Thursday, 10 February 2011

A meme streak

Last night's Newsnight saw Paul Mason appealing to the notion of 'memes' for the circulation of radical ideas. (He'd already floated the idea on his BBC blog). I hadn't intended to get into the question of meme-theory here yet. It's quite a broad field, as I've found in my doctoral research.
I've not been convinced by memes thus far. To a great extent they seem like a judgemental short cut advanced by disapproving scientists to account for religion without viewing it in any broader social context. To quote an abstract by Susan Blackmore, 'Not only does the God meme satisfy minds that were not evolved to accurately assess the origins of the universe or the likelihood of life after death, but wraps itself up in religious memeplexes that use threats and promises to ensure their own propagation'.
There are a number of problems with this. For one, it doesn't really account for contrary theories held by minds presumably at exactly the same evolutionary disadvantage. As some critics have noted, there does not seem to be a tendency for bad memes to be countered by good ones. In the work of Richard Dawkins, for example, there is a tendency for bad memes to be countered by rational criticism, which doesn't seem to have memetic status. (1) Indeed, some scientists have pointed to this problem more generally. Lewis Wolpert has written 'Just what a meme is, and how it is distinguishable from beliefs, I find difficult. Is the word "bird" a meme, and is the second law of thermodynamics also one?' (2)
This tendency of memetics reveals a lack of familiarity with the study of traditional narrative and its transmission. Schrempp has pointed out that folklorists have long dealt with the transmission of traditional narrative elements - 'less ideologically and more scientifically', he notes archly - in trait and motif studies. (3)
A related problem, with more serious implications, is the implication that these motifs are themselves responsible for their own transmission. (This is clearer in Blackmore's writings than in Dawkins's). Folklorists' examination of motifs and types does not proceed from the assumption that the stories are transmitting themselves. What sounds like the ultimate in materialism from the memeticists is a way of removing human agency from cultural artefacts. It gives the idea supremacy in its philosophical framework. If you tell a myth, or believe in a god, this is evidence of your human failings in the face of quasi-genetic elements, rather than any cultural expression.
Distasteful though I may find it intellectually, however, the 'meme' has acquired a certain folk life as a way of representing transmitted ideas. You do find it in popular discussion, and in that respect it must be taken seriously. It exists as a popular and vague definition. (I don't like the popular use of 'folklore' to mean something false, but I recognise it exists, and has to be factored into any appraisal of emic analysis).
What's interesting about Mason's appeal to memes is that you see that process at work. Although he pays lip service to the notion of self-replication, in practice he actually abandons much of the contentious baggage because he sees it in terms of agent-driven communication: 'ideas arise, are very quickly "market tested" and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory ... seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes'.
I still find it a vague and unhelpful concept, in origin profoundly ignorant of any study of traditional communication, but there does seem to be some attempt to use memes now to express something closer to the items that people transmit between themselves. There seems to be some attempt to restore human matter to the transmission of non-material artefacts between people. To restore the folk to the folklore, maybe?
* * * * * * * * * *
1: Gregory Schrempp, 'Taking the Dawkins Challenge, or, The Dark Side of the Meme', Journal of Folklore Research, 46.1 (2009), 91-100.
2: Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p. 30.
3: Schrempp, 'Dawkins', 98.


  1. I am afraid I don't have my analytical head on today, so am only getting the main thrust of what you are writing...

    In terms of transmission material artifacts sometimes they do appear to acquire 'lives of their own' (or this more likely this is just human agency at work). I am thinking of the 'three hares/rabbits' motif that probably was created somewhere in animist China or Tibet, crossed all the major religions in lesser or greater degrees and now is finding a home in Christian, secular, polytheistic and animist beleifs/groups in my Dartmoor home-village. The reasons this motif has been appropriated seem to be culturally specific semiotics on one hand, but are also something to do with the design itself and how it speaks to a speiceis wide apreciation of balance and mystery...

    Sorry about the pointlessly academic words, I am too brain-dead to write properly in English!

    Link to three hares motif -

  2. I've become very aware how easy (and natural) it is to write about things adapting, when we really mean that people adapt things. There's nothing wrong with this as a way of writing, but meme-theory (as far as I can see) takes it as literally true.

    So the broad circulation of motifs and artefacts is interesting because of what it tells us about cultural interests, and the availability of those motifs to different groups of people through human contact.

    However, folklorists have a responsibility not to get drawn into unsupportably broad and speculative claims. As a friend of mine put it, 'just because things look the same doesn't mean they are'. A lot of early folklore speculated on great transhistorical leaps without any attempt to show how these might have taken place. (I therefore have reservations about 'archetypes' - these assume as given a hypothesis about the reasons for transmission, as far as I can see, although I'm sure plenty of people would disagree with me about that).

    However tempting it might be, unless we can actually postulate a chain of transmission we might just be connecting dots that aren't actually connected. (I've been aware of the temptation myself, when looking at folklore about rats: there at least you have a common experience of rats, but that doesn't necessarily imply the shared circulation of folkloric motifs). There's always a danger of generalising a bigger picture from some smaller details that aren't sufficiently clear.

    Having said all that, I love the three hares image (and hare-lore more generally), and I'm always ready to see more ideas and discussion of it.