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Conservative performance art?

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Matt Labash, mocking the very idea of memes in the Weekly Standard, writes:

I have always detested the word meme, and not just because it was coined by Richard Dawkins, though that certainly helps. The concept was originated by Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, back when the Internet was still a glint in young Al Gore’s eye. Borrowing from the Greek word mimema (something imitated), Dawkins was on the hunt for a monosyllable that rhymed with “gene,” hence meme. Loosely speaking—and there’s no other way to speak of memes—it is “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture” (the dictionary definition).

He “detest[s]” memes, but shortly before declaring they can only be spoken of “loosely,” he employs one of the Right’s most successful creations: the claim that Al Gore said he invented the Internet. It’s as if he’s trying to prove that memes are significant by using one to convince his audience that they aren’t, and the sad thing is that because that “idea … spread from person to person within [conservative] culture,” neither he nor his audience are aware that their collective petard has been soundly hoisted.

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  • Linnaeus

    To really get Dawkins’s idea of memes, one should also read his book, The Extended Phenotype, which is kind of a sequel to Selfish Gene and develops the idea more comprehensively than does the latter book. Don’t know if Labash has read that book, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t, because it’s less well known than Selfish Gene.

    • DrDick

      I doubt that he has ever read either book.

      • Dex

        If you’re dumb enough to read books on memes, you might as well not go through the trouble of reading books.

        • Linnaeus

          Eh, I wouldn’t go that far. I thought the idea was worth a look, at least.

        • DrDick

          I read The Selfish Gene when it first came out and I was in graduate school. I did not agree with much of it, but it was current and innovative at the time.

        • Colin Day

          The Selfish Gene isn’t a book on memes.

    • Or The Electric Meme or The Meme Machine.

      I think it’s generally accepted, though, that memetics and the meme concept generally are failures as science. For one, no one could ever decide if memes were like genes or memes were like viruses. In the end, it was just a mixed metaphor. Mixed metaphors don’t make for good science.

      • Although they’re definitely not science (let alone failed science), they’re a useful metaphor.

        Since viruses have a very small number of genes, and can exchange them at times, there’s really not that much difference between how a virus spreads, and how the handful of genes it contains spread. So the metaphor really isn’t all that mixed.

        But it’s not that precise, either. Like any metaphor, if you push it too far, it breaks down. Metaphors capture some aspect of something, but unlike science, they offer no predictive value.

        But ideas do “take on a life of their own”, they do “spread from person to person”, mutating in the process.

        It’s very difficult to turn human behavior into science. But there are some things we can do — just like influenza viruses, we can monitor the spread, thanks to the power of search engines. We may be able to determine such basic parameters, such as how many people each “infected” person spreads the idea to.

        We may be able to derive either mathematically or from observation, how the spread correlates with that.

        Whatever you think of the metaphor, there’s no denying that there is an actual phenomenon, and that there’s value in better understanding that phenomenon.

        The metaphor may help to crystallize the preliminary understanding. It is certainly a barrier to a deeper, more scientific understanding.

  • Barry Freed

    Personally I never cared for the idea of memes myself (nor, for that matter of Dawkins’ related sloppy habit of attributing agency to genes, but that’s another matter). I just don’t see what value they add.

    • Linnaeus

      It does seem that “meme” is another name for cultural “units” that we have long had other names for. I think Dawkins tries to avoid that redundancy by articulating a hypothesis about how memes are transmitted, how they “replicate”, etc.

    • Warren Terra

      The notion of ideas living within a society according to their capacity to cause people to remember and transmit them, and evolving to maximize those capacities, is an interesting and useful one. Why begrudge this notion a name?

      • Dave

        It’s a metaphor. We have enough.

      • Yeah, I don’t have a problem with that myself.

      • DrDick

        As an anthropologist, I would agree. “Meme” is a useful concept (somewhat different from other, related concepts) and the term tends to distinguish it in ways older terminologies did not. That is not to say that the term does not get overused and abused.

        • Is there any actually useful or interesting work involving memes or memetics? I know Dennett got all excited by them, but I’ve never been particularly impressed with any formal use of them. (I do occasionally use the term causally.)

          It always seems too glib and yet potent a metaphor.

          • Barry Freed

            The glibness is what grates mostly. I’ll take DrDick’s word for it that the term is useful (Question for him: is it actually used in anthropological discourse?). At the very least I guess I should re-examine it and my own antipathy towards it (probably related to my own antipathy towards much of what Dawkins says – the particularly the anti-Islamic bigotry and the way he seems to always attribute agency to genes).

            • Warren Terra

              I’m not a huge Dawkins fan – I’m an Atheist and a Biologist, but I find him self-aggrandizing, intemperate, and grating. And the one book of his that I read (The Blind Watchmaker, iirc) had a couple of good ideas (including memes) stretched to the length of a terrible but still slim book through the expedient of rehashing and re-rehashing them.

              None of which means the idea of the “meme” isn’t interesting and worthy of discussion.

            • DrDick

              I agree with you regarding Dawkins and do not think that his original formation works very well, though there are some people working on cultural evolutionary and dual inheritance theory who are doing some interesting, if not always convincing, work using the concept. The term is used more widely in anthropology, however, to discuss prevalent or dominant cultural motifs or themes (this draws at least indirectly on Morris Opler’s earlier work in the 1950s and 1960s) and is important in talking about symbolic transmission.

              • Barry Freed

                Thanks.
                I hadn’t heard of Opler before, just googling around he seems like he was a great guy.

                • DrDick

                  A sweet old man when I knew him in graduate school, but with a real vicious streak underneath. A good lecturer, however, and knew a shitload about India and the Apache.

    • Barry I’ve never read TSG, but my understanding has always been that Dawkins is rather clear in the book that the gene has no agency and that the title of the book led to a whole lot of misconceptions.

      I have always though the idea of memes was interesting, if not very useful or original. As far as new terms, go, it worked out much better than Dennet’s term “brights” as a descriptor of atheists.

      • Barry Freed

        Yeah, well “brights” was a pretty cringe-worthy neologism that was hard to sympathize with even when it got beat up in high school just for existing.

        As for gene agency, it’s in his more recent writings that he gets sloppy with that. I think I’m pretty much with Gould against many of Dawkins views and I’ve also been enjoying the more recent sniping between E.O. Wilson and Dawkins. As someone who studied religion academically (and secularly I might add) and Islam specifically I find his outright bigotry towards it pretty hard to stomach.

        • DrDick

          His overt rampant sexism is pretty hard to take as well.

          • Barry Freed

            Right, Elevatorgate, how could I have forgotten? Ugh.

        • Ok, that makes sense. I don’t really have a horse in the Wilson/Dawkins stuff (my interest in biology is more amateur) but my understanding is that Wilson brought about the criticism with his own sloppiness.

          I find evolution fascinating and inspiring (and true!) but oddly, Dawkins is not one of the authors who got me into it. Carl Zimmer and Neil Shubin’s books are the ones I usually recommend.

          And while I’m a pretty affirmative atheist and I value the role that Dawkins has played in popularizing the pushback against religion, again, I put PZ Myers, Jerry Coyne, Greta Christina and Dennett, far ahead of him personally, for being much more interesting writers.

          Dawkin’s elevator-gate reaction was rather sad.

          Islam eh? I won’t even bother asking your thoughts on Sam Harris :)

    • (the other) Davis

      …nor, for that matter of Dawkins’ related sloppy habit of attributing agency to genes…

      It’s been a while since I’ve read TSG (and I have no idea where my copy has run off to), but I do seem to recall Dawkins being rather explicit about genes’ lack of agency.

      • Barry Freed

        I stand corrected with regard to TSG but I’m really referring to his more recent writings where he gets very sloppy with the idea. I should probably come up with some recent examples (I think there was a recent one in the Guardian).

  • joe from Lowell

    You know, it’s almost as if people who claim that opposition to affirmative action proves that they aren’t racists don’t have a very high level of self-awareness.

  • Wikipedia:

    The term “internet” was adopted in the first RFC published on the TCP protocol (RFC 675:[29] Internet Transmission Control Program, December 1974) as an abbreviation of the term internetworking and the two terms were used interchangeably. In general, an internet was any network using TCP/IP. It was around the time when ARPANET was interlinked with NSFNET in the late 1980s, that the term was used as the name of the network, Internet,[30] being a large and global TCP/IP network.

  • Randy

    Surely you don’t expect anyone writing for the Weekly Standard to put down a paragraph without referring to some shopworn wingnut cliche.

    • So True

      You tell ’em, Randy. No right wing hack could ever come up with something as blisteringly original as LOLcats.

      • Indeed, LOLcats are a well-known liberal plot. Or something.

        • So True

          Spoken like someone who can’t shed their politics even for a moment, GEOX. Every critique is not a political one. LOLcats are stupid. A conservative or a liberal should be able to see that. Some truths transcend politics.

          • Except that wasn’t in any meaningful sense a “critique” on your part. You were enraged that someone said something mean about the Weekly Standard, but you couldn’t actually come up with a cogent response, so you just burbled some nonsense about LOLcats. Well done.

            • So True

              Actually, I was referring to the article as the critique. And I don’t give a shit what you say about the Weekly Standard. It was in a political magazine, but not a political critique. It was a cultural critique, but you can’t get past the assumed politics, because you’re more politicized than the people you dislike for being political. You assume that if someone attacks the kitty pictures you so cherish, it must be a conservative bashing a liberal, instead of a rational person bashing an irrational person who thinks misspelled kitty pictures are entertainment.
              So my two-sentence dismissal of your predictable liberal-plot groaner wasn’t actually the critique I was referring to. Because yours didn’t require anything that would rise to the level of a “meaningful” critique. If you want one of those, try harder.

              • “The kitty pictures you so cherish?” That’s some funny shit, dude. Don’t look now, but the only one here inexplicably obsessing over cat pictures is, er, you.

                • So True

                  I see. The patented “I’m rubber, you’re glue” comeback. Now I see why you’re so defensive of meme culture. It’s right about on your reading level.

                • Er…okay. So why don’t you help me out by pointing out where in this thread anyone has gotten defensive about (of all things) lolcats. Go ahead. I mean, I’m sure someone MUST have, because if they hadn’t, you’d kinda look like a crazy person, right? And we all know you’re extremely rational–after all, you said so yourself!

                • So True

                  I guess this doesn’t count:

                  GeoX says:

                  June 1, 2012 at 5:18 pm

                  Indeed, LOLcats are a well-known liberal plot. Or something.

                • Somebody with reading comprehension skills might realize–from the “or something,” if nothing else–that that response was making fun of the nonsensical way you tried to defend the Weekly Standard article by bringing up lolcats. But now I see that you don’t read too good; also, I’m kinda freaked out that ANYONE would have such a strong opinion about lolcats, one way or the other–so I think I’ll leave you to your strange, angry, anti-cat-picture manifestos now. Have fun.

                • So True

                  Oh! Thanks for explaining your subtlety and deft touch. Uhhh, Geox, let me explain this to you REAL SLOWLY since you’re clearly not an honors student. You see, this whole thread was precipitated by a long magazine story on meme culture. You probably didn’t even read the piece so that you could head straight to the comments section where you enjoy publicly masturbating like an angry chimp. But LOLcats is one of the most famous memes on the internet. Hence, the LOLcats reference. Attacking the piece that attacked meme culture is essentially a defense of meme culture. Which is why I accused you of being a LOLcatter. Though in retrospect, that was probably unfair. You seem more like a Nyancat kind of guy. Which isn’t nearly as cerebral. Nyancat doesn’t even require mastering mizspelt words (lolspeak). Just rainbows and Pop-Tarts and cloying music. More your speed, probably.

                • joe from Lowell

                  Somebody with reading comprehension skills…

                  wouldn’t describe a critique that includes the phrase back when the Internet was still a glint in young Al Gore’s eye as not a political critique.

                • The fuck is a Nyancat

                • Pseudonym

                  Attacking the piece that attacked meme culture is essentially a defense of meme culture.

                  No, sorry. You lose at logic.

  • This man is clearly not aware of all internet traditions

    • Pith Helmet

      All your meme are belong to us!

      • All your meme are belong to me!

  • c u n d gulag

    Yeah, ya gotta love the inadvertent use of one old trope of a meme, to further your point about memes.
    That is a classic.

    Republicans are not a party of new ideas, and haven’t been in many, many decades.

    They live off of their ‘meme”-ories.

    I think “Memes and Schemes,” sums up today’s Republican Party very well.

    • Jabba

      I’m not sure someone who uses puns should be lecturing the right on being fresh out of ideas, or about what’s funny.

      • c u n d gulag

        Who better? ;-)

    • rea

      No, they are a party of new ideas–just bad ones.

      For example, it never ocucred to any American to adopt torture of prisoners as a systemtic policy until 2001. That was a new idea.

    • I recently walked by a store called “Thongz and Bongz” but I did not ask about political affiliation.

  • Jay B.

    I can’t wait until some right wing moron writes a book about all the cliches the left uses.

    • I can’t wait for the book about the cliches strawliberals use. It’ll be great!

      • “Hanoi Jane and other Fairy Tales”

        • I’m sure the Doughy Pantload will get to right to work on that one, as soon as his bleg for a catchy subtitle is answered.

  • I see you your “Al Gore invented the internet” and raise you a “I can see Russia from my house!” Fucknut.

    • joe from Lowell

      Oh, look, a right wing troll is using the name of an old commenter.

      Again.

      • No, it is I. I’m making fun of the dumb “Algore invented the internet” MEME.

        • Pith Helmet

          yeah, i think JfL whiffed on that one.

          • timb

            He whiffed on me yesterday.

            How is it inconceivable someone would disagree with him from the Left?

            Now, he sees conspiracy from people barely smart enough to tie their own shoes

        • Jay B.

          Prove it, Rabbit Ears.

          • Quick, ask a question only the true vacuumslayer would know the answer to.

            • Malaclypse

              How old is your kid?

              • 1!!! (And thank you for the B-day wishes, btw. That was really sweet.)

                • Malaclypse

                  They get more interesting after one, IMO.

                • Yeah, he gets more interesting every day. Babies are very cute, but I loves me some personality.

                • Malaclypse

                  Yep, they are a lot cooler when they can hold a real conversation.

                  Also, if nobody has told you yet – get the three They Might Be Giants kids DVD/CD packs. Teach them good music before someone exposes them to hannah montana or some similar atrocity.

    • Walt

      Matt Labash can see Russia from his house? Cool.

    • Jonas

      Um, “I can see Russia from my house” is from an SNL sketch, as was Dukakis as an alien, Strom Thurmond giving Clarence Thomas advice about women and porn, Ford using a stapler as a telephone, etc. No one claims those actually happened or were true, unlike people claiming that Gore invented the internet.

    • Murc

      The worst part about that meme is that if any one person deserves credit for making what we now call the internet happen, its Al Gore.

      He had many shortcomings during his time in Congress, but his commitment to developing the countries technological infrastructure was beyond reproach. The man was constantly fighting to get appropriations for projects that, to the doddering old men who made up most of his colleagues, no doubt sounded like science-fiction stories, and he was doing it without lobbyist support for the most part.

  • Joe

    Just noticed that alternating automated sayings thing on the top of this blog. Unless it’s just like in that Steve Martin movie where he sees messages guiding him in life on the street in various places.

    Saying: I like pigs. Dogs look up to us. Cats look down on us. Pigs treat us as equals.

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