Infectious Ideas: Memes and Metaphors

Posted Tuesday March 30, 2010 by John Gunders in |

Given my interests in memetics (more soon) I’m really looking forward to this, and not just because Peta is a friend. If you’re in Brisbane, check it out.

Dr Peta Mitchell
Tuesday 13th April 2010, 2.00pm-3.30pm
Social Sciences and Humanities Library Conference Room
Level 1 Duhig Building (Bldg 2)
The University of Queensland
St Lucia Campus

In his 1976 work, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins proposes, seemingly almost as an afterthought, a second kind of “selfish” replicator. Theories of biological evolution can look to the gene as the base unit of replication and reproduction, but what, Dawkins asks us, about cultural evolution? How are ideas reproduced and why do some ideas find traction while others do not? The neologism Dawkins coins for his proposed cultural replicator is the “meme,” and he cites as examples cultural artefacts such as “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.”

In this paper, Dr Mitchell will examine the status of the meme as metaphor, and particularly the ways in which the meme increasingly began to be figured in terms of contagion—as thought contagion—rather than in terms of evolutionary biology. This, she will argue, places the meme within a long tradition of troping human thought as a kind of virus or a form of contagion, and I will consider the meme as developing out of the 17th and 18th century concept of the “contagion of example.” Finally, she wishes to suggest that, despite Stephen Jay Gould’s denigration of the meme as a “meaningless metaphor,” the meme’s reflexive potential means that it may offer itself as a singularly useful tool for considering the very workings of metaphor.

About the Presenter
Peta Mitchell is a lecturer in the School of English, Media Studies, and Art History at the University of Queensland. Her research broadly focuses on cultural geography, spatial theory, metaphor, contemporary literature, and new media technologies. She is author of Cartographic Strategies of Postmodernity (Routledge 2008), and her current book project, Contagious Metaphor (contracted by Continuum), examines cross-disciplinary uses of the metaphor of contagion. In 2009, she took up research fellowships at UQ’s Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies and at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

This seminar is to be chaired by Associate Professor Anita Harris.

For more details, contact Rebecca Ralph, Centre for Critical and Cultural Studies. Phone (07) 3346 7407, or email

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