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Richard Barbrook
memes
Ars Electronica
Richard Dawkins
Douglas Rushkoff
Californian Ideology


The Fallacies of Memetics
part 4

Although we may still hunger for spiritual meaning, it is almost too easy to debunk the positivist mysticism of memes. Firstly, the meme theory is dud philosophy. As Feurbach pointed out, all religion inverts reality. The creative powers of the human species are projected onto a divine being which we then bow down to worship. As Christianity and other religions went into decline, this swapping of subject and object has been rehashed by all the most dubious trends in social theory. Over the last seventy years, psychoanalysis, neo-classical economics, Leninism, structuralism, semiotics, post-modernism and technological determinism have been used to deny the Promethean powers of human labour. Whatever their formal differences, these various ideologies are all profoundly anti-democratic. Crucially, they deny that ordinary people - although limited by their circumstances - can influence their own destiny. Instead, the advocates of these theories claim that we're simply passive objects of impersonal forces outside our control, such as the unconscious, market forces, ideologies, structures, languages, discourses or technologies. In all these theories, there is no dialectic between free will and necessity.

The meme theory is yet another attack on human subjectivity. Our complex social development is first simplified into technological progress, then reduced to culture, and finally explained away through the biology of memes. Our creativity and imagination as humans is once again denied. Translated from bio-babble, meme is simply another word for the all-powerful idea, ideology or sign. It is the Platonic deity reborn. Yet again, we're supposed to believe that we're simply empty vessels manipulated by mysterious outside powers. As Feurbach said, when illusion becomes sacred, truth is rejected as profane.

Secondly, the meme concept is bad science. It is the revival of the discredited theory of Lamarck in a new form. Because people will no longer believe that learnt behaviours can be actually embedded in our genes, we're now told that the development of human societies can be explained by a hybrid of DNA and memes. Yet, like the unconscious in psychoanalysis or utility in neo- classical economics, the concept of memes is completely unprovable. No one has ever seen a meme. You cannot examine one under a microscope. You cannot measure its impact on the social world. Lacking any credible scientific evidence, acceptance of the meme theory can only be a pure act of faith. Yet, on this flimsy assertion, we're called upon to reject all previous research into the development of human societies. Although social science may not appear as positivist as biology, at least many people working in this field have recognised the fundamental specificity of the human species. Unlike other animals, we not only possess consciousness, but also are capable of acting collectively to change our own circumstances.

Lastly, the meme concept is reactionary politics. Earlier in the process of modernisation, other versions of biological reductionism - Social Darwinism and Nazi race science - were used as a pretext to reverse social progress. Although great human suffering was justified by these ideas, we're now once again being called upon to believe in biological reductionism. Despite the denials of the Californian ideologues, the theory still contains a strong smell of fascism. In the USA, some sections of the white 'virtual class' dream of embodying their racial privileges in a cyborg form. For others, the meme theory promises a more subtle justification of their social position. Using memetic theory, they claim that unregulated trade between competing companies is the same thing as the circulation of genes between members of a species. As in Spencer's Social Darwinism, any attempts to alleviate poverty or correct other market failures can then be denounced as contravening the immutable laws of nature.

Whether in its racist or neo-liberal variants, the popularity of the meme concept thus expresses a deep fear of the emancipatory process of modernisation. Even when hidden behind sci-fi fantasies of artificial intelligences or post-humans, this theory denies the ability of people to invent themselves in ways which go beyond the particular situations in which they find themselves in. The process of modernity has often been cruel and wasteful, but it has also involved a liberation of our Promethean powers. Despite wars and genocides, we have been able to civilise our societies in this century through introduction of universal suffrage and the creation of welfare states. The rapid development of hypermedia is a sign that this process of enlightenment is not over. For instance, it is now conceivable that one of the founding principles of republicanism - media freedom for all citizens - is on the verge of being achieved through the two-way communications made possible by the Net. By escaping into sci-fi fantasies, the adepts of the cyber-faith avoid facing the difficult problems of how the democratic potential of hypermedia can be realised in practice. It is much less strain on their brains to regurgitate mystical mantras than to think hard about how we can provide access for all to the Net, build a fully two-way communications system, invent systems of payment for digital work, decide who has property rights in cyberspace, debate the role of state regulations over the virtual world and so on. The building of the infobahn will never be accomplished by divine revelation. It can only be achieved through the pragmatic application of our collective imagination and effort.

 
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