Production: Archaeology of a Meme
The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in the 1970s to describe a minimal unit of culture that propagates by means of imitation. The term was meant to draw an analogy between the replication of genes in the reproduction of living organisms and the replication of ideas in cultural exchange. Dawkins suggested several areas where memes could be observed, such as musical tunes, catchphrases, and images.
Dawkins has recently suggested that the internet “hijacked” the term “meme,” distracting from its original meaning as a form that spreads by unintentional Darwinian selection. But comparisons persist, and not everyone thinks that creativity and conscious action disqualify ideas and images from being memes. James Gleick, for instance, quotes the philosopher Daniel Dennett:
“I believe that, given the right conditions, replicators automatically band together to create systems, or machines, that carry them around and work to favor their continued replication,” he wrote. This was not to suggest that memes are conscious actors; only that they are entities with interests that can be furthered by natural selection. Their interests are not our interests. “A meme,” Dennett says, “is an information-packet with attitude.” When we speak of fighting for a principle or dying for an idea, we may be more literal than we know.James Gleick, “What Defines a Meme?” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2011.
In any case, we’ll go with the internet definition of “meme” for this assignment and consider the role of conscious creativity in extending the spread of ideas and images on the internet. Like blogs and vlogs, memes are often individually produced. They are part of the great history of self-creation on the web, the production of meaning outside big media outlets.
For this assignment, you will be asked to choose a single internet meme and explain a series of contributions to its meaning from individual creators. Your meme can be text, image, video, or sound. The area of the circuit of culture that we will focus on is production. But in the world of memes, it’s important to note that production is always also reproduction and mutation. Memes accumulate meaning in their propagation, and sometimes a single instance will recall a whole series of exchanges. This is why outsiders find certain memes to be unintelligible. They circulate in communities with inside knowledge and carry references to prior communications and exchanges.
If you need help getting started, there are all kinds of meme aggregators online.
Due November 13 by 5:00 p.m. EST.