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In what follows we shall be questioning concerning memes. Our question is: what is the essence of the meme? According to ancient doctrine, the essence of a thing is considered to be what the thing is. But what is a meme? To ask this question can seem trivial: everybody knows that memes are mere images, which are reproduced with variations, to produce a humoristic effect. In fact, why should we be questioning at all when Wikipedia already has the answer to everything? Consulting it only confirms our pre-conceived notion of the meme:

“An Internet meme, more commonly known simply as a meme (/miːm/ MEEM), is a type of meme that is spread via the Internet, often through social media platforms and especially for humorous purposes.”

Nonetheless we ask: are memes really a new form of comedy?

There are many memes that are not funny at all, yet noone would deny that they are memes…

We shall be questioning concerning memes, and in so doing we should like to prepare a free relationship to them. The relationship will be free if it opens our human existence to the coming into presence of memes. We will only achieve this if we try, for once, to face things without resorting to abstract definitions which preclude in advance memes from coming into presence in their truth.

But if we can’t resort to Wikipedia, what else do we have left?

Whenever the essence of a thing scapes our grasp, language is what saves us. In the original act of naming, the essence of the thing is always the guide. Today we hear the word meme and we think of memes. Yet when memes were first given this name, the word was what granted meaning to the thing and not the other way around.

We consult the dictionary and we find:

noun

noun: meme; plural noun: memes

1. an element of a culture or system of behaviour passed from one individual to another by imitation or other non-genetic means.

2. an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations. 1970s:

from Greek mimēma ‘that which is imitated’

The word meme then comes from the greek mimesis which we can translate as “imitation”. However, to understand mimesis as a mere copy is not adequate. The constant copying of information which is the basis of digital devices is not, in a strict sense, mimesis because the mediation of difference is lacking. Almost in passing, the dictionary offers us the key to the essence of the meme: “(a meme is) an image, video, piece of text, etc., typically humorous in nature, that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations.”

Memes are indeed copied but this is only the process through which an already existing meme spreads itself. A meme is created when difference is introduced into an already existing schema, resignifying it. Or is that memes are strictly speaking the schema? When we face a meme, are we experiencing a mere image? It seems that our experience of each memetic image supposes, if we are to experience it as a meme, a previous familiarity with an schema of which the present image is a variation. Every meme then includes two distinguishable elements: the memetic schema and the actual physical image which introduces a clever variation to the original. Is this a novel form of mimesis?

To understand mimesis as a mere copy is to forget the meaning that this word had for the Greeks. When Aristotle claims that imitation is essential to art, he is not thinking of a frame by frame copy of the image offered to our senses by the real physical object. Aristotle understands mimesis in terms of an imitation of the creative process already inherent in nature, in physis. Physis is the greek word for nature but to understand it as a mere agregate of elements which together make up the “natural world” is, again, to forget the meaning that this word had for the Greeks. The word physis literally means “what emerges”. It comes from the root phúō which means to bring forthproducegenerate or cause to grow. Physis is then not a dead collection of elements whose sum makes up the whole of nature but rather something essentially dynamic. Nature was understood by the Greeks as a productive force, a cyclical process of becoming where organisms blossom and wither, of life that emerges and submerges itself back into nothingness. Is this aristotelian conception of mimesis the very essence of the meme?

The meme is the memetic schema together with the actual image in front of us. A meme is alive (memes can die, they can fall into oblivion) as long as the meme is copied. However, the mere repetition of a meme ad nauseum only hastens its end. In order for a meme to live, new variations of the schema are necessary.  As Heraclitus already understood, the very foundation of identity lies in change. Just as if the waters of a river stop flowing, they stagnate and the river loses its purity, soon ceasing to exist, the flow of information that constitutes the matter of the meme (the digits that are translated into the pixels in front of our eyes) must vary permanently for a meme to remain a meme.

To create a meme then cannot be reduced to the mechanical activity of copying through the commands Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V. It rather requires that we become familiar with the memetic schema which potentially contains an infinite number of variations to be actualized in the particular memetic images. According to Aristotle, this is precisely the task of the artist. The artist does not merely copy nature by imitating the streaks of colour that impress our senses but rather in imitating nature as a creative force. The artist assumes the creative role of nature by bringing forth a work of art. Are memes then a new form of art?

We should enquire what KIND of imitation is present in the meme. While in the type of art that is called mimetic what is imitated is something real (a person, a landscape, etc.), in the meme all that is imitated are memes themselves. A work of art is either unique (a painting for example, there is only one original) or reproducible (like a photogragh) but in the latter case the work is always reproduced with no variations. The work is only reproduced with the aim of spreading it, without modifying its content in any way. Instead, memes are reproduced through variations.

Works of art do not ussualy exhibit their archetypes or the process of their creation, they simply actualize the infinite possibilities that were contained in the material into one concrete direction. Instead, memes divest themselves of this decision. Instead of choosing to actualize the infinite possiblities that were avaiable to the artist in one final and definitive version of the work of art, memes aim to exhaust a formula by showcasing all the possiblities that it contained. If memes are art, they are a unique medium in so far as they suppose a creative type of reproduction through constant variation.

But perhaps this is not so original. The idea that works of art are fixed compositions that can be reproduced just as the author wants them to be reproduced is something new. In the past, musical pieces depended on constant re-interpretation too.  There were no recordings to fix for once and for all the official version of the work. Instead, every time the score (the memetical schema?) was reproduced, the work as such was re-interprated. A similar relationship exists between movies and the live performance of dramatic works. In fact, the very idea of an author behind the work is contingent. For a very long time, poems were anonymous works that were reproduced with variations (at least with the minimal variations imposed by the limits of memory) by word of mouth.  

We chose to face a phenomenon that seemed novel and we found that it exhibits characteristics which could be deemed archaic. If memes are art, then they challenge the central suppositions that articulated our conception of what art is for centuries. Memes do not have authors, but they aren’t anonymous in the usual sense either. They are not the work of a single nameless artist: memes exist only in so far as they are shared and modified by a potentially infinite number of hands. Memes do not have a fixed form: they are the result of a potentially infinite variation of an original schema. In the creative process of an artist, schemas are mere abstractions that serve as a preliminary guide. Something like Wittgestein’s ladder, the schema is destroyed once we arrive at the finished work of art. At risk of seeming trivial, no work of art dares to show the abstractions and concepts that lead it to become what it is. Memes are the inversion of this relationship between concept and work. The particular images that actualize the schema are less important than the schema itself. They could be deemed mere excuses to reutilize the schema.

But then: are memes truly art? It seems essential to all kinds of art that their value resides in our embodied experience of the work. Works of art cannot be explained as memes can. In this regard, memes seem more closely related to jokes than to art. One can get what a meme means or not, but it is easy to explain a meme. Works of art are different. They can be explained but the personal experience of the work by the individual always remains irreductible to the explanation of others. Moreover, every great work of art admits many different interpretations. It seems that this cannot be said of memes…

But maybe we should backtrack and ask a simpler question: if memes don’t need to be funny, what is it that memes need to be? All memes are designed to be understood by at least one group of people. A meme that can’t be understood, a variation that departs too much from the original schema, is a bad meme. However, being familiar with the schema is not sufficient to understand a meme because the variation is done taking as a basis a shared wealth of knowledge and references.  This is the third element contained in the experience of a meme (memetic image + memetic schema + universe of shared meaning). For example, any given memetic schema could be actualized on the basis of the universe of US politics, a television series such as Neon Genesis Evangelion or even the shared knowledge of a scientifical community. 

Memes could then be deemed primitive in yet another sense: it seems that all that a meme must produce is a feeling of belonging. When we understand a meme we don’t only confirm that we are familiar with the schema (these can be explained easily) but most importantly, it reasures us that we belong to a common world of shared meanings.  I can only understand the memes that are shared in a group of philosophical memes if I have some knowledge of philosophy. Understanding the memes is then a validation of my belonging to the group of people who has studied at least some philosophy. Is this text a meme?

This form of tribal identification is also found in art. Isn’t the lore of ancient mythologies a shared universe of meaning whose common knowledge validates the belonging of an individual to a community?

Memes are art but at the same time they are anti-art. They exhibt all the characteristics that art has done away with since modern times. Memes do not have fixed forms, nor do they have authors (whether anonymous or not). Its main function is a form of tribal identification which has been absent from art ever since it became emancipated from religion and political power. While modern art emphazised the figure of the author who came to express his individuality through the work, the essence of the meme could be deemed the affirmation of an intersubjective identity through the colective creation of an infinite work.

However, memes are the product of the internet and this allows them to respond to non-hegemonic identities. It is true that memes can be used to promote political ideologies and agendas, prompting the self-indentification of a massive amount of people under a normalized standard. However, the profileration of small groups dedicated to the sharing of memes is a testimony to the plurality of identities in our times.

4 thoughts on “The Question Concerning Memes

  1. Not that it matters very much for your exploration here. But the word “meme” Was revived somewhat recently and was commandeered as a humorous take on the theoretical proposal.

    Just like in the 70s and 80s the philosophical term “radical” was commandeered by popular culture to become one of the seminal terms for “cool“ of the 80s. The word radical went from meaning something exceptionally different, to meeting some thing which emphasizes the norm.

    So it is that the theorist, I forget his name, was looking for a way to talk about how culture might be transmitted discursively, in the same way that genetic material is transmitted biologically. Hysterical point was that existence is flat. And so there really is no difference between what might be biological transmission and cultural transmission. Theoretically because we have such thing as genes and DNA in the biological world, and maybe atoms and molecules in the physical world, we should also have some thing similar in the cultural world. And so he came upon the word “meme“ taken from the Greek as a way to talk about what could be this cultural item that is transmitted and replicates culture from person to person.

    Just FYI.

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  2. The essence of a meme, in this way, is the same essence that a gene has, or an element has. Since, in certain theoretical paradigms, all things have equal existential substance. And so depending on whatever category we wish to begin with, so much as it Is some thing that we can experience in existence, there should be some elements which traverse is the category today or by communicate admits it’s self, within its domain to that replicate itself as an existing being in itself, Or aspect of the universe.

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    • I know you noted this at the beginning of your comment but I want to clarify for others why the Richard Dawkins formulation you are referencing does not really change anything for OP. The reason is because of the distinction between genetic information (the latent genotype/what OP calls the schema) and genetic expression (the emergent phenotype/what OP calls the difference introduced into the schema). I think the Dawkins formulation is relating memes primarily to the former, while OP is pointing toward the latter. The former guarantees the general existence of any meme at all, while the latter is the source of “new” memes. The former seems more relevant from the point of view of science, while the latter seems more relevant from the point of view of art; it is important to note that they are not at all in contradiction, but rather are both required for the evolution of life.

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