6 Unburned Pieces of The Mind
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20050712

Couch Potatoes, Dweebs, and Memes

As a writer I am always fascinated by how certain words or phrases come into use, and how people sometimes readily use what’s popular or current to express how they are feeling or thinking about any number of things without actually having to think or feel. What’s particularly fascinating about certain idioms or catch phrases is how we so easily glom onto them. By becoming a part of the common vernacular, these expressions or colloquiums in turn describe and define not only the culture of a specific decade, but also an entire generation.

The eighties especially were prolific in spawning coined words and catch phrases. Awesome became annoyingly irksome, and eventually was replaced by bitchin’. And most everybody was easily categorized as couch potatoes, dinks, airheads, yuppies, Joanies, jocks, dweebs and scumbags. To be spontaneous meant going horizontal. And everything about the eighties was way cool. The proliferation continued on into the nineties with back in the day, stylin’, tweak, wacked, going postal, and chillin’ just to name a few.

And so it is with our current decade. During the early 2000’s when I was interviewing for teaching positions, I began to pick up on how my answers to certain questions that were asked of me became a “nice segue.” Segue to what I was never sure of, but whenever I heard it expressed by the person interviewing me, I took it that we were connecting on some deep, personal level. Unfortunately not to the level, though, where I was offered a position.

Presently, one word that seems to have increased in amplitude during the last year has been “meme.” I never heard of it until a few months back when I encountered a blog that featured “book memes.” Curious as to what a “book meme” was, I read the individual’s posts only to discover that what she was featuring were no more than reviews of books that she had recently read. And so my question then was why would a simple review or critique of a literary work be considered a meme? Not exactly sure what the term meant, I decided to look it up. Quite a few dictionaries later I finally found this entry in the 2000 edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, which defines meme as “a unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.”

Mulling the definition about a few times to try and get the flavor of it, I remained undecided as to whether or not I liked the taste. To think of a book as a “unit of cultural information” somehow seemed so utilitarian. A little research later I discovered that Richard Dawkins coined the word meme from the Greek, mimema (The Selfish Gene, 1989, p.192), which basically translates as, “that which is to be imitated.” His argument is that certain concepts or ideas related to skills, habits, catch phrases, song, clothing, etc., are passed on person to person in a manner that he describes as a process of replication, (ibid). For Dawkins meme is analogous to gene, and as such should be considered as “living structures” much in the same way as genes, and propagate themselves by a process of imitation. By passing on ideas, believes, phrases, songs, etc., to other individuals, according to Dawkins, you are in essence using their minds as hosts for “propagating” memes from individual to individual much in the same way “that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell,” (ibid).

To me it seems that to describe “imitation” in terms of living structures much in the same way as “genes” strikes me as one of those wild inductive leaps that smacks more of contrivance than science. And yet “meme” seems to have replicated itself in such fervor that it is becoming more evident as to how many people are beginning to make it a part of their everyday vernacular. Do a search on Google and you’ll not only find “book memes,” but you can also find “learning memes,” “personal memes,” “logical memes,” and so on. Even more curious is a recent e-mail that people are passing on to each other that’s called a “meme baton.” I’ve received three invitations to participate, and so far have decided to take a pass. Two of the “meme batons” had to do with music and one had to do with books. The purpose of the “meme baton” is to answer a series of questions, and then pass it on to three other people:

You’re stuck inside Fahrenheit 451. Which book do you want to be?
Have you ever had a crush on a fictional character?
The last book you bought is?
What are you currently reading?
Five books you would take to a deserted island?
Who are you going to pass this stick to (3 persons) and why?

As the “meme baton” replicates itself from email to email I have to wonder what happens should you choose not to pass it on. Does the “meme” die? Or are you cursed in some way for choosing not to participate? What I find particularly troubling is that a few people who have sent me an invitation express amazement at how contagious this “meme baton” has become. Contagious? It’s as if they had no choice but to respond and pass it on. They were not necessarily compelled to do so, but instead, as Dawkins might put it, were infected to participate.

I wish I could go back a few thousand years or so and seek out Socrates. It would be interesting to see what kind of dialogue we could intitiate in trying to define what a meme is. If it is a process of replication by which invidivuals pass on ideas, beliefs, and so forth as Dawkins describes, then it would seem to me that this would raise a few philosophical questions in determining the validity of his argument. What happens, for example, if an idea is not passed on. Does that mean that idea no longer exists? Do we love, hope, cherish, and pray because our brains have been replicated to do so? And if much of what we do in life is no more than a process of imitation and replication, then what about free will? Perhaps I am begging the issue, but what troubles me about Dawkins’s theory is that ideas, beliefs, and emotions can be so easily quantized and explained without necessarily debating the validity of those ideas, beliefs, and emotions. And so I wonder, just what kind of abstraction am I dealing with here that my poor, humble mind doesn’t understand?

References:
Dawkins, R., The Selfish Gene( Oxford University Press, 1989).

S. L. Cunningham