Thursday, May 20, 2010

It's all about meme.

When I was a college student, one of my tutors (for primate behavior, if I recall) was Dr. Marion Dawkins, who was then married to Richard Dawkins. At one tutorial, she mentioned that her husband was writing a book, which he was thinking of calling The Selfish Gene, but he was up for other suggestions. (I guess my offering of the The Pecksniff Perplex* didn't make it, even to the acknowledgments** section of Dawkins's breakthrough bestseller.)

In this work, Dawkins coins the term "meme," which means a unit of culture, such as a song or a catch-phrase or a religious belief. That irritating "wazzup!" thing from the beer commercial is a meme.

So far, so good, but now I'm launching myself onto the ocean of my ignorance. I know there's also a term "polymeme," but I'm not sure if this or any other coinage from psychology or sociology captures something I've been thinking about recently -- the lasting and multi-faceted impact on our lives of certain cultural phenomena, of certain key features of our experience.

We recognize the effect of life events and aspects of our upbringing on our psychological development: early childhood experiences, relationships with parents, powerful religious or nationalistic influences. But what about cultural issues that may seem trivial by comparison, and yet gain inordinate power in our lives because they add up to more than one mere meme, because they transcend any single cultural definition?

I'll give you some examples. Next time.

*I thought hypocrisy was a richer description of self-interested altruism in nature rather than mere selfishness, you see, and Pecksniff, from Dickens's Martin Chuzzlewit was, with Moliere's Tartuffe, the paradigm of hypocri-- . . . oh, never mind. But think of the extra sales you'd have made with that title, Richard. You could be famous by now.

**Dawkins did include a general thanks to all the students who'd made suggestions, but that's not sufficient recognition of my brilliance. Even though I haven't been publishing myself, I've collected a few acknowledgments over the last two or three years, in books and on CDs and on websites. A good friend suggested that I should make this my goal in life, to gather as many acknowledgments as possible, even if I hadn't done anything. I could approach total strangers and demand a nod, just to see how many I could amass, a vast literary in-joke.

1 comment:

  1. Well, you're already part of my tattoo, but I'll certainly acknowledge you in the next edition of my book. "In this second edition I'd like to thank my husband Sean Gxxxxxx and my Parents John and Judy Hxxxxxx for all their support, and fellow author Alan Beechey, particular reason."