The meme and the monad

Steve Morris recently posted a curious piece on the “meme.”   Evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, coined the term in The Selfish Gene (1976). Predating the Internet, Dawkins’s interest was in how memes – units of cultural transmission – emulate evolution, with successful ones proliferating and duds dying out. Steve points out the irony that in today’s social media, it’s the most “unfit” memes – those that promote ignorance and bigotry – that seem to survive and proliferate. To enhance the scope of the entertainment, I’d like to weave in an additional discourse – Leibniz’s philosophy of the monad.

leibniz keks
h/t: Dank an meine leibe Freundin, Claudia, für den Bild von Leibniz’s Hanover


As a 17th-century German philosopher, Leibniz predated evolutionary biology as well as the Internet, but his speculative philosophy (the metaphysics of the monad) was grounded in his street cred as a mathematician and physicist, and perhaps for that reason it can sound eerily prescient of the holographic models of the universe about which today’s physicists speculate.

As in his mathematical theory of “infinitesimal analysis,”* which in the minds of many gave Leibniz a claim equal to Newton’s as the inventor of calculus, Leibniz sought to base his metaphysics on the idea of indivisible units. These indivisible units, “monads,” were “the elements of all things.” Because they are indivisible, they are in themselves inscrutable. “The monads have no windows through which anything can enter or leave.” After all, only a “composite” can add or subtract something, and the whole point of the monad is that it is a theoretical projection of the simplest, indivisible unit. (Mathematically, as far as I can understand Leibniz’s math, it is the unit that, having no increments, is by definition too small to ever be measured.)

Furthermore, each monad must be unique. For this, we need to get into the physics of space, according to Leibniz, of which I can only scratch the surface. For Leibniz, there is no such thing as empty space. There is only motion, rest, and change. And the fundamental unit of motion, rest, and change we call the “monad.” So there is no “space” per se, but there is a force field consisting of infinitesimal monads, each defined by inherent force, the qualities and laws of which are utterly inaccessible to the outside (no windows, remember). And the physics of the force field requires that “each monad while following its own inherent nature and laws adapts itself to all the others outside itself.” Each monad must by necessity fill a unique orientation point in the force field. And this is how Leibniz teases us to his logical (holographic) conclusion about the universe: “This connection of all created things … the connection and adaptation of every single thing to all others, has the result that every single substance [every monad] stands in relations which express all the others. Whence every single substance is a perpetual living mirror of the universe … They are but perspectives of a single universe, varied according to the points of view which differ in each monad.”

Leibniz’s holographic conclusion applies not only to the objective world but to the subjective one as well: “Consequently, everybody experiences everything that goes on in the universe, so much so that he who sees everything might read in any body what is happening anywhere, and even what has happened or will happen. He would be able to observe in the present what is remote in both time and space.”

The limiting phrase here is “he who sees everything.” This suggests that although each monad contains all the information to reconstruct the entire universe of which it is a part, it is no simple matter for us to decode that information. Only “one who sees everything” would be able to see the entire universe within the single monad. Each soul is limited in its self-discovery by its own orientation. Each soul “can read in itself only what is distinctly represented in it; it is unable to unfold all at once all its folds; for these go on to infinity.”

So back to the meme. Whether or not it expresses the evolutionary model of adaptation, does it express the mathematical/metaphysical model of the monad? Take as an example this meme that I sent around on the Internet.

alpaca gay

The meme is not completely indivisible. There are letters and pixels and so forth within. But one could argue that the meme as a whole expresses one cultural orientation point, and that none of those simpler units is a cultural expression in the same way – they are not units in the cultural force field of the meme. It might lack the mathematical tightness that Leibniz would wish for, but perhaps that was Leibniz’s limitation. Math aside, it might be very useful to view the meme as a more-or-less simple expression of one cultural orientation point. To what extent is it in a holographic force field? With studious effort, one could certainly infer how the meme defines itself as a unit of force relative to the various positions staked out on gay rights. Perhaps from there, one could broaden the scope and see how the gay rights field of discourses illuminated by our monad-meme in turn illuminates all the discourses of sexuality implied thereby, not to mention various religions and philosophies and political formations at the perimeter, etc. Like ripples from a pebble dropped.

I think Steve is right about the meme’s relations to evolutionary biology. I have serious doubts about whether the Internet is predisposed to favor the “fittest” memes, unless we define “fittest” in an extremely idiosyncratic (and humorous no doubt) way. But the meme might express in its way Leibniz’s metaphysics of the monad. The holographic universe of the cultural dimension. And for those physicists who balk at the holographic universe, we give you the black hole. No, I am not inventing a new insult (“giving you the black hole”), although that in itself might be a tangent meme worth following. What I mean is this: Black holes are universally accepted in today’s physics, and what are black holes after all? Monads, universes unto themselves, with “no windows,” units of force that are utterly inscrutable and yet “perpetual living mirror[s] of the universe” around them. They might be like the mysterious “signs” in the modernist linguistics of Saussure and Wittgenstein, where words/signs have no “windows” to any referent in the world “out there” – there is no peephole into the system of signification – but each sign achieves a unique meaning relative to all the other signs within the system. Like signs in the linguistic universe, so black holes in the physical — monads, my friends, cosmic scale reflections of the sorry memes of which Steve Morris laments.

buttonsI once heard of an art historian who said, “Show me one artifact, one button, from a long-lost civilization, and given time I will reconstruct all the values of that civilization.” Academic bravado aside, this art historian was a monadologist par excellence, a believer in the holographic universe. Perhaps, when we are long gone and re-discovered by some future civilization, some wily future art historian might do me the honor of an infinitesimal analysis of my gay alpaca meme.

*The way I understand it, Leibniz’s infinitesimal analysis offered a solution to the age-old problem of rectifying curvilinear figures – squaring the circle – and thus rendering them accessible to precise geometric analysis. By casting the circle as a series of infinitesimally distant next points, Leibniz could in theory decompose any curvilinear figure into partial triangles.

Aristotle, Wittgenstein, and Identity Politics

My blog entry on Two Kinds of Liberals raised for me a philosophical knot to be untied, implicating such formidable dead men as Aristotle and Wittgenstein.

Aristotle’s interest in natural philosophy and classification leads him to distinguish essential traits from accidental traits. Having four legs and a tail are “essential” traits of a cat; having a calico coloring is an “accidental” trait, a trait that applies to the individual but doesn’t define the category.

Wittgenstein makes a point in the Blue Book that at first sounds similar to Aristotle’s but turns out to be different in implication. Wittgenstein is interested in how we use language. E.g., when we read, do we process the meaning of each word and then put the meanings together? That may seem intuitive, but thinkers as far back as Edmund Burke (in his great 18th-century treatise on the sublime) suspected that this is not how the psychological process works. Wittgenstein asks us to picture someone who hasn’t learned the names for colors. Send him out to pick red flowers today, blue flowers tomorrow. At first you give him a color chart and he compares the flowers in the field to the chart, picking the correct ones. But soon he doesn’t need the chart because he “knows” his colors. The color chart is no longer relevant to his completion of the task. Just as the color chart is no longer needed to pick the flowers, the “image” associated with each word is not required for the process of reading and understanding the novel. We don’t stop and picture the meaning or image associated with each word before going on to the next word. Were this so, we would never in a lifetime finish our first Russian novel. Thus, Wittgenstein distinguishes between “a process being in accordance with a rule” and “a process involving a rule.” As when the color chart is no longer needed, we understand the novel “in accordance with” the meanings of words, but the meanings are not “involved” in the process. Wittgenstein concludes: “The rule which has been taught and is subsequently applied interests us only so far as it is involved in the application. A rule, so far as it interests us, does not act at a distance.” Or, to put it mathematically, if we want to understand a calculation, we are only interested in a rule if “the symbol of the rule forms part of the calculation.”

At first it looks like “a rule involved in a process” corresponds to an “essential” rule in Aristotle’s terms and “a rule in accordance with which” a process takes place would be an “accidental” rule, and there may indeed be contexts wherein the analogy holds true. But Wittgenstein’s point is more radical. Whereas Aristotle is clarifying aspects of the objective world, Wittgenstein is saying that language, once learned, functions without reference to a world outside of itself. The objective world to which the language might refer is irrelevant to (uninvolved in) our processing and understanding the language. “The sign (the sentence) gets its significance … [not from] an object co-existing with the sign … but from the system of signs, from the language to which it belongs. Roughly, understanding a sentence means understanding a language.”

Unlike Aristotle, Wittgenstein points the way to postmodernism, where the ground of meaning is infinitely displaced by a series of signifiers, where there is no ultimate reference point, and where relativism – metaphysical and cultural – becomes hard to shake off.

This theoretical dissonance may seem pointless, but I think it exposes the layering that undergirds the way we think about real world problems. Take the issue of cultural difference. The wing of liberalism I associate with Enlightenment rationalism, as well as with 1960-70s Civil Rights and feminism, is folded on top of an Aristotelian base. The “essential” aspect of human identity is our shared humanness, and we can best resolve such problems as racism through appeal to our universal human capacities for reason and compassion. Race, gender, and cultural identities are, after all, “accidental” traits superimposed upon that shared humanness.

“Identity politics,” together with “multiculturalism,” took hold in academia in the 1980s, and proposed that objectivity is impossible because everyone is a priori “politically situated” by their race, gender, class, etc. This theory is rooted in the ideas of Wittgenstein rather than those of Aristotle. In addressing problems of cultural difference, identity politics does not expressly deny “shared humanness,” but shared humanness is no longer “involved” in the process – it doesn’t form part of the active calculation. The political determinants of race, gender, etc., on the other hand, are “involved” in the process, and need to be respected as such. For example, when the white William Styron wrote The Confessions of Nat Turner from a black man’s perspective, the liberals who attacked him for the arrogance of crossing that line would fit my category of multiculturalist liberals. For them, in today’s racial milieu, the black experience, the white experience, are “involved” in social relations, whereas shared humanness is remote; thus, it is presumptuous for a white man to think he can comprehend what a black man such as Nat Turner might have felt. The other branch of liberals – Enlightenment rationalists, 1960s liberals – who bank on the Aristotelian notion of shared humanness, would, quite the contrary, praise Styron for struggling to get beyond the “accidental” features of race and grasp experience from the point of view of our shared humanness.

When I said in my Two Kinds of Liberals blog that I was “with multiculturalism when it’s building bridges but not when it’s guarding walls,” I can now say that “identity politics” is an example of multiculturalism “guarding walls.” I see efforts such as Styron’s not as some kind of insidious “cultural appropriation” (an impossible term if one believes in the primacy of shared humanness) but as a heroic attempt to illuminate how our shared humanness is the key to dismantling the prejudice and ill will that can absorb us when we remain trapped within such “accidental” layers of identity as race or gender or cultural groupings. (And remember that “accidental” in Aristotle doesn’t mean trivial or unworthy of celebration, but simply means that it is a feature that does not define the essence.)

One other (unhappy in my opinion) consequence of the rise of “identity politics” within liberalism is the way in which it ceded the high ground that liberals held in the 1960s and 70s. Take the issue of double standards. My Aristotelian liberals (if you’ll permit the conceit) were the outspoken enemies of double standards on race and gender. This includes Wollstonecraft and Equiano in the Enlightenment period as well as the Civil Rights and feminist movements of the 1960s/70s. But with the theoretical turn to identity politics in the 1980s – where racial and gender identity displace shared humanness as the operative factor in race and gender struggles – a subset of liberals flip-flopped from being the enemies of double standards to being the champions of double standards. Thus began a liberal regimen of race-specific rules for what language is acceptable and for which practices are “reserved” against cultural appropriation, not to mention the idea, novel at the time but now widely accepted among a new generation of liberals, that a prejudice against someone on purely racial grounds is only “racism” if you are white (i.e., if your race has the upper hand in a power differential). Thus the legitimate effort to address gender inequities can take the form of banning the word “bossy” for girls but presumably not for boys. The endgame of “identity politics” liberals is understandable, even noble, but the means – which shifted from the brazenly integrationist platform of the 60s to a kind of trench warfare defending this or that demographic turf, which shifted from a confident rejection of all double standards to an embrace of, or at least an equivocation toward, double standards – to the extent that these means have been deployed, liberals have ceded the moral high ground – not to conservatives, who from my vantage seem even farther aloof from the moral high ground, but to a vacuum waiting to be filled.

OK, I can’t really blame this all on Wittgenstein (from whom I learn more with every reading), although he is implicated in the trajectory towards postmodernism, which I do believe is at least partly responsible for the moral vacuum that developed within liberalism. But writing this has restored my faith in the extraordinary resilience of ancient Greek thought. Thus in this recycling of one of the great questions that absorbed European wits from Boileau to Swift in the 100 years or so leading into the Enlightenment – whether the ancients or the moderns were the greater masters of learning – the laurel wreath goes to … Aristotle and the ancients!

Salesmen and Scientists

Before his epiphany in the Norwegian forests, Ludwig Wittgenstein famously tried to trim all the fat from philosophy by arguing that language’s sole province was to express propositions that were true or false (Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1921). Perhaps Wittgenstein stumbled upon children for the first time in those brisk fyords, because watching any child use language disproves his early positivist theory.*

For children, language is a tool to achieve specific ends. If I say x, then y will likely happen. Whether x is true or false does not seem to occur naturally in children, only what the result of saying x will be. Any “scientific” interest in factual correspondences to the world comes later. For some it may never come at all. These become salesmen. Or rather remain salesmen, since the child is by nature a salesperson, using language as a way of getting others to do something or to think something without ever reaching the horizon line of cognition where “truth” separates from “falsehood.”

Note to my Jungian followers: This probably means that the “salesman” archetype, being closer to the brainstem, predates the “scientist” archetype in the primeval development of the collective unconscious.

*Wittgenstein did spend some years after the Tractatus as a teacher of schoolchildren, a vocation for which he proved ill-suited.