Meme weary

Memes? I’m tired of ‘em, damned tired. Sure, I like the idea of memes, those cultural bits and bites encapsulating the commonly held cultural meaning that help a society to congeal or the shorthand for analogous experiences, e.g., the opening notes of Beethoven’s 5th or referring to the Holocaust to convey the horror of some men’s inhumanity. But I grow weary of the indiscriminate use of the term to mean almost any type of human cogitation that spreads (almost unavoidable in today’s electronic age). That lack of a coherent boundary or definition has been a criticism of the term from early on and I read that it also contributed to death of the Journal of Mimetics after a few years as scholars could not agree on anything about the term, surely making any theoretical development impossible. At this point I have to wonder that it took 6 years of journal articles before the academic community recognized its futility, though I am sure some denied their intellectual torpor as they pursued easy publication on a sexy topic. To be fair, Richard Dawkins, who originated the term, only wanted to give a term to cultural transmission, and only that. Perhaps neuroscience will be able to help us more in the future if we show enough integrity not blather away about it so now and work to understand what culture really is.

Why quibble now, you ask. I recently read James Gleick’s interesting book Information. He does a very good job presenting the beginnings of information theory as seen in the genius of Charles Babbage and especially Claude Shannon and an okay job of its subsequent development. I found his rendition of its extension into the biological sciences lacking and I really found his discussion of memes tedious, and, after thinking about culture and how it is biological, I became even more disenchanted with memes.

Consider what Gleick refers to as a meme: ideas that are passed on, i.e., replicate, such as religion (to be fair, Gleick follows Dawkins in this), musical tunes, catchphrases, images, in short any delimited packet of information that catches on to become an invariant form operating between minds, an invariant form of some complexity so that a simple idea is not a meme and a hula hoop is not a meme because it is not information. (Wait a minute, James, I thought one main thesis in this book was that everything was information?)

I did like his book overall and recommend it and I want to give it credit for stimulating me to re-examine this now tiresome concept of the ‘meme.’ The analogy between genetic transmission and cultural transmission is really not that deep; it is actually misleading as I think about it. A meme is generally taken to be a symbolic thing, and that entails a surface and deep structure. The opening bars of Beethoven’s 5th is fate knocking on the door, or at least that is the meme. But consider, please, that musical phrase in context, in the rest of the piece and then the incredible melodies in later movements and that memic symbolization of fate shrinks to insignificance; it is only a amusing hook with little purpose. Sure, the opening is much recognized, but then the deep structure of this amputated form is a short-circuited semantic memory obscuring the work’s remarkable artistic import. Just like another popular memic example, ‘jumping the shark’, the deep-surface relationship is at best shallow. We mistake the electronic image, which does indeed spread virally, as standing for culture and I think that is altogether a misconception. The current concept of meme is only conceivable in this age of electronic communication. Even the meme of Beethoven’s 5th opening bars depends upon sound recording.

Consider other views of what may be termed cultural transmission in the examples of emotional and pragmatic expression and social stigma. I am thinking here of cultures where emotional expression is inhibited, making members’ affect hard to read at times, or where expressions of grief are most properly loud keening as opposed to silent suffering. Some cultures find close physical proximity while conversing normal while others stipulate greater distance. Some eat only with the right hand. Some prohibit showing the soles of your shoes unless you want to instigate trouble with our disrespect. I see these as cultural practices with bare symbolic operations, if indeed any.

Consider also our culture’s stigma against those with mental illness, especially how hard it is to displace. For years as a psychologist I worked to disperse that stigma by presenting the data refuting misconceptions (yeah, I know, spitting into the wind), and I continue to admire those who work to mitigate that stigma and so enhance people’s willingness to seek early intervention or to hire without fear. Again, this is cultural but not memic, and this distinction reinforces further my impression that memes are actually all about our amusement, not our understanding of culture.

Genes control the generation of a somatic vehicle for their replication. Good enough. Memes control nothing; they convey vaguely defined notions. Genes spread through two tests, one is their coherence with the rest of the genome and the other is the adaptability of the somatic vehicle in the environment. Ideas and memes have some analogous properties here, but I think, at least as cultural units, memes are more a part of the environmental context as they are cultural vehicles carrying culture forth. Human societies are complex and operate in multiple symbolic and non-symbolic domains. Given this view, memes are wind driven ripples across the waves and tides of human culture; they are noticeable given the white froth of their peaks but dissipate soon enough while the cultural ocean rolls on.

I postpone the discussion of another cultural phenomenon that troubles us, that of race, and so until next time, travel on.



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