virus: Forwarding: some comments about the concept of memes

Vicki Rosenzweig (
Tue, 12 Dec 1995 15:01:00 -0800 (PST)

I got this off the silent-tristero list, and it seems relevant to Virus.


>Message-Id: <>
>Date: Tue, 12 Dec 1995 01:53:16 -0500
>From: (t byfield)
>Subject: words fail me
>Precedence: bulk
>Reply-To: (t byfield)
>Status: R
>F*cking super. From the "antirecommendation" section of Phil Agre's "The
>Network Observer" (TNO) #2/12:
>> The concept of "memes". The term "meme" was introduced by
>> Richard Dawkins in his popular biology book "The Selfish Gene".
>> The argument of the book is that evolution can be viewed as a
>> process by which individual genes use organisms as vehicles for
>> their own propagation rather than the other way round. This is
>> an amusing turnabout, but it is also a simplistic substitute for
>> biology's crying need for theories that straddle multiple levels
>> of analysis. The concept of a "meme" was introduced by analogy
>> to this. A meme is simply an idea, and the rhetorical trick is
>> to portray ideas as agents trying to spread themselves around
>> in society, mutating and recombining through a process of natural
>> selection in which our minds (brains, I suppose) are so many grey
>> meat machines. Now, Nietzsche said something like this a hundred
>> years ago in reference to the "will to power" of metaphors. The
>> idea didn't make much more sense then, but at least Nietzsche had
>> larger and more disturbing things in mind. The word "meme" has
>> gotten a boost lately from its frequent use in Wired magazine,
>> from which it has been taken up into the shifting jargon of
>> the subculture of cyberspace. The concept does have attractions.
>> It is one way -- better than nothing, I suppose -- of talking
>> about a crucial phenomenon: people's incomplete awareness of
>> the contents, origins, and logics of the ideas that they have
>> acquired from others through the language they speak, the
>> symbolism of their machinery, the seeming platitudes that they
>> pass along from the evening news, and much else. But it is
>> nonetheless a poor theory of these things. One basic problem
>> is the biological metaphor: memes are to genes as people's minds
>> are to creatures. I suppose it would be churlish of me to point
>> out that biological metaphors have been a staple of authoritarian
>> thinking for a long time; at least these particular biological
>> metaphors appeal in a misleading way to whole ecosystems and
>> not to single organisms with authoritarian "heads". The deeper
>> problem is that these metaphors are moving in an antihumanist
>> direction. Do the people who talk about memes really think of
>> themselves as passive cultural dopes, or as inert media through
>> which great swarms of ideas pass? Such a notion flies in the
>> face of the massive work in which many organizations engage to
>> encourage the proliferation of certain ideas and discourage the
>> proliferation of others. It also greatly underestimates the
>> large amount of collective cognition that is part-and-parcel of
>> group identity among people with shared interests in society --
>> not least the cyberculture, with its shared "bet" on benefitting
>> from the outcome of technology-driven social upheavals. At the
>> end of the day, treating ideas as "memes" is an abdication of
>> personal responsibility. *You* choose what ideas you think and
>> say and write, and *you* should take responsibility for them.
>> Those Dewar's ads. You've seen them, in Wired for example: the
>> ones that are aimed at men in their early 20's who are figuring
>> out what's involved in being a man. What's involved, it would
>> seem, is drinking this crummy blended scotch. The ads are based
>> on ridicule and the fear of ridicule, and reveal the extent to
>> which the cultural construction of masculinity, with its foolish
>> poses and burdensome roles, depends on the threat of ridicule.
>> Let's just all just move along -- to a world in which people's
>> self-esteem cannot be manipulated by corporate drug pushers.