RE: Civilisations as a System of Memeplexes

From: Vincent Campbell (
Date: Tue Jan 29 2002 - 13:47:53 GMT

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    Subject: RE: Civilisations as a System of Memeplexes
    Date: Tue, 29 Jan 2002 13:47:53 -0000
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    Hi John,

    Welcome to the list.

    (And for those wondering where I've been, my wife has just had a gallstone
    operation-successfully I might add- so I've been had other things on my
    mind, making me way behind on the list conversations- so it wasn't anybody's
    quality of argument that has left me silent for a few days :-)).

    Civilisation is in many ways a pejorative term, and certainly has been used
    thus. The West is civilised, the Taleban are not etc. etc. However, one
    can see in this usage a useful root point for memetics, perhaps.

    If we take the kind of ideas from people like Hobbes and Rousseau, then
    civilisation is that point at which humans leave the state of nature (or,
    perhaps leave the sole control of evolution by natural selection) and enter
    society, where natural behaviours may be suppressed (the suppression deemed
    good by Hobbes, bad by Rousseau) and where cultural evolution becomes more
    important in peoples' lives.

    Of course, this is a bit specious really, as many of those attributes deemed
    uncillivised are carried out routinely by "civillised" countries.


    > ----------
    > From: John Croft
    > Reply To:
    > Sent: Friday, January 25, 2002 8:21 AM
    > To:
    > Subject: Civilisations as a System of Memeplexes
    > Hi folks
    > Just joined the list but I have some thoughts I'd like
    > to share.
    > Firstly about the nature of civilisation. What is a
    > civilisation? Civilisation is a word used we tend to
    > use very loosely. Here, I define "civilisation" to be
    > a special kind of human culture in which a minority of
    > people are not engaged in food production, industry or
    > trade, but are supported in various ways for other
    > purposes, by that society. Generally these purposes
    > are involved in the preservation, duplication and
    > dissemination of the memes that give that culture
    > coherence and allow it to "hang together". In a
    > civilisation, those people not engaged in productive
    > activity or trade, amongst other purposes, are thus
    > usually expected to create a vision, a set of
    > coordinating ideas or "memes". It is the duplication
    > and dissemination of these meme complexes, or
    > "memeplexes" that justifies and petpetuates the form
    > of social organisation that allows that civilisation
    > to survive.Generally, the people engaged in such
    > activities are gathered together in centres, often
    > described as cities. It is from the Latin word for
    > city - "civilis" - that civilisation takes its name.
    > Every great urban civilisation that has ever existed
    > on Earth, therefore, has had at least one psychic or
    > spiritual centre upon which the "memeplexes" specific
    > to that culture focus. The psychic centre for the
    > Tibetans for centuries, has been the great Potala
    > Palace in Llasa, For Muslims it is the black rock of
    > the Kaba in Mecca, for Jews the Wailing Wall of
    > Herod's Temple in Jerusalem. For China, it has been
    > the heart of the Forbidden City in Peking. It is these
    > centres that provide in "space" the symbolic core of
    > meaning for that culture. Today, in the globalised
    > corporate capitalist world culture its psychic
    > "centre" in a very real sense is that area in New
    > York, close by the New York Stock Exchange, that was,
    > until 11th September 2001, occupied by the World Trade
    > Centre. This was the primary optimistic focus from
    > which the "memeplexes" that sustained and gave meaning
    > to the corporate industrial civilisation have fanned
    > out via institutions effecting global finance and
    > production systems across the planet. The terrorist
    > attack on this centre has left our culture in a state
    > of shock, shaken in a way not experienced by the West,
    > since perhaps the the attack on Pearl Harbour.
    > Such an event was also found with the fall of Rome,
    > the Eternal City, to Alaric the Visigoth, an earlier
    > Osama bin Laden, in 410 CE. The shock of this event
    > was described by Augustine Bishop of the City of Hippo
    > in modern Algeria (354-430 CE) in his great spiritual
    > memeplex of a work, "The City of God". Rome was the
    > center of the world, its literature and culture
    > presented a society in which a visible civil
    > institution, the Roman empire, embodied all the hopes
    > and expectations of reasonable men. The sacking of
    > this city provided Saint Augustine the chance to
    > suggest that the world of the Empire was a fantastic
    > dream, an illusory fantasy world built upon a
    > collective delusion. Out of this great work, came the
    > chance to build a set of memeplexes, embodying a new
    > civilisation, that of Western Christendom, out of
    > which a new Rome was to develop. For Roman Catholics
    > the centre of this new civilisation is the crypt of
    > the tomb of the disciple Peter, the rock (petros) on
    > which Christ would build his church, at the heart of
    > Saint Peter's Basilica, in the Vatican in Rome.
    > Our circumstances today afford us the opportunity to
    > re-examine the framework of our lives and the
    > dream-factories from which the memeplexes that
    > undergird the global industrial civilisation emanate.
    > The need to engage in this self-analysis is urgent.
    > All civilisations that have ever existed, have
    > depended on the extraction of a surplus, beyond the
    > requirements of biological survival. It is this
    > surplus which has allowed the survival of the
    > non-productive groups that maintain its organisation
    > and structure. This surplus has been extracted from
    > the ecology and biology of the region in which the
    > civilisation has dominated. To a large extent, the
    > size of this surplus has determined how many people
    > can be involved in establishing and maintaining its
    > core memplexes, how large a civilisation can be, and
    > for how long it can survive. This extent in space and
    > time varies from place to place and has changed and
    > altered throughout history. In every case, however,
    > cilvilisations come under threat when, for internal or
    > external reasons, it exceeds the carrying capacity of
    > its environment.
    > Of the 40-50 civilisations that can be historically
    > recognised, the vast majority collapsed when, through
    > their memeplexes structure and organisation, they
    > undermined the ecological system upon which their
    > culture depended. When this has happened, there have
    > been five possible responses.
    > Firstly, when people of an area of a civilisation, or
    > part of a civilisation, cannot any longer secure a
    > livelihood which allows them to fulfil the potential
    > offered by the cultural vision of the memeplex, they
    > will be forced either to lower their expectations, or
    > seek emigration to somewhere else which allows them to
    > survive. We cannot begin to guess the millions who
    > are forced to revise their expectations downwards. On
    > those who seek to escape through emigration, the
    > United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees today
    > estimates some 22 million people, in more than 120
    > countries, world wide are affected by this problem.
    > Generally, those refugees fleeing economic or
    > environmental collapse is growing, and there are also
    > increasing numbers of "internal refugees" within
    > countries too.
    > Secondly, through deliberate action, for example, by
    > birth control, abortion, infanticide or voluntary
    > euthanasia, or through the forces of nature; through
    > plague, pestilence or famine, populations may be
    > reduced to levels that the environment can sustain.
    > History contains many hundreds of examples of such
    > events. Such limitations in population run counter to
    > the expectations of biological survival, but if they
    > assist the survival of the cultural memeplexes they
    > can proliferate. Earlier cultures, lacking the modern
    > forms of transport, were greatly affected by the
    > vagaries of weather patterns, in which an El Nino or
    > La Nina event, a regional collapse of the harvest
    > could occur. Recently, as this book will show, such
    > climatic reversals, some lasting just for a few years,
    > others lasting for centuries, could cause the collapse
    > and depopulation of a whole civilisation. Any
    > structure which minimises the negative impact of such
    > events will tend to spread.
    > Thirdly, often as a result of these first two factors,
    > levels of coercion and expropriation of the resources
    > of a population by its elite, or of a civilisation or
    > part of a civilisation over its neighbours, can also
    > increase. Militaristic expansion, through capturing
    > the resources of others, may temporarily prevent a
    > collapse, giving a brief chance for a civilisation to
    > reorganise and restructure itself to secure its
    > survival. But this usually does not happen. The
    > resources often continue to be wasted on vainglorious
    > examples of conspicuous consumption, and the respite
    > is only temporary. Eventually the situation becomes
    > too complex to manage effectively, the numbers of
    > disenfranchised grow to such an extent, that the tools
    > and weapons of the dominant culture get turned inwards
    > upon itself, and violence becomes endemic.
    > In some cases a civilisation can reorganise itself,
    > and its central memeplexes, to use its available
    > resources more intensively. This can be achieved in a
    > number of fashions, either through technological
    > change, or by forcing dependent groups in society to
    > work longer and harder for less return. Examples of
    > the former tend to predominate during the early
    > gestation and germination of a new civilisation.
    > Examples of the latter happen when people feel that
    > there is "no alternative", and creativity begins to
    > diminish. These two alternatives, however, are, like
    > the others often compatible with each other, or indeed
    > with any one or more of the other five factors.
    > Finally, in some cases, option four may result in a
    > fifth situation, where a civilisation may specialise
    > in producing goods, labour or services of a kind not
    > available to neighbouring cultures. Intra-and
    > inter-civilisation trade can result in a regional or
    > global economic system, what Emmanuel Wallerstein and
    > World Systems Theory describes as a "World System"
    > which can, if conditions are right, allow a higher
    > population with a more complex culture, to be
    > supported.
    > These five alternative options may interact and
    > reinforce each other in different ways. For example,
    > our dependence upon the non-renewable resource of
    > fossil fuels, or a culture's non-sustainable use of a
    > renewable resource (for example - Rome's use of the
    > soils of Southern Italy and North Africa), can
    > temporarily produce highly complex cultures, but
    > ultimately one of the five strategies will be
    > required. Recent history, the Gulf War, and many other
    > struggles offer examples of these events. The War
    > against Iraq can be interpreted as an attempt to
    > prevent a vital resource, oil, being expropriated by a
    > state, Iraq, in danger of collapse. To ensure its
    > uninterrupted flow to the benefit of corporate
    > industrial culture, over half a million Iraqis have
    > perished. The growth of an economically and
    > environmentally destitute population is seeing the
    > attempts of large numbers of people to emigrate to
    > more favourable locations. The increase in Iraqi
    > refugees is the direct result.
    > Today, the situation across Africa, the Middle East
    > and the former Soviet Union, where unstable coercive
    > regimes attempt to survive in conditions of worsening
    > economic and ecological conditions, with burgeoning
    > populations and increasing dependence upon
    > non-renewable, non-sustainable resources is perilous.
    > It offers us in miniature, for the majority or Third
    > World, of the possible conditions to be found in a
    > civilisation like our own, whose core memeplexes have
    > vastly exceeded the carrying capacity of their
    > biological environment. Unfortunately, history does
    > not give us a single example of any culture or
    > civilisation, which has continued to exceed this
    > limit, that has long continued to survive.
    > Today, outside the "core" areas of the Corporate
    > Industrial civilisation to which we belong, life in
    > the future is beginning to look very grim. Popular
    > culture of the Hollywood Dream Machine, in its
    > portrayals of this future, tend to reflect such an
    > apocalyptic view. Given current trends, it would seem
    > impossible to avoid the conclusion that our culture
    > has got itself into a literal "dead-end". Unless
    > things change quite radically soon, it is quite likely
    > that we will see our civilisation increasingly enter
    > its death throes - as levels of consumption world-wide
    > begin to plummet to what a depleted ecosystem can
    > sustain.
    > Interested in other's thoughts on these matters.
    > Regards
    > John
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