Re: What does the replicating?

Collin Brooke (cgb1046@UTARLG.UTA.EDU)
Sat, 07 Jun 1997 18:16:41 -0500 (CDT)

Date: Sat, 07 Jun 1997 18:16:41 -0500 (CDT)
From: Collin Brooke <cgb1046@UTARLG.UTA.EDU>
Subject: Re: What does the replicating?

Dear all,

I too have been following with interest, and am relatively new to the
list. Randy, I wanted to address your comments--in part, because the
criticisms that I've seen levelled at memetics have taken the opposite
tack, questioning the existence of any kind of "free will" within a
memetic framework (i.e., calling it deterministic).

Coming, as I do, from a disciplinary perspective of rhetoric, I don't have
the same problems that you seem to, and this in itself strikes me as an
example of how language/memes influence us (I think that it was Thorstein
Veblen who called this a "trained incapacity") without our awareness. In
order to qualify ourselves to enter into disciplinary conversations, we
have to immerse ourselves in a particular set of language games (or
linking practices, as Lyotard might call them), and we thereby blind
ourselves to others. Here are some examples that are fairly commonplace
in Rhetoric:

--the leading questions that occur in a courtroom, the classical example
of which might be "Have you stopped beating your spouse yet?"
--the Platonic dialogues, many of which steer subtly and effectively in
the direction of Plato's metaphysics
--Lyotard talks about a historian named Faurisson who denies the existence
of the Holocaust by employing a strict view of legal rules of evidence (if
you were there, you're dead--if you're here, you can only know by hearsay)

Do any of these memes replicate themselves? I think so, by structuring the
thought of those who hold them, attempting to make them unable to envision
alternatives. Jacques Derrida, in *Of Grammatology* talks about the
linear style of thinking implicit in the meme of a phonetic alphabet,
which encourages linear thought, and makes it unlikely that other types of
language practices might emerge (after all, none of them capture linear
thought as well as the alphabetic literacy we already practice--Chinese
language practices seem horribly inefficient to Leibniz and many
Westerners, I would imagine).

Also, the ubiquity of the meme plays a role in its replication. In a
recent CTHEORY essay, the author (wihch I don't have handy) talks about
the "reverse fax effect," the tendency of a technology to replicate itself
beyond its usefulness, simply because the cost to replace it is
overwhelming. The example he uses is the QWERTY keyboard, originally
designed so that more commonly used letters wouldn't hit each other on
their way to and from the paper. The keyboard is specifically designed
for a certain technological threshhold, one that's well past most of us
who only type on word processors. I would guess that few of us have even
contemplated different keyboard design.

What I'm getting at is analogous to Dawkins' claim that genes don't behave
subjectively necessarily, but that they simulate subjective behavior
(selfishness). In the same way, while it would be hasty to suggest that
any of these examples demonstrate subjective memetic behavior, I think
that we can look at any number of ways that language, culture, memes,
etc., protect their cultural turf by foreclosing on alternatives.
Suspending disbelief about memetic self-replication doesn't seem like such
a radical move to me, but then I've grown up in an English department,
where that's par for the course. It may indeed be bad philosophy, but
then philosophers have been calling rhetoric that particular name since
Plato, so I don't find it too troublesome either.

One final comment, and that's to wonder, Randy, if it isn't precisely the
perspective internal to history that encourages you to see the disanalogy
that you do. In other words, doesn't the disciplinary meme-bundle of
history foreclose on memetics in the way that you discuss? This isn't
meant to be a nasty comment, but a genuine question. Can you see the post
that you sent in as representing a certain set of memes? I think that
you're right to question the role of memetics within your particular
discipline, and I hope you'll share more of your thoughts on the matter.
And I hope that I've foregrounded my own disciplinary background enough to
make some of my points...

Collin Brooke
Humanities Program (Rhetoric/Critical Theory)
the University of Texas at Arlington


On Sat, 7 Jun 1997, Randy Groves wrote:

> Dear Memetics Investigators:
> I have been following the discussions with interest concerning the
> replication of memes. I am not a biologist (my area if the philosophy
> of history), so I may just be betraying my ignorance of things memetic,
> but it seems that there is a key disanalogy between the replication of
> memes and the replication of genes. Genes have their own replication
> mechanism while Memes do not. Memes depend upon something
> external, minds (most of the time), to replicate them, while genes'
> replication occurs internally.
> The reason I see this as problematic for memetics, as applied to
> history, for example, is that when we then talk about the greater or
> lesser influence of some cultural ideas over others, the argument
> must focus on the minds influenced by the meme rather than some
> internal mechanism in the meme. In other words, we are back to
> traditional questions of influence where we discuss the historical
> background and everything else we deal with in such arguments. The
> role of memetics doesn't seem to loom very large.

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