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The Usefulness of Memes

ewashburn's picture

 For all I think memes are problematic, I can see why it would be useful for Dennett and Dawkins to employ them. If one wants to trace cultural development, it's helpful to encapsulate certain cultural traits as "building blocks" in order to follow their development across history. I have to say, I'm even pretty intrigued by the idea of boiling an element of culture down to its most basic elements. In Professor Dalke's discussion group on Thursday, we tried to discuss the meme of LOLcats, and started breaking it down to its basic elements (a picture and a mispelled, somewhat incongruous caption) to see how it managed to spawn other, similar trends (ie. Advice Wolf, Hipster Ariel, etc.).

Still, even though I see how memes can be useful, I'm still frustrated by their inherent oversimplification. Cultural landmarks are so complex, so nuanced, that it seems very difficult to boil them down to a simple "building block" without overgeneralizing or oversimplifying the things that make up that "meme." LOLcats, sure, is a picture and a mispelled caption, but it's also a certain sense of humor on the internet, the appeal of cats in funny positions, the cleverness of the props, the quality of the caption itself. And who knows from where LOLcats sprang? The idea of memes as an organizational tool is an interesting one, but until their oversimplifying can be checked, their organizational potential cannot fully be realized.


Sarah Schnellbacher's picture

Running wild with a thesis

I too have a problem with Dennett's analogy of memes to genes. Within our DNA there is a set limit on the number of genes we posses, but everything within a biological system derives from this set of genes. I feel that for memes to be the building blocks of culture there would almost need to be an infinite number of memes and new original memes are always forming. If memes are strictly archetypal, then some parts of our culture would slip through the cracks and would be "sky hooks" in the sense that they lack a foundational source. Though memes may be useful for sorting purposes, an infinite number of memes makes sorting almost useless. I think it is helpful in a broad sense to think of memes as building blocks of culture as Dawkins does, but Dennett takes the analogy too far. His analysis of Dawkins' meme reminds me of an article in a journal I read last year in which the author used economic systems as an analogy for defining species. The analogy was helpful for understanding how hybrids fit into species concepts but the author erred in going too far with his analogy to the point that he was modeling nature off of economics when economics is really modeled off of nature. If an economic law changes, nature will not do so readily in response. I feel that authors like Dennett become so wrapped up in their own theories that the theories take on a life of their own regardless of whether or not they reflect reality, which one can see by the fact that almost all of Dennett's references are his own books.  I think of a pun from the German author Bertolt Brecht's Geschichten vom Herrn Keuner "Wenn Herr K. einen Menschen liebte"

"Was tun Sie", wurde Herr K. gefragt, "Wenn Sie einen Menschen lieben?" "Ich mache einen Entwurf von ihm", sagte Herr K., "und sorge, dass er ihm ähnlich wird." "Wer? Der Entwurf?" "Nein", sagte Herr K., "der Mensch."

This translates to English "What would you do if you loved a man?" Mr. K was asked. Mr. K responded, "I would make a draft of him, and would make sure that he was the same as him." "Who? The draft?" Mr. K responded, "No, the man."

I feel this pun sums up nicely how we tend to form a thesis and then run wild with it without check.


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