Why Meme: what’s a meme and why do we make them?

Aug 9, 2018

TAA 0032 – C. Travis Webb discusses memes. He argues that typical discussions about memes, from their silliness to the gene-meme theory of Richard Dawkins, miss something very important about their function. He explains why The American Age produces memes and how they’re related to Buddhist prayer flags.

C.T. WEBB 00:00  [music] Good afternoon, good morning, or good evening and welcome to The American Age podcast. Today I am talking to myself. Seph and Steven both had prior commitments today, which we all knew about. Steven was going to make an effort to join us, but he’s on a road trip and it just was impossible, and Seph is in the midst of finishing his book. 
C.T. WEBB 00:46  We didn’t want to miss a week, and so I’m going to give this a go by myself. I’m going to do my best to keep it relatively short because I’m not Rush Limbaugh nor Alex Jones. As much as I like to hear the sound of my voice when I’m talking, I prefer to be talking to people, not that I don’t hope that there are listeners out there and are engaged in our various conversations, but my self-indulgence definitely has limits. So the topic I thought I’d talk about today when I was sort of kind of wandering through a variety of books, and snippets, and poems, etc., I decided to talk about memes. And I wanted to talk about it because I thought maybe I could provide some context for how I think about memes in the context of The American Age. So everyone basically knows what a meme is, I assume, if you’re listening or alive in the 21st century. A lot of times, it gets collapsed in a variety of ways. You’ve got cat memes and kind of just various little humorous transmissions. Someone like Richard Dawkins, the author of The Selfish Gene, has this gene-meme analogy, which is, honestly, a little bit simplistic and flat. There are some more serious thinkers in that area than Richard Dawkins. Not that I don’t think Dawkins is a very qualified biologist. I’m sure he is. I’m not really pedigreed in that area to evaluate him as a scientist, but I assume he knows his stuff. He seems to in his books, although I’ve really only picked my way through a couple of them. But as far as a reader of culture, he’s a bit of an ideologue. There’s a lack of flexibility, I think, in his thinking, and his polemics against religion are adolescent. 
C.T. WEBB 02:59  Memes, in the sense that I use them, I’m going to get to in a second. But one of the ways– I’d like to give a more specific criticism of Dawkins. One of the things – I’m not the first to notice or to argue this in relation to Dawkins’s use of memes – this idea that, essentially, a meme functions like a gene in that it’s the smallest cultural unit of an idea. And these memes get transmitted between cultures the way genes, ACTG, gets transmitted between organisms through sexual reproduction or, obviously, asexual reproduction as well, but as humans, we’re unfamiliar with that, so at least subjectively. So this idea that you can transmit the bit of a culture in a meme, and this is one of the ways that ideas spread. It’s a pretty simplistic notion mainly because, I think, in many ways it resembles semiotics, so semiotics meaning the study of signs. So we’ve talked about this on the podcast before, signs being something that is signified, that produces a sign. And so writing is a sign. Syllabaries, meaning syllables as units of sound, are a sign. Hieroglyphics would be a sign, you know, a stop sign. So signs, basically, gesture or point to some other reality than themselves. So a stop sign, for example, though it is clearly what it is, a stop sign, it is gesturing toward some action in the world. It is requiring you to stop. Your name written on a piece of paper – so my name being Travis written on a piece of paper – isn’t really about the letters, the syllables “Tra” and “vis.” It’s a reference to this other person in the world, namely, me. So signs point to something else. 
C.T. WEBB 05:14  Memes become just collapsed signs. So it’s sort of like pure surface. So the idea is that somehow the meme contains its meaning, which is, of course, nonsense because if the sign contained its meaning, anyone listening to this show right now could go pick up a cuneiform tablet and you could just pick it up and read what Ashurbanipal was doing or something like that. You, of course, cannot do that because you need to know what these are referenced to. So memes, I think, in the Dawkins sense, are in kind of their common usage beyond sort of cat memes. It’s just too simplistic. 
C.T. WEBB 05:58  We use memes in The American Age under an entirely different theory. And it is a theory. It’s something I thought quite a lot about before we decided to launch The American Age. And its closest analogue– and, by the way, as I describe this, any listeners that have sort of thought through semiotics or signs, I’m not arguing that you could not read what The American Age is doing in a semiotic sense. I’m not saying that somehow what we’re doing is beyond kind of normal means of interpretation. What I’m suggesting is that the impetus, the motivation for creating the memes that we create and putting them out there has a different inspiration and objective than can just be contained in the simple semiotic reading. 
C.T. WEBB 07:03  So the analogy is this. I don’t know if any of those listeners are familiar with Tibetan prayer flags, but they’re usually pretty colorful. You can go and google them. If you’re curious – you want to see what they look like – I’m sure there’s videos on YouTube as well. But prayer flags– I said Tibetan. I should have said Buddhist prayer flags. Tibet– Vajrayana Buddhism is definitely not the only form of Buddhism that uses prayer flags. So Buddhist prayer flags typically have mantras written on them, or sutras. So these are sutras that are basically verses from the bible, so collective wisdom of the Buddha. Sometimes the sutras get condensed into very short and down to the level of a mantra that contains some kind of meaning. The idea behind the flag is that when they blow in the wind, which in a lot of these high-altitude places where Buddhism took hold, Tibet being one of them, the Himalayas – sorry, my Sanskrit training failing me right there – highly windswept plateaus and really, I suppose, anywhere in the world. That’s probably just overly pedantic of me. The wind blows these flags. And when they snap in the wind, the idea is that that sutra or mantra is being iterated. So every time a flag, so those little blue prayer flags, the little red prayer flags, gold prayer flags, every time they snap in the wind, that mantra or sutra is being spoken by the world. It’s such a beautiful little concept. 
C.T. WEBB 08:54  Now, of course, do I think Tibetan yak farmers or something like that, when they wander out of their homes and start their day out in the field, or farming, or socializing, are they necessarily sitting there thinking, “Oh, sutra, sutra, sutra, mantra, mantra, mantra”? No, probably not, no. I mean, that’s sort of the noble, peasant idea, kind of the Dickensian idea of the nobility of the peasantry. And you get this in George Eliot’s Adam Bede, I think the name of that novel is. But no, I’m not saying that the peasants that plant these flags are constantly thinking about their Buddha nature. Of course, that’s not true. Of course, they’re sore, or aching, or in a hurry and need to get whatever done that day in order to meet some other appointment later or to meet friends. Of course, they’re filled with the same pedestrian preoccupations in a different context than you or I are. But the theory or the idea underlying it, the random farmer that stops their day, wipes their brow, stands on the plateau, and takes a moment to see these flags flapping in the wind, to see that moment of possible transcendence, that fleeting thought that sort of flicks across the mind of their place in a great chain of human beings before and after them, their place in the cosmos of suffering, whatever their particular cosmology might be. 
C.T. WEBB 10:44  In Tibet, in particular, you get this blending of Buddhism and Shamanism, the traditional Tibetan Bon religion, but that idea that a blessing is being repeated. And even though 9,999 times out of 10,000, the person passes by without thinking about it, there’s that 1 time in 10,000 where someone stops – or maybe they don’t stop – but they have that thought, whatever the sutra, whatever the mantra is on the flag, or maybe they’re not even aware of what the sutra or mantra is, but they know that it is a blessing that is snapping there in the wind over, and over, and over, and over again, I mean, thousands of times in the day if you count each sort of flutter of the flag. In the traditional sort of theorizing amongst monks, they believe that this has some positive effect in the world. And I am probably gullible enough to believe the same thing. I am gullible enough to believe the same thing. I think that those tiny little things matter. I think those brief respites, those moments of transcendence, those signs that gesture somewhere else, that point somewhere else, matter. And I think they matter in ways that are not easily calculable. They matter in ways that are not figurable, but they matter nonetheless. That is The American Age’s theory behind our use of memes. 
C.T. WEBB 12:34  So we may find some photo or picture, the earth, or a vista, or a sunrise. It’s tough to not find cliched images, even though cliches don’t scare me, and we could probably have another discussion about cliches at some point, but I’ll try not to go down that road too far. But you find some image and pair it with what I would consider a snippet of wisdom, something important to know or remember. And that meme going out into the virtual space, so the Internet, and getting in front of people’s eyeballs, that 9,999 times out of 10,000, the person sees it. They like it. They don’t like it. They ignore it. They move on, and it doesn’t register. It’s just another thing that goes through their sort of consumer gullet, just sort of like endless, rapacious maw for consumption. I know that. I’m gullible in some ways and quixotic in others, but not foolish. So I know that most of the time, the vast majority of the time, it just gets ignored. But that one time when whomever it might be who had a very difficult day, who had a really great day, who had a mediocre day, who happened to muster in that exact instant enough attention, and focus, and care to connect with that meme and take it somewhere, that somewhere for themselves, somewhere personal. 
C.T. WEBB 14:35  I had an experience of this that reminded me of why we started this. I went to the doctor to do some just minor procedure. And well, I guess, so in order to follow Seph’s advice to be grounded, I was getting a mole checked. And so they go in and they prep you and do all this stuff. And in the nurse’s station, there was this little, I guess, sort of a meme, even though it wasn’t a meme. It was clearly cut out of a magazine, though we’re using meme in a pretty expansive sense right now. And it said, “Work until your idols become your rivals.” Yeah, I’d never heard that. I certainly know that idea. That’s very much a cliche. I hadn’t seen that one before. I’ve seen a lot of cliches. I’m pretty conversant in them. I try not to use them too much. But this was one that I hadn’t seen before. And for whatever reason, at that moment, I happened to be paying the right kind of attention, having a fairly affable interaction with this nurse. And I thought, “Yeah. That’s a pretty good bit of knowledge to kick out into space and for someone to stumble across.” And it preoccupied me for a little bit of that day and caused me to think through some things and think about The American Age in some productive ways. 
C.T. WEBB 16:04  And so that’s what we’re doing with our memes. That’s why we make them, is for that 1 in 10,000th person that allows– that’s a little too self-involved. I was going to say, allows themselves to see. That sort of suggests the sort of the font of wisdom coming from me, pouring forth from me. That’s not what I mean. But I mean that it’s going to work for someone, or that’s the hope. I mean, I certainly can’t know if that’s the case, but that is definitely the hope that this makes a difference and causes someone to reflect on their life or the lives of those around them in a more positive way. 
C.T. WEBB 16:56  Clearly, prayer flags, and undoubtedly there are a variety– probably the counting of rosaries and other than as a mindfulness practice, I mean, the counting of rosaries as a habit, because I know there are Christian meditative mindfulness practices that use rosary beads. I’m talking about it in a more mindless way as a comfort that occasionally might cause someone to reflect. I don’t think these things will change the world. I don’t even know that the world needs to be changed or should be changed, for that matter. But again, that’s another podcast. But I do think, I do believe, that it can have some small effect, not enough of an effect. That’s why we have the other programs at The American Age. It’s why we do the podcast. That’s why we have the TV show or aspirational TV show, The Moral Imagination. That’s why we do the website, and we’ll have a print publication next year, because you have to really try and move the dial. You have to engage at a variety of levels and a multiple of levels. But one of the reasons that very large-scale, transcendentally oriented communities of strangers, i.e., religion – I tiptoe around that word because my own scholarly work is about taking the concept of religion apart, but let’s just say, as a shorthand, religion – a lot of those traditions survived for as long as they survived and thrived for as long as they thrived because they weren’t just doing one thing. It wasn’t just a bunch of bishops counting the number of hairs on the head of an angel. It wasn’t a bunch of Tibetan monks making sand mandalas. It wasn’t a bunch of imams collecting poll taxes. It wasn’t just navel-gazing or self-regard. These traditions survived because they met people where they were at many times. They ministered to the poor. They treated the sick. They presided over major transitions in people’s lives. This is why these traditions are endearing. And of course, The American Age doesn’t aspire to– we’re not out to perform weddings or speak at funerals, but we are after, we are about the resiliency of community and the, what I consider, noble end of helping human beings see past themselves, aspire to something beyond themselves. Not memes, but signs: signs of another place, signs of another time, signs of another way or possibility of being. We don’t have to realize that world in our lifetimes and, in fact, probably cannot realize that world in any lifetime, but just the effort, just the pursuit, the chase, the work to make that world, makes this world better. 
C.T. WEBB 20:11  So that’s what I’ve got for memes. That’s why we make them. I’ll end it there. That’s 20 minutes of talking, so hopefully, that went by quickly for the listeners out there or was engaging. I hope it was. Next week we’ll be back. I think we have a full house next week. I think Steven and Seph will both be back next week. In any case, thanks very much for listening. This is The American Age podcast. [music] 


First referenced at 02:08

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

The Selfish Gene has become a classic exposition of evolutionary thought. Professor Dawkins articulates a gene’s eye view of evolution – a view giving centre stage to these persistent units of information, and in which organisms can be seen as vehicles for their replication.

First referenced at 09:26

Adam Bede by George Eliot

George Eliot’s first full-length novel, Adam Bede paints a powerful portrait of rural life, seduction, faith, and redemption.


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