Broadening the Frame by Matt Carlson

​Memes and (the movie) Blow Up


In his book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins introduced the term “meme,” an entity he conceived as analogous to “gene” but a unit of cultural, rather than biological, transmission. “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm and eggs,” Dawkins writes, “memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation”[1] (Dawkins 1976, p. 192). A very broad definition of “meme” would be: any pattern of matter or information, produced by an act of human intentionality, that has function or effect for human beings. The category is thus vast. It includes every technology, plan, institution, ideology, religion, artwork, architectural design, appliance, science, economic system, scheme, theory, book, game, ritual, mathematical formula, park, manicured garden, hairstyle, clothing fashion, dance craze, advertisement, style, fad, etc., ever conceived by human beings. What the concept does not include is anything natural—so no organisms, geological formations, celestial bodies, subatomic particles, etc. Memes are bits of complexly structured information that humans, remarkably, can easily transmit from one mind to another and that persist solely by virtue of the attention we afford them.

As Dawkins notes, “meme” has itself been a good meme. It has been widely utilized in popular social science literature, figuring prominently, for example, in works by the philosopher Daniel Dennett (1991), the journalist/historian Robert Wright (2000), and the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1993).[2] The concept thrives partly because it powerfully explains cultural evolution through a kind of “natural selection”—or “mimetic selection”—in which memes survive only by out-competing other memes for attention. Culture thus builds on past culture, with new artifacts produced through the synthesis of elements (or memes) of old ones.

The concept also has taxonomic appeal, for it neatly identifies all and only those bits of structured information that are human-made. If we were to ask what is the source of humankind’s dominion over the earth, the most comprehensive and succinct answer we can give is: memes. Memes are the instruments by which we’ve been able to harness many of the earth’s resources. The fact that we use these instruments rather than our innate biological capacities for resource exploitation means that we can adapt to virtually any earthly environment. Memes also enable us to harness the energies of fellow humans. For this we use cultural memes like religion and ideology.

Since “attention-grabbing” and “beneficent” aren’t synonymous, there is, as Daniel Dennett says, “no necessary connection between a meme’s replicative power, its ‘fitness’ from its point of view, and its contribution to our fitness” (1991, p. 203) (nuclear weapons, addictive drugs, and bad television programs come to mind). So we’re not always memes’ willing hosts but their hostages as well. The extent to which human beings control mimetic selection or are controlled by it is a question left open by the “meme” meme—which tells us only that mimetic selection occurs via some process of human attention allocation.


As culture and technology evolve, memes multiply. Thus, the “meme pool” expands secularly, which suggests that memes may claim an ever-increasing share of our attentional capacity. The ever-expanding scope of memes in modern life may, in turn, occasion a kind of anti-materialist nightmare scenario of a culture increasingly dominated by material things.

What would a world of nothing but memes be like? The answer may lie in Michelangelo Antonioni’s mid-1960s film Blow Up, nearly every frame of which contains nothing that is not a meme. Buildings, dwellings, fences, construction sites, cranes, antiques, furniture, potted plants, flowers in vases, photographs, paintings, sculptures, cameras, lights, window blinds, costumes, pop music, marijuana, and alcohol all abound. But, with three exceptions noted shortly, there are no birds in Blow Up (though pigeons are everywhere in London; the filmmakers apparently scared away or edited out any birds that got in front of the camera). There are also almost no references to anything natural. The sole exception is when the (unnamed) David Hemmings character tells the (unnamed) Vanessa Redgrave character, “The light was very beautiful in the park this morning.” But even this is ambiguous. Perhaps he means that the quasi-natural scene was aesthetically pleasing—thus, a reference to nature. But perhaps he means the light was useful for photographic purposes—thus, a reference to the sun in its function as a photographer’s tool. (He says the “light” was beautiful, not, e.g., the “trees” were beautiful.) The film thus exhibits a basic ambiguity: that although we (and the protagonist) retain an aesthetic sensibility, it’s a sensibility compromised by the technology (the camera) that distances us from “nature” yet is our only means of accessing it. The only other naming of a natural kind in the film is “birds,” referring to the Hemmings character’s dehumanized female models.

There are, however, real birds in Blow Up. In the park, as the Hemmings character ascends to the hilltop, where he inadvertently photographs a murder, he photographs pigeons, chasing and scaring them as he does so. We watch one bird fly into the sky, where it becomes trapped in the frame, a menacing condominium complex lurking in the background. Otherwise, birds appear only on the soundtrack, in two scenes: during the “tennis match” in the final scene; and when the Hemmings character loiters behind his studio/flat in an alley at one end of which is a park (opposite the end from which the Redgrave character enters). Perhaps this hint of nature provokes a yearning in the Hemmings character, for he suddenly honks his horn, seemingly beckoning his neighbors to “Wake up!”—as he had earlier beckoned his somnolent models in his studio, also to no avail.

But otherwise, the movie is strictly memes. Even people in the film are mostly not real characters but social functionaries or pantomimes. Among the fully-costumed functionaries are nuns, a Queen’s guard performing a march step, and a uniformed trash collector stepping over an absurdly small fence (presaging the larger fence enclosing the murder scene). Among the pantomimes are models scantily clad yet well disguised behind masks and make-up, a mime troupe apparently embodying the fully mimetic existence the film presents as evolving, and the Vanessa Redgrave character “standing,” “sitting,” robotically bopping to dance music, and exhaling cigarette smoke “against the beat.” All such role-playing is mimetic, an imitation of life, not the real thing.

In the objects that clutter the film’s background and “landscape,” we find the film’s aesthetic signature: simultaneous attraction and repulsion but mostly attraction. As we follow the story, we’re bombarded by objects—antiques, artworks, modernesque bric-a-brac—each of which is itself compelling but only somewhat so. They compel our attention because they’re unique and of a human hand. But none are great art. They merely fill the background of our modern world. Thus, we focus on them for no more than a moment. The only unambiguously good art in the film are the photographs taken in the dosshouse (in black and white, by contrast to the “real-life” color of the rest of the film) by our protagonist. These are pictures not of figures pantomiming reality but of reality itself. We would like to see more of these (in contrast to the other art-works) but get only a glimpse. Our protagonist’s relationship to his dosshouse subjects is aesthetic: detached, exploitive. He has no moral or political commitment to them.

The buildings, roads, constructions sites, cranes, etc., that compose the landscape, also, like the background art-objects, attract and repel but—again, like the art-objects—mostly attract. These two sets of memes—background objects and landscape—however, are on different historical trajectories. The classical artworks and antiques are receding into the historical background (and possibly oblivion); the buildings, cranes, construction sites, etc., are emerging into the historical foreground. The antiques and art-works—fragmented, heaped in a tiny space (for instance, the antique shop), lacking any organic connection to modern society—are remnants of a culture in demise. By contrast, the buildings, cranes, construction sites, etc.—occupying vast outdoor space and leaving an indelible mark on the land—embody the energy fueling the rise of the modern world. This is mimetic selection. One set of memes recedes; another emerges. In the particular memes that recede and emerge lies the film’s cultural commentary. Humane classicism, the film tells us, is being displaced by dehumanized modernity.

The most energetic, purposeful character in the film is our protagonist, driven by the same energy that powers the cranes. He is a photographer—an artist—which perhaps explains his occasional, if subtle, yearning for a life beyond the dehumanized world of the film. But his behavior is not driven by emotion, the quaint motive of behavior in a more Golden era. Emotions are squelched by the memes now ascendant.

Our protagonist, like the memes that drive him, both attracts and repels but, again like any successful meme, mostly attracts. He’s young, dynamic, a savvy real estate operator, thus a force in the social changes occurring at the time and a natural focus of attention. His treatment of subordinates is abhorrent, but in this, he merely fulfills his capitalist function. He fails to report a murder, but his intentions aren’t bad, and we understand the distractions he faces; by the end of the film, we’re as interested in solving the murder as he is (i.e., not very). His intelligence and modicum of moral potential suggest that if there is hope of transcending this dehumanized world, it lies with him. Of course, he fails. In the end, he participates in a pantomimed tennis match and then, isolated and absorbed by the “match,” literally vanishes into the cut lawn.

[1] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University Press, 1976, p. 192.

[2] Daniel C. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, Black Bay Books, 1991. Robert Wright, Nonzero, The Logic of Human Destiny, Vintage Books, 2000. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, The Evolving Self, A Psychology for a New Millennium, Harper Collins, 1993.