Monday, January 16, 2006
Totality and the Genes of Literature
“Suppose at this juncture we were to state the blindingly obvious: that, whatever their other properties, literary texts do not possess genes” (59). So begins the “Perils of Analogy” section of Christopher Prendergast’s response* to Moretti. Notwithstanding the Paris Review interviews, it does seem difficult to maintain that literature has genes. Does it have memes, however? Ideologemes? Maybe. And I will discuss metaphors of cultural transmission and evolutionary analogies in Moretti’s argument.
The coherence of the meme concept is by no means obvious, and memes are not by any definition atomistic.** Rukmini Nair suggests in Narrative Gravity that narrative is adapted to meme transmission (205). And the description of the Genre Evolution Project at the University of Michigan describes three versions of generic change: Leavis’s great man, Lukács’ great circumstance, and Barthes’ great form. All are distinct from the biological model of generic evolution as envisioned by that project and also by Moretti. Biological evolution is mostly divergent (gene transfer and other poorly understood mechanisms being convergent) whereas cultural evolution is largely convergent with divergence resulting from the contingencies of imperfect transfer. Prendergast criticizes Moretti for overemphasizing divergence and suggests that it lends itself analogically to market-reification (61).
Moretti ends “Maps” with a quote from D’Arcy Wentworth Thompson’s On Growth and Form: “We rise from a conception of form to an understanding of the forces which gave rise to it [. . .] and in the comparison of kindred forms [. . .] we discern the magnitude and the direction of the forces which we have sufficed to convert the one form into the other” (103). The phrase “diagram of forces in equilibrium” is elided in the quote and appears in the last sentence of the chapter, minus “equilibrium” (1027). Thompson, translator of Aristotle’s biological treatises, knew better than to use the word “entelechy” lightly; but I think it relevant here. A morphological divergence is where a potentiality has become an actuality; and the Aristotelian connotation of completion or perfection does not necessarily entail triumphalism, as I think Prendergast suggests. So how to analyze the form of this governing force? Must we suppose that literature is a machine?
I refer to the Galilean/Newtonian notion of the mechanism:
The modern scientific revolution, from Galileo, was based on the thesis that the world is a great machine, which could in principle be constructed by a master artisan, a complex version of the clocks and other intricate automata that fascinated the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, much as computers have a provided a stimulus to thought and imagination in recent years; the change of artifacts has limited consequences for the basic issue as Alan Turing demonstrated sixty years ago. (Chomsky 66)
Chomsky also observes that Newton refuted forever the “mechanical philosophy” (67). All that is left scientifically is the study of emergence in various forms.
Supposing that this is true of scientific theories about the natural world, is it true of the study of literature? Can imaginative literature be coherently described as a machine constructed by a master artisan? How about the novel, specifically? Is the novel a species of theory-construction, of modelling? Does it explain the world by simplifying it, or does it contain, through extrinsic immanence, an image (or monad) of everything possible to be believed at the moment of its production? If not, perhaps the various genres at any given moment together form the well-rounded totality. “The individual work does not do justice to the genres by subsuming itself to them but rather through the conflict in which it long legitimated them, then engendered them, and ultimately canceled them” (Adorno 202). You could apply this dialectic, mutatis mutandis, to organisms and species. Here’s Moretti on the generic speciation-event (or extinction): “where a genre exhausts its potentialities--and the time comes to give the competitor a chance--when its inner form can no longer represent the most significant aspect of contemporary reality: at which point, either the genre betrays its form in the name of reality, thereby disintegrating, or it betrays reality in the name of form, becoming a ‘dull epigone’ indeed” ("Graphs" 77 n8).
I am reminded here of Richard Goldschmidt’s “hopeful monsters” from The Material Basis of Evolution, a concept and work reintroduced and recuperated to some extent by Stephen Jay Gould. Through developmental mechanisms, Goldschmidt argues, “a new type may emerge without accumulation of small steps” (251). Though not atomistic, combinable units, ideologemes may serve as an analyzable unit of developmental constraint. The word was probably first used by Bakhtin and/or Medvedev in The Formal Method of Literary Scholarship, and it appears most prominently in Bakhtin’s “Discourse and the Novel” (333-335). Michael Holquist notes there that Bakhtin intends the term neutrally (429). The most influential discussion of ideologemes is in Jameson’s The Political Unconscious:
An amphibious formulation whose essential structural characteristic may be described as its possibility to manifest itself either as a pseudoidea--a conceptual or belief system, an abstract value, an opinion or prejudice-- or as a protonarrative, a kind of ultimate class fantasy about the “collective characters” which are the classes in opposition. (87)
Jameson further suggests that ideological analysis requires showing how the finished cultural product is a “complex work of transformation on the ultimate raw material which is the ideologeme in question” (87).
As Turing wrote in his influential paper about morphogenesis, “Most of an organism, most of the time, is developing from one pattern into another, rather than from homogeneity into a pattern” (71-72). Ideologemes are similar to Turing’s morphogens in that they serve as developmental constraints on the production of a given text. It’s worth supposing that narrative ecologies are optimally adapted to their historic environments and there is an inherently perfect transformation of experience in the act of narrative creation. The narrative property constructs abstract models, shares species-invariant characteristics, and integrates its individual variations into the totality of the social imagination: Coleridge’s distinction of the primary and secondary imaginations ends by noting that the latter is “essentially vital“ (167). This vitality of the secondary imagination allows the close reader to invent plausible historical claims, and distant readings of the state of the primary imagination discovers their context.
*We’re pleased to be able to make Prendergast’s article available as a PDF under the same terms as Moretti’s for a limited time.
**Bill Benzon notes here a paper arguing that memes may have atomicity.
Adorno, Theodor W. Aesthetic Theory. Ed. Gretel Adorno and Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. 1970. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1997.
Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: U of Texas P, 1981.
Chomsky, Noam. On Nature and Language. Cambridge: Cambridge, 2002.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Biographia Literaria. London: Dent, 1956.
Goldschmidt, Richard B. The Material Basis of Evolution. 1940. New Haven, Yale UP, 1982.
Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1981.
Moretti, Franco. “Graphs.” NLR 24 (Nov-Dec 2003): 67-93.
---. “Maps.” NLR 26 (Mar-Apr 2004): 79-103.
Nair, Rukmini. Narrative Gravity: Conversation, Cognition, and Culture.. London and New York: Routledge, 2003.
Prendergast, Christopher. “Evolution and Literary History: A Response to Franco Moretti.” NLR 34 (July-August 2005): 40-62.
Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth. On Growth and Form. New York: Macmillan, 1943.
Turing, A. M. “The Chemical Basis of Morphogenesis.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences 237.641 (Aug 14, 1952): 37-72.
The link to the Prendergast PDF is not working currently, but it should be before too long.
I confess to being a mild meme skeptic. Why not just say ‘idea’? Dawkins writes originally: “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.” Well, OK, so some of portable units may not be ideas. Mash-up culture is not a matter of mixing ideas, after all. Fair enough. But then what am I to make of ‘ideologemes’. Why not just say ‘ideas’? I realize the answer is probably: read Bakhtin and Jameson to find out. Well, I’m just asking. I am suspicious that saying ‘ideologemes’ rather than ‘ideas’ is a way of making it sound like we already have a better theory of ideas than we in fact do.
The reason I like memes is a) that they can include non-verbal cultural elements such as tools, knots, musical instruments, etc., which can be transmitted non-verbally, and b) while they don’t have to be atomic, thay can be detachable from their cultural context. So for example, in describing the Japanese appropriation of Chinese culture and of Buddhism, you can describe it as a complex of related particulars rather than as a great big “Buddhism” thing which was carried over.
In transactions of this type some things don’t come across and some are altered in transmission, and memetics can be a convenient way of describing this.
A particular case is the transmission of ecstatic religious practices without the theology, so a practice can go from India through Islam to Christendom without bringing more than traces of the rest of the religion with.
In short, memes need not be ideas, and scarcely need to enter consciousness at all.
I apologize if it wasn’t clear, but I’m considerably skeptical of the necessity for “memes,” though I think “cultural unit of transmission” is separable from “idea.”
William Marling has a very detailed review of the “ideologeme” concept in “The Formal Ideologeme,” Semiotica 98.3-4. “Ideology,” not “idea” is the root there.
I did assume ‘ideology’ was the root. (I think many theories of ideology could do with a little more just plain idea. So I skipped to the chase.)
Let me put it this way. You quote and write: “‘Most of an organism, most of the time, is developing from one pattern into another, rather than from homogeneity into a pattern’ (71-72). Ideologemes are similar to Turing’s morphogens in that they serve as developmental constraints on the production of a given text.” Frankly, all this sounds to me like ideologemes are Hegelian Ideas, with the transcendental knob turned down a notch, and some textualism thrown in. That sounds like a dismisively flip thing to say but I actually mean to provoke more specific answers.
Could you indulge me by attempting a brief sketch of why, say, William Marling thinks the notion is distinctive, and distinctively important? (I just checked and our library has a paper copy of that journal, but in closed stacks. So I’ll have to wait a few days ... and maybe you can just quote a few paragraphs or something.)
Oh, it’s plenty Hegelian, I’m sure. You got some kind of problem with that? The concept got a lot of currency from Bakhtin, who uses it neutrally (in Russian, every utterance is an ideologeme glosses Holquist), Kristeva, and especially Jameson’s PU.
Marling provides a detailed history of how the term’s been used critically. I was using it as a dynamic or generative parallel with “meme,” I suppose, especially in terms of the notion of constraint.
No problem with that - not necessarily. But it’s the sort of thing I like to know. I suppose my concern is that ‘ideologeme’ may simply be a term that compacts the doctrine ‘ideas are organic - dynamic, generative - things, not inhuman crystals off in Plato’s Heaven’. I don’t mind the doctrine. But I would like to know what MORE work the term is doing than encapuslating some such sentiment.
If ideology is a system of ideas, then an ideologeme is a unit of ideology, which is distinct from the idea. That’s why “idea” doesn’t strike me as the best term to use in the context above.
All ideas are, I take it, parts of systems. (Atomism about ideas is not an idea anyone is defending, yes? We are all holists here.) If by ‘ideology is a system of ideas’ you also mean to imply, conversely, ‘all systems of ideas are ideologies’, do you accept that all mentality and abstract systematicity is ideology? For example, is Euclid’s Geometry an ideology? There are etymological grounds for taking the term in this thoroughly generic way, as covering everything from the Pythagorean theorem to Portnoy’s complaint, roughly. But in fact ‘ideology’ tends to be used more narrowly. I am inclined to think we should put on the brakes until we are a little clearer about ‘ideas’, by way of clarifying the scope of ‘ideology’.
You may respond that by saying ‘idealogy is a system of ideas’ you never meant to imply ‘all systems of ideas are ideologies’ - so why am I putting this additional claim in your mouth? Well, because if you AREN’T implying that additional, quite strong thing, then how are you so sure that the the subject at hand is the bits of intellectual systems that are ideologies, as opposed to the bits of intellectual systems that are not? If you see what I mean.
I think atomism about ideas is a good idea, actually.
The perjorative connotation haunts your remarks here. This happens a lot. Eagleton, whom I know you admire, has written quite a good book about the ideology concept. The Marxist aesthetic theory tradition retains a meaning much closer to the neutral original; and the distinguishing factor would be those systems that legitimate interests interesting to the analyst.
I think it was more the possibility of a pejorative denotation that was preoccupying me. (Connotations can flit about as they like, graceful ornaments to the semantic order. They’re probably more afraid of me than I am of them.) I am aware of Eagleton’s book and we won’t get into that. Which conception of ‘ideology’ is operative for you, if you please?
And why should atomism about ideas be plausible?
"All ideas are parts of systems” is what I try to get away from. It doesn’t seem to allow partial and imperfect communication.
I am an atomist on cultural contact. If you take the way that Buddhism was transmitted from India and China to the wildly different society of Tibet, for example, you will see that a unit of culture which was embedded in a holistic matrix in India was transmitted to Tibet and then re-embedded in a completely different holistic context in a quite different way. This doesn’t mean that Tibetan Buddhism has nothing important in common with Indian Buddhism (as it still survives in Sri Lanka), but the differences are, and always were, enormous.
Some ideas are transmitted by being understood or misunderstood, but concrete practices are just imitated, and there’s a complete range of semi-understanding in between (e.g. details of iconography and the interpretations of these details.)
An example of meme transmission of practices with imperfect understanding is given in Liu’s “Silk and Religion”. Practices involving the veneration of the tombs of saints, use of silk in winding sheets, and sometimes purple as a marker of royalty or saintliness passed from (Buddhist) India to (Buddhist) China, Christendom, and Islam. This is an especially interesting example because the veneration of cadavers is frowned upon in the early forms of these religions.
When you talk about “the anxiety of influence” it seems to me that you’r always talking about partial transmission of elements without the whole, and the constitution of a new whole.
Donald Lazere has a writing textbook titled Reading and Writing for Civic Literacy: The Critical Citizen’s Guide to Argumentative Rhetoric, directed at students in advanced composition courses or students in the second semester of a first-year writing sequence. In it, he defines ideology for these students:
[Public policies] are mostly controlled by human agents, by struggles for dominance between political parties and ideologies (an ideology is a system of political concepts, such as liberalism and conservatism, or of economic concepts like capitalism and socialism), between interests representing corporate management versus those of employees, between the public sector (government employees, schools and colleges and other nonprofit organizations) and the private, for-profit sector (corporations and small business, professions like law and medicine), between supporters of a planned economy and of the free market, and so on.
Is Lazere’s definition of ideology satisfactory? He does use the word system.
I’m not saying this to be annoying, but I don’t think it’s a productive question (re the exact specification of ‘ideology’. You get bogged down in irrelevant niceties. I prefer a more pragmatic approach. Sometimes it can be systems of ideas (any ideas). Sometimes it can be those presumed to legitimate certain interests. Sometimes it can be imaginary relations to real things (which overlaps with the others, of course).
Actually, Jonathan, I would interpret the Gil-White paper as arguing that memes need not be discrete atomic units. The units can be fuzzy.
In any event, it’s one thing to present an abstract argument for memes, culturegens (EO Wilson), or linguemes (William Croft), or ideologemes. It’s another matter entirely to use such entities in the analysis of practical cases. What analytic tasks can you accomplish with the notion of an ideologeme? Do you have concrete examples you find intellectually satisfying?
I’ve devoted considerable time and effort to thinking about cultural evolution and even to thinking about what memes are and so forth. But when it comes to practical analysis . . . . It’s not that I can’t offer examples of memes. But so what? It’s not clear how to get from this or that example to an explanation of something.
In music, for example, I think that the chord changes—that is, the basic functional harmonic structure—for “I Got Rhythm” have the status of a meme in the mainstream jazz world. The example is interesting because it is fairly complex and abstract, yet almost palpably real to jazz musicians—who can identify so-called rhythm changes at the drop of a hat, and improvise over them—and to fans. The fans may or may know explicitly recognize the pattern and identify it by label, but they recognize that something familiar is going on. BUT, calling that a meme doesn’t do much other that stick a theory-bound label on the phenomenon. I’ve not figured out how to use the attached theory to explain something that we can’t otherwise understand.
That doesn’t mean I’ve given up, but . . . .
The Prendergast PDF is now available.
Meme is a pretty useful word. It is short and focuses attention on the transmission and modification of concepts and practices in a way that the word idea does not. There is something annoying about the word, but I wouldn’t bet against it becoming more popular. On the other hand, “proritize” seemed like a resonable word to me as well and I think it was ridiculed into unpopularity.
Memes are not necessarily ideas. They include practices, tools, images, and any other cultural object or behavior.
How about atomism of concepts?
Somewhere near a root of the discussion of memes is a statement of teleology. Arguably, neither genes nor memes should be considered to be “for” anything; they are by definitions reproducing things thought autonomous.
But the systems (organisms) that are made “from” genes are not for anything, while the systems (books, stories, religions) that are made “from” memes have proper function. Authors don’t feel a certain pressure and gestate and/or poop out a novel into a nest; they plan, they scheme, they desire, they model.
[Well, mostly. Pooping is clearly involved in some cases....]
Children generally do not get the benefit of intense planning and rework.
That, over and above their atomicity and odd superposition/interactions, is my struggle with the meme meme. That they are much easier to define as tools, these core concepts.
My understanding of the “ideologeme” concept (I have, again, little patience with memes) is that it acts as a constraint on development, something that guides the form of social abstractions, the sense of getting it right.
What famous people were alive during Alan Turing’s time? I have an extra credit assignment for my math class where I have to find things about a mathematician selected randomly from a box. I got Alan Turing. One of the things we are told to find is famous people who were alive during our mathematician’s lifetime. Can anyone help?
Look up Turing in the Wikipedia, then look at the bottom of the page. You should find a bunch of links, one or three of which will link to lists of people alive at the same time.