I’ve just seen a bit of improvisational comedy.
Improv comedy purports to be something like on-the-spot writing – and maybe it is, in its way – but it feels like something else. Improv comedy tends to come off less like creative play than like the shuffling of pre-existing cultural molecules – what the kids today call “memes.”* Since the performers need to be in agreement during the unpremeditated performance, they’re forced to depend on strategies that they can be sure the others will “get” instantly – on concepts that are common property. Anyone watching improv is also there to appreciate the craft – the comedy itself is generally pretty pale when taken on its own merits – and for the most part that craft is the clever invocation and exchange of these existing notions. In this sense, memes, and the shared repository of memes that constitutes our common culture, are exposed in a particularly naked way during improv.
See, when I sat down to write this, all of the above felt like it would take about one sentence. But then I couldn’t figure out how to write that sentence and it turned into a whole paragraph. Very frustrating; the whole rhythm of my overall thought is thrown off; that was supposed to be the upswing but now it’s turned out to be the first movement, and I really don’t have the time to keep it up through what will apparently have to be a very long arc of speculation.** Let me try to just suggest the rest of what I wanted to say with a series of questions:
Is this (the shuffling of pre-existing cultural molecules) really any different from “real” creativity, or is it just a rougher-grained version of the same process? If these molecules (those that might be invoked during improv comedy) could be catalogued in a dictionary, approximately how many would there be? Do they really exist as discrete molecules in a way that such a dictionary is feasible, or are we tricked by our sense of recognition into thinking that they have Platonic existences outside of their specific usage, when in fact we are only recognizing rules of formulation (that is, recognizing individual snowflakes as being well-formed snowflakes and thinking this means we must have seen them before)?
If such a dictionary could be constructed – not only of comedic memes but of all dramatic (mimetic!) memes – could a grammar be specified to govern their usage? It certainly feels like such laws, or at least principles, exist – it is the elegance and charm with which these memes are deployed that we appreciate while watching improv… or reading a mystery… or taking in any form of art that does not attempt to disguise the fact that it is constructed from pre-existing molecules – and such judgments necessitate principles of taste, as well as underlying formal principles.
Listening to music, one often feels the same sense of continuously recognizing constituent gestures – “now he’s doing one of those; now he’s doing one of those, etc.” – but my efforts to isolate and catalogue these have failed instantly because the things are devilishly hard to disentangle from one another without them losing their essentials. Is that a case of the snowflake illusion, or is it just a difficulty arising from our poor ability to articulate the workings of music? Perhaps an attempt at isolating such things in spoken/dramatic culture is a more approachable precursor to determining the form of a musical equivalent.
Everybody likes concrete examples, so here’s a concrete example to finish. The other day an obscure movie that I haven’t seen was being described to me. In this movie, a man seeking to immigrate to the US tricks a woman into believing that he loves her so that he can marry her for his citizenship. Then, before they reach the border, events ensue such that he actually does fall in love with her. Then, at a crucial moment, while the man is elsewhere, a third party shocks the woman by revealing that he never loved her and was only using her – even though now he really does love her! When I was told this, I thought, “Well, sure, right. One of those.” The question is, one of what? Have I actually seen this snowflake before? My gut tells me I could make a lexicon of these and that such a lexicon is sitting in my brain right now. A commenter on this site once suggested starting a wiki of all memes, but before that process begins, a coherent theory of how they break down needs to be established.
* Long note on “meme”: I don’t like this word “meme” for what I’m talking about because the emphasis, as it was coined by Richard Dawkins, is on the fact that, in analogy with genetic information, such an idea propagates itself from person to person and is thus subject to principles of adaptation and evolution. What I want to talk about is the notion of a unitary cultural concept that is shared by many people, but without this emphasis on propagation, which is a limiting metaphor. After all, culture (and the molecules thereof) is not solely transmitted from person to person; concepts can, for example, lie dormant in books and films and whatever for years and then be picked up again by a new generation, now colored by all sorts of historical considerations. Or they can be disseminated to millions of people all at once on television, where in some ways they don’t really seem to their audience to have originated with humans at all. These kinds of events can no doubt find a place in a pseudo-genetic theory of human culture; my point is just that such theory shouldn’t provide the terminology for the culture itself. Meme essentially means “a unit of imitatable thought” when I want a word that means “a molecule of cultural convention.” Coin and suggest!
For your reference… Since my OED privileges have been wiped away, here’s the – ugh – American Heritage Dictionary on “meme”:
A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.
[Shortening (modeled on GENE) of mimeme, from Greek mimēma, something imitated, from mimeisthai, to imitate. See mimesis.]
** When I started, promising only to write one paragraph, Beth said, “You’re writing a one-paragraph entry on memes? That’s not possible!” And she was right.