– Percy Bysshe Shelley
The key to the treasure is the treasure.
– John Barth
I would like to open by paraphrasing Dobzhanzky’s well-known title (1973) and assert that nothing in human psyche and society makes sense except in the light of cultural evolution. Having written the paraphrase I must confess that, alas, I cannot affirm it. The study of cultural evolution will not yet support such an assertion. It is too scattered and incomplete. Yet I believe that such a paraphrase indicates the proper scope for a robust investigation of cultural evolution. Accordingly I’ll offer a few observations on what we must do to move in that direction.
* * * * *
But first I want to deal with a mundane organizational matter. Once I’d committed myself to this post I recalled those many times when I set out to write an easy piece – nothing new, just bang out a couple of thousand quick words on stuff I’ve been chewing on for some time. Before I knew it Quick and Easy had grown into an Ungainly Monster with no end in sight. As this assignment had all the earmarks of such a beast I decided on a preemptive strike in the form of a series of posts at my own blog, New Savanna. The idea was to think things through ahead of time so that: 1) I had at least the ghost of a chance of writing a coherent post for the Forum, and 2) I would have plenty of online back-up material at hand.
I have listed those posts in an appendix and will refer to them as CE1, CE2, CE7, etc. I’ve also gathered those posts, including some comments, into a single PDF document which you can download from the Social Science Research Network (here). I would, of course, be happy to comment on those posts either here or at New Savanna (see URLs in the appendix).
While I accept the anthropological view of culture, I tend first to think of such things as literature, music, art, and film. I was trained in English Literature; I am a musician and have published a book about music (Benzon 2001); I like to photograph graffiti ; and have developed a deep interest in animation in the last several years. My discussion is thus biased toward those kinds of things.
Thus I will not be discussing one of the most robust research programs in cultural evolution, gene-culture cooevolution. I am willing to take it as given that cultural environments have influenced our biology. But for reasons given in CE1 and CE2 I don’t think gene-cultural cooevolution has much to say about the phenomena that most interest me.
Nor do I intend to say much about memes. The term is a brilliant coinage, and I’ve adopted it myself, but I think the conceptualization that has come with it is unfortunate. The notion that culture consists of homuncular memebots hopping about from brain to brain is uninformative and thus a useless time sink (cf. Benzon 2002).
And yet I believe that Dawkins got something right. As I say in CE3, Dawkins’ key insight is that, in the cultural evolutionary process, selection operates on cultural entities and not on human phenotypes. That is to say, the evolutionary costs and benefits accrue directly to cultural entities, not to the human beings who create and consume them. There are cases where cultural entities seem to thrive at the expense of humans, but this is a secondary matter and, in the large scope, not worth the attention that’s been lavished on them in popular discussions. Most of my preparatory effort has been aimed at working out such a scheme (CE3, CE4, CE5, CE6, and CE8; see also Benzon 1996, Benzon 2001) and I will offer a few remarks on those matters here and there.
A Start: Colin Martindale
Let me set the stage by quoting a passage from the excellent review Tim Lewens (2007) wrote for the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
One might fear that in the end cultural change, and the influence of cultural change on other aspects of the human species, are best understood through a series of individual narratives. Our brief examination of memetics illustrated this concern. We gain no real explanatory insight if we are told that ideas spread through populations, some more successfully than others. We want to know what makes some ideas fitter than others. And it is not clear that there will be any general rules that can help us to answer this question. In the biological realm we need detailed accounts of local environmental circumstances, species-specific physiology and anatomy, and so forth, to tell us what makes one organic variant fitter than another. Similarly, in the cultural realm we will need to look at local psychological dispositions to explain why some ideas are more likely to spread than others. So any explanatory value to be had from memetics is parasitic on conventional work done in psychology.
With those caveats in mind, let’s take a quick look at the work of the late Colin Martindale. Like Dawkins, Martindale realizes that cultural selection operates on cultural objects and processes (1990). Unlike Dawkins he has both a theory about those processes and empirical data supporting that theory.
A need for novelty is the driving factor in Martindale’s scheme. Novelty value is what recommends expressive works to their audience. The trouble, of course, is that once one has sufficient experience of the new, it loses its capacity to excite. It has become old. Psychologists call this habituation, and it is a much-studied aspect of neural operation. Martindale argues that art overcomes habituation 1) through the regressive inclusion of more primordial content and 2) through the formal elaboration of content (pp. 34-76) – here’s an entry point for the local psychological dispositions Lewens mentions.
Using his model Martindale argues for cyclic change in aesthetic styles within a given tradition. Basically, an increase in primordial content (novelty) is followed by a relaxation of stylistic rules. That permits stylistic change (novelty) which then allows the use of primordial content to recede as the new style becomes increasingly elaborated. At some point, however, further elaboration becomes pointless and it’s time to up the primordial content. And so on. Given these predictions, Martindale has analyzed long runs of French and British and American poetry, classical music, Gothic architecture, European painting, Japanese prints, and New England grave stones. In all cases he has found cyclic variations in form and content in line with his predictions.
Martindale’s theory is thus fundamentally about audience reception. For all practical purposes we can treat artists – even the most exalted of geniuses – as an anonymous fountain that spews forth works for public consideration. People decide which works they like and it is those preferences that, in the long run, allow selected works to enter the canon. Thus when Martindale is tracking artistic change he is also indirectly tracking changes in the collective psyche.
But how can we conceptualize the collective psyche without falling into hopeless mysticism?
Let me offer a simple model system, one simple enough that we are probably within range of understanding it at the neural level. I used this example in my book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, and the following discussion is a paraphrase of that discussion.
Consider the bi-modal clapping that routinely rewards a successful performances—music, drama, circus, etc.—in eastern European communities, but which is less common in western Europe and North America. Z. Néda and colleagues (2000) have investigated this phenomenon, recording applause for a number of performances in Romania and Hungary. The applause would start out randomly and then quickly become strongly synchronized. Synchronized clapping would continue for a short while (one mode) and then disintegrate into random clapping (the other mode), from which synchronized clapping would reemerge, and so forth.
Analysis of the recordings revealed two things:
- The average noise level was greater during the random clapping than during the synchronized clapping.
- During random clapping individuals clapped at roughly twice the frequency they used during synchronized clapping.
Clearly the greater volume during random clapping came because individuals were clapping faster. But during this mode, the time between individual claps varied more than when people clapped at the lower rate. That variability made it impossible for the group to synchronize at the higher rate, which also produced a louder sound.
Néda concluded that audience members were caught in a conflict. They can express one value by making as much noise as possible through rapid clapping. If, however, they wish to express another value by synchronizing their clapping, they must clap more slowly, thereby lowering the volume. It is impossible simultaneously to maximize these two aims. The group deals with this conflict by switching back and forth between two different expressive modes.
The investigators assume that the loudness of the clapping reflects the audience members’ enthusiasm for the performance, while synchronous clapping expresses group solidarity, which seems reasonable enough. What is immediately significant, however, is the mechanism by which these two values, whatever they are, were expressed by the group. That mechanism is clearly self-organizing. No one leads audiences in this behavior. It just happens.
Now I want to take a quick look at memes (cf. CE3) by shifting point of view slightly and asking an obvious question: What is audience attending to in this process? That is, what aspects of the sound stream are carrying the expressive messages in these two clapping modes? Obviously, synchrony in one case and volume in the other. We can thus say that those properties are memetically active (CE5).
In my reading, those properties are memes (CE3). They don’t replicate and scatter (the wrong theoretical imagery). Rather, they allow mutual coordination. In my notes I devote considerable attention to a more complex example, so-called Rhythm Changes (CE5, CE6). This complex is named after George Gershwin’s song, “I Got Rhythm,” and refers to the song’s harmonic structure, which spans 32 bars. Gershwin’s song was so popular that by the late 1930s other composers where writing their own melodies on that harmonic foundation. This practice went riot with the emergence of bebop in the early 1940s, with every musician of stature creating one or more tunes on Rhythm Changes. Consequently any reasonably competent jazz musician can recognize Rhythm Changes tunes regardless of the melody and can jam on Rhythm Changes anytime, anyplace.
It is not obvious to me just how one is to characterize such complex patterns in physical terms. In my posts I draw on fairly standard means of musical notation, but that’s pretty far from the sound itself. But if the patterns weren’t physical, musicians couldn’t use them as vehicle for coordination.
What this suggests about memes in general, however, is that various disciplines may already be quite familiar with them under rubrics such as semiotic codes, or what not. I explore this possibility in a discussion of the emic/etic distinction in a comment to John Wilkins in CE3 and in my discussion of language in CE8, including comments made to John Lawler. But this is taking us a bit afield, into perceptual and cognitive psychology. Both are necessary to our study, but I want to return to group behavior.
I want to move beyond the immediacy of post-performance applause. What happens in the days and weeks following, say, the opening of a film? What gives a film legs, as they say? That’s a question investigated by Robert de Vany in Hollywood Economics, a profound and imaginative treatment of the economics of the movie business. De Vany is interested in understanding what happens to movies once they’re released to the public. To that end he has analyzed a ten year run of box office receipts from the 1990s.
Most movies, of course, don’t even break even, much less make a profit – not in theatrical release, though many movies finally break-even or make a profit though DVDs and TV. The deep and ineradicable condition of the business seems to be that there is no reliable way to estimate the market appeal of a movie short of putting it on screens across the country and seeing if people come to watch. What De Vany shows is that that about 3 or 4 weeks into circulation, the trajectory of movie dynamics (that is, people coming to theatres to watch a movie) splits into one of two alternative trajectories (a term of art in the study of dynamical systems). Most movies enter a trajectory that leads to diminishing attendance and no profits. But a few enter a trajectory that leads to continuing attendance and, eventually, a profit. Among these, a very few become block busters.
No matter how the studios and distributors try to manipulate audience behavior through advertising and public relations, the most important factor in movie success is word-of-mouth (pp. 60-63). People sitting together in a theatre influence one another’s experience of the film through remarks to one’s immediate neighbors, but also through sighs, groans, and laughter audible several rows away. When the movie’s over people tell their friends about the film and that, in turn, influences whether or not their friends will go see the film. The studios cannot elicit this behavior, they cannot lead it. It reflects the spontaneous reactions and interactions of people.
In the short term such behavior determines which movies make a profit and what kind of movies the studios will churn out in search of profits. Over the long run such behavior determines what films will have an enduring cultural presence and become canonical cultural works.
Some Examples of Large-Scale Phenomena
During roughly the third quarter of the twentieth century some anthropologists and archaeologists did a great deal of empirical work on cultural complexity, mostly among preliterate societies. This work typically involved large-scale cross-cultural studies. Much of it was directed toward forms of social organization, establishing a sequence going from the hunting-gathering band, to the tribe, the village, the chiefdom, petty-kingdom, and church-state (Hays 1993, chapter 5; Hays 1997; cf. Service 1975). Note that these levels of social organization are all within preliterate cultures. So far as I know such work has not been attempted among literate cultures.
During the 1960s the late Alan Lomax (1968) decided to investigate folk song styles against the background of cultural complexity. Lomax and his colleagues prepared a sample of over 3000 songs, representing 233 cultures from 5 continents plus the Pacific islands, and had judges code the songs on features of style — nature of the performing group, relationship between vocal part and instrumental parts, melodic style, rhythmic style, wordiness, tone quality, tempo, and so on. They correlated style traits with measures of social complexity and found that the simpler the society, the simpler its song lyrics. The simplest societies used a great deal of repetition and nonsense syllables. Similarly, the precision of enunciation varies with social complexity; the more complex the society, the more precise the enunciation. The prevalence of solo singers was also associated with complexity. In the simplest societies, everyone sang; no one was given or took a solo role. It is only in more complex societies, with permanent leaders and social stratification, that we see ensembles divided into a soloist and accompanists.
This is an empirical finding. And, while it may seem intuitively obvious that complex cultures create a collective ambiance that favors expressive forms that different from those of less complex cultures, one would like an explanation for this “fit.” I would expect a robust account of cultural evolution to provide such an explanation.
In a similar vein, John Roberts, Brian Sutton-Smith, and Adam Kendon (1963) were interested in the relationship between child-rearing practices, community size, types of games, and folk tales. In particular, they were interested in what they have called the strategic mode. Strategy plays a minor role in games of physical skill, but a dominant role in games such as chess and poker, which also has strong elements of chance. In folk tales, we can examine how the outcome is achieved, whether through physical skill, chance (guessing, casting lots, magic), or strategy (e.g. evaluating a situation, deception, out-witting an opponent). They discovered that games of strategy are likely to co-occur with folktales having a strong strategic element and that both are more likely in politically complex societies (chiefdoms and above).
Now let us consider a different style of large-scale research. Franco Moretti (2003) has recently published some very interesting work on the origins and course of the novel in Britain, Denmark, India, Japan, Italy, Span, and Nigeria. In this work he is interested in sheer numbers, creating graphs depicting the number of titles published per year over a century or more, starting in the eighteenth century. In most cases – Britain, Denmark, India, Japan, Italy, Spain – he finds that the rise is not a steady one but is marked with declines so long and deep that we must talk of the cyclic rise and fall of the novel.
To my mind, however, Moretti’s most interesting finding concerns the emergence of British novelistic genres between 1750 and 1900. Most generally, he shows that the types of genre shift over time. For example, Gothic novels were strong from 1800-1825, sporting novels seem to run from 1820 to 1860, while imperial romances run from 1850 though 1890, and so on for over 40 genres. What is most interesting, however, is that the genres seem grouped into six periods of creativity and they disappear in clusters as well. Consequently there is an almost complete turn-over in genres every 25 years or so, that is, roughly a generation (p. 80 ff.). Moretti cannot explain that, but it does seem to be a fact about literary history.
How could one explain such a pattern? I find that to be a deep and puzzling question. But it is not just the evolution of the British novel that puzzles me, it is the phenomenon of cultural, and literary, evolution itself. The work of Lomax and of Roberts, Sutton-Smith, and Kendon suggests causal relations between cultural forms and social organization – a game that has been played by legions of Marxist scholars and critics – but the existence of such relations does not itself tell us why, in the long run, such forms evolve.
Sita Sings the Blues
It is time to turn from such empyrean heights – Moretti talks of distant reading – and think about these aesthetic objects in some greater detail and particularity. Thus I would like to consider one specific example, Nina Paley’s animated film, Sita Sings the Blues. Using a variety of visual styles Paley juxtaposes and intertwines two narratives: 1) the breakup of her own marriage and, 2) the story of Rama and Sita from the Ramayana, one of the classic texts of Hinduism. Paley is thus using Hindu tradition to illuminate her life, and her life to reflect back on that tradition.
Paley tells Sita’s story in three different ways: 1) in a series of vignettes set to songs recorded by Annette Hanshaw in the 1920s and which is animated in a very “cartoony” style; 2) in a series of scenes based on paintings Paley did in imitation of 18th Century Rajput miniatures and on collages based on what appears to be calendar and greeting-card art, and 3) through voice-over dialogue among three Indian-Americans talking about the Ramayana and realized on-screen as three Indonesian shadow puppets. The multiplicity of this story, its many sources – which I’ve only hinted at in this brief description – is deliberately built-in to the visual and audio texture of the film.
One could, in fact, organize a course on cultural process around Sita Sings the Blues. As a way of thinking what could go into such a course, imagine a large table. In the first row we list various elements appearing in the film. In the rows below we trace those elements back to their sources, moving further back in time as we move down the table. The incidents in Paley’s own life took place only a few years ago. The Hanshaw recordings date to the 1920s, as do elements of that caroony style. Hanshaw’s singing, in turn, is in a popular tradition that evolved through over two centuries of interplay between Americans of European origin and Americans of African origin. Some of Paley’s art imitates 18th century Indian sources, which, in turn, can be traced back to Persian miniatures. And so forth and so on through a list of 20, 30, 50 or more items.
And then we have the Ramayana itself, the oldest version of which is attributed to Valmiki. The dating, as best I can tell from a bit of googling, is the sort of thing over which learned scholars argue for generations. It’s not quite lost in the mists of time, but it is very old. As Amardeep Singh (2009) has pointed out, the Ramayana exists in multiple versions that are not always mutually consistent, one source of the confusion exhibited by Paley’s three shadow-puppet narrators. And so this putative course must discuss that kind of process and its role in maintaining culture, but also allowing it to change (cf. Whitehouse 2000).
In thinking about this table one must, of course, distinguish between the process by which Paley took up those materials and made a film and the processes by which those materials had become available for her use. The first is individual creativity while the latter are group processes. The distinction is, however, a difficult one to make. For Paley made the film over five years and began posting segments on the internet as she completed them. Thus she was interacting with her audience during the process, and that audience includes fundamentalist Hindus who objected to her work and, in some cases, threatened her.
Finally, the sociology and economics units in this course can examine Paley’s distribution process and her subsequent income streams. Copyright problems made it impossible for Paley to secure normal theatrical distribution, so she put the film into the public domain and put copies on the internet where people can download them free of charge. She’s shown the film at festivals all over the world, won many prizes, and has developed a small merchandising operation based on the film. All of this depends, more or less, on word of mouth.
But enough already. Let us look at the film itself. What does it look like on the screen? How do we describe it? What features are important to the film’s effect, and which are incidental? These are important and difficult questions and I can do no more than indicate what’s entailed.
I want to examine the Agni Pariksha segment, which is unlike anything other segment in the film. In the Ramayana Sita had to prove her fidelity to Rama in a trial by fire. She throws herself into the flames and is rescued by Agni, the fire deity, thereby establishing her purity.
Paley has placed this segment somewhat after the middle of the film at the point immediately after Nina, her alter ego in the film, learns that her husband wants a divorce. On the sound track we hear her heart thumping away while we see it pulsing (a stylized red heart) and finally breaking. At that point Nina screams, the virtual camera zooms into her wide-open mouth, and we’re into the segment, which is basically a solo dance amid flames.
The role of Sita is danced by Reena Shah, who voices Sita and who also sings the lyrics, written in Hindi by her mother, Laxmi Shah. This is the only place in the film where we hear Hindi and the only place where we see live action, sort of. Paley videotaped Shah dancing before a green screen and then hand-traced Shah’s movements into the film.
Rather than attempting to describe the entire three-minute segment, which could easily go on and on – “a picture is worth a thousand words” and this film packs a lot of them into 180 seconds. Instead, I’ll concentrate on a few frames. The following two frames are from the beginning and the end of the segment, respectively. We see Sita in white outline against a black background, but her hair has some color fill (collaged in) in the ending segment, but not the beginning.
In both frames she is holding a lighted match. She lit the match at the opening of the segment and then dropped it, lighting the fire beneath her. At the end she blows the match out, ending the segment. Thus there is a bit of visual continuity between the opening and ending segments. At the same time the final act, in effect, reverses the opening one. The opening act took Sita into the fire; the closing act brings her out of it and back into the world.
Is this a rite de passage? (Of course it is, of course.) For who? Sita, Nina, us? Of what kind, from what to what?
Now consider these three frames, which come one after the other in the film:
The backgrounds are pretty much the same, which is what you would expect from such closely spaced frames. But look at Sita in the center. Her outline is not quite the same from one frame to the next, for she’s spinning counter-clockwise at a pretty good rate; but her overall visual mass remains in the same position within the frame. The texture filling her form, however, differs radically from one frame to the next. All three body fills are half-tone images magnified to the point where the individual dots are visible, but I can’t make out identity of the material in either the first frame or the third. The second image is the head of a woman.
Paley uses this technique throughout the segment. None of the collage elements is on the screen for more than a fraction of a second. You can identify some of the images, but not most of them. It is obvious that she’s showing lots of different things mostly through Sita’s form, but through other elements of the segment as well.
Now look at Sita in this next frame, to the left. Her outline, in black, is decoupled from the texture-filling forms, one for her hair (yellow-green), one for her body (a warm medium brown) and still others for her eyes. Paley does this for about six seconds. What’s this about?
If you’ve been reading visual neuroscience you may note that fill and outline are handled in different systems, as is motion. So Paley is “manipulating” those systems, which is interesting. But that doesn’t tell us why she’s doing it? Because she can, and it’s interesting? Certainly, but is that all?
Before I hazard a guess I want to state that the most important thing, at this point, is simply to describe what’s going on. Without that description, nothing else can be done.
So, why’s she doing it? Because it’s different from every other segment in the film, including the other segment that also depicts the Agni Pariksha. This segment is set to Annette Hanshaw’s performance of “Mean to Me” and the visual style is Paley’s old-time “cartoony” style, which she uses for all the Hanshaw performances. That is to say, that ritual enactment is not stylistically different from any other events in the Hanshaw version of the Sita story.
Any anthropologist will tell you that rituals are about transformation (e.g. van Gennep 1960); some literary critics will tell you that as well (e.g. Frye 1965, Barber 1959). By making this segment visually different from anything else in the film Paley is giving the film itself a ritual dimension – though the part of me that is a child of the 60s is thinking “altered state of consciousness” (cf. Fischer 1975). She’s not merely showing a ritual, depicting one in the film; she is inviting us to enact a ritual by experiencing the visual world in a way that is radically different from what we experience anywhere else in the film. This segment of the film IS ritual.
Now, if we wish, we can begin thinking about what happens in the nervous system in this segment that is different from every other segment in the film. In the annoying manner of math textbooks, however, I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.
The Priority of Description
I want to conclude with a more general discussion of the need for better descriptive work in my home discipline, literary studies.
Let’s consider some work by a great anthropologist, the late Mary Douglas. She spent the last years of her career investigating so-called ring structures in narrative (Douglas 2007). In such stories the narrative will unfold through a series of steps to a mid-point and then trace its way back through the same series of steps, but in reverse, thus:
1 2 3 … X … 3’ 2’ 1’
Douglas has been investigating ring structure in books of the Old Testament, while I have found it in Osamu Tezuka’s graphic novel, Metropolis (Benzon, 2006) and in two episodes of Disney’s Fantasia (Benzon 2010). I would like to know, for each text of interest (all 100, 1000, or 10,000+ of them), whether or not it has a ring structure. If not, what kind of structure does it have – and on that point I am embarrassed to confess that I don’t know what the alternatives are. They may be named in the literature somewhere, but I don’t know that work.
Determining whether or not a narrative has a ring-form is not a deeply difficult and problematic task. It is not neuro-science, nor even rocket science. But it is tedious and time-consuming. And that, I suppose, is one one reason why the work hasn’t been done. Another reason is that we have no theory of narrative cognition that would tell us the role such a form plays in comprehension.
As another example, consider the well-known distinction between story and plot (cf. Shklovsky 1965). Story refers to the intrinsic temporal order of a series of events in some narrative while plot refers to the order in which those events are introduced into a particular narrative. Where plot order and story order are the same, there is no need to make the distinction. But many narratives introduce events in some order other than that intrinsic to those events. Noting this fact and attending to it in fragments of texts is standard practice in narratology. But I am unaware of any effort to systematically map the relationships of story and plot for complete texts. David Herman has done so for a film, Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter (Herman 2002, pp. 237-250), and has discovered that the ordering of some events with respect to others is indeterminate. That’s an interesting result. Is this the only narrative where that is so? It seems unlikely, but the work hasn’t been done that would permit us to answer that question.
While I can multiply such examples, there’s no point in that. Such work simply hasn’t been systematically and thoroughly done (see Benzon 2005 for a more complete account of such a descriptive program). We have some useful conceptual tools, but lack an overall intellectual context in which the thorough use of those tools for descriptive purposes is seen as an important matter. It seems to me that the cognitive sciences might provide some of that context, for computation – as a model as well as a metaphor – has been critical in the development of the cognitive sciences. And the matter of serial order is fundamental to both the practice and theory of computation. Computation, real computation, is always resource limited: is there enough time to reach a result, do we have enough memory? Intuitively, a narrative which forces the distinction between plot and story requires more computational resources than one that does not (cf. Benzon 1993). Is there a reason, then, for using a more computationally expensive strategy?
That is one thing. There is another.
Consider the situation of Darwin faced in the 19th century. When he began formulating his ideas on the origin of species he had three bodies of knowledge to work from: prior thought on the topic, his own observations over three decades, and the cumulative results of four centuries of descriptive work in natural history (cf. Ogilvie 2006) to which he had access through books and collections. That descriptive work provided models for his own observation and description. Plants and animals, and their lifeways, are very complex. Which traits and features are the most important to observe and describe? That is not an obvious matter, and it took naturalists decades to arrive at useful descriptive methods (cf. Foucault 1973, pp. 128 ff.). Secondly, it gave him the means to abstract and generalize from his own observations, to explore their implications throughout the natural world, most of which, of course, was beyond his immediate experience.
In short, description was indispensable to Darwin’s enterprise, as it is to biology in general. Though discussions of scientific method accord more cachet to theory-testing, and devotes more effort to debating it, description is no less necessary to objective knowledge. It sets the boundaries of the knowable. If we cannot describe a phenomenon – whether in words, images, or mathematical expressions – then we cannot investigate it, we cannot come to explain it.
How, then, do we gain more effective control over literary texts? I have no easy answer to that question. These are very complex objects, not only literary texts, but other cultural artifacts and processes. They have many properties one could note in a description – for all practical purposes the number of properties is unbounded. How, then can we tell which properties are memetically active?
For one thing, it helps to be . . . no, it is essential that one is familiar with a wide range of examples, and to have worked through many examples in detail. This cannot be done by reading a methods book or two or three or ten or by reading up on the pop neuroscience du jour. It requires total immersion in primary materials.
Given that, I imagine that the statistical techniques developed in corpus linguistics would be useful tools. And such tools represent our only hope of gaining some purchase on the vast number of texts that are our proper province. Then, one day some decades from now, perhaps longer, when we have better descriptive control over literary phenomena, then it will be possible for a Darwin-of-literature to come on the scene and make deeper sense of the distribution and diversity of literary forms. But for now, we must labor in the fields of analysis and description. For us, to quote John Barth, the key to the treasure is the treasure.
Conclusion: All Together Now
In the course of my argument I’ve moved from the emergent behavior of coupled neuro-muscular systems (clapping) and so forth to the apparently mundane business of describing literary texts. The former is properly the domain of the sciences while the latter belongs to literary specialists. These are very different kinds of tasks and require very different methods. To those we can add the work of modeling perceptual and cognitive phenomena, conducting field studies, searching through archives, and simulating phenomena at all scales, from the microscale of neural processes through the macro scale of change over historical time and geographical space. The study of culture encompasses all of that, if not more.
The way is by no means clear. But it is there. Or rather, they are there.
Do we have the will to take those first few steps leading thousands of miles into an intellectual future we cannot foresee in any detail?
Appendix: New Savanna Posts on Cultural Evolution
Cultural Evolution 1: How “Thick” is Culture?
Cultural Evolution 2: A Phenomenological Gut Check on Gene-Culture Coevolution
Cultural Evolution 3: Performances and Memes
Cultural Evolution 4: Rhythm Changes 1
Cultural Evolution 5: Rhythm Changes 2
Cultural Evolution 6: The Problem of Design
Cultural Evolution 7: Where Are We At?
Cultural Evolution 8: Language Games 1, Speech
Cultural Evolution 8A: Addendum on Language as Game
Cultural Evolution 9: Language Games 2, Story Telling
These two posts are also useful:
The Busy Bee Brain
The Sound of Many Hands Clapping: Group Intentionality
 I post many of my graffiti photos to a Flickr site, where my user name is STC4blues:
 Paley has established a website where you can find information about Sita Sings the Blues, links to interviews and articles, and even links to downloadable copies of the film itself. The Wikipedia entries on the film and on Paley herself are also useful, as is Paley’s own blog.
Sita site: http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/
Nina Paley’s blog: http://blog.ninapaley.com/
Wikipedia, Sita: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sita_Sings_the_Blues
Wikipedia, Paley: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nina_Paley
 You can view the Agni Pariksha segment online here:
Start at, say, 7:00, to see Nina’s heart get broken; the purification segment itself starts at 7:20.
Barber, C. L. (1959). Shakespeare’s Festive Comedy. Princeton, Princeton University Press.
Benzon, William (1993). The Evolution of Narrative and the Self. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 16(2): 129-155. Downloadable PDF: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1516054
Benzon, William (1996). Culture as an Evolutionary Arena. Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems, 19(4), 321-362, 1996. Downloadable PDF: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1532898
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