In 2004, in a small suburb northwest of Raleigh, North Carolina, amateur photographer Dave Roth took a picture of his daughter standing across the street from a burning house. She looks straight into the camera, as if addressing corroborators with a kind of complacent grin which, in its context of adjacent horror, seems evil. Her head is set in the acute foreground, as if decapitated by the lower edge of the photo, seemingly photoshopped. It wasn’t until 2007 that the father uploaded the photo to Zooomr, an image hosting site, which gained notable popularity later that year. By late 2008, the photo was posted on Buzzfeed, Digg, Huffington Post, and the rest is history.
Meme comes of mīmēma, meaning “imitated thing” in Greek, as first coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976), wherein the spread of cultural phenomena— i.e. images, events, and phrases—was considered through the lens of evolutionary theory, like a kind of natural selection of taste, whereby the “fittest” ones are most likely to pass on their genes to the next generation. Contrary to biology, these optimal memes—that is, the most capable to reproduce—are paradoxically disastrous e.g. the Kennedy assassination, the Hindenburg, the Holocaust, etc., save for the occasional success story like the landing on the moon. Of course, this isn’t shocking; we are more compelled towards a freeway accident than a serene deer grazing past the shoulder. The difference between a meme and a fad would be time, though exactly when a meme could be measured is hard to say. Life, as we know it, may be just a fad. Or perhaps we are waiting for the greatest meme ever, the Apocalypse.
Dostoyevsky devised that evil must be an inherent condition, that to ascribe it to sociological factors is to deprive the person of free will, which is the lowest form of slavery. Crime and Punishment (1866) is a tale against moral relativism, as Raskolnikov is sentenced to the absoluteness his own conscience.
A little known fact: the local fire department was conducting a fire drill that day; and so, the girl’s curiously giddy look becomes clarified as something more complex, more meta, as opposed to an easy understanding of evil. The inadvertent rhetoric, then, is merely the look of evil, to which bystanders—in this case, the entire internet—had become uncomfortably complicit. If this were a real fire, then what kind of monster would look so profoundly satisfied in the flames’ wake? There is a tinge of conspiracy in her countenance, as if she herself lit the flames. But these are not the facts. Disaster Girl is less meaningful explained. From Satan, to Stalin, to Walmart, our conception of “evil” makes for better sleep. To be on the right side of history.
She grows up though, however embalmed forever in our psyches as an evil child. We tend to settle on public personae early on, their true nature left to contort alongside with Dorian Gray’s in the attic. Mary-Kate & Ashley Olsen, Macaulay Culkin, and Haley Joel Osment subconsciously reside in the frozen past by which they had become famous; their subsequent growing up is considered, almost resentfully, some kind of mutation or corruption of the original. Where child celebrities are at once righteously derided and fawningly adored, the human meme—roguelike, captured by accident, an epiphany gurgling out of nothingness—may be the new pristine idol we worship, the adoration of the lamb.
The internet will always gravitate towards the mashup, as if two disparate images were in fact once twins separated at birth. In this metaphor, the “higher” image i.e. art, ostensibly timeless, is bound to nature while the other one, the “lower” deformed conjoined one, is slowly nurtured and shaped back to its sibling. To continue this metaphor, the placenta is rung as a sponge for every last drop of blood.
As for Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, a single portrait zoomed in on its subject, she seems to notice us, as if turning her head towards the reception of the painting. This sudden address to the viewer, in 1665, was somewhat shocking; long before gender politics, the male gaze had little to do with such uncomfortableness. It may be argued that the pearl is actually the focal point of the painting, which throws her gaze into some triangular loop of meaning. The viewer, in a way, is condemned to not see her. The motivation behind her countenance is hidden, vaguely ominous, perhaps a nod to the most famous sweet-yet-creepy smile in the Mona Lisa (c. 1517). Are these not prophetic looks of empathy they are giving us, maternal omens, knowing how much disaster would lie ahead? Are they not basically weeping from behind their face? Of course not, but looking back, it would have seemed reasonable. If the eyes are windows to the soul, the smirking lips may be the drawn curtains.
Now if only they could speak.