Memetic Inkblots

7 minute read


I’ve been tossing around this concept of the memetic inkblot, which refers to units of cultural information (memes) that have effectively no singular semiotic value and therefore serve as a psychosocial indicator. In other words, they are so vague and open to interpretation that you can learn a lot about someone by asking someone to give a simple definition of them. Now, if semiotics has taught me anything, it is that the sign is nothing but a social construction, and I do not intend to make the mistake of attributing intrinsic value to any meme. Obviously, how someone feels about anything is a way you can learn about them, but these concepts are so vague that they rarely have a stable, concise definition.

Let me give an example: the American Civil War. Even today, there is still disagreement over this conflict, especially how it started. Good Yankee Liberals portray it as a conflict over slavery that ended with the Emancipation of the slaves, while Good Ole’ Southerners rename it “the War of Northern Aggression” and frame it in the context of states’ rights. Despite the fact that they disagree over the signifier, the signified is pretty much stable. Both sides would agree that it began at Fort Sumter and ended at Appomattox, for example. The American Civil War is not a memetic inkblot, as there are very few people who will claim that it didn’t actually happen, or that the South won. Its dictionary definition is stable, at least for a meme.

However, there are a large number of memes that are hotly contested, and even these divisions are not stable. I would not classify disputed events (such as the 9/11, the JFK assassination, or the Apollo moon landing) as memetic inkblots, because these are generally stable in their differences. The JFK assassination may be a hazy meme, considering that its cause is disputed by a sizable minority, but not an inkblot. This is because it can be defined in a manner satisfactory to all sides by including the official story along with a phrase like “but this official account is disputed by many who believe [x] happened.” As the divisions are rather clearly defined, it makes one’s response interesting, but not as much so as a memetic inkblot.

However, memetic inkblots are not defined simply by being vague, as I would not consider happiness and obscenity in this category. Additionally, I do not consider them memes; they are more like functions which evaluate memes. The general problem with these two terms is that while everyone knows what they are, everyone’s method of determining what is happiness or what is obscene is different, which is in part why we have an individualistic model of happiness and why the U.S. Supreme Court has declared that obscenity is to be defined in relation to “community standards.” Yet the fact remains that when I declare something obscene or myself happy, everyone understands what I mean, even though they may not understand how I could have possibly arrived at such a conclusion. They therefore fail at being memetic inkblots. My list should also help shed some light on this term:

My list is:

  1. God – the big one. Even people of the same denominations of the same religious can differently define what God is, and this powerful indicator into more than just a person’s religious beliefs. Someone who says that “God is love” has a different view of the world than someone who defines God as the supreme judge of human behavior. Likewise, someone who defines God as the unmoved mover is different in the same way from someone who sees God as a cosmic clockmaker. And those are all different from someone who, taking from Marx, defines God as the opiate of the masses or a mass hallucination.
  2. Web 2.0 – the “God” of the Internet. However, what defines Web 2.0? Is it, as Tim O’Reilly claims, using the web as a platform so that software runs on web browsers instead of as computer programs proper? Or is it websites powered by AJAX, CSS, and RSS feeds? Some claim neither, holding up user-generated content as the definitive guide. But what about social networking, Scalable Vector Graphics, tagging, open source software, free culture, and rounded corners – are those a part of Web 2.0? Is it a separation of form and content, with metadata and semantic data? Is it 100% constructed marketing hype? The fact that Web 2.0 is best explained in a folksonomic tag cloud proves my point – ask a web designer what Web 2.0 is and you’ll learn quite a bit about what kind of a web designer they are.
  3. Liberal(ism). Granted, Liberal and Conservative are both tricky terms and do not mean the same as liberal and conservative, both in the U.S. and in other countries. Additionally, if you state that a liberal believes in the free market and is against regulations on businesses, you’re either rather confused or in Europe. However, even in the same political landscape, how one defines a Liberal or Liberalism is a rather contentious issue. This is not as much of the case with Conservative, which is more solidly defined around the three concepts of economic, religious, and defense Conservatism. The rift goes much deeper than using the term proudly and slinging it as an insult. Someone who defines Liberalism around economic issues using the language of Robin Hood is far different from someone who speaks of inclusion and multiculturalism.This also goes for opponents of Liberalism, even when targeting the same issue: the Conservative who derides Liberals for being populist and having a disregard for fiscal discipline is different from the Conservative who claims that Liberals are the reincarnation of Socialist or Fascist ideology. And both of these groups are different than the Conservative who claims Liberals stand for the destruction or debasement of traditional Christian moral values.
  4. Love – another big one. It can be defined in passionately humanist terms or seen as a reflection of the Divine. It can be split into a whole nest of categories: romantic, platonic, familial, religious, erotic, cosmopolitan, love of nature, of animals, of wealth, and so on. One can see love as a biochemical process and through the lens of evolutionary psychology, defining it as a mechanism to ensure the survival of the species. It can be seen as a hypnotic opiate, inhibiting rationality, or the ultimate expression of the ethical life. It can be seen as the emotion most detached from politics, or the ultimate political act. And finally, the person who answers the question, “What is Love?” with “baby don’t hurt me, no more” is, for obvious reasons, far different than the rest.

Wait, you may be saying, haven’t you simply re-discovered the concept of the idea? Aren’t all ideas fluid and ultimately socially constructed which gives rise to ambiguity? And don’t we project a little of ourselves, whatever that nebulous concept means, into language and everything in the world? Of course they do, my dear post-structuralist reader. However, these ideas in particular are so vague that they are predominantly what we make of them, and therefore tell quite a bit about someone simply by asking them, “What exactly is this?”