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This Is Not A Meme

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 meme.)

(the idea comes from everyone and their grandmother)

Here’s what you do:

  1. Grab the nearest book.
  2. Open the book to page 23.
  3. Find the fifth sentence.
  4. 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.


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5 replies to This Is Not A Meme Use a feed to Follow replies to this article

  1. vainglorious L

    Mister, you need to cool down on those italics.

    I can’t do it because I never know which book to grab.

— 2005 —

  1. Omar K. Ravenhurst

    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.

    I don’t know if I follow you here. Physics can theoretically explain the whole of biology. Even if we could do this in practice, it wouldn’t destroy the usefulness of biology as shorthand. Maybe Special Relativity would make a better (if arrogant-sounding) example, since Einstein took two facts from pre-Einsteinian science and spelled out their implications. I agree that the word ‘meme’ by itself does not constitute a science. However, when you add the controversial theory that we can explain any meme’s history through natural (non-supernatural) origins, followed by natural variation combined with natural selection, the picture starts to look a bit different. Particularly when you include certain obvious facts about memetic reproduction and survival. This allows us to create new explanations for phenomena — at least, I hadn’t heard anyone else explain why our Old Testament prohibits guy-on-guy but not girl-on-girl.

    Some of the lexicon terms seem loaded or unnecessary. Others seem useful. One would expect a great deal of variation in a new science with non-scholarly fans, and the wise reader will keep this in mind.

  2. Discussed at www.radgeek.com

    Geekery Today:

    Friday Anti-meme

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    Jonathan's Coffeeblog:

    All Your Meme Belong to Us

    Meme, shmeme. There’s no such thing as a meme… According to a philosophical principle called “Occam’s Razor” all unnecessary explanations for anything should be shaved off like unwanted hair.

— 2008 —

  1. Pope Salmon the Lesser Mungojelly

    I think what’s different about thinking about ideas as memes is on another level from what you’re talking about. People spread memes for various complicated psychological reasons, and thinking of the ideas as selected replicators has little bearing on how that process unfolds. When you zoom out from particular acts of transmission or variation, however, there is another level on which the memetic explanation is more relevant. Often the best answer as to why a particular idea is the one that someone has in their mind has little to do with their personal process of encountering the idea, and more to do with the overall process of the reproduction of that idea. Memetics explains not just how people relate to ideas, but what kind of ideas are likely to survive long enough for people to get that chance to relate to them.

    Aside from the usefulness of the idea, incidentally, I believe it’s important also because it’s true. Ideas fulfill all of the qualifications for evolving systems (reproduction, variation, and selection) and therefore are in a meaningful sense alive. I consider that interesting on its own merits, quite apart from what useful pragmatic conclusions we can draw out from it.

Anticopyright. This was written in 2004 by Rad Geek. Feel free to reprint if you like it. This machine kills intellectual monopolists.