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J M Balkin

Cultural software : a theory of ideology

We are all constrained by the norms of the societies in which we live, even when we want to frame an abstract discussion of those norms. So is it possible to escape from this recursion? In Cultural Software J M Balkin thinks that it is, but we should steer clear of attempts to systematize the process, which only results in another ideology. Instead we must rely on what looks like ad hoc thinking - metabricolage is the term Balkin uses. I felt that the book makes an excellent bridge between the scientific ideas of memes and the like and the more literary discussion of ideologies and social norms.

So how well does Balkin do at rising above the ideologies which envelop him? Well, on the positive side, he does present an anti-racist and anti-sexist case. However, in doing this he often makes it sound as if racism and sexism are the norm. In general he seems to present humanity in a negative light, giving the book a sort of 'holier than thou' aspect. For instance he suggests that the USA entered the Vietnam war with the 'Cowboys vs Indians' model of conflict, whereas I would think that the 2nd World War would be a more likely image. I felt that this aspect of the book tended to detract from some of the concrete examples Balkin gives, and so made the book harder to read than might otherwise be the case.

Amazon.com info
Paperback 350 pages  
ISBN: 0300072880
Salesrank: 5976387
Published: 1998 Yale University Press
Marketplace:New from $49.06:Used from $2.34
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Amazon.co.uk info
Paperback 346 pages  
ISBN: 0300072880
Salesrank: 3274742
Weight:1.52 lbs
Published: 1998 Yale University Press
Marketplace:New from £58.30:Used from £8.00
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Amazon.ca info
Paperback 350 pages  
ISBN: 0300072880
Salesrank: 4628098
Weight:1.52 lbs
Published: 1998 Yale University Press
Marketplace:New from CDN$ 77.89:Used from CDN$ 16.12
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Product Description
Cultural Software is the first book that seriously applies theories of cultural evolution and the theory of memes to the problems of ideology and justice. Instead of resting the concept of ideology on outmoded notions of "false consciousness," Cultural Software shows how ideological effects get produced through the spread and reproduction of forms of cultural know-how, or cultural software.

Human beings are the bearers of this cultural software, it helps constitute them and shapes them as persons with distinctive values and purposes. Yet cultural software reproduces whether or not it serves the interests of human beings. Rather, cultural conventions and institutions spread as if they had their own interests in survival and reproduction. And some kinds of cultural software can act like virtual parasites, breeding unhappiness and injustice as they reproduce in human minds and institutions.

Drawing on anthropology, evolutionary theory, cognitive science, linguistics, sociology, political theory, social psychology, and law, Cultural Software offers a strikingly original theory of cultural evolution, a theory that explains both shared understandings and diversity within cultures.

"Balkin argues ingeniously that meme theory replaces more familiar critical theories of ideology, because it alone explains how people come to believe the things they believe, without reference to dubious assumptions about "false consciousness" or "hegemony." [Balkin] writes with lucid balance. . . . Balkin's account is the most nuanced and convincing on the question of what we actually gain from meme theory."

--Mark Kingwell, Harpers

"After 250 years of writing about ideology, it is difficult to have something new to say that advances our understanding of this elusive concept, and yet Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology by J.M. Balkin manages to do just that... a remarkable work that will be usefully read by a broad audience."

--Susan Silbey, American Journal of Sociology

"[A] path-breaking effort to rethink legal critique using ... biological and cybernetic models; the scope of its ambition and the subtlety of its execution are likely to make it a definitive work."

--David Charny, University of Michigan Law Review

"[I]ntelligent and extremely well crafted... [A] wonderfully clear presentation of the major strands of postmodern thought."

--Emily Sherwin, Philosophy in Review


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