Monday, December 11, 2006

The Evolving Subject

This entry reflects upon Dawkins’ meme theory using my first artefact: a laboratory sealed jar of memes. A jar of memes may be an impossible object but is a useful metaphor allowing some unique thoughts on memetics to be gleaned. Indeed, this entry can be read as a reflection on the meme ‘memes’.

I chose to reflect on this jar of memes in order that some scientific objectivism might arise from their supposed embodiment within a sealed chamber, their ‘entrapment’ creating a sense of detachment between analyst and subject.

In his book 'Dawkins' God', Alister McGrath, a theologian with a PhD in molecular biophysics, states that memes “are, in the first place, hypothetical constructs, inferred from observation rather than observed in themselves; in the second place, unobservable; and in the third place, more or less useless at the explanatory level.” (McGrath 2005:129) This scathing attack on Dawkins’ idea forgets that despite an obvious lack of empirical evidence to their existence, meme theory is still a rather a useful device to the social scientist for thinking about the elements that construct minds and cultures. My jar of memes, however metaphorical, is still helpful.

Dawkins suggests that memes use the mind as both host and transmitting station for their own ends. These ends are their further replication and consequent ‘absorption’ into as many minds as possible. In this way memes can be considered ‘selfish’. Dawkins’ view is that memes are a “virus of the mind”. Adopting this perspective, let’s imagine that opening the jar of memes could ‘infect’ me with its contents.

This jar could very well contain anything: a recipe for soup; blueprints for a hover board; a comic book character; it might contain a memeplex, a cluster of memes which are ideologically-aligned and self-supporting. I simply do not know.

In an issue of Warren Ellis’sGlobal Frequency’, an alien thought-virus is transmitted through the air with the fecundity and copying-fidelity to sweep the planet, scrambling people’s minds as it goes. The jar of memes probably doesn’t hold a thought-virus this vicious, but we must be careful.

The jar begs the question; ‘don’t you want to know what I hold?’ And yes, I do. I have a strong desire to increase my knowledge of the world around me. My willingness to learn and my capacity to remember make my mind a well-travelled conduit for memes. Their ‘selfish’ nature and my desire for information present a mutual benefit. I learned this transactional process at a young age: if I want information, I go and get it. It is this philosophy that causes me to click my stumble-upon button so often, each click releasing a delicious new horde of memes into my head.

The digital age has seen the ideosphere swell with successful memes. My jar now exists on the internet as part of this website, so its continued existence in some form is secure in all who read this page, either in their minds or in their computer’s memory. The internet can be seen as a universe of highly adapted memes, whose copying fidelity is assured because of their digital nature, whose longevity is secure as long as their host pages exist; but whose fecundity is a feature only their usefulness to humans; we have the memes right where we want them, and can begin to use them to our advantage.

The self is both genetically and memetically constructed: our bodies are a biological fusion of two sets of genes, a mixture from both parents; our minds are empty vessels born into the rapidly mutating memeosphere. The rise of the information age has given us some power over the processes of memetic evolution, with the effect that one is freer to choose their memetic intake\.

Anthony Giddens (1991: 75) states that "the self forms a trajectory of development from the past to the anticipated future. The individual appropriates his past by sifting through it in the light of what is anticipated for an (organised) future." Consider that my jar of memes is sealed: it is my choice to open it. This choice arises from the vast choices that I could otherwise make from the meme pool. A meme must adapt if it is to survive, and so the most successful memes are those that are useful to us. Memes need to help us to help them.

This shift of power has changed our evolutionary trajectory. The psychic self is born into a bustling world where ideas compete for space in the mind. We must discern what is useful from what is parasitic. We have great freedom to construct our identities and broadcast our ideas, and in the age of the memetic digital replication, those that are connected to the internet’s ‘meme stream’ are finding that their selves are becoming closer aligned with the virtual world. If memes are truly selfish, they will seek to change us by bringing us closer to their ultimate state: digital. We return to this discussion in ‘the cyborg subject'. Next though, is 'the taxonomic subject'.

830 words

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