Re: I know one when I see one

From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Thu 24 Oct 2002 - 21:46:23 GMT

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    >Dear Grant,
    > > Would you say the term "couch potato" is an example of a meme
    > > that propagated itself?
    >It is a meme, but it does not propagate itself.
    > > Words are not memes themselves because they can mean anything depending
    > > the circumstances in which they are received. They carry information but
    > > not the information being carried.
    >I agree, but the information they carry (metaphorically) is not the only
    >information they possess. They also have structural information. If you
    >define a meme as information, that information is sufficient. I will
    >post more about "lex-memes" soon. :-)
    >In any event, in the context of "I know one when I see one", you do not
    >have do define memes to include words. It is enough to identify memes by
    >words. I suspect that you are denying that, but I am not sure. Would you
    >say that each word *sense* is sufficient to identify a meme?

    I'm not really denying anything at this stage. I'm just questioning assumptions. Sort of wrestling with myself in a public forum. No mud involved. I think words DO identify memes and are at least the carriers of memes, as are actions and physical artifacts such as paintings, statues, buildings, tools, machines, etc., etc. A sharp engineer can look at a machine and see how it was constructed. In The Soul of a New Machine, the author talks about a computer engineer who sneaks into another company's workshop and takes a quick look at the machine they were working on. From that one quick look he was able to go to his own shop and build a similar machine.

    They say Tai Chi Chuan was given to the world by a young man who sneaked over the wall of the only master of the art and watched him go through the whole hour-long routine. He is said to have immediately grasped the essence and usefulness of what the master was doing and soon worked out his own routine based on what he saw. It may just be hearsay, but it illustrates the idea of meme through imitation. I call that a meme transferred by action.

    I'm split on where the meme actually lies. Is it when a person sees something and gets meaning out of it or is it when the person he/she gets it from turns it into a word, action or object that a person can take the information from? Is the meme the information or the thought, word, action or object?

    Take language, for example. I get an idea about something such as what a meme is. I take that idea and put it into words. The words, however, are limited in their capability to express the full extent of what I was thinking. What my words carry are an approximation of my thoughts. The person who hears my words uses them to form a picture in his own mind based on his past experience with the meaning of the words I used. What he/she forms in his/her mind as a result of hearing my words may be a far cry from what my words were crafted to convey. So what was it that was transferred?

    Language, as you said above, is a great deal more than mere words. Spoken language includes pauses and emphasis and tone. English speakers use tone to mark breaks in sentence structure while in Chinese it marks the difference in meaning between homophones. In the process of crafting a sentence out of the materials available to me in the theater of my mouth, augmented by my tongue, teeth and larynix, I rely on a cultural history of such usage that has been passed down from person to person for milliniums.

    Written language is just a poor attempt to duplicate the tools that have been honed in generations of mouths. The letters, inherited from speakers of Latin, represent, poorly, the sounds of the English language. We have turned the pauses between phrases into commas (one beat), semicolons (two beats), periods (four beats). Question marks tell us to raise our voice at the end of a sentence, while commas tell us to keep the voice high and level. An exclamation mark tells the reader the word before it has emotional expression. Changes in tone and pauses between words, therefore, carry meaning and have been passed between members of a culture and are, in some way, memetic in nature.

    There are other memetic features to language that I could go into but this is getting too long and drawn out already. But my point is that it is a method of transferring thoughts out of my head into yours. What I'm grappling with is the question of whether the meme lies in the process or just in elements of the process? Many of the people on this list want to break the process into its elements and refer to one or another of those elements as the meme. I have been guilty of this myself. But the more I wrestle with what I see going on, the less sure I am that anything less than the entire process makes sense as a unit of culture passed.

    What do you think?


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