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Trope is the New Meme

By posted at 4:46 am on July 17, 2009 7

A few years ago it felt like one could scarcely read a think-piece in any newspaper or magazine without coming across some mention of the word “meme.” Now it seems as though the new meme is the word “trope.” Trope is everywhere. One recent incarnation was in Peggy Noonan’s column about Sarah Palin in last weekend’s Wall Street Journal: “Maybe [Mrs. Palin's supporters] think ‘not thoughtful’ is a working class trope!” This sentence indicates that a good trope can pull the wool over our eyes.

This week, after finishing Philip Gourevitch’s excellent book about the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, I became engaged in a conversation with a knowledgeable friend on the subject of that country’s rebuilding. She knows her stuff, my friend, but her constant references to various African tropes – the tribal trope, the central-Africa-as-eternally violent morass trope – drove me to distraction. Just what the heck is a trope? I felt like the one dry body at the trope pool party.

I’d guess that trope has to do with an agreed-upon narrative, an archetypal reading of a story or situation according to the simplest and most widely-held beliefs, a kind of narrative stereotype. In journalism, the trope would appear to be a surface interpretation of words or events that skews away from a deeper understanding of the truth. Trope as I see and hear it used seems indicative of at best this sort of surface reading, and at worst a kind of falseness or even deliberate obfuscation by the invocation of the archetype. I think this is the meaning that my friend used when she talked about how the Rwanda narrative was often defined by western journalists according to a trope of simple tribal warfare – an idea that we can comprehend. But the trope steers us away from the truth of what actually happened.

The good people over at dictionary.com define trope as the following: “any literary or rhetorical device, as metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, and irony, that consists in the use of words in other than their literal sense.” Trope is closely related to metaphor or figure of speech. Seems deceptively simple, and I’m still dry.

At Wikipedia, I found a tidbit that’s closer to my understanding of how trope is used now. I found it under the entry for trope in literature: “Various scholars throughout history… have argued that a great deal of our conceptual experience, even the foundation of human consciousness, is based on figurative schemes of thought.” The writer also notes that “Tropes (in the sense of figures of speech) do not merely provide a way for us to talk about how we think, reason, and imagine, they are also constitutive of our experience.” Here the writer has footnoted a work by Raymond W. Gibbs, Jr. entitled “Process and Products in Making Sense of Tropes” from a collection called Metaphor and Thought. “In modern usage,” the entry concludes, “‘trope’ often means ‘a common or overused theme or device: cliche.’ [footnoted to the 2009 Merriam-Webster online dictionary] though [sic] it is important to differentiate between an overused theme/motif/figure of speech that has lost its meaning (Cliche) and a theme/motif/figure that is used excessively owing to its effectiveness.”

I ran my preoccupation with trope by the chief Millionaire, Max, and he steered me to a website, tvtropes.org. There they define tropes as “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” The site asserts that tropes are not really cliches, since cliches are by definition “trite” and what is trite is by and large not of any real interest. The site operates according to a Wiki-style open democracy. It contains a catalog of numerous tropes that pop up in the plots and visuals of TV shows and movies. There is some really interesting stuff here. It all hints at the idea that there are a limited number of story lines out there, or certain set ways that a story can be told. This is not necessarily a bad thing though. A chasm exists between trope in literature and trope in real life.

Some might even argue that any and every story is bound to adhere to certain lapidary parameters of narrative arc and character development. Anyone who has attempted to write a screenplay with the help of one or more of the numerous books on the subject know what I’m talking about. In my opinion, it’s a little deflating for the fiction writer to be confronted with the notion that the basic structural elements of a story have not been significantly improved upon since they were codified by Homer.

The ubiquity of trope in ideas writing these days can be explained by the memetic propagation of a cool word in the collective consciousness. This idea is a trope of sorts. And that’s the trick with trope: when you start thinking about it, not only is it everywhere, but it is, in fact, everywhere. As the Wiki excerpt above suggests, trope is one way in which we apply order and cohesion to the world. It’s history repeating itself. It’s why one story is a Greek tragedy, and another a Shakespearean romance.

Perhaps that’s why events like those that transpired in Rwanda in 1994 are so profoundly troubling. They have no precedent in our store of human narratives. There is an irony here, too. As trope takes over, we seem to be confronted by more and more happenings that flip the script. 9/11 is one example, as is Hurricane Katrina and its tragic aftermath. On the positive side, the election of Barack Obama was an unprecedented event, though that too can be couched in terms of a trope. The American Dream. Horatio Alger.

Trope helps us grasp inherent truths. Trope entertains us. And it helps us understand the greater narratives of our lives as individuals and members of a society. Turns out I was waist deep in the pool all along. But, as most usage of the word these days hints, trope is a trick. Easy explanations invite our skepticism.





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7 Responses to “Trope is the New Meme”

  1. Kim
    at 3:02 pm on July 17, 2009

    The problem with tropes, which you mentioned, is that they can lull us into categorizing the world/events rather than thinking about them. Thank you for pointing out recent events that don't quite fit the mold. It's very important the that trope be true, which it should be by definition, but much in life is open to manipulation.

  2. backlinks
    at 11:37 pm on July 18, 2009

    thanks for the post, ill be a regular from now on.

  3. Mark
    at 10:30 pm on June 16, 2010

    “…but much in life is open to *interpretation*.” My (possibly) less cynical perspective on Kim’s comment…

  4. Rico
    at 2:16 pm on September 28, 2011

    The word “trope” is simply being misused. It is not the new “meme”. It is a very old word, first used in it’s rhetorical context by Aristotle, but, as a word is much older. It comes from the Greek word τρόπος, meaning “turn”, which is itself a sort of wrestling move. Aristotle meant it to refer to a particular category of argumentation. Tropes (and their analogue, shemes) are subcategories of what now call figures of speech. For instance, the use of irony is a trope, as is metaphor or simile. A trope plays with the meanings of words. A pun is another kind of trope.

    A meme, on the other hand, is the repitition a particular idea through culture. Your article seems to be speaking exclusively about memes, but not tropes at all.

  5. Timhole
    at 10:31 pm on February 17, 2013

    I believe the term meme has also been hijacked as most people under the age of 25 don’t understand the meaning of the word beyond lolcats. While I appreciate internet memes, I don’t appreciate being told by a load of teenagers and basement dwellers that something “isn’t a meme” because it isn’t featured in over 9000 photoshopped gifs and posted all over Know Your Meme.

  6. Tropes vs. Women in Video Games | Now Read This
    at 12:17 pm on March 14, 2013

    [...] What’s a trope? Here’s a short answer. Here’s a longer one. [...]

  7. Trent
    at 9:50 am on September 29, 2013

    As a person whose reputation is based on both encyclopedic knowledge and a very broad vocabulary, I found the emergence in popular culture of both the words “meme” as well as “trope” to be extremely annoying, primarily due to the whole “I’m in the know, why aren’t you?” attitude of their users. You see, it used to be standard practice of both journalists and academics to define any and all newly-minted or rarely-used words when and as they were first used. However, sometime in the last quarter-century or so, the so-called intellectuals in our society have abandoned their eponymous role, and instead devolved into a balkanized array of “Mean Girl” cliques which use language to exclude, rather than help inform. This practice does not augur well for civilization!

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