Re: Critical thinking in memetics

Ton Maas (
Thu, 4 Jun 1998 23:26:13 +0200

Message-Id: <v03102802b19cb81ba47b@[]>
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Date: Thu, 4 Jun 1998 23:26:13 +0200
From: Ton Maas <>
Subject: Re: Critical thinking in memetics

Bob Grimes wrote:
>If we would simply follow your question, briefly, I believe that quite a few
>obvious mechanisms that explain why a meme would occasion its replication by
>the host could come to mind. I would like to suggest that there are
>probably many reasons, including the one you mentioned (background or
>subliminal familiarity of rhythm, alliterative or onomatopoeic qualities,
>"catchy" phraseology (she sells seashells by the seaside, etc.). More
>probably, there are many reasons for memes to "resonate" or inspire some
>type of sympathetic energies, including such things as humor, ribaldry,
>sexiness (in a different sense that the previous word), fear, etc., or words
>that have an appeal to a physiological drive or need...

Allow me to reinvent my old critical self for a while and take it from
Bob's eloquent stating of the meme's being "catchy" and "sexy" rather than
"contagious". The reason I like "seductive" much better than "contagious"
is the fact that it stresses the relational dimension of communication more
and emphasizes the 19th century power-and-control-orientation of both
traditional information theory and some memeticists less. Beforehand I
would like to stress the fact that even a proverbial mind-police like
Joseph Goebbels' didn't exactly have unilateral control. They too relied on
an extensive network of informants, just to stay "updated" on what their
subjects were thinking and feeling (although they tried to hide this fact
to show off their "power"). As my former mentor, Gregory Bateson, used to
say, there is no way the meaning of a word or phrase can reliably be
inferred from it's own content, since meaning is only attributed to a
message in context. The whole business of ideas spreading is a dynamic and
complex mental phenomenon, in which relations are infinitely more important
than relata. One of the problems with information theory (and large
portions of linguistics and sociology alike) is its emphasis on
communicative "things" such as ideas, messages, words, phrases etc.
Communication can best be viewed as a game, the rules of which can be made
explicit only to a certain extent (or else the balloon is deflated or the
bubble bursts). Mastery of the rules is impossible by scientific procedures
(because of its inherent tendency to squeeze the bird or kill the cat) and
can only be achieved by a semi-conscious, semi-unconscious perfecting of
the art by practising and allowing the skill to sink into the organism as a
whole. In this respect communicating resembles a pas de deux rather than
agents sending and receiving messages.

Now for memes to be effective in their own evolutionary success, in which
unilateral power is nothing but a pipe dream, they must "understand" the
difference between, say, strategy and tactics. After all they too are mere
players in a game, where success depends on the embodied knowledge of a set
of implicit but non-trivial rules. So: How smart do these little suckers
think they are? ;-)


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