Re: Blue tie

From: Dace (
Date: Fri 05 Dec 2003 - 17:59:32 GMT

  • Next message: Keith Henson: "Re: Blue tie"

    > From: "Danny Iny" <>
    > > Clearly, it's a meme. The question is when it became a meme, i.e., when
    > did
    > > it cease to depend on human sense for its replication? Certainly when
    > Bush
    > > began wearing it, it was not a meme. After all, he was the only one
    > > it, and to be a meme it must spread to at least one other person. But
    > that
    > > doesn't mean it automatically became a meme when Rove picked it up. As
    > long
    > > as people wore it for the perfectly sensible reason of getting on W.'s
    > good
    > > side, it transmitted through normal cultural means rather than
    > memetically.
    > > Only when people genuinely started to like it did it became a meme.
    > > Suddenly, it was "happening," and instead of choosing the tie, the tie
    > began
    > > choosing them. I'd say when the Queen showed up for her date with Bush
    > (who
    > > was wearing a white tuxedo) sporting a blue sash, we can pretty well
    > figure
    > > it's gone memetic. It had become a "thing," and naturally (as with the
    > > Beatles 40 years ago) she wanted in on it.
    > Could we be losing sight a little bit of what the theory of memetics is
    > As I understand it, the theory is useful because it helps us understand
    > cultural transmission of ideas (memes). Getting fiddly about when
    > exactly becomes a meme isn't that important (IMHO) because it stops
    > us understand cultural transmission, which is what it's about in the first
    > place. It's just like we talk about genes 'wanting' to replicate. It's
    > because it helps us understand natural selection, but only so long as in
    > back of our minds we remember that genes don't actually want anything.
    > as 'want' is the genetics shorthand for 'organisms whose genes meet these
    > qualifications will be more likely to survive and reproduce', the meme is
    > kind of shorthand to help us understand a semi-abstract concept.
    > Anyway, that's my two cents. If I'm way off base then please correct me.
    > Danny

    Hi Danny,

    Thanks for the response. While I wouldn't say you're way off base here, there is a crucial error in your analysis. Memes cannot simply be equated with ideas. The transmission of ideas is not the same as the transmission of memes. The difference is that ideas are intentionally transmitted according to human logic. Memes, by contrast, are ideas that transmit according to their own logic. It's a question of agency. Ordinarily, humans have agency (the power of determination) over our actions. I determine to transmit an idea to you, and it appeals to you or fails to appeal to you on the basis of your belief system and your power of reason. An idea becomes a meme only when agency is transfered from the person holding the idea to the idea itself. I become the vehicle by which the meme transmits itself, like a virus, to you, and it appeals to you, not on the basis of your power of reason, but on the basis of its own "catchiness" or virulence.

    To deny that memes self-replicate is to deny memetics. If memes passively replicate, then there's simply no reason for the term to exist, and we might as well refer to all ideas as "ideas" and leave it at that. It's only insofar as ideas can take on their own agency that memetics is a legitimate field of study.

    Unfrotunately, memetics is bifurcated between people who think it's the answer to all questions related to cultural transmission vs. people who think it's an overhyped pseudoscience. In order to stake a middle ground and establish memetics as a serious science that appeals to more than just a handful of true believers, it's imperative that we define not only what a meme is but what it is not. It's not a substitute term for idea, and it doesn't explain culture from top to bottom. Memetics has a certain place in the study of culture, and until that place has been clearly delimited, it will not be taken seriously by the larger, intellectual community.

    Ted Dace

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