Richard Dawkins first coined the term “memes” in his book The Selfish Gene in 1976. There, Dawkins presents the idea that memes —similar to germs or viruses— are living structures residing in the brain that can be passed from one to another like a contagion. It’s from here we get the idea that when something catches on it becomes “viral”. As Dawkins says:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
The concept of imitation behind memes stems from the Greek word mimesis, referring to forms of representation or imitation in art and literature. Classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle used mimesis to describe artistic forms that imitated true reality. This reality was thought to exist in a world of ideas, a higher realm of pure forms that our common reality is a mere shadow of. This can be seen described in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, where people are chained in front of a wall and forced to view reality as a shadowy theater projected on it by actors behind them. The true reality, it is told, exists outside the cave in the light of the sun.
In a broad sense, one might say religion appears when the mysterious forces cradling reality become matched with awareness or intuition of their causality. In older times, nature held this position, and we humans connected the forces and elements of nature to deities, spirits, and Gods.
In ancient Greece, for example, Zeus corresponded to thunder, lightning, and the expanse of the sky. Aphrodite corresponded to qualities of love and beauty. Demeter corresponded to the earth, grain, and the harvest. Furthermore, for involving the planets, themselves seen as connected to the Gods and spirits, nature was viewed as cosmology surrounding all aspects of life—the physical, the communal, and the spiritual.
Through participating with the patterns and forces of nature, humans became involved in its mysteries. The cycles of the harvest, solstices, and equinoxes held spiritual meaning; with celebrations and rituals dedicated to them in ancient times. When life became eventually more focused on acquiring and exploiting natural resources, nature’s role in life gradually diminished.
In modern, commercial societies like the Western world, nature has been replaced with commercial and political forces. In this realm, the deities are companies, politicians, brands, and celebrities. Their forces are material sustenance, financial blessing, security, and public influence. Its cycles are billing cycles, pay schedules, release dates of new consumer products, and estimated shipping times. Instead of the sky, the stars, and the land, we have the internet, Netflix and UPS tracking. Rather than mysteries of nature, we have mysteries surrounding economic success and tragedy.
In this commercial-cosmology, the iconography of memes enters.
Memes today take many forms. Generally speaking, they can be classified as public communications occurring within established or open communities online. Sometimes they convey perceptions of individual or communal well-being. Other times, they offer criticism of false beliefs. Often, they work through humor. Yet, like the statues, images, and icons of the ancient world, overall, memes reflect the forces, follies, and agencies governing our present-day existence. Instead of the natural cosmos, however, their iconography applies to our existence in the commercial-cosmos.
Taken in this manner, memes could be divided into five basic classes with three expressive variables.
The philosophical meme is one that attempts to present a philosophical tautology. This type often presents an idiom or aphorism meant to represent a grand truth, while also attempting an accurate perception of reality by dispelling falsehoods and mistruths about reality.
In the commercial-cosmos, the philosophic meme aims at discerning the highest level of reality, where it is assumed that the most accurate perceptions might increase one’s own viability.
The affirmative meme is the type often used to present an image, or mood, of contentment or empowerment. Memes in this category often contain inspirational quotes, but sometimes appear with declarations.
The affirmative meme helps one cope with the conditions and effects of the commercial-cosmos, and encourages positive advancement forward.
The critical meme is a moral and ethical meme. That is, it often attempts to identify and correct incorrect behaviors and issues, while also projecting a sense of personal or social righteousness. Oftentimes, it’s used to convey a sense of one’s superiority over a subject, and has a rallying effect of consolidating support from others who agree.
Overall, the critical meme attempts to establish the correct personal and social mores of life in the commercial-cosmos.
The character/psyche meme takes many forms. It often describes certain attitudes and behaviors corresponding to our current state of activity or being. Sometimes, it presents a character or a figure who represents a narrative, mood, or quality one wants to emulate.
Generally speaking, the character/psyche meme identifies existential concerns of life within the commercial-cosmos.
The underworld is the realm of the abominable meme. Memes that dwell here include the shitpic and the dank meme. These memes often seek to do everything in excess, or to undermine the entire realm of the commercial-cosmos by getting, or doing, everything wrong. It’s also a place where memes get recycled and become elements for new memes.
The underworld is often a place where sequestered or clandestine communities exchange memes, and a place where legends and tales of the deep or dark web emerge.
Variables are used to determine the emotional tone of the meme. They can be used in combination or as stand-alone. The humorous variable, for example, often makes light of the circumstances designated by the meme. Yet, quite often, humor is used as a vehicle to get at the philosophical, critical, or existential message of the meme. Because humor often intends to “break the ice” and establish common ground, humorous memes are generally socially-inclusive. If combined with the snark variable, however, it can lead to separation into various “tribes” or “camps”.
If the humorous variable can be considered as socially-inclusive, the snark variable, on the other hand, is thus socially-exclusive. Since snark assumes an attitude of self-superiority, it establishes a perception of “me vs. you” or “us vs. them”. The snark variable is often attached to the critical meme, but can also appear subtly in others like the philosophical. It can run amok in the underworld.
The sentimental variable generally establishes a feeling of attachment to something one wants to gravitate towards. It’s often connected to the affirmative, existential, or character memes; where it conveys support for a reality founded in memory. Sometimes, it can be combined with snark in a critical meme, becoming an inquiry/statement against “what’s wrong with the world today?”, proposing that a better time exists somewhere imagined in the past.
Overall, it could be said that memes indicate states that are either upward-aspiring (towards truth) or downward-aspiring (towards the underworld) in the spectrum of our commercial-cosmos.
Since the goal of philosophical and affirmative memes ultimately supports particular values and virtues, these generally can be considered as upwardly aspiring (barring the presence of snark).
For existential and critical memes, which often attempt to point out moral or ethical concerns, these can be either upward or downward aspiring— depending on whether they are inclusive or exclusive.
For the character/psyche meme, since it reflects the psychological realities of existing in this world, and since psychology can lead to either virtuous or infernal forces, they can also be upward or downward aspiring depending on these qualities.
What makes memes so appealing often involves the nature of using figures who represent characters or forces (celebrities, characters, moods) in a reflexive, hypothetic or hyperbolic manner; i.e. Kermit drinking the tea represents “me” in a state of casual detachment. Or, Morpheus from the Matrix waxing tautologies about reality reflects “me” in a state of higher realization.
Given that the reality of the meme seems inseparable from the online world, one imagines what world might emerge if a focus back to the natural world were to emerge. Perhaps technology would again appear to us as a tool like it did before it came to define a new mode of existence in this commercial cosmos. Yet, also, it could indicate new ways of how to deal with the natural world on a larger scale; through an awareness of how inseparable from life nature actually is.