Meme vaccine

by CarlD

Over at the really excellent Neuroanthropology, where I always learn something, Daniel has been kind enough to include some of my posts in his Wednesday roundups. (Dude, time to get me on the blogroll!) I’d been meaning to reciprocate and the occasion comes with this week’s links to my and Larval Subjects’ posts on memes.

If this is a topic that interests you, please go and also read Daniel’s post Engaging & Dispatching Memetics, which reviews and links Thomas Hylland Eriksen’s discussion of the topic in his book Engaging Anthropology. The short version of the critique is that memetics is pop anthropology and it’s more complicated than that; but saying so must then invite a more comprehensive and holistic anthropological practice that is also sensitive to getting the word out publicly. That is, the meme meme needs to be shouldered aside in popular appropriations of anthropology by something better. Daniel thinks that with some tweaking of the brand neuroanthropology can fill that bill, and I’m all for it.

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46 Comments to “Meme vaccine”

  1. Thanks for the link. And dude, you’re in! I admit, I’ve been kinda spotty about updating that blogroll.

    Best, Daniel

  2. I followed the link to somebody else’s “We Hate Memes” post, which identifies various specific problems that those of us not yet sold on flat posthumanism might embrace; e.g., assigning agency to ideas rather than to the minds that think them, the flat memic equivalence of a marketing jingle and Nazism. I see also that the neuroanthropologists on that site regard critical thinking not only as non-trollish but as possibly the most important contribution they can make to the field. Wow.

  3. …neuroanthropologists on that site regard critical thinking not only as non-trollish but as possibly the most important contribution they can make to the field.

    Get right out of town, John. I’m off to teach me some students about Socrates, wondering how I would ever do so without mentioning how much of an asshole he was with all the criticing and all the questioning, I almost came up with a good theory in which Socrates, despite exhibiting ALL the signs of trollish and grey-vampirish behavior, is not in fact one of those (because he had a project, you see? you can be an asshole to others, hate them, abuse them and suck their energy dry, but if you have a project, all is forgiven) – and now you tell me “critical thinking” is actually a good thing? Damn you.

  4. John, I’m sure the aristos thought eating more cake and adding gold lame’ to their culottes was a contribution they could make to French civilization, but the guillotine proved them wrong. Surf the wave of history or be driven under, puny mortal.

    Mikhail, I just read an interesting defense of Socrates at, no surprise, In Socrates’ Wake in which he’s compared favorably to Neo in “The Matrix” because he gave his victims the choice whether to participate in the truth procedure and have their worldviews overturned or not. Asshat yes, troll-master no, on this view.

  5. Yeah, I don’t know about that Neo stuff – it sounds like a very nice and very middle-class polite liberal type of Socrates. “Excuse me, kind Sir, would you mind if I imposed my truth procedure on you, if ever so slightly, I’m terrible sorry I am indeed.”

    I mean take your Euthyphro – dude’s there to prosecute his own father for god’s sake, don’t ask him questions that would destroy his very notion of piety and justice that he bases his whole life on, leave him alone, Socrates, he’s done nothing to you. Yet it’s clear from this one example (that ruins the theory, I think) that Socrates is not only not in a habit of giving people a choice but is very much in a habit of imposing his questions (and therefore his “truth procedure”) on others – isn’t that what Socratic irony ultimately about? Isn’t it all about luring the unsuspected arrogant know-it-alls into a trap by “by Zeus, this is the best thing I’ve ever heard” and “wow, and then what happened?” or “I have to say I’ve never thought about it this way”? I think that the curious child in the linked story confuses “unethical” with “uncool” – was it “uncool” for Socrates to shatter Euthyphro’s beliefs about his own expertise in the matters of justice? Sure. Was it “unethical”? I don’t think so – he was intending on prosecuting his own father, Socrates did him (or more likely his father) a big favor…

  6. Oh, so now it’s ok if you ask and if you have a project? As I understand it you all propose that networks of people, small social groups, are plagued with trolls and grey vampires who disrupt and maybe even destroy those networks. Maybe Socrates wasn’t so much a troll as he was, to borrow a term from CompSci, a garbage collector?

  7. Noen you’ve got the right argument, just reverse the players. We’re shadow-boxing here with several fellow bloggers (wonderful people with many fine qualities) who have developed and are pushing this whole simplistic, dumb, troll/grey vampire analysis to get people they don’t like into conveniently-discarded boxes. It’s not very good network analysis.

    When I was teaching Human Development I had a student propose to do her senior thesis as an analysis of her workplace. In particular she was interested in exposing her nemesis there, a receptionist who not only didn’t do her own job but butterflied around disrupting everyone else’s. I said ok and went ahead with showing them how to reserve judgment and do a more careful observation of situational dynamics. In her final paper, a magnificent accomplishment, the student concluded that this other woman was the one indispensable employee of the company because of the critical work she did linking the different parts of the company into a cohesive, coordinated community.

    I really can’t fully express how fundamentally unsatisfying and disappointing the troll/grey vampire caricatures are in this light.

  8. I understand, and that’s a great story. I was trying to be funny. It’s amazing how powerful our own personal biases are isn’t it? It’s almost like we need each other to survive. I watched the movie Blindness the other day. What a great metaphor for the human condition. We think we can see but really, we’re blind.

    That link to the page on Socrates and the Matrix and the question of would you take the red or blue pill and/or force that on others. You know, for me the internet has been like a red pill. I was raised white, suburban, middle class and at a time when there were no alternative sources to the official media. It’s been very distressing.

  9. Okeydoke, Noen, you’re in my peeps-with-dry-wit pile now. We should be solid going forward. And my compliments on your recovery from your horrifying childhood. You’ve cleaned up nicely, if I may venture a judgment.

    Haven’t seen Blindness but the syndrome is familiar.

  10. Recovery? Hah! I’ll let my therapist know, he could use a good laugh.

  11. I think the thesis that meme theory is “pop anthropology” is actually a pretty compelling critique. As it’s been practiced so far, the biggest advocates of meme theory have the least background where cultural theory is concerned and meme theory suffers for this reason. As someone who’s pretty steeped in cultural theory, anthropology, linguistics, etc., I take issue with this as well. Nonetheless, I think the basic idea of memes draws attention to something important. Among the posts there’s a remark talking about flat equivalence between a marketing jingle and Nazism. In my view this misses the point. It can be a great comfort to evoke transcendent values and standards, but the real issue is that of what makes a difference in the world. Clearly Nazism is something noxious. What strategies can be devised to immunize that particular structure of signs from proliferating the social field. The evocation of certain transcendent norms is one strategy. But often that evocation lacks efficacy. What other strategies can be devised?

    As for all the trollish/grey vampire stuff, I haven’t been participating in that much. I find the scholar irritating as I think they’re always changing the subject and making it about something else, rather than keeping it on issue. Honestly I think your critique is one-sided here, though I think the troll/grey vampire discussions have been one sided as well. Part of the issue here is that much of the discussions that evoked discussions of troll haven’t been entered into in good faith. Rather than exercising charity in interpretation and actually working on the premise that one’s interlocutor is a reasonable person, these discussions have instead attributed truly absurd and uncharitable claims to those they’re address and have the feel of seeking to “score points” rather than explore differences. It’s unlikely that deontologist or Lee Braver and I will ever come to agreement about fundamental philosophical orientations, but we’re still able to have a productive discussion because we respect each others positions and don’t begin in mockery. I have a hard time seeing how some of what’s gone on can honestly be compared to Socrates. Socrates at least tries to get the position he’s responding to straight before proceeding to outline the problems he has with it.

  12. Interestingly, I think all these discussions are actually an illustration of my own views on these matters. Not only are these memes, but additionally these discussions are about normativity and are instances of a community generating norms of discourse and interaction. In contrast to my friend Mikhail– and we are friends no matter how harsh our interactions have been on occasion –I simply cannot accept the view that norms are there already, a priori as it were. Norms emerge in the course of discourse, not prior to discourse, and are contentiously developed along the way. I suspect, Carl, that this is part of what you’re getting at in your critique of posts about grey vampires and trolls as the blogs from whence these are coming have disproportionate “power” in this particular context. I’m small beans in comparison. Perhaps it would be more productive to treat these issues not as intercine wars but as experiments in the genesis of the production of norms.

  13. Nevermind, after reading 99 comments on the very thing I’m talking about here:

    http://carldyke.wordpress.com/2009/08/18/one-more-on-grey-vampires/

    It’s fairly clear that there’s no possibility of discourse in such a context. What’s really amazing is seeing otherwise honorable folk participating in such modes of discourse.

  14. Feel free to delete my previous three comments, Carl.

  15. And it’s really amazing to me that an associate professor at a prestigious institution such as Temple and Gramscian would participate in such ugly exchanges, much less make his blog a venue for such remarks.

  16. Carlo my client is upset, he needs some serious working through.

  17. “It’s fairly clear that there’s no possibility of discourse in such a context. What’s really amazing is seeing otherwise honorable folk participating in such modes of discourse.”

    Levi, I have my doubts about the value and tone of quite a lot of that thread, but to reach this conclusion as a comprehensive judgment I think you must have read or received it very selectively. Which is ironically one of the talking points there. I’m afraid you’ve missed quite a lot of discourse, much of it fairly productive in a microsociological sense. In any event, my model on this blog is a little different than yours. I’m not interested in controlling the conversation or vetting the participants for comfort and familiarity. I’m enough like me already that I don’t learn much from more of that. And I don’t delete comments, although as I mentioned and practiced in that thread I may seek to reframe them. In my salon I welcome the de Staels, Voltaires and de Sades, aristos and sans-culottes alike, and think the conversation is sometimes richer for it, despite the occasional implosions.

    Mockery can be distasteful and counterproductive, I agree, but it’s a venerable feature of a culture of public discourse. In classic street-corner tests of strength (an important concept for Latour), to earn the group’s respect you would be expected to laugh off the most fierce and creative insults, then reply in kind. If you wanted to join certain Native American tribes, you might be expected to do so while being slow-roasted. Academia has rituals like this – the dissertation defense springs to mind – but they have been superficially genteelized. We still need to prove ourselves against fierce and creative opposition to earn respect. I’m glad that’s working for you in a polite way with Braver et. al. and I’m pleased to participate at times. But I also like to have a wider and more diverse circle of friends.

    “Norms emerge in the course of discourse, not prior to discourse, and are contentiously developed along the way. I suspect, Carl, that this is part of what you’re getting at in your critique of posts about grey vampires and trolls as the blogs from whence these are coming have disproportionate “power” in this particular context.”

    This is exactly right. I think I’m living by this better than you right now, but I’ve always seen you as someone who might actually get it.

    “Perhaps it would be more productive to treat these issues not as intercine wars but as experiments in the genesis of the production of norms.”

    Quite right, well said. So shall we do that by attempting to cleanse the discursive Others? “What other strategies can be devised?”

  18. Carl, you are like a hero to me now, immediately mail me a portrait of yourself so that I can hang it on my wall and get all misty-eyed and emotional whenever anyone asks me about it and I go “Well, child, it is a special person who can take a confrontational and defensive discourse and turn it into delicious pudding, this one time I remember…”

  19. In contrast to my friend Mikhail– and we are friends no matter how harsh our interactions have been on occasion –I simply cannot accept the view that norms are there already, a priori as it were. Norms emerge in the course of discourse, not prior to discourse, and are contentiously developed along the way.

    Levi, I don’t necessarily disagree with you about the “emerging norms” – I think my main issue is that this emergence seems to imply some lack of binding power – maybe not in your discourse, I have to say that I haven’t followed your latest thoughts on the matter – that is to say, my view is that just because we can trace a norm to its origin (a difficult thing to do, it seems) does not mean it is no longer normative/binding, or so it seems to me. We can, for example, trace our basic operations of logic to some developmental stage X, but that does not mean that logic is now out of the window, right? I agree that more or less traditionally speaking we tend to argue that norms are only binding when they are imposed without much deliberation, when they are dogmatically proclaimed to be universal, but that would be a very simplistic way of looking at normativity. My question has always been the following: regardless of how norms come into existence, what is it about them that makes them binding? As you I am sure know, there’s a whole tradition, starting with Rousseau (or maybe earlier, I don’t know), that connects normativity and emergence in a way as to say that only those norms we give to ourselves (origin) are really binding (normative) – I don’t think I understand this tradition very well, I’ll be honest, but I think there’s something to it….

    As for your sentence above, I get it, but my problem is this – is norms do not exist prior to the discourse, but emerge during the discourse, then what about those norms that have already emerged in all sorts of prior discourses? Do norms automatically die as soon as a discourse is over? Does every new discourse/generation reinvent its norms? What’s a discourse here? Is there any continuity between discourses then?

  20. sorry it should be “IF norms do not exists prior to the discourse”

  21. …an associate professor at a prestigious institution such as Temple

    That’s not Temple of Solomon, is it? Because if it is, the objection definitely holds, Carl. I thought you were in NC for some reason, Temple is in Philadelphia, isn’t it?

  22. Comrade Dyke,Comrade Emelianov, what you need to understand about my client is that the crucial NORM is the narcissistic cat’s inner sense of justice. This is a double-edged sword: on the one hand, the cat is truly sweet in that she fights for the good causes, and on the other hand, the cat’s fight feeds into her narcissism, for she wants to do good apart from being rich and famous. With these impossible goals set for herself, the cat is primarily under oppression from her own academic superego. But you could never say that she isn’t principled!

  23. Mikhail, it’s my undergrad that’s from Temple. I’m employed at a more regional slau, apparently just below the threshold of respectability.

    “my view is that just because we can trace a norm to its origin (a difficult thing to do, it seems) does not mean it is no longer normative/binding, or so it seems to me”

    Just shooting from the hip here as another class fast approaches, it looks to me like this formulation posits that norms preexist and can be discovered through a historical / social process, rather than being contingently brought into being by that process. It is then this preexistence that makes them binding in a way that mere conventionality couldn’t. Do I understand you correctly?

    “there’s a whole tradition, starting with Rousseau (or maybe earlier, I don’t know), that connects normativity and emergence in a way as to say that only those norms we give to ourselves (origin) are really binding (normative)”

    Right – the point would be that this is where norms as such come from, anything else is more or less thinly-veiled coercion. But Durkheim refined this by pointing out that we are individually incapable of regulating ourselves (by the same power we create the norm we can violate it) so the elaboration of norms must be social; in fact, when we appeal to some higher power or transcendent good to found morals, we are ‘representing’ ourselves to ourselves symbolically. So playing off of Kant he called morals “collective representations.”

  24. To both Levi and Mikhail and anyone else who may be concerned with the “Where do norms come from?” issue, allow me to recommend a look at Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise on the Sociology of Knowledge. The answer to this conundrum lies in a three-stage process that Berger and Luckmann describe in dialectical terms: expression, objectification, internalization. Nothing very mysterious here: (1) someone states a proposition, e.g., asserts a normative claim; (2) others in a group accept it as valid; (3) it becomes taken for granted, perceived as necessarily true. The critical step is (2), for it is at this point that the author of the claim loses control of what he has asserted; he may change his mind, leave the group or die, but so so long as others accept the proposition as valid it has become a social fact and, if it is a norm, binding so long as the group has means to enforce it. It may not be a casual decision to do as the Romans do when in Rome. They may crucify you if you don’t.

  25. P.S. My memory has finally come round to reminding me that “expression, objectification, internalization” should likely be “externalization, objectification, internalization.” The change in wording does not, however, affect the basic thrust of the argument.

  26. Thanks for a recommendation, John, it’s been a while since I looked at that book. I think my point is rather simple, or so it seems to me therefore it must be, I tell ya, it must be. Seriously though, taking Durkheim’s point to be true, I would say that it seems to me that the argument against normativity is often (or at least in Levi’s variety, although his language is more complex than that) an argument that states that a) we know where norms come from (society, tradition, “in-the-process” of our discourse etc etc), therefore b) they aren’t really that normative – the assumption seems to be that apriori here means not so much as “before experience” but also “we don’t know where it’s coming from” – to show where norms come from is to de-norm them – take Kant: significance of synthetic apriori is not that we know where apriori comes from (we might or we might not), but that there is apriori (before exprience) and yet it is synthetic (“all the Kantians in da house says y-e-a-h” – [awkward shuffling, sounds of throat-clearings, almost inaudible “well, I never”s]).

    I think some norms preexist (people were eating with spoons before I came around, so I follow the norm) and are created (insert a new norm for a philosophical discourse such as “only that which sounds exciting and mentions objects will be part of metaphysics of X”) – the point, it seems to my possible naive self, is not to deal with origin of norms, but with this peculiar structure of normativity (this can be done in a variety of ways, of course, but I’m interested in philosophical approaches) – normativity makes norms normative/binding, norms don’t create normativity – norms are examples of rules that are binding (take logic as example, although I always get these objections that my talk is all “moralizing” and that normativity=ethics/morals which is of course not so etc etc), the question is how are they binding? Certainly there are various justifications of why something is binding, but the normativity/bindingness itself is a sort of hidden structure that never really comes to our attention while we fight over what specific rules/norms are and where they come from (even if one pulls them out of a proverbial ass, that’s not the point). I’m sure all of this could be rephrased in more precise sociological/historical/philosophical terms, but my teapot is whistling itself crazy so this is basically the gist.

  27. First, let us be clear that the Berger-Luckmann model is highly idealized. Stripped of the pseudo-inevitability of its dialectical framework, it points to a range of possibilities whenever someone has a new idea. At the two extremes it can be totally accepted or totally rejected by all of the members of the group in question. But as groups increase in size and heterogeneity, neither extreme is more likely than the usual sort of messy situation in which some people like something about the new idea while others have things they dislike with equal or greater fervor.

    But, turning to normativity? Why is this an issue? Anyone who has had the experience of dealing with small children or participating in a political campaign knows the answer. There are always those appealing to authority and, when that fails, adding bribes or threats to the argument. Given that the human animal is neotenous and requires a long period of socialization during which parents or their substitutes not only are models to be emulated but also have the upper hand, in knowledge, in resources, in means of coercion, the next generation winds up with a lot of unconscious habits as well as numerous topics for either acceptance or rebellion. The philosophically minded are upset by all the resulting muddle and strive mightily to build system and order on some absolute foundation. Although there are always true believers who assert that their prophet got it right, at the current end of recorded history, no such proposed foundation has ever proved indisputable; Thus, as Stanley Cavell might say, the conversation of justice continues.

  28. John, I see your points and I generally agree with them, but I feel that you are missing my point – it’s not about where do norms come from, certainly there’s plenty of theories concerning that, but about what sort of a thing “normativity” as such is or what makes this set of norms binding while that set of norms is cute and exotic (we eat with spoons, they eat with sticks)? Certainly we can agree that norms and normativity are not the same thing – why normativity? It’s a long conversation that started elsewhere and I forget exactly how and for what purpose, the basic idea is, if I recall correctly, to ask a simple question such as “why must we adopt a philosophical position X and not adopt a philosophical position Y?” that then lead to a question of the possibility of comparison and the need for some sort of criterion, then it all went sort of in the direction of the question of the status of “must/ought” as in a sentence such as “We must consider human-object relationship and object-object relationship to be in such and such relationship” – where there is a “must” – I argued – there must be some sort of normativity, otherwise it’s not a “must” it’s a “may” and so on. I hesitate to rehearse the whole thing here. Again, norms/rules are not just some ethical/behavioral norms/rules, I could care less at this juncture about children or abuse of authority, rules of discourse are rules because they carry a certain “must” and where that “must” comes from is what interests me.

  29. Mikhail, if I understand correctly John is saying that the ‘must’ comes from the habits of being subordinate as children to legislating elders. ‘Normativity as such’ is then that class of habits. Not this or that specific habit (norm) but those kinds of habit (normativity). I think I’ve got the answer in the form you’re looking for now – what say you?

  30. I believe John Doyle’s current post on the adaptive unconscious illuminates how this works at the individual level.

  31. I think I do understand this angle – my problem can be presented in a following way: if I insist that I must do a certain action X in a certain manner Y, because this is how I was taught to do it (habit/norm), then what sort of a chance do I have in my attempt to insist that you do it the same way as well? Let’s say I use the good old “appeal to authority” trick and say – “I have developed a habit of following logical rules 1, 2, and 3 and I insist that you follow them as well, otherwise our conversation is not going to be possible” – the only way I can have a conversation then is if a) I’m talking to someone who comes from the same tradition and has the same habits, or b) someone is willing to accept my habits as norms, i.e. to affirm their normative status. I’m not interested in a) very much, people do things the way they do them and rarely ask why because everyone else around them does it. But b) is what I’m interested in. In other words, norms as habits position (“normativity as a class of habits”) is great, I think I see how it works, but how do we move from this admittedly descriptive way of looking at things (“these are my habits, I’ve always done it this way and I must do it this way because I’ve always done it this way” – let’s take it as sensible way of putting the matter) to a prescriptive way (“I do things this way and you must do them the same way because this is how one does these things”). If we stay on the descriptive level, then philosophically any position is as good as any other position which might be a great situation, but then there is no real “must” that can be applied outside of one’s philosophical habits, yet we are constantly arguing about philosophy – is this then more or less fruitless argument about whether it is better to eat with a spoon or with your own hands?

  32. Mikhail writes, ” if I insist that I must do a certain action X in a certain manner Y, because this is how I was taught to do it (habit/norm), then what sort of a chance do I have in my attempt to insist that you do it the same way as well?”

    Could it be that this sort of argument is ineffective for precisely the reasons that you cite contra Levi: As soon as you see a norm as only a reified habit, it loses the magic we label “normativity.” The other’s response is a straightforward, “That’s what you believe. We don’t. Go away (or we may kill you).”

    In the real world case some habits are so engrained that they are, to use, essential elements of who we are. Pushed to the edge by critics, we can, at the end of the day, only reply “Here I stand. I can do no other,” since to see these norms as mere habits would destroy the selves we take ourselves to me.

    How, then, is any form of prescription or preaching persuasive? The other side of the anthropological coin is that, as Clyde Kluckhohn observed, each of us may be in some respects unique, but in others we resemble some others, and in some ways we resemble all other human beings. We are all warm-blooded, featherless bipeds, primates with opposable thumbs and binocular vision. Gender roles may differ but genitalia and their roles in reproduction are given. The range of variation in basic social relationships is, in fact, quite limited. Thus, for example, a Chinese and an Arab may differ in their religions and dietary habits but be equally at home with patrilineal descent, virilocal marriage, and a strongly patriarchal, male chauvinist view of relations between men and women. There is plenty of common ground to be found if people care to look for it. That is why transcendental religions, nation-states, corporations, and global brands have found their adherents worldwide. Truly rigorous philosophical skepticism is rare, and that may be a good thing for the species.

  33. Sure, I do understand all of these things (as a “warm-blooded, featherless bipeds, primates with opposable thumbs and binocular vision” even if slightly Russian), yet my question is what grounds a possible conversation? A simple “That’s what you believe. We don’t. Go away.” would certainly work in some cases, or does it work in all cases? How is a conversation about issues that do not agree on possible? I suppose it’s silly to pretend that it is either one way or the other, there must be some sort of complex interaction, but still on an elementary level, how is it possible for one to abandon one’s norms and adopt the norms of the other? Of course some are ingrained more others – what about things like logic? If I write me some new philosophy and I make a series of observations and I stumble into an occasional logical error and someone points it out to me, can I just tell them that I don’t care for logic, that it is oppressive and hegemonic? Why can’t I just write away whatever comes to me in a dream and call it a philosophy, and not, for example, poetry?

    I sense that we are all pretty cool and relaxed here about things, no one gets all twisted and enraged, we just talking – yet I can’t help but ask myself again and again a rather simple question: how is this conversation possible? why do I argue for X and not the opposite of X? what can’t it be that anything goes?

  34. “How is a conversation about issues that do not agree on possible?”

    I am a lay person trying to understand many of the topics on this and other similar blogs. I think I have a good but not deep understanding of some things. When I try to take those ideas to other venues, other blogs, they think I’m out of my fucking mind. Conversation does not take place. Probably it is my fault because I lack sufficient mastery to translate some terms into a form others can understand. Just mentioning Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality is enough to shut down all dialog.

    Anyway, the point is it feels strongly as if I’m trying to speak in a language they don’t understand and there are no points of reference in common between us at all. It’s extremely frustrating. Sorry to butt in and all.

  35. That’s partially my point, I think – that is, the frustration of not being able to have a conservation is revealing the underlying assumption that conversation is not only possible, but necessarily takes place whenever we feel like turning it on, right? Sorry, I’m taking over this blog, apparently…

  36. Come on Mikhail, just tell us what you think so the rest of us can trash it.

    Returning to meme theory, the explicit position of Dawkins and Dennett is that ideas, beliefs, tastes, and other memes become normative because they perpetuate either the genes or the memes themselve. Genes and memes are the active agents of their own propagation; individual minds and social groups are but carriers. I’m sure my mind is the passive unconscious recipient of all sorts of useless and useful crap, transmitted by books, radio, blogs, advertisements and so on. If and when these things come into my conscious awareness, though, I’m able to engage my evaluative and critical faculties to separate wheat from chaff. But then what conscious evaluative norms do I/we employ, and how do we arrive at them? Even Dennett doesn’t claim that it’s memes and genes all the way down:

    “Then your selfish genes can be seen to be the original source of your intentionality – and hence of every meaning you can ever contemplate or conjure up – even though you can then transcend your genes, using your experience, and in particular the culture you imbibe, to build an almost entirely independent (or “transcendent”) locus of meaning on the base your genes have provided.”

    This independent, transcendent, culture-based source of meaning: what criteria do we invoke to distinguish among memes if culture is just a compilation of memes and conscious intentional judgments are just after-the-fact justifications of what’s happening outside our conscious awareness? I think that Dennett at some point asserts that, while conscious rationality is built on a pre-rational substrate, it is an emergent property that isn’t reducible to the irrational.

    But this probably isn’t what you’re talking about either, Mikhail. It’s more like you’re looking for how people can even engage in a conversation with people who hold different views if our entire subjectivity is fed to us by genes and memes. Is that what you’re contemplating?

  37. I suppose to avoid humiliated trashing at the hands of such a distinguished audience I should open with something neutralizing like “I’m still working these things out” or “I haven’t made up my mind about it yet” – but to be honest, I am not sure exactly what I’m talking about most of the time. Let’s see – I think I do like the angle of posing the question as “how do things become normative?” Take something like habit discussed above: I do drink two cups of coffee every morning, but do I have to? I know it’s a silly example and most of yours are complex and subtle, but that’s pretty much my level of thinking. I think what mostly hides behind the issue of normativity for me is not some repressed desire for certainty and compensation of my deep deep flaws (as Levi suggested, for example), but a simple concern for normativity as regularity/predictability. I am as freedom-loving and hegemony-fighting as the next guy, but I fail to see how there’s any possibility of philosophical thinking (not even to mention science) without explicit discussion of rules/norms. I mean take the simplest possible example of rule-regulated everyday activity: language. As much as I hate your stupid “a”s and “the”s I have to learn how to use them (and I’m still not quite there) – anyone who ever learned a foreign language knows the feeling of frustration of learning and following rules – I can create an alternative language (let’s call it “Pig Latin Philosophy”) if I want to but no one will understand what I am saying.

    I think our conversation about trolls/vampires (that so upset Levi because it was such a respectable character as Carl who perpetrated these crimes, I suppose) ties in nicely with my issues here – the discourse against normativity/regularity/rules in philosophy is not some sort of freedom-loving anti-hegemonic new philosophy but a good old struggle against skepticism. Much of this talk of habits becoming norms reminds me of Hume’s position – only in the case of the new philosophy this skepticism is not confronted or dealt with, but exiled and repressed as “energy-sucking” and “project-less” nitpicking. To raise any question, even if it is of internal consistency or intelligibility, is to be a monster of some sort. Criticism is parasitic and destructive, skepticism is energy-draining and produces self-doubt etc etc. However, assuming that we all got on board of this new train, where is it going? how does it choose its direction and, most importantly, why is “de-privileging” human-object perspective better than that which came before (“better” or “more useful” are categories of comparison/evaluation – where does their criterion come from?)? why is any change better? how do we know where philosophy needs to go if it does not like the oppressive environment of today? how does one look for something one has no idea what it is and if one already know what it is, why look for it?

  38. Hopefully I’ll engage in more detail later, but meanwhile have you seen Levi’s latest post extolling trolling?

  39. No, I haven’t, I’m on no Larval Subjects diet for a bit, but I maybe I should take a look (after I look up what “extolling” means)…

  40. Noen writes,

    I am a lay person trying to understand many of the topics on this and other similar blogs. I think I have a good but not deep understanding of some things. When I try to take those ideas to other venues, other blogs, they think I’m out of my fucking mind.

    Noen, you are not alone. You have eloquently described what is, I imagine, a common experience for those of us for whom the Internet is an opportunity to reach out beyond the corners into which our lives and educations have painted ourselves. Perhaps the most valuable lesson we learn is how little we know about so many things. I recall my experience attending a party thrown by my daughter and son-in-law for their Navy and Marine Corps pilot friends. When they talk sports, a subject in which I have little interest, I can still fake it. When the conversation turns to aircraft or training maneuvers, the shop talk of their shared trade, I can only listen or ask ignorant questions. I definitely feel out of place. I imagine that my all-too-abrupt citation of Berger and Luckmann left you feeling the same way. It was not intended as a conversation stopper, and I must apologize if my tone made it seem that way.

  41. Mihail writes,

    how is this conversation possible? why do I argue for X and not the opposite of X? what can’t it be that anything goes?

    1. How is this conversation possible? We do, after all, share common ground, not only the featherless biped stuff but also educations that overlap in several respects and have left us, among other things, able to take questions like this one seriously.

    2. Why do I argue for X and not the opposite of X? X may be so much a part of who I am that I can do no other. X may also be a lesson learned through life’s experience. Evidence that strongly contradicts that experience may change our minds, but failing such evidence we are left in a situation like that described by the song, “If this isn’t love it will have to do, until the real thing comes along.”

    3. Why can’t it be that anything goes? The best reason I know was articulated by the sociologist C. Wright Mills, who observes in an essay on what he calls “vocabularies of motive,” that if you and I have no reasons for action in common, all that is left is fight or flight. There is also Charles Taylor’s relativization of Kant in Sources of the Self. That is, we are not human without some moral horizon, some shared sense of space, time and causality. These are necessary conditions shared by all human beings (a term that here excludes idiots and sociopaths). The relativization comes in with the recognition that “some moral horizon” does not imply “the moral horizon” that we and members of our particular communities share. But the fact that the moral horizon I share with other cosmopolitan intellectuals with similar liberal-to-left-leaning political views is not the same as that of an ancient Roman, a Ming dynasty Neo-Confucian, or a twentieth century Leninist or Maoist does not imply that for any of us “anything goes.” We all have our principles, and we all believe that principles are important. Just what they should be and how they should apply in particular cases — there is where we may disagree and either find some common ground or resort to violence.

  42. I’m only now taking a look at this thread since the last time I posted and I’m gratified to see such a productive and stimulating discussion concerning these issues of normativity. Mikhail, I think I’m getting a better sense of what you’re getting at. In your initial response, you write:

    Levi, I don’t necessarily disagree with you about the “emerging norms” – I think my main issue is that this emergence seems to imply some lack of binding power – maybe not in your discourse, I have to say that I haven’t followed your latest thoughts on the matter – that is to say, my view is that just because we can trace a norm to its origin (a difficult thing to do, it seems) does not mean it is no longer normative/binding, or so it seems to me. We can, for example, trace our basic operations of logic to some developmental stage X, but that does not mean that logic is now out of the window, right? I agree that more or less traditionally speaking we tend to argue that norms are only binding when they are imposed without much deliberation, when they are dogmatically proclaimed to be universal, but that would be a very simplistic way of looking at normativity. My question has always been the following: regardless of how norms come into existence, what is it about them that makes them binding? As you I am sure know, there’s a whole tradition, starting with Rousseau (or maybe earlier, I don’t know), that connects normativity and emergence in a way as to say that only those norms we give to ourselves (origin) are really binding (normative) – I don’t think I understand this tradition very well, I’ll be honest, but I think there’s something to it….

    As for your sentence above, I get it, but my problem is this – is norms do not exist prior to the discourse, but emerge during the discourse, then what about those norms that have already emerged in all sorts of prior discourses? Do norms automatically die as soon as a discourse is over? Does every new discourse/generation reinvent its norms? What’s a discourse here? Is there any continuity between discourses then?

    When I talk about the emergence of norms I am not trying to suggest that norms do not have binding power. As I understand it, the emergence of norms is not a backward looking exercise striving to reduce norms to their genesis– e.g., the development of a child, etc. –but is a forward looking gesture designed to underline the manner in which we collaboratively produce norms in our engagement with the world and with one another. Our interaction, Mikhail, as heated as it has often been, has very much gotten me thinking about these issues in a more sustained and directed fashion. Last night I wrote a post on these very issues, though I fear I got a bit carried away by rhetorical flourishes:

    http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2009/08/25/com-plications/

    It seems to me that we’re talking about different issues and for that reason perhaps talking past each other. For me the issue around which I revolve is that of the invention or creation of norms. For you the issue around which you revolve is the bindingness of norms. Strangely, there is a way in which both of us are approaching the issue of normativity through a Kantian lens. I take it that the Kantian revolution in moral thought is that we give ourselves the moral law. Where prior moral theories might see norms as transcendent structures decreed by God or as dispositions we possess naturally, Kant’s revolution was to show how reason produces the moral law and legislates itself. It is not, for Kant, some outside agency that regulates us, but rather reason that is both judge and legislator. Reason is self-legislating and gives its moral laws to itself. If I follow your remarks properly, your emphasis is on the manner in which reason regulates itself. By contrast, noting that for Kant the moral law is a purely formal affair akin to the manner in which “S is P” has no particular content but is a pure structure, my emphasis is on the manner in which normativity must be given content to come into existence. It’s notable here that Lacan is thoroughly Kantian in this connection. When Lacan says that “the big Other does not exist”, his point, in part, is that there is no transcendent agency or force that legislates these norms or that maintains them, but that, like Kant, we are both legislators or the authors of the law and judges or those that regulate ourselves according to the law.

    With respect to these issues, my focus is not so much on those laws and norms that have already been legislated or authored, but rather on the question of how norms come into existence. In part, this emphasis has to do with my background in ethnography. I look at history and I look at different cultures, and I note that they have organized themselves around very different norms. For example, the Romans saw nothing immoral in the father killing his own children or his wife. This was the patriarch’s right, and in certain circumstances it was even the patriarch’s duty. My point here is not to affirm some sort of cultural relativity where one says “x was right for the Romans and not for us”. Rather, for me the issue is that of how we get from one system of norms where, for example, the patriarch has the right to kill his wife or children, to another system of norms where this is understood to be absolutely immoral. Norms had to be invented or formulated for this to take place.

    Apart from being influenced by ethnography, I see this as a crucial political question as well. When we call for change and new forms of political organization, we are also calling for a shift in norms. We are saying that society should be organized according to a different set of values. First, where do these values come from? How do they come into existence? Second, how do they proliferate throughout the social sphere in such a way that they become the “second nature” or– as Kant called it in the third Critique –the sensus communis? I take it that your question about the bindingness of norms belongs to this moment where something has become a sensus communis or what I called, in my post entitled “Co(m)-plications”, the moment of “institution”. An institution is something that is now publicly available, that can be freely evoked, and that “goes without saying” in the social space. For example, within our contemporary social space it is instituted that women should enjoy the same rights and privileges as men. No one really disputes this, even if many fail to live up to it. It is a publicly available norm. Likewise, the fact that arguments should be consistent, that they should be logically structured, and so on is largely instituted in our social space (although we should note thinkers that we admire like Derrida or Nietzsche that do not proceed in this way).

    What interests me is not so much the instituted regime of norms or the currently reigning norms, but moreso the question of the when of normativity. That is, when does normativity become an issue and what is the process by which norms are instituted. As I tried to articulate in Co(m)-plications, this when takes place with the appearance of new entities that are not counted in the social system but which demand to be counted. The instituted norms more or less take care of themselves. They are the background fabric of the social world that operates of their own accord and that largely are no longer a matter of dispute, controversy, or debate. They are, as you put it in this post, norms that are already there. The interesting moment, I think, is this moment of surprise that generates controversies and that forces us to reevaluate how we should legislate ourselves, thereby calling for the invention of new norms.

    An example of something that appears without yet being counted would be the emergence of the factory model of production during the 19th century. Here we have this new entity, the factory, and this new model of production, the assembly line. This new entity thoroughly transforms the social system not only in terms of the commodities it makes available, but also in terms of the manner in which social relations come to be organized and stratified, and so on. So what does it mean to say that the factory is not counted? Certainly everyone was talking about the factory and how society was changing. All sorts of controversies, debates, and uncertainties swirled around this new entity, these new commodities, and these new forms of social organization. In saying the factory was an entity that appeared without being counted, what I have in mind is that the social system at the level of norms had not yet caught up with the brute fact of the factory. There was a new entity here, new social relations, but not yet a “legislation” or “constitution” (I’m using these terms figuratively) regulating this new arrangement of human bodies. So the question here of the invention of norms is that of how we get from a social organization where it’s seen as perfectly acceptable to have young children working in the factory, where there are no safety laws, where there are no environmental laws, where workers can be required to work seven days a week for sixteen hours of day, where they are payed a pittance, and so on, to instituted norms where workers have rights in relation to owners and government. Hopefully this gives a slightly clearer sense of what I’m trying to get at. I don’t know that I endorse the Kantian thesis that these norms come from the self-legislating power of reason, though I do pose the question in the Kantian spirit or according to the Kantian hypothesis that it is we who give ourselves these norms.

  43. I should also add that if I am suspicious of instituted norms or already existing norms, this isn’t on the grounds that I see them as repressive forces that should be overturned– though sometimes, as in the Roman example, they are –but precisely because norms are very fragile and precious things that require a lot of work to be sustained as existing objects. I think we all learned this lesson during the last administration, when we saw how quickly all sorts of norms we take for granted can be easily overturned. One of the worries I have with deontological approaches is that often they seem to rest content with simply being able to formulate the right normative principles, as if it were simply a matter of thought or reasoning. What gets missed is that it is not enough simply to have the right ethical positions, but that we want a world where these ethical positions become the sensus communis and operate. As Marx liked to say, freedom as conceived by the bourgeois is merely abstract. It makes little difference if one has freedom but can’t exercise it because of how the social world is organized or because no one recognizes it.

  44. Mikhail has assigned the topic for a short essay. Everyone takes a crack at it, each in his own way. Everyone gets a B-minus, but they’re all different B-minuses.

  45. It’s due today at noon, everyone and you better be on time. Thanks for your response, Levi, I’m running to my morning class but I will try to address it once the kids are all educated and uplifted…

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