Tuesday, April 27, 2021

Memes and Antimemes: Mental Contortions

Mind-bending stories

There are many popular movies and books known for bending the mind of the viewer or reader. Movies like Memento (2000), Live Die Repeat/Edge of Tomorrow (2014), and Looper (2012) are just a few examples. Many of the storylines for these movies are built on notions of memory and time. Some, like The Matrix (1999) and Inception, deal with layers of reality nested like Russian dolls. In The Matrix, you may discover you've been living in a simulation. In Inception, you may discover you've been living in someone else's dream. In movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), you find yourself encountering mysteries of epic proportions.

Reading the sci-fi novel There is No Antimemetic Division by author "qntm" (yes, that is his/her nom de plume) is like turning your brain inside out. This mind-bending goes beyond mental yoga. It falls in the category of mental contortionism.


We all know what a meme is. We've all shared the frustration of being unable to rid our conscious thoughts of a meme. Sometimes it's a tune or jingle -- an "earworm." If an earworm sticks to my brain like a remora to a shark, I have a "treatment" that sometimes works: I sing the first stanza of The Star-Spangled Banner with each line reversed:

See you can say oh  
Light early dawn's the by
Hailed we proudly so what 
Gleaming last twilight's the at

An antimeme, as imagined by qntm, does the opposite to us. If a meme is something you can't get out of your head, then an antimeme is something you can't keep in your head. You hear an antimeme and there is instantly no way to recall or recover its content. You read an antimeme and not only have no recollection of what you've read, you don't even realize you were reading something.

The premise of There is No Antimemetic Division is antimemes can be sentient and monstrous and, in general, dangerous. They can sometimes be fought -- but then you can't remember what it was you were fighting. They have been around us for millions of years, effectively invisible because as soon as you see one you instantly forget what you've seen. They can drive a person mad.

Wisdom tooth extraction and drug-induced amnesia

Encountering an antimeme results in selective amnesia. When I had my wisdom teeth removed by a dental student at the Medical University of S. Carolina, I was given an IV of Demerol and Valium. I was told this was an amnesiac mixture (not unlike, in effect, what you receive for "twilight sleep" before certain medical procedures). I would be able to respond to questions or instructions ("are you feeling any pain? can you open your mouth a little bit more?") but have no ability to recall any discomfort. In one moment I could feel a tooth coming out, but in the next moment, I would immediately forget it. The drug mixture they gave me acted like an antimeme.

Well, whaddya know!

An antimeme messes with what you think you know. It's a fifty-dollar word -- epistemological -- problem. Epistemology is one of the pillars of philosophy. It concerns knowledge -- what it is, where does it come from, what does it mean to know something.

There is No Antimemetic Division is an epistemologic nightmare for its characters. We often say "you don't know what you don't know." But in this novel there are things you do know but you don't know that you know them. What you think is real is incompletely real. What you experience is an inadequate representation of reality. The mental health of several characters in this mind-bending novel suffer from epistemological panic attacks when they come to realize that, somehow, their knowledge is dangerously incomplete.

But sentient antimemes are more than just a threat to our mental health. They are also an existential threat to the world, threatening life as we know it (or think we know it). For this reason, the Antimemetics Division (which the title of the book says does not exist) is charged with trying to rid the world of antimemes, much like Ghostbusters (1984) did with ghosts, or Men in Black (1997) with aliens. But there is nothing comedic about the tricky business of trying to fight something you can't recall or understand.

The verdict ...

There is No Antimemetic Division is not an easy read. You not only have to allow your mind to bend -- you also have to hold your mind in a twisted position as you follow the course of the story. Picking up again where you left off after you set the book aside requires getting back into that twisted position. In the end, your brain will feel comfortably stretched, but grateful to return to "normal."

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