Re: Machiavellian Memes

john konopak (
Wed, 01 Oct 1997 11:45:53 -0500

Date: Wed, 01 Oct 1997 11:45:53 -0500
From: john konopak <>
Subject: Re: Machiavellian Memes

Tim Rhodes wrote:
> On Mon, 29 Sep 1997, John Konopak wrote:
> > No offense, fellas, but am I alone among this host to wonder if this sort of
> > speculation doesn't come close to arguing about--or rather (and somewhat
> > more eerily), rationally and dispassionately debating--the number and
> > especially the material dispositions and support requirements of angels
> > which can disport on the head of a pin?
> Or "how many programs can my computer run at one time?" when you have yet
> to pick the programs or know their space requirements.
> -Tim Rhodes

I shall take this as a non-rebuttal, if not a ringing endorsement, of my
earlier remark. It does illustrate how we are prisoners of our
metaphors, by which I believe I am safe to infer the concept of the
"meme" is apparently being "operationalized." Walker Percy characterized
metaphor as the trick of knowing something is what it isn't. Example:
the etymological derivation of the "word" <know>, from the greek
_gignoskein_ and the latin _gnossere_ as well as the north european
_ken_ ("D' yee _ken_John Peel...") and the Old English _cnawan_, is
attached to the indo-european/sanskrit root out of which also arises the
(related?) description "gnaw." There seems to be a very deeply
sedimented and widely dispersed connection through language to a
relation between eating and knowing. Sort of a case of socio-cultural
phylogeny recapitulating human natal and neonatal ontogeny. Early
childhood research as well as dreaded common sense convince us that the
taste is the first sense by which infants endeavor to learn about and
classify the materiality in which they participate. To know something
fully is to consume it wholly--think of mushrooms, where the certainty
of mortality accompanying a mistake must surely be as exhilarating as
the frisson of success (I can only speculate). So then is the question
whether the metaphorical relationship between eating and knowing is a
"meme?" And the (is it?) 27 plots that (allegedly ) underwrite all the
literatures of the all the world's civilizations? Is that a memetic
taxonomy? Is memetics another trip down the trail of philosophical
anthropology? Is it at this level that Donne's universe in a grain of
sand can finally be made "real" and comprehended? Should it prove to be
true that there existed an etymological relationship between the local
words for knowing and eating, in all languages, in all times, is that to
be evidence of the operation of a "meme"? Is the study of the meme
subject to the same constraints as the study of say matter/energy
(mattergy? enter?) in quantum states? The observers' paradox being not
the least of these? But the vocabulary being a related dilemma? Because
since time immemoriam, there has been the distinction between the quick
and the dead, a fundamental quasi-dichotomy predicated upon a
(pre-Dennett?) construction of "self." I always think of Foucault's
quotation in the Order ot Things from Borges' story about the "certain
Chinese philosopher's taxonomy of animals" such that objects thereby
classified are delineated according to whether they belong(ed) to the
Emperor or had just broken the water vessel, or looked like ants when
seen from afar, and a whole and Foucault's merry realization of the
"impossibility of thinking _that_"? So is the study of "memes" aimed at
the eliminating or reproducing that impossibility? Is it about
understanding what it is not possible to say? Whither Wittgenstein in
all of this? Who said "we do not describe what we see, we see what we
can describe!"? Is memetics then a study of the perfusion of tropes, as
with the perfusion of micro-organisms in a petri-dish? If there are
differences--I think of Hopi, in which (according Sapir) the word for
"lightning" denotes action occurring--i.e., a verb--rather than an
object suitable for nomination--(unless the "ing" on the end of
"lightning" is a participial or gerundive emendation?), in a way that
would seem to challenge the idea of some universalizing and totalizing
memetic schematic organization. And if there are distinctly "culturally
determined" memes? Then will there inevitably follow some kind of
pseudo-scientific evaluative device--a calculus of memes?-- by which to
determine which memes are of the greatest worth? whose are superior, or
inferior? to what? and why? If this is prelude to another micro-
political battleground, shouldn't we know it?
Linguistic anthropologists Scollon and Scollon (Ablex, late 70s-eraly
80s) tell of an athebascan student, a young woman, who attended the
University of Alaska and took a writing course as part of her freshman
studies. A part of the course included writing a "story," according the
the ancient form of the storyteller's art, with a beginning, a middle,
and an end. When she received her work back, it was accompnied by a note
from the instructor that there was, in the instructor's opinion,
unnecessary material included that should be excised because it didn't
fit in any of the three parts of the story that she, the student, had
been assigned to compose. She resisted changing her story, because it
was true to her experience. The conflict proved to be cultural, because
Athabascan stories consisted of both more and different parts than those
expected by the euro-centric instructor. That is, according to Scollon,
the instructor not only could not escape the paradigm, but had no words
for an alternative one.
I see some of this memetics discussion in the same light
I guess that is what gets me most, is the seeming centralizing-ness, and
totalizing-ness, and essentializing-ness of this project? There'll be
hard-deaded realists who'll shrug elegantly and disclaim responsibility;
there'll be devoted technophiles who'll descry the soft-headedness and
impute a philosophical weakness to these qualms; And aaron will tell us
he's already discussed this in his book. And I won't be affected,
probably, one way or the other. It just bothers me, is all.

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