This post is not the replication of a meme; it cannot be, because there’s no such thing as a
meme. That deserves a longer argument than I’ll give it here–and it probably will get one in this space sometime in the near future–but for now the short version will have to do. The essential point is this: to give a
memetic account of something you are supposed to give an account of it in terms of the
replication of the
memes that are most
fit. Ideas (or, mutatis mutandis, slogans, habits, etc.) spread because some people have reasons to spread them, and other people have reasons to accept them. Understanding that is entirely a matter of understanding facts about people and their reasons: thus, understanding logic, rhetoric, psychology–phenomena such as giving evidence, drawing conclusions, weighing alternatives, informing, deceiving, manipulating, elucidating, misdirecting, revealing, and all the other things that people do when they talk with one another. But if
memetic explanations are supposed to do anything special at all–instead of just restating the content of a logical or rhetorical (or whatever) explanation using cutesy neologisms–then it would have to give some characterization of the spread of an idea independently of these sorts of facts about their
hosts. That there can be no such independent characterization puts
memetic explanations in a double-bind: they must either be false or completely vacuous. (This double-bind may help explain why
memetics talk rarely amounts to more than elementary folk psychology concealed under cutesy pseudoscientific mumbo-jumbo: smuggling in folk psychology keeps the account from being revealed as plain nonsense; the specialized argot conceals the fact that the explanation is entirely parasitic on understanding some other field.) What meme-talk amounts to, then, is nothing more than a conceptual misdirection; we are told we are finding out something about how ideas spread, but what the explanation points out can’t be the (logical, rhetorical, psychological, …) facts that actually explain why people spread the idea. At best, it will be empty
memetic terminology that stands in for whatever the real explanation happens to be. Because it is a conceptual misdirection, meme-talk is also pernicious; by directing attention away from the reasons that people have to accept or reject an idea, to spread it or to combat it, it attempts to talk about human actions and ideas in a literally dehumanized way. And we have more than enough of that already, thank you very much.
With that preface out of the way, let’s turn to the idea itself. (In the spirit of operating within the space of reasons, I might mention that it’s an idea I’m spreading because it’s a fun way to let people know something about what you’re reading; it can sometimes provoke interesting discussions about books; and because it gives me a chance to rant about why I don’t like the word
Here’s what you do:
- Grab the nearest book.
- Open the book to page 23.
- Find the fifth sentence.
- Post the text of the sentence in your journal along with these instructions.
From: Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick
(Nozick is discussing the Weberian conception of the State in terms of a monopoly on the use of force in a territorial area)
Nor need everyone grant the legitimacy of the state’s claim to such monopoly [for it to count as a state], either because as pacifists they think no one has the right to use force, or because as revolutionaries they believe that a given state lacks this right, or because they believe they are entitled to join in and help out no matter what the state says.
You’re lucky, by the way, that Nozick was a couple inches closer to my hand than the other book on my couch: Modal Thinking by Alan R. White, which is an excellent book with many good passages–none of which happen to be on page 23. I checked, and what you would have gotten by the rules of the exercise is a disquisition on the ordinary language uses and implicature of
could have and how it can appear in places other than counterfactual conditionals.