Re: memes in literature

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Thu 24 Jun 2004 - 02:25:11 GMT

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    At 10:16 AM 23/06/04 -0500, you wrote:
    >Here's a little background on my interest in memetics. Any suggestions,
    >comments, questions, cautions are welcome.
    >My interest in memetics started with reading Dawkins and Dennett. I've
    >read (and reread) Blackmore's _The_Meme_Machine_.
    >I write poetry and teach writing and literature. I introduced the
    >concept of memes in Fantasy Literature this past semester. I'm also an
    >advocate of naturalizing the ghazal as a form of poetry in English.
    >I have in mind several things. First, I simply want to understand
    >memetics better.

    I would not get in too much of a sweat over defining memes. I can live with most of the definitions that are out there on the web. For short ones, "an element of culture" and "replicating information pattern" work fine.

    >Then, I want to see if memetics has any value in
    >literary studies. (I'm sure it does; I'm just not sure I'm the one
    >who can develop it.) Along those lines, it seems to me that literary
    >forms (the ghazal for instance, or the sonnet or haiku) can be seen as

    Even for someone who takes a wide view of memetics, this gets a bit sticky because of the multiple levels involved. There is repeated behavior in writing haiku since it requires the 5 7 5 syllable pattern. I think Hud Nordin wrote a program that outputs haiku from a random number generator working on lists of words that include the numbers of syllables for each, but he might do it by hand. In spite of knowing Hud for a number of years, I never actually asked him.

    So writing haiku is an element of culture just like that of chipping out a hand ax. Every haiku is different, every ax is different, but they are recognized as being the output from a learned human behavior. A particular haiku, if it is replicated to people beyond the person who first put it together, is also a meme. In English at least I suspect that few haiku survived to become parts of our culture, though the situation may be different in Japan.

    Mechanically the sonnet is as ridged as haiku. (300,000 written in the 16th century? Amazing.) Other than being in couplets, the ghazal seems to be a good deal more flexible. Different enough to be split off from poetry in general? Your call. (My closest brush with poetry came from helping my Mom write funny doggerel.)

    >And last, it should be possible to use memetics as a framework
    >for discussing specific works of literature.

    I think the concept of memetics is critical, especially when you are talking about evolving trends in literature. But after more than ten years of thinking about memetics, I concluded that the study area is just to small and simple to make a lot of progress understanding the interesting subjects such as *why* some kinds of literature are wildly successful and others just don't connect.

    I still can't tell you some particular work is going to be a success or not, but if there is an answer it is going to come from evolutionary psychology or studies amounting to the same thing. For example: [From another list]

    1) Humans have a species-wide sense of "moral" including behavior.

    2) We got this psychological trait the same way we got everything else, evolution, with all that implies particularly Hamilton's inclusive fitness.

    3) If you consider particular aspects of this psychological trait, what is considered moral is that which improves genetic survival or did in the EES.

    4) "Improves genetic survival" has many levels, from an individual to the whole species, with a penumbra that reaches out to the whole biosphere our species is dependant upon.

    5) Because "moral" depends on the level and the local viewpoint, "moral" behavior includes up to humans killing each other in times of resource crunch.

    [Sheesh. Book outline material]

    What elements of culture survive depends on the environment of human minds, with these stone age psychological traits. Memes with the "right stuff" to propagate become more common. We seldom hear of the ones that don't.

    >Fiction depicting inventions is a clear example. Last Spring, I used
    >memetics in discussing the material and social inventions in
    >_Water_Ship_Down_ (Richard Adams) and _Small_Gods (Terry Pratchett).
    >The students were responive and seemed to find the concept meaningful
    >and usable. I'm hoping for a paper out of this material.

    Most younger people don't have a problem with the concept. Why would be a good research question.

    I would very much like to see your paper on this experience.

    Keith Henson

    >Gene Doty
    >This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    >Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    >For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)

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