While I was enjoying a cup of tea at Larval Subjects recently, our host gracefully steered the conversation from emergence to memes. Recapping the basic premise, a typical meme is an idea or song or joke floating around in the environment. It can make innumerable copies of itself, but it’s essentially parasitic: each copy of the meme must infect a host organism in order to survive. This new meme “wants” to survive and to reproduce itself, which it does by lodging itself inside human brains. The meme manifests a certain property — cleverness or catchiness, say — that the brain finds attractive or that lowers the brain’s resistance to infection, making memic reproduction more likely, just as sexual attraction makes biological reproduction more likely. The human “host” functions as a vector who, by telling someone the idea or singing the song, transmits the infectious meme to other brains.
Here’s my limited understanding of Levi’s position on memes. First, he regards the meme as an object. It’s essentially a material thing, consisting of a particular set of sounds or markings decoupled from their meaning. This conceptualization hasn’t quite stabilized though, and Levi vacillates between categorizing memes as material objects and as Aristotelian ideal objects that must be embodied in material form. The meme’s idea-ness or song-ness is an emergent property spawned by the raw meme’s physical properties but not reducible to them. Though idea-ness and song-ness were spawned by the meme, these emergent properties exist not in the raw physical meme itself but in the brains of people who see or hear them; i.e., the meme’s “hosts.” Similarly, the meme’s infectious properties — cleverness for the idea, catchiness for the song — emerge from the idea/song and likewise manifest themselves in the hosts, assuring that the idea/song takes up long-term residency. When the host states the idea or sings the song, the meme lodges itself in the hearer’s brain and the reproductive cycle repeats itself.
Rather than critiquing Levi’s scheme, I’m trying to work through the way I think about memes. It makes sense to me to regard a meme as an object. A song is a distinct thing separate from its singer; an idea exists independently of those who think it. I don’t, though, believe that the essence of a song or an idea is its materiality. But a meme isn’t ideal either, in the traditional sense of being perfect and eternal form or of existing only in minds. A meme is an abstract object. (I got this idea from Amie Thomasson’s Fiction and Metaphysics, about which I previously posted.) An abstract object is a structured pattern of information that isn’t restricted to any particular space-time coordinates and that can manifest itself materially in a variety of ways: in a voice or a musical instrument, on a piece of paper, or in someone’s brain. Though, as Levi observes, the abstract pattern has to manifest itself materially somehow, the pattern is real in its own right.
[A visual illustration of an abstract object: The top photo looks like a random assortment of junk, but when you line yourself up with it at the proper angle you realize that the junk is organized according to an abstract pattern that conveys meaning to brains familiar with the rules of arithmetic and the content of selected works of 20th century fiction. The abstract information embedded in the junk emerges in our awareness when get ourselves lined up with it, but the information was designed into the junk assembly. This junk pile is an artifact.]
In essence the meme is its abstract structured pattern; its particular material manifestation is of secondary importance. But the pattern has to be received as information in order for it to be perceived as a song or an idea, rather than just raw physical sounds or markings. My cat can be exposed to the textual or vocal embodiment of an idea and miss the point entirely, focusing solely on the materiality of the piece of paper or the sound. My cat as it sits on the table can see me pointing my finger at the floor and it will look at my finger: the abstract information embedded in the pointing gesture is completely lost on the cat. I could write a memo outlining my expectation that the cat not get up on the table and the cat would likely sit on the piece of paper for awhile until it got bored, then jump back onto the table.
The meme’s abstract pattern isn’t an emergent property of the sounds or words or images in which it’s made manifest. That’s because the pattern is designed into the meme from the beginning. Almost all memes are artifacts. Composing a song or thinking up an idea isn’t all that different from weaving a basket or manufacturing a lamp. The main difference is that song-ness and idea-ness are more clearly abstract. A basket can’t duplicate itself in people’s brains; it has to be copied materially. Still, the idea of basket-ness and lamp-ness is abstract, and the idea can be made manifest in a whole host of different materials and shapes. The information that identifies something as a basket or a lamp is an abstract pattern that’s designed in to the material stuff of which it’s constructed.
A song isn’t inextricably connected to its composer, nor is an idea inseparable from the person who first thought it. It’s reasonable to count these sorts of abstract patterns of information as objects in their own right, decoupled from any particular material manifestation. But what happens when the song is materialized, say in its being played on a harmonica? Has the abstract song been transformed into a concrete song? Has it merged with the sounds produced by the harmonica to become a merged object with its own distinct properties? Surely it has: play the same song on a harmonica and on a bassoon: while the abstract pattern of songness is identical, the song sounds different on different instruments. Certainly the song is transformed in different ways by harmonicas and symphony orchestras and copies of sheet music, while still retaining the same abstract songness. I’m not sure what to think about it, but I suspect Latour’s ideas about translation will prove helpful here.
What about the idea of memes reproducing themselves by parasitically colonizing brains? I suppose you could look at it that way. What I think, though, is that consciousness is overemphasized in the way we pick up things like songs and ideas. Much of what we learn we acquire unintentionally, unconsciously. With practice I learned to hit a moving tennis ball back over the net. The information I need to accomplish this feat is abstract and calculable, but I don’t perform the calculations consciously — it’s an unconscious calculation. Did the hand-eye coordination meme reproduce itself by colonizing my brain? No: I learned it because I wanted to and because I practiced, even though the learning took place unconsciously. I learned to speak English as a child without consciously studying the grammar and syntax and vocabulary: I picked it up unconsciously. Did the language reproduce itself in my brain? No: I wanted to understand other humans and to communicate with them, and I learned to do so unconsciously. Even when I purposely read a book, I pick up bits of knowledge that I didn’t consciously commit to memory.
Knowing your way around the neighborhood, recognizing people’s faces, riding a bike, picking up tunes: most human learning takes place unconsciously. Consciousness is functions mostly as the attentional interface: the unconscious takes care of storing and organizing. I can call up the answer to 7 x 8 from memory without constantly rehearsing the multiplication tables in my head. It’s part of Freud’s legacy to regard the unconscious as a repository for things that were once conscious but that we’ve subsequently repressed. That happens, but it’s a relatively small aspect of unconscious thought. “All thought is unconscious,” Donnel Stern asserts; a thought becomes conscious only when we need to call it into awareness for some reason. If memes are self-reproducing parasites on our brains, then so is practically everything that we’ve learned in our lifetimes. I think it’s more plausible to say that we unconsciously pick up all sorts of brain content that amuses us or is useful to us because those are the sorts of abstract patterns that humans attend to in their environment.
Besides, memes are artifacts. Songs are written by people who want them to be heard and played and sung. Ideas are formulated by people who want them to be known and understood and accepted. The memes aren’t out there reproducing themselves on their own; they’re being actively disseminated by their originators and their “hosts.”