This is a boring opening sentence: The psychologist and philosopher William James is most famous for his contributions to Pragmatism. “Contributions” here being a book called Pragmatism. I’m about to mutilate his argument; apologies to the dead.
Pragmatism is an epistemological school that seeks to make philosophy more scientific (-ish). James wanted to hold thoughts accountable not just for logical merit but for practical application. Though this obviously means that thoughts must in some way relate to the world, they aren’t required to get at “the truth in itself”. There’s something fantastically American about all this, which warms my heart but repels the more sophisticated. The “value” of a philosophical school is its use. Pragmatism’s method is experience.
Like all philosophy, this realm is at once smaller and greater than the physical sciences: smaller because an enginineer’s heuristsic impacts your life less than does her success in gadgetry. Greater, because societies that fail to produce and maintain functional theories cannot compete with those that can, no matter an individual’s mechanic genius. Let us take “empiricism” as a broad epistemelogical theory (as we should). Who cares if a techie really buys it? Nimble hands that follow Husserlian rationalism are just as good at piecing together a cell phone. But on a social level, empiricism’s philosophical adoption allows someone to design your iPhone300, the government’s death rays that keep you safe from looters, and the policy that puts those death rays to productive purpose.
Taken to an extreme, the broad view of pragmatism resembles natural selection. It should. Pragmatism provides a mechanism both for intellectual evolution as well as the persistence of certain ideas, for adaptation and for conservation. Not for nothing has the school been compared to “philosophical Darwinism”. Useful ideas outcompete less useful ones and pass on their seeds. In this way, the simple persistence of certain ideas can become itself a mark of (pragmatic) “truth” – hence the ambivalence of pragmatists regarding religion.
Pragmatism is technically concerned with epistemology, but it’s not hard to see how that bleeds into moral and ethical philosophy, see: Dewey. Someone less charitable might say that it requires a particularly whiggish view of morality, that a progress narrative is central. “Eh. Probably.”
The ethical aspect probably sounds familiar. Certainly one of its children will: memetics. This pullulation is right for our time: the pragmatic style is extremely common. Think-piece (and blog!) arguments tend to get points for following a vague shadow of the pragmatic approach: discard purpose in favor of utility, refuse to cast moral judgments in lieu of functional ones, explain via persistence rather than creation. Cf. political arguments for your side, especially those as to why the opposition is wrong. Nearly all will imply a kind of moral evolution that is either good or bad, fit or unfit for the current world. More importantly, science must have its say, and discussing “memes” is perhaps the most scientific way to REEEEEEEE your opponent out of the room.
Dennett is associated with pragmatism, and it’s clear that he adopted a fair amount from it, but that doesn’t relieve a certain tension. Dennett’s memes consist of information and they “just infect people” (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), whereas pragmatic ideas are ways of thinking, consciously adopted (Arrival?).
This is going to become quite important for us.
Memes, according to the theory, are “transferable packets of information”. The purpose is to understand cultural transmission, movement, diffusion. The name comes via Dawkins, which means via genes. The more popular metaphor skips straight to viruses. We should think contamination rather than adaptation. Memes use humans as hosts, whether these memes are jingles or grammar. All that’s required is the possibility of infection.
Part of this is certainly rhetorical: Dennett is a New Atheist, and “memetic virus” is a powerful image for religion. It’s much more obviously antagonistic than genetic adaptation. But it’s also a central metaphor for how ideas spread… which takes us right to the problem. I accept that certain aspects of culture behave like viruses, [joke at unpopular celebrity’s expense here], so adaptation over time and self-proliferation among the population (especially among those dummies) are useful images. But the problem is that all of my reference points for memetic infection are when they’re already inside a culture, not how they got there to begin with.
This is curious, and a major fault of memetics is that the method of transmission is rarely discussed. I’m not an epidemiologist, but I at least vaguely understand the physical behavior of viral infection. It’s harder with memes – if my reader count is low and I want some NSA readers I can take a trip to Inspire, but the mere exposure doesn’t sway me much. This is going to sound kind of stupid, but why? “I’m educated” doesn’t cut it – so were the majority of the 9/11 bombers. Neither does “not being raised in Islamic culture“. I guess someone could say that Jihadi Islam is a weak meme, but that sort of cuts Dennett’s legs out from under him, doesn’t it?
It’s this issue that Sarah Perry picks up on in a fantastic article for Ribbonfarm. She substitutes social adoption for memetic infection, rightly blasting historical examples of memetic madness as “just so” stories. In her model, some people pick up a meme (or tool or [bleh]), and when it works others adopt it. This is the pragmatist’s approach: it is conscious behavior, modeled on utility. I’m not a pragmatist, but I actually like Perry’s model (for what it’s worth, she probably wouldn’t call herself a Pragmatist either). But this model does quite a bit better than the strict memetic one. There are social and economic and, well, utilitarian aspects to religion/[other meme here] that are very important to understand its adoption, and simply treating it as a virus misses the point here. But this still does not explain the initial adoption: I anticipate that “social cohesion” could be as equally served by Zoroastrianism as Calvinism. Plus dakhmas just look cool.
We should note two things: 1) Perry is still working with a kind of “information” rather than a way of thought; 2) Perry’s own model requires some kind of contagion. Social adoption comes after an initial spread – that is, trial attempts by someone who started without forerunners. Her image is tools, but we should look at something ideology here to properly understand it. How did that contagion arise? Saying “some people just decided to try it” won’t do. Why try this, and not that? Why pick up Wahhabism instead of Mohism? Why, for god’s sake, is Shaq a flat-earther?
“Stream of consciousness” is now known as a technique of modernist writing. Faulkner and Joyce and Woolf: rather than linear narration, the characters leap and skip from idea to idea, word to word. But though literature may exemplify it, the phrase did not originate with modernism. It comes from William James.
The metaphor is obvious: consciousness is not a static thing that can be directed at anything one wants, and it is not a series of unconnected parcels of information. Every idea is connected, and one packet of information is never fully divorced from another. There’s an obvious question here: why and how are certain pieces related? There is, after all, something rather more obvious about there being separate “spheres” of information. We learn different skills in different classes, and it’s not obvious why we shouldn’t be able to stay in one sphere: remain in the “Thai cooking” realm when I’m working with fish sauce, but consciously transition to “teratology” when the Elephant Man comes up.
And yet – why were those my reference points? “Algebra” and “zymurgy” would do just as well. Imagine that line in a Faulkner book, hence intentional, hence thoroughly analyzed from the perspective of “stream of consiousness”. What could be more obvious than that “Thai” is associated with elephants (and now associated with pink elephants), which is why “Elephant Man” came up? Or there: Faulkner (“my mother was a fish”) with fish sauce. Certain words are associated with others, making the mind skip over to them even if the “information” is rationally disconnected.
James calls this the “fringe” of a word. My example is obviously somewhat tortured – no matter. The fringe is something like the associations a word has, the vague network of connections between it and others. But even this is misleading, because a fringe does not just pertain to one word – in a certain sense, it pertains to none. A fringe is the liminal space between multiple words (and concepts and ideas and lines and quotes). Sometimes this appears distracting or bizarre (above), other times as humor (puns, among others), and occasionally as brilliance (Woolf, Faulkner).
James does not mean this to simply be an explanation of association. It’s critical for human cognition. Or, indeed, it’s at least partially the mechanism for how we think about things. A word is no more than a grunt. Without a vast repository of associative grunts, each known by one another and all those others, we would not be able to communicate (or think). I won’t die on this hill, but one might say that abstract words exist not as “real things with definitions” but rather as nodes – they facilitate connections between concretes without us confusing one to the other over and over in our thoughts.
It’s not hard to understand this as a mechanism for transmission within a culture. A word’s fringe is intensely personal but it can be developed and taught. Even if a word has thousands of fringe associations, some will be stronger than others. These are, well, the ones we develop and use. They may be personal or social, but their repetition changes the way we use concept.
The import of a word’s fringe is not necessarily its object association. The import is that it determines how one thinks, what channels are most natural to go down and hence what conclusions tend to follow. In other words: the “packet” of information is less important than its abstract flow; the datum arrived at is less important than all the associations around it that channel one there. The flow determines new actions and behaviors, whereas the information is always the same. The fringe is productive. The datum is static.
It goes without saying that these are also quite hard to quantify: I anticipate that I have a much different associations with the concept “good” than a Christian does, and a much different association than a Roman Legionaire did. We know this to be true and obvious on the object level: I don’t think crucifixion is great, Claudius was fine with it. Figuring out that difference more than simply calculating “number of crufixions attended per capita”, as that can only measure the effect, the object of thought, the “packet of information”, when the importance is not the information, though, but the way that thought skips from one place to another, and this is incredibly difficult.
I suspect that Dennett prefers “information” because it’s more readily quantifiable. But that says nothing about the subject’s relation to it – I suspect that my fringe associations with Islamism are quite different from a Jihadist’s. To Perry’s point, quarantining of information is not an effective way to deal with it. The issue is not “having” information, but the productive use of it.
This complicates memetics, and seems to fall on the side of pragmatic adoption. But it still doesn’t explain quite how fringe is transmitted, nor why someone picks one up over another.
Perry uses examples of mechanical innovation, but the real thrust of her argument is about more abstract concepts. You can see this in her examples of social control: communism, Spanish Catholicism. Dennett, famously and fiercely atheistic, is the same way. His most controversial example is Islam, but religion in general is his game. Something extremely notable about those abstract ideas, and especially the religious ones, is that they didn’t initially spread through argumentation nor rational, social utility. They were spread through poetry, whether this was holy books or creative works of specific artists. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
It’s fitting that “stream of consciousness” has been encoded in literature. Art is perhaps the strongest public forger of these connections. Every culture I can think of has a specific place for poetry as both instruction and culture, as something passed down and shared and enjoyed. If we cognize based on word associations, it’s hard to think of a better transmitter than poetry, or the associated music. Few things more effectively glue one word to another in the human mind. Song lyrics get annoyingly stuck in our heads. Film lines serve as examples, as collective memories. Since we are speaking English: how many phrases and words have you used today that come directly from a poem? My guess is: more than you think.
We argue quite a lot over the value of the information conveyed. This is, I think, one of Dennett’s fears. One sees this all the time in political debates: people trying to trip one another up over hypocrisy. But that implies that the breaching of a belief (hypocrisy) is the important part. I’m not saying that the information isn’t important, but what if it comes later? Indeed, what if it’s tertiary to the adoption process? Here’s an intriguing and thankfully uncontroversial point: modern subcultures (a reaction to lifeless modernity if there is one) do not center themselves on ideals or thoughts. They develop, and remain delineated by, types of music and art. That is to say: the poetry comes first, and then come the ideals we associate with the culture. The information is not what produces fringe, even if it is the content that is being associated. What produces fringe, what makes people think differently, has nothing to do with ideas. It has to do with poetry. Contra Dennett: ideas are not dangerous. Verse is.
And we have something of an answer for our question of “contamination”. This is, of course, aesthetic. Poetry and lyric do three things: a) because they are a linguistic medium, they encode fringe associations more strongly than other forces; b) because they get “stuck” in our memories, their repetition develops and strengthens these associations and; c) since we enjoy art (for whatever reason, unimportant), we’re more likely to pay enough attention to good art for it to get stuck in our heads. No, I don’t have a theory of “art” (much less one of human nature), but that’s kind of irrelevant. I’m looking at behavior.
I should be clear about one thing: People talk about rhetoric being more powerful than truth these days. That’s not my point. The archetypal example of this is Trump, but when was the last time someone memorized a Trump speech? Slogans, sure, but those have never had anything to do with either “truth” or “post-truth”.
“Memorization” is more important here than it seems, because memorization is what gives a word a stronger association with another in one’s mind. Fringe is the medium for a natural movement, for stream of consciousness. Without having something memorized, that won’t happen. Anyone can look up information: the “productive” part of fringe is that it comes intuitively, without artifice, that it’s a way of thinking and not the thought itself.
Dennett’s examples most famous examples are religious. You can feel free to substitute in anything for Islamism if you’re uncomfortable with that. I’d suggest the Unabomber, identity politics, death cults, or [other thing]. But the emphasis on religion is instructive for one very specific reason. When religion was more common in the western world, people didn’t base their beliefs on theological disputation. Indeed, most believers could not read the text itself. What they did do, what they were instructed in, was the repetition of prayer, i.e. the repetition of poetry. See also: memorization of prayer among fundamentalists (of all kinds).
Students used to memorize poetry. This is now regarded as insanely antiquated. “What’s the purpose? I can google that in seconds.” But if James is even a tiny bit correct, the point isn’t the poem – the point is what it does to your mind. This might be encoding cultural values, or it might be learning to think in the same way that the author did. Either way, this only comes through memorization. File under: problems with smart-phones.
Yes, people always complain about modern technology/lazy youths/etc. “Plato did that 2400 years ago! God, you’re the worst millenial ever.” This is going to sound weird, but what if he was right?
Plato wrote a lamentation over writing – it degrades people’s ability to think and remember. That lamentation is obviously not lost – I know because I’ve read it. But the information isn’t the important part. It isn’t the productive aspect of it. What’s productive is the associative ability provided, and that association – that fringe – is only active if someone has memorized something. There’s no other way for it to work.
Plato’s lament might be understood better in this way: sure, I get his conclusions. But getting to the conclusions is no longer demanded, which means further conclusions are lost to me.
“Aesthetic” alone is not a full explanation. There must be ways that certain times are right for transmission, for adopting a meme, or adjusting a norm. If it’s to be effective, there must be other forces active at that time. It’s merely one factor, even if powerful, among a variety of others – economic, social, political, environmental… Monocausal explanations are doomed to failure.
That does not stop us from trying, of course. Everyone and their grandma knows why [bad person] did [bad thing] because [the economy, stupid, et al.] The turn towards “scientific” explanations doesn’t combat this. I understand that we want to be rigorous, but “rigor” and calculation, quantificaiton, are not the same thing. We have plenty of “scientific” (read: numerical) measurements of people. We take these to be the determining factors in a person’s life. And it is, indeed, easy to assume that radicalization is from poverty, or military activity, or [other quantifiable thing]. But then we meet with things like 9/11 bombers, people who should be suburbanites by any of our measurements, and they just aren’t. In the face of this people tend to just go “well, it’s about more than all that…” Indeed, it is. Any ideas on that “it”, or is that all? So much for science, I suppose.
In his favor, Dennett at least tries to offer something better than “it’s more than all that”, and I agree with him to a point. “Meme” is useful shorthand for a real phenomenon, but it’s not about “bad information”, nor is it contagious by simply contact. Indeed: his “solution” appears to just be “throw other facts at it”. That will make it worse.
“People might be more or less susceptible to memes at different times.” I can think of one of those times: when they don’t have strong associations with words, when they haven’t “memorized a poem” enough to make it a pattern of thought. In other words, when a particular aesthetic really can appeal to them without other influences. Sort of like someone who just graduated from college and is kind of lost and confused. Not coincidentally, that’s the #1 recruiting pool for cults in the United States.
As a society, we’ve performed this same uprooting on a large scale. I tend to call this “nihilism”, although what I’m discussing is merely one aspect of it. We don’t value myth, we don’t value religion, and we don’t really value art. Honestly, that’s all fine, I suppose. But we also failed to put any productive thing in their place, we tossed out real poetry and we have no “poetry” to replace it.
In this gaping hole, we have a very specific hierarchy of facts. But either these facts aren’t going to give us a worldview on their own or the one they will doesn’t appear particularly powerful. How can one combat that just by throwing facts at people? This simply adds information – a new word, but no connectors. Perhaps at best it adds an association, but it doesn’t reshape a worldview. I’m talking generally here, and I admit that specialists and academics might have memorized, integrated, something themselves, but honestly that kind of confirms my point. Have you ever heard an evolutionary biologist and a gender studies professor talk to each other? Have you ever heard one of them talk to a day laborer? Are they thinking the same way?
Among the more pernicious aspects of modern “rational” thought is the designation of myth and art as “mere entertainment”. “Art for art’s sake”, sure, but that’s worse than just ignoring it. At best, they’re sometimes considered “ways of transmitting information”, which the implication being but there are more direct ones. And I agree: there are all sorts of ways to convey information. What impact do you think they’ll have? Are they productive or are they static?
I don’t know exactly why art attracts us, and I don’t mean to provide an explantion for that part here. I suspect it has something to do with rhythm (prelude to a piece: “against modern free verse”). I’d suggested that since poetry is language par excellence, repeating it over and over more firmly establishes a fringe than does nearly anything else. In turn, fringe is not merely the content of a thought but its way of moving. Poetry does not transmit “content”. It transmits a way of thinking. I doubt I’m alone in feeling that I have a profoundly different phenomenological experience when reading a poem than when I’m merely “thinking” about something. What if it’s precisely this experiential difference which gets people to repeat something, in the same way that we drink alcohol or take drugs for a phenomenological effect rather than a mere “taste” or consumption. We should go futher: it’s what makes them adopt it.
A “fact” just sits there, and it’s easy to quantify. An LSD trip is not. But that doesn’t make the trip something that “didn’t happen” or is unimportant. I imagine the same is true for art. Art secretes patterns. Information is static. Aesthetic is productive. If different “poetic” aspects produce different ways of thinking, then the people under them have different phenomenological experiences. Plato knew this – he has different groups, which are meant to think differently, instructed to memorize different kinds of music. Dennett does not know this.
When people worry about values that are harmful to “human flourishing”, they tend to mean that produce bad physical results. But what if the real fear, one of the real drivers, is those that are harmful to a much deeper sense of flourishing? That is – nihilistic values, which degrade the experience of the world, which make life not worth living, even if they have good economic results. It might be that some others are more attractive, that the experience of them is better, that we want them. Religion might be one (it is), but other people choose punk. Dennett will hate this, but it might be that the religious aren’t simply infected by scary germs. They may have chosen a better world than he did, and I don’t mean postmortem.
You 1. Understood a certain way, aesthetics might be the fundamental field of combat for the 21st century. This was, of course, Nietzsche’s point.don’t have to buy that (I’ll argue that point much more extensively in subsequent pieces). But if nothing else, art provides a memetic defense, one which we do not have right now. We’re totally “free”, sure, but also completely at the mercy of our own deadness as well as whatever comes to take that from us. A world that does not value art does not internalize it, and a world that does not internalize art is defenseless against it. The nastiest truth in the world is harmless. Poetry is terrifying.
Perry knows all this I suspect, because she suggested a “prayer” at the end of her article. I agree. One thing about prayer might be its ability to bring us back, to let us consider the possibility of another side while having a hook to bring us back to our own. In a strange way, having a very set, almost fundamentalist, view of prayer might make us more open-minded.
Plato attacks writing in the Phaedrus. That dialogue is the only one that takes place outside the city walls. Athens then had a very developed and enforced culture – both religious and social – which Socrates, uh, discovered the hard way eventually. And so when he’s outside the city walls, what you should think is: he’s away from enforce social norms. He’s exploring “freedom”.
We should take note, then, that Socrates the dialogue ends with a prayer, one which I have shamefully not memorized. Here it is:
Socrates: O beloved Pan and all ye other gods of this place, grant to me that I be made beautiful in my soul within, and that all external possessions be in harmony with my inner man. May I consider the wise man rich; and may I have such wealth as only the self-restrained man can bear or endure.–Do we need anything more, Phaedrus? For me that prayer is enough.
Phaedrus: Let me also share in this prayer; for friends have all things in common.
I want to be clear: I like modern freedom. I’m pretty aggressively in favor of the freedom to think and the choose. For a long time societies used poetic memorization as a weapon against its populace, as a way to keep them in line. I don’t want to return to that, and those that do are, frankly, fucking assholes. But the other response, “everything is free! nothing is real!” is also not a response. It’s a white flag that pretends it’s an argument.
This is not a political argument. I don’t want to impose something on a grand scale, and I don’t even see how I could. Politics is economics; this is personal. “For the things of friends are shared” – maybe only this part can replace whatever hellscape our politics has become. We must choose something to memorize, to imprint on our souls. We must choose something to value, even if we can’t communicate that way of valuing with blunt facts. We should, then, choose our prayers wisely, but let’s not pretend that they aren’t prayers. There may be no other way to spread something worth believing in that also protects our freedom.
And, perhaps, we should memorize more poetry.
top image from David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch