Memetics or not?

By Paul Bouissac

After a brief period of incubation, the notion of “meme” that was launched by Richard Dawkins in 1976 became a favorite among philosophers. It is not every day, nor even every decade, that a novel idea rocks the world of speculative discourse and generates six digit royalties and more. Some philosophers put their rhetorical talent at the service of the “meme”, and soon transformed its root metaphor into a commonplace that spread among trend-setting journalists. Social network theorists, cultural anthropologists, psychologists picked up the memetic terminology as a convenient tool to refer to the “units” that carry information of various dimensions and complexity. “Memes” came to designate indiscriminately the units – whatever they may be – they conceptually manipulate in their domains of inquiry: fashions, news, rumors, ideas, beliefs, inventions, customs, rules, and the like. Since it was not clear what kind of things these units were, the term “memeplex” was coined to give the “meme” an aura of epistemological respectability through a conceptual association with complexity. By the same token, this terminological sleight of hand somewhat justified the absence of a clear, functional definition. Now, many a first year student in psychology, sociology or anthropology has become familiar with this notion as a currency of the trade. Memes are taken for granted in the contemporary discourse of the social sciences with various degrees of intellectual endorsement. In the meantime, the meme fashion has receded among philosophers and their media echo chambers.

A number of researchers, who do consider that Dawkins’s tentative hypothesis has indeed opened an epistemologically intriguing, even upsetting avenue of inquiry, welcome the waning of the fashion it created. The time has come to consider the notion of a “meme” with a cool head, and to ask whether it can be made operational, how it relates to what is known in the disciplines that could be relevant to its investigation, and what kind of problems a coherent memetic theory could solve. This is why the Toronto Semiotic Circle initiated in 2007 a series of workshops to consider these issues. The goal is to probe the meme hypothesis by putting it to the test. How does it fare when there is a serious attempt to express it as a falsifiable hypothesis, and how can it be empirically tested?

The second workshop (or symposium) entitled “Memory, Social Network Theory, and Language: Probing the Meme Hypothesis II”, took place at the University of Toronto (Victoria College) on May 15-17, 2008. The proceedings are now available online in the form of papers, video recordings and PDF versions of the PowerPoint presentations. They can be freely accessed through www.semioticon.com by clicking on Virtual Symposia. Plans for “Probing the Meme Hypothesis III” are being made for 2009.

In spite of obvious affinities, there have been only very few contacts between semiotics and memetics. A constructive dialogue, like the one which is currently promoted by the Toronto Semiotic Circle, could achieve some interesting results. Memetics develops indeed several potential dimensions that remain purely virtual in the semiotic project. For instance, it gives an evolutionary expression to the notion of semiosis. On the other hand, semiotics has elaborated many algorithms, notably in narratology, that could provide memetics with the nudge it needs to give operational forms to memes. These research directions need to be explored further. In this issue, SemiotiX welcomes The Journal of Cognitive Semiotics. This might be an ideal venue for building an interface between Semiotics and Memetics.