Re-Enchanting the Meme

By: Matthew Battles
March 2, 2009


Julian Dibbell, anthropologist of the tribes of technology, has written an entertaining and useful consideration of kittens. Specifically, he’s writing about the viral video Kittens Inspired by Kittens, in which a young girl re-enchants the LOLcats meme with her voiceover captions of pictures of cute felines (in the process feloniously pirating Kittens, a LOLcat-inspired coffeetable book). In his blog post, Dibbell writes about the discomfort videos like this engender in us — a discomfort, he argues, that arises from the sense of taboo-breaking that seems an inherent quality of online experience. In place of “taboo,” however, Dibbell suggests “propriety”:

The word has an obvious relevance to discussions of children online (in which the closely and etymologically related notion of the “inappropriate” is constantly deployed). But it shares etymological roots with “property” as well — both words deriving from the Latin proprius, meaning variously “one’s own,” “peculiar,” “permanent,” “characteristic” — and I believe that it could only improve the discussion of online “intellectual property” if that oppressively legalistic conceptual abomination were trashed entirely and replaced by a more humane, more ethical conception of intellectual propriety, of words and ideas bound meaningfully but never exclusively to the individuals who generate them. The word fits even in discussing the cultural problematic of memes, which seem to have an alien, viral life of their own and to disrupt, with their productivity-draining invasiveness, our sense of the proper relationship between work and leisure.

We’ve accomodated ourselves to the notion of ideas and stories as “property” to such an extent that their repurposing gives us the heebie-jeebies. Dibbell reminds us that before creative acts and thing were property, they were the work of gods and spirits. In this light the concept of the “meme,” although quite useful for understanding remix culture, represents the original work of creative genius in tarnished and diminished form. Perhaps it’s time to re-enchant the meme, and give the “alien, viral life” of ideas its full measure of liberating, challenging power.