Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Memetics Re-Invents the Wheel of Rhetoric, and Then Breaks It

Upgraded and adapted from the Moot to yesterday's post, "Esebian" asks: Wouldn't you say today's state of the concept "meme" is like that of the "gene" in the 1890s; there's hints that there is a mechanism of information transfer, we just can't figure out any specifics?

Well, no, if I'm understanding your question correctly, I wouldn't say that. Memetics isn't some promising fledgling discipline to be fleshed out into a predictively powerful account of cultural dynamism after a century of diligent researchers scan and stimulate enough brains or whatever. The "meme" is a futurological neologism, a buzzword, a superficial repackaging scheme -- and with the usual wannabe guru huckster PR in play, I'm afraid -- through which ignoramuses have been pretending to re-invent the wheel of rhetoric for a generation. The connection of the meme to the gene you mention is of course deliberate, and it represents a fundamental mis-analogy: historical vicissitudes and social struggle are so radically under-determined by evolutionary processes as to be irrelevant to them, they provide a few general constraints and pressures but don't take you where any of the real action is. The problems here are comparable to evo-devo and evo-psycho foolishness I sometimes deride here as well, and it isn't accidental that the adherents of the one are often also cheerleaders for the other. (I'm setting aside here the more recent and more specific characterization of the meme as a kind of hieroglyph in which a static or briefly moving image -- often already mass-mediated and familiar -- is fixed to a caption, often an ironic one, and then circulates rapidly and widely in media briefly to capture the fancy or express the momentary mood of a large cohort of individuals. I have no quibble with the choice of the word "meme" to describe such a media phenomenon, precisely because it lacks the pretension of the prior elaboration of the notion.) Rhetoric has always been the facilitation and analysis of discourse, and much contemporary critical and cultural theory is best understood as its ongoing elaboration. You will forgive me if I do not summarize that content here -- it takes me four whole undergraduate courses to survey the basics of the field for my students in the Rhetoric department at Berkeley. I do not include any "memetic" nonsense of the last two decades or so in that body of criticism, since memetics brings nothing actually new or useful to the table (believe me, I've looked). It is a far clumsier analytic vocabulary for historically situating discourse or specifying its stakeholders or dynamisms than philology provided theorists well over a century ago, for heaven's sake. Indeed, apart from the pseudo-provocative pep of the initial neologism itself memetics adds the idiocy of a reductive mis-analogization of signification to a biology itself already idiotically reductively mis-analogized to computer programming via the pieties of cybernetics/information science. There are, of course, plenty of ugly ideological reasons that digi-utopians pining to have their info-souls uploaded into Holodeck Heaven and market fundamentalists with crap to sell the rubes would consider all this a feature and not a bug of the meme qua cult(ure)-bug -- after all, most of them disdain and fear the insights arising from proper rhetoric in any case.


jimf said...

> [A]part from the pseudo-provocative pep of the initial neologism
> itself memetics adds the idiocy of a reductive mis-analogization
> of signification to a biology itself already idiotically reductively
> mis-analogized to computer programming via the pieties of
> cybernetics/information science.

Also, use of the word (coined by Richard Dawkins in his
1976 _The Selfish Gene_, after all) signals an affiliation
with the evo-psych crowd, which is part of the contemporary
futurist/>Hist/singularitarian identity
(and indeed, is a staunchly-defended article of faith among,
e.g., the LessWrongians -- if you're an evo-psych skeptic,
you're just a muddle-headed hippie who has fallen victim to
the SSSM [Standard Social Science Model], or some such thing.)

There's a lot of entertaining sniping about evolutionary psychology
on P. Z. Myers' blog Pharyngula. He ever dares to go
mano a mano with Steven Pinker.

Dale Carrico said...

Yeah I was adding a line about that to the post probably at the very moment you were penning this comment -- I couldn't agree more.

jollyspaniard said...

The word meme now refers to a picture with a silly caption distributed on the internet.

Dale Carrico said...

Just so, but the earlier sense (senseless though it is) still prevails among Very Serious Futurologists.

jimf said...

> evo-psych. . . is a staunchly-defended article of
> faith among, e.g., the LessWrongians. . .

Real-world uses of evolutionary psychology.
Luke Muehlhauser is a world class jerk

I ca[aught] the following LW post from another S[pace]B[attles]
thread on LW (well worth reading, including a litt[le] discussion about the
ridiculously overrated Yvain). Luke Muehlhauser wrote:
"So I broke up with Alice over a long conversation that included an
hour-long primer on evolutionary psychology in which I explained
how natural selection had built me to be attracted to certain features
that she lacked. I thought she would appreciate this because she
had previously expressed admiration for detailed honesty. Now I realize
that there's hardly a more damaging way to break up with someone.
She asked that I kindly never speak to her again, and I can't blame her."
What the actual fuck?

--Baloney Detection (talk) 16:41, 30 July 2013 (UTC)

This reminds me of a similarly-clueless conversation between
a nerd and his girlfriend in _The Social Network_.


Dale Carrico said...

So painful.

Robert Gross said...

Okay, that's my next song, right there.

Would that be too kruel, er, I mean, cruel?

Tim Tyler said...

The memetics vocabulary doesn't seem "clumsier" to me. One of the main selling points of memetics is that it has the neatest terminology of any of the modern theories of cultural evolution. Its main competitor in academia seems to be "cultural variant". However, use of such terminology apparently stunts thinking about topics such as memetic engineering, memetic algorithms, memetic hitchhiking, memetic linkage, phylomemetics, meme therapy and the meme's eye view.

Dale Carrico said...

Memetics is selling something all right.

Tim Tyler said...

Though memetics and evopsych looks as though it would be a fertile marriage, many on the evopsych team aren't having it. Pinker is the most vocal critic, arguing against the whole cultural evolution field in his 2012 "false allure" article - and in many other places. Politics may be involved: memetics treats human differences while evopsych treats human similarities. The latter is politically correct, while the former is not.

Dale Carrico said...

I regard both of those discourses as radically reductionist to no useful purpose, and usually -- I'm sorry to say -- as reactionary scientisms. Evopsycho, especially, seems to rationalize a slew of ugly racist and patriarchal prejudices in people who otherwise regard themselves as paragons of objectivity and virtue. I can't say that Peter Singer's and comparable efforts at a more progressive deployment of the discourse impresses me much either. That said, I don't think the phrase "politically correct" ever clarifies anything. I believe that term originated in the recognition of multiculturalist academics and activists that intersectional histories and institutions of oppression implicate every political position in violation a priori and hence that no hands are clean and hence all efforts at reconciliation will be fraught -- this yields an attitude of modest witnessing rather than the self-righteousness usually caricatured by reactionaries who regard calls for tolerance or listening as unbearably tyrannical for whatever fucked up reason. I can't claim to be a fan of Pinker, which is not to say that I disagree with everything he says. I will resist my temperamental inclination to read closely your rhetorical invocation of a "fertile marriage" to frame this comment. This reply sounds very grumpy, but it's not, really -- I spent a late night grading papers, you'll have to forgive me.