low on the food chain, compared to the megafauna. At the same time, it seems that they were able to understand and represent how pathetic they were. They knew they were animals, and they also seemed to know that they knew they were animals, animals that he could think. And that, if you think about it enough, is almost funny. They knew exactly that their role in the scheme of things, in nature, was not very high, and this seems to have made them laugh.
The rock art of Lascaux, as well as the meme of the rooster with tennis shoes before death, are versions of a universal theme, presented with a load of naivety that, without the slightest doubt, is also tragic … but it is also comical. “Because eroticism and death are linked. And because, at the same time, laughter and death, and laughter and eroticism, are linked. ” As with Lascaux, “there is probably no other image in the world so charged with comic horror” as the meme of the rooster wearing tennis shoes before death. “We have here a desperate enigma, laughable for its cruelty, raised at the dawn of time. Being the first enigma posed by the human being, it asks us to go down to the bottom of the abyss that eroticism and death open for us ” .
[HD] Hegarty, P., 2000, “Bataille, Conceiving Death”, Paragraph, Vol. 23, No. 2, pp. 173-190.: https://www.jstor.org/stable/43263596
[TE] Bataille, G., 1961, “The Tears of Eros” City Light Books, p. 213.
[VE] Bataille, G., 1985, “Rotten Sun”, Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, University of Minnesota Press, p. 57.