Monday, April 9, 2007

Mixed messages

When speaking, we often quote other people's words, or use expressions that, if written, would be surrounded by inverted commas. Some speakers, whenever they do so, have developed the habit of holding up their hands and twitching a couple of fingers on each hand, to represent visually the inverted commas. Although I like and employ natural hand movements of all kinds during conversations (a Mediterranean habit), this relatively recent "twitch twitch" mannerism always irritates me, because it glares out as an acquired quirk, rather than a spontaneous gesture. Now I realize that I shouldn't be irritated by the "twitch twitch" thing, because it's a pure example of the acquired behaviors known as memes, which I referred to in an earlier post whose title was Imitation. Basically, a meme is an act that individuals encounter by chance and then imitate impulsively. So, there must be something in the "twitch twitch" mannerism that urges viewers to do the same thing.

In France, over recent years, a popular hybrid verbal/gestural meme has enabled people to reply negatively to a request for a service. The meme, which soon spread like an epidemic, consists of pointing to your forehead and saying: "There's no sign there marked Post Office."

Countless memes are purely verbal, consisting of no more than a fashionable expression such as "doing his thing" or "getting a life".

I've often thought it would be fun to invent and introduce a striking meme, to see whether it would succeed in proliferating. Here's one of my schemes: If ever I were to appear on a TV talk show (an unlikely idea), I would wait for an opportunity to introduce the ordinary expression "bare facts". This would be easy. In replying to a simple question, I would ask: "Do you want me to give you the bare facts?" At the same time that I pronounced these words, I would casually turn my backside to the camera, make a gesture as if I were going to drop my pants, then slap myself on the arse, hopefully evoking the theme of bare buttocks. That's all. (I would need to practice this act in front of a mirror, to get it right.) Afterwards, if my meme were successful (that's to say, to catch on and proliferate), we would find other participants in talk shows turning their backsides to the camera whenever the question of bare facts arose, and tapping themselves on the arse. Later, if it were a champion meme, certain courageous users would unbuckle their belts when the discussion turned to bare facts, and actually exhibit their buttocks... which would be much more spectacular than just twitching your fingers in the air.

The question of successful memes is similar to a theme that I talked about in an earlier post, whose title was Second-hand creativity: the way in which a few adolescents wearing used and embroidered jeans can create, unwittingly, a vast fashion and marketing phenomenon.

There's a successful verbal meme that has recently acquired celebrity status in the mouth of George W Bush: the metaphor of sending messages. It's a hi-tech substitute for the old-fashioned notion of "giving an impression". For example, when Democrats urged that means must be found to put an end to the US intervention in Iraq as soon as possible, Bush shot back with rhetorical questions about the kind of "message" that such measures would send to the forces. Recently, a remarkable Democratic lady, Nancy Pelosi, has been doing essential diplomatic work that should have normally been performed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, or by Bush himself.

Bush and his associates have hastened to criticize Pelosi's visit in terms of the kind of "mixed message" of national disunity that it will be sending to people in the Middle East and elsewhere.

Today, sending messages is primarily an e-mailer's pastime and a blogger's preoccupation. International diplomacy, on the other hand, is surely a more serious activity, or art ("twitch twitch"), than simply sending messages. Bush should change his verbal memes.