(Break) meme

I begin to contemplate completing a meme only to recoil in frustration. Unaccustomed to such exercises, I cannot envision any way to get the required questions apart from copying and pasting already answered questions (assimilating them, as it were), erasing the answers (ejecta), and putting in my own. Not quite a palimpsest, but it feels like it should be.

These technical issues remind me that the meme is build on a sort of mimic ritual, monkey see, monkey do, albeit with some differences. While the answers are supposed to reveal aspects of individuality, perhaps even create intimacy, they emanate from a similar (normalizing structure): a set number of questions, a limited number of responses determined by the questions, an imperative to spread (like a rash, ringworm, or venereal disease) the joy, pain, but perhaps the most appropriate word is exercise.

So, I sigh and look at the first question, which asks where I keep my cell. Immediately, I feel a tinge of frustration. “Don’t have one.” I look down to question 2 on relationship. “Don’t have one.” Proceed to number 3, hair. “Ditto.” Number 4, work. “Ditto.” I give up. And decide to write against the evil of the meme.

It seems to me there’s something, if not violent, then profoundly discomfiting about a set of questions that produce an individual as absence or lack within the social codes of the document. At the same time, it reveals the false intimacy we have come to associate with information.

So, (in a break from working on my dissertation, perhaps I do “work,” after all, but academic labor is often dismissed as unreal by people who shuffle papers in real offices and talk on the phone a lot), as I was saying, I want to think, briefly, about the production of intimacy as aspiration within memes.

At the core of the meme’s standardized questions (and, seriously, when the government asks us to fill in such forms, don’t we complain?) lies what I think of as a misrecognition of information as intimacy. The more I know about you (and let’s not forget the intimacy of a document that asks for “your mood,” as though moods can be frozen in time in any meaningful way), the more I know about you, the closer we might become. As though knowing that I believe cells (phones not bio-units) are the devil’s instrument says anything meaningful about me (it might! Bible school lingers).

How are we to think about instruments whose said name (meem) is a giveaway to the act of social recognition they perform. Me looks for Me, images of ourselves, confirmations that, like us, other people have dreams, goals, pasts, quirks, rituals, habits. As though to ameliorate our unease in living amidst stranger sociality, where we come in contact with more strangers every day than we do intimates. There is to the meme a mode of making strangeness less so—you carry your cell (the devil’s instrument) in your bag, SO DO I!

Indeed, it often seems to me that the promise of a meme is to have more SO DO I moments than not. And when these are not present, we are thrilled to discover that other people have quirky habits, strange little tics, that is, that we are not alone in our strangeness, albeit a strangeness denuded of any social critique of ideological challenge to how we imagine ourselves (remember, we look for me-me).

This is not to say, however, that memes are not useful for thinking about the forms of intimacy we inhabit and seem to treasure and privilege. Indeed, what seems striking about them is precisely the extent to which they mimic personal ads, which, in the “new era” demand more and more information, insist that intimacy (as the e-harmony ads say) is a function of information. (For this reason, I actually prefer the stripped down ads on Craigs list, which can be just as violent, but reduce intimacy to its essentials.) Of course, “likes and dislikes,” the preferred language of ads, or even “values,” seem more “personal” than “information” might suggest. But the same logic of know yourself (you know, the idiot who actually popularized this injunction in the self-loving midst of late capitalism . . .) inheres to both personal ads and memes.

Yet, what attracts us to people and maintains intimacy is often much more idiosyncratic than memes will allow. Many of the people I have met on kbw and continue to think of as friends, if not intimates, have appealed to me for a range of reasons: a certain generosity of spirit (mshairi, guess); certain ways of engaging with the world with grace, humor, care (mutumia, KM, rombo); modes of cultural critique that wed ideological and formal concerns (potash, mmk). Often it was not a body of work, but a response, a comment, even a sentence. There was, in a moment of reading, a sense of recognition, a feeling, an intuition.

Of course, some memes might lead to such forms of recognition. And, to be fair, they are often shared among and between intimates (mutumia got me into this mess). Yet, their formal determination that certain kinds of information produce knowledge, friendship, even intimacy defers, I think, the long, hard, and wonderful labor of reading through a fellow blogger’s entire archive, struggling with unfamiliar language and concepts (potash, jke at his most technical, myself sometimes); being willing to follow bloggers across borders (kipepeo, where are you now?); waiting, against the logic of the blog, for posters to return from various absences; or, moving beyond the time-lag of the blog into intimate, personal communication.

Perhaps, finally, I am not interested in solicited information, no matter how “intimate” it may seem. I prefer the embedded narratives we tell about ourselves and the world, the way, that is, we participate in living and world-making.

6 thoughts on “(Break) meme

  1. *OMG!!! Prof you are *those* students who are asked to write about “the implications of the majimaji rebellion on post colonial guerrilla struggles” and instead writes about “rinderpest eradication in Sudan”.

    I am pointing at you. Ebu I read your post properly and get back to the subject at hand (with a big red pen).

  2. ooohhh and you said nice things about me. Awwwwww. I heart you Prof. Even though you didn’t answer the question about your dream the previous night (number 7). That said, Craig’s list? Eh… that’s like one dimension of compatibility- dude! that’s no way to develop intimacy (I meant to say “Guyz! That’s a bilaz way for hooking up:))

    I’m still spreading the meme by the way- but I have to agree with you on the fact that one of the better pleasures of blogging is that you don’t know if you’ll meet a picture or story of triumph et cetera et cetera.

    Carry on, carry on

  3. I am *that* student. Surely you remember ndoto=moon.

    I have insomnia. I don’t dream.

    You know what’s strange, since I came to this country, I have yet to see the word kwashiokor anywhere. More than any other word, it suggests Kenya to me. But that one is for analysis another day.

    I still have a post on Nyayo milk somewhere in my head, partially inspired by your love-lust for the young mtukufu rais.

  4. Isn’t it possible sometimes to allow yourself the fluidity to swim without direction? I guess when we allow ourselves to be drawn to complete and tag people, it is like wearing uniforms in school; an attempt to equalize ourselves and hide our differences.

    great post

  5. I am, perhaps strangely, a fan of uniforms–blame 12 years of Kenya education. Uniforms teach us how the multiple ways difference functions: the student who, like me, constantly has ink-stained fingers; the one who wears a home-made sweater; the one who, again like me, wears ink-stained clothing; the difference between torn/dirty clothing caused by carelessness and by poverty and, conversely, the super-clean respectable uniforms caused by poverty and class pretensions. And this is not to mention the ways individuals carry themselves, the gendered and classed ways power is learned and negotiated. Uniforms, to my mind, rarely equal uniformity. But again, this is a skewed view from one who grew up in them. (We could also debate the formal and informal uniforms defined by style and institutions, blue jeans vs. ties and grey shorts.)

    I like the illusion of swimming without direction, only to realize I inhabit chlorinated water. And this, to misquote Frost, makes all the difference.

  6. Now you have driven me towards thoughts of my days in Ditchez( Thats my old school) and how we tried different ways to alter our uniform in a bid to standing out. Oh the good old 80’s!

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