Monday, March 5, 2007

Imitation

When my Swedish cineast friend Eric M Nilsson visited me in December 2006, he shot a few images of me talking about Gamone, first in English, then in French. Click here to watch this video sequence. For me, it's amusing to see and hear myself speaking French. I'm not surprised that people notice instantly that I speak with an accent. The only individuals who never considered that I spoke French with an accent were my children, when they were kids. Apparently they would disagree with schoolmates who dared to suggest that I had an accent. For my children, their father spoke "normally".

At home, Christine and I always spoke French together, and with the children. So, they did not really grow up in a bilingual environment. But the intonations of my voice apparently rubbed off onto François, who became proficient at garbling in a way that sounded as if he might be speaking English. Meanwhile, he started studying English at school. One day, his teacher asked my wife: "Please explain something that has been puzzling me for ages. I often hear your son François speaking something that sounds like good English. Then, a moment later, I have the opposite impression, namely, that he doesn't understand English at all. Please tell me: Does François really speak English?" I love that story, because I knew my son well enough to appreciate exactly what was troubling his teacher. He has always been an instinctive actor, particularly apt at playing the roles of people he observed: in other words, a talented imitator. So, it was perfectly normal that he should start out by imitating the voice and accent of his father.

I've just finished reading a great book about imitation: The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. The term 'meme' (rhymes with 'cream') was invented in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. It designates cultural entities that humans acquire by simply imitating other individuals who have already acquired such entities. For example, the art of using a mobile phone can be thought of as one of the countless memes in modern society. It so happens that I've never got around to acquiring that meme... mainly because nobody ever dials my mobile phone number, and I've not been sufficiently motivated to learn how to use this communications device... which I don't particularly like, preferring e-mail. When I ask my daughter to tell me the best way of learning how to use a mobile phone, she always explains that urban adolescents have seen how to use these gadgets simply by imitating the behavior of experienced friends who already knew how to use them. So, the art of using a mobile phone can indeed be thought of as a pure meme. And this meme has spread throughout society like an epidemic, through imitation.

Susan Blackmore is a fine writer, whose eclectic interests range from the psychology of consciousness through to meditation, paranormal phenomena and near-death experiences. The subject of her book, referred to as memetics, is a new discipline whose scope is awesome: the acquisition of all human behaviors and skills, from language through to the greatest achievements of the intellect. Since opening Blackmore's book a few days ago, I've had the constant impression that this is surely one of the most important books I've ever encountered, because it deals with every imaginable aspect of the whole human being. As I said, the underlying theme of memetics is that we've acquired everything that makes us human, all too human, simply by imitating others. (The general concept of imitation includes, of course, the possibility of reading books on a subject, and asking questions.) This ingenious explanation sounds almost too simple to be true.

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