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The story of the viral meme – not just grinning cats and dancing babies…. #richardclay @BBCFOUR @clearstoryuk @richarddawkins

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c. ClearStory/BBC

Following the screening of Richard Clay’s latest documentary “How to Go Viral” last night, I wanted to share my thoughts on the film. We touched briefly on the programme in my recent interview with him and although the subject matter might initially seem different to his earlier works, there are similar threads running through all of them. Broadcast as part of the BBC’s ‘Anniversary of the Internet’ strand, the programme sets out to explore how memes are created, how they succeed or fail, their history and what deeper meanings there might be. The documentary comes complete with a Very Long Title – “How To Go Viral: The Art of the Meme with Richard Clay”; but I think for convenience we’ll just call it Viral!

Unlike Richard’s earlier documentaries and in line with its subject matter, Viral’s appearance is much snappier, with rapid fire presentation, snazzy graphics and animations, memes and subliminal blips dropped in all over the place, and plenty of silliness – well, the subject *is* memes. However, lest all this sound trivial, be assured that it really isn’t; Viral is vastly entertaining but underneath the shiny surface there are some really serious issues at play.

The Two Richards – Professors Dawkins and Clay! (image c. BBC/ClearStory)

The word ‘meme’ was coined by the marvellous Richard Dawkins (who makes a rather wonderful appearance in Viral, and as Clay says is obviously a national treasure). Definitions of our modern terminology are given; however, the whole concept behind the idea of something that spreads like wildfire is actually nothing new, as the Prof goes on to demonstrate. So he ranges far and wide in his exploration of his subject, from a pivotal interview with the aforementioned Dawkins, through the ubiquitous LOLcats, with their own distinctive vocabulary to memes in advertising. From earworms to emojis, nothing is missed; and what soon becomes clear is that memes have been around for far longer than you might imagine, involved in the shaping of our lives and thoughts for centuries. For example, who knew that there was a craze for captioned cat postcards in the early part of the 20th century?? Or that Wittgenstein invented the emoji?? It seems that signs and symbols and their use have always helped form our world; what’s changed is the speed and method of their dissemination. It’s the same as the way a craze would take off in the playground or socially in the past, but simply spread in a different way and infinitely more rapidly – well, instantaneously, really. Let’s be honest: memes may have only been named in 1976, but they’re certainly not a modern phenomenon – just think of all those advertising jingles that passed into everyday life and are still there (I bet you have plenty of them stuck in your head!)

The Claymoji! 😀 (image c. Clearstory/BBC)

The Prof goes on to discuss what makes some memes “sticky” while others just disappear into the ether; he has a go at creating his own with the help of online experts; and even has own emoji created (how cool!), as well as soliciting some useful advice as to how to get rid of those pesky earworms! 😀 However, the programme goes on to draw in the political aspect, revealing how in our polarised world both sides are using the language of memes to try to influence our minds and views. The dizzying and sometimes alarming array of statistics demonstrates just how important an aspect of propaganda internet memes have become; and this also left me wondering – with the amount of stuff we do online, however do we manage to exist in the real world? Intriguingly, some of the scientific experts consulted make claims for memes having a strong role in shaping our evolutionary progress, an idea which left me wanting to explore more and go out and buy any number of scientific books…

A little bit of arty iconoclasm… (image c. ClearStory/BBC)

Laudably, Viral doesn’t shy away from tackling the darker side of the Internet, from trolls to death threats, and the interview with investigative journalist Jessikka Aro is particularly sobering; the internet, like the world, is not just grinning cats and dancing babies… Discussions of online fake news lead inevitably to the Orwellian conclusion that *all* news is fake owing to its selective nature. As Richard reminds us early on in the programme, the Internet is unregulated which inevitably leads to conflict, as one person’s humour is another person’s offence; and ever more controversial memes can be guaranteed to get their makers millions of views. Mainstream media is very filtered (and biased…) nowadays, and so the democratic and unrestricted nature of the Internet has led to a surge in dank humour which can often be offensive and divisive. However, in the Trump era, memes can be an effective way of transmitting an uncomfortable truth and become a means of protest; and as I saw with Mark Steel’s “Vive la Revolution“, you can get a very fine political point across using humour.

Yet, memes can be useful; as well as communicating ideas rapidly round the globe, they can act as a release, an anti-stress and survival tool – certainly when my kids are having a bad day, they’re all over WhatsApp demanding more memes from each other! The sharing can have a positive effect, giving us a sense of belonging which may have been lost nowadays. We live in an increasingly fragmented world, one in which we’re constantly bombarded by signs and symbols competing for our attention, and it *can* become exhausting (although probably less so for younger people who are most used to this world and are no doubt evolving as we speak to live within it). Indeed, Richard takes a short but necessary time out with his art historian hat on to consider that the continuing popularity of art galleries may reflect a very human need for some quiet, one-to-one time with a single picture or sculpture, away from the constant visual chaos around us. I’d definitely concur with that view!

Richard bravely has a go at planking… (image c. ClearStory/BBC)

One aspect I found particularly fascinating in a programme that fizzes with ideas was the exploration of the different elements of culture and how they affect us; drawing in the addictive element of music was perhaps unexpected, but very rewarding. Viral had several little nods to Richard’s previous documentaries and most notably (when looking at the flexibility of symbols and memes) squeezed in consideration of one of his pet subjects, sign transformation (i.e. how the meaning of objects around us changes according to context and our particular viewpoint at any given time). In fact, the Prof has become increasingly adept at sneaking semiotics and signs on to our screens (although as well as bringing some much-needed erudition to mainstream TV, he’s happy to balance it with plenty of that humour and even gamely has a go at planking – although sensibly avoids the ice bucket challenge…) And there are plenty of little asides to catch the eye and amuse, from the ‘404 not found’ result for a certain missing image to a sneakily winking cat, both of which made me smirk. However, to prove memes have a serious purpose, our somewhat subversive semiotician ropes in the work of no less than Roland Barthes to prove how crucial text is to those memes, and how an image on its own is not so effective; it’s heady and stimulating stuff.

Needless to say, Viral was a massive hit at the Ramblings; the amount of mental stimulation it’s caused my brain is pretty huge and I’m trying to restrain myself from rushing off to explore all sorts of different ideas, as well as reading everything Dawkins has written. TV is more often than not a dead medium for me nowadays, starved of interesting ideas and discussions; which makes something like Viral even more of a breath of fresh air, a beacon of intellectual provocation in a desert of soaps and reality stars. This is the kind of exemplary programme that leaves you with dozens of ideas buzzing around in your head; its multi-faceted and multi-layered approach cleverly sneaking in its ideas under a playful exterior. Like it or not, we live in this modern world of instantaneous signs and symbols; so Clay’s efforts to help us decode that world, as well as to understand and negotiate it, are timely, celebrating just how creative humans can be in their methods of communication. If you’re in the UK Viral is here on the iPlayer and I strongly recommend checking it out while you can. If you’re in the rest of the world, I hope it makes it to your TV screens sometime soon. Viral is a hugely entertaining yet deeply thought-provoking piece of television and is most definitely going to be my Documentary of the Year!

March on the Ramblings – upcoming documentary fun plus an @NYRBClassics event!

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No – I’m not suggesting for a minute that I want you all turning up at my doorstep with placards demanding something or other; instead, I thought I would just drop a little post in with some bits and bobs about what to expect over the next week or two on the Ramblings.

c. ClearStory/BBC

As you might have noticed, I am sunk in the depths of Dostoevsky’s Devils and absolutely loving it. It *will* take me a little time to read, but to keep you occupied there are a couple of reviews scheduled, which will be followed by some Extra Special Posts. As I’ve hinted, Professor Richard Clay has a new documentary due in the next couple of weeks on the subject of memes, and as well as a review of the programme there will be a couple of other Posts of Interest related to Viral which I hope you’ll enjoy – watch this space… ;D

One of my forthcoming reviews is of a NYRB release Lost Time by Józef Czapski; the publisher is releasing this, his book Inhuman Land and a biography, and to tie in with the launch is holding a special event in London on Friday March 15th. Entitled “Józef Czapski: A Beautiful Human Being”, it will take place at the Ognisko restaurant, and features esteemed translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Dr. Stanley Bill of Cambridge University. The evening promises to focus on Czapski’s life and particularly  Inhuman Land (which I’ll be reading and reviewing at a later date) and should be interesting as well as stimulating. Alas, I shall be unable to sneak away from the wilds of East Anglia (which I’m a bit cross about), but if you’re in the Big Smoke the event is reasonably priced and sounds fascinating, so do try to go along if you can! You can find more information about the event here.

Meantime – back to scandalous revelations, punctuated by outbreaks of mass violence! 😀

Three Things… #2 – documentaries, and the price of books…

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I quite enjoyed my first go at this nice little meme, thought up by Paula, where we post about what we’re Reading, Looking and Thinking. So I thought I would share again where I am – a little snapshot of my state of mind today, you might say!

Reading

Choices, choices…

I’m dipping into a number of books at the moment, mostly shorter ones after the epic, mammoth, involving and wonderful read that was “The Aviator”. There are the next couple of Penguin Moderns and a pair of lovely review classics from Ampersand. Also on the immediate TBR is “Flights” and a very interesting-sounding British Library Crime Classic, “The Division Bell”. As well as books, I’m trying to catch up on the issues of the London Review of Books which have been massing on the coffee table, along with copies of the TLS (a Russian special) and the latest “Happy Reader”. Plenty to keep the avid bibliophile amused….

Looking

Great excitement chez the Ramblings, as BBC4 (finally!) decide to repeat one of the Documentaries that Distracted last year – and probably my favourite. The three-part “Utopia: In Search of the Dream”, written and presented by Professor Richard Clay, was one my viewing highlights of 2017, so I’m glad to see it getting another airing. The series was a bracing and eclectic mix, looking at utopias, dystopias, repressive regimes (from both sides of the politic divide), architecture, art, music et al – very broad indeed. I’d recommend catching the series while you can if you have access to BBC4 or the iPlayer – thought-provoking stuff!

Which obliquely leads on to…

Thinking

A topic vexing my mind lately has been the cost of books. Not just ordinary new books, which do of course vary according to where you buy them, and in what format; but older, out of print or rarer titles that seem to fluctuate madly according to the day of the week.

Of course, we all know that a certain big river store’s prices are often slashed wildly and that real bookshops struggle to compete. There’s the issue also of local shops not always stocking what you want, but as they now all seem to be able to order in quickly I’m finding myself drawn back to Waterstones and the like, and if I have to order online I tend to go for Wordery nowadays who seem quite a decent lot.

The iconoclasm books continue to breed…. =:o

However, old or rare books are a different kettle of (vegan) fish. It was the “Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the Transformation of Signs” book by the aforementioned Richard Clay which got me thinking about values. As I’ve posted about on here before, I had been unable to find this one at a sensible price anywhere, so I resorted to getting Youngest Child to borrow it from her University library over Christmas. With second-hand copies going at over £1,000, I wasn’t going to be owning a copy any time soon.

But I set up alerts on a number of online booksellers and one morning, ping! A load of messages starting to come in with Reasonably Priced and Brand New copies available at under £100. So as I’ve posted, I picked up a copy and was dead chuffed. However, the interesting follow-up to this is that I never got round to cancelling all the alerts and messages are still rolling in with copies for sale – and the price since I bought my copy has been gradually creeping up and up, until a recent email dropped in offering a second-hand version for an eye-watering £8,792.58…. Yes, really…. And it seems to keep going up…

One of my rarer Viragos…

So WHY is it that some book prices vary so intensely and what sets the value? I know this one is an academic book, published in limited quantities by a smaller publisher, but is it simply the rarity value? It’s not only academic books that can have rare prices – I know Jane at Beyond Eden Rock has written about Margery Sharp’s “Rhododendron Pie” which is almost impossible to find at a decent price; and when I first wanted to read A.A. Milne’s “Four Days’ Wonder” it was prohibitively priced so I didn’t bother. I guess it’s some kind of complex calculation of the rarity of the book vs the amount of people who want to read it; when Simon at Stuck in a Book first blogged about “Guard Your Daughters”, the price of second-hand copies rocketed; and Anne Bridge’s “Illyrian Spring”, long sought after by Virago devotees, commanded silly prices before its reprint by Daunt Books.

I guess the moral is simple: if you want a book, and you see it at a price you’re prepared to pay, grab it. Certainly, I’m very glad I got hold of my iconoclasm book when I did – because there’s no way I could afford getting on for nine grand!!!!

*****

So there’s a snapshot of where my head is at the moment – full of books, magazines, documentaries and iconoclasm – the usual rambling and eclectic mix! 🙂

A bit of an epiphany

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In my spare time (what spare time, you might ask) when I’m not reading or wasting precious moments watching YouTube, I have an extreme fondness for BBC documentaries – BBC4 usually, but sometimes those on BBC2 and even BBC1 as well. And I have to say that I’ve been rather well-served over recent months.

Particular standouts were (and are – some are still ongoing) Richard Clay’s Utopia 3-part series on BBC4; the Alan Yentob BBC1 “Imagine” programme on Margaret Atwood; Simon Reeve’s “Russia” series; Suzy Klein’s BBC4 three-partner on classical music under totalitarian regimes; a sweet little half hour on the same channel covering Philip Larkin‘s sideline as photographer; and a veritable slew of fascinating programmes on poetry that hit the BBC at the beginning of the month.

The epiphany I refer to came during a fascinating look at W.H. Auden‘s work and its continuing resonances in our fractured times. I confess I’ve read very little Auden, so this was a real eye-opener featuring some amazing verse, some lovely comments from other writers (Alan Bennett was a treasure) and powerful reminders of just how relevant and immediate poetry can be.  I found myself responding quite emotionally to some of the work and it sent me off digging in the stacks, because I was sure I had an Auden book somewhere – and fortunately I do!

I think it arrived recently, and I can’t remember what prompted me to order it, but I’m very glad I did. I can see I shall be dipping into this volume and I thought I would share one particular verse that spoke to me (for obvious reasons, most likely…) and it’s called “Epitaph on a Tyrant”:

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,
And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;
He knew human folly like the back of his hand,
And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;
When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,
And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

I’d recommend tracking down any of these which are still available on the BBC iPlayer, as they don’t stay there forever. Meanwhile, I’m off to check the TV listings pages; because I find if I’m too tired to read but still want intellectual stimulation, BBC documentaries are just the ticket! 🙂

(And memo to self – you need to read more poetry!!!)

 

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