“Keep Your Mind Open to Contagious Ideas”: A Reflection on the 2018 Words Matter Lecture by Dr Jo Waugh

By Erin Byrne

On Thursday 11th October, Dr Jo Waugh delivered the Literature Programme’s annual ‘Words Matter’ lecture, this year exploring the topic of Literature and Contagion. Regular Blog Writer Erin Bryne was on the scene.

Dr Jo Waugh delivered an absolutely fantastic Words Matter lecture this Thursday on the topic of Literature and Contagion.

It opened with pictures of twee necklaces and mugs with a Jane Eyre quote emblazoned on them : ‘Flirting is a woman’s trade, one must keep in practice’. As it was a lecture hall filled with past and present English Literature students, we were asked to figure out where exactly Charlotte Brontë wrote this during Jane Eyre.

As it turns out, it actually comes from a 2007 biopic of Jane Austen (!), Becoming Jane, and has been widely spread and mis-attributed as a bona fide Brontë quote, to be worn on t-shirts and hung up as a poster in somebody’s hallway, to be passed from person to person like some kind of contagious disease.


Everything Dr Waugh explained, from the asinine to the idiotic, can be accounted for through memetics. Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ in his book The Selfish Gene, and uses it as a term for a unit of cultural transmission.

Even the idea of God is a meme to Dawkins.


We in 2018 recognise the term ‘meme’ to mean a mildly amusing picture and caption we retweet or tag our friends in on Facebook. Even your grandma probably knows what a meme is in that sense. In the same way those memes spread over the internet, so do cultural ‘memes’. And much like genes, they can adapt and they can fail.

For example, 21st century newspapers of a certain political bent might employ memes of anxiety around topics like immigration and the poor, which are further spread by their readers, passed down to their children, and so on.


This lecture prompt me to reconsider how critical thinking is more important than it has ever been. Lazy and toxic ideas are so easily transmitted in our information age, which makes the disease metaphor for the spread of memes even more pertinent.


A section of this lecture discussed a typhus outbreak in 1847, which affected cities in the north of England and some of Scotland. This epidemic has been attributed to immigration from Ireland after the Potato Famine, as there were Irish quarters in many of the cities where typhus broke out. Novelists during this period used this to explain how all communities were interconnected in some way, which is as wholesome of a message as you could expect from the breakout of a horrific disease. On the other side of the coin were the press at the time, who used it to discriminate against the Irish, accusing them of being unwashed drunkards. This has some not too tenuous parallels to how the press of the 21st century treats those who it deems ‘other’ than them, and how literal contagious disease becomes a fantastic metaphor for the spread of unpleasant ideas.


There is a lot of this lecture that I have not been able to write about or this post would be far, far too long, so I’ll skip to the end, where Dr Waugh explained about ‘mindful memetics’, or ‘gut flora for the mind’. Allowing yourself to be influenced by other people’s thoughts and ideas is not a bad thing. We should expose ourselves to ideas that we aren’t so sure about; contagion doesn’t have to be as scary as it sounds. And above all, nothing is truly original, everything has been influenced by something else to some degree.

The example she used here was JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series.

The idea of a boy wizard being shipped off to a magical boarding school was nothing new when Rowling wrote the first instalment. (I also learnt in this lecture that Jo Waugh does NOT like Harry Potter – “a Conservative, Brexit-y nostalgia fest”, as she hilariously described it).

And just to highlight the cyclical nature of influence and ideas, the Shambles in York was one of the inspirations for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter films, and now when you walk down that cute little winding street, you are bombarded with tourists basically climbing over one another to get into one of the three (!!) Harry Potter themed shops. I will endeavour after this lecture to be more wary of what I herald as original, but will also be sure to keep my mind open to contagious ideas.

I will drink the Yakult of mindful memetics, and hope the gut flora of my mind stays thriving.

Thank you to Dr Jo Waugh for such an enlightening lecture.