Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Pattern and truthfulness

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

Bateson: Steps to an Ecology of Mind coverOn the heels of yesterday’s post, I should note that the popular model of communication—centered on content—that I opposed to Bateson’s model in Steps to an Ecology of Mind is not one that would be adhered to by all rhetoricians. I think a valid response to what I wrote would be that rhetoric has always paid a great deal of attention to the form and structure of speech, and that that form is universally regarded among rhetoricians as being very important to the reception of said speech. However, I feel speech is still widely considered to be primarily about some content and the form itself is considered successful if it serves that content. As I read Bateson, he is arguing for a different model. Though communication is about something, it is also about itself and the relationships between the people who are communicating.

In this light, in this post I will comment on Bateson’s explanation of these relationships and how they are communicated as well as on the ways in which certain kinds of communication are perceived as being more truthful than others.

In the first case, Bateson notes that symbol systems must be redundant—what Derrida referred to as iterable—in order for those systems to be understood by others. However, Bateson recognizes that this redundancy is often the primary reason for the communication. As he puts it ‘The essence and raison d’être of communication is the creation of redundancy, meaning, pattern, predictability, information, and/or the reduction of the random by “restraint” ’ (131-32). Although he notes that communication has ‘meaning’ and carries ‘information,’ it is far more often a means of conveying or emphasizing ‘pattern’ and ‘restraint.’ Whatever is outside of this pattern—‘All that is not information, not redundancy, not form and not restraints—is noise,’ which is ‘the only possible source of new patterns’ (416). Again, meaning is only possible in relation to the overall structure that has been established by previous communications. If new communication is outside that structure, it is either ignored as ‘noise’ or adopted within the structure as something new. Here Bateson provides a developmental model for the evolution of language not as the process of the creation of new information but of new structures with which to pattern that information.

Secondly, keeping with this focus on how messages are communicated, Bateson pays a good deal of attention to the format of speech, accompanied by body language and other ‘kinesic and paralinguistic signals’ (370). These signals become important when the communicator realizes the rhetorical nature of signs, that they ‘are only signals, which can be trusted, distrusted, falsified, denied, amplified, corrected, and so forth’ (178). Because the individual recognizes that the sign is falsifiable, the importance of the paralinguistic skyrockets. The reason Bateson gives for this phenomenon is that because these paralinguistic elements are often involuntary and are out of the control of the untrustworthy other, they are more truthful. However, in ancient rhetoric (I’m thinking specifically of Longinus) it is generally accepted that once any particular behavior—in this case, whether linguistic or not—is accepted as conveying a kind of truthfulness, that truthfulness can be falsified. Bateson recognizes this fact (203), but his discussion of the matter brings up an important point for communication theory. Since the content of messages is often what is in doubt in communication, the only way to verify that content is through the assumption of or reference to structures that are perceived to be truthful, be they bodily signals or the assumption of different modes of speech that carry this information. An interesting example is the technologizing of communication. When communication is divorced from the often untrustworthy individual it is many times perceived to be more truthful. Bateson notes this phenomenon with newspapers, and it is similarly seen with some kinds of government or scientific documents which are designed to efface their authors and project the authority of some abstract entity.

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