Mary Harrington

The Semantic Compass

June 13, 2020

The power of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land depends on an implied presumption of the reader’s familiarity with the canon it references. The concatenating echoes of Spenser, Marvell, Shakespeare, the Bible and so on whisper and intertwine around the mythic and interleaving echoes of the Fisher King, Tiresias and possibly Charles I, in an echo chamber that expands the poem beyond its 433 lines into something fractal.

The very impossibility of following all those evocative echoes, or pinning them down, or even recognising them, speaks of a fear that the shared matrix of literary references that signified membership of the republic of letters was collapsing, even as its entire canon was brought to bear on such a short poem, written at such a turning-point in the twentieth century.

In the Middle Ages, before the republic of letters that The Waste Land both memorialises and mourns was really formed, it was common practice among the educated to keep a ‘common-place book’ – that is, a journal in which the common-place collector would write down quotes, ideas, images, sayings: units of cultural content, that is, that a modern denizen of the internet would recognise as memes.

The shared ancestor of both common-places and memes are the ‘topoi’ of classical rhetoric: discursive themes in stock formulas, covering territory that would be familiar to a crowd. These puns, sayings, cause-and-effect clichés and other memetic structures could be used by a skilled rhetorician to draw listeners in by offering a known resting-place of shared ideas or ethical content, whose re-rehearsal would then strengthen the bond between speaker and listeners.

In recent decades, we’ve all been much preoccupied with originality. Somehow we’ve all absorbed the idea that common-places or topoi were something shameful. ‘Commonplace’ is synonymous now with ‘boring’. A stereotype is not something to memorise for deployment in public speaking, but something dangerous and oppressive.

But, recognising instinctively what only people as stupid as the well-educated could deny, namely that without common-places meaning itself must eventually disintegrate, the production of such has instead moved underground, into the samizdat world of memes. Now, nearly a century on from The Waste Land’s publication, our cultural common-places are almost shorn of any heritage in the literary canon but have attained the status of mature art form.

I don’t know who the author of this extraordinary work of multi-dimensional memeing is, but it has better world-building than many Netflix series. Its 36 squares take the Wojak and Political Compass topoi simultaneously to a ninja standard. It’s not an explicit reference to any one work of fiction, though it draws on a deep word-hoard founded in gaming and sci-fi lore. Its AI, fast food and apocalypse paranoias resonate in a world that seems to be disintegrating even as ever more desperate efforts are made to stuff its phenomena into grids. And as in the world outside the memetic sphere (as if such a thing has ever existed), outlier intersections shade into censorship, madness or monstrosity.


Mary Harrington won the Violet Vaughan Prize for English at Oxford in 2000 and a mud wrestling medal in a lesbian bar five years later. She now lives near Cambridge, where she specialises in chicken orthopaedics, breadmaking and political journalism.