Just a quick note before I get down to grading. In response to my post on the game of life, Carl writes:

I’m not sure I’m on board with this:

[O]ne of the reasons I find the ideas so attractive is precisely that meme theory treats signs as objects. Rather than treating signs as mere representations of something else, meme theory treats signs themselves as objective reality. So unlike common views of language where you have one thing, the world of objects, and another things, the world of signs representing objects, in meme theory you have one flat plane where there are physical objects and signs as well.

Well, other than getting to call things ‘objects’ rather than calling things things, what’s the advantage here? I see that we clean out the mediating discourse of ‘representation’, but if the ’signifier’ kind of object doesn’t occur without the ’sign’ kind, and neither occurs without the ’signified’ kind, isn’t there an important and realistic claim about the nature of those objectivities embedded in the idea of representation that is simply obscured by flattening the ontology?

I’m still working out how far I’m willing to go with the whole treatment of signs as objects move as things get complicated very quickly. This was a move that Dan recently proposed in comments, and which I’ve been pushing for quite some time under the mantra that language is not simply about something, but also is something. This move could be called, in honor of Freud, the “psychotic move”, for as Freud observed in his essay “The Unconscious”, schizophrenics treat words as things. Under this model, signs would not be representations of things, but rather would enter into relations with or assemblages with things. This might nicely account for the fluidity of reference in a number of respects. Part of this move follows from a self-reflexive demand of my own philosophy. Insofar as I’m trying to break down the whole distinction between nature and mind that’s vexed philosophy since the 17th century, this leads to the conclusion that any philosophy (or other cultural artifacts) is itself an assemblage of objects. The question then becomes that of determining what sorts of peculiar objects signs are and how these function.

I suspect that anthropologists– and I feel very bad about my recent exchange with Jerry –are critical of memes for the same reason that I was critical of memes when I first encountered the theory about five years ago: Here we have these undereducated cowboys claiming to have discovered a whole new realm of investigation– memes –when we have had semiotics and linguistics for decades now. When you read Dawkins and Dennett on memes you get the sense that they are reinventing the wheel, and in a number of instances poorly. Dawkins baldly admits somewhere or other that he doesn’t know enough about the social sciences, linguistics, and cultural theory to know how well his theory resonates with their findings. In a number of respects, I think the meme theorist stands to learn far more from the semiotician (and cultural theorists like the anthropologist) than the semiotician has to learn from the meme theorist.

read on!

Nonetheless, I do think that the concept of memes draws our attention to three very important features of signs that are often overlooked. First, I very much appreciate the manner in which meme theorists treat signs as material realities. This is already something that was implied by structural linguistics, where the signifier had a certain materiality to it. It is underlined even more in Derrida’s deconstruction of the opposition between speech and writing, and truly brought home in Lacan’s later account of the letter and writing as opposed to the signifier. Nonetheless, I believe this materiality really gets brought into relief in meme theory. Although the meme theorist is agreed with the semiotician in claiming that memes are ideal entities, memes/signs are ideal entities in the sense that DNA is an ideal entity. DNA is an ideal entity in the sense that it is a pattern that can be copied or replicated so there’s a very real sense in which it persists regardless of what it’s copied into. However, while it is an ideal entity it must nonetheless be embodied in some form of material. In this respect, the materiality of the signifier, DNA, and memes is thoroughly Aristotlean rather than Platonic. That is, it is ideal but in such a way that it must always be embodied in a primary substance. Similarly in the case of memes. Memes are ideal patterns but are nonetheless always embodied in some material medium whether this be brains, sound-waves, paper, clay, the wood of my desk, electronic pulses, zeros and ones, etc. Although this point seems slight, I believe it is filled with all sorts of profound consequences. For example, just as the bricoleur must contend with the singularities embodied in the material with which she works, patterns are modified and transformed depending on the media in which they are embodied. This is what McLuhan investigated to such brilliant effect. At the very least it entails that signs are constrained by the rate at which information can be transferred or replicated, the upper limit being the speed of light, but there also being all sorts of speeds in between from the slowest to the fastest depending on the form of social organization in which the signs are being replicated, the concrete living arrangements (city, rural, informatic, etc), and so on.

Second, I think meme theory draws attention to the replication of signs throughout the world in a way that sometimes gets ignored by more interpretively driven approaches to signs. As a historian and a Gramscian to boot, I’m sure Carl can appreciate this. As we move from the Middle Ages to the Renaissance to the Enlightenment, we have the emergence of certain memes, but this emergence has a frequency that can be described in terms of populations. Just as we can describe a particular species as rare and bordering on extinction, we can talk about how signs pass from the rare to the ubiquitous and examine the manner in which this takes place. Because memes or signs must be replicated and embodied in a physical medium, we get all sorts of questions about how this replication takes place and what enabled it. In many respects, I think this is precisely the sort of issue Badiou is working on with his account of truth-procedures. The subject in the grips of a truth-procedure is a subject that is seeding the social world in which he is embedded with a new set of memes, gradually transforming the organization of that field of signs.

Third, I think mimetic theory has made a significant contribution to semiotics by situating signs in terms of questions about fitness-landscapes. I am perpetually fascinated by questions of why certain signs come to resonate or replicate at a particular point in history and why at other times they do not. This, I think, can be tracked according to two axes. On the one hand, coming from the perspective of media and technology studies, we can explore the manner in which media functions to constrain and enable the replication of particular types of signs. When I refer to “media” I am referring to the medium in which signs are embodied. Thus, for example, in oral cultures you get very real constraints as a result of the medium of speech. If, in transmitting signs, oral cultures tend towards narrative or stories and rhythmic, song-like modes of composition, then this is because cognitively these sorts of patterns are more susceptible to being remembered. This can be witnessed among very young children that can memorize an entire Dr. Seuss story precisely because its narrative structure and rhyme scheme. Here the medium defines, in part, a fitness-landscape that is not very congenial to, for example, a thought or meme like Hegel’s Science of Logic. On the other hand, we get fitness landscapes defined by relations among memes themselves. What is it, for example, that makes the current fitness-landscape of memes in the United States particularly inhospitable to memes pertaining to socialism and Marxist thought? Where are the reigning assemblages that make it so difficult for these memes to replicate and spread throughout the social world? What sorts of strategies can be devised to change this? And so on?

At any rate, all of these are points about materiality. Treating signs as objects helps draw attention to the material embodiment of signs and the role this plays in proliferating signs.