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Of Myths and Memes

posted: 5.19.11 by Jack Solomon

As I have noted here before, one of the key concepts involved in cultural semiotics is that of cultural mythologies.  A mythology is a worldview, ideology, or value that shapes a society’s apprehension and understanding of reality.  As such, of course, a mythology is an element in what is commonly called the “social construction of reality.”

The idea that reality is socially constructed has been a popular one since the advent of structuralism approximately a century ago, having been much enhanced through the writings of such poststructural writers as Michel Foucault.  So popular has the concept been within the Humanities that reality itself often vanishes as a topic of theoretical inquiry.  Many years ago I published a book (Discourse and Reference in the Nuclear Age) that attempted to restore reality to the semiotic equation through the exploration of what I called a “potentialist realism,” but while this is no place to reiterate the argument of that book, what I would like to do briefly in this blog is to show that even when making use of such socially constructive concepts as cultural mythologies, one need not lose sight of the reality beyond mythology, and how that reality can make itself felt in spite of our constructions.

I’ll begin with a brief description of an attempt over the past few decades to bring semiotic theory in line with modern biology and evolutionary theory.  This was the introduction into semiotics of the concept, first formulated by Richard Dawkins, of the meme (not to be confused with the more recent Internet-related usage of the word).  A meme is a cultural unit of information that is analogous to a gene; that is, just as genes pass on genetic information that is shaped by the evolutionary process of natural selection, so too, in theory,do memes pass on cultural information by way of socially selective processes.

I happen to agree with the criticisms of memetics.  For me, the relation between cultural information and genetics is merely one of analogy without any sound scientific basis.  Until cognitive biologists can make a persuasive connection between chemistry and consciousness any attempt to treat cultural information as if it was the same thing as DNA is bound to be too speculative to be particularly useful.

But there is something within memetics that can be quite useful in restoring reality to cultural semiotics.  This is the evolutionary principle that if a species fails to adapt to a changing environment, it will eventually disappear.  So too, if an ideology (as encoded in a cultural mythology) fails to correspond to reality, reality may indeed strike back at those who embrace the mythology.

Let me give an example.  A mythology held by an identifiable element in American society today holds that global climate change has nothing to do with human activities (a few years ago, this same element denied that there even was any global climate change).  Now, if we took a strict social constructivist view of things, this mythology would have to be held as equal to the scientific point of view on global climate change, which, to be consistent, also constitutes a cultural mythology (the worldview of modern science).  But one way or another, reality will have the last word, and if what I’ll call the “denial myth” continues to dominate the political system, a recalcitrant reality is very likely to strike back in the foreseeable future (if it hasn’t already done so).

My point is that not all mythologies are equal.  Some depart further from, and others come closer to, reality.  Semiotics, accordingly, does not require us to eschew objective reality altogether.  We can explore the ways in which societies construct their realities through an analysis of cultural mythologies, but we don’t have to abandon the ground against which those mythologies may be tested.

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Categories: Popular Culture, Semiotics
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