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Could postmodernism be described as a memeplex? Discuss in relation to the cutout works of Richard Killeen.


Of or relating to art, architecture, or literature that reacts against earlier modernist principles, as by reintroducing traditional or classical elements of style or by carrying modernist styles or practices to extremes


A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.1

During the course of my research of postmodern theories, I recognised similarities in the shift from representational to self-reflective art defined as postmodern, and the theoretical functioning of memes both independently and as part of a collection of memes known as a memeplex. Rather than regurgitate well known theorists such as Kant, Lacan, Jameson and Lyotard I decided to step out of my comfort zone and take the road less traveled to provide an alternative view of Postmodernism - the memes eye view.

TheFreeDictionary. 8 May 2007. Farlex Inc. Retrieved 8 May 2007.

The cutout works of Richard Killeen demonstrate how a fragment of narrative, (a unit of cultural information or meme) can be removed from its original place or context and successfully re-presented in a new environment to create a new narrative, while still retaining its inherent meaning. A single work created from a collection of fragments proposing a new narrative could be regarded as a memeplex. The essence of any memeplex is that the memes inside it can replicate better as part of the group than they can on their own.2 Killeens pictographic assemblages encapsulate this type of supportive memetic environment, and could be seen as analogous to the memeplex of postmodernism.

It can be challenging to consider that an artwork, or more collectively an artistic period, has a life of its own and determines its own success or failure. As Masters of the Universe3 we like to feel that we control our lives and our environment, that we determine our own creations and ultimately our future. What if this existentialist4 view was applied to culture in the same way that it has been applied to human beings? Can an artwork behave of its own accord and determine its own future? Or, do artworks exist purely as a tangible expression of the artists creativity?

Will Postmodernist art be singled out by future generations for its lack of moral or political direction, its inauthenticity and failure to respond effectively to the wider

Blackmore, S., The Meme Machine. United States of America, 1999, p20. Original meme re-presented analogous to the way in which educated male contemporaries viewed themselves with a god-like superiority over their environment. Quoted by Rose DeWitt Bukater in the movie Titanic, 1997. IMDb: The Internet Movie Database. 10 May 2007. Internet Movie Database, Inc. Retrieved 10 May 2007. 4 For the purpose of this essay, the definition of existentialism as a self-governing creation of lifes meaning and purpose has been adopted.

crises of our time?5 Or, could postmodernism be seen as the saviour of art? Art that saved art or, a highly successful memeplex?

The term meme first appeared in 1976, in Richard Dawkinss best-selling book The Selfish Gene, with the term selfish defined as being only interested in its own replication. This selfish behaviour is emulated by the meme in its quest for survival6. Richard Killeens cutouts consist entirely of appropriated images and motifs. Small fragments of cultural information or memes. Snippets from life. Bits & pieces of stories that are presented, reworked and re-presented in a continuous cycle of development and recontextualisation.

Some of Killeens more selfish memes have positioned themselves as superior, commanding individual recognition and analysis. Such as the man with a landscape in his head from The green notebook, 1969 and its subsequent replication in The black notebook, 19857. In its original context of a notebook, below this self-propagating meme, Richard Killeen writes: The dominant group makes some subject matter more important than others eg: The sublime things that are strong, intellectual, male, spiritual. Everything else superficial.8

Killeens identification of subject matter as critical to the process of survival is also reflected by author (and Microsoft Word creator) Richard Brodie in memetic terms as being:
5 6

Taylor, B., Modernism, Post-modernism, Realism. United Kingdom, 1987, p117. Blackmore, S., The Meme Machine. United States of America, 1999, p4-5. 7 As referenced in Pound, F., Stories we tell ourselves. Auckland, 1999, p18. 8 Richard Killeen quoted in Pound, F., Stories we tell ourselves. Auckland, 1999, p18.

The ability to predict that ideas will spread not because they are good ideas, but because they contain good memes such as danger, food and sex that push our evolutionary buttons and force us to pay attention to them.9 The basis of memetic theory is the competition between memes to survive, to be successfully replicated and passed on both horizontally and longitudinally over time. This determination of survival is known in memetic terms as selective imitation10. Memes that are most memorable will be imitated and passed on, while most will be considered superficial and discarded. Cool eh?

Nationalism can be considered as a successful memeplex. When viewed as a way of defining or creating a New Zealand identity Killeens cutouts construct multiple viewpoints of the Kiwi experience. In relation to this Kiwi identity, many of Killeens works feature New Zealand landscape fragments, reflective of our cultural obsession with the great outdoors. These nationalist memes may cast our awareness back to a balmy summer afternoon at the beach, complete with a BBQ, swingball or a game of hit & run on the sand and a huhu beetle in the longdrop.

Meme Central, 10 May 2007. Richard Brodie. Retrieved 10 May 2007 10 Blackmore, S., The Meme Machine. United States of America, 1999, p29.

These constructed memoryscapes, snippets of the perfect New Zealand lifestyle are so fleeting that we need a way of retaining them, of holding onto them as an ideal or as a memory-object of the experience of being a Kiwi. Killeens cutouts embrace this type of cultural information and speak with us individually and collectively. The particular in the universal. The meme in the memeplex.

Art is not necessarily truthful, however it can serve as an effective way of representing the real. Perhaps the only time that art can be real or truthful is of itself? For example, if we refer back to Richard Killeens man with a landscape in his head, we recognise that it is a drawing; it is not a real man with a real landscape cohabitating inside his head. It is easy for us to differentiate what is real and what is represented. We also recognise the repository for memories and ideas as being inside the head. Perhaps this is why Killeen drew such an image - as a representation of the mind? Perhaps to represent the mind of a patriarchal nationalist the kiwi bloke?

With the emergence of new representational mediums throughout the last century such as photography and film, and new methods of distribution like television, radio and cinema, art was no longer the most accurate or expedient method of representation and expression. In his book Modernism, Post-modernism, Realism, Brandon Taylor identifies the period of around 1955-1960 as the point where art became self-referential. This timeframe encompasses the rapid growth of television

culture and the emergence of collaged/constructed narratives within the visual arts.11 It could be seen that having been usurped from its position of elevated importance as an historic or representational resource, that art had to redefine its purpose and make itself more useful in order to survive post-modernity. One aspect of this repositioning is the emergence of art about art. This self-referential or selfpropagating behaviour is the most basic survival function of a meme. Truth is irrelevant to our understanding of Killeens work just as truth is not a necessary criterion for a successful meme. If a meme can spread, it will.12 The advent of new media has resulted in a proliferation of images, creating a multitude of collaged or virtual narratives that run through our everyday lives. Information must compete to gain our attention and be worthy of more than a passing glance. Memes however, do not need to compete solely on the battlefield of visual saturation. They can spread through self-replication in small fractions of conversation, snippets of life, or what we know as gossip.

Perhaps women as the traditional bearers of cultural information are also the memes greatest incubator? Old Wives Tales, nursery rhymes and stories, recipes, songs all are highly functioning memes that shape our experiences of childhood and our experience of mothering and motherhood. This is analogous to the functioning of Killeens memetic cutouts. Small narratives, parcels of cultural knowledge represented within the memeplex of a larger work, shaping and redefining our experience as both an observer and a participant in life.

Brandon Taylor identifies the works of Rauschenberg, Johns and Warhol as being the first antimodern visual artworks. Taylor, B., Modernism, Post-modernism, Realism: A critical perspective for art. United Kingdom, 1987, p.9, p45. 12 Blackmore, S., The Meme Machine. United Sates of America, 1999, p14.


Modernism can be seen as a period of grand narratives, during which man triumphed over his environment - a period of colonial processes and cultural dominance. In order for something to be deemed as post-modern, it must have a critical engagement with the past. A successful meme self-propagates from its own existence, re-creates itself over and again, based on its past and present context. An environment that is mutually supportive and conducive to such meme replication is considered to be a memeplex.

The period referred to as postmodernism contains all of the necessary elements for successful meme propagation. Perhaps the main result of postmodernism has been the resurrection and redefinition of the purpose of art? A continuous search for meaning and ways to represent new forms of representation - or, self-propagation? Postmodernist theories have encompassed and defined a key aspect of postmodernism as being selfreferential: A successful memeplex, about itself, supported by theories and memes of itself? Or perhaps, a collection of stories we tell ourselves.

The images within Killeens Stories we tell ourselves, 1987, contain many meme buttons that engage our genetic and memetic memory. Kant spoke of aesthetic taste and order, rather than understanding or reason which could indicate that an unconscious desire to find universal meaning and harmony functions parallel to our ability to logically discern information. Killeens symbols of human evolution and cross-cultural images speak to our collective memory, recognisable in their postmodern absence of narrative and hierarchy perhaps best described by Francis Pound as lacking the self-aggrandising

weight of the monumental.13 No fragments are afforded superiority over others.

This lack of structure could be seen as capturing the essence of the selfnarrative that is constantly in a state of flux. A collection of narrative scraps in which there are no endings, just constant new beginnings. Even death is unable to be narrated as an ending as it requires the presence of a narrator, which creates yet another beginning? This constant cycle of renewal and representation reflects the cycle of physical life and the perpetual reconstruction of the self through learned narratives or memes. Killeens notebooks contain references to this structured identity creation and his artworks equally contain replications of his appropriated images thereby including himself and his own past within his works, actively constructing his present self, prospective as well as retrospective.14 This state of cultural and societal evolution sees the social constructivist and the essentialist cohabitating harmoniously within Killeens fragmented nonhierarchical storyscapes.

Francis Pound quoted in Leech, P., The Politics of order: Killeen and the Aesthetic Stories we tell ourselves: The Paintings of Richard Killeen. Papers from a Seminar. Ed. Roger Taberner. Auckland, New Zealand, 1999, p7. 14 Pound, F., Stories we tell ourselves. Auckland, 1999, p31.


American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett suggests that narratives are a form of self-preservation. That we can control our environment through concocting and controlling the story we tell others, and ourselves about ourselves.15 The audience will write their own narrative based on their own experiences concluding the meaning of each fragment and creating an overall memeplex. In his thesis When Narrative Fails, J. Melvin Woody refers to this process as knitting together our experiences into a continuous plot.16

In his book Objects and Images from the Cult of the Hook, 199617, Killeen plays with our ability to assume the role of both narrator and audience while highlighting issues of narrative truth. The construction of a fictitious culture and author sends an unaware audience on a constructed journey of red herrings and half-truths while demonstrating the inverse of memetic theory the universal in the particular. The meta-narrative of humanness containing the desire for order demonstrated by the compartmentalization of thoughts and information. The institutional construction of order leading to the supposition of truth.

The Origins of Selves. 12 May 2007. Cogito. Retrieved 12 May 2007. 16 Woody, J. M., When Narrative Fails. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology 10.4 (2003) 329-345. Project Muse. Retrieved 6 May 2007. 4woody.html 17 Book of the Hook comprises both a cut-out assemblage and a fictional book titled Objects and Images from the Cult of the Hook which purports to be compiled by the Hook Museum and authored by C. M., Beadnell an equally fictitious narrator.


Killeens works give us the opportunity for this type of self-reflection and analysis with narratives being constructed and knitted together to in a way that is insightful and particular to the viewer. This approach provides an ideal environment for memes to replicate, especially amongst the art community where debate around artworks can determine their success or failure. So, is it the artwork, the viewer or the artistic community that determines an artworks future? The meme, the narrator, or the memeplex? Or, does long-term success require the cooperation of all concerned? Is this an even greater memeplex? Could this be described as the postmodernism memeplex?

Without postmodernist theories to encompass and define Postmodernism of itself, would Modernism have continued? Architectural theorist Charles Jencks describes postmodernism as both the continuation and transcendence of Modernism18. Could postmodernism really be this simple? It is in our nature to try and compartmentalize ideas, to create order and a deeper understanding of the way that we live. Theories and retrospective analysis help us to understand and define our past and thereby, our present. They can also provide possibilities and hope for our future.

Memes dont physically exist. They are a theoretical entity and while being able to make numerous analogies art does not need such a theory to exist and develop. Equally, memes do not require memetic theory to exist. Perhaps memetic theory is essentially another meme? So, does that make it more successful or does it negate itself?

Jencks, C., What is Post-Modernism? London, 1989.

Postmodern art does not require precise definition or scientific proof to support its existence. As an integral part of our culture and reflection of modernity, postmodernism can survive and be meaningful without memetic theory. While unable prove itself as Master of the Universe in my mind, the presupposition of memetic theory has been useful in demonstrating aspects of postmodernism and its ability to function at both an etic and emic level of inquiry. To this end, postmodernism and the works of Richard Killeen can be described as having all of the hallmarks of a successful memeplex.


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Richard Killeen, Man with a Landscape in his head, The green notebook, 1969 & represented in The black notebook, 1985.

Richard Killeen, Stories we tell ourselves, 2007.

Debbie Stenzel, meme III, 2007.