Memes


octopusWhenever 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:

praying-mantis-cannabilism-eating-mate1) 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.

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image003In response to my post on individuals, Ian Bogost writes:

Perhaps I’m being naive, but I’m not sure the concept of the replicator is even necessary? Can’t the relations between type and instance, or instance and instance remain, or not, and still be explained via the same approach to relation that one would adopt for relations between yogurt tub and spoon, or alligator and television camera? It seems that there is a strong philosophical (as well as rhetorical) reason to avoid special cases.

An object like “soccer mom” is an object produced through what we might call “memesis” rather than “mimesis.” But once extent in a particular context, can’t its existence can remain flat without trouble? Again, perhaps I’m being dense here.

Incidentally, one of the reasons I use the word “unit” is because it avoids this whole business of explaining away the difference between real and incorporeal objects.

In a similar vein, Asher Kay writes:

LS – I understand now, but I’m not sure I agree. Mathematically, an identity could be viewed as referring to the same individual, so that saying “A=A” would be the same thing as saying “Bruno Latour = Bruno Latour”. This practice introduces some conceptual difficulties, but the formal systems still work fine.

On the other hand, the entities being identified could be seen as conceptual generalizations of the same sort as “soccer mom”. When I say “1″ mathematically, I could be referring only to a property that has no object attached to it. Cognitively, our minds are built to subtract out aspects of things just like we add things when we stick a horn on a horse to make a unicorn.

This is the area of OOO’s realism that is most difficult for me to grasp. Mathematics is a conceptual domain – meaning that it is restricted to certain obscure and dark corners of the material world. OOO seems to speak of concepts (including mathematical ones) as having the same sort of reality as what we’d call “physical objects”. I agree with this, but really only insofar as concepts are physical objects that happen to be very confusing to perceive.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I don’t see how mathematics is any more special ontologically than soccer moms.

I’m still working through these issues myself, so I don’t have any hard and fast position as of yet. I suppose one way of articulating what I’m trying to get at is by contrasting the position I’m experimenting with with that of Plato’s. In Plato, when speaking of things like numbers it’s necessary to distinguish three things. On the one hand there is the number itself. For example, there is the number “2”. On the other hand, there are inscriptions or signs standing for the number itself such as an inscription of the number 2 on a piece of paper, in the sand, on a neon sign, in a computer, in a speech-act, or in someone’s thought while doing mathematics. Finally there are things that are counted by the number itself. For example, I have two cats. Someone can eat two french fries. A group can celebrate two days a year. And so on. Drawing on Peirce’s triadic notion of the sign, we can thus distinguish between the sign-vehicle or number as inscribed on a piece of paper or as spoken in speech, the “interpretant” of the sign which is roughly analogous to Saussure’s signified and which in this case would be the number 2 itself, and finally the semiotic-object which is roughly analogous to the referent of the sign and which, in this case, would be the counted.

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soccer_momIn developing onticology or object-oriented ontology, one of the things I’ve been aiming at is what I call, following DeLanda, though developed in a different way, a flat ontology. A flat ontology is, to use a term my good friend Jerry the Anthropologist recently shared with me, a lumpy ontology. In referring to such an ontology as “lumpy”, I intend an ontology that is composed of a heterogeneity of different entities. As such, heterogenesis is one of the central questions of onticology. Heterogenesis is the question of how the disparate, the heterogeneous, enters into relations or imbroglios with one another to form a collective and a common. These imbroglios or collectives can be thought as logoi. Rather than a single logos for the world, we instead get islands of logoi where the organization governing these imbroglios are emergent results of ongoing heterogenesis.

The idea of a flat ontology can be fruitfully understood in contrast to materialisms. Where materialism posits a single type of entity– whatever that type might be –out of which all other entities are composed, a flat ontology is pluralistic, positing an infinite variety of different types of entities. Flat ontology does not reject the existence of material entities like quarks, atoms, and trees, but merely asserts that these aren’t the only types of entities that exist. Consequently, when onticology claims that “to be is to be an object”, this thesis is not equivalent to claiming that “to be is to be material”. A city is an object. Indeed, it is an object that contains a variety of other objects and that depends on a variety of other objects both in terms of its own endo-relational structure and its exo-relations to things outside its membrane. Nonetheless, were we to take an inventory of all the material objects included in the city we would not have the “city-ness of the city”. For all intents and purposes, nearly all the matter composing New Orleans remained after Hurricane Katrina, but it was a very different city after this event and its continued existence still remains in doubt.

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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?