Can we call Bad Luck Brian an epic figure?
For sure, memes, or at least the personas they possess, present something of a gestic form that performs a social function beyond their cultural place... a frivolous, amateur image generation and sharing. At some level they represent far more serious epic value, one that reflects on alienation as a form of cultural capital. In fact, it could be said that memes, and especially memes that present personas, perform as a set of social relations rather than stand-alone images.
I have conflicting thoughts about this aspect of memes. As “a set of social relations,” especially in relation to their use of template-based images, memes may also be seen as caricatures or stereotypes that critique those caricatures and simultaneously sanction those stereotypes.
This ambiguity seems crucial to the valence of image macros in particular.
There seems a kind of oscillation between critiquing/sanctioning. I’m reminded here of Richard Lanham’s “Digital Rhetoric and the Digital Arts” (from The Electronic Word), and the “new act of attention” he identifies in electronic discourse: the AT/THROUGH oscillation. Are the “stand-alone images” (looking THROUGH) representative of the “set of social relations” (looking AT) offered in those images?
The simultaneity plays into what we are here calling the epic. Indeed, as a form of alienation capital, any given image macro does not, cannot stand alone. There is no stand alone image in this context, as there is no definable original; rather, memes, as memes rather than any single image macro are a form of currency where the object is only a token of a value, or valuation.
In this regard, if we are to say that that the meme is a “gestic form that performs a social function,” I wonder, more broadly, about their value — you say token — in the gift economy that foregrounds the intellectual, and physical, labours of the fan and amateur. But what exactly is the thing/the currency being shared? Internet points? Branding?
In this regard, we could say they are tokens for social relations but it would perhaps be a mistake to look purely at the object rather than how it circulates. We could say that the image macro is an object but the meme, represented through the image macro has no object.

Bad Luck Brian seems a good place to start in this regard. Let’s consider who Bad Luck Brian is… The goofy grin, the braces, the sweater vest, the bad haircut together make up a definable, recognizable social character — Bad Luck Brian is the suffering (yet oblivious to his own suffering) butt of the joke, social outcast, high school nerd, etc. Bad Luck Brian is not a person, not even a character, really; but, something of a two-dimensional, flattened (and thus epic) archetype. As such, BLB plays a role within social relations that is based on the value alienation-from. When practitioner of meme culture uses BLB it is not based as a form of reflection-of, but in the statement I-am-not. Though juvenile in its form of insult -- something like I know you are but what am I? -- it carries a potent, gestic formula with it.
There is another aspect of Bad Luck Brian that makes him difficult to revile. In an age of shameless self-promotion, in which every individual is an entrepreneur, optimizing their personal brands and crowing endlessly about their accomplishments… BLB represents inherent merit. BLB’s irony is that he’s actually quite decent in many ways, though he lacks the ability to finish well. While some might argue that this is a weakness on his part, as weak as any other, the reality is that he is a hard worker, whose chief failing is that he stumbles unluckily at a critical moment. At the profane end, BLB shits himself during various acts of chivalry and kindness. In milder ways, he studies hard, but sleeps through his exam. He aces his SAT, but uses the wrong pencil. In this sense, BLB is the double to our phony internet selves. He represents who we fear we might appear to be, before our basic decency is modulated by the hyper-identification of social media. And, so here BLB betrays at once very immediate anxieties, yet performs them as a judgment of someone else.
We can consider the captions reinforcement for the gestic values of goofy grin, braces, sweater vest, bad haircut. They add discourse to the tableau. And, as such they are flexible but remain tied to the archetype that BLB presents.
This model could be applied to any number of memes — Overly Attached Girlfriend, Condescending Wonka, Scumbag Steve, etc.
Again, who does OAG really mock? The idea of a proverbially clingy lover, or is she a refraction of our own capacities to cling through the perspective of an other who is being rendered as an archetype. Scumbag Steve, though selfish, is selfish because he is thoughtless. Or consider Wonka, does not the condescending rejoinder to the imagined pretension of the initial complaint resemble the same relational dynamic of being answered by the condescending tone of Wonka? The point is not that these memes always point back to their user. Rather, it’s that they contain in their shorthand a clear rhetoric, but an ambiguous intentionality. What is the subjective relationship between the “author” and the “reader” by way of the structure of the macro? At what point does the content of the specific iteration (the macro I created) give way to the rhetoric of the generic form (the common template I employed) which gives way to the larger social role of the the image macro itself (the grammatical function of image macros within the ecology of social media).
The user of these memes is not making an overt self-reflexive statement through their use; rather, they are distancing themselves from the archetype presented. That said, we cannot deny that the user is making value judgements through their use, and by way of this making philosophical, social, if not ideological statements. Their value is increased through a concise, or coherent application of the archetype — which is to say they are more valuable when they successfully marginalize. This is alienation capital.
Is it possible that this is a way of talking about work of art in the age of digital reproduction. If ubiquity displaces the aura of singularity in the age of mechanical reproduction, perhaps it is the kind of virtual ubiquity of the thing that circulated in the digital. A code exists as a unique informational signature that can circulate infinitely within a network… in this sense, it is a singularity without any value except for its alienation. Alienation capital as informational currency without materiality… ?
Can we distinguish what the meme says from what the meme user says — the gestic matrix of medium & individual meme from the rhetorical gesture of the practitioner?
Also, do we have a convenient terminological way to distinguish meme-as-medium from meme-as-instance? "Meme user" does help clarify the notion that the medium is the meme, but once we understand that, we might better be able to consider a particular example (& so might want distinct terms).
To clarify, perhaps, what is meant by “meme” “user” is to consider meme as performance rather than form; as momentary metaphor, or nod toward the epic.
Meme as a repeated, iterative performance in a network since its cultural currency is dependent on a user’s successful recognition of the meme’s established codes and its differences from similar, previous manifestations.
Would they be using it otherwise?
In this sense maybe also the user takes part in a larger formal structure — if Brian is an epic figure, the user steps into that role for a moment as s/he types the header and footer text (or thinks through Brian while composing). But no user believes s/he is Brian (which is consistent with Brechtian epic theater), so the not-Brian-ness of the user is there even if s/he does not marginalize — and instead empathizes with — the archetype. In any case the user passes through the epic as s/he speaks (or gestures) through the macro. And here I’m not only referring to a self-reflective critical position as encouraged by Brechtian theater. I’m also using epic to suggest scale — the difference in/and relation between a) the individual user experience of reiterating and inflecting the image macro and b) the sum iterations of the macro. Here’s where we need to extend the Brecht reference to account for the difference between the theater context and the meme context. We don’t just witness drama that asks us to move beyond identification with characters to self-reflection and critical awareness. For an elusive moment we act in the play by writing into the macro. And when we do so, we find ourselves plugged into the circuit, or at least we pass through its energy field. To the extent that we speak of or as Brian for a moment, we speak of or as or into the current of every Brian, or The Brian. And it’s every bit as alienating and disorienting as it could be (but isn’t) spiritually transcendent (in the sense of achieving Oneness with all that is and are Brian—too much static, too much distance, too many versions, too much surface). Nor am I pining for such transcendence, which would be the absence of difference and relation. So this is maybe the Memetic Epic.
In this regard the meme is more gesture than artifact, more gestic than stable, and the “user” is more meme-ician than meme-ist. To use the meme is to use the rhetorical turn embedded within the meme.
To loop back around and lace these two clusters: It seems like on the one hand there’s the meme-as-medium that operates through but also beyond any particular iteration, but this prompt also suggests that there is user-driven content, or a subject position related to the user—his or her attitude toward the BLB archetype. Maybe this is another type of alienation. Not only does the BLB image macro present a constitutive outside (the user is not-Brian), but the meme operates outside that relation: it doesn’t need to be expressive of a particular subjectivity, even while that generic subjectivity is negatively defined.
By the way, “the user” here is also a term of alienation, in that the meme-user relation might describe the attitude (and/or gesture) of the person who generated a particular iteration of a meme, but it simultaneously describes (other) consumers of the meme.
I'd rather say reader, but in the context of alienation capital, this seems appropriate.
Who is the user of the meme in this?
The video is interesting primarily because Kyle Craven (BLB) and Laina Morris (OAG) are assuming their roles as memes, of which they had little to do with. They are using the memes, but not as memes; rather they are using them to produce a script for video content in reaction to their being made into memes. In this regard, the value of the OAG and BLB memes as currency is somewhat reduced. We could see this appropriation as reappropriation, or recuperation.
They are using/performing them in a very different sense/way (the normal use of use, applying them to an end, this one being to get youtube hits and promote BLB’s new channel and performing by acting out a little mini movie) than the term is being used in this discussion, but their kind of use (direct, individual goal focused) only could happen because of other’s use (collective, social) of themselves (or at least their images).
The video also suggests less of a recuperation but its total absorption into a neoliberal economy in which the meme is being used not as a currency but as a tool/performance/form to generate (regenerate) cultural capital that can be then turned into monetary capital (in terms of advertising.)
Not only cultural capital, but REAL capital… especially in regards to the two memes in question here - BLB and OAG
Which then brings me to another example of use/peformance that is different (in ways I can’t really articulate) to both of those:
It’s still the sort of use of the meme that you could only really do if you were the person the meme happened to be based on.
Is Laina Morris OAG, or is she conflating herself with OAG in the video based on the fact that her face is the image in the image macro?
I would also ask is Laina Morris, Laina? She admits to the persona/voice she uses in most of her videos as “Laina” isn’t the “real” her and drops it for effect in numerous videos. It is a role that she has more agency in creating than the OAG role which took on a life of its own. Though unlike Kyle Kraven/BLB who just happened to have his picture used, she had created an intentionally humorous/creepy parody of a Justin Bieber song that contained much of the OAG character. Which she then followed up with several more videos building on the role as it developed as a meme. She was involved in the creation and the monetization of the meme based on her from the beginning. I’d argue that this makes BLB a better example of a freeform sort of gestic play than OAG. Most of the range of variation in OAG are increasing the sexual explicitness/violence of some of her comments. Though her videos in character had more than fair share of threats of violence, so it’s not the sort of social play that I think is the main focus, but it’s also using that created image to express something about another meme. I’m posting these things that don’t really quite fit hoping to clarify for myself by figuring out what isn’t an Epic/Gestic use/performance of a meme character maybe define what it is.
This is very specific though, which makes it not a meme in the creative sense… though, the video may go viral (which might make it a meme), and it does comment on the memes by using the actual people used as figures in the memes, the people here, as actors of the characters they have had applied to them by others, are not memes.
Here perhaps we’re approaching the meme-oid—the quasi-meme—from within the meme, or in some proximity to its source material. Morris has come back to claim “her” meme: the return of the alienated subject/object. But as suggested, she cannot simply step back into the meme. Nor can she be the meme (another sort of becoming-meme than the Memetic Epic mentioned above, and also different than the becoming-meme of the meme-that-is-not-but-might-be-meme, per the notion that a meme isn’t a meme until it’s a meme). And if her video goes viral and becomes another meme (which is not to say viral=meme), she is still (and no longer) there in the meme. She must remain alienated not only from production, but from circulation. The ride continues without her, though she might try to jump on again as it loops around.
These quasi-examples: meme-oids, demi-gestic, epi-epic, etc are helpful to my own process of figuring out what is and isn’t a trace of the gestic/epic in memes, identifying not hard edges finding where the murky grey areas are.Hopefully not muddling the issue unnecessarily for others.
I’m trying to get to the point of considering the meme apart from expressive intentions of particular meme writers, to think of the critical value of the meme itself, but it’s sticky business.
Perhaps there is no meme itself. It cannot seemingly divest from expressive intent because the intentionality is outside of any given writer. And, this in and of itself is part of the gestic formula.
OK, I’m getting a more complex sense of how expressivity operates in this context. It is generated by the gestic formula, even while it may be inflected by a particular user.
For example, Insanity Wolf has a recognizable gestic formula whether or not the user contributes misogynous text. IW usually includes gleefully bloodthirsty and uncouth text, but not all users use it to embody a hyper-masculinist predator of women. I wonder if this modality is particular to IW or other image macros, or if it’s a more general mode operable in any meme—part of the internet’s adolescent-boy-gone-wrong shadow.
Typing in parallel to OAG so they may answer this before I finish asking it, but with IW the mere choice of going for IW instead of Courage Wolf already puts you into a frame reacting to CW,baby CW, etc so is IW the shadow of CW who is still the shadow of the internet’s shadow? Also since we’re being all Brechtian here is this shadow adolescent shenanigans and toilet humor a form of Spass?
Oh wow. Really well said. I’m sort of in the grip of IW at the moment because I hadn’t seen it before someone mentioned it the other day. (I thought it was funny and alarming and then I started to notice that darker strand of aggressive misogyny—that indie-film moment when you’re laughing, then the humor takes a turn and you feel sick.) So you just alerted me to CW, which gives me a sense of what IW is responding (and reacting) to. I wonder now if all of this plays off/amplifies/reacts to puppy/kitty squee.
I think this social relation between various memes and families and sub-species of them (image macro in general < advice animal < one of the *-wolves < Insanity Wolf) that most strongly (at least to my limited understanding of) Brecht’s idea of Gestus and thus could allow any meme character such as Bad Luck Brian, to be considered Epic in a Brechtian sense. Just as the person who happened to get their image used isn’t the meme, the image itself isn’t the meme either. And possibly not even the use that the image is put to makes it a meme but its relation to other memes (which are all just relations to other memes, and it’s “I LIKE TURTLES!” all the way down from there.)? Or I guess actually, it’s not that Bad Luck Brian is an Epic figure but he is used Epically in ways that just some random unfortunate yearbook photo couldn’t be without the uses, reuses, misuses, recuperations, subversions, etc that created/transformed BLB into BLB.
This use of uses is what I think separates the meme from the “viral image”.
Nice. So the viral image can become a meme if it is serially used, restaged, etc. — as in the Bruh video phenomenon.
An example would be Grumpy Cat (which despite massive amounts of straightforward use to sell books and such still gets used in this hard to pin down gestic/epic sense) vs Lil Bub/Maru/other famous internet cats. It’s not the duplication of their image on the internet. Or even that they can come to stand for some symbolic meaning (Example: Lil’ Bub’s appearance in this music video has symbolic meaning that draws on the cat’s internet fame for being adored for being adorably deformed. But I don’t think she counts as a meme in the same way Grumpy Cat does.)

but this use in relation to other uses, not just of the individual image macro, but of all the possible image macros’ uses. For something to be gestic it has to be part of a set of relations. (still not 100% convinced that ‘to be a meme is to be gestic’ but definitely can see cases where memes can be gestic in ways that many other products of “internet culture”, whatever that means, tend not to be.)
I think that memes, or what allows an image macro to become a meme, or for why a photofad becomes a fad, or why certain performative acts go viral through their documentation is a reflection of the gestic, or the gestic capacity of certain sets of social relations and cultural practices. Though the above presents a rather divergent list of forms - the iterative, the performative, the emergent - what we are after, perhaps, is not defining memes as gestic, but tracing the gestus embodied through them.
Just yesterday, I finished a first-reading of Gregory Ulmer’s article, “Flash Reason,” in which he begins to work out form of reasoning directly applicable to this discussion. In the final section of the article, Ulmer discusses the Duchamp-ian readymade as a response to the industrial revolution (of which memes might be considered a contemporary consequence) that presents “an act of pure [and reflective] judgment” putting “the maker in the position of spectator, whose reception produces art. This act is the operator of electrate hypotyposis [the turning of a narration or description into an image, a tableau, or even a living scene]. That most readymades are commodities, commercial objects, is an important part of the invention, demonstrating that electrate authoring shifts to a meta-level, taking as the material of its discourse the commodity-information sphere” (16). Ulmer’s focus is to develop a manner (or Tautegorical mode) of engaging in the decision-making scope of deliberative rhetoric in the moment of “Now” - considered a “hinge” between that has been and what will be; for Ulmer, the experimental avant-garde arts provide the best model for developing this mode.

Ulmer’s work on electracy recognizes the struggle in this “apparatus shift” that he sees as analogous to the difficulty of “a religious worldview” has “in knowing what to do with science.” The meme - in this case gestic and epic - is the Y-switching mechanism in this shift; in this case, and as we noted above, this type of meme depends on stereotypes to function, but instead of functioning to reinforce stereotypes, they employ them as part of the switching mechanism in which memers resemble avant-garde artists working with specific constraints.
We wonder if the “meme,” whether a thing in itself or not, functions as a readymade, not to offer an “intended meaning,” but a performative critique in the way that Duchamp performed a critique of the fine arts with The Fountain. Or, by example >>>>> Could we consider Duchamp’s L.H.O.O.Q as a prototype for critically thinking about memes as a form of alienation capital and gestic play in the pursuit of a deliberative rhetoric for networked cultures, and even the rhetorical ecologies (cf. Jenny Edbauer Rice, “Unframing Models of Public Distribution: From Rhetorical Situations to Rhetorical Ecologies”) of their distribution, and the writerly additions that transform those memes through their circulation?
In terms of a gestic formula, might we apply Duchamp’s “bachelor machine,” which “ consists of two distinct realms,” the one above and the one below, “both desiring and imagining one another without any possibility of mutual comprehension” (“bachelor machine”)? In his reading of Lyotard’s reading of Duchamp’s work, Ulmer finds that “figural rhetoric abandons the ratios of proportion and slams (mashes) or imposes (superimposes) incommensurable states. The figural names the polysemy (plural) of arts practices, to compress several tracks into one, the propositional and the expressive. In the case of dreamwork, text, image, and form are guided not by mimesis but by the libidinal energy of desire and denial” (12). To approach memes critically, the gestic formula might be guided by the image as proposition with the text as expressive superimposed to indicate a specific inner mood (the writer’s intention). Ulmer continues, this time on Thierry de Duve’s reading of Duchamp: “Duchamp’s invention of the readymade establishes its importance as a relay for the new prudence [time-wisdom, a capacity to make an appropriate decision in an instant of time by taking the measure of a particular situation in its temporal context] - as an electrate deliberative rhetoric. What becomes clear in de Duve’s account is that the readymade is not an ‘object’ but an action, a statement in discourse, modeling how to ‘write’ in electracy” (14). Applying the same (bachelor) logic to memes, we might say that the significance of meme cultures has little to do with the meme itself (if it exists at all) and more with the action that it suggest--a cobbling together of a historical image with a contemporary understanding of that image to suggest a future course of action in the deliberative back-and-forth (dissoi-logoi) of sophistic rhetorical techniques. Memes as gestic dialogue? Embodying attitudes in deliberations? Perhaps, the readymade joins with Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical technique of gestus, carrying “at least two distinct meanings[...:] first, the uncovering or revealing of the motivations and transactions that underpin a dramatic exchange between the characters [the image, the writer, and the superimposed text]; and second, the ‘epic’ narration [the textual re-framing] of that character [the image] by the actor [the writer]” (“Gestus”).
I would argue that memes are about timeliness at a rhetorical level. This plays into their use value as gestic performances. They are perhaps utterances rather than objects, and form sets of idioms. I think it would be difficult to argue that memes appear timeless. As device they may be consistent, but as utterance they are ephemeral.
I was just thinking about the iterative as internal to any given meme, that it perpetuates itself, and a sort of Grand Iterativity in which any given (or every) meme participates. If we still want to think of MEME as an object, such as a specific image macro, or a specific iteration of captions, or a specific documentation of a specific action, then we exclude the Grand Iterativity of the method -- which is in no way exclusively of the Internet, and in no way tied to digital objects… This is one reason I insist upon looking at memes as a set of social relations, a collection or rhetorical conditions (perhaps) that we can examine through the “meme” as object. I supposed it is a micro-macro thing, but if we step away from the artifacts, and look at the narratives in which they participate we might see that memes, as a construct, as phenomena are as old as human language. In this case we could start to consider how, in a more general sense “the phenomena” is gestic and the “narratives” are epic.
One aspect about memes—in their singular and global manifestations as performances and performative gestures—not yet explicitly touched upon is their relation to time, although “epicness” of BLB certainly invokes this and I can’t help but think now of BLB in relation to a Poundian history of great men and great civilisations--ironically. Can we, for example, think about memes archaeologically (and in the context of media archaeology) or are they impossibly time-stamped with both lineages and predictions? This isn’t a question about how BLB and OAG persist in an information-saturated, junk media culture, but rather how such memes foreground what Lisa Gitelman has called elsewhere the continuous present of the World Wide Web. In this sense, at least in context of how I understand Gitelman, we might see a meme such as BLB or OAG is always now, even as the unique manifestations of the meme both acquire and demonstrate certain historical registers.
Yesterday’s (forgotten) meme can become today’s web phenom if it gets recirculated, like the debunked internet rumor coming back to haunt us through the people who didn’t catch (on to) it the first time (or last time].
The Pound/Ch’eng T’ang “make it new”?
More of a coming back around—when bellbottoms come back, they aren’t made new (though more are made), even though lots of people who wear them weren’t hip to them last time around.
The possibility (anticipation?) then of re-circulation suggests then the meme is not a time-timed-stamped phenom but a continuous performance in the continuous present of the web-network. One makes it new differently all the time.
This issue of ‘re-circulation’ sounds a like Jenny Edbauer’s (Rice) description of exigence as “a shorthand way of describing a series of events” (“Unframing” 8), which she uses to argue for “a framework of affective ecologies” that theorizes “a circulating ecology of effects, enactments, and events by shifting lines of focus from rhetorical situation to rhetorical ecologies” (9). The three primary elements of understanding rhetorical ecologies, in this framework, looks at the (1) distribution, (2) circulation, and (3) additions to a given artifact.
Laurie Gries has a recent book tracing our a method of analysis on this front, focused on the "Obama Hope" meme: Still Life with Rhetoric.
The meme, as continuous performance in the web-network, is an ecology (or ecologies) that exist(s) in relation to other memes. While we might treat BLB as an event, we might also consider the meme’s relation other memes in the meta-ecologies of memes (see the Google search image below, “bad luck brain and overly attached girlfriend”).
Interest in any given meme occurs in waves… They do recirculate beyond their initial emergence.

This graph demonstrates search interest for the Disaster Girl (iterative), Shoe on Head (performative), and I Like Turtles (emergent) memes from their advent in 2006 through 2014. Eight years is a long life for a meme, but it is interesting to note that virality and longevity are not always tied to one another. Disaster Girl took over two-years to really catch on as a meme, and didn’t reach its apex until six-years in. Shoe on Head, on the other hand, surged quite quickly and faded just as fast, only to resurge seven to eight-years after it first appeared. This may not reflect on these particular memes being epic, but it does show how the narratives do recycle -- sometimes more generally through mis-appropriation, sometimes more directly, such as the performative photofad Planking, which morphed into Owling, Batmanning, Teapotting, etc. All of these follow the general form, while other spin-offs borrow aspects of the action and replace the form -- like cone-ing.
The first BLB post to reddit got less than 5 upvotes, so our topic of discussion is a particularly good example of the lag in uptake mentioned above. I would add that this spin-off aspect is vital and often borrows from multiple sources, gene pools need mutations and out breeding to not stagnate, same for memes. Longcat shares ancestry with ‘Hang In there baby’, but isn’t just an instance of it.
Is, then, the collision/collusion of OAF and BLB in the video mentioned above an example where two memes--or two meme-celebs/actors--are attempting to revitalise the stagnating performance of their respective meme? A side note, I wonder whether this yoking together of two separate forms is a kind of viral exchange of each meme’s cultural codes. OAF is now forever linked to BLB, and all subsequent permutation of this meme will now carry the codes of BLB--for better or worse.
Laina Morris and Kyle Craven have nothing to do with their becoming memes, other than the appropriation of their likenesses. So, more likely, and there is evidence to this -- since they have both made substantial amounts of money of their likenesses being behind the figure present in the given memes -- this is a move toward true capital rather than the perpetuation of alienation capital. To a certain extent, one could say this move is neither gestic nor epic, but desperate.
Much like the shift in fads from phone box stuffing to hunkering in the 50’s...
Which I would say are memes.
I’d agree with you on that but I wonder were they epic memes? gestic memes? can there be one without the other? I definitely see the sense of play in them, but what is/was/could have been the narrative component of hunkering?
I had to look up hunkering. “A respite from a world of turmoil. The main purpose of hunkerin' is to get down and hunker together. It's a friendship thing: get your friends to hunker with you. The man you don't know is the man you haven't hunkered with”--this quote alone suggests to me that hunkering was simultaneously epic and gestic. A meme of Man against The Man in the vein of ‘Hang in there baby,’ mentioned above.
Oh, and sure Brian is an epic figure, particularly in the contemporary context, where he is a spokesman for Epic Failure, where epic scale has become microcosmic (more existential comedy than shallows humor).
I might have accidentally gotten closer to something I've been trying to say: There's a depth of surface to image macros that is anything but superficial.
A Beckettian Hero?
Forgot to bring my pencil to the pencil fight: EPIC FAIL!

There’s always next time, Brian.


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