School of American Research
John Jay College, CUNY
Thanks to Bert States who made the connection for us between dreams of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Susan Blackmores take on memetics. This article first appeared in, "Stars in Our Eyes: The Star Phenomenon in Contemporary Era," ed. by Angelea Ndalianis and Charlotte Henry, Prager, 2002.
Who is the biggest star of all? The designation usually does not go to artistic achievement but instead is associated with movie box-office clout: who commands the highest fee, whose films bring in the greatest profits, who generates the greatest frenzy from fans. Several film industry organizations confer titles on stars that designate this clout: star of the decade, star of the century, star of the universe. These awards have gone to stars like Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
For a while in the 1980s and 90s, Arnold Schwarzenegger was often called the biggest star, commanding up to $25 million per film, starring in blockbusters that not only earned hundreds of millions of dollars but also achieved iconic status, especially with the Conan and Terminator films. But with middle age, Arnolds box-office popularity in action films is waning and it is the end of his days as the biggest of stars. Or is it?
We want to suggest that the biggest stars of all are those whose influence steps off the screen and beyond the box office to become pervasive in every nook and cranny of our lives. They become reference points for our actions, our decision-making, our thoughts and sometimes even our dreams. They generate prototypes for behavior that affect what people read, view, and buy, where they vacation, how they have sex and how they deal with crises. Yet in many ways, paying undue attention to these celebrities can be seen as an enormous waste of time, energy and money. How to explain this discrepancy?
We are not identifying a new phenomenon here: movie and television stars have always been reference points for the society, inciting fashion trends, inspiring speech patterns and inflicting moral codes often at odds with those of the common folk. Even early on, Hollywood was aware of its influence, spreading in the 1920s a Hollywood style of casual outdoor clothes to even the smallest American towns and in the process revolutionizing casual clothing (Eckert 1991: 33). In her analysis of female film audiences, Stacey has shown that fans identify with stars in a variety of ways and imitate their on-screen hairdos, speech, singing, dancing, body language, attitudes, smoking habits and so on in their production of self (Stacey 1991: 154-7). In current Hollywood practices, the parallel marketing of music CDs, toys, clothing, food and other merchandise related to a film unapologetically foregrounds the practice of using stars as vehicles for other agendas.
But what is new are the opportunities available to stars to extend their influence far beyond their status as cultural icons that function as desired objects or fashion models. Unlike most of the rest of us, stars have access to both public and private realms and media tools that can reach unprecedented numbers and types of people. How and why this happens is the subject of this study. We will explicate not just the particulars of a big stars success, but also will address the larger question of why we, as a culture, even have the category of stars in the first place.
The End of the Daze
There are a lot fewer of these big stars than box-office receipts might suggest and Arnold Schwarzenegger, we will argue, is one of the most significant ones. There have always been numerous angles to our research on Arnold Schwarzenegger, the cultural icon: Arnold as film superstar, as political figure, as generator of catch-phrases (Ill be back! and Hasta la vista, baby!), as purveyor of male-reproduction, as possible Nazi sympathizer, as champion body-builder, famous in-law, fitness czar, commercial entrepreneur, and as the embodiment of the American Dream. In order to bring these strands together, we have tried numerous approaches to studying Arnold, trying to understand how he came to be one of the scales against which we measured our highest values and principles, and trying to see why at the end of the twentieth century we could have created a culture that always seems to have a prominent place for him.
Arnolds ability to insinuate himself into any discourse or any metaphoric moment or any narrative thread is a remarkable feature of his stardom that we want to both observe and unpack. While we are certainly interested in how the particular personthe Arnold Schwarzenegger-immigrant-body builder-movie stargot transformed into a cultural icon, we are more concerned with the cultural process by which ideas about such an icon get circulated, recycled, reinterpreted and incorporated into, for example, impossibly overbuilt and powerful bodies or shifted mindsets and attitudes.
We are also interested in bringing studies of stars and celebrities back into the realm of ethnographic analysis, connecting notions about stars to social actions, showing, as anthropologist Clifford Geertz once said, that cultural forms find articulation in behavior (Geertz 1973: 17). It is important to talk about stars not as an abstract category but as a real-world phenomena that has consequences for everyday thoughts and decisions and actions. When we say that stars invade our dreams, we are talking literally as well as metaphorically. Because of this interest in developing a comprehensive, multi-dimensional study of celebrities rooted, we want to propose a new approach to the study of stars which uses the emerging field of memetics to understand how and why stars come to be, and especially how some element of their stardom ends up invading multiple aspects of our lives.
Memetics, says Richard Brodie in one of the first books to popularize the subject is the study of the working of memes: how they interact, replicate and evolve (Brodie 1996: 26). Memes is the term given by memetics to the basic units of culture which are transmitted by imitation and shared in the form of cultural knowledge. Memes are the plans or instructions or blueprints for creating, sharing and dispersing what have been called memorable units that humans being feel compelled to pass on to others (ibid.: 30). We have thought of this form of transmission as Lamarckian (horizontal evolution by acquisition) but most scholars in memetics describe it as an exchange of instructions for carrying out cultural behavior (see Blackmore 1999: 62). The direction of transmission for memetics is claimed to be predominantly horizontal (ibid.: 34), that is, it is not acquired by successive generations but is spread over large cultural entities all at the same time, replacing or forcing out other cultural elements that may want to occupy the same cultural category or space. But we will believe that in an era of mass communication, the transmission and reception are indistinguishable, spreading web-like up, down and across generations and the spaces they occupy. It is, Dennett says, promiscuous, leaping from vehicle to vehicle, and from medium to medium (Dennett 1995: 347).
Memetics is being called the interdisciplinary study of how the mind works, the way people learn and grow, the way culture progresses (see Brodies website at http://www.brodietech.com/rbrodie/vmintro.htm). It attempts to explain cultural changes over time in evolutionary terms (but not necessarily via biological evolution, as we shall see). Memetics tries to connect cognitive processes with social behavior as well as larger cultural developments; at various points in Brodies book it is said to be the scientific theory unifying or even transcending such disciplines as biology, psychology, political science, anthropology and the cognitive sciences.
Memetics is also called the evolutionary model of information transmission by the first academic journal of the field (Journal of Memetics: www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit/). Memetics deals with the spread of ideas via various vehicles, especially the human mind, but also various mechanical media, old and new. For this reason the most popular version of memetics has used the concept of viruses of the mind to convey the notion that ideas and information are spread like a virus, often without our conscious effort or understanding (see Richard Brodies website and book which warn, This book contains a live mind virus. Do not read further unless you are willing to be infected. The infection may affect the way you think in subtle and not-so-subtleor even turn your current world view inside out (Brodie 1996 and 1999)).
Few academic disciplines besides anthropology and perhaps psychology have attempted such a comprehensive approach to explaining the whole range and evolution of human behaviors, especially those behaviors deemed non-productive and inessential like celebrity worship. Anthropologists traditionally explained such non-productive and non-reproductive behavior through the analysis of symbol systems, shared cognitive structures, cultural metaphors, ritual and myths, and all the other rich aspects of behavior that are peculiar to Homo-sapiens. But when the field of academic anthropology essentially abandoned its comprehensive approach to the study of human behavior, it paved the way for other researchers to take up the challenge of explaining why human engage in behaviors that seem to have no practical purpose and dont contribute to their immediate welfare, advancement, wealth, reproductive success or happiness.
When anthropology turned to models that claimed all human behavior either conferred an economic or biological advantage, it lost its ability to explain all the oddities of human behavior (including the worship of stars). As we shall see, there is not good economic or reproductive reason to worship a star, but there are plenty of good memetic reasons for it. In fact, the proof of the value of memetics, says Susan Blackmore, is what it can tell us about the subjects, like Arnold Schwarzenegger and celebrity culture, that we eventually define as trivial (Blackmore 1999:184). We are trying memetics instead of standard approaches like those in anthropology, film or cultural studies because it promises something that the others do not: a way to explain the widespread and intensive penetration of some ideas, trends and bits of action that dont seem to provide any benefit, advantage or power to those who actually use and spread them (as opposed to those who, like agents, lawyers and the stars themselves might originate them).
While memetics is a form of evolutionary theory, its practitioners do not necessarily align themselves with biological, Darwinian evolution. Memetics is fond of pointing out that Darwinian evolution, based on natural selection and differential survival and reproduction of physical beings, is only one particular form of evolution and not the model for all forms of change over time. Natural selection relies on notions of a biological or reproductive advantage conferred on an entity because of some feature. Memetics is not about some biological advantage but rather the ability of a feature of culture to get itself replicated and spread well beyond its origins and practical purposes.
The process of replication in memetics is via imitation (Blackmore 1999:43). We pass on behaviors to others because they see, hear or read about that behavior and for various reasons imitate and replicate it, sometimes faithfully, sometimes not. This is, of course, a classic idea of anthropology and memetics does, in fact borrow more ideas from cultural evolutionary theories than it does from biological models . This makes it a theory that is both retrograde and at the same time potentially revolutionary, for the return to cultural models, after years of the predominance of biological determinism in the social sciences (ie, sociobiology and other models that say behavior is hardwired into either our brains or our genes) is a welcome change.
A sociobiological explanation of a phenomenon like Schwarzenegger might result in statements like, We think that if we are like Arnold we will have a better chance of producing more offspring who will have a better chance of surviving and passing on our genes. Explaining it by cultural memetics would result in an understanding of why we use inordinate amounts of time and money perfecting an Austrian accent, pumping our muscles, going to violent and often bad movies and reading magazine articles, tabloids and newspaper accounts of our favorite, the Terminator. The purpose of all this, we will suggest, comes from the human need to connect, communicate, share narratives and make meanings, not some animal drive to make little Terminators. It is the drama, as Donna Haraway has called it, of touch across Difference, the desire to have contact with others in order to confirm our own humanity (Haraway 1989: 149) combined with the fantasy of perfect communication and the immediate sharing of meanings that is always desired when humans come face-to-face (ibid.: 135).
While we do not subscribe to the entire range of memetic forms or theoretical directions, we do find it a useful approach for this subject. If memetics can illuminate this phenomenon of star influence, it will be a valuable tool in the study of celebrity and culture. If the star culture can illuminate the sometimes murky field of memetics, all the better; it may provide a valuable tool for understanding such a pervasive and impressively influential cultural phenomenon.
The unit of transmission for memetics is the meme. The meme is a contagious idea competing for a share of our minds as Richard Brodie describes it (http://www.brodietech.com/rbrodie/meme.htm). Think of the meme as a catch phrase that automatically gets repeated (Ill be back!), or an accent that gets imitated (Ahnuld!) or a metaphor that gets incorporated into a discussion (He was as big/strong/powerful as Arnold Schwarzenegger). The meme is considered the smallest element of cultural activity that can replicate itself with reliability and fecundity (Dennett 1995: 344). The meme passes on information or plans, the instructions for a particular trait, a trend or a potential, a set of actions, an interaction and maybe even an attitude. According to Susan Blackmore, the meme is an instruction for carrying out behavior, [that is] stored in brains (or other objects) and passed on by imitation (Blackmore 1999: 43). Memes are learned by copying something we have seen, heard or read, something that sticks with us because it is pleasurable to repeat or share (an urban legend, a joke), because it is easy to remember (the jingle from a TV ad), because it reminds us of something else important, but not necessarily because it does us some good.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is the name we give to a collection of memes which has spread in our culture over the last 30 years. The meme complex called Arnold Schwarzenegger is not just referring to the actual person, but to the entire collection of ideas, images, actions, stories, metaphors, jokes, rumors, films, websites, fan activities, magazine covers, dreams, weight-training equipment, food supplements, t-shirts, interviews, photographs, memorabilia, film posters, newspaper articles, etc. that spread Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnolds life, more than any example we can think of, represents the trajectory of a meme, an idea that spreads not because it is good or valuable or true, but because a place is available for it in the culture at a particular point in time and because it can find new niches and hiding places as it develops. How and why it does this reveals a tremendous amount about the culture that employs it. Like other forms of shared cultural activitiesmyths, rituals, symbolsmemes that are this pervasive provide excellent entry points into the structure as well as the fluid features of a culture.
Our focus, as suggested by Derek Gatherer (www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jcm-emit/1998/vol2/gatherer_d.html), will be not on proving that we have this Arnold meme in our brains; that is something that can never be proven nor is it likely that memes actually exist as a package that is measurable or quantifiable. Rather, we will show that memes can best be understood through cultural events, behaviors or artifacts which may be transmitted or copied (www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jcm-emit/1998/vol2/gatherer_d.html). A meme doesnt exist in brains but is evident only through its manifestation in behavior, as the fallout from transmitted information and ideas. As Gatherer emphasizes, individuals do not have memes, they build them, say them, do them, make them, assent to them, or deny them, but the memes are entirely outside the humans beings that generate them (ibid.). In fact, says anthropologist Geertz, Human thought is consummately social: social in its origins, social in its functions, social in its forms, social in its applications (Geertz 1973: 360). Any human thought can only be seen in its actual manifestations: speech, visual representations, behavior. For the meme, this manifestation is crucial because it is through imitation that memes get transmitted, and it is through visible evidence or fallout from behavior that we have an indication of the presence and success of a meme.
What we can show is not the meme itself (the complex informational schema that makes us think Arnoldian thoughts and act out Schwarzeneggerian actions) but only the behavioral manifestations of this phenomena. We have no way of showing a transmission of beliefs (because, for example, not everyone need have the same feelings or attitudes towards Arnold to manifest his meme in their behavior), but can only retrospectively indicate the transmission of information that is part of the complex of memes called Arnold Schwarzenegger. What we will do by delineating this behavioral evidence and showing its cultural consequences is open up the field of memetics as well as the study of celebrity culture to a wider range of evidence than is usually admitted. In this indirect way, we think we can illuminate ideas about memes in general, and celebrities as a particularly clear meme form.
If memes are instructions for behavior, decisions and ideas that manage to get themselves replicated and spread, the most successful memes will be the ones that are memorable and flexible: they grab our attention for any number of reasons and then get mentally rehearsed and reused in variations that generate new and more extensive metaphors. Effective memes, says Blackmore, are those that cause high-fidelity, long-lasting memory (1999: 57). To formalize this, we would suggest that the most powerful memes do four things: they generate new metaphors; they readily invade numerous cultural arenas; they morph to adapt to different environments; and they eventually detach themselves from their origins. As one of the most powerful memes in the celebrity world, Arnold Schwarzenegger does all this, as we show below, with ease.
Memes and Metaphors
The ability to generate metaphors that get used by other members of a culture is a sign of great power and influence. Metaphors, in which we take one thing and make an often arbitrary association with something in a different arena, extend meanings, language and categorization. Metaphor, explain Lakoff and Johnson, is not just an element of poetic language. Instead, metaphor is the basis of our ordinary conceptual system, affecting how we both think and act (Lakoff and Johnson 1980: 3). To say, The Dodge Viper is the Arnold Schwarzenegger of sports cars," as Los Angeles Times Magazine did in 1991, is to associate the car with great power, popularity, forceful direction and overall importance. It is also to associate Schwarzenegger with more, better and faster machines, increasing his appearance as a growing cyborgian entity and amplifying his star persona. It is a metaphor that extends the meaning of both entities. This further suggests that powerful memes are those that produce a kind of reciprocal metaphor. In the above example, neither viper-ness nor Arnold-ness are necessarily connected to vipers or to Schwarzenegger, but each quality, each metaphorically expressed trait, owes its force to this metaphoric oscillation triggered by the meme of Arnolds strength and ubiquity.
Metaphors create new categories of behavior, thought and feelings, new connections that might not have been considered before. As George Lakoff has often pointed out in his years of work on metaphoric thought and language, making metaphors is a way to re-categorize the world. We employ categorization when we reason, perform mundane or important actions, speak, listen, write, or do just about anything. Metaphors and categorizing are the basis of being a functioning human (Lakoff 1987: 6):
Without the ability to categorize, we could not function at all, either in the physical world or in our social and intellectual lives. An understanding of how we categorize is central to any understanding of how we think and how we function, and therefore central to an understanding of what makes us human.
Arnold Schwarzenegger, both the name and the meme, has been used as an adjective, a metaphor, an adverb, and a simile. He has contributed speech patterns and sayings to our everyday language, and has often dominated the speech of those trying to talk about things big, expensive, powerful, violent, tough, and successful. He is quite simply an easy-to-use reference point or perfect example, the prototype that is immediately understood and recognized. Prototypes, Lakoff explains, are powerful because they provide a standard against which other elements are measured (Lakoff 1987: 446). Prototypes are the best example of elements that are in a category. Not everything in a category matches the prototype but rather are compared to it and judged as being good or bad fits for the category. So, for example, the prototypical mother in contemporary American culture is the non-working housewife who stays at home and is married to a man who financially supports her and her children. All other mothers are compared to her (even if she barely exists in reality) and are judged accordingly. Any meme that develops into such a prototype immediately extends its influence because it is used as a measure of right and wrong, good and bad, real and unreal, real and virtual, proper or improper, valuable or worthless. Everything in every category it can occupy uses it as a standard of measuring fit, value, design, direction or sense. As such a prototype for a varied range of categories, Arnold Schwarzenegger is a very influential meme.
Schwarzeneggers prototypical meme is influential because of the importance of symbolic language in human life. Human beings are constructed and maintained through the narratives they develop, share, analyze and contest. Our sense of belonging to a group as well as sense of being individual selves takes place through narratives. As Bruner expresses it, Self and society are generated as they are expressed (Bruner 1984: 10). In asking, Why are narratives so influential?, Brothers (1997: 82) explicates for us the power of human exchanges through narratives:
Belonging is a primary human motivation: In order to belong, individuals adopt and use the narratives that surround them. Thus, the groups narratives organize the thoughts of its members, specifically the categories of their perceptions, especially perceptions regarding persons.
If language through narrative and metaphoric thought constructs our reality, then the place of Arnold Schwarzenegger in our language points to his significance as an influence on our cultural activities and actions. The meme Arnold Schwarzenegger has numerous metaphoric manifestations in everyday language. He appears as a reference point in an amazing array of fields, creating new ways to categorize experiences that without the Arnold meme might end up being associated with something entirely different: machines or natural disasters or Albert Einstein. Metaphors and analogies are most important because they show that the direction of thought has been modified to accommodate Arnold as a generator of best examples, as the prototype. These examples show the range and variety for this influence as well as the variation that takes place when a meme is employed so extensively:
As a measure of power:
A radio announcer says of Russian leader Boris Yeltsin, Yknow, hes not exactly the Arnold Schwarzenegger of world leaders.
In a statement at a 1994 Congressional hearing on medical fraud: "It's like sending Bambi out to meet the Terminator."
From an article in a 1998 military newspaper: The security forces here pack more firepower than Arnold Schwarzenegger in a Terminator movie.
As a reference for excellence:
From a 1998 story on golf: "Imagine Arnold Schwarzenegger with a golf game."
As a purveyor of colloquial language that evokes violence:
During the O.J. Simpson Trial, the prosecutor says that Nicole said to O.J for the last time, Hasta la vista!
As a measure of individual persistence and determination:
CNN announcer comments in a story on women leaving the military college, The Citadel: Schwarzenegger could not have lasted longer.
In a Los Angeles Times 1991 article on police chief Daryl Gates: "Even Arnold Schwarzenegger pales in comparison to Gates' cybernetic tenacity."
At a talk in Los Angeles on computer file recovery: "It's like Arnold Schwarzenegger it's destroyed, it won't be back."
L.A. Times article on HIV research: Every time the Arnold Schwarzeneggers of science have the virus in their sights for destruction...
On a 1995 Today show, the father of one of the hostages taken in Iraq comments that if he were Arnold Schwarzenegger, he would go in himself to rescue the hostage.
As a prime example of the immigrant experience:
NBC News, Los Angeles, 1992, in a story on the problems of Latinos having to change their names, Elizabeth Pena says, "They were able to memorize Arnold Schwarzenegger."
As a measure of physical strength and power:
In a 1991 L.A. Times articles on an Olympic weightlifting hopeful, the large man is said to "dwarf Schwarzenegger."
On the 1991 television show Law and Order, it was commented that you would have to be Arnold Schwarzenegger to pick up a big piece of equipment.
1992 Los Angeles Times article on the Landers earthquake described on man's home as looking like "it had been trashed in a 'Terminator' movie."
In two children's videos, one on construction equipment and one on trucks, powerful machines are given an Arnold Schwarzenegger accent.
An article on sea creatures: "An octopus in a lab can lift cinder blocks to get out of its tank," Forsythe said. "It's like having Arnold Schwarzenegger's biceps in your aquarium."
As an indicator of poor speech and acting styles:
In a 1996 article on computerized speech: So what if the computer-synthesized speech patterns include odd inflections? Arnold Schwarzenegger's fans never seemed to mind.
1998 review of the film Firestorm: Long has the steroid-buffed look of an action hero. But his expressionless face and monotone delivery make even Arnold Schwarzenegger at his most robotic seem like a hypersensitive crybaby.
Review of a 1998 play: The play might hold some interest as an acting-class assignment, but the Texas accents of the Willow Cabin cast are so forced and the staging is so stiff (Jed Sexton's Bus resembles Arnold Schwarzenegger's Terminator) that the exercise is almost an embarrassment.
As a sign of his own influence:
A 1990 Newsweek article on male pectoral implants states, "...maybe it's a sign of the Schwarzeneggerization of society.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is clearly a prototype for a number of concepts in our culture: fitness, power, strength, excellence, uniqueness, success, influence, positive action, violence and destruction among others. On radio, in television, at Congressional hearings, in magazines and newspapers, in childrens videos and cartoons, public lectures, and courtrooms, he helps categorize and construct our perceptions. If the function of narratives is to reveal and comment on the language of the social order (Brothers 1997: 80) then Schwarzeneggers widespread presence in our shared narratives means that we see the world at least partially through a lens constructed around his memes. He helps define what can count as experience, what can be seen as valuable, what can be allowed as truthful, and what can be acceptable as real.
It is hard to imagine other stars who could cover so much territory: Marilyn Monroe might suggest sexiness and vulnerability, foolishness and coyness, but not power, influence and determination as well; and what, if anything do stars like Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts, Sandra Bullock or Ben Affleck evoke? Even enduring stars like Cary Grant (suave, debonair sophistication) or Bette Davis (bitchy woman, soulful eyes) had a limited metaphoric range and have not over time had that range extended.
Memes and Dreams
A meme can be seen as particularly powerful if it extends its reaches outside its expected range and into unusual or unexpected spheres of influence. Schwarzenegger and his memes clearly have done this by moving beyond the obscure world of professional bodybuilding into Hollywood and politics and popular culture. In these arenas, we can make some conscious choices about whether to see a Schwarzenegger film, or repeat, Ill be back, or read a magazine article. But when the Schwarzenegger meme reached into the world of dream narratives, we became acutely aware of what engaging a powerful meme means and how such memes really do move through all levels of cultural experience.
We were studying Schwarzenegger and his films in the early 1990s when we began having a series of vivid dreams about him and our research. Despite our awareness of Schwarzeneggers amazing reach into all aspects of the culture, we were nevertheless shocked when he began to appear in our dreams. For the next ten years, we recorded over 150 dreams in which he was our adversary, lover, boss, friend, bowling partner, student, date, and the subject of our book. He was able to morph in our minds into all these different roles placed in an equally varied set of scenarios.
On January 28, 1991, Michael Blitz had his first Arnold dream:
Arnold Schwarzenegger comes to my door and says, "I hear you are doing a book about me." He then tells me that Maria Shriver thought that she could find out about him by peeling away his layers like an onion. But he says that the only way anyone will find out about him is by breaking him into little pieces.
Taking Arnold's curious advice in this dream seriously, we did break him into little pieces and exposed ourselves to every form of Arnoldian culture. We watched him films, ate at his restaurant, read his books, read the tabloids, collected Arnold stories from fans, photographed him, visited one of his film sets, attended his bodybuilding competition and even tried bodybuilding ourselves. The meme Arnold Schwarzenegger, through the first instructions in this dream, seemed to set our fate.
We explored the little ways that he permeates social lifepersistently, invisibly, quietly, insidiously. It is this amazing and often frightening reach into our actions, experiences and thoughts that show how an effective meme can extend its influence and its chance of spreading further. The dreams we had are the most obvious proof that this reach had made it all the way into even the seemingly most private aspect of our lives. But even these private aspects are used to create narratives that put the meme back into circulation. In the case of the Arnold meme, the dreams were a particularly effective medium because they have been reported to others in academic conferences, parties, books, essays, websites, artworks, mealtime conversations and emails. Like any good meme, they are memorable and pleasurable and these two features make any meme more likely to be spread.
Following are some of the 150+ Arnoldian dreams we have had in the past ten years. They show the range and flexibility of the meme Arnold Schwarzenegger and demonstrate a remarkable combination, as do all dreams, of an internal logic combined with a wonderfully impossible set of juxtapositions and odd crossings. As Bert States points out, the business of the dream is not to dream about something, even in a disguised form, but to make connections among memory networks (States 1997: 158). We look at these dreams, therefore, not for their meanings, but for what they say about the way Arnold Schwarzenegger, the meme, can cover a wide range of categories, make connections between categories, create new ones, and slay the significance of old ones. What the brain does in a dream, says States, is to move mindlessly from one image to another that is on some unfixable level related to it (ibid.: 157). This mindless movement, we think, is what memes are all about:
Louise's Dream (March 20, 1991)
For some reason Arnold Schwarzenegger is in my house. He is sitting at the kitchen table. We are talking about something. I say to him flirtatiously, "You know we are writing a book about you but that we haven't been able to admit it face to face." I tell him I am interested in the President's Council on Physical Fitness. I show him something on a small piece of paper which he gets up from the table to look at over my shoulder. I know he is looking down my cleavage and I am pleased.
Michael's Dream (March 8, 1991)
I am taking Arnold's photograph, using a wide-angle lens in order to somehow widen him. Arnold turns to a pal nearby and asks, "Why am I being photographed by such a ridiculous camera?" The friend comes over to confiscate my camera so I cut off his hand. For the rest of the dream I am running from Arnold's goons.
Michaels Dream (February 5, 1993)
Louise had found in a novelty shop a 78 rpm record of Arnold singing Elvis songs. One side was Love Me Tender and the other side was Jailhouse Rock which, she told me, when played backwards, was also the preamble to Mein Kampf.
Michaels Dream (July 19, 1995)
Arnold and I are interviewing actors for recasting the Bonanza television show. Arnold is aloof and after each interview, mutters to me (about the actor), "Faggot!" He sits up suddenly when Bruce Lee comes in. Arnold says, "You're dead!" I am shocked. Lee cannot speak but does a flourish of karate moves, and Arnold stands up and shoots him. Lee is dead (again). Arnold says to me, "Fucking faggot!" and tosses his pistol onto Lee's corpse.
Louises Dream (June 3, 1996)
I enter a talk show audience and hug a huge blocky Lou Ferrigno, like a refrigerator. Then Arnold arrives, also blocky. We are all younger. Arnold greets me like we know each other. Then we are backstage being interviewed by a sports reporter. She is a novice and nervous. She sucks a whole plastic bottle into her mouth. I make her pull it out. We go view a re-enactment of a campus murder rampage. A man with a gun walks around and shoots people point blank. He goes up to one kid and shoots down his pants. The sports reporter asks us our theory about how this could happen. We say fear freezes people. Then the baby Arnold is holding has diarrhea and I change the diaper. Arnold is impressed.
Louises Dream (November 5, 1998)
I am trying to get an interview with Arnold. I am outside his brownstone apartment. Maria comes rushing out, jumps into a big sports utility vehicle that has two steering wheels, and drives herself and the other surprised people inside away. Somehow I am then inside with Arnold. I just sit and he ignores me as I casually look at magazines and books that are about him. Then Maria sends up word that she will pick me up at four and gives back my bag which I threw into the SUV. Arnold says forget it, he can get me back if I come to the airport field tonight at 3:20. He will give me a ride in his private jet. I show up there and as we all walk up to the jet there is a small group of fans ready. Then we have to march first in a funeral procession around the field. I have to carry a big American flag. It gets tangled in my feet but finally I carry it correctly. Then it is over and everyone rushes to put their flags down but I can't put an American flag on the ground.
Michaels Dream (December 7, 1999)
I was having a business dinner with Arnold and Patsy Kent. Patsy was an agent and was telling me that I should not have even been allowed to contact Arnold. I guessed that I tricked Arnold into attending this dinner, but I didn't remember how I did it. I tried to think of something that would make it seem worthwhile to him. I lied and I told him I'd seen his new movie, End of Days, and thought it was a real triumph. He snorted and said, "It's the saddest movie I evah made!" I was surprised by this moment of reflection on his part. Patsy looked disgusted with Arnold and slammed her silverware down. Some of my water spilled onto the table and I started to blot it up. Patsy said, "Now THAT'S sad!" I hoped Arnold would not ask me about why I had done this. He was reading the label on his beer bottle and snapping his fingers as though to a song.
Dreams take our everyday thoughts and actions, our experiences and feelings, and try different ways to categorize them, often creating the bizarre juxtapositions that we remember as dream narratives. The purpose of this is to bring our new experiences together with our old, creating new metaphors and reference points in the process, refining and reorganizing our categories. Bert States (193:119) explains the process this way:
fictions and dreamsremarkably similar in their contentare not simply ways these people amuse or instruct themselves; rather, they need fictions and dreams as complementary means by which they constantly monitor and index the diversity of their experiences. Through narrative they might, in a sense, remember experiencenot in that trite way we say a novel is an accurate account of life in a certain historical period but, rather, the kind of remembering that has to be done over and over. If something is to be remembered at all, it must be remembered not as what happened but as what has happened again in a different way and will surely happen again in the future in still another way. And by this means, as Roger Shank suggests in his essay on memory models, a commonality can be built up among various versions of the same experience that might serve as the basis for forming a new knowledge structure or for modifying or confirming an old one...So we keep writing the same old stories and having the same old dreams because we keep having the same old experience in different ways.
This suggests that dreams are an integral part of a memes mechanism for spreading and surviving. The dreams are a remarkable example of what we mean by evolutionary mechanisms when we are in the cognitive realm. Ideas and concepts that are flexible, that can rapidly change to meet different circumstances and environments, that can, essentially, morph like the T1000 in Terminator 2, are those that will not become extinct. In our dreams (the entire collection is available on our website: http://www.sscnet.ucla.edu/ioa/arnold.html) the Arnold meme appears as everything from a fireman to a voyeur and we give him/it every emotional reaction from fear to love to surprise and anger.
But Bert States prods us to remember that, if dreams were primarily instruments of communication, most dreams would be useless (States 1988:19). Because they are constructing new categories and metaphors, we cant hope to read dreams like we can a poem or understand their point like we can with a joke. Dreams, when not remembered, are consolidating memes into the unconscious system we use to make meanings. When they are remembered, they are doing this consolidation but also giving the meme another vehicle, the dream account, for getting on with its work of spreading far and wide. Just as we are helpless in a dream to direct the progression of the memes story (despite claims of lucid dreaming) , we are probably nearly as helpless when the meme in the dream wants to get expressed out loud. The compulsion of humans to share stories and create meanings is especially compelling with dreams that make no sense and need others to put them into a socially comprehensible context.
Memes and Morphs
In addition to generating new metaphors and appearing in varied cultural arenas, powerful memes are also flexible enough to change seamlessly and invisibly to fit new needs and circumstances. Several of our dreams demonstrate this:
Louises Dream (August 21, 1992)
Arnold and I get arrested by the Russians. We are taken to Russia and put into some kind of camp that has young people in it. They don't know who Arnold was there. We are waiting to be released and Arnold gets permission to have Maria come for a visit. Arnold takes Maria into the next room which has a glass wall so that we can all watch. Arnold lays on his back on a Barcalounger and Maria sits on top of him. They kiss passionately but have all their clothes on. Meanwhile I am talking to all the young people as Arnold and Maria smooch in the background. They discover I have a Russia/Polish background when we dance and they see I can do a mean polka. I say to them, "Do you know who that is in there?" One young woman says yes but three others say no. Then Arnold suddenly comes out, takes me by the hand, and leads me off to another room. He sits down on a weightlifting bench and says to me, "Okay, what do I have to pay you to stop writing this book about my sex life?" I put out my hand and smile and say, "I am glad to finally meet you." He says, "We are not meeting. How much do you want?" We look at each other and start to kiss. He suddenly turns into someone else who looks like an old Tina Turner with small orange lips; maybe he is a drag queen. I think to myself that he is a bad kisser. I walk away and say, "I don't want to do this book anymore." Then I think about how much I could ask him for. I go back to the bench to kiss him again. His mouth is open and head tilted back and I look at a pool of accumulating saliva. I wished I hadn't kissed him and think about AIDS and all the lovers he has had. I decide not to kiss him again.
Michaels Dream (February 5, 1991)
Arnold was fighting Klan-types and had to dress as a firefighter with a long coat and hat, partly to hide his well-known balding head from several Deliverance types who were after him and me. At one point he becomes Gerard Depardieu but he quickly corrected himself when I observed, "You look so much different in person than you do in my head." This prompted him to take off the firehat to prove that he still had a full head of hair and that my mental image of him was intact.
As our dreams demonstrate, a successful meme may become anything it needs to in order to spread. The dream is the perfect environment for a meme to both exert itself and to extend itself through new metaphors and new narrative forms. This isnt symbolization, says States, but primarily a mechanism of association, condensation and recall in which things representative of something in a persons waking life are always molested and contaminated by their similars (States 1997: 157).
They can, in a sense, morph from one form to another. Morphing is a computer technology (with roots in mythologies of metamorphosis across cultures and time; see Krasniewicz 2000) in which one entity transforms into another seamlessly or two entities blend to form a third, unprecedented entity. In either case, the morphing elements demonstrate a challenge to traditional categories and identities, as in the case of the Michael Jackson video (Black and White, 1981) in which people of many races change into one another. Morphing is so odd in part because it is a visible transformation rather than one hidden from our critical eyes. We are challenged by this process in which an object seems to reshape and transform itself gradually into another object in full view of the audience, providing the same kind of pleasure one might find in a well-performed trick of stage magic (Wolf 2000: 83).
The process of morphing is best known from the Schwarzenegger blockbuster movie Terminator 2 (1991) and from The Abyss, a 1989 film from T2 director James Cameron. In the morphing that we see on the screen, one terminator (not Schwarzenegger) seamlessly melts into others, constantly shape-shifting so that it is impossible to draw the boundaries between forms. In The Abyss, aliens take their form from water, moving effortlessly though spaces and with numerous faces. In T2, floors become men, arms become swords, cops become liquid blobs, women find themselves duplicated as exactly wounded twins.
Morphing is in a sense the behavioral (as well as visual) counterpart of the metaphor. Cultural morphing would thus mean taking disparate forms of behavior or the fallout of behaviors like artifacts or consumer goods, and blending them together to make an unheard of or a never before seen person or thing. In the case of his meme complex, Arnold Schwarzenegger is one big morphing machine, moving from inarticulate bodybuilder to well-paid movie star to cultural icon, successful businessman, fitness czar, stern daddy, philanthropist for Jewish causes and conservative statesman. While few people can articulate the precise history of Schwarzenegger actions, he has come to stand as a prototype for many of these roles.
For example, during George Bushs presidency, Schwarzenegger was the Chair of the Presidents Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Despite years of reported steroid use and developing a bodybuilders body that represents health and strength but in reality is neither, Schwarzenegger promoted childhood fitness, talking in the process to the governors of all fifty states about their fitness failures. At this same time, during the Gulf War, Schwarzenegger is mixed up with Norman Schwarzkopf, the Commander-in-Chief, Central Command (leader of U.S. forces and Western troops in Gulf war from 1990-1991). While supervising exercises on the lawn of the White House for the annual Great American Workout, Schwarzenegger is interviewed by Willard Scott of the Today Show, the perfect foil of non-fitness. Scott asks Arnold, This has been a big year for the Schwarzes. Are you two related? Arnold replies, No, but I am sure we have the same willpower. With that question, of course, they were related for Arnold had invisibly morphed into the military leader of the U.S. forces, a role reinforced by his appearance on a television special welcoming home and celebrating the Gulf War troops. The two bigger-than-life men became not only each other but also symbols of a restored masculinity that encompasses military might and physical strength as well as caring about children, crying for women and restoring order. As a student in one of Michael Blitzs classes asks at this time during a heated discussion, We gotta get the Terminator in here to keep peace?
Schwarzenegger has also moved across film genres, being the star of action films, comedies, disaster and horror flicks, and romances, sometimes within the same film. There is evidence of this morphing capability in many of his films, most explicitly in Terminator 2 but also in Twins, Predator, Kindergarten Cop, Total Recall, and True Lives. Why do we call this morphing? Because like the morph, it happens right in front of our eyes, we see the visible evidence of the change, and are fascinated by the impossible combinations put together. We see disconnected entities, Twins that look nothing alike, joined in some odd way to make perfect new components that we could not anticipate but that express the meme in totally acceptable ways. The morph, rather than the collage or the cyborg, is the vehicle of the meme because it eliminates the disconcerting evidence that comes from jumping types and categories.
The Detached Meme
Although Arnold Schwarzenegger is associated with morphing, he is never, in fact, morphed in T2. Instead, his morphing spans two films (The Terminator, 1984 and Terminator 2:Judgment Day, 1991) separated by seven years of time, during which he changes from a killer machine to a caring machine; it can be argued that it is Linda Hamilton, as Sarah Connor, who takes on his old Terminator role. Schwarzenegger actually gets separated from the original Terminator meme yet every aspect of its significance, its power, its productivity is still associated with Schwarzenegger. How can Arnold detach himself from yet remain embedded in this meme?
A meme that disconnects from its source but continues to evoke that source becomes, in effect, universally available for situations and expressions unencumbered by its original use but still spreading the meme of its origin. It is like looking for the origin of an urban myth (or an ancient one for that matter): it matters not whether there ever was a real precipitating event for the urban legend. What matters is how they work, how they spread, how they change and how they evolve into different, equally believable if bizarre legends. The defining qualities, says Brunvard, are not truth or fiction, but oral repetition and variation, and any version of a story reinforces its basis message (Brunvard 1999: 20-21).
Any version of Arnold Schwarzenegger, then, reinforces the meme Arnold Schwarzenegger. When someone says, Hasta la vista, baby!, they do so without having to know specifically that this idiom, memeticized by Schwarzenegger, is originally associated with a scene of brutal murder and in later iterations, occasions of self-parody. In any case it evokes Schwarzenegger in many people, even in those who have never seen his films. As Arnold detaches himself from his familiar representations, it does not mean his meme is losing steam. Evidence of this can be seen in his continues ability to insinuate himself into new areas, morph into new entities and generate new metaphors. His latest film is a prime example. For the first time, Arnold presents himself in the context of a religious memeplex, what Blackmore calls one of the most powerful and durable means by which people attempt to understand their world (Blackmore 1999: 192).
In his end-of-the-millennium film, End of Days (1999), Arnold attempts this detachment by becoming the opposite of himself, turning as a result into Jesus Christ. First he is battling none other than the Devil himself, played by the appropriately named Gabriel Byrne. The Schwarzenegger in this film is amazingly weak: as the film opens he is about to commit suicide. Later he is beaten by an old lady as well as everyone else he encounters; he is guilty, uncertain, and finally has to pray to God to give him strength. The Devil, on the other hand, exhibits all the old Arnoldian characteristics: clever, witty, strong beyond belief, powerful, determined and driven. He even states that, I dont do guilt, just as Arnold once stated at a bodybuilding competition we attended. It is almost as if Arnold is actually battling himself on the screen, as if he were not just himself but is switching between several of the main characters. As the reincarnation of Jesus Christ (Schwarzenegger is quite literally crucified at one point), Arnold completes the millennial cycle, taking us back to the original battle between good and evil, Christ and the Devil in the desert (New York City). That original battle was one of wits and faith instead of brawn and bravery but the result is the same: nothing less than the redemption of humankind and the salvation of the human race.
We could also point to a scene in Schwarzeneggers film, Total Recall, as another critical moment in the displaced meme-life of Arnold. One of the protagonists several personalities speaks from a computer screen to his alter ego (both played by Schwarzenegger): You are not you! Youre me! Although it would be wild hyperbole to say that Arnold is attempting to implant the total meme by which the rest of us would recall ourselves to be him, it may be reasonable to argue, that the constellation of events, cultural phenomena, images, recollections, dreams, consumer products, narrative references, and multivarious manifestations of Schwarzenegger constitute such a memes potential trajectory.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has always been off the evolutionary chart. He is bigger, more powerful, richer, more influential and more pervasive than any normal human being. He is omnipresent (and has been for more almost two decades) and insistent, remaking himself just when he seems to have disappeared. He has become in a very short period of time one of the major figures inhabiting both our private narratives (dreams, personal exchanges) and our public ones (films, politics, economics, cultural idioms).
In the 1998 Woody Allen movie titled, Celebrity, one character states what has been the common wisdom on our interest in stars, the famous and the notorious: our choice of celebrities says something about the society that picks them. But is there no more to celebrity than this, a simple reflective mirror held up to our desires, fears and fascinations? We think that stars are the most vivid representations of some of a cultures most important memes. Because they are linked to traits we have come to value: power, fame, sexual desirability, or money, stars are easier to swallow than other memes, but they are no different from the other meme complexes in a particular culture. They provide us with a way to make meaning, to interpret our own behavior and that of others, to place values on things and people, and to understand how the world works.
Some forms of memetics seem to suggest that the memes spread in association with stars is a classic form of thought contagion. We instead see the users of memes as more active than that, with memes as a tool in the hands and bodies of active participants in the creation of cultural interpretations. The memes associated with stars influence behavior, cause exchanges of power and wealth, affect concepts of self, and even infect our dreams. We have memes because humans are social creatures and memes are both the cause and the result of our need to test out, share, critique and examine our ideas and behaviors in reference to other. Any meme complex that guides these meaning-making experiences, these interpretations of the world, is very powerful indeed and very likely to spread.
As a meme complex, Arnold Schwarzenegger has few rivals. Under the new evolutionary scheme presented by memetics, power, pleasure, money, influence and admiration end up residing in those who can most effectively demonstrate their control of this second kind of evolution, the ability to spread memes, to get people to imitate and replicate a behavior or idea or action. Evolution is horizontal, spreading across people who exist in the same time and space (however virtual), rather than predominantly from parent to child (see Blackmore 1999: 34). Stars and other meme-machine, as parents already know, often seem to have more influence on meaning than parents.
Arnold Schwarzenegger is our model of this new evolutionary force, the one that favors the ability to spread viral thoughts, imitative speech, behavioral patterns, consumer behaviors or dream content. What is the measure of this influence? Becoming a reference point for important decisions and events of the culture, both on a personal level and in a more global communicative manner. Why do people go so much to Arnold Schwarzenegger movies? Not just to see bodies blown up and bad guys defeated but to have more memes, to have an already desirable complex of feelings, ideas, behavioral models expanded and confirmed. It is a cycle of reciprocity that continues until some other meme complex derails it.
If narratives, metaphors and language are in constant motion in a culture, defining, refining, challenging, structuring and deconstructing all at the same time our sense of who we are and how we make sense of the world, then the reference to a star in everyday language points to the significance of that entity in shaping our actions, decisions and focus. But not every celebrity is given the same accord, and certainly it is a small number who have penetrated the collective unconscious so deeply and thoroughly that they can be said to have truly turned the tide of a cultures inclinations and activities. Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, JFK come to mind as contemporary icons who serve as persistent reference points for our evaluations of love, hate, sex, power, death and the other necessities of life. While it is impossible in most cases to trace a one-to-one cause-effect relationship between a celebrity and a cultural shift, it is possible, in the case of Arnold Schwarzenegger, to show both the breadth and depth of his penetration into the culture.
Many memeticists, especially Blackmore, talk about memes as if they have a life of their own, as if they replicate because they can (Blackmore 1999: 7). Humans, for Blackmore, become merely vehicles or hosts for these virus-like memes. But in our desire to bring both memetics and the study of American popular culture back into the realm of social action and symbolic behavior, we cant accept this idea. Memes, in their exchanges and replications and variation, actually serve humans in the most fundamental of ways. They reaffirm that we are human because the only way to reaffirm our humanness is via exchanges with other humans: exchanges of thoughts, feelings, bodies, gifts, meanings. These forms of social bonding, most explicitly seen in gifts but implicitly present in every human act, form the foundation of the social fabric (Godbout 1998). Verbal exchanges like those that carry and replicate memes are the most significant:
It is words first and foremost, sentences and arguments, that humans produce and exchange with others. Certainly, more and more, we speak only to pass on information or give orders. But before providing information or seeing that others conform to our wishes, we must first use words to establish a relationship. (Godbout 1998: 12)
Through such shared exchanges humans avoid social autism, or the kind of isolation that fails to confirm our definitions of self and society.
Studying trivial meme complexes like stars, Susan Blackmore has shown, is important because these memes often exert phenomenal power in modern society and are responsible for the movement of vast amounts of money. They shape the way we think about ourselves and, perhaps more importantly, they cause many people to believe things that are demonstrably false. Anything that can do all this deserves to be understood (Blackmore 1999:184). But more significantly, they demonstrate a new view of evolutionary processes. Rather than seeing elements of a culture persist because they confer some reproductive advantage or survival value, memetic studies of celebrities support the notion that there are certain meme vehicles that are more efficient and effective because they are themselves good imitators, can tell or act in good stories worth passing on, or can get a podium from which to speak.
It has occurred to us while writing this that there may not be an unlimited number of memes available to a culture. In fact, one way to define a culture is as a group of people who share a limited and particular set of memes. Our next goal is to delineate what the set of memes for our culture looks like and whether the Arnold Schwarzenegger meme complex is unique or simply just a vivid example of a larger cultural enterprise.