I have always been unhappy with the notion of the meme. Back in 1999, I wrote Chronicle 173 entitled “Toujours le Meme” [Always the same] where the Franco-English play on words expressed my impatience with the vagueness of what struck me as a pseudo-concept that presumed to define a category of phenomena—a cultural “unit”—by the mere fact of giving it a scientific-sounding name.
But more recently, conversations with my wife Stacey Meeker, whose studies in information science have led her to deal more concretely with the meme phenomenon, have persuaded me to relent somewhat in my skepticism. My change of attitude also reflects the fact that the times have, rather quickly, changed. The success of the term “meme” is no longer dependent on over-ambitious claims for a science of “memetics”; instead, the term is associated with reproducible images or videos and other small-scale cultural artifacts that regularly go viral on the Internet. The term is indeed useful in the Internet era, if only because the expression Internet meme has itself become a meme.
At the just-concluded annual GASC meeting at UCLA, Matthew Taylor gave a Skype presentation in which he described the meme more or less along these lines, as a unit not of thought or “culture” but simply of propagation. Thus for Matthew, what gets called a meme can be any phenomenon, not even necessarily a representation, that is easily propagated through a large decentralized cultural network (the very existence of the Internet makes it unnecessary to specify the nature or internal structure of this network). I would add that “propagation” here is not necessarily accurate reproduction of an identical artifact, but is at least potentially the new production of an artifact that is part of a family of artifacts, halfway between repeating a word, which merely adds a new token to an already-existing type, and creating a new work of art. To propagate a meme is, typically if not always, to make the effort to create a new member of a family of artifacts linked by a common formula or template, and it is the reproducibility of this template that defines the success of the meme.
There was indeed a central flaw in the original notion of the meme, one that was clearly in evidence in the earlier presentations of the term, beginning with Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene (Oxford UP, 1976). Its increasing acceptability appears to be the result less of an evolution than a devolution of the original concept: the “forgetting” of its originally fundamental characterization as a selfish replicator. This forgetting has resulted from the evolution of the Internet, with its vast possibilities for rapid transmission; whether we imagine the meme as somehow replicating itself on the analogy of a living creature, being copied mimetically, or simply being transmitted by word of mouth from one person to another, the important thing is that the meme is something that spreads, presumably quickly and “virulently” enough so that we consider the spreading itself, rather than the content that is spread, as its most salient quality. Hence the approximate replication of a given set of bytes no longer seems to command Dawkins’ original analogy, compelling although anything but parsimonious, of the meme with the gene as agent of the reproduction of life. Living things and their DNA are marvelously complex and improbable, and their replication allows only a very limited margin for inaccuracies; nothing is more easily reproduced than memes. Although not every cat video idea goes viral, the difference between a failed and a successful one is wholly out of proportion with the difference between a non-reproducing mixture of organic chemicals and a living organism. Even a virus has to contain most of its own mechanism of self-reproduction; a meme on the Internet needs no such internal intricacy.
And this goes to the heart of the problem. For saying that memes “replicate” themselves like animals or viruses is to use a metaphor that is not just inaccurate but fundamentally inappropriate. As so often in our scientistic age, the model of biological evolution invades the domain of human culture without respecting its specificity, which only a humanistic perspective can maintain. The notion of replication suggests that the meme is active and those who are colonized by it passive. Given this passivity, the cultural collectivity brought together by a meme appears as a formless mass rather than a social order, and whatever the transmission route of the meme, its resulting propagation must be modeled by the laws of epidemiology rather than of cultural diffusion.
This Chronicle was inspired by an insight into the original aim of the meme-concept that I gained from reading at Stacey’s suggestion the introduction to Robert Aunger’s The Electric Meme (Free Press, 2002), one of the better turn-of-the-millennium works on the subject. Aunger’s book was written scarcely a decade ago, but it is old enough for it to have appeared before the Internet meme. (Imagine a meme book written today in which YouTube doesn’t figure in the index.) At the opening of the Introduction, Aunger offers as his first example of a meme a notion from the domain, not of viral videos but of witchcraft. As he tells us, in the course of African anthropological fieldwork, he encountered “people who believe that witches can attack you in your sleep and eat your brain” (1). He wonders if believers in witchcraft suffer from “cognitive dissonance” between these ideas and the rational thoughts that govern their lives’ practical activities. And this provides him with an opening for the meme: “Maybe these ‘crazy’ witchcraft beliefs are some kind of parasite on their minds, able to perpetuate themselves somehow, serving their own needs. They certainly don’t seem to make the life of anyone who holds such beliefs any better…” (1).
Aunger was trained in anthropology, but like most American anthropologists he has probably paid little attention to the anthropological ideas of Emile Durkheim, little known and less appreciated by American social science. Yet the contrast between religious ideas that are “crazy” and practical ideas based on experience of the real world is central to Durkheim’s understanding of the sacred and of the social organization that it serves. The point of sacred ideas is not to tell us about the world, but to maintain communal “solidarity.” Calling religious ideas “memes,” a practice that Dawkins and his followers have taken well beyond the “crazy” domain of witchcraft to the central beliefs of major religions, is precisely the point where “memetics” comes into contradiction with anthropology.
Religious ideas, even “primitive” ones, are not “parasites,” and even ideas as “crazy” as those of witchcraft are freely affirmed by their believers rather than invading forces. How curious that after pooh-poohing as absurd the notion that witches can attack you in your sleep and eat your brain, Aunger affirms the even more absurd notion that the idea that this might happen can attack and parasitize our brain, presumably in broad daylight. What in fact could be more redolent of witchcraft than the idea that some ideational configuration in our brains has, even metaphorically, a survival drive of its own that selfishly carves out its territory within our nervous system against our will and to our detriment?
We need not make the concept of the meme bear a permanent stigma from its origin, but paying attention to its original role as a biological transfiguration of the social concept of the sacred gives us an insight into the problematic nature of the meme concept, as well as providing a plausible link between Dawkins’ invention of it and his subsequently foregrounded militant atheism. Aunger’s example brings out more clearly than anything in The Selfish Gene that the original purpose of the meme was to create a cultural analogy to Darwinism as a means to clarify the “mystery” of the uniquely human phenomenon of representation in general and sacred representation, or religion, in particular. By treating representations as virus-like “parasites” that “replicate” “selfishly” within the host on which they are dependent for their sustenance, the memeticist avoids concerning himself with the ways in which the emergent phenomenon of human culture is qualitatively different from rather than merely analogous to the process of biological evolution. This is not to deny that the analogies are of interest; but the fundamental problem of the originary function of representation—the question of human origin as a solution to the problem of mimetic violence—is thereby eluded.
Indeed, the idea that memes are representations, that is, free human creations, is just the opposite of the doctrine that conceives of them as “selfish” parasitic entities. If we choose as our meme example a tune, this seems independent of human language, comparable to a bird’s song, which as we know may be learned rather than genetically determined. But the ease with which we learn tunes has more in common with the ease with which we learn poems rather than prose than with animals’ mimetic facility. If representations have mnemonic features this is precisely because it is memorability that is their essential feature.
All representations, whether formal or institutional, to use the terminology of The Origin of Language, ultimately refer to a communal experience of deferred violence, to the originary sacred. The aspect of representations that makes them “memes,” their ease of retention and transmission, has nothing to do with “parasitism” and everything to do with their capacity for maintaining the social order. Musical rhythms and sounds, as well as verbal expressions, have been since the beginning part of ritual. No doubt there is an overlap between the mnemonic salience of a given series of notes or words and the biologically similar salience of a series of stimuli unrelated to representation, but the point to note is that human culture has appropriated wherever possible the biological facilities of such stimuli for its own purposes, and that the memes that make use of them are saturated with cultural values. However useful the notion of the meme may be in the era of the Internet, it must first be purged of its biological and anti-cultural bias. Memes are not alien parasites; they are human creations.
In the years that have passed since the first rash of books like Aunger’s, the meme has par la force des choses been divested of its biological bias. Or to be more precise, what might at first have been taken for biological contagion has given way to cultural contagion with what we might call a Girardian inflection. The analogy between a plague and a mimetic crisis does not give one a license to assimilate the artifacts of culture to microbes. A “viral” Internet video is human-created and meant to entertain us, not to “parasitize” our brains, however tempting the analogy between seduction and infection. We might just as well claim that high-calorie foods are parasites that use us to multiply their numbers—and no doubt we would if they were not, unlike memes, distributed by corporations. Human contagion, as Girard sometimes forgets to make clear, is mediated through cultural mechanisms that, whether or not they derive from an originary “scapegoating,” are perpetuated through systems of representation and deferral. That is ultimately the lesson of the meme.
The fact that the Internet has come to dominate the use of the term “meme” suggests that Dawkins’ biological analogy has found its “mature” meaning in the designation of the spread of essentially trivial, but creativity-inducing and unambiguously cultural material through an informal, decentered network. Since in principle the meme does not convey useful information any more than the language of the sacred, it is an essentially esthetic object, a template for a minimal scenic event.
The key characteristic of the (Internet) meme that has brought about the association of the adjective with the noun is its “rhizomatic” mode of distribution. Going viral is only possible for a phenomenon in which each new host becomes in turn a node of distribution, either sending on a manifestation of the meme, or (and this is in principle always possible) adding a new instance of his own. The similarity of this centerless distribution to the “contagion” of the sign in the originary scene is no accident. The meme is a sign whose popularity grows within the group; its esthetic reality provides a center of attention that is more important for the peripheral signers it brings together than for its own reflection of universal scenic truth. The “real” scene of the meme is less its own esthetic scene of representation than that of the social universe in which it operates. The meme creates a temporary sacred by offering a minimal form of the scene of representation. We attend to it, however momentarily, in preference to other distractions. No doubt it comes to us always-already popular; but this popularity is not unearned, it reflects a real claim on our interest, one that suffices after the take-off of its “viral” expansion to guarantee its continuation until saturation is reached. To accept to “host” a meme, one must freely agree that it at least minimally answers one’s expectations, allowing us to repeat it and at least tempting us to exemplify it for ourselves.
It is, I think, one more sign of the ultimate persistence of humanism, of the intuition that the human and its culture are fundamentally unique, that the notion of the meme, which was originally a biological analogy designed to allow us to conceive of esthetic and especially religious culture as composed of “parasitic,” self-perpetuating patterns, and whose lack of reference to practical reality suggests despite their status as human creations an alien, material rather than spiritual origin, can on the contrary provide a model of the cultural object and ultimately of the originary event of human representation. We should not regret the evolution of the term away from its biological origins. As we have seen so many times since the Enlightenment, all the efforts of mechanistic rationalism cannot reduce culture to nature, nor the human to the animal. Man cannot be theoretically reduced to living by bread alone.