Monday, June 26, 2006

Communication as relationship

Update: This post is a partial review of Gregory Bateson’s Steps to an Ecology of Mind

Bateson: Steps to an Ecology of Mind coverIn his references to communication, Bateson provides an intriguing alternative to the prevailing model of the persuasive process. That process is largely considered to consist of an author/speaker presenting some superior content, and that content, through its effective presentation, persuading an audience of the author’s thesis. (This is certainly not the only model for communication, but I would think it is the one that most people—especially non-academics—would adhere to.) Rhetoricians would focus on the importance of the presentation, that is, all of the choices the author/speaker makes in presenting the content, but primacy would be given to the content. This formulation privileging content would not only be considered the best one, but possibly the most ethical one as well.

Bateson presents an alternative. Although he does not ignore the importance of content, his model of communication focuses on the presentation, what he refers to variously as “structure” or “patterns,” of that communication, rather than what is being presented, and these structures carry information about relationships. Referring to his own speech at an academic conference, Bateson remarks that his real topic “is a discussion of the patterns of [his] relationship” to the audience, even though, as he tells them, that discussion takes the form of his trying to “convince you, try to get you to see things my way, try to earn your respect, try to indicate my respect for you, challenge you” (372). In other words, the acceptance of the content is dependent upon how well he as a speaker is able to affirm that relationship. In another example, he points out that if one were to make a comment about the rain to another person, hearer would be inclined to look out the window to verify the statement. Though he notes that such behavior can seem confusing because it is redundant, this redundancy is not a question of the first speaker’s truthfulness, but rather an example of an attempt to “to test or verify the correctness of our view of our relationship to others” (132).

This patterning or structure, the need to comment on the relationship between speaker an audience by 1) conforming to arbitrary rules (another kind of structure) like those set up in an academic conference or 2) reminding ourselves that a person is a trustworthy source of information, is, to Bateson, representative of “the necessarily hierarchic structure of all communicational systems” which manifests itself in communication about communication (132). For Bateson, this realization has at least two outcomes. First, in learning it means that what is learned by the subject is often not the topic under study per se, but how “the subject is learning to orient himself to certain types of contexts, or is acquiring ‘insight’ into the contexts of problem solving,” that is, “acquir[ing] a habit of looking for contexts and sequences of one type rather than another, a habit of ‘punctuating’ the stream of events to give repetitions of a certain type a meaningful sequence” (166). Second, this means that these structures of “contexts and sequences” replicate themselves in learners, who then become audiences, and those audiences respond to recognition (perhaps the wrong word) of that structure. As Bateson says, “in all communication, there must be a relevance between the contextual structure of the message and some structuring of the recipient” for “people will respond most energetically when the context is structured to appeal to their habitual patterns of reaction” (154, 104). In these situations, what appeals to or persuades the audience is not the content, but the recognition of the familiar structure in the communication in question.

I think this focus on the structure of communication and the way in which that structure replicates itself across individuals highlights the technological dimension of speech—the way in which “meaning” is dependent upon the form of language—and has some interesting applications for the question of ethics and truthfulness in rhetoric, a topic I will comment on in my next post.


PK said...

Alfred Einstein: "Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler." Word as wrecker. Subterfuge as cloak. Try haiku. Distill. Stillness. Now. Speaking of rain, the sound...

Brennan Young said...

Nice article. I'm also embroiled in Bateson at the moment. Compare also with Gestalt Therapy, which says transformation (i.e. learning/persuasion) occurs most effectively when there is an authentic (i.e. verified and continuously verifiable) contact between 'teacher' and 'student'. When the interface matches, the flow of information may be optimized.

jmj said...

Interesting. Although I’m not familiar with Gestalt Therapy, from a rhetoric perspective, what you are describing sounds a lot like ethos, one aspect of which would be establishing trust between the teacher and student.

Reading over this post again, it makes me think of N. Katherine Hayles’s work and the connections between Cybernetics and Information theory. One goal of her project is to show how communication relationships are more than information exchanges. I believe the trust element that (I think) is implied in “authentic contact” would be one part of the communication situation that transcends mere information flow.

Thanks for the post. I hope your work with Bateson is fruitful.