Doyle has a nice post up on memes as abstract objects. Zeroing in on my thesis that the concept of memes is thoroughly Aristotlean, he carefully argues that the ideality of memes is not of the Platonic essentialist sort, but rather that of abstract objects that can simultaneously be embodied in a variety of media simultaneously. The point here is ontological. In a very crude nutshell, the difference between Aristotle and Plato is that for the former we have the autonomous existence of universals that exist independent of physical individuals, whereas for Aristotle only primary substances or individuals exist, while nonetheless these individuals possess pattern or structure. In the former we have two distinct ontological realms (universals and individuals), whereas in the latter we have only one flat realm consisting of individuals. Following Badiou, we can thus speak of philosophies having either a Platonic or Aristotlean inspiration. In other words, do you advocate the thesis that types are somehow more real than individuals? Do you believe that there is a problem of scheme and content or type and token? If so, then you advocate a philosophy that is of Platonic inspiration. By contrast, if you endorse the thesis that only individuals exist, you advocate a philosophy of Aristotlean inspiration.

When I say memes are ideal, all I mean is that they can be replicated or copied. Another way of putting this would be to say that they are substrate neutral. Not only can a meme be copied into a number of different media (paper, brains, computer programs, CDs and so on), but they can exist simultaneously in a number of places at once. We thus get variations as a function of the different media, yet the patter remains the same. The obvious example here is Beethoven’s 9th in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (oddly my mother used to baby sit for the author of the novel):

Meme theory is sometimes criticized on the grounds that we have no way of identifying memes. This strikes me as a completely bizarre claim. On the one hand, we have Saussure claiming that signifiers are, strictly speaking, ideal entities that cannot be equated with their performance. Derrida makes much of this in Speech and Phenomena, “Differance”, and Of Grammatology. On the other hand we have Levi-Strauss, who, as my mentor Adrian Pepperzak who studied under him liked to say, showed that all myths, no matter how geographically unrelated, say the same thing. This is the basic idea behind French inflected structuralism: sameness of pattern behind variation. While I certainly don’t agree with Levi-Strauss’ thesis of a “deep structure” behind the phenotypes of myth, the point is that the structuralists are making essentially the same claim about pattern replication (the major difference being that Levi-Strauss apparently thought that these structures were already embedded universally in mind).

What fascinates me about meme theory is not so much the idea of memes themselves (we already get all of that, and much better developed and theorized, from semiotics), but rather the idea of fitness-landscapes and selection processes of memes. In other words, what is it that accounts for the success of one meme-complex and not another? Why are the memes of oral culture primarily narrative and rhythmic in character? What are the conditions under which a new technology can emerge? Why does Lucretius, for example, suddenly begin to resonate during the Renaissance, whereas all copies of De Rerum Natura had been almost entirely destroyed during the Middle Ages? The issue is one of resonance. How is it that certain signs come to resonate, whereas others don’t? Why, for example, does Nicole Kidman’s remark about the sailor have such a profound effect on Tom Cruise’s character in Eyes Wide Shut?

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