Begun, The Meme Wars Have: Episode I

Part Marx For Effort

In my post before last I probably pissed off a lot of people who like Karl Marx. That’s probably an unavoidable result of my genuine disagreements with Marxist theory and my outright opposition to Marxist practices (so far, at any rate). But that doesn’t mean that Marxists and I have no common ideals.

Believe it or not, I hold many beliefs that could fairly be called ‘socialist’. I value individual equality beneath the law and institutions that ensure equality of opportunity. I fully understand the need for economic and political structures that are designed to prevent the stratification of society and the legalized oppression of the many beneath the unaccountable few. Furthermore, I think that inequality of opportunity and the stratification of society tend to be mutually reinforcing if left unchecked. Because of this they must be of central concern to policymakers and citizens alike.

But my reasons for believing such Marx-ish ideas are not to be found in Das Kapital or elsewhere in his massive body of work. As I alluded to before, one can accept such conclusions in broad strokes without buying into the particular framework to which they are most famously attached. Socialist values are ideas that I hold to be true. But like any other statements, they can be produced with valid or invalid arguments alike. My goal with this blog (and more generally with my efforts in philosophy) is to show how this can be done with valid and scientifically compatible arguments.

Fortunately for my brave readers I don’t have the stomach to try to spell out a full-blown legal, economic, political, social, biological (etc…) alternative to Marx in a single post. I hope such an alternative grows over time, as I continue to work it out for myself. Obviously I’m not unique in this pursuit, and many of my intellectual superiors have made prodigious inroads that I still follow closely. But philosophy isn’t a spectator sport, so here it goes:

If You See What I Meme.

I hope it’s fair to say that Adbusters is the most mainstream Marx-inspired magazine in the world. And whenever I read it, I find myself in overall agreement with many of their general arguments and attitudes. I like that they manifest an admittedly contagious – if sometimes fleeting – optimism. I like that they put urgency into old and commonsensical ideas that our current economic system contradicts on a routine basis. And I like that they find no reason to isolate art, politics and economics – after all, they are all elements of human culture demanding introspection and continuous reinvention. And I like that they find passionate and creative ways to show the problems inherent in our global economy as it exists today. In short, Adbusters exemplifies equal attention to praxis and theory that is refreshing and commendable.

I write this to underscore once again that I am not numb to the appeal of socialism. But for many, of course, Adbusters ≠ Socialism. Many on the far left see it as amateurish, uncommitted, lite and generally just Mickey Mouse business (irony intended). From a little closer to the centre, there is still plenty of criticism to go around. The magazine’s stated project of ‘culture-jamming’ has been lambasted persuasively.* And from the right, I think it is safe to say that Adbusters is seen as little more than an embarrassing, if at times unsettling, patchouli-scented farce.

All very fascinating, but my goal is not an overall assessment of Adbusters magazine. My aim is far more narrow: finding ways to bridge the divide between the conclusions (or rather, intuitions) of socialist thinkers and modern, Darwinian theories of human nature.

So why Adbusters? Because of the meme.

Adbusters loves memes. They routinely summon readers to engage in meme warfare as a means of jamming the culture and furthering their notions of economic and social justice. This generally entails working towards a global system that respects people over corporations and that rejects consumer materialism as a source of worthwhile meaning Just this week they lionized the founder of WikiLeaks Julian Assange as a metameme warrior on the front page of their website.

Adbuster's call to arms. Or their (ironic?) branding of a phenomenon of human culture?

In Part I of this post I want to fill out what I think are the contours of memes themselves, including the much-fabled metameme. In Part II I hope to examine the implications of a theory of human nature and of social justice that includes memes.

Part I (…finally!)

As coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 masterwork The Selfish Gene, the meme is intended to be developed into a far-reaching conceptual unit of cultural transmission. Instead, its common usage, as far as I can tell, is limited to describing a range of phenomena on the Internet – from in-jokes on message boards to viral gags that even catch on in ‘real life’. It’s true that LOLcats and Power Thirst are memes.** But so are buttered bread and ‘Happy Birthday’. So is agricultural wheat and ‘false consciousness’.

The semi-endangered meme: the 1978 cover of The Selfish Gene (and one that I was very happy to find at a used bookstore).

Perhaps the reason that the meme meme has acquired this common usage is because the the Internet is probably the best medium we have for understanding memes on a more discrete level of analysis. With the Internet it is easy to detect when a particular meme in its earliest form first appears. From there it is easy to trace, its spread, its gains or declines in popularity and its mutations and adaptations. They can even be classified in general terms, and patterns of the meme life-cycle can be hypothesized.

An important, if distracting question worth asking is: what exactly is a meme. It’s well and good to give examples. Most of us can intuitively grasp the basic concept. But how is the stuff of memes actually selected and transmitted, mutated and extinguished. What is the stuff of memes? The analogy of meme:gene is a good one (and one that Dawkins fully intended). However there is a considerable risk, as with any analogy, of stretching it to the breaking point.

Remember that we can theoretically imagine genes that are not composed of the base pairs that constitute DNA. There is not a necessary connection between the unit of data identified as a gene and its physical substrate. This is evidenced by the fact that our theories of genes long preceded the actual discovery of the structure of DNA, and that we can speak of genetic effects long before actually determining the precise genes involved.

Similarly, we are not required to identify the physical substrate of memes in order to talk meaningfully about their function and even to devise theories about their workings. Like genes, we can begin to deduce their contours well before we have any idea about their immensely complex workings.

I am also hesitant to draw close parallels between genes’ and memes’ precise functional make-up. Base pairs make up long strings of information that via a complex process of transcription code for proteins. Forgive me for glossing over an enormous domain of science, but once those proteins are out and about, shit gets complicated. We are still in the early stages of understanding the function and shape of complex macromolecules, let alone understanding the richly dynamic process of genes interacting with one another via these vastly complex compounds.

And given that this still-baffling process is the medium of the meme, we should take any and all rudimentary memetic predictions with a healthy dose of skepticism. And yet I am drawn to the concept of the meme. I am willing to admit wholeheartedly that any rigid definition of a meme at this stage borders upon pseudo-science. It is a theoretical, conceptual entity whose workings we can only faintly intimate.

But Dawkins wasn’t theorizing about a mythical abstraction. He was proposing another shorthand for understanding complex systems. The Selfish Gene was about genes, to be sure. But it was also about how we can profitably go about understanding gene’s function in particular, and a replicator’s function generally.

Humans have an excellent ability to understand intentionality. Some have argued that it is a theory of mind and, correspondingly, of intentionality, that is what distinguishes humans and, more importantly, human culture from that of the other apes. In turning this theory of mind on to something other than humans, it is putting one of our minds’ specialities to good use.

So when we adopt the gene’s-eye-view (GEV), we are using our intuitive (and largely innate) understanding of intentionality*** to predict how an inanimate, non-intentional informational abstraction will behave in a dynamic and complex environment. When understood as a limited and metaphorical device, the GEV is extremely effective.

And so it goes with the meme’s-eye-view (MEV). If we understand abstract pieces of cultural information along similar lines, we can gain some insights into the complex machinations of cultural transmission.****

My hope is that this rudimentary MEV can help Marxists and other social theorists find a common ground for evaluating claims. After all, when we engage in social theorising, we are at once describing how human culture (in the broadest sense) actually functions, as well as how we think it ought to be improved.

This semi-objective space for understanding culture and arguing about how it ought to be shaped has its advantages.

The Ecology Of Memes

The MEV allows us to incorporate evidence from the sciences about human nature. To take some extremely basic (and admittedly borderline-caricatured) examples, we can all understand why memes for not eating, not drinking water, not reproducing and not fighting in self-defense do not spread among many normal human beings. Our innate desires too strongly counteract them, in most cases. Of course there are those who attempt chastity, who fast, who adhere to strict non-violence even in self-defense, and so forth. But I suspect we can all readily admit that it would be nearly impossible to impose these extreme principles as laws on any sizable group of people. We understand that (and roughly why) these ideas do not find fertile soil in human minds. Moreover, we can provide falsifiable theoretical reasons why they do not and testable empirical evidence that they do not.

Conversely, memes for over-indulgence in food, sex, and fluids are of epidemic proportions in the rich world. Diet plans and treatments for sex-addiction (not to mention plain old contraception!) constitute our various attempts to curb an extremely fertile memetic niche. That the diet industry is worth many billions of dollars a year in the United States alone is proof positive that some behaviours are desirable to a fault. From the MEV, the human weakness for fatty, sweet, frequent meals that cheer us up ensures the promulgation of a whole host of associated memes (from agricultural practices to drive-thrus).

The Condom and the Balanced Diet: Two Anti-Meme Memes in the vast Meme Wars

I think that these very basic examples might be widely intuitive. We all understand that human nature predisposes us to certain behaviours that, in the modern world, lead to perversions that are generally undesirable but remarkably difficult to curb, let alone halt.

The MEV enables us to do a few things. First, it provides us an entry point of vaguely understanding the intersection of human behaviour and artifacts on the one hand and social and psychological forces on the other.

There are dozens of books and articles that document the range of known and hypothesized psychological heuristics. In many cases, the behaviours that they describe (and that indeed provide quintessential examples of their manifest effects) have existed long before the heuristics were understood in modern psychological terms.

Anchoring is an easy example – things that cost $19.99 apparently sell better than things that cost $20.00, even if things that cost $23.45 don’t sell much better than things that cost $23.44. Our brains’ clumsy handling of numbers is well-known and has long been exploited, intentionally or not, by businesspeople throughout time. The meme of exploiting the various instances of the anchoring heuristic takes many forms, of course, but the basic logic behind this ‘good trick’ is a relative constant.

Even when done incorrectly, anchoring probably still works better than we'd expect.

Is it any wonder, for example, why drive-thrus have caught on so widely, whereas ‘make your own burger’ joints have not? Is it any surprise that toys are marketed to the children themselves whereas healthful children’s foods are marketed to parents? For a meme to be enduring and successful, it helps to play on the weakness rather than the strengths of the bodies in which it replicates.

Metamemes Or Better Memes?

It is hardly surprising that a magazine so concerned with advertising would take memes seriously. Marketing is arguably one of the most highly-developed branches of memetic engineering.

It differs from more conventional forms of memetic reproduction / propagation to the extent that it involves designing and spreading memes explicitly intended to successfully bear influence on the constitution of the meme pool in a given population. It is metamemetics. Of course, we all engage in metamemetics in some form when we seek to influence the behaviour (and thus the manifestation of memes) in others. Much of our meta-memetic efforts are unconscious and idiosyncratic. Marketing, like politicking, governing,

Given the vastly complex inter-relations of memes, all memes might be said to be ‘about’ others, in the same way that all genes are all to some degree dependent on the others. This is roughly the perspective advocated by Dawkins in The Extended Phenotype, which he considers to be his greatest contribution to science. As a general principle, Dawkins holds that the information content of replicators is influenced by all other replicators as well as the properties of the physical world. The content of a replicator like a gene or meme is not some localised and isolated string of bits – it is the inseparable product of the natural world in all its enormous complexity.

Accordingly, the concept of a metameme is fuzzy, and probably unnecessary for our purposes (or for Adbusters). All memes influence all others. But only some can be said to be overtly about others. Intentionality is relevant for the study of memes. A novel and a manifesto differ along this dimension. The Da Vinci Code and The Communist Manifesto are similar in the sense that the authors generally expect similar reactions in most readers. Brown hopes to entertain, surprise and thrill readers. Marx hopes to invigorate, awaken and mobilise readers. In each case the relation between the meme and the agent are dissimilar. Brown wants the reader to be experience pleasant feelings and emotions as a consequence of reading his book. Secondarily he might hope that readers go on to buy his other books or go to see the film version of The Da Vinci Code starring the loveable Tom Hanks as the Langdon.

As we clearly see in this diagram, Marx and Langdon are very different.

Marx hoped to provoke an emotional response in his readers as well. But he and Engels also hoped that the reader would form explicit beliefs about the world and is motivated to act in accordance with these new beliefs. The book is meant to be a catalyst for social change. It is more properly understood as a means to an end and not, as with many novels, essentially an end in itself. As I mentioned above, this is a fuzzy distinction because many novels are an admixture of entertainment and persuasion. Orwell’s Animal Farm is a book about a farm. But it’s not really a book about a farm. Orwell hopes to nurture a set of beliefs in the reader and, hopefully, even motivate her to act according to such beliefs.

WikiLeaks is a metamemetic operation. So is Fox News. And Adbusters. And every marketing department in the world. And every documentary ever produced. The list goes on, just like this post!

In Part II, my patient reader, we will try to see how the concept of the meme supports a vision of human well-being as a project of social engineering based on empirical evidence


* Namely The Rebel Sell by Andrew Potter and Joseph Heath. Incidentally, they also rip into another sacred manifesto of counter-culture with similar effectiveness: No Logo by Naomi Klein.

** A highly educational and entertaining repository of such Internet memes can be found here:

*** This exploits what Wrey Herbert calls the Whodunit heuristic in his new book On Second Thought

****Redirecting our ingrained heuristics is an excellent way of teasing out insights that can be difficult to determine logically. Like analogies, heuristics have breaking points and we must be wary of over-stepping their useful useful application.

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