Memes, Myths, Birds, Bees, and Markets
Each of our lives is a story, an album, a painting, in which we play the starring role, but only posthumously, in hindsight, or through the internal wrestling of the creative process which separate us, momentarily, from our day-to-day concerns. These stories weave together into an ever-changing tapestry which we call culture. Though it sounds a bit high-flung, we can become demigods for those who inherit the worlds we create. This mantle is both a boon and a curse that is often bestowed posthumously upon certain writers, artists, etc. This worthiness is far from egalitarian, and often strikes a harsh contrast to the living reality of that individuals life. Many of the individuals that our present cultures owe themselves to died impoverished, unfulfilled, or (most famously), crucified. An ongoing mythical tradition is like a river that flows ever forward, sometimes branching off, or dying to drought or dam, yet nevertheless continually flowing, never reaching an ultimate destination.
From this we may recognize that the beliefs and symbols that live on through us, which we convey to those around us, are the currency of the mythological realm. Many have used the term meme1 to represent this currency, and to systematize this cultural economy. Though perhaps a buzz-word of our time, this term nevertheless is useful in that it distinguishes the symbol from the sign in a structural way, allowing us to recognize that represented ideas themselves operate, in a sense, like organisms. Memes serve a greater function than being mere packets of information, as “…Magic has always been about the encoding of meaning, about symbolic literacy, about the creation and even the restoration of calendars. Memetics is a way of comprehending the ramifications of such encoding, identifying the systems that result from rituals, and transmitting meaning into a goal-oriented complex system, the meme space. Memes are more than a linguistic phenomenon.” (The Art of Memetics, Unruh and Wilson.)
Though I don’t want to get side-tracked, I think the idea of memes requires more consideration. It’s a term that we toss out and either accept on its face that cultural information can, in some way, be likened to the behavior of viruses, or not. As with most metaphors, there are likely ways in which it is accurate, and ways that it is not. More importantly, what are the repurcussions of this idea in terms of the overlapping relationship of genes and culture? In other words, do myths play a role in our evolution, as a part of our mirrored relationship with ourselves?
I would like to provide a few quotations from A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History on this subject, and then give commentary more aligned with our specific line of inquiry.
“Darwin’s basic insight was that animal and plant species are the cumulative result of a process of descent and modification. Later on, however, scientists came to realize that any variable replicator (not just genetic replicators) coupled to any sorting device (not just ecological selection pressures) would generate a capacity for evolution.” Thus, the attraction or repulsion we feel when encountering a certain facial structure, or from a pattern of symbols constructed – we might say – right out of the genetic intelligence of an individual, helps provide one of the key sorting mechanisms in literal and figurative mating rituals.
What do I mean by “figurative?” I mean that sexual attraction has a biological imperative inherent in it to produce offspring, but humans have in various ways circumvented that, sublimated that, and so the “children” that can be born from the co-mingling of our ideas needn’t be physical or literal. Nevertheless, the ideas that are compelling to us, the art that attracts and changes us, seems to operate more-or-less on the same principles that determine a mating selection process. In other words, we can indeed use a genetic metaphor in regard to our myths.
“Richard Dawkins independently realized that patterns of animal behavior (such as bird-songs or the use of tools by apes) could indeed replicate themselves if they spread across a population (and across generations) by imitation.” (ibid) This has clear repercussions in the study of the diffusion of language and culture, and carried right along with them is the undercurrent of all forms of human representation, as we’ve seen, which we’ve taken to refer to simply as “myth.” This opens up the door for a new approach to mythic study which goes far beyond what can be accomplished in a single introductory volume, but I am hopeful that more work will be done in this direction in the future.
Let’s take this line of thought a step further, perhaps folding it back into itself like a ribbon. Within the context of modern markets, we are taught to think of the sale of media (books, movies, music, etc) not much different than the sale of a sandwich, or any other commodity. This misses the function a book or other piece of content that embodies mythic content serves – it is “weaponized content,” its value contained within the memes that are reproduced through exposure to the medium, rather than in that embodiment, the container or vessel that merely serves to propagate the content in a material world.
A better metaphor than those following from ideas of consumption and commodity might be found in the relationship of flowering plants and the insects that help them spread. Imagine that pollen is cultural information. Flowers generate pollen and passively make themselves attractive to the insects that also somewhat blindly lap up the nectar, in the process carrying pollen from one flower to the next. Of course, a random breath of wind also plays its role in disseminating this genetic material. To an extent we all serve both as “bees” (memebearers) and “flowers” (nexus points, which can be codified within books, movies, or really in whatever container seems most appropriate to the nature of the narrative.) So we may be lured in by the narrative, or some other element, but what we take in and carry on are the memes embedded within it, which may very well have been placed there completely unconsciously by the author. As I previously stated, this can be seen as the genetic code of a myth, and I imagine few of us are consciously aware of our genes.
What’s the sweet nectar and bright colors that lures in the unwitting insects? That’s the question advertisers are bound to ask. The market is strictly concerned with selling the container, and like the insects, is blissfully unaware of the pollen. Countless dollars have been spent researching customer reaction to different colors, configurations of symbols and patterns. Certainly, much of this plays into the cutting edge of UX design. But, in contradiction of the common wisdom that says our biological similarities make us all susceptible to the same patterns, at least if we are looking for big-picture trends, it has been my experience that results vary depending on the “species of insect.” In other words, though the audience and the authors may all be consciously unaware of the genetic code of their work, we can readily sniff out what suits us and what does not, in the same way we have sized up potential mates through smell before a single word has been spoken. Even our immune systems are keyed to seek viable mates – this relates to our sense of smell as well – and further there is some evidence that even activities such as kissing have a matching and mating purpose, preparing our immune systems for one another.
Perhaps the myth of the genius of the author, or the sexiness of an idea, or the sense of lack manufactured or inherent in the market is what lures an audience to material, on the surface. Women’s magazines of course capitalize on this approach almost singularly, and everyone is aware that sex is used to sell just about everything from deodorant to cars. What’s being sold is what is being represented, and it is up to us to ensure that the “container” does not over strip the actual function of any piece of art, which is discussed throughout the rest of this bulk, but in any event remains of the utmost cultural import. Pollen that does not impregnate is sterile, whether or not a market is tricked into passing buying into the myth it represents.
It may seem strange or even specious to leap from one conceptual domain to another so haphazardly. I’d like to comment on that before moving forward by considering yet another facet, that of the market itself being subject to a sort of evolutionary and genetic model. “…it becomes clear that interactive species in an ecosystem have the ability to change each other’s adaptive landscapes. (This is just another way of saying that in a predator-prey arms race there is not a fixed definition of what counts as “the fittest.”)” (ibid)
A market is essentially a conceptual domain mapped on top of the pre-existent ecosystem, so ecological and evolutionary dynamics are more likely causal agents within that system than the formal rules of economics which, based on various logical presuppositions, have shown themselves demonstrably false. “The economists Richard Nelson and Sidney Winter, for instance, espouse an evolutionary theory of economics based on the idea that once the internal operations of an organization have become routinized, the routines themselves constitute a kind of “organizational memory.” For example, when an economic institution (e.g. a bank), opens a branch in a foreign city, it sends a portion of its staff to recruit and train new people; in this way, it transmits its internal routines to the new branch. Thus, institutions may be said to transmit information vertically to their ‘offspring.’” (ibid) While we could spin into a tangential discussion of the relationship of various mythic interpretations of economics, my point in introducing this idea is simply to demonstrate that we can glance across many domains at once, and find congruent forms as well as patches of discontinuity; however, it stands to reason that the layer that contains genetic and biological patterns should be considered before the other strata, even if this demonstrates a shard of conceptual hierarchy into what is clearly a series of non-linear systems.
If, in this specific sense, we choose to employ the metaphor of memes, then it is worth asking how these memes are carried from one individual to the next. Clearly there is a secondary medium (symbols), but the points of intersection, and the amalgam that results, is the real “burning point for myth,” a nice phrase Campbell once used in a much publicized discussion with Bill Moyers. Perhaps there are too many variables involved in the specifics to look at it from such a generalized perspective, but we can at least glimpse the shape of it.
This is the key: myths arise as relationships, or points of intersection. The relationship between ritual object or work of art and individual audience member, the relationship between audience members within the framework provided by the myth, and so on. They can represent not only the information carried within the transmitted signifiers, but also, perhaps more importantly in the long run, they exist in the sorting mechanism and desire which fuels the consumption and reprocessing of the signified. The authors of these relationships we call artists, it doesn’t actually matter what the medium, and in many ways artists simply serve as the scribes or mediums for a discussion which is constantly occurring. None of our ideas are entirely our own. The ownership of ideas, too, is a myth based on some rather curious presuppositions about the isolation of the individual from a social fabric that quite clearly underlies every action and thought we can and will ever have.
About the Author:
James Curcio is a multi-media artist, writer, and theorist, who has spent most of his life exploring modern myths.
You can read more of James’ writing and check out his other projects at: http://www.modernmythology.net