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Meme_Seme

Meme_Seme

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Published by: dlavery on Apr 14, 2011
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TheMemeandtheSeme:AFictionalEssay
InauguralLectureProfessorJoannaClimacusChairinMemeticsProgramintheHistoryofConsciousnessUniversityofCalifornia,SantaCruzSeptember,2007
I
ThirtyyearsagoRolandBarthesdeliveredhisinauguraladdressattheCollegedeFranceafterbeingnamedtoaself‐named"ChairinLiterarySemiology."Onthatoccasion,threeyearsbeforehisunfortunateearlydeath,Bartheswascarefultobenon‐doctrinaireabouttherelativelynewmethodtowhichhisappointmentgavecredence.Wishing—accordingtoJonathanCuller—todiscriminatehisownvisionofsemiologyfromthatwhichwasrapidlydevelopinginthewakeofhisinfluence,hesoughttoavoid"theconsecrationofadiscipline.""Itismyhope,"heinsisted,"thatsemiologywillreplacenootherinquiryhere,butwillonthecontrary,helpalltherest,thatitschairwillbeakindofwheelchair,thewildcardofcontemporaryknowledge"(myitalics).Notsurprisingly,Bartheswoulddeclarethenhiswishthat"Perhapsweshallsomedaybeabletoreturntothedescriptionofthesesemanticconsciousnesses,attempttolinkthemtoahistory;perhapsweshallsomedaybeabletocreateasemiologyofthesemiologists,astructuralanalysisofthestructuralists...."Overadecadebefore,in"TheImaginationoftheSign"(in
CriticalEssays
),Bartheshadlikewisesoughttoimaginethefuturedevelopmentofthestudyofsigns,encouragingusto"presumeanextensiontowardmuchwidertypesofimagination,whichwemayfindmobilizedinmanyotherobjectsthanthesign."Today,asIacceptthehonorofthischairinmemetics—asIeasemyselfdownintomyownwheelchairandplaymyfirstwildcard—IliketothinkRolandBarthesmightbepleasedbythecommitmentofthisnew,homologousdiscipline,notjustsemiotics'officematebutitscompatriotandfellow‐traveller,to"widertypesofimagination"and"manyotherobjectsthanthesign."
 
The Collected Works of David Lavery 2
Formemetics,thesystematicandinterdisciplinarystudyoftheoriginanddissemination(Nietzschemighthavecalledit"thegenealogy")ofideas,seekstotrainonthoughtmuchthesamekindofspeculativeinstrumentssemioticsturnedonsigns,examiningtheirbiological,anthropological,andpsychologicalgenesisandhistoricorigin,andtrackingthecauseandeffectoftheirpropagation,theircommunication,socialization,andenculturation,overtimeandspace.Aglanceatourproposed,stilltentativecurriculumwillgivesomesenseoftheuniqueness,somemightsaythestrangeness,ofourenterprise.Thelasttwodecades,ofcourse,havenotbeenkindtotheintellectualplayfulnesswhichBartheshopedforandthisnewlyrecognizedavenueforthoughtnowchampions.Ineednotremindyoutodayofthesordidintellectualhistoryofthe1990s.Whyresurrectthatuglyand(hopefully)aberrantepisodeinthelifeofthemind?Itscauses—areactionaryoutburstagainstpost‐modernistambiguityandconfusionandthevirulentobfuscationoftheseventiesandeighties,theriseofanew,McCarthyisticlogicalpositivismdesirousofstampingoutallnon‐scientificformsofthought,thefinaleradicationofallhumanisticpsychologyinthenameofbehaviorism,sociobiology'stemporaryusurpationofthesocialsciences,inshort,theneartotaldedicationofthedecade'sintellectualenergiestoB.F.Skinner'sdreamof"theeradicationofmystery";andeffects—thedemiseofhomoludensandthetyrannicalreignofhomoscientificus,theabandonmentofimagination,thedisappearanceofwonder,thevirtualeliminationofhistoricalperspective,thewitheringawayofthehumanitiesintoapreciousfewoutpostsinrenegadeuniversitycommunities,likethisone,hometothenation'sfirstandonlyprograminthe"historyofconsciousness"—arewellknowntoallofyou.AndIneednotremindyouthat,despiteBarthes'cautions,semiotics—nowmemetics'sisterdiscipline—playedanotentirelyinnocentroleinthetotalitarianprojectofthe'90s.Forsemiotics,afterall,alwayshad"imperialist"aspirations."Onecould...assigntosemiologyavastfieldofinquiry,"JonathanCullerwouldnoteina1976monographonSaussure:ifeverythingwhichhasmeaningwithinacultureisasignandthereforeanobjectofsemiologicalinvestigation,semiologywouldcometoincludemost
 
The Collected Works of David Lavery 3
disciplinesofthehumanitiesandthesocialsciences.Anydomainofhumanactivity—beitmusic,architecture,cooking,etiquette,advertising,fashion,literature—couldbeapproachedinsemiologicalterms.Whensemioticswastoutedasbeingself‐reflectiveandself‐awareinawaynootherdisciplinecouldclaim(semiotics,JuliaKristevaonceinsisted,is"anopenformofresearch,aconstantcritiquethatturnsbackonitselfandoffersitsownauto‐critique");whenweheardtalkofsemioticsbecomingtheheartoftheuniversitycurriculum,whenthestudyofliterature,art,philosophy,linguistics,anthropologywereproclaimedtobe,infact,onlybranchesofthemaster‐disciplinesemiotics,itwaseasytorecognizetheintellectualhubrisandthecolonialambitionsofthisstillless‐than‐a‐century‐oldmethodofthoughtandanalysis.Asearlyasthe1980s,thestudyofsignshad,infact,evenexhibitedatendencytobecome—asJeanAlterandDanaPolanhaddetectedatthetime)a"terroristsemiotics":cliquish,scientisticinexpression,neologisticinvocabulary,inaccessibletoallbuttheinitiated,anddeeplyobscure.Inthenewintellectualclimateofanewcentury,wecannowgraspsuchdevelopmentsastypicalfindesiecleintellectualdecadence:asthenaturalby‐productsofagreatchangeinoutlookandepisteme,ofYeats'"roughbeast[slouching]towardBethlehemtobeborn."
1
Thegradualemergenceofmemeticinquirywasaproductofthisnewturnonthespiral.Tosketchoutthatemergenceismysoletaskheretoday.
II
Memes,ofcourse,werediscoveredandnamedbytheGregorMendelofmemetics,theBritishethologistandsociobiologistRichardDawkinsin1976,whothoughtofthemsimplyasunitsof"culturaltransmission,"of"imitation."Withtheadventofhumanculture,Dawkinsarguedin
TheSelfishGene
,anewkindofreplicatorwasintroducedintotheprocessesofbiologicalevolution.Sincethe"primevalsoup"inwhichlifebegan,geneshave"propagatedthemselvesinthegene
 
1
Edward Said foresaw this in
Beginnings: Intention and Method 
, 384.

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