Archive for January, 2011
Posted on January 30, 2011 - by David
The latest episode of ‘Office Hours,’ a social-science podcast produced by several grad students at the University of Minnesota, features my recent interview with Francesco Duina, chair of the sociology department at Bates College, and author of ‘Winning: Reflections on an American Obsession.’
Since reading Duina’s book, I’ve noticed the language and mindset of competition popping up in some questionable contexts, and thanks to his insightful analysis, I’m less likely to accept without reflection that this winning/losing dynamic always makes sense. But:
For many of us, it is a simple matter of fact that, in our schools, workplaces, businesses, and everywhere else, there are winners and losers. We can either win or lose our war against fat, the peace in Iraq, recognition as best employee of the month, custody of our children, our lover’s heart, and in the words of Newt Gingrich in his recent book, even “the future” (Gingrich 2005). (Duina 182)
It’s particularly interesting that Duina’s brief list of confusing competitions includes the Gingrich book (titled, ‘Winning the Future: A 21st Century Contract with America’), since “winning the future” turned out to be the catchphrase from Obama’s State of the Union Address last week. I counted 10 uses of this phrase or some variation of it, and the heading above the video on the Whitehouse website makes it abundantly clear that this was indeed the official theme of the night.
So what did people have to say about the President’s new slogan? Gingrich obviously agrees that the term fits the topic, and states that “Winning implies a real contest. Winning implies losing is possible.” (Duina would indeed have us recognize the same thing about this kind of language, but Gingrich doesn’t demonstrate how exactly this makes sense, the point for him being, I guess, that America’s victory isn’t a sure thing). Of course he disagrees with Obama entirely about how the future is to be won. Bill O’Reilly opens his article by poking some fun at the phrase, but then ultimately buys into the concept, just disagreeing in pretty much the same fashion as Gingrich about what will make us future-winners. Sarah Palin commented on her Facebook page that the “acronym [wtf] seemed more accurate than much of the content.”
Others challenged the language itself a bit more directly. An AP article called it an “upbeat but amorphous phrase.” NPR’s Ari Shapiro noted that, “for Obama, “Win the Future” has the advantage of being vague. At the end of “recovery summer,” people asked where the recovery was. The future, on the other hand, is always just around the corner.” Still others got closer to the heart of the matter, questioning Obama’s use of this “amorphous phrase” to talk about competition with nations like India and China. Tim Redmond of the San Francisco Bay Guardian asked:
…since when was the future a war, something to be fought with an enemy? To “win” the space race we had to “beat” the Soviets, which we did (ha ha, we got to the moon first). To “win” the future, do we have to beat someone else? The Russians aren’t up for winning much of anything these days, but Obama seems concerned about competing with China; do the Chinese have to “lose” the future for us to “win?”
Art Carden, on his Forbes blog, The Economic Imagination, wrote:
… while a group of White House speechwriters apparently thought that “win the future” would have the same rhetorical resonance as “yes we can,” the Address conveyed an incorrect zero-sum worldview in which what others gain comes at our expense. As economics has shown over and over and over and over again, trade creates wealth. Voluntary exchange is a positive-sum game. If China gets richer, it doesn’t imperil our ability to get richer, too.
You can find similar thoughts at the Economist’s Free Exchange blog. The point is, it’s not clear why we Americans “need to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world” in order to be content. I for one am not particularly upset by the fact that South Korea has better wireless access than we do, though the intonation of Obama’s voice as he tells us this suggests we all should be. It’s also odd that the first half of his speech sets up other nations as opponents, but he goes on to cite major trade agreements we have reached or are working on in Asia as evidence of the progress we’re making. Agreements imply cooperation, not competition, but I guess it’s just harder to get Americans fired up about working together than it is to construct a global economic showdown.
I found the “education race” rhetoric to be especially troubling. “Of course,” Obama said, “the education race doesn’t end with a high school diploma. To compete, higher education must be within the reach of every American.” What are our nation’s students supposed be racing towards? Is a student’s desire to go directly to work after high school legitimate, or does this signal that he has lost the race? Obama is determined that “by the end of the decade, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world,” but if we take this statement apart, we see it is a relative goal, contingent upon the proportion of college grads in the nations we imagine ourselves to be competing against not rising enough to keep us from reclaiming the top spot. (To highlight the nebulous quality of this aspiration, I should mention that it could in fact be achieved without any improvement on our part, if the rates of college graduation in these competitor nations were to drop for whatever reason).
And just what kind of education should young Americans be racing to get so that we can “win the future”? Obama emphasized the importance of math and science, and mentions how we’re falling behind in these areas, but of course neither he nor the two men who sat behind him (Biden and Boehner) received this type of education (nor, I would guess, did the majority of those seated in the House chamber that night). What’s implied is that if we can “out-educate” in math and science, our young people will be able to “out-innovate and out-build,” and thus we will “win the future.” Certainly, improving material conditions is a worthwhile aim, but in order to navigate our increasingly important and complex relations with other nations, won’t we need students of history, language, psychology, and culture? Will better wireless coverage and faster trains help us understand the way that people in India see the world? And even more fundamentally, do we have any good reason to think that a stronger economy will erase problems like mental illness, substance abuse, suicide, and violence of the type we saw in Tucson a few weeks ago?
This isn’t intended to be a critique of Obama, but rather a reevaluation of the imprecise rhetoric which I’m sure was meant to inspire and uplift us. I think we would all do well to follow Duina’s advice about “conceptual hygiene,” and commit to using the language of winning and losing only where it actually fits. If we can do this, our words and thoughts may begin to better match reality, we might find ourselves able to articulate what it is we actually want, and perhaps we’ll start to feel a bit more at peace with ourselves and those around us. (And that includes India and China)
Posted on January 24, 2011 - by David
Of the various writings, videos, and recollections of teachers, classmates, and former friends with which we are left to piece together a picture of Jared Loughner’s mind before the shooting, the most intelligible is a poem titled ‘Meat Head’ that he wrote for one of his classes at Pima Community College last fall.
Awaking on the first day of school
Pain of a morning hang over
Attending a weight lifting class for college credit
Attempting to exercise since freshmen year of high school
Crawling out of bed and walking to the shower
Warm water hitting my back
Thoughts of being promiscuous with a female again
Putting on a old medium red tee shirt, light brown cameo shorts, and black Adidas
For breakfast a glass of water, cold pepperoni pizza, and two Advil
Bringing my Nano Ipod with heavy metal music
Taking the local bus on a overcast morning
Waiting with crack heads after their nightly binge
Bus is cheap, two dollars for a ride anywhere in the city
Sitting in back against a hard plastic seat
Staring at stop lights, brand new cars, and graffiti
Coming to a slow halt in front of the school
Entering the gym as the glowing florescent lights are humming
Next to the treadmills, putting a green foam mat on the ground
Stretching for fifteen minutes, loosening the muscles in my legs, back and arms
Cleaning the mat with anti-bacterial spray and a paper towel
Jogging for ten minutes, my heart beating, beating, beating
Pain in my right side of the last minute of twenty
Looking around, the cute women are catching my eye
Probably waiting for their hot boyfriends wandering in the locker room
All the men are in shape with their new white tank shirts, basketball short, and Nike shoes
Confusing look on my face of no idea what to do
Deciding to copy other men’s routines of
Arm Curls, Leg presses, Rows, Squats, Military something’s, and Isolated whatever’s
Leaving the gym thinking
Waiting for the bus with alcoholics that are going to the bars early
Coming home for another shower
While grabbing the white towel, the eureka moment is lingering
Quick nap and lunch is on my mind
Setting the alarm one hour before getting ready for my next class
Getting into bed
The title already suggests a problematic identity; (for any who might not know), ‘meathead’ is a derogatory term for jocks, muscular men, athletes, etc., but the poem focuses on Loughner’s own time in the gym, so he is criticizing himself? He has been “attempting to exercise since freshmen year of high school,” (this “attempting” implies a lack of success), and yet the title and tone suggest he sees himself as different from, and possibly somehow superior to, those working out around him. He has trouble looking the part, as his gym clothes are mismatched and worn out (“old medium red tee shirt, light brown cameo [probably meant camo] shorts, and black Adidas”) while the others “are in shape with their new white tank shirts, basketball short, and Nike shoes.” Not only does he feel like he looks out of place, he’s not sure how to act (“confusing look on my face of no idea what to do”), so he ends up “deciding to copy” what others do. It seems Loughner relates his lack of romantic or sexual involvement with the opposite sex to his inability to be like these other men, and while there is clearly an element of sexual tension in the poem, I don’t think it is as simple as Loughner being some kind of sex-crazed pervert. In fact, a MySpace posting from November 17th (“It hurts to have been never sexually active at 22!”) reveals that it is not so much a lack of sexual activity that is the problem, but his consciousness that in this society, a 22-year old virgin would probably be deemed abnormal. The people Loughner connects himself to most closely are the “crack heads” and “alcoholics” with whom he waits for the bus, and even this mention of public transportation seems another to reflect upon his inadequacy – he notes the contrast as he views “brand new cars, and graffiti” from his “hard plastic seat” on the “cheap” bus.
When read, ‘Meat Head’ is more depressing than disturbing, especially if one forgets for a moment who wrote it. But apparently the style of his presentation in class didn’t quite match the overall flatness of the poem. According to Don Coorough, a classmate who provided copies of two of his poems to the media, Jared “had the poem memorized, and he stood up in class and performed it with great drama — at one point, grabbing his crotch.” This performance, along with his inappropriate emotional responses to others’ poems (he laughed and joked as a tearful female student read a poem about abortion), contributed to the complaints which resulted in his suspension from Pima.
Another poem, ‘Dead as a dodo,’ may be an attempt to paint an allegorical scene, though it’s anyone’s guess who the dodo is (is it Loughner? Giffords?) or what the other objects, creatures, and movements might symbolize.
Dead as a dodo
On the island of Mauritius a heavy storm is leaving.
In the fields of the ancient wild forest a wild field of mushrooms is growing.
Snails and grasshoppers are ready for the warmth.
The old grass growing with lizards are jolting for crickets while snakes looking for lonely mice.
Falcons are flying for pray.
Shallow light Blue Ocean shimmering at each wave as the black clouds are rolling.
Waves are lapping.
Fisherman on the reefs are casting their poles.
In warm water a pack of clown fish are floating.
Tiger sharks are swimming free.
Steel drums beating in the distance.
The full moon slowly setting for the sun is rising.
At the local cemetery there is weeping.
The dodo is finally dieing.
But one wonders, why was this kid taking a poetry class when the unanswered question which proved nearly fatal for Rep. Giffords was, “what is government if words have no meaning?” His friends, at 4:06 in the video below, describe Jared’s obsession with what he perceived as the meaninglessness of language:
“He was obsessed with how words were meaningless, you know, you could say, “oh, this is a cup,” and hold a cup, and he’d be like, “oh, is it a cup? or is it a pool? is it a shark? is it an airplane?”
While his friends, and others since the shooting, have interpreted these statements as nonsensical, he is on to something very real here, despite his difficulty in expressing it: Jared realized that words, as symbols, are arbitrary, given their meaning by the history of their (socially agreed upon) use. There is nothing in the physical composition of the object we call a “cup” that makes us use that sound and those letters to refer to it, and for Jared this arbitrariness was equal to unreality. This fact of culture, overlooked or taken for granted by most, seems to have been both exhilarating and terrifying for Loughner; exhilarating because it meant there was no good reason why he should be constrained by social conventions, and terrifying because he was, in fact, constrained – someone or something else was “controlling the grammar.”
In addition to discovering the arbitrary nature of symbols, Jared senses the importance of logic in our culture, and his attempts to make sense of his reality rest largely on a series of if-then syllogisms like those in the video above. He seems to think that by formulating his delusional beliefs, (which he takes as facts), into logical statements, he has proven these beliefs true to his (at the time he made the videos, probably imagined, but now very real) “listener.”
Of course, since the premises themselves are faulty, nearly all of Jared’s syllogisms fail, except perhaps the following:
All humans are in need of sleep
Jared Loughner is a human
Hence, Jared Loughner is in need of sleep
If we consider what Loughner does (or tries to do) when he sleeps, our image of him becomes even more interesting: according to his friends, Jared was an enthusiastic practitioner of lucid dreaming. His own writings refer to “conscience dreaming” by which he presumably meant “conscious dreaming” (another term for lucid dreaming. Apparently, he preferred the dream world to waking world, feeling a greater sense of freedom and control while asleep.
Examined in the light of Liah Greenfeld’s hypothesized mental processes, Jared Loughner’s struggle to determine his own reality demonstrates fundamental problems with his Identity which manifested in problems with the Will. But one of the most important questions – from a legal standpoint at least – will be whether or not Loughner fully understood and was in control of his actions when he opened fire on January 8th. The evidence indeed suggests this was a willful act – planned ahead of time, and executed according to plan, so how do we reconcile this with the image of a deranged mind? In my next post on the subject, I’ll look at how Loughner’s delusional beliefs and other psychotic symptoms fit into existing definitions of mental illness, and consider what this might tell us about Jared’s mindset the moment he pulled the trigger.
Posted on January 19, 2011 - by David
By now, the search for political or ideological motivations in the January 8th shooting in Tuscon has given way almost entirely to a search for signs of mental illness in Jared Loughner’s past, and while debates over gun control, inflammatory political rhetoric, and the responsibility of colleges when it comes to dealing with troubled students will certainly continue in the wake of this tragedy, agreement is pretty much universal that this was the work of a madman.
I’m a pretty big fan of Jon Stewart, and wasn’t surprised that in his first show after this all happened, he took a characteristically sensible view, drawing the focus away from the much discussed “vitriol” even before the overall tone of reporting had shifted. But his acknowledgment of the role of insanity contains a subtle, unquestioned assumption that may need to be challenged, as controversial as such a challenge may be; this is the idea that mental illness, or at least the kind of mental illness that plays into an attack like this, has always existed. At 3:33 into the opening, Stewart said:
“We live in a complex ecosystem of influences and motivations, and I wouldn’t blame our political rhetoric any more than I would blame heavy metal music for Columbine. And by the way, that is coming from somebody who truly hates our political environment – it is toxic, it is unproductive, but to say that that is what has caused this, or that the people in that are responsible for this, I just don’t think you can do it. Boy would that be nice. Boy would it be nice to be able to draw a straight line of causation from this horror to something tangible, because then we could convince ourselves that if we just stop this, the horrors will end. You know, to have the feeling, however fleeting, that this type of event can be prevented, forever. But it’s hard not to feel like it can’t. You know, you cannot outsmart crazy, you don’t know what a troubled mind will get caught on – crazy always seems to find a way, it always has…”
But has it always? And how would we know? We’ve become increasingly convinced that serious mental illnesses – especially psychoses usually classified as bipolar or schizophrenia – are caused genetically, even though what we actually know about these illnesses doesn’t justify this faith in the biological model. The assumption that mental illness has existed in generally the same form, at generally the same rate throughout history and across cultures deserves more scrutiny than it is normally given today. Liah Greenfeld has hypothesized that madness is a modern phenomenon, emerging in 16th century England simultaneous with the emergence of nationalism. Consider the parallels between Jared Loughner and the case of Peter Berchet, a “lunatic” and a “deranged Puritan,” as described in Greenfeld’s forthcoming book:
In 1573, Berchet, a law student, stabbed Sir John Hawkins, a very firm Protestant, whom he mistook for Sir Christopher Hatton, an advisor to the Queen and also a Protestant, accused by Berchet of being “a wylfull Papyst [who] hindereth the glory of God.” The incident taking place at the time of increasing Puritan agitation, Elizabeth wished Berchet to be questioned under torture to reveal the names of co-conspirators she suspected. On the testimony of two of his fellow students, however, Berchet’s examiners became convinced that he was not a political/religious extremist, but, rather, suffered from “nawghtye mallenchollye,” i.e., was stark mad…
The distemper expressed itself in “very strange behavior” at the Middle Temple which his friends attributed to overmuch study and which, shortly before the attack on Hawkins reached a stage we would consider psychotic. “He rarely slept and would pace up and down in his room, striking himself upon his breast, throwing his hands in the air, filliping with [snapping] his fingers and speaking softly to himself… while alone in his chamber, [he] would walk up and down reciting biblical verses and rhymes to himself, then suddenly he would race to the window. With a pointed diamond that he wore in a ring on his little finger, he would scrawl one of his own compositions upon the glass,” when asked by a friend whether he was all right, he responded that “there was ‘a thing at his hart wich noe man in the world showld knowe’ and … would throw his hands in the air and use other ‘frantic gestures’.” To distract him, his friends took Berchet to a wedding in the country, where he proceeded to inform the bride that “she was another man’s daughter, and that she had been born in London. Staring into her eyes while pounding his hands upon the table, Berchet declared that he had ‘seene the verrye same eyes but not the same face,’” punctuating his “outrageous monologue… with unspecified but insulting gestures.” Before his departure from the house of the friend with whom Berchet and his fellow students stayed in the country, he “for no apparent reason beat a young boy … sent to his room to build a fire” and then “Berchet came out of his room, filipping his fingers and talking very strangely, saying in a loud voice, ‘watche, shall I watche hark, the wynd bloweth, but there is neither rayne, wynd, nor hayle, nor the Deuyll hym self that can feare me, for my trust is in thee Lord.’” On the way back to London his companions thought that his “head was verrye muche troubled,” among other things, he “galloped away from the party, dagger in hand, determined to kill some crows that had offended him.” In London, one of Berchet’s friends warned him that, if he continued behaving so, “his position at the Temple would be jeopardized. Berchet reproached [the friend] and maintained that he had ‘a thing at my hart which them nor anye man alyue shall knowe.’ The day that Berchet performed the fateful act, he and a fellow student… had attended a lecture given by Puritan zealot Thomas Sampson. The lecture seemed to provide Berchet with a necessary inspiration to attack Hawkins, for later the same day [another friend] observed Berchet by peering at him through the keyhole of his room door and heard him, as he filliped with his fingers, remark, ‘shall I doe it and what shall I doe it? Why? Then I will doe it.’ Running quickly toward the Temple gate, Berchet hesitated for a brief moment, repeated the same words, then dashed into the Strand where he confronted Hawkins.”
The outraged Queen, as mentioned above, wished Berchet to be both questioned under torture and executed immediately. Instead, following the testimony of his friends, he was committed to the Lollards Tower for his heretical beliefs, where the Bishop of London promised him that, if he recanted, he would live. Berchet recanted and was transferred to the Tower, apparently for an indefinite term of imprisonment under relatively humane conditions, to judge by the fact that the room was kept warm and had light enough, allowing his personal keeper to stand comfortably and read his Bible by the window. At this, however, Berchet took umbrage, promptly killing this innocent with a piece of firewood supplied by the charitable state. Thus, in the end, he was executed – not because his original, and, from the viewpoint of the authorities, graver, crime was attributed to madness (which, in fact, could save him), but because his madness could not be contained.
(The description of this case is based on Cynthia Chermely’s “’Nawghtye Mallenchollye’: Some Faces of Madness in Tudor England,” The Historian, v.49:3 (1987), pp. 309-328.)
Of course, this historical comparison is not meant to somehow explain Loughner’s actions, but if we consider for a moment the possibility that mental illness serious enough to drive someone to murder might have a cultural cause, then we must also consider that this cause is not rooted in the specific content of any particular cultural conflict – neither Puritan vs. Catholics nor Tea Party vs. Progressives – but in the general conditions of modernity which make identity formation so problematic. In my next post, I’ll look at some of Loughner’s preoccupations, including logic, language, and lucid dreaming, and consider how they might make sense within Greenfeld’s cultural model of mental illness.
Posted on January 9, 2011 - by David
I’ve probably spent an inordinate amount of time over the last year thinking about “memes.” (Perhaps this is evidence that these parasitic mind viruses do in fact exist). Unsatisfied with my first critique, I hope to offer something more valuable here.
I may be wrong, but I get the feeling not that many social science types take the memetic view of culture seriously enough to respond to it – they smirk, or shrug it off, and go about their business. But with the amount of public attention “memes” have received, I think this ambivalence is a mistake. Students of culture who believe they have something better to offer ought to speak up.
Over the last 20 years, Daniel Dennett has probably been the strongest advocate of the memetic perspective, which grew out of Richard Dawkins’ book, The Selfish Gene (1976). Some of Dennett’s more recent thoughts are found in a 2009 article called ‘The Cultural Evolution of Words and Other Thinking Tools.’ I’ll focus my attention here, but refer to his other work as well.
What is culture?
(see Liah Greenfeld’s view here)
Dennett offers no explicit definition of culture here, but two that can be extracted from the article are “behavioral-perceptual transmission” and “transmission by replication of non-genetic information.” Obviously, “behavioral-perceptual transmission” plays an important role in the survival of many individual organisms and the continuation of many different species. So what, according to Dennett, distinguishes the human, “hyperpotent variety of cultural evolution” from transmission of learned behaviors in other species?
As Richerson and Boyd (2006) show, just as the standard information highway, the vertical transmission of genes, was optimized during billions of years, the second information highway from parents to offspring had to evolve under rather demanding conditions; however, once this path of vertical cultural transmission had been established and optimized, it could be invaded by “rogue cultural variants,” horizontally or obliquely transmitted cultural items that do not have the same probability of being benign. (The comparison to spam on the internet is hard to avoid.) These rogue cultural variants are what Richard Dawkins (1976) calls memes, and although some of them are bound to be pernicious—parasites, not mutualists— others are profound enhancers of the native competences of the hosts they infect. One can acquire huge amounts of valuable information of which one’s parents had no inkling, along with the junk and the scams.
This passage begs the question, in what respect are these “rogue” bits of culture “variants” from the “behavioral-perceptual transmission” we see in other species? The answer is found in his comparison of a termite castle and Gaudi’s ‘La Sagrada Familia,’ where he writes that “the design and construction [of Gaudi’s church] could not have proceeded without elaborate systems of symbolic communication”
What are “memes”?
If Dennett is saying that humans are distinguished from other animals by their dependence on symbolic transmission, then we are in agreement. But this still leaves the question: what, exactly, are “memes”?
In his 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett quotes Dawkins’ definition of the meme as a “unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” (202) This article calls memes “cultural items that replicate with varying amounts of input from intelligent vectors.” If we try to synthesize a definition of “meme” by combining these statements with the implicit definition of culture I refer to above, (“transmission by replication of non-genetic information”), we can say that a meme is a replicating or replicable unit of non-genetic information. But this differs in two important ways from the “elaborate systems of symbolic communication” upon which Dennett correctly states that the construction of Gaudi’s church depends. First, there is no requirement that the “meme” be symbolic in nature, and second, culture is assumed to be fundamentally composed of discrete, self-replicating units or entities. To grant any one symbol an independent existence as a self-replicating unit is to remove it from the context in which it has significance and by which it renders its effects. So if the memetic perspective obscures the distinction that Dennett initially draws out, what, if anything, does it clarify or contribute?
Words as “memes”
What are words? They are not just sounds, or marks, or even symbols. They are memes (Dawkins 1976; Dennett 1991, 1995, 2006). Words are that subset of memes that can be pronounced.
Dennet calls words “our paradigmatic memes” and tells us that they “have an identity that is to a considerable extent language-independent”:
Like lateral or horizontal gene transfer, lateral word transfer is a ubiquitous feature, and it complicates the efforts of those who try to identify languages and place them unequivocally in glossogenetic trees. English and French, for instance, share no ancestor later than proto-Indo-European (see Fig. 2) but have many words in common that have migrated back and forth since their divergence (cul-de-sac and baton, le rosbif and le football, among thousands of others). Just as gene lineages prove to be more susceptible to analysis than organism lineages, especially when we try to extend the tree of life image back before the origin of eukaryotes (W.F. Doolittle, this volume), so word lineages are more tractable and nonarbitrary than language lineages.
It seems like all “lateral word transfer” really means is that throughout history, individuals and societies which speak different languages have come into contact with each other and shared words. And the fact that a word is found in more than one language does not mean its identity is “language-independent” either, it just means there is an even wider range of linguistic contexts in which it can be used and understood.
After this less than compelling argument for words as “memes,” Dennett goes in a somewhat different direction:
Words have one feature that has a key role in the accumulation of human culture: They are digitized. That is, norms for their pronunciation permit automatic—indeed involuntary—proofreading, preventing transmission errors from accumulating in much the way the molecular machines that accomplish gene replication do.
But these norms and the automatic correcting Dennett is talking about are not features of individual words; they come from the symbolic system of a language. Of course, he knows this, and writes:
… when you acquire language, you install, without realizing it, a Virtual Machine that enables others to send you not just data, but other virtual machines, without their needing to know anything about how your brain works.
Dennett’s computer analogy, the “Virtual Machine,” is the symbolic system of a particular language. Again we come back to context; the meaning of a word changes with the context in which it appears, with time, and from place to place. This may seem like a trivial observation, but I make it repeatedly because it is the fact which most obviously challenges the idea of discrete, self-replicating units of culture.
One of the goals of the meme concept is to unify culture and biology by attempting to demonstrate that natural selection governs not only biological evolution, but the cultural process as well. He writes in Consciousness Explained:
Meme evolution is not just analogous to biological or genetic evolution, not just a process that can be metaphorically described in these evolutionary idioms, but a phenomenon that obeys the laws of natural selection exactly. The theory of evolution by natural selection is neutral regarding the differences between memes and genes; these are just different kinds of replicators evolving in different media at different rates. (202)
This of course depends on whether “memes” exist (in the kind of concrete, material sense in which the language used to talk about them suggests they exist). But Dennett cleverly dodges the demand to prove this existence by instead suggesting that genes might not be as concrete as we tend to think:
Genes, according to George Williams (1966, p. 25) are best seen as the information carried by the nucleotide sequences, not the nucleotide sequences themselves, a point that is nicely echoed by such observations as these: A promise or a libel or a poem is identified by the words that compose it, not by the trails of ink or bursts of sound that secure the occurrence of those words. Words themselves have physical “tokens” (composed of uttered or heard phonemes, seen in trails of ink or glass tubes of excited neon or grooves carved in marble), and so do genes, but these tokens are a relatively superficial part or aspect of these remarkable information structures, capable of being replicated, combined into elaborate semantic complexes known as sentences, and capable in turn of provoking cognitive, emotional, and behavioral responses of tremendous power and subtlety.
I’m no geneticist, but I’m fairly certain that a nucleotide sequence is not merely a superficial token, arbitrarily related to the information it carries, the way that a word, (as a symbol), is arbitrarily related to its referent. The information is literally embodied in the nucleotide sequence. Nonetheless, this sleight of hand on Dennett’s part critical to advancing his argument past questions of the meme’s existence.
Now, taking the existence of memes for granted, the next step is to argue that their “selection” is due to their own fitness – they may or may not enhance the reproductive fitness of their hosts. He contrasts this with the “traditional wisdom – ‘common sense’ – according to which culture is composed of various valuable practices and artifacts, inherited treasures, in effect, that are recognized as such (for the most part) and transmitted deliberately (and for good reasons) from generation to generation.” He writes:
The key improvements, then, of the memetic perspective are its recognition that:
1. Excellently designed cultural entities may, like highly efficient viruses, have no intelligent design at all in their ancestry.
2. Memes, like viruses and other symbionts, have their own fitness. Those that flourish will be those that better secure their own reproduction, whether or not they do this by enhancing the reproductive success of their hosts by mutualist means.
“Memes” and Dennett’s ‘Intentional Stance’
If the tautology in number 2 above, (“those that flourish will be those that better secure their own reproduction”), makes “memes” sound an awful lot like intentional agents, a look at Dennett’s philosophy should explain why. He wrote a book called The Intentional Stance in 1987, but he has been working with the idea it contains for the last four decades. Here’s how he describes it in this summary of ‘Intentional Systems Theory’ from the Oxford Handbook of the Philosophy of Mind:
The intentional stance is the strategy of interpreting the behavior of an entity (person, animal, artifact, whatever) by treating it as if it were a rational agent who governed its ‘choice’ of ‘action’ by a ‘consideration’ of its ‘beliefs’ and ‘desires.’(1)
But Dennett is pretty clear that this is more than just a strategy; he tells us that “anything that is usefully and voluminously predictable from the intentional stance is, by definition, an intentional system.”
Where on the downward slope to insensate thinghood does ‘real’ believing and desiring stop and mere ‘as if’ believing and desiring take over? According to intentional systems theory, this demand for a bright line is ill-motivated.(7)
Seeking one’s own good is a fundamental feature of any rational agent, but are these simple organisms seeking or just ‘seeking’? We don’t need to answer that question. The organism is a predictable intentional system in either case. (9)
It’s one thing to argue that taking the intentional stance might help us describe certain aspects of the cultural process; when we consider how the internal logic of a system of symbols may predict the behavior of individuals and groups for whom that system is important, this is in some sense what we are doing. But Dennett’s claim that cultural evolution is governed by natural selection is dependent on a much more generous application of this kind of thinking – chopping the cultural process into little pieces and treating them as intentional agents (their intention being simply to replicate themselves).
The memetic view contains two intentional systems: the intention of the meme is to replicate itself at any cost, while the intention of the host remains to replicate its genetic material. There are memes that help this process and memes that hurt it, and a multitude of more or less neutral cultural trappings in which we are dressed along the way toward death. A meme is classified as a parasite, mutualist, or commensal, based on its effects on the reproductive fitness of its host. But why should we be committed to such an impoverished view of our existence? By Dennett’s own account, culture transformed our species, just as it transforms each new member that acquires it. He writes in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:
… it cannot be “memes versus us,” because earlier infestations of memes have already played a major role in determining who or what we are. The “independent” mind struggling to protect itself from alien and dangerous memes is a myth.
It is no accident that the memes that replicate tend to be good for us, not for our biological fitness…, but for whatever it is we hold dear. And never forget the crucial point: the facts about whatever we hold dear – our highest values – are themselves very much a product of the memes that have spread most successfully. ( 364-365)
We truly are cultural beings; our own intentional states are inseparable from the historical, symbolic process that happens inside our brains. To be fair, Dennett knows how much context matters. He wrote in this piece from 1998, that “the environments that embody the selective pressures that determine [memes’] fitness are composed in large measure of other memes.” But trying to explain culture by asking, as he suggests, “the cui bono question” (who benefits?), and answering, “our memes,” means ignoring a critical, if easy to miss, fact revealed in the quote above: we are a species that has values and holds things dear. Dennett clearly values “mutualistic memes” – the culturally driven development of “technology and intelligence” which has made surviving so much easier for our species – but seems not to fully appreciate the observation anthropologist Clifford Geertz makes in his essay, ‘Ethos, Worldview, and the Analysis of Sacred Symbols,’ (1957):
The drive to make sense out of experience, to give it form and order, is evidently as real and as pressing as the more familiar biological needs. And, this being so, it seems unnecessary to continue to interpret symbolic activities-religion, art, ideology-as nothing but thinly disguised expressions of something other than what they seem to be: attempts to provide orientation for an organism which cannot live in a world it is unable to understand.
‘Traditionalists’ made of straw
Dennett makes a point of claiming that what he considers a naive, “economic model” of culture, “where possessions, both individual and communal, are preserved, repaired, and handed down,” “is for the most part uncritically adopted by cultural historians, anthropologists, and other theorists.” He believes the fact that “many of our most valuable cultural treasures have no identifiable author and almost certainly were cobbled together by many largely unwitting minds over long periods of time” presents the “traditionalist” with a serious problem:
Nobody invented words or arithmetic or music or maps or money. These apparent exceptions to the traditional model are typically not seen as a serious problem. The requirement of intelligent authorship can be maintained by distributing it over indefinitely many not-so-intelligent designers whose identities are lost to us only because of gaps in the “fossil record” of culture. We can acknowledge that many of the improvements accumulated over time were “dumb luck” accidents that nevertheless got appreciated and preserved. With these concessions, the traditionalist can avoid acknowledging what ought to seem obvious: These excellent things acquired their effective designs the same way plants and animals and viruses acquired theirs—they evolved by natural selection, but not genetic natural selection.
First, (whether or not anyone cares about maintaining “intelligent authorship”), what Dennett labels here as “concessions” actually describe the cultural process better than just saying “they evolved by natural selection”; how, after all, can he claim that that this evolution happens “the same way,” when the crucial set of facts is of a radically different (symbolic) nature? Second, it’s possible for an individual to have an impact on the collective cultural process without intending to and without being aware of it – I don’t see how this scenario supports Dennett’s claims. But most importantly, I return to the Geertz, because his view of culture is conspicuously not like the “traditionalist” straw man Dennett sets up. He wrote this in ‘Religion as a Cultural System,’ (published 10 years before Dawkins invented the “meme”):
So far as culture patterns, that is, systems or complexes of symbols, are concerned, the generic trait which is of first importance for us here is that they are extrinsic sources of information. By “extrinsic,” I mean only that–unlike genes, for example–they lie outside the boundaries of the individual organism as such in that intersubjective world of common understandings into which all human individuals are born, in which they pursue their separate careers, and which they leave persisting behind them after they die. By “sources of information,” I mean only that–like genes–they provide a blueprint or template in terms of which processes external to themselves can be given a definite form. As the order of bases in a strand of DNA forms a coded program, a set of instructions, or a recipe, for the synthesis of the structurally complex proteins which shape organic functioning, so culture patterns provide such programs for the institution of the social and psychological processes which shape public behavior.
Notice that “to make sense out of experience” and “provide orientation,” it is not necessary for “systems or complexes of symbols” to be some carefully curated set of goods. Nor does Geertz assume that culture patterns will necessarily be positive, or work to enhance genetic or reproductive fitness – it’s possible for an order-creating system to be reprehensible and disastrous, (take Nazi ideology for example). It’s a shame that Dennett pretty much discounts the work of all previous cultural theorists for the sake of a rhetorical device, rather than at least attempt to use someone like Geertz as a jumping off point.
But Geertz’s work gets at the heart of the problem with memetics; it may function as an explanation for the phenomenon of culture, but I think any attempt to use it in a robust analysis of empirical events must involve dropping its most characteristic feature – the idea of individual units of culture attempting to replicate at any cost and governed by natural selection. The following comes from ‘Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali’(1966):
One cannot run symbolic forms through some sort of cultural assay to discover their harmony content, their stability ratio, or their index of incongruity; one can only look and see if the forms in question are in fact coexisting, changing, or interfering with one another in some way or other, which is like tasting sugar to see if it is sweet or dropping a glass to see if it is brittle, not like investigating the chemical composition of sugar or the physical structure of glass. The reason for this is, of course, that meaning is not intrinsic in the objects, acts, processes, and so on, which bear it, but–as Durkheim, Weber, and so many others have emphasized–imposed upon them; and the explanation of its properties must therefore be sought in that which does the imposing–men living in society. The study of thought is, to borrow a phrase from Joseph Levenson, the study of men thinking; and as they think not in some special place of their own, but in the same place–the social world–that they do everything else, the nature of cultural integration, cultural change, or cultural conflict is to be probed for there: in the experiences of individuals and groups of individuals as, under the guidance of symbols, they perceive, feel, reason, judge, and act.
Symbols, if they are to be understood, cannot be divorced from their function/use in creating order and meaning for individuals and groups. This is why, I believe, Dennett admits in the summary of chapter 12 of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, that “the prospects for elaborating a rigorous science of memetics are doubtful,” though he maintains that “the concept provides a valuable perspective from which to investigate the complex relationship between cultural and genetic heritage.” From what I’ve read, none of Dennett’s claims which hold water are original, or require the memetic perspective.
I’ve tried my best to be thorough here, but it’s impossible to cover everything. As always, comments are welcome.