On the misdefinition of memetics

A letter to the Journal of Memetics discussion list

by Luther Blissett

This is an argument countering David Lynch's newly proposed definition of the word meme and the boundaries of the science of memetics. It is not only the finest argument I have ever made, but it is the only one approaching it in quality which I or anyone else has ever composed.

Lynch's position, as it might be put by two dancing bottles of vinegar named Vacco and Sanzetti:

"It's not the tune of a song that is the meme, but the memory of and ability to resing the tune. And it is those mental structures that ought to be studied by people studying memes."

This leaves out a lot of what many people are working with in the discipline, and it seems to do so unnecessarily. What Lynch sees as 'artifacts' that lie outside of the main interest of the discipline, I see as the only data points we have within the discipline. And what Lynch sees as "consistent with Dawkins" and therefore worth preserving in its restricted form, I see as a radical surgery on a much more open-ended initial concept.

The way I imagine it, in the philosophical branch of memetics, we'll more closely define what can be known about the structure of a meme when it is instantiated in a human mind and how to model the behavior of model-memes; in the scientific branch, we'll analyze actual memes in the only phase of their lifecycles in which they leave a physical trace - when they cause words or behaviors which are capable of being copied.

As is the case in most sciences, the theorists suggest the lines of inquiry with the power of logic and a broad knowledge of the field (and sometimes test their theories by careful experiment), the scientists collect data and make noise when something about reality contradicts the current theories (and sometimes propose new theories). The people who get things named after them after they die do plenty of both.

Following Lynch's more theoretical line of inquiry seems to me to lead first and foremost into a quagmire of epistemology and theoretical linguistics; I myself have tended more toward the scientific side. I'd hate to think I was no longer pursuing memetics when all this time I've been catching memes in my net and pinning them in my boxes.

I attack Lynch's proposed definition, and I feel compelled to go further and to question the motives of Dr. Lynch for presenting it. This is looking more and more like the act of provocateur from the Disumbrationist League.

For those of you who haven't heard of the DL, there's a FAQ running around on-line someplace. In short, they're to rational discourse what the Unabomber is to mail-order novelty companies. They oppose on principle the premises of rational discussion (a la current postmodern vogue) and take it one thoroughly illogical step further and resist rational discussion with tactics of disruption and cooption.

They paraphrase Cyprot Johann Most for their rallying cry of sorts:

"Topple the tulip with the weight of its football."

Not inspiring to you or me, perhaps, but there are far more disumbrationists (especially on line) than there are memeticists (even if you don't accept Dr. Lynch's more restrictive definition).

The gist of the slogan, as you might gather, is that rational discussion is to be opposed by pointing out and magnifying its inherent absurdities. This is done through such predictable but often successful stunts of provoking cascades of categorization and definition within a previously successful and disciplined enclave of thinking.

But in fact, according to disumbrationist theory rational argument is its own worst enemy, and the more rational the worse the enemy, so the favored tactic is to construct arguments in the most persuasive of the prevailing forms for whatever group in which the provocateur operates. The idea is to appeal to the very part of the person who believes in these accepted (and quite reasonable and realistic) forms by presenting the perfect key for that lock.

They will go to great lengths. As an illustration, Alan Sokal was a journeyman Disumbrationist when he published "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" in Social Text #46/47. He was ejected from the League for later admitting in print that his paper was a hoax - to this day his name is brought up when shameful examples are needed to humble new League initiates.

If inexperienced and cocky Disumbrationists are pulling stunts like this, what are the real pros capable of?

Dr. Lynch, perhaps you could enlighten us on this matter?

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