words William Wiles
A “meme” is a cultural idea that behaves a bit like a virus. A host – that could be you or me – picks up the meme, is “infected” by it, and then communicates it to others. Of course, ideas have long spread in this “contagious” or “viral” manner, but “meme” theory has gained currency as a way of describing how this happens online, where ideas propagate with unprecedented rapidity. Bizarre crazes can now boil across the surface of the planet before you can say “LOLcats”.
These memes are the subject of Gee Thomson’s ambitious and unusual book Mesmerization. Thomson’s position is that the proliferation of available information sources and the collapse of faith in authorities such as the traditional media and scientists has left us uniquely suggestible. Rather than being better informed, we’re up to our necks in a rising tide of relativism and gibberish – a fecund sludge in which quackery and conspiracy theories thrive and dumb, sexy ideas drive out complicated, worthy ones.
This is all familiar territory – the unusual part is what Thomson does from this position. He presents the idea that some cultural paradigms – such as “girl power”, “climate chaos” and “mobile phone mania” – have become so entrenched that they have developed a powerful visual language which ties up the values, fears and prejudices inherent in each theme. These “visual spells” can trigger a Pavlovian response in us, getting us (depending on the package we subscribe to) spending money, popping pills or believing the CIA blew up the Twin Towers. Each of the 50 or so “spells” in Mesmerization is illustrated with a graphic laying out its underlying “values” or prejudices, its target audience, the fears and dreams that drive it, the iconography that surrounds it and the “promise” or reward that it offers. Each of these promises is countered with a pithy little “reality check” that is irresistibly reminiscent of “Jerry’s final thought” on the Jerry Springer Show. This is all engagingly designed by graphics company Why Not.
Any effort to understand and explain the new information culture deserves some applause. But Mesmerization is really stricken by the modern ill that Thomson apparently deplores – horrible over-simplification. Do we need to be told that the “sunshine” paradigm targets “holiday-makers” who want to “feel great” and fear being “gloomy”, and that its icons include sun cream and the “Mediterranean lifestyle”?
There’s a very real, serious field of theory that really can decode a lot of the cultural paradigms we live by: it’s called semiotics, the study of signs. Sadly Thomson seems to be unaware of it; a bit of Barthes or Eco might have brought more light to the stuffy alchemical workshop of marketing that he toils in, walls lined with dusty tomes of pop sociology from Packard, V to Gladwell, M. Mesmerization is an interesting and attractive book, but fails to satisfy any deep quest for meaning.
Mesmerization: Why We Are Losing Our Minds To Global Culture, by Gee Thomson, Thames & Hudson, £19.95
image A spread from Mesmerization, showing one of the “spells”