Re: Meme Extinction

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Sat, 31 May 1997 16:49:09 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sat, 31 May 1997 16:49:09 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Re: Meme Extinction

Am I right in observing that there seem to be two general kinds of response
to memes, at least in the exchange so far? One seems to be a serious and
genuine effort to create a taxonomy of memes, which means making
distinctions, outlining definitions, and assessing how they operate. The
other seems more playful -- not therefore less rigorous, but more caught up
in paradoxes and interesting phenomena. I'm not saying that one is better
than the other, merely that they differ.

Aaron Lynch and Agner Fog, among others of course, are working in the first
vein, while Joseph Bloch, myself, and others represent the second. Thus,
I'm struck that while the analysts are trying to probe the meaning of
extinction, I was inventing -- if that's the right word! -- examples of
memes that illustrate the Bloch paradox. I don't guarantee that the
following is perfect, but it's close to catching the paradox with a
specific example.

Thus, consider a "death meme." That means that if I know this meme, the
knowledge will kill me. Now, of course, we need to distinguish between the
*name* of the meme and its substantive content, a distinction along the
lines of Alice's conversation with the White Knight about then song, the
name of the song, what the name of the song is called, and so on endlessly.
The *name* of a meme is not the meme itself, no more than the map is the
thing. So we can call this meme "the death meme" or "rasmaplex" or
anything else that's convenient. Knowing the name does nothing to you, but
if you know what it says -- then watch out: you will die!

Not as silly as it sounds, because it's related to the subadolescent game
that goes:

First kid: "If you don't think of a rabbit, I'll give you a million dollars!"

Second kid: "There. I'm not thinking of a rabbit. Give me my million

First kid: "You just did! Ha, ha, ha, ha!"

The second kid can't escape: once you hear the word "rabbit," you are by
definition thinking of rabbits. Of course, the second kid tries to squirm
out of it by saying that he was thinking of Bugs Bunny, who isn't a real
rabbit, but that's a sheer legalism. This game perfectly captures the
essence of the meme.

On the other hand, if the first kid plays this game with someone who does
not know English very well, that kid might say, "What is a 'rabbit'?" So
we learn from this game that there is a difference between a meme and its

To return to death memes, one can label them, that is, give them a name,
without the name being genuinely epistemogeneous, to use Omar de la Cruz'
terminology of Friday, 30 May 1997. It now follows that if we *did* know
the content of a "fast death meme," it would instantly kill us, and we
would therefore not be able to tell anyone of its deadly content. Such a
meme extinguishes itself by killing its carrier, and is formally at least
an instantiation of an "extinct meme."

Or is it? You see, still another kid comes along and says, "Naah -- there
ain't no such thing." And now we learn that two sorts of "extinct" meme
seem to exist -- those which do not exist because there ain't no such
thing, and those which are extinct because they kill you instantly. In
what sense can we say that the second "exists?" So there's a question here
for the formal analysts, which is, I suggest, somehow fundamental to the
Bloch paradox.

Now we reach a crux. A number of people -- I was reading about them in
Utne Reader, if I remember right -- believe that physical death (meaning
the actual death of a person) is a result of our *believing* in death. In
their view -- but not their terminology -- we all carry "slow death memes,"
the nature of which is that to hear them means that you will eventually
die. As I understand it, these people believe that if one can cleanse
one's mind of the *idea* that we necessarily will die, then we will be able
to live 200, 300, 1000 years. It is now not so obvious at all that "there
ain't no such thing."

If these people are correct, then "slow death" memes are not extinct, and
they even resemble lethal mutations in genetics. But we can conceive of --
and name -- the alternative meme (the "fast death" meme). Now, such memes
are not like memes for unicorns, which formally (at least as I understand
it) is a name for a category of imaginary things. The meme for unicorns
exists even while unicorns do not. But what is the nature of the "fast
death meme"? The name exists but does the substantive content of such a
meme exist? And, if so, how?

To think it means to die and therefore the meme dies with you. So no such
memes exist. Or do they exist -- and therefore explain why people die
suddenly? What does it mean to speak of the *existence* of something that
destroys itself? Or, to raise Bloch's paradox again, to speak of a meme
for something that no one knows?

If we say that "We deny the existence of memes that refer to themselves in
such ways that their carriers instantly die," the answer is "That's right
-- such memes extinguish themselves." Note the ghost in the machine. It
is brought out when still *another* kid says, "I believe in those memes,
and I don't want to know about them at all!"

If we next say "We deny BY AXIOM that such memes do not exist" -- which is
a formally acceptable procedure -- how to we explain why we need such an

Of course, these all seem to be paradoxes of self-referentiality. The
playful nature of the examples, and of the Bloch paradox itself, should not
disguise how tricky such problems can be.

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