Memetic levels

Brown, Alex (
Fri, 13 Jun 1997 16:30:36 +0800

From: "Brown, Alex" <>
To: "'Memetics list'" <>
Subject: Memetic levels
Date: Fri, 13 Jun 1997 16:30:36 +0800

Date: 14th June 1997

The musical analogy discussed by Bill Benzon and Jon Cortmaior
exemplifies the issue of what unit of analysis we should use to define
what a meme is and how we can use it to investigate cultural production.
As I understand it, in their posts they point to three levels of music
which together form the domain 'music'. The first is the recognizable
fragment which exists in different pieces of music: eg. the riff. The
second is the whole song, tune or symphony which incorporates these and
other 'fragments' (stylemes?) and the third level: the repertoire of all
such songs, tunes or symphonies which incorporates all particular pieces
of music. (There are, in fact intermediate levels which are stylistic
groupings which have a semi-autonomous existance. In biological terms
these would be 'populations' within a species). At which of these levels
does the meme as a coherent package of information exist?

Architecture provides another example of the same hierarchy of levels. I
can recognise certain forms which recur throughout many buildings. I can
look at and understand a single building and I am familiar with the
large number of buildings which act as the selective repertoire of forms
for the creation of the single building. Where would we place the meme
in this case? Is it the recognizable fragment, the individual whole form
(song or building) or is it the whole repertoire of forms from which
individual works are derived (by combination)? The same questions can,
of course be asked of any other cultural domain.

In my post yesterday, I tended to go for the mid level of the three: the
individual whole form (building, song novel or theory) which is a
(re)combination of many fragments into a coherent whole. Yet the musical
discussion prompted me to consider that the recognizable fragment may
also be a contender for the role of meme defined as a basic unit of
cultural information. The key issue being that it is recognizable,
familiar and a clear regularity in the whole repertoire. It is, in
itself a coherent (self-contained?) package of information just like the
morpheme or the deme. It has meaning. Another feature of the
recognizable fragment is that in information terms it exhibits
redundancy. In other words I can guess the probable usage and its
probable context (its connotations) from its form and from my past
experience of that form. If that recognizable part(icle) is defined as
the meme, then where do these memes reside? Clearly they are dispersed
throughout the many products which make up the repertoire and it is by a
process of scanning and selection that they are combined (to fit) for a
particular time and place - an environment in other words. If this was
the case, that the familiar fragment is defined as the meme, what, in
information terms would we call the whole unit (the song, building or
discrete social structure) composed of several of these memes ? And what
about the repertoire of all such whole units? In other words what
memetically speaking is the hierarchic structure of a cultural domain?
If, as I think we are, dealing ultimately with issues of systems,
evolution, information, coherence, redundancy, semantics and
communicational processes applied to cultural forms, there is no need to
invent a whole new vocabulary to deal with the memetics dimension. Its
already available, including, in my opinion, the evolutionary processes
by which such systems change over time either gradually or -
occasionally - in revolutionary mode (the emergence of meta-systems).

Its obvious, I suppose that for me at least, memes are 'out there'. They
are not abstractions but products (material or organizational). The fact
that they can have a psychological or emotional effect on us is what we
make/create them for. So too I would regard memes as
collectively-produced information which circulates (a la Bateson)
throughout and defines the character of a society. I think it is more
productive to get rid of the atomistic definitions of memetics which see
things in terms of single, autonomous monadic ideas residing
(temporarily) in single autonomous monadic brains. To revert to common
sense: culture is a field of communication and exchange between a large
number of people over long periods of time.


Alex Brown

(ps. apologies to my compatriot Dr.I Price, Guilford, for ripping his
memetic quote out of context. I did realize it was a shorthand version
but I just picked it up and ran with it. Sorry about that).

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Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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