Showing posts with label memetics. Show all posts
Showing posts with label memetics. Show all posts

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.

Monday, March 5, 2007


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.