Sorry about all the text. I am hoping to attract critical comment from people who are much smarter than I am... using the Law of Large Numbers to excite the great potential of Literary Memetics.
"If the "postmodern malaise" is an odious reaction to overwhelming uncertainty, one of the best possible cures would be not to reject uncertainty, but to LEARN HOW TO WORK WITH IT."
"Perhaps the novelty of Memetics as a theory is that it seems to be a generalist lost in an age of specialists."
"There are modernist memes beside white chickens. There are feminist memes hiding in the yellow wallpaper. We can nail the eco criticism meme to Melvilles mast and see the thought contagion dynamic at work in his Bartleby story, unless wed prefer not to."
"Writing is one of many critical thinking tools, like mathematics. Not all great thinkers are writers... but ALL great writers are thinkers."
|Memetics in Literature and Composition
Memetics can help students understand the selection pressures that direct evolution of culture. In a more focused application, Memetics can also be a useful approach to language and literary studies. In its broadest definition, Memetics is the study of memes.
The zoologist Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" in 1976 in his landmark book, The Selfish Gene. Part of the definition he used in this book made it into the Oxford Dictionary, which defines memes as replicators, "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches" (TSG 192).
Other definitions describe the meme as an element of culture passed on by non-genetic means, especially imitation. It is a mental replicator that works in a cultural-mental environment as opposed to a biological replicator (such as DNA or prions) that work in a chemical medium. A "replicator" is something that makes a copy of itself.
Daniel C. Dennett (Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University) describes memes beautifully in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism in his 1990 article, "Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination:"
Susan Blackmore, one of the pioneers of Memetics, asserts that humans are survival machines for genes and memes. Again, Dennett sums this up in an amusing metaphorical way: "A scholar is just a librarys way of making another library" (128). Naturally, humanists and scholars may grate and debate this, while libraries and memes appear mute. But in the case of the "meme meme," even the mainstream is not myopic. Libraries are speaking volumes (to be read or to be right? see: Dennett's Deal).
What seems to raise humanist hackles is the idea that we dont get ideas, ideas get us. On the surface, this model appears to challenge human "empowerment" and "creativity." Yet there seems to be no problem when authors claim that their characters "take on a life of their own," when artists claim pictures "paint themselves," when songwriters songs come from out of nowhere. Is it so disturbing to our space at the top of the Great Chain of Being that we may have a symbiotic relationship with our thoughts instead of commanding them?
Or, as Dennett says more specifically: "I think that what happened to the meme meme is quite obvious: "humanist" minds have set up a particularly aggressive set of filters against memes coming from "sociobiology" (134). Memetics has come under fire on its own sociobiological turf as well, where it is seen as a distraction from the domination of genetics.
Fascinating as this controversy may be, our purpose here is simply to propose Memetics as a general textual "theory" to incorporate into Robert Scholes'"canon of methods," using History, Theory, Consumption (reading) and Production (writing). And as fun as it would be, we dont have time here to elaborate on Scholes method, as Scholes does so exquisitely in his book, The Rise and Fall of English. However, its worth saying here that the primary criticism of Memetics that comes from all disciplines is that Memetics is really nothing new and does nothing that (pick your favorite theory) does not do.
Perhaps the novelty of Memetics as a theory is that it seems to be a generalist lost in an age of specialists. Any value of literature or theory has been hidden from many students in the mire of "postmodern malaise" (and well talk about that later). Lets just say for now that our job as composition teachers is to enable students to write passable text. Few of us would disagree that critical reading bears a direct relationship to the skill of textual clarity and precision. We need a one-size-fits-all literary theory that doesnt really look like a literary theory.
So Memetics as a literary theory is not intended to displace Reader Response Analysis, The New Criticism and Formalist Analysis, Marxist and Materialist Analysis, Psychoanalytic Analysis, Structuralism and Semiotic Analysis, Deconstruction and Post-Structuralist Analysis, Feminist Analysis, Gay/Lesbian/Queer Analysis, Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Analysis, The New Historicism and Pluralistic Cultural Analysis, or even the new kid on the block: Eco Criticism.
What Memetics can do is provide an easy theoretical handle for students to grasp and situate themselves within a text. A memetic analysis calls for recognition of the ideas and catchphrases, if they were contemporary to the text or spread by that particular text. This is generally easier with texts from another time, and surprisingly difficult with contemporary texts. Recognizing contemporary memes is an excellent exercise in critical thinking, as students are generally unaware that they are memetic hosts, vehicles or interactors until they are aware of the memes.
Some contemporary memes
Students can easily be made aware of current catchphrases; "whazzuuup," "all that and a bag of chips," "read my lips." Other memes include fashion, such as wearing hats backwards. Usually you can start a lively discussion by isolating these memes and listing them. A more thought-provoking exercise begins when you ask students to track the origin of the catchphrases. Some are easily isolated and have origins in popular movies or advertising. Other memes are not so traceable because they have taken on "a life of their own." Some memes have ancient origins and have evolved and mutated over centuries within the cultures that harbor them.
One such example is the "God-and-Country" meme. Ask for an example of this, and youll probably get a room full of blank looks. Have someone read the inscriptions on a quarter; "Liberty," "In God We Trust," both of these inscriptions on the quarter are memes because these words or phrases invoke "complex ideas that form themselves into distinct memorable units." The idea of bundling state and a deity together is as old as the pharaohs. It was an idea familiar to the Romans when they deified the emperor, an idea that went through the middle ages and beyond as the divine right of kings. "God and my right" is still on the British Royal Familys Coat of Arms-- written in French, the language of the court at the beginning of the British monarchy.
Language shapes thinking, language shapes culture, language shapes brains. We have demonstrated that contemporary memes are all around us, determining the way we think, the way we act, and ultimately the conceptual associative "wiring" in our brains. In his remarkable book, Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind, neurologist V.S. Ramachandran demonstrates the importance of our mental Schema. Simply stated, our mental Schema is a duplicate model of the universe we all carry around in our individual brains. Naturally, the model isnt perfect, but its close enough to fool us most of the time. Thats a good thing.
The reliability and predictability of our Schema keeps us "focused and on task." Memes and metaphors enable us to routinely deal with abstractions by providing imagability and frequency to make the abstractions more concrete. This imagability (we tend to think in pictures-- not text) and frequency (memes are replicators-- the most repeated are the most robust) enable us to process abstractions faster and more easily.
Unfortunately, this ease with abstractions can also create a blind spot. The blind spot allows us to accept the idea of waging "war" on an abstract noun ("terrorism") or on a specific chemical compound ("drugs"). The simplicity and potential duplicity of memes can enable what is merely a fashion statement to pass for a belief system. Memes in one respect are much like past events. If we are unaware of either, we unconsciously repeat them.
The Historical Perspective
Once students are aware of how we translate an abstraction to text to pictures, symbols, movies, metaphors or memes for either expediency or entertainment, they are ready to begin applying Memetics as a literary theory to situate themselves within a text, and key to understanding any text involves the "memesphere" in place at the time the text was written. "History, then," writes Scholes, "both social and literary, has to be a part of a discipline called English" (155).
The progressive history of Hegel died in the trenches of World War I. Whats left of Marxs historical materialism after its beating by the Bolsheviks, strangulation by Stalinism and Cold War containment remains to be seen. However, if we are to remain adrift in the doldrums of the "postmodern malaise," (which we will discuss later) we bear the responsibility of designing our own destiny.
There are modernist memes beside white chickens. There are feminist memes hiding in the yellow wallpaper. We can nail the eco criticism meme to Melvilles mast and see the thought contagion dynamic at work in his Bartleby story, unless wed prefer not to. To deny the existence of memes is to deny the existence of metaphor or memory. The deep memes (or metamemes) make literature come alive in our minds. Rhetorical theory (such as metadiscourse) precedes Memetics in the same way that Mendels peas preceded Darwins theory.
But Mendels heredity by no means made Darwins theory redundant, any more than the discovery of DNA rendered Darwinism obsolete. Intense specialization has produced a balkanization of disciplines, even within the English department. The School of Communication has built its own enclave, and is doing quite well emptying rhetorical and literary classrooms. Within literature, the isolation of perspective persists as future unemployed English teachers must chose their canon in the name of specificity.
So what might a memetic analysis look like? Lets look at an example of memetic analysis of a selected text, Mellvilles "Bartleby, The Scrivener; A Story of Wall Street."
Memes and Melville
The groundwork of history-theory is where Memetics fits nicely, because memes are not only major components of literature, but work to explain the cultural forces that influence history ("Liberty," "In God We Trust"). History is another one of those disciplines "useless" to students who must learn cross-cultural orgitecht advocacy and ethics for custom-tailored bottom-line solutions to meet customers unique needs.
Memetics as history/ literary theory can help enable students to separate their brain from the buzzwords. Now, back to the story. Start with the narrator in Melvilles Bartleby (in which the protagonist will later provide an excellent example of memetic replication). The narrator opens by establishing the "late" John Jacob Astor as an ideal. Astor died in 1848, and Bartleby was published in 1853. In 1848, Marx and Engels issued the "Communist Manifesto," Mill published "Principles of Political Economy," and the California gold rush was underway. Jayne Eyre and Wuthering Heights were on the literary scene, as was David Copperfield, Sonnets from the Portuguese, The Scarlet Letter and Representative Men.
Poe died in 1849. The schooner "America" brought Americas Cup to the U.S. in 1851. Wisconsin became a state in 1848, Uncle Toms Cabin was kindling the fire of Abolition in 1853. Astors American Fur Company was a monopoly, and at the time of his death Astor was worth $20 million (approximately $78 billion by todays standards). The Astor Library opened in New York City in 1849, where Melville lived and worked as a customs inspector for over twenty years after he gave up trying to make a living as a writer in 1857. In a little over a decade (1846-57) Melville produced a body of work that lives larger than it did in his own time.
Invite students to step beyond the memes of their own contemporary discourse (Astors $78 billion should interest them--richer than Bill Gates) into the memesphere of Melvilles time-- rife with questions of economic theory (which is more familiar to students- or should be) and transition to the popular (at the time) seafaring romance (which will be the unfamiliar "discourse community"). Scholes uses the technique of self-other textual modes in "Pacesetter English," his own deployment of his canon of methods to enable students to situate themselves within a text. The transition from history to criticism/ theory is seamless.
Putnams Time Machine
Putnam's monthly magazine of American literature, science and art, where Melville first published "Bartleby, The Scrivener; A Story of Wall Street," provides a perfect textual and memetic time machine. Simply looking at the contents of the issues that were almost certainly read by Melville (he appeared in them) is a good core sample of the memes/ ideas of the times, and it is tantalizing to posit their influence on Melville and vice versa. The review/ criticism of Melvilles work also provides a fascinating insight into the evolution and selection pressure of critical theory.
In the following discussion from Putnams, you see some of the memes of the times. Few publications today would refer to "the most cultivated circles of American society." In our present consumer culture we are encouraged to believe life is "...one long alternation of dinings and digestion." No current critic would ever compliment an author on "his manliness." Beyond that, you see the old art-for-arts-sake where the "bottom line" is something crass, even profane. Even the emerging American Literary character is expressed by the voice of a distant time:
The writer goes on to take Melville to task for not measuring up to Typee in his later work, even while admiring his artistic courage and individuality for following his own course. Perhaps this was a compromise Melville sought to strike with Moby-Dick, preserving his allegorical complexity and point-of-view style within his trademark sailor meme. Beyond the content, just looking at the pages of Putnams, type, crammed together cheek-to-jowl, was obviously meant to be consumed by readers who were used to spending long hours consuming text.
So "Bartleby" was first published in 1853, and it wasnt until 1859 that Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Sigmund Freud would not be born for another three years. Marx had just invented historical materialism. How did Melville manage to write such a perceptive ditty involving a personality disorder, a socialist perspective on Wall Street, a perfect example of the neo-Darwinist concept of memetics posited by Richard Dawkins in 1976? Was Melville probing the axis of reality?
Bartleby and the Axis of Reality
Mellville himself wrote:
The main character, Bartleby, is swept into the story, set in a Victorian copy of Dickens London-on-the-Hudson awash in New York words and characters like Nipper, Ginger Nut and Turkey. But theres something strange about this character. You wonder-- whats making Bartleby tick with the very first, "I would prefer not to."
Take it Bartleby. Free Will? Self? Illusions. And only illusions for those who can afford them. The rest of us are driven blindly on by the replicators in our systems, chemicals as genes, thoughts as memes, whose totally unconscious purpose is to make copies of themselves. In the end, you must realize we have no choice.
I would prefer not to. Moonstruck. "Luny," says Ginger Nut. Shuts down, does Bartleby, like a ship with a flooded boiler. Bartleby copies things, thats what a Scrivener does, a human Xerox machine. First Bartleby "prefers not to" proof his work. Then "prefers not to" copy at all. Then "prefers not to" leave, and eventually Bartleby "prefers not to" to live and wastes away in The Tombs. Preferring not to replicate memes is very much like preferring not to replicate cells. But before that, early in the story we are infected with Bartlebys meme.
The narrator continues,
We are afraid to contradict the canned and common answers the cultural milieu and zeitgeist-created memeplexes have folded into our schema. Beyond fear, we can not help it. And why not? Because the odds are against it. Certainly we can. Probably, we wont. Science appears to be pressing us toward a world of probability where certainty is unknown. The physicist, Steven Weinberg is quoted out of context, "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless."
The Bartleby within all of us cant handle pointless. We tremble at the thought that, as Thomas Gray said, "The paths of glory lead but to the grave." Even Einstein feared that abyss, saying, "I will never believe that God plays dice with the world," even after admitting that "Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world." Recent work by Lakoff, Sack, Ramachandrin, Dawkins, Blackmore and others perpetuate the uncertainty of perception.
New evidence suggests that the right hemisphere of brains acts as a kind of junk drawer. From it, the logical left hemisphere extracts only what it can "use," that is, what fits into our perception of "the way it oughta be." As the workaday world forces us to be more left-hemisphere oriented, these unordered impressions; these unusable memes become suppressed and invisible. It is the stock in trade of all artists, including authors, to rummage around in that junk drawer, as fearful as it may be.
The Memetic Scare
In 1997, Blackmore wrote, "I have shown how a theory of memetics provides new answers to some important questions about human nature. If I am right, then we humans are the product of two replicators, not just one. In the past hundred years we have successfully thrown off the illusion that a God is needed to understand the design of our bodies. Perhaps in the next millenium we can throw off the illusion that conscious agents are needed to understand the design of our minds."
Blackmore also says,"We now have a radically new answer to the question "Who am I?", and a rather terrifying one. "I" am one of the many co-adapted meme-complexes living within this brain. This scary idea may explain why Memetics is not more popular. Memetics deals a terrible blow to the supremacy of self" (TS 43-49).
If Blackmore finds God-isnt-there a tough sell, our-selves-are-not-there will be on the shelf forever. Unfortunately, like many unpopular human-centric-myth debunkers, shes probably right. But wont toppling the supremacy of self be dropping a few more drams of doubt into a sea of uncertainty? Is there an answer? Is there a question?
The Role of Writing: A Possible Cure for the "Postmodern Malaise"
Finally, what is the "postmodern malaise?" It is a catchphrase used here to describe the perceptual doldrums of the "fin de siècle" of the 20-21st centuries in Western culture. If this catchphrase "catches on," is used and repeated to describe a roughly similar idea, the catchphrase could become a "meme." As a "metameme," it would package the whole idea of the 20-21st century fin de siècle being the product of the fin de siècle of the 19th-20th centuries, a whole century of Western cultural evolution in one lexical phrase.
The old Classical order of pyramid hierarchies, monarchy and absolute authority was beginning to implode at the "end of the cycle" of the 19th century. This gave rise to "modernism," the individual as the master/ captain aboard his own ship of fools with a crew of one. Along came the storms of fascism, communism, globalization, commodification and a lot of other abstract nouns inadequate to explain very concrete human suffering.
Postmodernism was a reaction to modernism, which was a reaction to classicism. Is there any way out of the doldrums of doubt without returning to the dungeon of dogma? Can we clarify the conundrum of commodified canonicity without more myopic metaphor and acerbating alliterations? Now is the time for critical thinking, which can be exercised with elementary composition and developed throughout the academic career. Now we come to the final phase of the canon of methods: production.
Writing is one of many critical thinking tools, like mathematics. Not all great thinkers are writers... but ALL great writers are thinkers. We have seen one possible memetic analysis of one story. There are no lesson plans here, no grids, models, matrices or metrics, because one thing critical thinking is NOT is "cookie-cutter." Where would Bartleby work today? What would his occupation be? Would he have a new "meme?" What if Bartlebys new meme was, "...its not my job?" How would this change the story? What other memes are at work in this story?
If the "postmodern malaise" is a odious reaction to overwhelming uncertainty, one of the best possible cures would be not to reject uncertainty, but to LEARN HOW TO WORK WITH IT.
Unless, of course, we would prefer not to.
Notes: Works Referenced/ Cited
Blackmore, Susan. The Meme Machine. New York: Oxford University Press. 1999
Blackmore, Susan. "The Power of the Meme Meme." The Skeptic (US), 1997, 5 No 2, 43-49. http://www.susanblackmore.co.uk/sk97.html
The American Short Story And Its Writer- An Anthology, Ann Charters, ed. New York: Bedford/ St. Martins, 2000
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press. 1976/ 89.
Scholes, Robert.. The Rise and Fall of English. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998
Stillings, Neil a. et al. Cognitive Science An Introduction. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1987
A few brave souls took on the idea of Literary Memetics immediately. In a 1979 article in Ars Semeiotica, Daniel Rancour-Laferriere bravely offers "Speculations on the Origin of Visual Iconicity in Culture."
Laferriere closes his article with a specific mention of memes, and much has been done to advance the theory since then. "Memes exist in the brain as neural traces of some kind," speculates Laferriere (184), and recent work is hot on the trail of exactly what kind of neural traces and connections. Much has been done, but not nearly enough.
Any thoughts? Comments? Suggestions? Rants? Send me an email.