Memes are things that go viral, right? And their native habitat is the web, right?
Yes, and no. Yes if we sheer away some of the fleece these terms have grown in the age of the internet. Because while memetics has gained popular currency in the age of LOLcats and rickrolling, it’s worth remembering that Richard Dawkins’ coinage (in The Selfish Gene, 1976) predates the full investiture of networked computing in the culture.
I’ve always been suspicious of memetics. It’s an intuitively attractive concept—and yet the meme as a functional unit is notoriously difficult to define and impossible to measure. And the concept seems too tidily fit to contemporary life as well. It’s harder to imagine memes at work in premodern or early modern cultures. But I’m realizing that it’s not a problem with memes, really, but how I see them.
If you want to track memes into the wilderness of deep history, I’d suggest taking historian Daniel Lord Smail as your guide. In his book On Deep History and the Brain, Smail explores an emerging synthesis between history and the third culture sciences like cognitive science and evolutionary biology. Smail’s perspective allows for emergent patterns and something like natural selection in cultural life without giving up on individual agency and intention.
Watch Smail braving the wilds of the alleys and courts of early modern Marseille as he tracks a simple meme, the street address. Previously, people had located themselves in urban space by making reference to landmarks, topographical features, and infrastructure (“near the bridge of the street of the Change”), or by naming the neighborhood or artisanal quarter in which they were resident (“the Cobblery” or “Bookbinder’s Row”). Street addresses seem to emerge as property transactions increased in number and importance over the course of the 14th and 15th centuries. It’s the notaries, semi-public officials who preside over property transactions, who are using them. What’s the notary’s attraction to the street address? Historians have often interpreted the rise of such features by employing a kind of conspiracy theory: in this case, notaries seek to increase their hegemony over time and space by imposing a gridlike system, cold and arbitrary, on the vernacular structure of the urban landscape. And our historical explanations are full of such conspiracies, in which classes “articulate their worldviews” or “assert themselves” by erecting some new social or cultural structure by which to overthrow the old.
The trouble with conspiracy theories like these is that rarely does anyone, let alone an entire class, know what the “next thing” will actually look like. We operate on a much more intimate and immediate scale than that in daily life. According to Smail, who has patiently sifted through thousands of property sale records in European archives, there is no evidence that anyone consciously imagined the power of street addresses to increase their power in social life. But those immediate, off-the-cuff choices are the stuff of history—for they’re precisely where memes live and die. With the notaries, Smail explains, conversations about urban space were important to their livelihood.
[T]hough buyers and sellers might have this conversation several times over their lives, notaries engaged in these conversations dozens, if not hundreds, of times per year. Categories emerged naturally in this conversational field, and the notary, steward of these conversations, naturally had the greatest influence over the field’s evolution…. In these circumstances, it’s easy to appreciate how a very slight and unacknowledged preference on the part of the notaries would gradually fix it in the conversational field. One can posit an evolving form that promotes the political goals of the notaries without having to attribute any purpose or intention to the notaries themselves (my emphasis).
Of course there is intention and purpose in the system, Smail allows, but it’s personal, limited in space and time, not a case of grand, scheming ideological structure. What’s in this for me? Well, it’s a handy and inspiring way to think about the rise of writing in general, and of specific letterforms, as memes facing selection pressures that change with dips and explosions in media, genres, and social and cultural forms. So there’s a retrospective use, helping to understand the existence of stuff like serifs and dotted i’s thrive while eths and thorns and a host of scribal abbreviations die out. And prospectively, it help enrich my sense of the future of reading and writing—mostly by reminding me that it will be decided by no business plan or venture capitalist, but by all of us getting in there, using and breaking the new tools, and making new things and experiences with them.
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