Re: what's a meme

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Thu, 12 Jun 1997 22:08:09 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 12 Jun 1997 22:08:09 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Re: what's a meme

Bill Benzon just posted two substantial pieces of thought and work -- his
own comments on music and David Hays' comments on technology. Because I've
had more experience with science and technology, I'd like to make a few
observations on the extract from David's paper, although a similar set of
comments seem to arise from Bill's discussion of jazz.

"Learning" the sciences, especially a bench or hardware related science, is
not only a matter of being exposed to the knowledge of pedagogues. In
addition, one absolutely needs to work directly with the devices -- the
real, concrete things of one's science. Likewise, of course, music: one
cannot be a musician and play piano, violin, or guitar theoretically.

One then discovers -- I want to stress that: the organism *discovers* --
that the descriptions (and their memes, wherever and whatever they may be)
are inadequate to "do" science or music. One also needs practice. Now, to
be sure, there's a humongo literature on praxis and related concepts, but I
have something much more material and concrete in mind.

For example, I could describe how to use a pipette until I was blue in the
face and you were bored witless. You would still need to handle a real
pipette before even having any idea of how to make the thing work. Thus,
there is a potent and necessary intervention of physical reality into the
process of acquiring knowledge. Such "hands-on" learning is emphasized in
engineering, where there is no substitute for experience.

But "experience" with what? I am suggesting that the answer is not with
"memes" but with a concrete reality with which one's own body must come to
terms. For example, my hand holds a pipette one way, another person will
hold it slightly differently. I cannot learn from you *how* to hold the
pipette -- nor where to place my fingers to make a chord on a guitar or to
play a run.

A purely mentalist memetics cannot in principle describe these sorts of the
process because the process is not purely mental. It necessarily involves
parts of the body that are not, in the West, endowed with knowledge. Nor
is it a solution to speak of mental "representations" of how the hand
moves, for these are representations, and not the actual movement of the
hand. One form of mentalism holds that the hands -- more generally, the
body -- are merely effector organs for a source of active agency (will
power or something similar) located presumably in the "mind." This view
participates in the Platonic derogation of the body as secondary to mental

Ultimately, I find such theories useless because they cannot explain where
the "mind" obtains its ideas from. Various empiricist philosophies have
tried to solve the problem by saying that the "sense organs" transmit some
species of rudiment or anlagen to the mind, in the form of "raw sensory
input" that is worked on by the mind to produce ideas. Once again, we
retain a hierarchy in which the "mind" is set over the senses, and, a
fortiori, the physical actions of the hands when, for example, one uses a
trowel or a pipette.

At root, I think the problem is that we attribute to consciousness a
superiority of position and rank that it in fact does not have.
Accordingly, we must understand that the hand, as a hand, possesses its own
wisdom and knowledge, although, strictly, I should not say "hand" but
"hand" plus a variety of connected muscles and nervous tissue. This view
is of course radically anti-dualist, but is forced on us if we take
seriously what our bodies actually do when we perform various activities.

Where does this leave the memes? It depends, of course, on how we define
them. Defined as purely mental entities, then concrete activities like
using a trowel are non-memetic, because the hand, arm, and eye is not
guided solely by *mental* constructs but also by the physical realities of
how the hand operates, how trowels are made, and so on.

Now I'd like to turn this upside down. We imagine that we are studying the
product of someone else's hands -- a piece of art, a musical performance, a
pipette, and so on. I would like to suggest that such an object or process
contains within itself the traces not only of the memes (again, however we
define them) but also of the handwork of the person who made the object.

Of course, we can say this easily in English: "This is the handiwork of a
master sculptor," where the word "handiwork" captures the superimposition
of an individual's body onto the work. And in music, such superimposition
is of the essence: Jean Pierre Rampal vs. the kid down the block learning
how to play the flute, or Cezanne vs. a doodle.

So an additional complexity is added: no piece of work built by human
hands is a "pure" representation of memes -- be they themes, concepts,
constructs, or whatnot. Intrinsically, human handiwork contains
non-memetic attributes installed by the physical processes by which it was
made by someone's hands. The latter is not thus derogated or made *less*
human; indeed, we tend to see it as the pinnacle of human creativity.

And now comes a fascinating fact. The objects made by prior generations of
such handiworkers -- pipettes, trowels, violins, musical scores -- are such
that later generations can use them. Made by human hands, a violin can be
learned by human hands. Something has been transmitted or retained that
was *built into* the instrument itself, as an instrument. That "something"
not only makes the instrument a functional object, but permits and
encourages one to *learn* how to use it.

I am tempted to speak of the "logic of the concrete" for such things, for
they arise from embodied experience with concrete reality and they have
their own logic that we discover as we learn to handle them. (I mean
"handle" literally.) To the extent that memetics deals with conceptual
*mental* representations, it seems unable to deal with the logic of the

Yet I sense that that formulation is too glib, and that in some sense
memetics can -- or should -- deal with these processes. They seem to
underlie Bill's repeated reference to how jazz musicians improvise. And I
am quite sure that they underlie how bench science is actually done and

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