Muchness and Mediocrity
Have you ever had the experience of someone looking serious and thoughtful, clearly gathering their thoughts, and then coming out with something that feels like a deep and important truth that they have just figured out? And then when you reflect on it, you realise that the idea, while freighted with genuine value (it’s something one could quite reasonably care about), is not original at all but in fact a bit of a cliché?
(I’m including myself here in the category of people who have these thoughts, by the way. I can think of several ideas which really felt like dawning moments when I had them, but a later acquaintance with a wider literature showed that I was just coming out with a standard tenet of an established artistic or political credo.)
This is all rather abstract, so I’ll give an example.
In a viva voce exam some years ago, I heard a postgraduate conductor say very earnestly, ‘I believe that conducting should be more than mere time-beating’. This is of course a perfectly reasonably belief for a conductor to have. What struck me though was the way he said it as if it was some profound, hidden truth that his examiners would find a revelation, rather than an established part of the discourse of conducting that goes back at least to Wagner. Even the turn of phrase was clichéd: ‘mere time-beating’ is an epithet for uninspired or inexpressive musical leadership that goes back to the early days of the craft when the role was just taking over from a bit of bow-waving from the first desk of the fiddles.
What I find fascinating is this combination of sincerity, emotional resonance, muchness of expression with somewhat banal, mediocre content. What’s going on here? It’s not that the people coming out with this stuff are stupid – quite the reverse. While there is arguably a certain lack of self-awareness or narrowness of experience that they (we) don’t spot that their (our) utterances are unoriginal, the points are nonetheless carefully thought-through: they are positions that for which the speaker can confidently articulate a rationale.
Jacques Lacan made that rather intriguing statement that, ‘We don’t speak language, language speaks us,’ and I think it’s potentially pertinent here. His point is that, while we think we are using language to formulate and express our own autonomous ideas, the very forms of language available to us shape what kinds of thoughts we are able to have. And this is true not just at the building blocks level of denotation and vocabulary, but at the more concatenated levels of idiom and belief systems.
Many of our core values operate most of the time below a level of conversant awareness, at a level Anthony Giddens labelled ‘practical consciousness’. If someone stopped to question us, we could haul our values and cultural expectations into view and discuss them, but most of the time we just get on with things, making decisions informed intuitively by our beliefs without reflective analysis. And we learn most of these shared values by induction in daily life: we see how other people behave, and what kind of decisions reap approval or disapproval.
But it seems our belief systems also need to be articulated explicitly if they are to survive and flourish. Memes can be carried within populations, and kept alive within the cultural forms that form their environment, but they also need to reproduce if they are going outlive their current hosts.
So I’m starting to thinking of these earnest yet clichéd moments as the fruiting in a meme’s life-cycle. It feels revelatory to the person articulating the idea because they are engaged in a complex cognitive process of abstracting the core value from all the fragments of experience they have gained through daily life. And the sense of importance, significance, meaning they feel as they transform their implicit knowledge into overt knowledge is a kind of cultural reward for participating in the transmission of the meme. And the emotional investment in the meme is what will help it take root in the minds it touches thereafter.
When you hear that tone of voice, then, it betokens the opening of a memetic seedpod. It is the sound of cultural reproduction at work.