Whenever the concept of memes comes up it seems that people get really incensed. I’m baffled by this reaction. What is it about this concept that gets folks so worked up? I certainly understand the point that meme theory is underdeveloped, but this is a call for theoretical elaboration and development, not outright rejection. I get the sense that memes get some worked up for one of two reasons. On the one hand, I sometimes sense that hostility to the concept of memes is really driven by disciplinary territory disputes. Here you have the upstarts like Dawkins and Dennett come along, spout the word “memes”, and suddenly everyone yahoo that knows nothing about social theory or the broad and deep discipline of semiotics gets all excited. I wonder whether there isn’t a little of resentment and envy at work here. On the other hand, I get the sense that some associate memes with socio- and psychobiology (more on this in a moment).
From the standpoint of object-oriented ontology, I find meme theory extremely attractive precisely because meme theory treats memes as real objects or actors in the world. Here, more specifically, are the reasons that I find memes attractive:
1) Far from falling into vulgar socio- and psychobiology, meme theory allows us to tell a far more complex story about human beings and behavior. The central thesis of meme theory is that at some point in human biological history a new type of replicator emerged in contrast to gene replicators. Genes are replicators in the sense that they are units of some sort that get copied or replicated through reproduction. Under Dawkin’s formulation, at least, the “aim” of genes is not the advantage of the organism, but to get themselves copied through reproduction. In this respect, genes construct vehicles (bodies, organisms) as strategies for getting themselves replicated.
Just as we do not act primarily for the welfare of our cars but use cars for our own aims, genes aren’t primarily “interested” in the welfare of bodies or organisms. This comes out with special clarity in the case of the preying mantis, but also my favorite animal, the octopus. In the case of the preying mantis, of course, the female devours the male preying mantis’s head after mating with him. In contributing half his genes the male has done his work. His sole value after mating consists in contributing nutrients to the impregnated preying mantis. Moreover, were the male to go his happy way after mating he might mate with other females, generating dangerous competitors to the offspring of his first mate. Cruel world. The case is similar with the octopus. After the female octopus is impregnated she finds a well protected cave or pipe and lays her eggs around the mouth of the cave opening. For the next few weeks after laying her eggs she never again leaves the cave, but rather spends all of her time jetting water over the egg sacks hanging from the cave opening and cleaning the eggs with her tentacles. Once the eggs hatch the female octopus is free to leave the cave, but at this point she is so weakened from lack of food (she hasn’t hunted during this whole time) and is very quickly, and somewhat ironically, devoured by the fish and crabs that she previously feasted upon. Once again, the genes of the female octopus were not acting on her behalf, but rather she was a vehicle or strategy for getting her genes replicated. When that replication is complete her job is done. Cruel world.
With the emergence of memes a new replicator enters the world, very different from genes. Memes or cultural ideas, symbols, and practices, are like genes in that they aim to get themselves replicated, however as unique replicators they do not act at the behest of genes. In other words, we now get what could be called a “conflict of the replicators”. Genes can struggle with memes. Memes can struggle with genes. Memes and genes can collaborate with one another. However, like all alliances, a collaboration of memes and genes is a temporary strategy to advance the replication of genes and the replication of the memes that can be dissolved when this relationship no longer advances one or the other. It is even feasible that memes, at some point, could dispense with genes altogether if they find new and more effective ways to replicate themselves, no longer requiring organic bodies like brains to be passed along. This, for example, is what is depicted in films like Terminator or The Matrix where the machines (and machines are memes) have been liberated from human bodies and strive to replicate themselves apart from humans.
The key point is that with memes new relationships to the world and biology emerge. Thus when a soldier dies in battle while storming the beach at Normandy, this soldier has died so that certain memes might be replicated, not for the sake of his genes. When someone practices abstinence before marriage, they are acting on behalf of memes, not genes. These new objects or actors, memes, fundamentally change how we relate to ourselves, our biology, and memes. Indeed, in a theorization worthy of Lacan or Freud, Dennett compares memes to foreign and alien entities that come to infest our brains, creating persons, where persons are what emerge as a sort of conflict between our biology or genes and these units of culture. It is not difficult to discern something akin to Lacan’s parasitic and alien signifiers that so transform our relation to our bodies and the world in this concept of memes.
The problem with so much socio- and psychobiology is that it is greedily reductive. Not only do these explanations all too often seek a biological explanation of every and any human behavior, but these sorts of explanations also often make an illicit move from the “is” to the “ought”, jumping from the observation that because our genes promote a certain behavior we ought to engage in that sort of behavior. The silliness of this argument can be discerned when we talk about things like poor eyesight. Does anyone dispute that because some people are near-sighted they ought not correct their vision through a memetic technology like eyeglasses, contacts, or corrective surgery? Because memes are autonomous replicators, they introduce all sorts of things into human behavior that cannot be reduced to biology or given a biological explanation. In short, the concept of memes curbs the worst excesses of socio- and psychobiology while nonetheless allowing us to think the intersection of biology and these units of cultural meaning without rejecting one or the other as so often happens in positions driven by the nature/culture divide (i.e., where we’re required to choose either nature or culture, rather than thinking the complex relations between these terms in a collective).
2. Memes, by adding the mechanism of natural selection to the mix, give us the means to think cultural evolution or the invention of new memes. For a number of years I was obsessed with semiotics and semiology, as well as structural linguistics. One thing I always had difficulty understanding– and it’s a tremendously important issue for me –is how change takes place in systems of signs or in structures of signifiers. I simply never encountered what I took to be a plausible account of why change takes place in culture or language. Meme theory provides a nice working hypothesis for the genesis of change by introducing the concept of natural selection. It’s worth remembering that natural selection is a relational concept involving a relation between random variations, units, heredity, and an environment. You need these four elements for the algorithms of natural selection to get off the ground. Thus, for example, random variation produces certain differences. Some of these differences are advantageous and enhance the possibilities of surviving long enough to get reproduced, while others are not. The advantage is determined by a relation to an environment. Thus, having white hair is an advantage for a bear in an arctic environment with lots of snow, but probably isn’t much of an advantage in a Brazilian rain forest. It is less likely that the gene for white hair would be passed on in the rain forest because prey would more easily see the bear, would be more likely to run away, the bear would thus get less food and would therefore be less healthy and likely to mate. Just the reverse in an arctic environment. The point is that what counts as an advantageous difference is relational or a function of the relation between the organism and its environment.
The problem with structuralist linguistics, for example, is that it brackets anything outside of language when analyzing language and therefore is denied any sort of mechanism that could explain either 1) where random variations in language come from, and 2) how different variations are selected for. Meme theory does not have this problem. Recall that for memes, like genes, the “aim” is not the welfare of the person using or thinking the meme, but rather the replication of itself. Some memes are downright detrimental to us, but get replicated nonetheless for whatever reason. Other memes are irritating and don’t really have any use, but are very good at getting replicated. Here I think of Bobby McFerrin’s song Don’t Worry, Be Happy:
Back when this song was first released I remember that my first reaction was a sense of euphoric pleasure that was then accompanied by a sort of horror or profound irritation. Why? Despite being “catchy” (note the word “catchy”), once you heard the song a couple of times you just couldn’t get the damned thing out of your head. You were infected with it and found it running through your mind over and over again, trapping you in its grip. McFerrin’s song was an exceptionally good replicator, highly adept at getting itself copied and passed on. But why?
There are more or less four relevant environments that play a role in the selective processes of memes. First, so far, of course, the primary environment of memes is the brain. To date, the successful reproduction of a meme requires that the meme be consistent with the “architecture” of the brain. If certain memes are particularly “catchy”, then this is because they have evolved in such a way that they are congenial to the structure of the brain. Something about the rhythm of McFerrin’s song stimulates pleasure and memory aspects of the brain. Beer brands and cars often use sex to sell their product, stimulating the hypothalamus and whatnot. Nationalism is a pernicious meme that uses narcissism, resentment, and our desire for superiority to get itself replicated. My three year old daughter has entire Dr. Seuss stories like Green Eggs and Ham memorized. No doubt the reason these memes or stories have lodged themselves so deeply in her mind has to do with their rhythmic, poetic quality and their plot structure. It is easier to remember something with a rhythm than a complex geometrical proof, and it is easier to remember something with a plot and characters than all the details of Husserl’s Logical Investigation. In this respect, we can think of memes as strategies for seducing brains. Some memes get themselves replicated by being useful for the organisms that host them. Others get themselves replicated by playing on the architecture of our brains in rhythmic and imagistic terms. Yet others get themselves replicated by playing on our worst characteristics such as envy, hatred, narcissism, and so on.
Notice that the principle of parity or reversibility works here as well. It is not simply that memes must adapt to the brain as an environment, but it is highly likely that in the 200,000 years or so that homo sapiens have been around our biology has, in fact, been modified as a result of memes. Insofar as memes are selective pressures in the environment of genes, it is likely that some genes are better fitted to life with memes than others. Here a word about “adaptation” is in order. When Van Haute, in his study of Lacan’s “Subversion of the Subject” and 5th and 6th seminar entitles his book Against Adaptation, he seems to be working on the premise that adaptation means “well fitted to an environment”. This ignores the fact that 1) environments are ever shifting, and 2) that organisms are strategies (wagers) for navigating a particular environment premised on the stability of how time is structured. The point here is that no organism is entirely fitted to its environment and that every relationship between an organism and its environment is fraught. This is especially the case with the relationship between genes and memes. This relationship is hardly peaceful or congenial, is riven by conflict and competition, and is always an uneasy alliance. In emphasizing that memes are autonomous replicators in their own right, in undermining the socio- and psychobiological thesis that everything we do is at the behest of our genes or biology, meme theory sheds light on this fraught relationship in a way, I believe, that any Lacanian can wholeheartedly endorse. It really doesn’t take much work to port Lacanian psychoanalysis into meme theory or meme theory into Lacanian psychoanalysis.
Brains also play a significant role in the random variations undergone by memes. Where genes tend to more or less maintain their structure across time, brains have the curious ability to combine memes in a sort of alchemy or chemism that produces changes very quickly. Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake or Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland combines units of language in all sorts of surprising ways that create entirely new terms or memes. Upon encountering spray perfume bottles the inventor of the fuel injected engine gets the bright idea of using a mechanism similar to the perfume spray bottle to spray gasoline in a controlled manner, and so on. Consequently, like the game of telephone, the meme undergoes greater or lesser variations with each exchange.
But brains alone are not the sole environment of memes. Technology, which is itself a meme, plays a crucial role in which memes have an advantage and which memes do not. It is difficult, for example, for memes like physics, chemistry, philosophy, high order mathematics, and so on to get a foothold in a culture that lacks writing. Here we get at what McLuhan might have had in mind when he declared that “the medium is the message”. The medium– in this case the technology through which memes are transmitted –plays an important role in what memes have a real chance of getting passed on and what memes have a highly diminished chance of getting passed on. It is very difficult to keep a dialogue like Plato’s Sophist or a series of lectures like Aristotle’s Metaphysics in ones mind, but not at all daunting to memorize all of the Illiad. For most of us the idea of memorizing all the details of Euclid’s Elements or Newton’s Principia is unthinkable. Consequently, the technology by which memes are transmitted is not simply a passive tool or vehicle but actually changes selection pressures on memes or units of culture meaning. Not only can technologies intensify the rate at which memes are transmitted in the case of having good highways allowing people to travel and therefore exchange memes or in the case of the internet, but the medium itself contributes to the sorts of memes that are possible or not possible. For example, contemporary computers are today rendering forms of mathematics possible that were unthinkable prior to the advent of the computer.
Third, the natural environment is also a selective mechanism. Thus if a group of people live in an extremely remote area of the world such as Southwest Alaska, it is likely that “memetic drift” or change will be very slow. In a large city with lots of ports, memetic drift is highly accelerated.
Finally fourth, just as organisms are selective pressures for other organisms, other memes are selective pressures for new memes. Memes belong to the environment of other memes. Thus memes can form vast symbiotic webs of interdependency like natural ecosystems where memes rely on one another in systems or networks to persist. This is the case with interdependencies of various technologies, or the manner in which our current world is largely structured by the dynamics of capital which reaches into every aspect of our lives, structuring it in a variety of highly durable ways. Similarly, the memes of one semiotic ecosystem or semiosphere can create a highly inhospitable place for other memes just as the Brazilian rain forest isn’t particularly hospitable for the polar bear. This would be the case with the memes for socialism in the United States. And indeed, among the various symbiots that inhabit the semiosphere, there are all sorts of forms of “meme warfare” where certain networks of memes strive to neutralize other networks of memes.
3. Meme theory renders memes “geographical”. In its emphasis on replication, copying, or iteration meme theory draws attention to the epidemiology of memes through a population of brains. Just as you can’t run Word for Windows on your Atari, people need to be hosts for memes in order to have certain ideas, engage in certain practices, and so on. Let us call the error of ignoring memetic epidemiology “The Bush Administration Fallacy”. The Bush administration had the idea that everyone innately and naturally has certain ideas and that it is sufficient simply to remove certain obstacles to actualize these ideas in a population. But like the Atari that can’t run Word for Windows, it is very difficult for populations of people to enact certain practices if they don’t have certain memes.
Generally when we think of meaning we think of it as something that doesn’t have a geography or that isn’t located in time and space. No doubt this error emerges as a result of certain confusions surrounding the iterability of memes giving the illusion that memes aren’t localized in space and time. But insofar as memes must spread, insofar as they must be copied, memes have a geography or a geographical distribution which is, in principle, mappable. Indeed, this is part of what the ethnographer does implicitly when she does field work, investigating the unique practices, technologies, laws, morals, cosmologies, economies, etc., of a particular group of people.
By de-emphasizing– but by no means dismissing or ignoring –the content of memes and drawing attention to the geographical distribution of memes, memetic theory suggests an ethics of repetition. You might think that you have no new ideas, that you are simply repeating what others are saying, and perhaps you are. But in refusing to repeat because you have nothing new to say you are forgetting the dimension of epidemiology or the spread of memes throughout a population. While you might have nothing new to say you can nonetheless play a role in the spread of ideas and practices worth fighting for and sharing. Moreover, as I have already suggested, memes have a strange alchemy that leads them to combine in surprising ways with other memes when they enter your brain and the brains of other people. So repeat a little. Value repetition a bit more. Transmit.