Towards a Digital Sociology of Musical Memes

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These days, musical memes occupy a significant chunk of my consciousness. For stretches of last week, for instance, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Millie B Blackpool Grime drop that has found a new lease of life as a TikTok meme (many thanks to my supervisee Eleanor Halstead for this one). The week before that it was the John Coltrane ‘Giant Steps’ meme that Scott Spencer (no relation) discussed at the CysMus YouTube conference in Lisbon. And while I was working in the bathroom during the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown, the iMarkkeyz Cardi B coronavirus remix was gaining momentum. In a basic sense, musical memes are catchy clips or soundbites that can be found in imitative and mostly audiovisual user-generated content on the social web.

But how might we assemble a sociological conception of musical memes? This is a question that has weighed upon me for several years now and it is also one that haunts a great deal of recent work on music and the social web. But having spent some time examining the various ways in which Gabriel Tarde’s legacy has been invoked in discussions of social web memes, and having remixed my Harlem Shake work for the Lisbon YouTube conference (available here), it now seems appropriate to offer some preliminary notes and to air my current thinking on this topic. I am completely new to this genre of writing (the academic blog – surely a contradiction in terms?) and so it feels necessary to offer apologies in advance for the sketchiness (and self-centredness) of what follows.

Let us begin with the meme’s traditional creation myth. In 1976 Richard Dawkins introduced the neologism ‘meme’ in order to conceptualise a cultural equivalent of the gene. This much is well known among internet researchers, but it should be remembered that the principal meme Dawkins had in mind was religion – especially Christianity’s myth of the Fall and the doctrine of original sin. Dawkins insisted on the agency of religion itself in choreographing human behaviour over the centuries, though in neo-Darwinian terms that have been criticised by biologists (e.g. Bateson 1978; Wilson & Sober 1994) and philosophers (e.g. Blackburn 1998; Gray 2001). Despite the contentiousness of Dawkins’s idea, it was seductive – we might even say that as a rapidly replicating meme, Dawkin’s idea succeeded in influencing a great deal of scholarship in the humanities and social sciences, while he himself became a rather religious and mythologised figure in the nascent interdisciplinary field of ‘memetics’. Often overlooked among musicologists interested in the social web is the work of Steven Jan (e.g. Jan 2000, 2007, 2016a, 2016b), which champions the universal Darwinism proposed by Dawkins (1985) and is principally concerned with the agency of musical memes at the poïetic level in the music of the First Viennese School (Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven). As with Dawkins, a mentalist-driven conception of memes is privileged in Jan’s memetics of music – they have an agential hold over the minds that carry them (‘meme vehicles’). But as Ockelford (2009) has argued persuasively, Jan’s memes are really just musical motifs, and the manner in which he relegates human agency (including that of composers, performers, and listeners) is deeply problematic.

Critically, in her perspicacious work on present-day Internet memes, Shifman (2013) argues that this old-skool mentalist-driven conception must be balanced by a behaviour-driven one whereby memes are understood as constellations of human practice. To put it necessarily bluntly: web users do things with musical memes. As I argued in my RMA paper ‘On Trolling Sounds’, web users also (ab)use others so that they become reified as memes themselves. The importance of Shifman’s contribution cannot be overstated, but although I have returned to it regularly in my thinking over the last few years it is only a starting point in developing a digital sociology of musical memes.

And so to Gabriel Tarde (1843–1904), whose legacy is still a point of contention among sociologists and who has been used as scaffolding for both mentalist-driven and behaviour-driven memetics (not to mention his standing as a point de capiton for Latour’s Actor Network Theory and neo-Deleuzian pieties to do with affect). Tarde’s many and varied ideas could well be cast as memes that have mutated over the last century or so, but it is perhaps better to approach them as ‘facts’ in the manner of Morgan (2011). As ‘facts’, then, Tarde’s ([1890] 1962) Laws of Imitation, his ([1902] 2007) Psychologie Économique, his (1884) flirtation with Darwin (Darwinisme naturel et Darwinisme social), and – most obviously – his basic ‘social fact’ (the act of one consciousness upon another consciousness) have all been “carried, rolled, squeezed, bounced, kicked, and thrown” over the course of their travels (Morgan 2011: 13). Three years ago I tried to catch the Tardean rubber ball and it eluded me, but having returned to this body of literature I now think that it might well offer a productive way forward (though with several important provisos). In the next section of this blog post I highlight some of the potential as well as the perils of an approach that leans on Tarde.

The Turn(s) Towards Tarde

In two short yet influential papers published in the Journal of Memetics around the turn of the millennium, Marsden (1998, 2000) casts Tarde as a ‘forefather’ of a nascent theoretical field and as a champion of social contagion in the proper (read neo-Darwinian) sense of the term. Indeed, Marsden’s frustrations with “standard explanations” of social contagion (Emergent Norm Theory, Social Learning Theory, Convergence Theory) stems from his fervent faith in mentalist-driven memetics. He states that various attempts to “explain away” social contagion are “characterised by an almost desperate attempt to restore individual agency and rational action to the phenomenon” (Marsden 1998: online). Revealingly, in Marsden’s work Tarde becomes aligned with a radical mentalist-driven conception of contagion rather than with imitation: he even posits that “Tarde wished to stretch the already more inclusive meaning of the French word imitation” and thus “has much in common with the [mentalist-driven] memetic project” (Marsden 2000: online). In some respects, there is good reason for Marsden to cast Tarde as a sort of proto-Dawkins. Consider the following passage for instance, which might well have seemed prophetic to Dawkins’s devotees a couple of decades ago:

Any social production having some marked characteristics, be it an individual good, a verse, a formula, a political idea which has appeared somewhere in the corner of a brain, dreams like Alexander of conquering the world, tries to multiply itself by thousands and millions of copies in every place where there exist human beings and will never stop except if it is kept in check by some rival production as ambitious as itself.

(Tarde [1893] 1999: 51)

But as Candea (2010: 14) has stressed, such post-hoc contextualisation is problematic, and while it is true that Tarde engaged with the work of Darwin, “opinions vary on Tarde’s closeness to Darwinian theory” (ibid.: 3). Significantly, in attempting to lionize Tarde, Marsden makes the same move as Tarde’s famous nemesis – Durkheim – in that he regards Tardean imitation as “no more nor less than a form of contagion” (Karsenti 2010: 47). This conflation, found at both the beginning and the end of the twentieth century, as it were, is a profound misreading. To put it in Karsenti’s words (translated from the French by Candea):

Imitation is not reducible to a subjective passivity. It is also the form of resistance, and thus of the activity, which we oppose to this flow: or better, of the activity within us which is opposed to this flow, activity which in turn is another form of passivity.

(Karsenti 2010: 49, original emphasis)

Tardean imitation (in the strict sense of the term) is thus of great relevance to musical memes understood as creative practices. The strength of a Tardean approach lies in its close attention to imitation as invention – as an inter-psychological and more-or-less-conscious creative act. One might add that this imitation might operate by degree (consider increasingly extreme versions of the Harlem Shake) or by sign (consider Fraxiom’s recent queering of the brostep anthem Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites by Skrillex through the use of a Bruno Powroznik soundbite: ‘GAY SEX IS NORMAL’) (see Born 2010). Moreover, although Durkheim and his followers ensured that Tarde became typecast as an individualist for the best part of a century, this is perhaps a strength rather than a weakness when we consider our present social operating system of ‘networked individualism’ (Rainie & Wellman 2012). As Toews (2010) argues, Tarde was able to get to the heart of the unsociability of the human condition, something that is of great relevance to the weaponization of musical memes on the (anti)social web (cf. Spencer 2019). This clarion call may well have been sounded ten years ago now, but it is certainly worth repeating here:

Sociology needs an understanding of unsociability – the unsociability of creative acts…A promising way forward empirically, in my view, will be to examine areas such as the unsociability of practices of users of the internet, particularly of internet sites that are envisaged as so-called ‘social media’, which seem to non-practitioners to be unsociable in a random, unprincipled way, but which practitioners are nevertheless claiming as the future of the social. Internet practices are irreducible to the traditional, offline categories of individualism, thwart the Durkheimian forms of social analysis based on differences tied to functions, yet display continuities that in some way do mobilize forms of (un)sociability. A Tardean analysis could look at the Internet to identify important continuities in unsociable behaviour that cannot be explained from the point of view of a prejudice against unsociability.

(Toews 2010: 91)

Eight years on from Toews’s call, he appears to have been answered by Burgess, Miller and Moore (2018) in an important paper on challenge memes such as Neknomination and the Ice Bucket Challenge. Contra Marsden and others, the authors stress that their article “eschews the metaphors of virality and contagion that are often employed to understand digital culture, implying, as they do, a lack of agency and innovation on the part of individuals” (Burgess et al. 2018: 1041), and they fruitfully make use of Tarde’s five categories of imitation in order to analyse their survey and focus group data (logical imitation, customary imitation, emotional imitation, prestige imitation, propinquity imitation). But while there is much that is stimulating and instructive in this paper – not least their argument that challenge memes do not constitute sheep-like acts of conformity – it could also be said that the work of Burgess et al. is itself characterised by prestige imitation, such is their excessively close adherence to a Tardean analytics. Although Tarde has often been cast as an authoritative and visionary figure since the ‘rediscovery’ of his work, he is not the sole answer to all of our problems, and we cannot escape the shadow of his nemesis if we want to develop a truly critical digital sociology of musical memes.

Closing Remarks: Digital Sociology as Dialectical Sociology

In order to make sense of musical memes in the age of the (anti)social web we need to return to that original flamewar – the epic debate between Tarde and Durkheim that took place at the École des hautes études sociales in 1903. To put it another way, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater or take sides once and for all: Durkheim’s structural holism (and its influence on mid-twentieth-century critical theory) is just as important a consideration as Tarde’s inter-psychology (or ‘micro-sociology’, as it is sometimes characterised). Robbins (2010) stresses this point eloquently in his work on Pentecostal rituals when he suggests that the “goal” of sociality among new converts “is a Durkheimian basis for Tardean social dynamics” (Robbins 2010: 98). I make a similar claim in my analysis of what I term ‘hype transactions’ at online-offline EDM festivals (Spencer 2020). Festivalgoers pull moves (in Facebook groups and ‘IRL’) in order to get what they are after (hype) and yet their moves are partially choreographed by the festival’s corporate infrastructure in collaboration with online platforms through the process of ‘branding sociality’ (see Manning 2010 after Moore 2003). In short, we cannot lose sight of the ‘big picture’ sociological perspectives introduced by Durkheim and developed by his disciples. For instance, a theoretical framework supporting the analysis of musical meme exchange might be obtained from the more anthropological work of Durkheim’s nephew – Mauss (1954) – and from Anna Tsing’s recent and highly stimulating work on gifts and commodities in late capitalist societies (Tsing 2013, 2015; see also Gazit & Bruttomesso 2020). Putting on a more Durkheimian hat would also encourage us to continue ruminating on Bourdieu’s forms of capital (Bourdieu 1986), the attention economy (e.g. Goldhaber 1997), and longstanding ideas to do with capitalist superstructure(s) and social choreography.

In envisioning a digital sociology of musical memes, then, I am imitating Miller and Horst’s (2012) prospectus for ‘digital anthropology’ – that is I am imitating the desire and belief at the heart of that phrase, a desire and belief that digital anthropology should be dialectical. The so-called problem of the one and the many that Tarde and Durkheim wrestled with is still with us and could even be imagined as the binary code of noughts and ones of which the (anti)social web consists. But to put it in less figurative terms, I want to suggest that a digital sociology of musical memes might involve a dialectical oscillation between Tarde on the one hand and more Durkheimian thinkers such as Siegfried Kracauer (1925, 1927) on the other.

But having arrived at what would seem like a natural closing remark it should be noted that there is another lingering issue that haunts this entire blog post: the ontological status of music as a meme. What, exactly, is musical about musical memes – what do we or should we mean by this term? Are musical memes somehow different to other kinds of memes? There is a very real danger of musical exceptionalism here and of privileging sound in a manner that resurrects the audiovisual litany (see Schrimshaw 2015; Sterne 2003). But there is also an exciting opportunity to reconsider orthodox ideas about music when developing the aforementioned digital sociology. Conceptualised as a meme in Shifman’s updated sense of the term, it could be argued that in the age of the (anti)social web, music’s power lies not in its ineffability or even in its affectivity, but rather in its entanglements with explicit ideas, meanings, and worldviews. From this perspective, musical memes are a means with which to imitate and reconfigure beliefs and desires (the substance of social life) and therefore necessitate media literacy. Thus musical memes might be said to resemble people and their social relationality rather than genes.


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