Re: Machiavellian Memes

Tim Rhodes (
Thu, 2 Oct 1997 11:57:34 -0700 (PDT)

Date: Thu, 2 Oct 1997 11:57:34 -0700 (PDT)
From: Tim Rhodes <>
Subject: Re: Machiavellian Memes
In-Reply-To: <>

On Wed, 1 Oct 1997, john konopak wrote:

> Tim Rhodes wrote:
> > Or "how many programs can my computer run at one time?" when you have yet
> > to pick the programs or know their space requirements.

> 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.
> cheers
> konopak

Okay, John, you win the price for the most long-winded non-rebutal
rebutal I've ever seen. Where should I send the medal?

-Tim Rhodes

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