virus: An Explanation

Kevin M O'Connor (
Sat, 07 Sep 1996 17:09:14 EDT

The old C Memetic Nexus is no more, and free copies of the Collected
Infection have gone the way of full-service gas stations, but you can
still find an image of the Lion at Meme Central. You can still get a C
fridge magnet. Just send KMO your snail mail address. Act now while
they're still free.

Meme Central

An Explanation.

I am of the opinion that, while people have reasons for doing the things
they do, those reasons are not what motivates action. People act, extend
belief, and make judgments, and then, after the fact, they formulate
reasons to account for their actions. We like for things to make sense.
We want all of the pieces to fit with no gaps. We are so uncomfortable
with gaps in our mental models that we fill them in. We take the
fragments of reliable information at our disposal and weave them into a
seamless explanatory tapestry, and in so doing, provide ourselves with
the piece of mind that comes from seeing “the Big Picture.”

Now, having undercut the value of any explanation I could provide, I will
formulate an explanation. In all honesty, this is an overdue task. I’ve
frequently been asked to explain one aspect of my behavior, and while
I’ve smugly refused to offer any public explanation (creating the
illusion that I’m keeping a secret) I’ve experienced the lingering
anxiety of knowing that there is a gap in my explanatory web. I want to
see the big picture, even though I realize that the big picture is a lie.
Being human, I crave the comfort this illusion will provide.

I am a cartoonist, and I have a mission. I intend to propagate a meme;
to cause as many people as I possibly can to associate the word “meme”
with the cartoon image of a Buddhist temple lion. People frequently ask
me why I pursue this goal, and I have a variety of explanations. I think
people should be conscious of what ideas they support and why. People
will benefit if they can add memetics to their conceptual toolbox, and an
icon can serve as a conceptual hitching post. Abstract concepts are
hard. Images are easy. If I can get people to associate the word “meme”
with a simple image, then that’s a start. They can work on the abstract
stuff at their own pace. So long as the image is in place, the concept
won’t slip out of their minds like college algebra.

That’s not the explanation I parked myself at the keyboard to formulate.
That’s an old, well worn explanation, and I’ve given it many times.
That’s not why I do what I do. But it’s a good story, and that’s all
anybody really wants anyway. Occasionally, however, someone hits me with
a particular “why”; one for which I do not have a good story. “Why a
lion?” At this I just smile enigmatically. The smile is external.
Inwardly I’m scowling and thinking, “Yeah, why a lion?”

A moment’s introspection yields the seed of an explanation. It’s got
something to do with continued identity over time. Confident that I
could spin that fragment into a full-blown good story, my anxiety is
assuaged. I know I could concoct the explanation, and so I don’t have
to. Obviously though, my comfort is fleeting. Otherwise I wouldn’t be
sitting here detailing exactly what it is that I have not adequately
explained and why I feel motivated to develop that nascent explanation
into something that will provide lasting comfort.

So, why should a cartoon image of a Buddhist temple lion serve as the
meme icon? I’ll take this in stages. First, the easy part; Why a
cartoon image? Pictorial images can be placed on a continuum. At one
end of the continuum, images are photo-realistic. They look so much like
the thing they depict as to fool the eye. At the other extreme we have
iconic images. Icons don’t look much like the things they represent.
The symbols on restroom doors which allow us to distinguish the ladies’
room from the men’s room at a glance don’t look much like men and women,
and, fortunately, they look even less like men and women using the
restroom. Still, their meaning is clear. That little silhouette of the
woman in the short skirt is as reliable an indicator of which restroom
you’re facing as would be the word “women.”

Cartoons are much closer to the iconic end of the pictorial image
continuum than they are to the photorealistic end, and like icons,
cartoons have a power over us that realistic images lack. They can
convey a mood or emotion far more efficiently than a realistic image.
Cartoon scenes pulse with a vitality that is lacking in realistic
representations. This power to encapsulate information and covey it
non-verbally is a crucial property for the meme icon, and cartoon images
have that power.

Now the tough part. Why an image from Buddhist iconography? Why a
temple lion? Buddhism got it’s start in what is now Nepal. From there
it moved south into what is now India, and later into China, Korea, and
Japan. As Buddhism spread, it served as a vehicle for the transmission
of innumerable memes. Beliefs, customs, rituals, and images all
constitute memes, and Buddhism transported all of these from India to
China and beyond.

When Buddhism moved from China to Japan, it served as the vehicle by
which an organized system of writing, meditation, and even the practice
of drinking tea found a permanent home in Japanese culture. Countless
craftsmen and artists have produced images of lions in the service of
Buddhist devotion. Almost none of these craftsmen ever saw a real lion.
They acquired the concept from someone else. They may have read a
description of a lion, but more likely the lion meme entered their brains
as an image. These artists saw lions depicted in Buddhist art, and used
those images as a basis for their own creative endeavors.

The artists who generated all of these lion images didn’t just reproduce
what they’d seen. They innovated, and so we see a wide variety in lion
images in Buddhist art and architecture. The lions in Tibetan sand
paintings don’t look much like the statues which sit in front of temples
in Japan. The lion I draw and work to propagate is distinctive. He’s
based on a figurine I purchased at an oriental gift shop, but he is
unique. What identifies him as a temple lion is his causal history. Had
some Chinese craftsman not carved a figurine based on his concept of a
lion, and had that figurine not found it’s way to a gift shop in
Columbia, Missouri, my cartoon temple lion would never have taken shape.
My lion’s causal history extends back into Chinese and Indian history.
He is the product of a long chain of memetic transactions, and as such he
is an appropriate icon for memetics.

Of course, some people have actually seen real lions, and while you and I
most likely acquired our lion meme before we ever saw a lion, some people
have, in fact, acquired the lion concept from first-hand experience of a
lion. No one, on the other hand, has ever seen a unicorn. We all get
our unicorn concept via cultural transmission and never through direct
experience. Wouldn’t a unicorn make a better meme icon? If the icon
needs to have its roots in Buddhism, why not a dragon? No one has ever
seen a dragon, so like the unicorn, a dragon is more representative of
cultural transmission than is a lion.

Unicorns and dragons already carry a heavy load. They represent enough
and shouldn’t be burdened with a further iconic load. No, the temple
lion it is. There. I feel much better. None of what you just read is
“true.” But it makes sense. It’s a good story, and good stories beat
“the truth” any day.