Re: memes in literature

From: Gene Doty (
Date: Sun 27 Jun 2004 - 16:20:44 GMT

  • Next message: Gene Doty: "Re: memes in literature"

    Keith Henson wrote:
    > At 10:16 AM 23/06/04 -0500, you wrote:
    >> 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.

    This is good news. However, isn't an objection to the concept that it is so fuzzy?

    >> 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
    >> memes.
    > 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.

    One problem is the proliferation of subcultures in the US. There's a large haiku community that has few overlaps with the more general poetry world. There are some haiku that are well-know, both native to English and translated from Japanese. For instance, Basho's famous "frog" haiku is so successful a meme as to show up in many contexts (not that I have collected them). Here's composite of translations I remember:
            old pond
            a frog jumps in

    There's a book discussing haiku that presents at least 100 translations of this poem.
    > 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.)
    The ghazal-meme is still under discussion (not to say argument). The form in the Asian languages is quite complex and some feel English ghazals must fulfill all the formal prescriptions. I publish a web zine devoted to ghazals as an English form and get some unhappy e-mail from purists over some of the the more remote "ghazals" I publish. The url is I use the name "Gino Peregrini" there.

    >> 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.

    One concern I have is what is the value of using memetics as a framework rather than traditional genre studies, studies of the reception of a work, and a host of other approaches. And the "why" is pretty slippery. Writers can be wildly successful while alive, then forgotten after their death, then rediscovered and celebrated, then denigrated, and so on. I think "success" has to be defined within a specific time-frame.

    > 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]

    I like this list. But I'm not clear on how genetic survival and memetic survival relate to each other. The Nazi memeplex was very destructive of its German hosts, for instance. It does survive in fringe groups, of course.

    > 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.

    Or the ones that destroy their hosts?
    >> 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 had expected some resistance from students to the Darwinian flavor of memetics. I haven't read the anonymous end-of-semester yet, but unless there's something in them, I got no resistance in class. And the class had several students in it unafraid to speak their minds.
    > I would very much like to see your paper on this experience.
    > Keith Henson

    Thanks. The paper is still a ways off. I do have the handout material I prepared for the class if you're interested in seeing it. It's in PDF documents that I posted online for students to download and does rely somewhat on class discussion.


    Gene Doty
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