Re: "Abstract" Memes?

From: Douglas Brooker (
Date: Wed 30 Nov 2005 - 16:10:40 GMT

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    Davi Johnson wrote:

    >>>relatively enduring concepts/terms/ideologies
    >>>like "equality" or "liberty" also memetic,
    >>Ask yourself, are they information? Do they replicate? Do
    >they influence
    >>human behavior?
    >That is largely my question: ARE they information (and in
    >what sense)? Because it seems that something like "equality"
    >is very polysemous, and that enhances its longevity. It is
    >attractive to people because its meaning seems so grounded,
    >or evident, but it tends to get deployed with very different
    >connotations and effects. So my difficulty is trying to
    >think _what_ about equality is memetic (or what defines
    >equality as a meme): is it the term itself, and its
    >replication is enhanced by this perceived universality of
    >meaning? Or is it something about the information it
    >embodies. And if the latter is the case (which seems more in
    >line with memetics, to my understanding), how to pinpoint
    >the "essence" of the meme, given its variable usage
    >throughout history and across contexts.
    It seems that they are information - a very large amount of information, but the question remains, how does a memetic analysis gather data about this information and what then does it do with it, how does it organise it.

    The difficulty seems to be ascertaining what 'essence' is, in a memetic context, that is unique from ordinary understanding that can be acquired by looking at the historical and contextual information about the term a detailed linguistic analysis might reveal. So far, I've not seen any useful general perspective provided by memetics on this front. What I am looking for is some precise, uniquely memetic measure of the evolution, that can be used not only for a single term, but for other terms and phenomena.

    For words like 'equality', one alternative starting point, as hoary as it may be, is Gallies' 'essentially contested concept'. This seems to work best just as a point of departure. Adopting this outlook suggests becoming once removed from direct participation in the propagation of the semantic content of the term. Ecc is about the social structure of words in action: commonality (use of the term) encompassing disagreement about specific meaning. Where's the memetic essence here?

    Terms like 'equality' may have an iconic status in some societies, which gives them a leg-up on replication, for a time at least. One might think the iconic status is also a part of the term's essence, it's
    'buzz'. But legal terms like 'due process' 'natural justice' and 'le principe de la contradiction' however iconic they may be, have evolving legal meanings, so the circumstances (and possibility) of evolution may be a part of its essence that affects iconic status.

    The iconic status is not a constant. 'Due process' 'natural justice' and 'le principe de la contradiction' are known to have been dormant in some historical periods and to have come to life in others. The Magna Carta has a lot of 'buzz' in England, but if you look at its actual history you will find that all but three sections have been repealed by Parliament. Is there a memetic essence to this phenomena? The emotional force of the MC is far more potent than the few remaining bits that have some legal status.

    Due process appears in the US federal constitution and most state constitutions, but you'll find variations in its meaning and the bundle of 'rights' the term entails. Can territoriality bear on the determination of essence? (compounded by the many different rights imputed to due process, at different points in time).

    This assumes the study is empirical rather than conceptual. But judicial practice is not consistent in the application of 'accepted meanings' of due process, so a theory-practice dichotomy arises. This is especially true with 'equality'. A basic division of users' communities is between legal and lay sits atop essential differences of opinion within each of these two communities and in the interaction of communities and the subdivisions of each.

     If ones approaches the term conceptually - looking for 'essence' in the term itself - as scholars of analytical jurisprudence might - chances are you are participating in the maintenance and propagation of the term
    ('internal point of view', as legal scholars say) on a different basis than the memeticist with an empirical orientation (external point of view), who nonetheless by making it an object of study, indirectly participates.

    The problem seems to be that it is next to impossible to isolate the
    'essence' of terms like 'equality' or 'due process' until one has accumulated adequate data about its usage, semantic content and iconic status and their distribution geographically and historically. Having done this, a comparative analysis provides another level of meaning.
    (in my example 'due process' 'natural justice' and 'le principe de la contradiction' refer to American, English and French legal concepts that generally cover the same territory, but which have features unique to the three legal jurisdictions.)

    Once you've acquired this data, the value of a further memetic analysis seems elusive. If it is to be a memetic analysis, it would have to offer insights only accessible through memetic analysis and that are also of value to non-memeticists. Reading this list for the past few years, I'm still in the dark about what a meme is, what a memetic methodology consists of and what insight it promises.

    The theoretical approach that seems to have come closest to providing some entry into this kind of term's essence is Marcel Mauss' 'total social fact'. The problem is that achieving the understanding the
    'total social fact' concept describes is problably empirically impossible to realise - like Borges' map. I suspect that memetics is subject to the same constraints.

    Douglas Brooker

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