Richard Brodie, Virus of the Mind: the New Science of the Meme
Three years ago a woman achieved high office, amidst a resurging a virus threatening large parts of the United States. During Elena Kagan’s US Supreme Court nomination, she may have expected news media to assess her judicial philosophy. For reasons later explained, they focussed almost entirely on her single status and questioned whether it indicated she was a lesbian. Though Kagan had made no public statement of sexuality, CBS News published an online column. Kagan could , it read, become “the first openly gay justice”.
Justice Elena Kagan [Photo: Wikipedia]
“If Elena Kagan is confirmed by the Senate, there will be three women on the Supreme Court for the first time. This is a measure of how far women have come,” announced The New York Times.
It then demurred, “Two will be single and childless. This may be a measure of something else entirely”. That ‘something’ remained unexplored, left to the implicit concerns of its readers. Even the liberal Slate Magazine
headlined Kagan’s nomination ‘An Unnatural
Woman’ among a short-list of nominees the magazine judged “overpopulated
by women who are single, childless, or divorced”.
The now rapidly spreading virus remained unreported.
Richard Brodie’s Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme
explores why some ideas continue to resurface and spread, often regardless of any truth value. A ‘meme’ is any idea or packaged concept that humans come in contact and share with each other, for example by talking. Other behaviours spread memes too: language patterns, mannerisms, signals, or a song. Memes reproduce from one brain to any witnesses’ brain. They are retained in memory and may remain dormant for long periods, only to resurface and multiply at later times. Often, memes survive because they fulfil some very basic patterns of human behaviour
, often without our conscious understanding. As the original author
for Microsoft Word
, Brodie offers the computer as a metaphor for understanding our relationship to memes.
Would we expect a computer to “understand” its own program? No! It just needs to run. And our brains evolved not to understand themselves, but to perform very specific tasks… Meme evolution selects for the ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and myths that we pay the most attention to.
Phantom Dominances are memes about power roles, writes Richard Brodie [Photo: Uncyclopedia]
As memes, packaged concepts spread not only down generationally, but across from person-to-person, much like the ‘virus’ of Brodie’s title.
Brodie cites the attention men have paid since prehistory to the opportunities for power. Power represents a place in the dominance hierarchy, governing access to resources, including perceived access to women.
Attaching ‘lesbian’ for example- a potent concept around ‘rejection’ of men- acts like a fear response in the presence of female challengers to power roles.
Susan Faludi’s Backlash refers to these power plays as ‘phantom dominances’, responses which reinforce no longer existing roles. Yes, gay rumours seem a far-fetched reflex for a Supreme Court judicial appointment. At the level of memes however, it’s a widespread and potent ‘virus’ that can be documented at short intervals in today’s public mind.
What astute American news viewers may notice in the ’lesbian meme’ is its unhelpful attachment time and again in response to female achievement, especially in a country traditionally emphasising the importance and power of public office. It seems an implausibly long list to remain so undetected. To include just some of the ‘lesbian meme’ victims; former US Attorney General Janet Reno, former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice, current Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, former Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, and current Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan. Reaching positions of prominence, each have been rumoured
in the media as lesbian. Fascinatingly, each instance appears from its media vantage point as a profound rupture to the status quo, despite the meme’s repeated (and repeatedly debunked) emergence.
Brodie’s Virus of the Mind is not an abstruse reasoning for prejudices or bigotry. It explores instead the genealogy of ideas, how they come to spread, which ideas have a tendency to survive and reproduce. Through understanding the science of how ideas blend and reproduce, we better understand forces behind some of our knee-jerk responses and deeply held beliefs. In so doing, we may take further steps to raise the level of our modern consciousness. To be aware of memes is to take part in steering them to more productive ends ♦