Thursday, May 10, 2012

Catachresis of the Meme: An Ironical Phenomenon of Self-Annihilation

Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" in the 1970s to describe the unit in cultural evolution that corresponds to the "gene" familiar in biological evolution. For Dawkins, a meme referred to both ideas and the physical, behavioral and social manifestations of ideas. Like genes, memes replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures. This happens through various forms of cultural transmission: writing, speech, gesture, music, image - pretty much anything imitable or reproducible.

In recent years, the term "meme" has entered common parlance with a different meaning than that designated by Dawkins and his academic colleagues and acolytes. The new meaning is related yet distinct from that used first in the 1970s. The phrase "internet meme" generally refers to a new breed of inside joke that spreads via the Internet. The most recognizable example is a funny image accompanied by a pithy caption rendered in a bulbous font.

I am going to suggest here that the term "meme" is now much better known as part of the phrase "internet meme" than as the academic concept developed by Richard Dawkins. I have no comprehensive survey to back this assertion. I am making an anecdotal observation and would welcome anyone to disabuse me of the notion if there is significant evidence contradicting this understanding.

Assuming that I am correct, the very phenomena that Dawkins described using the term "meme" is currently working to annihilate (or at least supersede) the meaning of the term "meme." The relationship between replication, mutation, and selective pressures that operates to shape culture in memetic evolution has led to the term "meme" replicating more widely only by mutating to mean something more accessible - an inside joke spread on Facebook.
Hegel would be proud.
This strange vortex of meaning - and the evolution of that meaning - swirling around the term "meme" seems to be a perfect example of the Hegelian Dialectic.

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