Memes are a kind of shorthand. Memes are symbols that telegraph (or tweet) a body of values, a worldview, a belief system, a “frame.” We might think of memes as the worker bees of language’s power to direct attention toward the queen or the desired focus, or to direct attention away from something.
“What we do not question, we swallow whole.”—Christina Baldwin
Welcome to an experiment in paying attention. I’m an ordinary citizen in a faltering democracy, trying to exercise my personal agency. A good start, I believe, is directing my own attention, or noticing when I’m not.
In this regard, I am especially interested in the relationship of language and power, in how people articulate ideas to convey meaning and cultivate associations. You could say I’m interested in propaganda and persuasion, political rhetoric and personal essay.
More simply, I am interested in noticing the power of language to direct attention. The meme is an increasingly more popular and potent tool for doing so.
What is a meme? For the purposes of this project, I’m defining meme as a word, phrase, idea, slogan, or concept that moves rapidly and widely through public discourse: default crisis, most divisive president in history, job creators are some current memes (on May 5, 2012). These simple phrases are charged with meaning, and represent layers of beliefs, assumptions, facts, and lies that we rarely acknowledge or consider, even as we absorb and integrate them into our intellectual vocabulary, and pass them on.
To me, memes are related to what linguist George Lakoff calls frames: “Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world….All words are defined relative to conceptual frames. When you hear a word, its frame (or collection of frames) is activated in your brain.”
So memes are a kind of shorthand. Memes are symbols that telegraph (or tweet) a body of values, a worldview, a belief system, a “frame.” We might think of memes as the worker bees of language’s power to direct attention toward the queen or the desired focus, or to direct attention away from something.
Often, people are unaware that memes have directed (or distracted) their attention from one idea to another. Some memes are created for this very purpose. Other memes spring up spontaneously and though they can also direct and distract attention, there may be no conscious intention behind them.
Memes often disappear as quickly as they appear, but can continue to telegraph complex meanings and associations, to direct attention, long after their popularity has waned. Shock and awe, mushroom cloud, and culture of life still have some potency, as do change we can believe in, entitlements, and death panels—although, as you might be sensing, the meaning of a meme is sometimes sticky, carrying forward associations to the public debates they endured.
With this in mind, I’ve started the meme_ster blog as a personal challenge to track memes generated during the 2012 US presidential campaign, and to unpack their meanings and associations. This is meant to be a playful exercise in critical thinking, and a way to practice directing attention.
This work represents my personal observations and interpretations.