Cortmaior's Definition of a Meme

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Fri, 13 Jun 1997 20:33:29 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 13 Jun 1997 20:33:29 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Cortmaior's Definition of a Meme

>On Thu, 12 Jun 1997, Jon Cortmaior wrote:

>One thing that occurs to me is that the part of a piece of music that is
>the "meme" is the part that gets "replicated", the part we remember.
>The more insidious ones are the little tunes we find ourselves whistling
>despite the fact that we don't particularly _like_ them.

I am reminded of the "Compulsory Preface" to W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman
1931 "1066 and All That: A Memorable History of England" (NY: Dutton)
where it says

"History is not what you thought. _It is what you can remember._ All
other history defeats itself." (emphasis original, page vii).

Sellar and Yeatman then proceed to one of the most magnificent parodies of
history ever written.

But, lurking beneath the parody is a real insight, which Cortmaior has
stated as bluntly as blunt can be -- a meme is what you remember. To which
one can add that all other memetics defeats itself.

Some of us can debate about the nature of cultural evolution, and the
intersection of extremely complex cultural processes in history, art,
music, science, and all that, but if the Sellar-Yeatman-Cortmaior (SYC)
definition is correct, then *memetics* is the study of what people remember
and believe and think is true even (especially?) when it isn't true and
they don't even like what they remember. Memetics is the study of what is
left over after the sieve of memory has removed most of what went in.

This places memetics squarely into the broader disciplines of folklore
studies, popular culture studies, and certain kinds of anthropology.
Simultaneously it forces us to ask if people act on what they "remember" in
this memetic (SYC) sense, or if other (non-SYC) processes also enter their

Now, commonsense -- and in the SYC definition, commonsense *is* the
criterion! -- the answer is that certainly people behave for more reasons
than merely what they remember about something they read in a dentist's
office. For example, if a person has just lost their job, then they have
to do something about it. Everybody knows that, and so the meme says
"Everybody knows you have to do something about it if you lose your job."

I am concerned, of course, that I might be accused of "trivializing"
memetics and other deep and serious issues. Well, trivialities are part
and parcel of memetics, for we often remember trivialities (like the time
we dropped our keys down a sewer and tried to fish them out with a stick,
and this street person came over, etc, etc, etc). The expression "God is
love" IS the meme *because* that is what people remember and say when they
try to express their thoughts about the Divinity and agape -- and who
remembers words like "agape"? Only experts and scholars. Certainly not
some sentimental character in a bar trying to put a profound thought into

Memetics, like Sellar and Yeatman's history, studies the hodge-podge of
beliefs that people hold. On the other hand, disciplines like
historiography, cultural and social anthropology, sociology, social
psychology, and human ethology try to study the mechanisms of social and
individual behavior, set in the context of complex processes that interact
in sometimes reinforcing and sometimes contradictory ways. (I personally
happen to be interested in such things, but I surely grant to memetics the
right to study other things -- like the meme for what happens after you
lose your job: "Well, you just have to do something, right?" And <---
that was the meme, question mark included.)

So, in this view, true memetics is the study of the commonplace, the
quotidian, and the lowest common denominator banalities of life. I submit
that when Dawkins published his infamous list of examples -- tunes,
ditties, catch-phrases, and all the rest -- he had in mind EXACTLY this
sort of everyday stuff, like the St. Jude chain letter.

Some of you, having waded through (or not) some of my previous postings,
may think I am contradicting myself. Well, I'm not so sure -- I think I've
just been getting a better idea of what the true-blue memeticist actually
*means* when he or she (he, usually) tries to explain that memes replicate
and transmit themselves. Well, THAT is what they mean: where the capital
letters point to a collection of things like smurf songs, limericks,
catch-phrases, banalities, and Mickey Mouse tee-shirts. And so we have a
catch-phrase: memetics is the science of pop culch.


Note 1) Since the phrase "pop culch" may not be immediately familiar to
some readers, it is a abbreviation widely used in North America for the
phrase "popular culture." Light sabres, wind-up Godzilla monsters,
televangelism, soap operas, and preachers talking about "God is love" are
all "pop culch."

Note 2) This posting is guaranteed to offend some people. They will
accuse me of *reducing* memetics to the level of smurfs, soap operas, and
pop religion. Thereby they will reveal that they believe themselves ABOVE
the level of such things, a view called "elitist." They will claim that
memetics is *really* very complex and difficult, and only *studies* things
like glow-in-the-dark plastic spiders -- as if they were afraid to admit
that glow-in-the-dark plastic spiders are not only memorable but also quite

In brief, I think Jon Cortmaior has hit the nail on the head: memetics is
the study of what you can remember.

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