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Saturday, 12 January 2013

The Passion of the Christ is a horse meme

A horse meme.
Possibly few people in the world do not know about memes. A horse meme like this is pretty ubiquitous on the internet but horse memes don't hold a candle to cat memes, which grow like topsy online. We have a strong need to look at pictures of cute animals. There is scientific evidence that doing so makes us more productive, so looking at cat memes is probably a sign of intelligence. Humour AND cute animals: a winning combination. But people have been anthropomorphising the natural world forever, it's as though it's part of our DNA.

Anthropomorphisation is so comforting to humans, we do it all the time. Cat memes are a sign of this need to both get in touch with other creatures, and to control our world. The Christian story of Jesus, the philosopher, is another example of anthropomorphisation, and the strength of our inner need in this regard is demonstrated by the staying power of that old fireside story, that has been embellished over millennia and adapted by millions of communities - and individuals - into a myriad of narratives. We do have a deep need to commune with nature, and yet on the other hand there is an equally deep need to exert influence and power over the world. These two desires bisect within the locus of anthropomorphism. What we do not immediately understand, we subsume into our own narratives, and there substitute things we do understand for those things that we do not.

Here we see the human need to tell stories operating to ensure that we both understand and can control a phenomenon that presents itself to us. Telling stories is an innate human activity, like language. We live by telling stories. In anthropomorphisation, it's the story-telling reflex that kicks in to help us to appropriate and control the thing that we see. It's a first step toward understanding, because having told the story there is then the opportunity for another person to enter into debate with us, and put forward his or her own telling of the story. As the stories multiply, our understanding grows. Finally, someone with the skills and time to know the truth will enter the frame and interject the definitive telling of the story, the one based on objective reality. We create the need for this refinement by engaging in story telling. The solution follows the debate.

In the film Jurassic Park the scientists who grew the dinosaurs apparently used a technique of interpolation, where those parts of the dino genes that were not materially present in the mosquito blood were taken from amphibians and other, similar, creatures such as frogs, and these gene fragments were incorporated into the gene sequence for the dinosaur so as to create a complete animal. This is the kind of activity that we use all the time in our interactions with the natural world, and with the universe. If we don't immediately understand something, the pressing demands of narrativisation mean that we immediately substitute something that we do already know for that part of the story that is in front of us, that we do not. We make assumptions, we make educated guesses, we interpret, we intuit, and we build a complete story that we are satisfied with.

Anthropomorphisation goes along with this kind of activity. We need to do it. We desire complete, satisfying narratives that we can use to remember, understand, and deploy in the form of actions - or reactions - and so control the universe that presents itself to us. It's all that we can do, sometimes. Meanwhile, in the academy, there are hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of researchers and teachers who hold deeper sets of knowledge. The bridge between the academy and the general population is still wide. Occasionally, their views enter the debate via the media and, hopefully, they are given the respect that their deep research entitles them to. Sometimes this does not happen, and alterior motives are assigned to them. This, too, is a kind of anthropomorphisation, where we impute motives to someone that actually belong to us, but which in reality had nothing to do with their thinking.

And so it goes on, in the public sphere. Phenomenon, narrative, interpretation, anthropomorphisation. An endless cycle of engagement conducted through the medium of language. And this is where we live. All the time. We are what we say. After death we will be what we have written. And people will not stop taking about us, that's for sure.

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