Deaths can serve as salutary events. They bring people together in mourning and in reminiscence. In the case of the famous, they can unite the world in commemoration of great talent, excellent work, and, possibly, lost potential. We have already seen it in 2016, the year which has brought the early deaths of so many greatly loved fixtures of our culture: Prince, David Bowie, Alan Rickman.
The year itself appears at times to be little more than one long obituary page, a seemingly endless roll call of the talented, the magnetic, the once essential: all of them now lost to the ages. Indeed, the popular perception is that famous people are dropping like flies; that the year itself has been written like a particularly bloody drama. This is of course absurd, and obviously so, but still the perception persists; one trend serves, in a strange way, to puncture the grand illusion that all these events share a kind of cosmic pattern – that such things are somehow predetermined, linked and significant.
In the midst of such a tide of mortality, any one death could have passed unnoticed into history. But it did not, and we are still living in its wake, culturally and intellectually. In May of this year, a toddler fell into the gorilla enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo, where he encountered Harambe, a 17-year-old gorilla and one of the enclosure’s three inhabitants. After the boy and the primate interacted, and zoo authorities said they feared for the child’s life and Harambe was shot dead. The child was then reunited with his parents.
So far, so ordinary: the sad result of an avoidable accident. But there was something different here. Not only was the entire incident caught on video (almost inevitable in this day and age); a lively ethical debate, one tinged with real emotion, quickly took over. Was the killing right, or justified? Was it the only option? Did Harambe really have to die?
Biologists weighed in, and ordinary people in their millions gave their opinion. Many zoologists said that it was, regrettably, necessary for Harambe to have been killed. This was disputed by animal rights activists and many others, for whom this was an act of immense callousness, a statement of humanity’s profound arrogance.
Soon this discussion, earnest though it initially was, took on a new character. The gorilla was mourned, eulogised, missed – but all with an ironic intonation. Soon, jokes began to appear; Harambe became both an internet meme and a cultural event.
That’s when people started talking about the loss to the world the gorilla represented and faking transcripts to suggest that Hillary Clinton ordered Harambe’s murder. Things soon reached Ted ‘Zodiac Killer’ Cruz levels: near total ubiquity online, yet with ever diminishing comic value. The joke wasn’t funny anymore.
This fact did not decrease the frequency of Harambe-related gags and references, however. Instead they became yet more pervasive, a constant quasi-comic drumbeat underlining the general absurdity of social and internet media. But Harambe, and the attendant fame caused by his early death, is more significant than that.
As well as being a fairly tired joke, the Harambe meme is interesting because it is effectively post-ironic, where people who initially took part for facetious reasons end up almost caring about the guy. This is both a reaction to the species of jokey, sardonic knowingness that has become the norm and social media and also its continuation. Post-ironic sincerity is the new sarcasm.
Not everyone, I would contend, who films themselves walking into the rain and falling to their knees while plaintively calling a dead gorilla’s name is doing it for a joke. The knee-jerk reactions, the constant mentions, the feigned upset – all of this has an effect, eventually; it begins to seep in.
In effect, this becomes less performative and more sincere through repetition. It becomes both more and less funny as time goes on, but no less entertaining, compelling, and even, in a strange way, fulfilling. Perhaps it’s a way of making sense of the randomness of things? It’s a multi-species memento mori dressed up as a morality tale, a reminder for the modern age.
And all of this has led to what was a fairly parochial – if tragic and ethically complex – story becoming a global phenomenon. The sincerity, post-ironic or uncomplicated, has returned. And though the joke itself may be a stale one, it is not, unlike Harambe, quite dead yet.
Harambe has even been referenced by US Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein, in a wider comment on animal rights. This episode was faintly amusing because, at one point, Harambe, listed as a candidate, was faring better in the polls than Stein.
On Twitter, where the menial can gain unprecedented significance, there was a particular focus on Harambe memes from Cincinnati Zoo itself, which received no end of comments and communications. Eventually the zoo deleted its account, unable to cope with the constant jokes, and the no longer quite humorous insinuations. In reaction: ‘Just like you deleted Harambe’, one person, or perhaps many people, shot back. Quick as a flash, almost without thought, the reference has become almost instinctive.
Quite whether this pop-culture prominence will translate into something more concrete remains to be seen. But the story on social media is a different one: online, there is no end in sight for the continued production and propagation of Harambe memes. Indeed, they have become a cultural staple. They have become dull and mainstream in a peculiar way.
Initial tragedy has been transfigured into comedy and then into semi-tragedy once again. Harambe has attained a remarkable cultural prominence. What this means for the future is still to be seen – if it means anything at all.
A version of this piece was originally published in Varsity.