The concept of a reproducible element of culture has deep roots, and the transliteration of a word for it from a Greek root seems to have occurred on multiple independent occasions. Donald T. Campbell introduced the term “mnemone” for such an element in 1960. [1] Still, the word “meme” entered common usage only recently, with Richard Dawkins’ treatment of the word, and did not appear in the 1989 Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The online OED defines a meme as “A cultural element or behavioural trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (esp. imitation), is considered as analogous to the inheritance of a gene.” [2] This entry tracks the word only as far back as Dawkins and The Selfish Gene in 1976. In this book, Dawkins himself claims to invent the word and dictate its use and pronunciation. His etymology of the word comes not from the same Greek root as Mnemosyne, the embodiment of memory and mother of the muses, but from “mimeme,” or something that is imitated. [3]

“We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme... It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” [3]

Dawkins would subsequently become indelibly associated with the meme, and his opinions and statements on the state of the theory would be used by many as the most important gauge of the theory’s health. Nevertheless, memetics does not begin and end with him.

The need of a word for the meme existed before The Selfish Gene and has only increased since. For the whole history of human culture, traditions have been inherited and thought has been given to how they may be faithfully inherited and how they can change. Efficient, prolific, and faithful means of mechanical reproduction created an environment where culture could behave much like a gene pool and abstract cultural elements could be more easily personified. Currently, the need for a vocabulary to discuss memetics partially owes to the fields of cybernetics and “biocybernetics,” which study the mingling of life and artifice on a broader scale and could be said to encompass memetics. W.J.T. Mitchell’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Biocybernetic Reproduction” characterizes the emerging cybernetic sphere in a way that not only allows for the inclusion of memetics, but strongly implies it:

“within the very heart of the cybernetic the bios rears its head in very concrete forms – most conspicuously in the computational virus, but also in subtler forms… It’s not simply that living things become more like machines, but that machines now more than ever behave like living things.” [6]

The analysis of non-living and culture-based phenomena in biological terms is a practice that goes beyond memetics, and a media student may do well to find connections between purely informational and material cybernetics.

Because the analogy with the gene is part of the definition of the meme, it is presumable that, just as a creature has no control over its own genome, and just as a prospective parent may not be aware of the genetic disorders being passed to the child, memes can be given and received involuntarily. Dawkins notes in “Viruses of the Mind” that hardly anyone consciously admits to being affected by an advertisement, but businesses continue to invest in advertising and continue to observe its desired effects taking place. [4] Of course not everything transmitted through a medium is consciously received; more interesting to the media student is the possibility of a completely unconscious sending of a meme through a medium.

Although it is only implied in The Selfish Gene, Dawkins would later expressly characterize some pieces of self-replicating memetic information as “Viruses of the Mind” in his controversial essay of the same name. [3] By doing so, he connects memetics to the ancient motif of harmful sensation. Harmful sensations, both real and imagined, are diverse in the means by which they cause harm but united in their phobic message that curiosity can be taken to excess and that the prospective targets of media are lucky to be ignorant. Memes notwithstanding, harmful sensations either cause direct harm with their medium rather than its independent message, (such as a mythical killing gaze or David Cronenberg’s Videodrome signal,) or else they carry messages that are harmful for the states of mind they induce or the terrible truths they reveal (such as the fruit of Genesis or H.P. Lovecraft’s “Cthulhu mythos”). In either case, the message is either an inconsequential decoration of the medium or a lifeless weapon to be exploited by others. However, if a sensation is harmful because it carries a virulent meme, then the message becomes a personified enemy and the medium becomes a non-essential, replaceable weapon. The prospect of a cultural virus is even more terrifying than the simple killing gaze of a gorgon or basilisk, because overly fatal units of information would limit their own ability to spread. The most frightening meme, like the deadliest virus, gives the host time to infect others. From this perspective, exposure to media can become a threat to the integrity of the self or destroy the feeble boundaries of the self entirely. Also, the reversal of importance in the medium-message relationship and the personification of the message create concerns in the areas of ethics, authorship, and intellectual property. Words like “culprit,” “aggressor,” “author,” and even “victim” struggle to keep their meanings when malicious information is perceived as evolving and self-disseminating.

The study of self-replicating pieces of information is divided among the triad of genetics, computer science, and cultural studies. Parallels have been drawn between each pair, though all three are not completely alike. In “Viruses of the Mind,” Dawkins sets cultural and digital media together as he compares faiths and other virulent memes to computer viruses. “Any cynic familiar with the theory of selfish genes and memes would have known that modern personal computers, with their promiscuous traffic of floppy discs and e-mail links, were just asking for trouble. The only surprising thing about the current epidemic of computer viruses is that it has been so long in coming.” [4]

From the perspective of media studies, it is worth observing that treatments of memetics often assume that memes are medium-neutral. Perhaps deceptively, it stands to reason that an ideology read from a book can be the same meme as an ideology passed on orally or spread through comic-book tracts []. The perception that “self-interested” units of culture can wind through any media to find their hosts openly defies the appeals to medium specificity made by media theorists such as Clement Greenberg. To extend the comparison with genetics, media would be the sex organs by which memes are propagated to bury their seed in new minds. Even so, memes can clearly influence the way individuals relate to media, just as genes determine the traits of a creature’s sex organs. An alternative, somewhat conflicting way to compare memes with their media is to imagine media as the ever-changing environments in which memes compete for the means they need to survive and reproduce. Are memes at an evolutionary disadvantage when they switch media, as the proponents of medium specificity would predict, or might they grow out of control like a foreign species in a new ecological environment?

Memes are often thought of as dependent on verbal media for propagation, or at least as dependent on interpersonal experience that includes articulated information. To complicate the matter, completely nonverbal or inarticulable memes are likely much more difficult to track. However, speculation exists on the subject, such as Fritz Leiber’s short story "Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH- Tee" about a cadence coupled with an image that are so “catchy” or memetically fit that they spread across the human population and severely hamper humanity’s ability to do anything but reproduce them.[5] It may even be even possible for a meme to transcend the rift between word and image, conveying its memetic material on a frightening variety of fronts.

Some empirically minded or reactionary followers of media studies ask whether memes can be said to exist at all, and the multitude of manners and moods in which the word is used brings its practicality into question. Alister McGrath argues that “Dawkins talking about memes is like believers talking about God – an invisible, unverifiable postulate, which helps explain some things about experience, but ultimately lies beyond material investigation.” [1] Even the postulate, he argues, is vague and unnecessary compared to the foundationally solid and scientific theory of the gene to which the meme’s definition is bound. He says that “perhaps the most significant criticism of the ‘meme’ concept is that the study of cultural and intellectual development proceeds perfectly well without it. Economic and physical models – especially information transfer – have proved their worth in this context.” [1] Upon merely mentioning the meme as a unit or entity, the cultural or media theorist has to defend against criticisms and alternate models such as these.

Another concern about memetics is that the inheritance of memes seems to be “Lamarckian,” meaning that changes acquired during the lifetime of a meme are inherited by its progeny. This model of evolution, named after Jean-Baptiste de Lamarck, has long been widely dismissed as a terrible model of biological evolution, and some definitions of “evolution” specifically include the presence of a non-Lamarckian environment. [7] The observation that memes change their hosts’ experiences endangers the very definition of the meme, if we use the Oxford definition that includes analogy to biological evolution. Whether memes can truly involve in a Lamarckian environment, and even whether memes always follow the Lamarckian pattern, remains in question.

The fidelity of media is another issue in memetics, because the question of identity between memes is not as clear-cut as that of identity between genes. Dawkins himself admits that the meme cannot be currently located or isolated, and this makes the distinction between memes somewhat slippery and unscientific: “Another objection is that we don’t know what memes are made of, or where they reside. Memes have not yet found their Watson and Crick; they even lack their Mendel.” [7] Susan Blackmore puts it more elegantly, “Is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony a meme, or only the first four notes?” [7] Can two memes propagated through different media be identical? What separates a “mutated” meme from an entirely different meme? Could one ever decode a complete human memome? Genes are, so to speak, digital, while culture is the intangible analog that instills the genetic frame with infinite individuality.

As a word with a specific, recorded, recent origin, it is simpler to trace the totality of attitudes and analyses of “meme” than much of the vocabulary of media studies. The general question that encompasses the debate and criticism around the word is not “What should its meaning be?” but rather “Can the theory behind this word fruitfully describe the real behavior of culture?” Compared to most areas of media theory, memetics remains in a crisis that is unusually immediate, strongly linked to the empirical sciences, and potentially terminal.

Bill Volk
Winter 2007