Tuesday, June 06, 2006

The Rhetoric of . . .

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

Bateson: Steps to an Ecology of Mind coverReading Gregory Bateson’s introduction to his Steps to an Ecology of Mind, two things jumped out at me. First was his notion that human processes had to that point (1971) been described in terms of energy, a tendency which Bateson points out is misleading, for it frames the discussion of human cognitive processes—“behavior”—in terms of “mass and length” (xxix). Instead, Bateson suggests that these processes should be looked at in regards to a completely different paradigm: that of ordering. Bateson calls the energy example “the wrong half of the ancient dichotomy between form and substance” (his point illustrated with two accounts of creation, both of which are focused on this division) (xxxii).

The form-substance dichotomy has interesting parallels with language theory, particularly in the flawed notion that substance is superior to form; in language, this distinction might be made between, speaking loosely, grammar and meaning. While substance/meaning is of great importance—in science as well as language—one cannot understand it apart from form. I was particularly interested in this point because this kind of investigation can take the form of a “rhetoric.”

I will explain with my second point of interest: this connection between form-substance and the practice of rhetoric (which I feel is significant, though I realize my statement of this significance is loose as of yet) seemed to be emphasized early in Bateson's introduction. He writes “But the definition of an ‘idea’ which the essays [in this book] combine to propose is much wider and more formal than is conventional. . . . let me state my belief that such matters as the bilateral symmetry of an animal, the patterned arrangement of leaves in a plant, the escalation of an armaments race, the processes of courtship, the nature of play, the grammar of a sentence, the mystery of biological evolution, and the contemporary crises in man's relationship to his environment, can only be understood in terms of such an ecology of ideas as I propose” (xxiii). Earlier he explains that the “ecology of ideas” he refers to is connected to what he calls minds. In the case of this long quote, I think there is an intimate relationship between many of the things listed (courtship, play, arms races, grammar) and what is known as rhetoric. Any one of the items I have just listed could be discussed in terms of “The Rhetoric of X” in the sense that Bateson is getting at. It is my feeling that he is attempting to ask fundamental questions about order that are related to the kinds of answers that rhetoric has tried to use to explain complex human interactions like persuasion. Certainly the part of “rhetoric of” that fails is when one focuses only on rhetoric textbooks, that is mere instructions of how to do something, but Bateson here opens the door (I think) to a conversation between rhetoric and his ecologies.

Bateson’s chapter “Experiments in Thinking About Observed Ethnological Material” in particular seems like nothing more than a rhetoric of scientific discovery, where he proposes that in science there should be alternate periods of “loose thinking and the building up of a structure on unsound foundations” followed by “the correction to stricter thinking and the substitution of a new underpinning beneath the already constructed mass” (86). One way in which this kind of see-sawing method can be achieved is through “train[ing] scientists to look among the older sciences for wild analogies to their own material” (87). Also interesting (I'll try and return to it later) is his worry that in some stages of his career he relied too heavily on words that were “too short and therefore appear more concrete than they are,” which seems to be a specific case of dissonance between form and substance (82).


Jiki Sen Peg Syverson said...

Interesting parallels between Bateson and rhetoric. More recently, Bruno Latour has taken up this relationship, most notably in the article Visualization and Cognition: Thinking with the Eyes and Hands, and in his book, We Have Never Been Modern. There he argues that the problems facing us now are hybrid problems that cannot be addressed within a particular discipline or profession: global warming, ethnic wars, drug abuse, poverty. So I think you are on the right track here.

Paul the K said...

Peter DeVries: "We know the human brain is a device to keep the ears from grating on one another."