How Harambe Became the Perfect Meme

The slain gorilla signifies nothing—except maybe our increasingly weird post-everything world.

A bronze statue of a gorilla and her child at the Cincinnati Zoo where visitors paid tribute to Harambe the gorilla (William Philpott / Reuters)

On May 28, Harambe, a 17-year-old lowland gorilla was shot and killed by a Cincinnati Zoo worker to save a small child who had wandered into its enclosure. As such tragic incidents go, there was nothing particularly unusual about this one. Just a week earlier on May 21, for instance, zookeepers at the Santiago Zoo in Chile shot two lions, in an effort to save a man who had climbed in, apparently with suicidal intent. That event did not go on to make meme history. But for some reason, Harambe did.

Over the summer, Harambe evolved from ordinary tragedy to perfect meme: defined only by its ability to replicate; a medium of cultural evolution with no message, signifying nothing so much as its own virality. The animal-rights outrage narrative (complete with a petition demanding the prosecution of the child’s parents) ran out of momentum in bewildered exhaustion. Unlike the 2015 case of Cecil the Zimbabwean lion, shot by a millionaire American dentist who seemed like a perfectly designed target for outrage, there was no obvious villain in the Harambe story. Many parents responded strongly with a counter-narrative emphasizing that the parent in the case had not been unreasonably negligent.

The third narrative that competed to own the meme—centering on the potential culpability of zoo officials—failed to gain any traction. It soon became clear that the zoo officials were no more culpable than zoo officials anywhere: the episode was simply an unfortunate accident.

While every party with a legitimate interest in the original episode lost the plot within a few weeks, what was remarkable was that nobody gained control of it. The Harambe episode was too edgy for marketers to co-opt, and too dank for memesters looking to provoke predictable sentiments. But a flood of memes emerged anyway: the late Muhammad Ali towering over a knocked-out Harambe, an oddly lewd one featuring actor Danny Trejo, and one featuring Harambe in a version of the trolley problem. Harambe memes have spanned the gamut from darkly humorous to poignant, from logical to surreal. There is, it appears, no limit to range of non-sequiturs that can ride the Harambe meme.

During its summer peak, merely dropping the word “Harambe” into an online conversation was sufficient to manufacture a surreal moment.

Harambe, in other words, is the perfect meme. In a reversal of Marshall McLuhan’s classic dictum, Harambe is the message that became a medium, capable of carrying any signal, without becoming identified with any of them. A meme in the original sense intended by Richard Dawkins: a cultural signifier that spreads simply because it is good at spreading. It is neither worth spreading the way a TED talk aspires to be, nor particularly worth resisting. It spreads because it can.

Harambe marks the emergence of something akin to a true stock market for culture, where price movements cannot always, or even often, be narrativized, either locally or globally. To be outraged by a Harambe meme—as those focused on the original conversation around animal rights and parenting continue to be—is to confuse Harambe the meme, a stock in a memetic marketplace, with Harambe the gorilla who died a tragic and pointless death.

It is perhaps the sheer meaninglessness of the original episode that made it an ideal candidate for memetic perfection. There is no object lesson in the Harambe story. No greater moral or meaning. No nascent Clint Eastwood movie. Yet the powerful video of a small child being dragged along by a large gorilla demanded a response and emotional resolution. When that resolution could not be found within the limited original context, Harambe broke out into the broader cultural marketplace, seeking, if not narrative interpretation, at least emotional resolution.

The memes that situate Harambe within the wider tapestry of 2016 events offer some validation for this theory: Muhammad Ali and Harambe. Harambe in a pantheon image alongside Ali, Prince, David Bowie, and other recently deceased celebrities. Harambe and Trump in seemingly limitless combinations. The Harambe meme became the carrier not just for the unresolved emotions surrounding the death of a gorilla, but for a larger pool of emotions seeking resolution in the zeitgeist. Seemingly weird and anomalous events, it appears, become easier to process in juxtaposition with Harambe.

Blogger Steve Coast offers a possible explanation in his viral 2015 post The World Will Only Get Weirder, arguing that as the world’s technological systems get ever more advanced, expanding the reach of the normal, noteworthy events can only get weirder. Non-weird events, even when rare, increasingly fall within the anticipatory capabilities of the world’s social infrastructure. Media professionals can get in front of such events faster than they can unfold. But as the world gets weirder, the stock of unmanaged weird events, and resulting unprocessed emotions, can only grow, seeking outlets in Harambe moments.

If Harambe is the perfect signifier of a post-normal weird world, its antithesis is perhaps the movie Sully, directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring Tom Hanks as Captain Sullenberger, who in 2009 saved 155 lives by making an emergency water landing of US Airways Flight 1549. The story of Flight 1549 is a tale of normalcy par excellence: complex technological systems and institutions working as designed in the face of rare but anticipated contingencies, with trained experts responding as they are supposed to, making good decisions and saving lives. Arguably, the emotional content of the story is barely worthy of cinematic treatment. It certainly does not weird us out in ways that require gorilla memes to resolve.

It makes sense that Clint Eastwood, who has made something of a second career out of tightly crafted little morality tales that tell audiences what to feel about stories, has emerged as the unlikely steward of normal in a world increasingly defined by weirdness. From Dirty Harry to Sully, Eastwood has always been something of a force of emotional law and order, manufacturing clean-edged sentimentality out of ambiguous realities. There is nothing unresolved or incomplete about the emotional landscape of a Clint Eastwood movie. His work as a director may demand more emotional sophistication on the part of viewers than his work as an actor, but neither weirds us out, nor does either attempt to.

If Clint Eastwood's Sully represents one extreme of the spectrum of reactions to a post-normal world, Harambe represents the other extreme—an end where no normalizing narrative is possible because events play out as nothing more than a string of non-sequiturs that admit no larger meanings.

Yet, it would be a mistake to suggest some sort of equivalence between the two ends of the spectrum. Harambe presages a world of digital ubiquity where anomie is a constant, not just a temporary phase between the decline of one era of grand narratives and the ascendance of another. There is simply too much information beyond the tight boundaries of normalcy, and it comes at us far too fast, for classical narrative techniques to keep up. No single voice can manage the optics of a rapidly trending story on Twitter. And in most cases, there is no single party with the right mix of incentives to even try.

It is perhaps Clint Eastwood movies that are out of place in this world, in that they offer no acknowledgement or accommodation of the great weirding that defines our times—only escapist fantasies set in worlds of moral meaning and emotional closure. In a world defined by Harambe, Sully is emotional science fiction.

Harambe is post-everything. Post-normal, atemporal, post-cultural, post-ironic—choose your favorite descriptor of the zeitgeist: Harambe is an entropic heat death anti-narrative that can mean anything while signifying nothing. And perhaps that’s a good thing: any substantive and creative collective response to the weird, no matter how incoherent, is better than a fearful retreat to the normal.