Archive for January 29, 2012
Through the election season, memes will multiply like mushrooms. The objective of our new series “Meme Watch” is to examine those memes carefully (whether they come from the Right or the Left), and try to determine what we used to call the “voracity” of each meme.
What is a meme? The Daily Meme defines it at some length, but for those who don’t want to bother with a longer version, here’s mine. It’s a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. It’s a cultural idea or theme that is subject to reproduction and mutation, just like a gene. In that way, it’s sort of a combination of a memory and a gene, hence the name.
An example of the purest form of meme is the urban legend, originally studied by folklorist Jan Harold Brunvand and the subject of the Usenet newsgroup alt.folklore.urban which has now itself mutated into the website snopes.com. I was one of the original contributors to alt.folklore.urban, and it was there that I picked up the habit of typing “voracity” when I meant “veracity”. Someone on the newsgroup, long before I came, had made that typing error, and it stuck as a shibboleth, a way that alt.folklore.urban regulars could recognize members of the “in group”. It’s a great substitution, because memes tend to become “voracious”, devouring truth and clarity of thought as they take over popular culture.
When I was a child, I was told a story by my mother that both she and I believed to be true. We lived near White Rock Lake at what was then the outer edge of Dallas, Texas. Mom told me about The Lady of White Rock Lake. Many other towns and cities have their own version. This urban legend (and its twins) was the titular subject of Brunvand’s first book, The Vanishing Hitchhiker. In this urban legend, a man driving near a lake picks up an attractive female hitchhiker who is sopping wet. He gives her a ride home, and she leaves an item of clothing behind in his care (usually a wet sweater). When he attempts to return the sweater the next day, he finds she had drowned in the same lake on an anniversary day one, or two, or more years earlier.
Before Brunvand made it an academic pursuit, this story became the basis for a number of popular songs, such as “Bringing Mary Home”, “Laurie (Strange Things Happen)”, and “Misty Water Woman”. A quick listen to each of these is a good introduction to how memes work.
Memes are particularly useful in politics. Those are the kind of memes we’ll be examining in the Meme Watch series. I’m kicking the series off with a meme that popped up again this week: is President Barack Obama arrogant? (more…)