Memetics, Culture Jamming and Waking Up To Our Own Collective Lucid Dream
Man on the Train: Hey, are you a dreamer?
Man on the Train: I haven’t seen too many around lately. Things have been tough lately for dreamers. They say dreaming is dead, no one does it anymore. It’s not dead, it’s just that it’s been forgotten, removed from our language. Nobody teaches it so nobody knows it exists. The dreamer is banished to obscurity. Well, I’m trying to change all that, and I hope you are too. By dreaming, every day. Dreaming with our hands and dreaming with our minds. Our planet is facing the greatest problems it’s ever faced, ever. So whatever you do, don’t be bored, this is absolutely the most exciting time we could have possibly hoped to be alive. And things are just starting.
– “Waking Life,” directed by Richard Linklater, 2001
As Marshall McLuhan correctly predicted, the next world war will be a “guerilla information war” – and most likely, it is happening now as mainstream media outlets jostle for ratings instead of journalistic integrity, advertisers for multimillion-dollar primetime spots and Hollywood for the most believable (if manufactured) spectacle. We are, as Situationist writer Guy Debord wryly notes, living in a society of spectacle, empty of meaning and immediacy. In its place, we have the indoctrinated, overwhelming drive to consume, consume, consume and “mediacy” – life as mediated through other instruments and completely structured by our media (Lasn 101).
Like the ecological conception of a collective unconscious, our waking consciousness also entails an ecology of mind, and like air or water, is a “common-property resource” that must be protected from what anti-consumerist campaigner Kalle Lasn describes as “mental pollution” (Lasn 13). Lasn cites a number of compelling examples of this mental contamination: the unending noise of modern life; the scripted jolt and shock effects of television; proliferation of advertising hype; the comfortable and dissociative “unreality” of the Internet; information overload; infotoxins and a general loss of infodiversity (Lasn 13-27). Essentially, our collective conscious has been hijacked, our autonomy eroded. Science may not dare to insinuate yet, but with technology speeding ahead under the auspices of “progress,” it is probably a matter of time before the most private parts of the unconscious can be hacked into, colonized and sold off piece by piece as advertising real estate, just as it has happened on the Internet.
However, according to memetic theory, this invasion has already happened. First coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976, “memes” are informational units that virally replicate mind, just as genes replicate body. Our minds are essentially made up of a wide range of memes. Dawkins illuminates the nature of modern communication with the assertion that “memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation,” which continues to live as long as it is remembered and replicated (Dawkins 192). Ideas, catch-phrases, jingles, philosophy, politics are all examples of memes (Lasn 123). From this perspective, it is obvious that the memetic invasion of our consciousness is already well underway, with the rise of mass marketing, television, Hollywood, radio and the Internet – mass media outlets that allowed for the propagation of memes that served to perpetuate certain ideologies beneficial to an elite slice of society. It is how corporations market and “cool” products, ideas and lifestyles so that consumers are not just buying the product but are buying the meme – the stealth tactics of so-called “branding.” This reframing of current social trends validates the existence of an ecological body of consciousness, and by extension, an ecological unconscious as well.
As a participant of modern society, one cannot help but be drawn into the fray of meme warfare – one can either choose to be passive host, allowing for someone else’s memes to uncontrollably infect one’s mental environment – or as Lasn exhorts, we can manufacture our own, as “potent memes can change minds, alter behaviour, catalyze collective mindshifts and transform cultures” (Lasn 123). Though Lasn is admirable in his subversive “culture-jamming” strategies for the “meme warrior” (Lasn 129-36) this connotatively aggressive process of reclaiming our creative autonomy over our mindspace should not only involve overtly guerilla tactics but also a kind of imaginative, life-positive, dreamlike civil disobedience expressed by Guy Debord and the Situationist movement. Though Situationism laid the intellectual groundwork for the May 1968 student riots in Paris, it nevertheless attempted to address everyday situations through surrealist-inspired attempts to recover life’s authenticity. As the lucid dreamer revels in the freedom of waking habits and is “capable of deliberate action in accordance with their ideals, and are well able to respond creatively to the dream content” (LaBerge par. 58), so can the lucid awakened choose the manner in which to create their own memetic reality.
This awakening from the debilitating spectacle of modern life by exploring its surreal, dreamlike quality was one of the Situationists’ objectives, for “so long as the realm of necessity remains a social dream, dreaming will remain a social necessity. The spectacle is the bad dream of modern society in chains, expressing nothing more than its wish to sleep. The spectacle is the guardian of that sleep” (Debord 18). To this end of banishing its sleep, one of the Situationists’ key ideas was détournement, literally a “turning around” – a kind of subversive but positive ‘social re-dreaming’ that creatively subverts the meaning of spectacular images, ideas, environments and events in order to reclaim them. In this way, everyone is a “creator of situations, a performance artist, and the performance, of course, is your life, lived in your own way” (Lasn 101). Only we can determine if we want to live our life in a “moral, poetic, erotic and almost spiritual refusal” against the dehumanizing aspects of modern culture (101). Once again, this transformation points to a need to not only to a metamorphosis of thinking and being, but also the means to express it – just as Richard Linklater’s character laments to the lucidly-dreaming protangonist Wiley: “[Dreaming’s] not dead, it’s just that it’s been forgotten, removed from our language.”
To overturn modern falsehoods, the Situationists creatively crafted their memes out of courageous dreams to reflect their emerging counter-mythology. At the same time, they cleverly exploited mass culture’s means of meme production, media etc. – the very means of human oppression – and transformed it into their instrument of liberation. Dreams are the élan vital of life – and are memes in their own right, with the potential of taking on mythic proportions. It is clear that dreams are closely tied with ethic, as history is seeded with mythic dream memes blossoming into timeless ethic: inspired by the dream of a free India, modern figures such as Mahatma Gandhi obviously exercised elements of “situationism” in his efforts. Even in contemporary environmentalism there are wonderful examples of acting out one’s dream in an inspiring détournement: Julia “Butterfly” Hill, aged twenty-three, climbs a towering redwood whom she names Luna and stays there for two years to prevent it from being cut down. In the process, she redefines the pejorative meme “tree-hugger” into something transcendent, yet utterly of the indomitable human spirit, of which Luna unmistakably represents. In the all-embracing psyche of life, there are no boundaries, and we are all unerring reflections of each other.
Next: We Are The Dreamed