Semantic Memes

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Meme – n. a culturally transmitted unit of information or technique.

Semantic memes are memes in something like the way religious memes and technological memes are memes. We individuate memes as ‘religious’ because they compete to affect or color religious institutions and – in ways – their participants’ experiences, as well. A meme for “Prayer as communication with the divine” has spread exceedingly well, but it is alarming when it helps create a more hospitable environment for a meme for “suicide bombing.” “The wheel” – a technological meme – has enjoyed downright infectious status.

Similarly, semantic memes affect linguistic meaning, and every structure of meaning built on linguistic meaning. The most accessible to the first glance are probably the ones with celebrity status – for instance, in teenage groups in which authenticity is the summum bonum, “poser” memes enjoy a bump in attention thanks to their status as antithetical to authenticity. “Poser” can be worse than “loser” as an epithet. Although many memes rely on word-based transmission, I take memes to be more than just words; for instance, “fake” might be considered a meme-cognate of “poser,” although they are not strictly so at the level of words. The emphasis the “poser” meme puts on this semi-hostile partial truth, is one of the causal means by which memes affect thought and action. And nor are its affects limited to judging others. The “construct” of the Poser-versus-The-Authentic-One can, when turned inward with any degree of pre-existing shame, lead one to a blindly hyper-critical look within. And that is no more open-minded and authentic self-investigation than is that of the narcissist.

A semantic meme competes to affect the way we conceptualize our words’ meanings, which can lead to notable meaning-change on a community scale, and beyond. The Obama Administration has been trying to exert something like this kind of meme-level influence, for instance, in proposing a switch from “climate change” (which, as change, could be good!) to “climate disruption” (which, as disturbance, sounds more likely bad). The ways we think about this give rise to different action tendencies in individuals and different behavior patterns in groups. The Obama Administration’s efforts in meme warfare seem legitimately motivated to me, if unlikely to succeed: Given that our collective human action is the source of the eco-smashing, life-threatening “climate torsion” which we yet wreak;and given that we are quite adaptable meme-hosts;and given that memes, under the right conditions, could “go viral,” thus influencing mass behavior;therefore, appropriate efforts in meme warfare (including the study of meme dynamics) are legitimate means of staving off the elimination of a plethora of forms of planetary life. And the study is correspondingly valuable, if dangerous. (Think Goebbels and the Ministry of Propaganda.)

Many philosophers and psychologists conceptualize meanings in terms of a network metaphor, in which features of the interrelationships – such as strength of connections, distance between nodes, and so on – play a defining role. For instance, if “God” at some point began to be conceived as “reachable by individuals in prayer,” much of the other meme-machinery associated with communication would be seen anew – in light of this new connection. Side effects of confluence are often unanticipated, and so there is surprise and novelty in the memosphere.

Enjoy the ebb and flow.