An old letter to a sibling, part of a word game we played for a while. Added here for convenience. I do realise that ‘meme’ is a well known phrase online, often referring to those online questionnaires which purport to read your soul, and categorise you into one of twelve easy soundbites. I prefer memes in their covert forms, ideas with a momentum of their own. That is when they are at their most potent, and their most fascinating.
The word for today is meme, pronounced ‘meem’. A meme is an infectious idea. The best adverts are memes. Charismatic politicians use them. They plant a word, a phrase, or a concept into your head, and it circles around and around like an eel swimming in a pond. Eventually, they hope, the phrase that they have planted becomes some sort of truth for you. You believe what they have told you. Other memes of this kind tend to be songs, the kind that you hear on the radio in the morning, and find yourself singing, or whistling at work. If, at the end of the day, your friends and colleagues have begun to hum the same tune, you know you have a meme on your hands and you would do well to sing some other song, just to be rid of it.
The memes that burn themselves onto your brain in that way are the very obvious kind. They do nothing but annoy you. More powerful are the subliminal memes – the kinds they use in the most sophisticated adverts. They need not show anything more than their logo in a certain situation, for us to associate the two. Before we know it we actually believe that the swoosh makes us more athletic, or the golden arches make us better parents. Memes can be very sinister things, more harmful than drugs because once infected, there is no comedown, no hangover that sobers you up. They stay.
Thankfully, memes can be altered once they are inside you. Culture-jamming is the art of fucking with other people’s logos (I have a McShit™ t-shirt). You take their idea, twist it, and then send it back into society. Your idea hooks onto the back of theirs, and wherever the multi-million pound logo travels, hopefully your idea will too. You plant a seed, which flowers inside others.
One day, when humanity progresses, we will still have conflict. But instead of catapulting vast quantities of ordinance into random market squares, as we seem to be doing at the moment, maybe we will engage in meme-warfare. Thousands of egg-heads will be employed in the bowels of the Pentagon, devising the most fiendish meme possible. When they have it, they will encode it into an innocent turn of phrase, or maybe a child-like picture, and send a lone agent provocateur behind enemy lines to set it off. If you give a computer a sum that works out at infinity, it will cause an internal error and stop working. Likewise, once a meme has been set off inside a military or economic unit, that unit will cease to function and collapse from within. Tell one person in Basra or Tikrit that Saddam Hussein wears a nappy to bed, and three weeks later you find the entire Iraqi government collapses without a shot fired.
The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote an amazing story called ‘The Zahir’. It is only nine pages long. Apparently, the Zahir is the name Argentines give to an ordinary coin, and the narrator receives one in his change, in a bar. Inexplicably, he finds himself captivated by the coin, until he can think of nothing else. He remembers that in India, Zahir means ‘Tiger’, and that there was a legend about a man who spotted a magical tiger, could think of nothing else, and ended up painting tigers all over the walls of his cell in the lunatic asylum! The Zahir is a destructive meme. (Borges thinks that by thinking of the Zahir you will eventually learn a truth about God – and trying to think about God is the ultimate meme-bomb).
So, memes are like viruses. They grow and germinate inside one head, and then they work their way out of one mind, through the lips or maybe through a pen, and into another mind through the eyes and ears. I like to imagine that ideas are in fact alive. They feed on brain cells and breed. When two ideas – memes – meet, and argument ensues between their hapless human hosts. If two memes meet inside a brain, well, their battle is your insomnia.
I love the thought that memes could be another type of life. But the thought that amuses me most is this: the idea of memes… is a meme itself! Ever since a friend of mine mentioned the word to me some weeks ago in a pub, I have been thinking about them, passing the idea on to those who will listen. When it came to sit down and write about a word for you, o best beloved, there was really no other choice I could make.