Richard Dawkins: the meme-maker

by Toby Manhire / 27 June, 2013
The man who invented the word "meme" in puzzling self-referential Cannes presentation.

Richard Dawkins has appeared on stage at the advertising industry’s annual Cannes carnival, presenting something called “Just for Hits”. A strange self-referential sort of thing, the talk deals with memes – “meme”, of course, being a term he coined in The Selfish Gene in 1976.

In their cultural version, Dawkins explains from a lonely podium, “memes can be good ideas, good tunes, good poems, as well as drivelling mantras”. Before long his mini-lecture and particularly the words “mutation in the mind” get looped and layered with visuals and made into something that looks directly out of 2002.

Wired, which boasts an interview with Dawkins ahead of the Cannes appearance, gives the background:

The word [meme] - which is ascribed to an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture - has since been reappropriated by the internet, with Grumpy Cat, Socially-Awkward Penguin and Overly-Attached Girlfriend spreading virally, leaping from IP address to IP address (and brain to brain) via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. 

In recognition of this, advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi has recruited Dawkins to participate in the theatrical piece alongside installation artists Marshmallow Laser Feast. The aim is, presumably, to create a piece of content that will itself become a meme.

Andrew Brown, an expert in both issues of religion and the internet and so well placed to assess Dawkins’ latest effort, is pretty unimpressed.

Blogging at the Guardian, he writes:

The video that Richard Dawkins made for an advertising company in Cannes is like a particularly vivid anti-drug commercial: this is your brain on bad acid, except, of course, that this is a portrait of a brain wrecked by self-importance.

It also points up, says Brown, “the fatuity of the meme concept if it is intended (as it was) to be a serious account of cultural transmission”. In this case, “the video completely misunderstands the way that real internet memes spread” – without (usually) any such contrivance.

It is entirely without reference to meaning. What can be copied – and what is – are simple patterns of sound or words or pictures. But what makes these things worth communicating is their meaning. And in the video above you see the perfection of something designed to be copied without any meaning at all.

See also:

Grumpy Cat breaks Hollywood

Gangnam busters

That pink and red equal sign

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