The perception is that American television is a virus from which we must be protected

THOMAS SUTCLIFFE

In his recent book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, the philosopher Daniel Dennett explores the idea of the meme, Richard Dawkin's term for units of cultural evolution. Basically, a meme is an idea, one capable of replicating itself in the right conditions and producing an effect in our brains or the world. It is, for various reasons, difficult to prove that the idea of the meme isn't simply a compelling metaphor - an arresting analogy which explores the parallels between genetic evolution and cultural development - but Dennett, as a zealous Darwinian, clearly has hopes that a science of memetics might be possible. He doesn't hold back, in the meantime, from using the term with vigour. "We are all well aware," he writes, "that today we live awash in a sea of paper-borne memes, breathing in an atmosphere of electronically borne memes. Memes now spread around the world at the speed of light, and replicate at rates that make even fruit flies and yeast cells look glacial in comparison. They leap promiscuously from vehicle to vehicle, and from medium to medium, and are proving to be virtually unquarantinable."

To which the first response is "Who's this 'we' that's 'well aware'?" It doesn't, for example, appear to include the Euro MPs who voted this week to toughen up the EU regulations on the number of American and Australian programmes shown on European television. The MPs removed a "wherever practicable" clause from the ruling which requires broadcasters to provide at least 51 per cent of home-grown programmes in their schedules. These MPs clearly regard quarantine as at least partially achievable. Moreover, their concern is not just a matter of domestic job creation or quality - they aren't legislating on the nature of the programmes that must be produced in Paris or Rome. The perception is that American and Australian television constitutes a kind of cultural virus, a contagion from which native citizens must be protected (there is, as it happens, an "epidemiological" theory of culture, too).

I think this is wrong-headed - an impractical and counter-productive regulation - and the metaphor (or theory) of the meme helps us to see why. Imagine that culture is "red in tooth and claw", a competitive arena in which rival memes compete for survival. The cluster of memes that constitute an American soap clearly have an environmental advantage - the economics of American commercial television mean they are cheap. In other words, they are perfectly adapted to exploit the powerful and widespread meme for "profit" which has already colonised (or infected) European television executives.

But what will protection do to the rivals of these invading memes? Isolation, as repeated biological instances show, is not always helpful to an organism. A partial quarantine may help to extend the life of an enfeebled species, but it will do nothing to improve its long-term fitness - indeed, it is likely to compound whatever weakness has made intervention necessary in the first place. Milton addresses a similar issue in Areopagitica, his "Speech for the Liberty of Unlicensed Printing" of 1644, a work that occasionally seems to offer a premonition of the meme. "For books are not absolutely dead things," Milton notes at one point, "but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are: nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them. I know they are as lively, and as vigorously productive, as those fabulous dragon's teeth, and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men." He continues to a famous passage about the nature of a sturdy faith. "I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue," he writes, "unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race..."

Milton would doubtless have been surprised to find his own liberty memes hijacked and applied to Neighbours or Santa Barbara, but the argument is independent of the work at hand - a "fugitive and cloistered" culture is, in the long-run, not a healthy one, artificially preserving weaknesses and preventing the emergence of new strengths. Can MEPs really be confident that a mounting weariness with American mediocrity will not provoke a new renaissance some years down the road? Alternatively, have they forgotten that the last evolutionary burst of French film, the Nouvelle Vague, was built upon a consuming passion for the most disregarded of Hollywood product - B-movies - a passion that in turn re-invigorated American cinema? What would the history of French cinema look like if American product had been excluded for reasons of cultural hygiene? The lesson of that experience is that cultural evolution can be as wayward and unpredictable as biology - and great achievement sometimes arrives by undignified routes. Far better to let the memes fight it out.

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