virus: The Naked Meme

Eva-Lise Carlstrom (
Sat, 30 Nov 1996 23:29:37 -0800 (PST)

I apologize for this tardiness in responding to the 'are memes
transmissible?' thread; I neglected my mailbox too long to catch it while
it was budding. I would like to suggest *very* strongly to Alexander
Williams, David McFadzean, and the other contributors to the thread that
they read George Lakoff's contribution to the collection _Metaphor and
Thought_, on the 'conduit metaphor'. I have become all too aware, reading
this list recently, of my own need to reread it. I'll see whether I can
encapsulate the thesis without having done so, though.

The common understanding of speech and other communication is that the
*meaning* is encoded in the text and *transmitted* to the hearer/reader,
who has only to extract the meaning from the text, that is, remove it from
its packaging. Lakoff calls this folk understanding 'the conduit
metaphor', because it presents meaning itself as being 'conveyed', 'passed',
'carried', 'transmitted', whatever, by the vehicle of language, to the
hearer. In fact, Lakoff argues very persuasively, this is not only a
wrong understanding but a harmful one; meaning is not within the text at
all. The most that can be said to be encoded is instructions for building
a meaning, and we do our best to provide clear instructions so that the
meaning constructed on the hearer's end closely resembles the version the
speaker intended. Assuming that meaning lies within the text itself
rather than being built within the hearer, on the basis of the hearer's
own understanding of the world and interpretation of the text, leads to
terrible misunderstandings and accusations of wilful distortion, among
other ills of society.

One example of the conduit metaphor in action would be Person A, with a
very high technical understanding of a procedure, telling Person B how to
do something, and Person B failing to understand the explanation. Person
A might claim that since her explanation 'contained' the correct meaning,
Person B was an incompetent listener, 'not paying attention' or something.
If Person A were aware of the conduit metaphor's implications, however,
she might well notice that her terms were self-explanatory only for those
with background she might not have provided and B might never have
encountered, and so provide fuller instructions.

Another example would be different people, perhaps from different cultures
or perhaps not, having entirely different interpretations of a work of
literature. I read a very interesting account by an anthropologist who
was convinced of the universality of stories, attempting to tell the plot
of _Hamlet_ to a group of Bushmen. They found the story interesting, all
right, but by the time they were done hearing it and making their own
interpretations, it was definitely a quite different story from the one
the anthropologist knew. The experience disabused the anthropologist of
the notion that meaning lay within the text itself.

I am, as this post should make clear, firmly within the park of 'Zander's
Heresy', that memes are not in themselves transmissible. The
transmissibility of memes is a convenient shorthand for the
blueprint-and-construction process we go through with every communication,
and when understanding is perfect or nearly so, the metaphorical nature of
this shorthand is invisible. But when problems in communication attract
our notice, we should take care to remember that it *is* a metaphor.

I also highly recommend to readers of this list George Lakoff's book,
_Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things_, on the nature of mental categories
and metaphor, and thus of human thought.