McKenzie Wark on Mon, 23 Dec 96 06:08 MET

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nettime: is 'meme' a bad meme?

Boy that meme meme sure gets around. It seems to
be its own best example. At one and the same time
totally seductive -- and repulsive. 

Pop Darwinism, the seed meme from which it sprung, 
is hugely popular, at least in the English speaking
world. The founding texts of 'sociobiology', the
application of Darwin to the social, are all still 
in print. E. O. Wilson started the whole thing in
the mid 70s. Then Richard Dawkins further popularised
it. Stephen Jay Gould has attacked it from within
the Darwinian paradigm -- so too has Steven Rose et al
in _Not In Our Genes_. Daniel Dennett has weighed in
recently with his excellent book _Darwin's Dangerous
Idea_. In short, Darwinian theory is the most widely
circulating branch of the social sciences at the pop
disocurse level.

Its also the most deeply troubling to net progressives,
radicals, social democrats of all types. For while the 
'meme' seems to explain what it is that circulates on
the net, many fear that the whole notion brings with it
the whole legacy of social darwinism of the 19th century.

This isn't helped by the occasional riff one hears from the
land of the 'californian ideology', which equates the 
Darwinian landscape of the gene with the free market economy.
An ideological move i've always found rather curious. I can't
for the life of me think of the equivalents in nature of, say,
corporate lawyers, tax accountants, management consultants
or Bill Gates. If the latter were an artefact of nature he would
have passed away with all of the other Jurrasic technologies,

All the same, I've heard this nature = market ideology in no
less a forum than the papers section of Siggraph. So its a force,
if not of nature, then at least of belief. The question is how
best to tackle it. 

I think its a mistake to write off the whole of the enterprise of
Darwinian thinking as it pertains to the social. Its a mistake to
think that what Foucault calls a 'statement', Lyotard a 'phrase'
or Dawkins a 'meme' has any intrinisic meaning at all. They
are always shaped by networks of discursive actors, who always
manage to twist them and buckle them, and as Baudrillard and
Kroker show, completely reverse them. Knowledge is not a conspiracy.
It isn't tree-like, with one thing branching off from another, but 
retaining some essential feature of its origin. Knowledge isn't
like biology, in other words. Although, ironically, some of the
attacks on pop Darwinism proceed as if it was. Darwin -> social
Darwinism -> Dawkin's meme = end of story. The new shoot is
contaminated by its roots.

What this ignores is the debate *within* Darwinian thinking, and
the degree to which one can make useful connections to positions
within that debate for other ends. 

For example, I find Dawkins' meme theory a handy stick with which
to beat followers of E. O. Wilson. The latter are strict Darwinian
functionalists, looking for explanations of 'behaviour' in their
survival value. They are reductionists who believe that at the end
of the day, all social behaviour can be explained as effects of
biological necessity. 'Necessity' here is the key word. Things are
the way they are out of necessity -- this is the type of neo-Darwinism
that most readily lends itself to conservative thinking. 

It is something of a challenge for Wilson to explain something like
homosexuality -- which clearly has no 'survival value' in itself.
Quite the opposite -- it mitigates against the passing-on of the
genetic material of the homosexual individual. Therefore, it ought to
have died out, no? Wilson will look for explanations of the following
kind: homosexuals are obviously more promiscuous than straight people,
therefore they have a strong chance of passing their genes into the
gene pool because they fuck anything in sight. In other words,
Wilson takes everyday social prejudice as the beginning and end
point of his argument, and in between, passes it through the filter 
of biological 'necessity'. 

In relation to which, Dawkins is very interesting. The whole theory
of the meme breaks with the necesity of reductive explanation. 
Dawkins postulates a gene-like means of transmission of value, the
meme. On close inspection, these cultural forms of transmission are
very different to genes. Only parents pass on genetic material to
offspring. A meme, on the other hand, might pass from anyone to
anyone along any vector of tranmission. You quickly discover that
the meme theory isn't a kind of reudtionism to biology, or even
much of an analogy to biology., Its a whole new theory.

A theory with one important point, which is drawn from analogy to
biology. The idea that successful memes are those that first and
foremost reproduce *themseleves* and which secondarily do not too
much harm. An interesting example might be the meme for suicide
that started spreading from Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther. IT
was effective, but beyond a certain point couldn't propagate itself,
precisely because it worked.

Dawkins' theory of the meme is far too simplistic to tell us much.
What is a unit of meme? How is it transmitted? How is it decoded?
But one quickly discovers better theories that do the same job in 
more detail. Starting, as I mentioned, with Foucault's theory of the
statement, or Lyotard's theory of the phase. Or, for that matter,
the work of Friedrich Kittler. All of which have one thing in
common with the meme, and perhaps only one thing: a radical anti-
humanism. They tend to view the dispositions and behaviours of
bodies as an effect of the circulate of culture, even though they
offer different accounts of that process of circulation.

In short, I think its useful to take up the language of the meme,
but to use it to make a break with biological determinism --
which is what i think Dawkins unwittingly does. Imagine -- one can
use the authority of a leading *biologist* to argue against
biological determinism. Surely that's a useful move in the circulation
of statements/phrases/memes...

To take up the Darwinian discourse at another point: its not true that
all Darwinians are biological determinists. Even within the field of
evolutionary theory itself, there are options. Stephen Jay Gould calls
his own theory of evolution ('punctuated equilibrium') 'biological
potentialist'. The issue here is why it happened that evolution did
not progress smoothly, as a functionalist explanations would have one
expect. Evolution seems to go in breaks and jumps. Gould's approach
takes away the assumption of an automatic feedback loop from 
gene to expression to selection and back to gene. He's more interested
in the way genes are expressed in structures, and how those structures
either survive or don't survive, but may also quite racially and
quickly find themselves adapted to new functions. 

When applied to something like the evolution of human attributes such
as intelligience, Gould's way of thinking sees it as a structure
thrown up by the conventionally understood evolutionary forces, but
about which we cannot say that every attribute is an expression of
its survival value. Biology doesn't determine all behavioural
attributes. It produces structures with certain potentials -- some
known, some perhaps as yet unknown.

Which fits well with the Deleuzian notion of the virtual and the
actual. Mark Dery worries that Deleuze fits all too well with
neo-Darwinism. Certainly its a way of thinking that comes close to
a philosophy of nature, and could be put to some rather sorry 
uses. But only if one ignores the notion of *potential*. It would
take another of these 'letters to nettime' to explain that, so
for the time being, lets just put it in the expression deleuze
uses a lot, borrowed from Spinoza: "who knows what a body can do?"
There are unknown, unintended potentials, lurking in what biology
bequeathes to the social. Why are we always looking for biologically
determined *limits*? Why are we not exploring the free potentials
of our biological nature, that human articice may extend in many,
if no al, directions? It seems to me there is licence in Darwinian
theory for a radical, as well as a pessimistic approach to social
inventiveness. There are people with whom one can share phrases,
share code, if you like -- provided one is careful about how such
a discourse gets produced. 

I'm no longer much interested in critical theory. Scratch *any*
theory and it will roll over for you and show you its dark underbelly.
Critique just produces endless negation, to the point of quietism. 
I'm much more interested in a creative, productive relation to 
discourse -- one the net seems to me better suited than to criticism
anyway. So i'd rather think about creating a monster hybrid of
neo-Darwinism and Deleuze than critiquing either. ASk not what a
discourses *limits* are, but its potentials. 

McKenzie Wark
"We no longer have roots, we have aerials."
 -- McKenzie Wark 

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