Believing in the Disease: Virologies and Memetics as Models of Power Relations in Contemporary Science Fiction – Jesse Cohn

The word is now a virus
William S. Burroughs, Word Virus (1998:208)

Ideology is a virus.
Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992: 327)

“It’s the words,” he said shyly. “They’re virulent.”
Geoff Ryman, The Child Garden (1990: 58)

‘Belief’, we are told, ‘was a disease.’ Thus the anonymous narrator of Geoff Ryman’s The Child Garden introduces us to a future post-revolutionary society in which, ‘because of advances in medicine, acceptable patterns of behaviour could be caught or administered’:

Viruses made people cheerful and helpful and honest. Their manners were impeccable, their conversation well-informed, their work speedy and accurate. They believed the same things. (Ryman, 1990:1)

The Child Garden is the story of a woman named Milena, one of the only lesbians left in a world literally infected with compulsory heterosexuality. The norms of heterosexuality, along with faculties of calculation, language use, and the canonical knowledge of world civilization, are transmitted through retroviruses that ‘ took over the DNA of the brain, importing information and imagery – and eroding the already fragile boundary between the interior life and the demands of the exterior world. How to define and know a self when one’s most private moments may be nothing more than some ‘information and imagery’ authored by others?

Milena tested herself. Once, she tried to steal an apple from a market stall . . . When Milena’s hand touched the apple’s dappled skin, she had thought of what it cost the boy to grow the apples and haul them to market and how he had to do all this in his spare time. She could not do it, she could not make herself steal. Was that because of the virus? Was it part of herself? She could not be sure. (Ryman, 1990:1-2)

Unlike the original thief of apples, this belated Eve, living in a regained Paradise, is incapable of sin – almost incapable, at least:

There was one virus to which Milena knew she had been immune. There was one thing at least that she was sure was part of herself. There was no ignoring the yearning in her heart for love, the love of another woman.

This was a semiological product of late capitalism. So the Party said. (Ryman,1990: 1-2)

According to the mores of the reigning Party, ‘Milena suffered… from Bad Grammar’. Her body’s refusal to accept the viruses makes her a social anomaly, alienated from the ‘Consensus’ in which everyone else participates.

The Consensus, residing in a tremendous biological computer embracing the Earth, is a composite mind, the average of every human mind it has ever “Read” into itself: it makes ‘models . . . of their personalities, ‘incorporating each particular will into a literalized Rousseauvian General Will, in what appears to be a perfect form of political representation (Ryman, 1990:2). The Consensus rules with absolute power, not by overtly dominating its subjects, but by incorporating them, or at least by incorporating their models, their detached self-representations. As a political science fiction, The Child Garden suggests that power is a matter of persuading others to identify their interests with yours – the operation which Noam Chomsky calls the ‘manufacture of consent,’ and which Antonio Gramsci calls the construction of ‘consensus.’ As Mike Michael writes, ‘one aims to convince actors that, rather than maintain a particular set of self-understandings . . . they should really be conceptualizing themselves through the categories that you provide (Michael, 1994:31). Just as the personality-altering viruses force Milena to question the very distinction between ‘herself and the anonymous ‘ Consensus, so power operates in an infectious, viral fashion, by blurring the distinctions between self and other. In the symbolic language of The Child Garden, viruses stand for the way that social relationships translate into power, not only through brute-force coercion, but also through the subtler channels of co-optation, consensus-building, or in other words, ‘persuasion and identity production’ (Michael, 1994:27).

The Consensus generates an imaginary identity or one-ness of interests by creating a ‘model of the General Will which surreptitiously excludes whatever is irremediably different (e.g., Milena). At the same time, the Consensus imagines its relationship to its own flesh-and-blood subjects via a certain ‘model of what subjectivity is

‘Life is history,’ said the philosophers. They imagined that life worked as they did, preserving decisions. Thereby they took the life out of history altogether.

‘The brain works like a computer,’ said the writers of popular science, as if in unison, when computers seemed to be changing the world. They meant that nerve impulses take one branch of a ganglion as opposed to another. A yes or no, a one or zero code that they could describe if they wished, and they did, as binary. They did not know what made living memory, or how sound or light or even silence could be recalled.

‘The brain works like a collection of viruses,’ the Consensus said one hundred and fifty years later, when viruses were difficult to avoid. (Ryman, 1990:343)

If brains and minds are merely ‘collections’, rather than integral, self-identical entities, then perhaps there is no integrity to be violated, and therefore nothing wrong with adding to or subtarcting from a given ‘collection’. The Consensus chooses a scientific metaphor congenial to its own political purposes.

At this point – near the end of a novel which has throughout relied on a fluid analogy between viruses, selves, and power, in which any one of the three terms may easily be exchanged for one of the others – Ryman poses a disturbingly reflexive question: what if this metaphor for the intersection of power and subjectivity is itself biased, loaded, couched in a historically contingent language which has been systematically arranged in the interests of domination? What if the very suggestion that ‘the brain works like a collection of viruses’ is a subtle attempt to dominate our thinking – not so much to simply persuade us of anything in particular, but to undermine any foundations we might have for oppositional subjectivity, to wipe out in advance any hope we might have of resisting power? What sort of belief-disease is being introduced into our system?

This question begs to be addressed, for Ryman is far from being the only writer in recent decades in whose work ‘viruses’ form a leitmotif. On the contrary: viruses are now a fairly widespread trope in contemporary science fiction – in fact, so ubiquitous as to call for some critical attention. SF narratives have been steadily succumbing to the infection, from The Ticket That Exploded (William S. Burroughs, 1961) to Camp Concentration (Thomas Disch, 1968), Mumbo Jumbo (Ishmael Reed, 1972) Blood Music (Greg Bear, 1985), Metrophage (Richard Kadrey, 1988), The City, Not Long After (Pat Murphy, 1989), Snow Crash (Neal Stephenson, 1992), Dead Girls( Richard Calder, 1992), and Ammonite (Nicola Griffith, 1993), as well as SF short stories like ‘The Giving Plague’ (David Brin, 1988), ‘Mosquito’ (Calder, 1990), and ‘The Brains of Rats’ (Michael Blumlein, 1990). Burroughs’ extraterrestrial language-viruses, Reed’s epidemiological retelling of Jazz Age history, Stephenson’s more ambitiously revisionist history of civilization as the byproduct of a computer virus run wild, Blumlein’s musings on gender from the perspective of a research scientist perplexed by his own ambiguous sexuality and equipped with ‘a common rhinovirus’ engineered to carry genetic sequences triggering either the XY or XX chromosome pair in every egg cell in every ovary it infects (Blumlein, 1989:7) – all constitute variations on what has become a leitmotif of SF in the contemporary period. What is behind this pandemic of virologies? Where are all these science-fictional viruses coming from?

There are several possible explanations. A historical materialist might be tempted to read Ryman’s viruses as the trace left by some part of the historical context in which The Child Garden made its debut, namely, the world AIDS epidemic; such a contextualization would appear to be underwritten in this case by Ryman’s self-conscious foregrounding of his identity as a gay male SF writer. However, as Samuel R. Delany points out elsewhere, the proliferation of viral imagery in American and British SF at least partially predates the epidemic. A critic familiar with the nonfictional discourses of the SF community might reference the notion of belief-as-disease to contemporary discussions of ‘memetics, a discourse taking its inspiration from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, then being popularized by futurists such as H. Keith Henson (in technophile magazines such as Whole Earth Review and SF writers such as David Brin (in essays like ‘The Commonwealth of Wonder’ and ‘The Dogma of Otherness’ ). According to Henson, what we call ‘beliefs’ are actually ‘memes’ or ‘replicating information patterns’ which spread from person to person in much the same way that viruses spread from body to body. Obviously, memetics involves the same comparison between viruses and identity formation that animatesThe Child Garden. However, at least in the case of this particular novel, the resemblance appears to be spurious. Although it is always possible, as one of his characters puts it, that the concept may have been ‘implicit in the culture, so that ‘it can be in the text without being there’ (Ryman, 1990:179), Ryman himself claims to have been entirely unaware of memetics at the time he wrote the novel (personal interview, February 23, 1993), and other viruses in SF, such as those appearing in Camp Concentration and Mumbo Jumbo, predate Dawkins’ coinage of the term “meme” in his The Selfish Gene1976). When we see “virus” in contemporary SF writing, we can’ t simply read “meme”, although we can and should ask where viral imagery and meme theory run parallel with one another – something I will do in the course of this essay.

The relation of science-fictional viruses to the real conditions in which science fiction takes its life is a multifaceted one. What I want to argue is that the use of viral imagery in contemporary SF derives some measure of its kick, its peculiarly suggestive and unsettling effect, from subtler sorts of relationship between literary text and historical context. For contemporary readers, viruses offer a metaphorical handle on issues of power and identity which are especially foregrounded for us by new social and political dynamics of power and identity, the dynamics that are characteristic of a postindustrial world that has been in formation for some three or four decades now. They describe something that has been happening to us, something for which older science-fictional tropes are no longer adequate. They answer a need for us precisely by reminding us of the scary new conditions that we live with but do not understand.

What are viruses? Viruses are scary liminal creatures, alien inhabitants of the border zones of discourse. As Keith Ansell-Pearson writes:

Standing as they do on the border between the ‘living’ and the ‘non-living’, and virtually real, viruses serve to challenge almost every dogmatic tenet in our thinking about the logic of life, defying any tidy division of the physical, such as we find in Kant, for example, into organisms, the inorganic, and engineeered artifacts… ( Ansell-Pearson, 1997: 133)

There is no comfortable place for them in any taxonomy, for they are clearly not inanimate, non-living matter, but they do not share at least one defining property of the living that is, they cannot reproduce themselves on their own; to reproduce, they require another body, a host. It is in honor of this immunological drama that we call certain computer programs, designed to reproduce themselves through and in spite of the logic of the systems they invade, “viruses.” Just as the hacker creators of these parasitic computer programs gave a biological mystique to their technological creations, so viruses placed under the microscope take on an eerie resemblance to our own technologies: certain varieties, with their hexagonal protein coats and spindly, wiry legs, look like spacefaring robots. Products of nature, their close resemblance to artifacts prefigures the convergence of the organic and the mechanical in the age of genetic engineering and virtual reality: in Ryman’ s words, ‘Machines had imitated life, and now life had returned the compliment’ (Ryman, 1990:84). Living and dead, biological and informational, material and ethereal, natural and artificial: the virus, a set of contradictions that can kill, captures essential contradictions of our age with a unique power.

Classical SF imaged power in an instrumental fashion, as the power of a knowing subject to act on a world of objects.1 From this standpoint, political power always appeared as a monopoly on the technologies of force: power struggle revolves around the question of who can take possession of the magnetic launcher, the sun-destroying ray. Such a conception of power relations is consistent with kind of a modern (that is to say, Newtonian) scientific paradigm, in which reality ‘is objects bumping into each other, forces impacting on one another’ (Richards, 1995: 24.15). This is the paradigm within which Marx and Engels developed their pyramidal model of the world, in which a material base is held to ‘ultimately determine the forms of political and cultural life’ (Marx & Engels, 1978:760). It is also the paradigm within which classical anarchist theory came to focus primarily on the most obviously material forms of institutionalized coercion – i.e., the State and the Marketplace.2The scientific and technological developments which led to Hiroshima represented both the apogee of this modern paradigm and its moment of reversal: power, as force, was about who had the Bomb, but the question of force in an era of Mutual Assured Destruction had become accordingly absurd. At the same time, the Einsteinian paradigm behind nuclear technology depicted reality as a field which interpenetrates the observer. As the self-contained objects of modern science disappeared, the technics of power were also changing, both in theory and in social practice. In Arthur Feenberg’s words, ‘the capitalist social structure has evolved’ so that ‘now the weight of its reproductive, legitimating and ideological institutions is proportionately much greater in the system’ (Feenberg, 1981:188). Thus, the materialist priorities of traditional critical theories have been inverted: 20th-century anarchists such as Voltairine de Cleyre refocused attention on the way that cultural institutions such as art, the family, education, and media reproduced patterns of rule and submission through the reiteration of ‘dominant Ideas’ (de Cleyre, 1914:79), while Gramsci, rewriting Marxist theory for the information age, declared hegemony, the process of disseminating ruling ideologies throughout society, to be the central operation of power. Louis Althusser, too, supplemented the study of the Repressive State Apparatus with that of the Ideological State Apparatus, the ensemble of forces charged with maintaining mass loyalty to the status quo by giving everyone a sense of identity in, through, and with the system. Postmodern power is not an affair in which A acts on B; rather, it is one in which B learns to identify with A.

Where modern power required the establishment of nation-states with solid territorial borders, postmodern power works through the dissolution of borders. Boundaries between work and leisure, commercial and program, public and private, crisis and routine are also strategically disassembled in the interests of power. Multinational corporations and transnational trade structures such as NAFTA and the WTO consolidate the postmodernized power of elites who, in the words of Kurt Vonnegut’s Hocus Pocus, have ‘managed to convert their wealth, which had originally been in the form of factories or stores’ into ‘negotiable representations of money on paper,’ and to further convert these representations into pure electronic data – a ‘form so liquid and abstract’ that no one notices as it is all siphoned out of the public sphere’ (Vonnegut, 1990: 225). Along with wealth, power becomes ‘liquid and abstract.’ In an age of consumer capitalism that encourages everyone, in Thomas Frank’ s phrase, to ‘commodify your dissent, all are implicated in the operation of power, and all are simultaneously marginalized, excluded from power. ‘There is no longer Authority, all on its own’, Umberto Eco writes of this phenomenon in Travels in Hyperreality . ‘All are in it, and all are outside it: Power is elusive, and there is no longer any telling where the “plan” comes from’ (Eco, 1986:149). What Foucault calls the ‘capillary’ nature of postmodern power – its simutaneous existence inside and outside of the bodies that both resist and host it can also be called its virality.

Thus, what the Bomb represented for the previous wave of SF, the Virus has come to represent for the contemporary period: the promise of both total destruction and total change, grounds for a kind of apocalyptic fantasy (or “post-holocaust” fiction). However, where the Bomb, as a piece of equipment, was at least something solid, both visible and tangible, viruses are frightening precisely because they are intangible and invisible – just like the new forms of wealth and influence. In a world run on microchips, viruses naturally stand for the new order of things: capillary power, power made invisible.

Kenneth Burke, whose reconstruction of the theory of rhetoric has done much to promote a better understanding of postmodern power, claimed that ‘imaginative’ works like Ryman’ s, no less than ‘critical’ works like those of Marx, are ‘answers to questions posed by the situation[s] in which they arose;’ that is, they attempt to chart these situations, to ‘name their structure,’ and thus to help us to grapple with the prevailing conditions (Burke, 1973:1-5). Radical movements around the world, working from theoretical understandings still bearing the traces of modernist assumptions which no longer hold true in the new situations created by a globalizing capitalism, are once again taking up the task that writers like de Cleyre and Gramsci undertook in the beginning of the twentieth century: the elaboration of ways of naming and knowing postmodern power, making forms of manipulation and violence that have become invisible, visible once again. Perhaps SF discourse has something to offer this search for understanding in the figure of the Virus, a figure which offers to help chart our new social and political terra incognita .

But does it? To return to the question Geoff Ryman so sharply articulates in The Child Garden: what are the hidden costs of accepting this gift? Or, to ask a slightly different question: what kind of a gift is this metaphor, anyway? The virus-as-power trope ‘works in some respects – in Burke’ s terms, it allows us to ‘chart a new situation in a somewhat accurate way – but it relies on some analogies which bear further inspection. If a virus is to a body what power is to the self, it must be that bodies and selves share some important qualities. The specific feature of a body that allows viruses to infect it is that it is composed of cells which are designed to reproduce themselves. Viruses cannot self-reproduce, ergo they need to borrow this reproductive machinery from the cells. A cell infected by a virus reproduces the virus, dumbly and obediently repeating the alien pattern again and again until the cell walls burst open. This is also true for computers, which simply read off and execute the instructions given them by a software virus: in Richard Dawkins’ words, ‘Computers are so good at copying bytes, and so good at faithfully obeying the instructions contained in those bytes, that they are sitting ducks to self-replicating programs’ (Dawkins, 1991). Cells and CPUs are both copying machines. What about selves? Dawkins, too, asks this question

The two qualities that a virus, or any sort of parasitic replicator, demands of a friendly medium, the two qualities that make cellular machinery so friendl y towards parasitic DNA, and that make computers so friendly towards computer viruses . . . are, firstly, a readiness to replicate information accurately . . . and, secondly, a readiness to obey instructions encoded in the information so replicated.

Cellular machinery and electronic computers excel in both these virus-friendly qualities. How do human brains match up? As faithful duplicators, they are certainly less perfect than either cells or electronic computers. (Dawkins, 1991)

In other words, the assumptions embedded in the discourse of memetics can easily lead one to overlook the important dissimilarities between human minds and brains on the one hand and bodies or computing systems on the other – quantum differences in complexity and function. It is is not only because memetic discourse ignores the differences between ink-on-paper, spoken words, light heading for the retina, and electrochemical activity in the brain (reducing all to the category of “information”), that ‘it has no insight into how such processes [of cultural evolution] involve technical and social mediation,’ and thereby ‘reifies the processes of cultural evolution,’ as Ansell-Pearson complains (Ansell-Pearson, 1997: 13n3); it also reifies and misrepresents the subject.

Our brains aren’ t a fortiori copying machines, designed to copy information. their real aptitude is for generating new information. Indeed, Chomsky successfully trashed B.F. Skinner’ s behaviorist account of language-learning on the strength of the observation that children are ordinarily exposed to extremely degenerate samples of language use, which if merely repeated would result in nothing like the linguistic performances of which children of merely average ability are routinely capable. ‘Language’, he writes, ‘is a process of free creation; its laws and principles are fixed, but the manner in which the principles of generation are used is free and infinitely varied. Even the interpretation and use of words involves a process of free creation’ (Chomsky, 1997:152). Computers and genes are distinguished primarily by their ability to reiterate themselves; human beings, even those regarded as relatively unintelligent, are distinguished by their creativity. We are always creating something new, even when we are remembering what we have already experienced.

Geoff Ryman says that The Child Garden took its life in part from a conversation he once had with an Israeli physicist who had a special interest inmemory, in the simple act of remembering an image: where is this image? Where exactly, in the electrochemical dance of the nerves, is this reconstruction of the eye’s experience taking place? (Personal interview, February 23, 1993.) In wondering ‘what made living memory, or how sound or light or even silence could be recalled,’ Ryman wrote The Child Garden , a novel very much occupied with the question of memory. In the account of memory that emerges there, the remembering mind is not so much a copying machine – Dante’ s ‘wax under the seal that/does not change the imprinted figure’ (Ryman, 1990: 355) – as an imagining machine. The novel expressly rejects the analogy between brains and computers –

A spreading fire lit up Milena’ s life, blazing through all the branches of her nerves. The nerves branched in a yes/no, one/zero code perhaps, but the pattern led to something as dense and fluid as magma . . . (Ryman, 1990: 363)

– and embraces instead the romantic metaphors offered by characters like Al the Snide, an empath whose illicitly-altered viruses allow him to enter other minds

It’ s hard to believe how complex people are. Like a whole universe. There’ s all this chattering going on in their heads. Mist we call it, like the inside of clouds. It fogs everything, stops people seeing. Most people function by shutting almost everything out. Below that, there’ s the Web. That’ s the memory. That’ s where everything is stored, and the Web is a real mess. You can get tangled up in it. A very complex personality is actually difficult to get out of. It can be very scary. Underneath that is the Fire, and that just burns. That’ s where the heart is . . . (Ryman, 1990: 136)

Ryman’ s romanticism (the Blakean/Byronic imagery of fire, the appeal to heart, to soul, to elan vital perhaps) might obscure what is actually part of a larger claim he is making about the nature of selfhood, and more importantly, about the capacity for resistance inherent in subjectivity – in fact, a claim similar in its direction and significance to that made by Chomsky from the standpoint of a cognitive science based in Enlightenment rationalism. For Ryman no less than for Chomsky, subjects are possessed of a human nature which is never identical to the model made for it by power.

Ryman raises these issues from the very outset. In the opening chapter of The Child Garden, we find Milena working as an actor in an unimaginative staging of Love’ s Labour’ s Lost, ‘playing a constable called Dull’ (Ryman, 1990: 7). We watch her unenthusiastically playing her part: ‘She muttered one of her thirteen lines. “Me, an’ t shall please you.” ‘ It plainly didn’t (Ryman, 1990: 8). The line is repeated again two chapters later: ‘ “Me, an’ t shall please you,” said Milena in her own fiercely exact voice. “I am Anthony Dull.” “No, no, no!” wailed the director . . . “Milena, you know how that line is supposed to sound”‘ (Ryman, 1990: 27). An entire drama of identity is being enacted here: Milena’ s stubborn insistence on ‘her own fiercely exact voice’ tells the truth of her character: she is willing to run the risk that her ‘me will not ‘ please the Consensus. Her failure to reproduce the ‘Dull’ role that has been handed her, places her outside the Consensus, against the ‘constables who would impose its vision of sameness on the different. At the same time, Milena’ s individuality emerges precisely in her different reenactment of a role that is not hers. This suggests that individuality is not so much a matter of having a unique essence, a core selfhood that exists beneath and beyond all the socially invented identities imposed or ‘inscribed on it; rather, it is a matter – to borrow from Sylvia Rolloff’s paraphrase of Judith Butler of ‘how we re-enact our inscriptions’ (Rolloff, 1998). The individual subject does not simply give back its social encoding, but always and inevitably transforms it, makes the social over into the individual, makes the old new.3

By contrast, the subject assumed by Henson’ s “memetics” is incapable of either romantic rebellion or rational criticism, despite his suggestion that it might be encouraging the ‘spread of memes we judge to be ‘more rational.’ The development of memetics, Henson writes, ‘provides improved mental tools (models) for thinking about the influences, be they benign, silly, or fatal, that replicating information patterns have on all of us.’ However, where Henson promises ‘liberation for those who can recognize and analyze the memes to which they are exposed,’ this promise is essentially empty, for it surreptitiously refers back to the concept of a creative, resisting ‘consciousness’ which it has already effectively liquidated in advance. On the terms of Henson’ s ‘model of mind,’ neither genes nor memes are conscious and neither, in the last analysis, are we.

It is not surprising, then, to find Henson confident enough to predict in advance, as it were, what the sociological findings of a fully-developed ‘memetics’ will be (when it is extended to the explanations of such disparate phenomena as ‘the pet rocks fad, the Nazis, drug “epidemics,” and the problems in Belfast, Beirut, Iran, and Central America’ ). It will discover, of course, that the “rational” memes are, like memetics itself, merely useful “tools” :

Most of the memes that make up human culture are of the shoemaking kind. A rationale for t he spread and persistence of these ideas/skills seems obvious: they aid the survival of people who in turn teach the same ideas and skills to the next generation. But a good fraction of the memes that make up human culture fall into the categories of political, philosophical, or religious. A rationale for the spread and persistence for these memes is a much deeper problem. The spread of some memes of these classes at the expense of others is of intense concern to many readers of Reason. If we are to be effective at judging ideas and promoting the spread of ones we think are more rational, it would be useful to understand how memes come about, how they use people to spread, and why the self-interest of the people who spread a meme and the meme’s ‘interest’ are not always the same. (Henson, 1988:

Since they are (apparently) without utility, such value-laden discourses as may constitute the ‘political, philosophical, or religious’ memes may be written off a priori as mere ideology and dogma, as irrational ; and since oppositional politics of any sort must be situated within such discourses, they too must be irrational. Rationality itself turns out to be a matter of utility, of survival, in short, what used to be called Social Darwinism: whatever works, whatever is conducive to the survival of “selfish genes,” is what is rational. Rationality belongs to the victors — no matter how heinous the means to their victory.4

David Brin’ s version of memetics appears to be less vicious than Henson’ s, at first glance; unlike Henson, in the end he claims little more for the concept than its entertainment value, and calls it a ‘ metaphor rather than a scientific explanation (Brin, 1994: 355-356). Nonetheless, like Henson, Brin uses the virus metaphor to construct what he calls ‘a pretty good model for what’s been going on throughout most of human history (Brin, 1994: 349) – a model in which, as Francis Fukuyama asserted, the End of History has arrived, and We are It. In Brin’ s epic world history, ‘until recently five major memes have battled over the future of this planet’ – not ‘those superficial, pompous slogan mills people have gotten all lathered about this century – communism, capitalism, Christianity, Islam,’ but ‘deeper, older themes (Brin, 1994: 349). These deeper, older themes are European ‘feudalism,’ Latin ‘machismo,’ Russian ‘paranoia,’ ‘Eastern Confucianism,’ and a mysterious ‘fifth meme’ which turns out to be, essentially, ‘a liberal Western, even American, tradition’ (Brin, 1994: 90).

‘What is the fifth meme?’ Brin asks rhetorically. ‘You’ ve heard me call it the Dogma of Otherness . . . ‘(Brin, 1994: 352.) The Dogma of Otherness is Brin’ s personal sobriquet for a liberal capitalist tolerance of difference, which is itself a paradoxically dogmatic intolerance for dogmas (Brin, 1994: 88). Brin delights in this paradox, which appears to mean for him that the historical project of American hegemony — from the forced opening of Japan’s ports to the suppression of the Boxer Rebellion and beyond – is actually an exercise in multiculturalism: ‘perhaps we ought to be proud of America as the prime promoter of a dogma of difference and choice,’ he muses (Brin, 1994: 91). At the same time, he reflects, ‘the jury is still out [on] whether otherness-fetishism is any saner than older ways. (Sometimes I wonder!) Nor is there any proof it will, or should, win in the end’ (Brin, 1994: 356). Here, Brin’ s Americanist optimism gives way to the instrumentalism – and, ultimately, Social Darwinism – implicit in meme theory: what is rational is whatever is conducive to survival. Rational ends can be defined only with regard to the unit of survival, whether that be defined as the individual or the Volk-group. From this perspective, there are no moral grounds for supposing that even the prevailing liberal standards of tolerance, such as they are, ‘will, or should, win in the end.’ All that is certain is that ‘winning’ – surviving – is what counts. To suppose otherwise would be to indulge in irrational, dogmatic foolishness.

‘Otherness,’ Brin declares, ‘is our country. The territory of hope. The wide-open commonwealth of wonder’ (Brin, 1994: 357). For all its frequent uncritical liberalism, juvenile technophilia, infatuation with fad philosophies, and ethnocentrism, SF is still a territory that can occasionally be occupied by refugees from other, more strictly policed territories – by sexual, racial, gender, and political ‘aliens.’ Some of these, passing through, discover the artifacts left by others, and find their own uses for them. As Geoff Ryman and David Brin demonstrate, viral imagery can be woven into radically different stories about who we are and what we can be. Even a particular configuration of the viral trope, ‘memetics,’ can be reinterpreted in the interests of those who would deterritorialize the universe. Introducing a special issue of the British anarchist journal The Raven on ‘Culture and Ideology,’ Neil Birrell reads meme theory and gives it back in a changed form. Memes such as ‘ tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches,’ he writes, ‘are the very stuff of culture; they are, in essence, ‘convivial tools which may be freely exchanged as gifts’ (Birrell, 1998: 198,194). As an anarchist, Birrell of course favors ‘the circulation of cultural signs in a horizontal mode which befits them’ (Birrell, 1998: 198); indeed, ‘there is little room . . . for one group or individual to hijack the process and force culture down a given path unless, of course, they have access to tools which are less than convivial, tools which can only be exchanged as expensive commodities, such as TV and radio broadcast equipment, and which therefore do not circulate horizontally but broadcast information vertically’ (Birrell, 1998:193-94). He argues that ‘it is the ability to control the flow of memes which allows for ideological control, and that ‘the ability to reproduce memes allows for the vertical and elitist control I have identified as ideological’ (Birrell, 1998: 198).

This is not only a theory about the effects of ownership relations on the flow of information through a community. It is a theory about the relation of individuals to cultures. According to Birrell,

[W]e all own the convivial tools to achieve a measure of reinforcing the cultural code and also mutating or subverting it. I feel it follows that we are actually forced into this choice, to the extent that we are aware of it, of choosing at all times which path to follow, i.e., to reinforce the dominating signs of our culture or to challenge them. (Birrell, 1998: 194)

On the terms of this understanding, the individual subject is neither an isolated monad sealed off from social relationships, nor a helpless ‘collection of viruses,’ the mere construct of an all-powerful culture and its techniques of identity formation. It is, at least in potentia, a co-creator of culture: a being for whom the conditions of freedom and community converge

Birrell’ s formulation recalls a scene in The Child Garden in which Milena is introduced to one of the last outsider communities, the colony of the Snides, whose resentment of ‘the bastards’ in control of society is at least as fierce as Milena’ s own. The Snides spend their days creating psychological works of art out of the minds they encounter, mental ‘tapestries. ‘I make my tapestries,’ Al tells her (in words that apply equally well to Ryman’ s own work as a writer), ‘ out of all the people I see. The personalities are like colours. I make them and hang them in the air for the other Snides.’ As it so happens, the Snides weave their tapestries with the help of illegally retailored viruses. ‘But you hate viruses,’ Milena objects. ‘ I hate their viruses, Al replies. ‘I love the ones people make for themselves’ (Ryman, 1990: 136).


1.These paradigms emerged through a conversation with Simon Ings during a 1993 meeting of the British Science Fiction Writers Association.

2.At the same time, even such early theorists as Proudhon and Bakunin usually added a third character to the cast of villains, namely, the Church — an additio n which provided them with occasions to formulate the rudiments of a critique of ideology, to be elaborated further by 20th-century anarchists.

3.It is appropriately paradoxical, therefore, that Milena will spend the rest of her life in an effort to stage her lover’ s master work: an opera based on Dante’ s Divina Commedia

4.It is no accident that Henson’ s “memetics,” as a non-philosophy, is is uncritically loyal to neoliberalism and free-market ideology:

China presents a classic case of innovativ e memes spreading from the ports. Until England intervened and opened a weak China the rulers tried to quarantine dangerous foreigners and their infectious ideas near the ports. To this day the most productive parts of China are where capitalist/free mark e t memes spread from the seaports. It may be that homogeneous, closed groups without the influence of outsiders reinforce their belief systems into the ground, burning heretics and stagnating economically, until they are forced to open their ports. A full analysis may eventually determine that tolerance, innovation, combating cultural and economic stagnation are all dependent on free trade.

Thus Henson reads human history as the mere working out of the ‘ law of God which is, as John D. Rockefeller once said, ‘ the law of nature, that is, ‘ survival of the fittest (qtd. in Casti, 1990: 186).


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