It’s hard to imagine this in 2022, but there was indeed an era when meme was not a part of common parlance. Such a time may be hard to conceive for the Generation Zoomers, but most older Millennials and all Xers can recall when they somehow knew and fully understood what the term means, even though they probably never received an official definition. Sometime, most likely around the year 2000, when the internet achieved such omnipresence that it no longer served primarily as a form of amusement but as a means of conducting mundane, utilitarian tasks and services, its availability and customizability began to compete with that of television, even at a time when network cable services where bringing not dozens but hundreds of new channels to living rooms across the globe. Any personal computer with a good modem or ethernet connection took it a step further: the number of “channels” (i.e. webpages) was virtually infinite. And even as people increasingly used that information superhighway not just for research and amusement but to shop, pay bills, and gain technical support, the entertainment capacity expanded as well. Internet junkies could disseminate funny audio or video clips, or even still images in a matter of seconds; those that resonated with a sufficiently large percentage of the public spread almost virally. From this practice, a new definition of meme was born…quite literally.
The second definition in my hyperlink to dictionary.com references “a cultural item. . .that is spread through the internet and often altered in a creative or humorous way”. Bear in mind, this simple four-letter word shares origins with mimesis, mimic, mime…all derivations from the Greek mïméma or the Latin mïmicus: “imitation, copy, duplicate”. And, truth be told, the word “meme” is, in comparison to these other derivations, a relative neologism: evolutionary biologist and secular mystic Richard Dawkins ostensibly coined the term in the mid 1970s to reflect any and all cultural items that achieved widespread recognition through a replication that in many regards affects a simulacrum of biological genes. It just took about a quarter century—a GENEration—to achieve a truly viral spread. These days it happens much more quickly.
And, in many cases, it doesn’t require any degree of cyber-infrastructure to disseminate. It never did. All it takes is one person to initiate, a second to follow-through, and the signaling has begun. Others take the cue, and, with enough iterations, the original gesture achieves a profuseness that is obvious to the uninitiated. However, since all rules for propriety as applied to this gesture have collapsed (if they ever existed to begin with), the only standard for further initiation is to dive right in and adopt the gesture. Initiates may adopt to show that they endorse it; they may not even endorse it but merely feel pressure to do so. Over time, sometimes with astonishing rapidity, these humble artifacts embed themselves and assimilate with the other artifacts that in term comprise the culture, becoming so entrenched that they endure over time, and tat subsequent generations inherit it, akin to Dawkins’ biological imprints. It’s a meme that deploys no electronic or digital transmission. Completely analog.
Take this exit ramp: eastbound Interstate 95 at Harvey Road just outside of Wilmington, Delaware.
This is the point where the exit ramp, sloping upward from I-95, terminates at a stop light at Harvey Road. It’s not a hugely busy intersection Harvey Road is a mere collector, not stretching more than a few miles in either direction. And a small spur allows people turning right onto Harvey Road to bypass the light; it’s for left turns only. The interchange from I-95 is so minor that the exit ramps only travel one direction; motorists who leave the interstate onto Harvey Road cannot get back on in the same direction if they change their mind. The stop light cycles aren’t very long. But for whatever reason, the guardrail at this exit ramp has become the catalyst for a local meme.
Bumper stickers all over the place, stretching several car lengths.
They cover a variety of subjects, but most of them involve at least some text—typical of bumper stickers. There’s enough to look at that, my first time idling at this exit ramp, I got too transfixed and missed my light’s cycle. Oops.
But it must not matter too much; the guardrail is too low down for people to simply reach out their window and slap that sticker. They have to get out of their car and be deliberate about it—certainly more deliberate than tossing their litter (something else that is sadly prevalent, but much easier to do, so no surprise).
The area isn’t particularly pedestrian friendly either. Though there’s a sidewalk on the other side of Harvey Road, the engineering of the street clearly does not intend to accommodate walkers.
Most people with bumper stickers are coming at this guardrail from their cars, idling at the left-turn light on the exit ramp.
Given that the average person doesn’t just carry bumper stickers at his or her disposal while driving, a fair amount of deliberation is involved here. People drive by, see the guardrail collage, then acquire a bumper sticker so they can contribute the next time around.
Not surprisingly, many of the bumper stickers are political. And given the polarized zeitgeist, the political stickers seem more likely to get superseded by another, newer sticker. Don’t like the beliefs expressed by one bumper sticker? Slap a new one atop it. It’s all too easy, and, since this isn’t a very busy interchange, you can get out of your car and slam a bumper sticker onto that guardrail and not worry much about holding up traffic.
And thus, a localized meme is born. I recognize that some my argue this isn’t a meme in the sense of a repeated word, phrase, or image that earns slight modifications over time. That’s much more the memetic approach we see online. This guardrail in Wilmington is indeed an analog meme; the repetition is the anarchic slapping of bumper stickers onto public property, which the public curates by tolerating or even endorsing it. The action is of course illegal: defacing public property is no less of a crime than littering. But, as the stickers accumulate, they become less of an offense to the typical eye, while litter only gets unsightlier as the quantity grows. Since this guardrail scenario is a lot rarer than littering or even graffiti tagging, it’s distinctive, droll, and even likable.
Through memetic culture, this interchange and guardrail near Wilmington has defied laws in a way that is unlikely to offend much of anyone. It reminds me a bit of the proliferation of padlocks on some piece of public infrastructure, typically a metal railing to a bridge or lookout point. We’ve all seen them: even if the “love locks” didn’t originate at the Pont des Arts Bridge in Paris, they offered the best-known example (until removed a few years ago), and it has imitators across the globe. Unlike the contrived attempt to justify graffiti in Indianapolis that I referenced a few weeks ago, this bumper sticker collage on this guardrail seems organic, almost genetic. A Dawkinsian meme that didn’t involve internet culture one bit; the internet didn’t exist when Dawkins coined the term. The Wilmington guardrail was 100% analog, at least until I came by and wrote a blog article and ruined it.
9 thoughts on “Analog Memes, Part I: a guardrail as the artists’ canvas. ”
Fine, Eric! I’ll spend ten minutes seeing if I can recognize this location since I grew up in Wilmington. It’s not like I have anything better to do, Eric. (No, I don’t recognize it). 😁
you never know: it may be your backyard! I’m not sure how long it’s been since you last lived there. From what I can tell, this bumper sticker meme has been there quite a while. The oldest archived Google Street view from 2007 still shows it on that guard rail, grainy but visible!
Also, based on your familiarity with the area and our shared urban interests, you might know why I REALLY got off the highway at the Harvey Road exit…
I don’t! We moved away in Jan 86. I did spend a summer there in 90. And I have little idea what’s in that part of town. I lived on the other side of 202. What’s interesting over there? is there an Amtrak stop or something?
A series of small utopian communities modeled after the economic theories of Henry George: Arden, Ardentown, Ardencroft.
Ah. I don’t know anything about the Ardens! Knew they were there, but not their history/purpose.
Old man post of the day:
I’m sure some of your readers (Boomers) long ago spread memes. We used published cartoons or photos, photocopies, Wite-Out (TM), and bulletin boards, typically in office environments.
Probably the first memes I ever saw were in the later 70s, not long after the Dawkins definition. They were scrawled in stairwells of high-rise dormitories and in public restrooms of a university and nearby drinking establishments. The most memorable: “Save Soviet Jews” followed by someone else’s addendum “Win Valuable Prizes”.
A semiotician would no doubt be able to distinguish the fine line between graffiti and meme-ing better than I can…but at least I’ve put the issue on the table through this example in Wilmington. I suppose the lack of an authority removing these bumper stickers is evidence of the Broken Windows Theory in its own right…
…yet somehow I cannot consider the act of defacing property on its own terms to be a meme. It has to take on a more iterative approach. If the graffiti all follows a single pattern of words or a narrative, or even an illustrated palimpsest begun by one person and enhanced by many others, that’s probably more of a meme than simply “FOR A GOOD TIME CALL…” I’m not sure where your example fits in, but if there are enough references to an overriding joke or cultural observation, then, yeah it’s meme enough for my terms.
Then again, meme-ing and vandalism aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive. They can be innocuous or intensely destructive.
How apropos that “bumper” stickers are decorate a guard rail in an autocentric location.
Yeah, not particularly ped friendly, though there is a sidewalk on the opposite side of Harvey Road from this exit ramp. Also not a very busy exit, which is probably why I could get away with idling to read all those bumper stickers while I completely missed my light. Normally I would have gotten honked at. And the lack of traffic probably explains why this guardrail–and not one of the hundreds of others in the area–became popular for a bumper sticker collage: it’s easy to get out of one’s car while waiting for the light and smack a sticker on there. Nobody else is queueing up behind you.