Kenneth Pennington IICCTP 748: Media Theory & Visual CultureProf. Martin IrvineMay 2011

“What is the most resilient parasite? Bacteria? A virus? An intestinal worm? An idea. Resilient... highly contagious. Once an idea has taken hold of the brain it's almost impossible to eradicate. An idea that is fully formed - fully understood - that sticks; right in there somewhere.”
-Cobb, from the movie Inception

Why do we define cultures by certain types of information and not others? Why do we tend to notice certain patterns of human activity and fail to notice others? In the act of pattern recognition, do we omit data that might afford insight into the very act itself? Are we actively making patterns rather than passively recognizing them? Most contemporary hermeneutical schools of thought acknowledge the active role the interpreter plays in interpreting a text or image. The stuff of the image is not necessarily in the image itself but instead the image stirs up the stuff that has already been transferred into our minds. In this essay I argue for an approach to cultural data transfer that synthesizes computational modeling and memetics. Upon understanding how the meta-cultural database (or the history of ideas) has been historically mediated we will see why some attempts to structure certain types of cultural activity fail to accurately parse cultural information, and how we might better understand cultural information in terms of bytes or memes that employ the brains mimetic, retentive, and generative potential to store and rewrite its instructions of processing (software) like a universal Turing machine.

Why Memetics
In order to under cultural data transfer on an evolutionary scale we need to understand the historicity of as many cultural units as we can. Memetics "captures the idea of culture as a system of inheritance. Cultural know-how is a product of transmission. It spreads through communication and social learning. It is tied to the past through lines of memetic descent. Cultures are populations of relatively similar bodies of cultural software, which survive and reproduce in ecological niches. Each person is a carrier of culture, with a slightly different set of cultural heuristics and tools of understanding. Memes grow, mutate, reproduce, survive, or perish in the ecol­ogy of our minds and our technologies of information storage. The evolution­ary success of cultural software depends on its ability to spread widely and reproduce itself reliably in a particular ecology" (Balkin, ch.13). Moreover, memetics is one of the only meta-cultural theories that offers a cogent explanation of why human beings are the only animals to sacrifice their own interests for the interest of a meme. Combined with a computational theory of mind, we might be able to understand how a single meme can upset, rearrange, or delete, the mind's cultural software.


Genetic and Memetic
The primary rule of defining a cultural database is the omission of genetic information. An example from World War II: the anti-Semitism of the Nazi Party was juxtaposed diametrically against a belief in a master race called the Aryan race. Nazi eugenics programs attempted to rid Europe of the Semetic gene and propagate the Aryan gene. The problem of course is that there is no Aryan gene. However, suppose there was and that Hitler successfully totalized the world’s population as Aryan, it would not guarantee zealous devotion to Nazism among this newfound universal race. This is because Nazism is a memeplex of cultural information and blonde-haired blue-eyed traits are expressions of genetic information. As stated above, genetics may influence the probability of but cannot determine memetic replication. Nazism was and is a culture and cultures evolve by replicating and obliquely (not so much vertically) transmitting units of information called “memes” from
person to person, generation to generation.

Memes as Parasites
Lancet Fluke
Lancet Fluke
The lancet fluke is a parasite that lives in the stomach of common ruminants. The fluke commandeers the ant’s ventral nerve cord and drives it like a vehicle up a blade of grass, where it repetitively falls and ascends where it is more likely to be ingested by a sheep or cow. The parasite causes the host ant toact against itsown interests so that it may replicate more successfully. The case of the fluke is not rare. Multiple parasites alter the behavior of their hosts in order to make them more vulnerable to prey and increase the odds of replication. Dawkins suggested that we think of units of culture, or memes, as parasites/viruses too (Dawkins, 126). Just as the ant gains no adaptive advantages from this hijacked behavior, human behavior is often in the best interest of the replication of our ideas and sometimes even detrimental those who act as hosts to them. The most obvious of these kinds of memes are those of celibacy, self-immolation, suicide-killings, fasting, and so on. Many people object to the idea of memes because it seems to do away with or mitigate agency. It certainly does not do away with it but I would argue that it deflates it. For example, post-traumatic stress disorder is an example of a parasitic meme that attacks the hosts fitness beyond what their agency can eradicate. It can be the memory of a finding the body of a loved one who committed suicide, the imagination of a spouse in an act of infidelity, or a number of memes that will not 'go away.' However, it is important to note that even though memes act according to their own replicative benefit, "we should remember that such hitchhikers or symbionts can be classified into three fundamental categories: parasites, whose presence lowers the fitness of their host; commensals, whose presence is neutral (though, as the etymology reminds us, they “share the same table”); and mutualists, whose presence enhances the fitness of both host and guest. Since these varieties are arrayed along a continuum, the boundaries between them need not be too finely drawn; just where benefit drops to zero or turns to harm is not some- thing to be directly measured by any practical test, though we can explore the consequences of these turning points in models" (Dennett, 129).

*Now that there has been some explication of memes, the above trailer for the movie Inception portrays the magnitude of memetic evolution and the awesome capabilities of a single meme's or memeplexes' phenotypic expression(s).

Although it is common to attribute autonomous characteristics to memes as if they possess an animate ontology, they are just made up of cultural information. Like a software program, they cannot do anything without being a part of a Basic Input/Output System. This is where some understanding of the universal Turing machine (UTM) affords some insight into cultural data transfer (more on this later).

As Paul Ehrlrich asserts in The Dominant Animal, we understand pretty well how biological evolution works but have yet to be visited by any kind of incarnation of a Charles Darwin for cultural evolution. In terms of understanding cultural evolution "[i]nstead of functionalist accounts, we can offer evolutionary accounts, where the units of selection are not human beings but their cultural software, a cultural software that thrives and reproduces in the ecology of human minds" (Baulkin, ch. 3). It is often said that the human brain is the most complex computer. While this is true, in terms of bits of information the human genome contains between 20,000 and 75,000 genes (its genotype) while a 747 memotype has over six million parts all imbedded with cultural information. Roughly 250,000 years ago Homo sapiens had around the same amount of genes while the amount of cultural information in existence was limited to a few chiseled rocks. Patently, culture has evolved at an exponential and explosive rate compared to the sluggish rate of the human genome.

Computing Memes
Models of computation show how the behavior of a whole system is the result of the behavior of each of its components. One need not strictly adhere to epiphenomenalism - the idea that mental states are the byproducts of physical states – to assent to the idea that there is most certainly a correlation between the two (as anyone who has ever been intoxicated, high, or anxious from caffeine will attest). I should clarify that this is not an argument for a computational psychology but rather an argument for a computationally based methodology for understanding the emergence of cultures as computer processes (phenotypes) expressing program functions (memotypes). I concur with Sperber and Hirschfeld when they say, "culture is not human psychology writ large and that it would make little sense to seek a psychological reductionist explanation of culture." As we will see, an inbuilt problem with any kind of metamethodology toward cultural activity is the individuality of human minds. Memes act as software that rewrite their code according to their operating system. No two brains are identical and thus, no two brains process cultural data in an identical manner to produce identical expressions. People who exhibit similar behavior are "like different bushes trimmed and trained to take the shape of identical elephants" (Word and Object, W.V. Quine, p. 8). The branches of the bushes are unique like the neural networks of two brains that fire different sequences to produce similar effects. This is one reason for the memetic mutation inherent in the replication of ideas that spurs evolutionary change (another more determining reason is of course environmental flux).

The mind can be thought of as a CPU. When receiving input the brain’s synapses act as NAND logic gates firing electrical currents off and on, producing electrical currents made up of millions of Boolean functions. This information is encoded, decoded, displayed on a graphic user interface called the 'subject', 'self', 'I', etc. Understanding the mind in this computational way, perhaps we can break down the brain’s cultural center that informs our ideologies and identities into irreducible units in order to prune and refine which ideas exert dominance not only in our minds but also our cultures.

Irreducible Units
Memes are to memeplexes as bytes are to code. Just as a byte is given significance by its place in a line of code, a meme is an irreducible unit of cultural information that is given significance by its place in the ecology of human minds. A meme can be comprised of reducible units of information that do not count as memes themselves because they do not signify anything beyond their gestalt like a byte that is comprised of bits, which by themselves do not signify anything beyond their sequential gestalt as an electrical current or computation. If memes are indeed similar to bytes of information in a sequence of code, then they must have a similar unit of measure. "Daniel Dennett argues that that the notes D-F#-A do not constitute a meme, while the theme from the slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony is a meme. Just as a single codon of DNA like C-G-A (coding the amino acid arginine) is "too small" to be a gene, Dennett believes that the effects of the notes D-F#-A are insufficiently individual to count as a meme. A "three nucleotide phrase does not count as a gene for the same reason that you can't copyright a three-note phrase: it is not enough to make a melody" (Balkin, ch. 3). Yet, these three notes played as quarter notes mark the beginning of "Three Blind Mice." It seems that once this established as symbolizing some kind of referent, in this case a song, the notes count as memes. Therefore, referentiality is one criteria for identifying memes. I also argue for another criteria - intentionality.

Recognizing or Creating Patterns?
The brain has evolved to detect patterns. Not just the human brain but also virtually all forms of intelligence recognize patterns as being distinct from things they are not. Through direct experience, maps, measurements, writing, and repetition humans have become especially adept in our generative capabilities for novel ideas and predictions. Even if we are not able to decipher the memotype (i.e., the information-content of a mem) we are usually able to recognize the phenotypic expression of memes with intuitive deftness. This skill is what informed the basis of William Paley’s teleological argument – our ability to pick out a watch in the middle of a forest and recognize the pattern of ‘man-madeness.’ This is the ability to detect what I call 'signatures of Intentionality.' Intentionality, consciousness, and aboutness are are related in that they each imply the next and are the most obvious of signs of memes. I think many theorists err when they attribute patterns of cultural information to individuals who exhibit no signatures of intentionality toward a larger meta-cultural database. It is important to note that memes requires a conscious intentionality to transfer itself as data, otherwise the expression is genotypical.

The issue is inextricably tethered to language as Wittgenstein masterfully propounded in his Tractacus Logico-Philosophicus. When faced with the problem that groups of things thought to be connected by a common feature sometimes turn out to be connected by gradations of similarities, where no single feature is common to the group, he put forward his theory of family resemblance. This laid the foundation for the graded mode of categorization in cognitive science called prototype theory. This is an example of a simple model showing how each of the 5 items might be considered to share a common pattern but the 'resemblance' is limited to the different aspects in each case:
Item_1: A B C D
Item_2: B C D E
Item_3: C D E F
Item_4: D E F G
Item_5: E F G H
This basic idea persuasively disillusions any idea of continuity of between members of cultures. Therefore, when 'recognizing' patterns in culture we are actively creating them at the expense of imagining solidarity and ignoring differences. This 'space' allows for significant memetic mutation within cultures.

We can draw another analogy from a darkroom: if we examine one byte of photographic negative in an enlarger as we flip through filters we will notice that the bit is identical in gradation to other bits under one filter, then darker than those same bits under another filter. When we parse out cultures into recognizable patterns and sub-patterns, those categories act as filters for individuals. Some people are similar in artistic taste, language, political ideology but differ diametrically in matters of religion. In contrast to the minutia of enculturated information, metacultures are usually historical, being characterized by language, lineage, citizenship, or humankind altogether.

Past Methods
In order to determine the mechanics of cultural transmission and the properties of cultural units we need a positive approach rooted in scientific method. Critical theory (Horkheimer and Adorno's descriptive writing was far too value laden; Marx overemphasized materialism and neglected ideology; Weber: vice versa), structuralism, post-structuralism, postmodernism, discourse analysis, etc., have been useful to an extent toward the project of understanding cultural phenomena but have been largely esoteric, often employing "terrorist obscurantism" to superfluous texts in order to explicate underdeveloped theories. A push for a new kind of metamethodology is not rooted in a matter of truth versus falsity (because memes do not have to correspond to reality to be memes, they just have to correspond to a mental state that can be expressed) but rather a desire for a universal kind of writing – that of a science. It is true that even scientific communities have their own structures of legitimation, hegemony, and power/knowledge but science is a method – observe, hypothesize, test, analyze, repeat. We might implicate emipiricism as a type of writing because although it is descriptive of reality, its terms and grammar are diachronic. Nevertheless, it possesses the most communicative potential for expounding cultural evolution seeing as how evolutionary science has dealt away with so many philosophical problems. Ironically, the need for a cognitive approach to these problems arises out of philosophy itself. Philosophy's natural trajectory from issues of Being (Geist), man and god, existentialism, phenomenology, to analytic philosophy of mind and language have put unbearable demand for a cognocentric approach to categorization, neural correlates of consciousness, and logical/empirical bases for describing the human condition. For instance, Cognitive scientists have mapped out certain kinds of "Darwinian algorithms" that the mind employs for different purposes while philosophy has fetishized 'pure reason' as its only possible tool. Logical positivism and the Macy conferences have done away with massive sectors of traditional philosophy in academia and substituted a cognitive scientific approach for answering some questions that have been haunting the academy and disposing of many of the questions as well, while raising new ones.

Mediological Transmission
Debray's critique of cultural theorists' fetishism of semiotics highlights a common tendency to overlook the materiality of cultural data transfer. This is because of semiotics' history of relegating the sign to an arbitrary status.“At the centre of Transmitting Culture is Debray’s polemical distinction between ‘transmission’ and ‘communication’: as he claims, the academic habit of studying culture primarily through practices of communication has generated a very skewed understanding of how our techno-cultural present is constituted. In Debray’s diagnosis, this state of affairs has come about because of the human sciences’ infatuation with semiology and, more recently, with its successor, cognitive science. The concept of communication bestowed by these two methodologies, Debray suggests, has entailed a conceptual impoverishment in the ways scholars analyse cultural processes. Models of communication can read culture only as the circulation of messages and codes between various points in space (as the shuttling of information between senders and receivers). Because of this, they de-emphasize the material pathways that make communication possible. Furthermore, they cannot allow us to grasp those aspects of cultural transmission which involve a relationship between past and present, and in that relationship, the recognition of an absent other. Debray insists that the passing of a message is inevitably a passing down, an act of legacy-making. As such it involves a relationship to a place outside the present of a community, and this is a relationship which involves the organization of affect into forms of belief. It is this relationship to a place other than the present of communication which, for Debray, constitutes transmission as ‘duty and obligation, in a word, culture’ (Debray, 5). I think Balkin echoes this historical materialism of the self in saying, "the human being who absorbs and embodies cultural software, who be­comes the incarnation of certain forms of cultural know-how, becomes more than genetic information, more than environmental influence, more even than a combination of the two. We become agents and embodiments of history" (Balkin ch.13).

If memes are a reliable way of describing units of cultural data then it is safe to say that the mind is conscious of them and that they are marked with a serial number of intentionality. A meme must, however, as Debray indicates reference some materiality, not just to embody its content, but to have content at all. In this sense, our minds as cultural software are generative of new kinds of content because they are informed by the content they already possess as cultural information (see Giddens on structuration). Our propensity for pattern recognition makes us highly sensitive to the detection and identification of memes. However, just as some predators can be fooled by a display of Batesian mimicry, it is possible that memes obfuscate and conceal their true identity. It is also possible that we sometimes see apparitions of memes in culture when we attribute postmodern ideologies that necessarily require specific types of cognition to masses of people who do not share those memes. The memes that exhibit higher levels of intentionality are the ones that we easily detect (like Paley's watch). Once we unearth or map out the memeplexes in our culture, maybe then we can put them to the test. Perhaps, applying Gettieresque rules to the propositional memes, we can weed out the parasites from the commensals and mutualists. Just as mapping out the human genome will eventually enable us to detect mutations, undesirable genes, and so on, perhaps mapping out our memplexes will reveal the logical atoms, the bad memes - the bytes in the code that corrupt our neural computations (cultural malware), and the ones that bring about mutual benefits for their hosts.

This tpoic is more relevant than it has ever been due to the exponential inundation of network technologies. "Brains in the community begin to be infected by a variety of these memes. Competition for time and space in these brains becomes more severe. The infected brains begin to take on a structure as the memes that enter “learn” to cooperate on the task of turning a brain into a proper meme-nest with lots of opportunities for entrance and exit (and hence replication).18 Meanwhile, any memes out there “looking for” hosts will have to compete for available space therein. Just like germs" (Dennett, 137).

Referenced Works

Aunger, Robert. Darwinizing Culture : The Status of Memetics as a Science. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Balkin J.M. Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology. Yale University Press, 2003.

Barkow, Jerome H., Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby. The Adapted Mind: Evo­lutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

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