Make Your Own Meme

- January 20, 2012

"...memes are formed starting at birth and get progressively more sophisticated and implanted throughout life"

Merriam-Webster defines “meme” as an idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.

Online Etymology Dictionary: 1976, “meme” introduced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976), coined by him from Greek sources, e.g. mimeisthai "to imitate," and intended to echo gene.

Richard Brodie, author of Microsoft Word, wrote Virus of the Mind: the New Science of the Meme in 1996. There's that term. It is getting around lately. What is a meme? “A meme is a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds” (Brodie). This is a mouthful, but to my mind not so complicated.

Here's my take on it: pet rocks, hula hoops and top chart albums. The examples are legion. Brodie's book cover illustrates the “conjuring trickery” of meme --- on the cover we see a raw human brain being injected by a hypodermic needle loaded with such logos as “CNN” and “GE.” The illustrated brain is already “infected” (following Brodie's lead metaphor “virus”) with other logos: FBI, Coca Cola, WalMart, Exxon, a dollar sign, a Christian cross and various other commonly-accepted symbols. I get that “meme” is, in part, just another term for “brand name.”

The Tea Party became a meme and recently so has Occupy / OWS. For my money, practically every “thing” could likely be a meme: the Episcopal church, the Democratic party, the middle class, the MBA degree, the family package of 2.5 children, a car and home mortgage, a blue blanket for the new-born boy----these are all memes. Could we not say that “marriage” defined as a union of a man and a woman is a meme, and there is a social attempt in progress to broaden the meme to include same sex couples. Memes to me refer to whole value systems as well as “things.” And all memes act as “memetic software" upon the genetic and socially-constructed hardware of our minds. Are memes merely “ideas who's time has come”?

Brodie's closing chapter, titled “Disinfection,” contains what most impresses me. If he compares memes to viruses, it follows that there is inclination to apply disinfectant. The question is, how do I “cure” myself of my memes? Cure is especially sought if I find my memes worn-out, maladaptive or unhealthy----or maybe I have just become plain bored with my old life-style, my enculturation. (There is a more well-known concept implicit here --- “cognitive restructuring”).

However, before we delve into this disinfection (purging), we need to see Brodie's explanation of how we got infected, how the memes were injected in the first place. ( I do not necessarily agree that all memes as memes have to be considered infections---these are Brodie's terms after all. Memes also are healthy and serve us very well).

Brodie says memes are formed starting at birth and get progressively more sophisticated and implanted throughout life. He refers to a two-step pyramid of learning---and a third and ultimate step, if we so choose to take it.

The first step of the pyramid of learning is automatic and memes are given in our genetic programming from birth. This level provides us with instinctual drives we and all animals have---the so-called “four Fs” --- fighting, fleeing, feeding and finding a mate. I have added two “F's” of my own: in addition to fight or flight there is the “freeze” response. My sixth “F” stands for “fixing,” as in drug addiction or abuse. Fixing can occur if the four Fs go sour or get out of hand.

Let us give some credit to Freud. The “F's” are likely his “the id-it”. But wait for it. The meaning of the “F's”-- four or six---becomes much clearer in Brodie's second step of the pyramid of learning. Our caregivers don't just leave us to play or wallow in our “F's"---our instincts. They want to move us as quickly as they can toward the socialization process, toward a good life---get us out of diapers and into regular clothes. Step two of the pyramid of learning consists, says Brodie, of the three “R's”: Reading, 'Riting, and 'Rithmatic. A friend suggested a fourth “R”---Religion. These four “R's” more or less contain all of man's ascent from the bog. Most people are quite happy and satisfied to live life in the energies of the five healthy “F's,” enlivened and potentiated by the four “R's”. If we are not “infected” by the “F” of “fixing”, life can go on at a rather nice pace and “God is in his heaven and all's right with man.”

Brodie jokes that two more “R's” can arise. The “F / R” complex can become a Rut, and worse, the Rat Race. Trouble with the latter is that even if you win, you're still a rat.  If I really get along in a life of consumerism and relatively comfortable conformity, then what's the problem? None really, unless I'm grousing or mindlessly burned-out---the life of "quiet desperation."

Please read Brodie for his global / social meme reprograming, for his insights about re-education with society-wide meme monitoring, meme analysis, meme creativity and human-consciousness raising. Here I will focus on the "personal, individual" process of meme reprograming.

Rut or rat race seem to me to be the lot of those who go on automatic, and have lost that fire in the belly. Life has become boring or uninspiring. Thus, Brodie says we have the chance to go beyond our programing by means of his proposed third and highest step of the pyramid of learning. Using the alphabet to the last, Brodie offers the three “P's”: Personal Programing and Purpose.   And I like that Brodie says “Outgrowing your belief system is more a transcendence than a repudiation.”

We might find ourselves asking by which memes we want to continue to be programmed, and which we want to choose anew? We may get to a point in life when we wonder if we have outgrown our socialization. (Cognitive restructuring is the agenda.) After all, we were not consulted by our caregivers. We were “thrown” (a term of Heidegger) into the world of memes.  I may question my Catholic faith and my parents' political sentiments. I may even go so far as to express "contempt for the tzars of fashion"---to quote the Penguin in Bat Man Returns.

Nietzsche's Take on It

In his Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Nietzsche, like Brodie, tells the story of life and growth in three stages. In the early life of childhood, Nietzsche tells, we are like a camel, passively taking on all the appropriate manners of social consensual reality. "Do this.  Don't do that."  We are pack animals, carrying forward all the rules in our little hearts and minds.  We pretty much say "Yes, yes, yes" to our elders and caregivers. Certainly, a lot of what we are told to do is helpful, even necessary to get along in life. ( See Robert Fulghum's All I Ever Really Needed to Know I learned in Kindergarten.”)

After a while, the camel can start to wonder: "Wait a second here! How much of this do I really need to do?"

And so the Camel morphs into the Lion, who roars a "Sacred No" and goes along his way, discarding the do's and don't's as best he can. Is this what is known as adolescent rebellion?  Yes.  If this shift occurs later in life, it commonly is called "mid-life crisis." However, any time a person wakes up with that dissatisfaction about life, the Lion in us is waking up.

This is not to say everybody wakes up.  People get stuck in either camel or lion states of mind, sometimes simultaneously, sometimes going back and forth between the two.

The Lion, too, can experience dissatisfaction with his lot. Lion can question if life in a state of defiance, moody vigilance and rebelliousness is really so satisfying or sustainable.

For Nietzsche, it is preferable that these two animal roles be left behind --they compare to Brodie's “F's and R's.”  “Man is something that should be overcome" said Nietzsche.  Then what's next?

The “Child”. Would you believe–the Child? And here, I hand the story over to Friedrich, himself---the great and darkly enlightened one. "But say, my brothers, what can the child do that even the lion could not do?  Why must the preying lion still become a child?  The child is innocence and forgetting, a new beginning, a game, a self-propelled wheel, a first movement, a sacred "Yes."  For the game of creation, my brothers, a sacred 'Yes' is needed: the spirit now wills his own will and he who had been lost to the world now conquers the world."  (Thus Spake Zarathustra," Part I, Walter Kaufmann translation.)

Brodie's summation of the three "P's" tracks well with Nietzsche's Child.  "Level 3 [and the Child] is learning to look at life as something to be created. . . .Go beyond  "your maze of knowledge, beliefs, goals and challenges", says Brodie. "It's complete personal freedom---freedom from societal pressures, freedom from guilt, freedom from mind viruses."

"In level 3, you pick a purpose for your life and hold it as your highest priority,” says Brodie.  There will be reprogramming as one faces the cognitive dissonances between old and new memes.  "After time, you'll find yourself becoming more and more effective at living your purpose."  Brodie counsels picking a vision and mission we find rewarding, motivating, meaningful, and fulfilling.

That pretty much covers my want in this essay. Go for it!  Make your own meme!

Another "F" has popped into my mind ---- a seventh "F".  This one is "F for Fun".  Oh yes, this adds a most salutary piece to the Sturm und Drang and anxiety of the six "Fs" already listed above.  For a most entertaining and enlightening review of the wonders of fun, view the video Discovering the intelligence of play --- a new model for a new generation of children Mendizza, Michael. Long Beach, Calif. : Touch the Future, c1997.