Memetic Turn

[Original German Blog Post]

“The Hanged” from the Tarot Deck of Charles VI., Paris, early 15th century.

The symbolism of Tarot – similar to that of alchemy – forms a pre-modern memetic system. Tightly knit into other more or less esoteric programs of meaning, like Qabbalah or astrology, its images are at first illustrative – they picture very well, what can be seen on it, at second they bear an arbitrarily assigned symbolic value. The particular with memes as well as with metaphors is there creating a common space of meaning between several human beings, by which these different beings identify with.

“Literacy, the visual technology, dissolved the tribal magic by means of its stress on fragmentation and specialisation and created the individual.”

“The tribalizing power of the new electronic media, the way in which the return us the the unified fields of the old oral cultures, to tribal cohesion and pre-individualist patterns of thought, is little understood. Tribalism is the sense of the deep bind of family, the closed society as the norm of community.”
Herbert Marshall McLuhan

“Everything is divisible, thus there cannot be an individual.”

“The meaning of such symbols [of letters] is largely independent from colour: a red or a black “A” mean the same sound. […] Thus the current explosion of colours points to the tending to loose importance of unidimensional codes like the Alphabet.”

“History begins with the invention of writing, not because text keeps the processes, but because it transforms scenes into processes: it creates the historic consciousness.”
Vilém Flusser

ממטית המהפך

Writing and Society are tied together in an immediate way. With text, particularly the newspaper which shall become the first real mass media in the 19th century, people are able to get informed homogeneously over large distances. However, it was of course not before the advent of the railroad and telegraph that this would have been of any importance. These are the fundamentals on which for the first time a truly supra regional economy – the national economy could develop. The local community, the village, at the same time decreases in its aspect of being the common destiny, like already been declared by Tönnies.

“Newspaper is the glue of society”, as exclaimed recently by Helmut Heinen, president of Germany’s Newspaper Publishers’ Association.

But some aspects seam to resonate no longer with this proposition, like Daniel Schulz had also replied to in Der Standard by responding to the newspaper man: “Not the paper, but the images of cats are the glue of society!”

Daniel was not correct, although – I am convinced about that – did mean the right thing. Images of cats are not the glue of society but of communities! Thus they are not only to the least extent the glue of society but even more, what I will explicate in the following, they will even corrode society.

These images of cats – in my own community’s case it is more images of fowl, especially of runner ducks – are very special signs, closely related to metaphors, allegories or emblems. Although not fully in the mind of its inventor, it is now common to call this kind of image-signs memes. The meaning of memes is often hermetic, not to be understood outside the community in which they are shared.

Within memes – which are usually hardly iconic but rarely abstract signs – is often concentrated a complete universe of meaning and relationships, by which the members of a community are connected to it. Memes are common spaces of projection of our unconsciousness: “In the darkness of an exteriority I may find, without recognising it as such, my own interiority or the mental.” (C.G. Jung on the allegories in Alchemy).

Memes thereby take the function that in the pre-modernism the metaphor and especially the allegory would have held:

With metaphors things can be made visible, that could not be told explicitly. “Metaphoric imagery broadens the horizon of the thinkable by shattering the boundaries of mental rationality and thus opens essential spaces of possible articulation for speculative thoughts.” writes Jörg Zimmer. By equalising non-identical terms, it makes manifest the connective attributes; metaphors generate identity between the otherwise differentiated. Metaphors, though, express at first those images in the mind of the speaker (“sender”); the receiver of the metaphor will initially not hold the identical image in his mind, but populate the metaphor with his own associations. In the same way, in which the meaning attributed to the metaphor by its sender becomes similar to the meaning, the receiver puts into it, the metaphor generates identity between different persons; metaphors generate communality.

Memes act contagious. You are infected, if you have once identified yourself with.

History of Turns

The Linguistic Turn, like described above, was the consequence of a population growing together and becoming increasingly well educated with high literacy and the technological infrastructure of mass transport and mass communication over large distances. With the Linguistic Turn of modernism the ancient communities get dissolved, societies – nations and states form and newspapers, resp. mass media are the glue of these societies. The metonymy removes the metaphor as leading trope in rhetoric: “Berlin declares war to Paris”.

With the illustrated magazine and in particular with television, the 20th century brings the Iconic Turn – images transmitted by mass media. Going with the merging of the once competing national societies to supranational blocks of NATO, Warsaw Pact or European Community, the visually powerful media deliver an internationally valid repository of images. These technologically mass distributed images are mostly non-metaphoric; they show mainly, what can be seen on it.

The News-at-Six become the nation’s camp fire and the utopia of solidarity between people far above the narrow space of a community seams to become reality.
For the coarse grid of the political and economical contexts of the second half of the 20th century, these mass media are able to supply an audience of millions daily with the little relevant intelligence, necessary for national cohabition: the wood-cut party policy in the parliaments, the interplay of ones owns nation with other states, the crude news of a constantly growing economy, always held in plain language, comprehensible also for “people with moderate education”. Irony is the figure of the Iconic Turn – often however in form of cynicism.

Since the 1980s there are visible signs of corruption on mass media, although at first concealed by the enormous success of private television resp. after the fall of the iron wall by the backlog demand of former Soviet sphere of influence.

At once it was no longer so important to read what would have happened on the international theatre on the previous day. The glue of society began to become brittle. And the Web just came handy for this development. No longer getting informed – but arranging yourself the things you take as necessary. Like the famous German social researcher Renate Köcher had realised in horror from the longitudinal surveys of her Institute for Demoscopy at Allensbach: people do not get informed differently now – strictly speaking they would not let themselves get informed at all! Mass media do not get substituted in their function, it is more that they vanish away. And not physically – people still watch television – but in their effect.

Our social graph, the network of our communal relationships supplies us with the things that we would want to know about. This is the filter that before was formed by the editorial teams of the media. We organise our relationships by the Net, like in former times we as the citizen of the state would get oriented by mass media. “The end of the Grand Narrative” by which post-modernism is often described, means history becoming a collection little stories. This is “Atemporality“, where “literature collapses before our eyes“. Mass media’s standard language gives way to the vernacular dialects of Net culture. “New media are new archetypes, at first disguised as degradations of older media.” (McLuhan)

The membership in these new memetic community is not to be compared with the “being born into a community” of pre-modernism. Those are relatively loose structures, partly only temporarily stable and we are rarely exclusively at home in just one of them. These communities are kept together symbolically by Memes.

This Memetic Turn marks the transition into the post-modern age. The dwindling influence of the national structures with at the same time dissolving international political structures leads to also to their medial tools becoming dull.

Thus it becomes clear how the revolutionary movement in Spain is related to the overthrow in Tunisia and Egypt. It is fascinating to see how the seemingly lacking of formulated common goals and any form of constituted organisation swamps the old media, still thinking in terms of society. It is the Hash-Tag that brings people together, the #spanishrevolution-meme as projective space, above which people synchronise on their longing for a different form of living together in a post-social communality, no longer controlled by ineffective party policy.

Further reading:

Modernism is our classical antiquity

Author: Joerg Blumtritt

Joerg Blumtritt (*1970) is data scientist and blogger. He co-founded the companies Datarella and BAYDUINO, based in Munich, Germany, and Baltic Data Science in Gdansk, Poland. Datarella develops data-driven products for the Internet of Things, BDS delivers data-science-as-a-service, BAYDUINO builds open source hardware. Before that, Joerg had worked for media companies in Europe and the US. Having graduated in statistics and political sciences with a thesis on machine learning, Joerg started as a researcher in behavioral sciences, focused on nonverbal communication. As political activist and researcher, Joerg works on projects regarding future democratic participation and open source IoT. He is co-author of the Slow Media Manifesto and blogs about media and art at, about data and the future of social research at, and about the IoT at

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