How to Actually Have an Ecology of Mind – Metalogues in Theory and Philosophy

“We understand a speech act when we know the kinds of reasons that a speaker could provide in order to convince a hearer that he is entitled in the given circumstances to claim validity for his utterance—in short, when we know what makes it acceptable” (Jurgen Habermas, 1998).

Figure 1: An Ecology of Alex's Mind. Pictured, clockwise from top left: Little English Major Alex, Little Frank Zappa, Little Baruch Spinoza, Little Guy in a Labcoat, Little Jurgen Habermas.
Figure 1: An Ecology of Alex’s Mind. Pictured, clockwise from top left: Little English Major Alex, Little Frank Zappa, Little Baruch Spinoza, Little Guy in a Labcoat, Little Jurgen Habermas.

A (Very) Brief Pre-Introduction

As the semester marches ever on towards Castells, I find my reading connections to be a lot more connections, and a lot less readings.  I hope this is okay.  I feel like the work we’ve been doing in-class has been very productive in exploring how the readings function and contrast, and I feel this space might be better-geared at this point (in this window) to exploring the stuff which, if I kept bringing it up in class, would devour the entire three two hours of discussion and activity time.

Introduction – Steps to an Ecology of the Voices in my Head

This thing that English Studies does, where it leverages scientific language and retools it to often purely rhetorical purposes: I won’t lie and say it doesn’t disturb me entirely as a pragmatist with a STEM background.  Every time a theory is borrowed into English and then explained to me as a socio-cultural-historic-rhetorical-function-of-whatever, the Little Guy in a Labcoat in my brain shudders a bit.  He’s is not always right.  But he’s always there, steering my brain-ship by using rational decision-making processes and demanding more empirical data so he can chart his courses.  Because he can make me walk into things, I like to at least pretend to listen to him.  Also present are Little Baruch Spinoza, and Little Jurgen Habermas, and Little English Major Alex.

Little Frank Zappa is there, too, most days, but that’s not an English thing, that’s just who I am.

This is the argument Little Guy in a Labcoat makes: whether it’s “rigor,” “theory,” “significant,” “memetic,” “paradigm,” or other terminology borrowed (“appropriated?” or is that too on-the-nose?) from the core sciences, the result ends up being the same – in the celebrations of contingency of meaning, we risk losing meaning altogether.

This already happened to “archaeology,” and I let it go.  For “ecology,” LGL would rather I not do that.  Little Zappa, frankly, doesn’t particularly care.


Post-Introduction – On what makes for good theory (subjectively, for Alex) or, Steps Towards an Ecology of Epistemological Habit

So let’s Cynically presume, if only for a moment, that ecologists understand what ecologies are better than, say, psychoanalysts do.  It would be odd, after all, to presume that ecologists know more about dream interpretation than the psychoanalysts – so apparently we’re already okay with essentializing expertises.

If we cynically presume that an ecologist is expert in ecology, and non-ecologists are thus less versed than ecologists in the designation and interpretation of “ecology,” what does that do to the notion of empirical-knowledge-based authority in conceptually designing the biological space of the organism in situ within environmental contexts for English scholars?   EECS experts, psychoanalysts, pop philosophers, psychiatrists, mathematicians, environmental engineers, usability gurus:  some ecologists, most most certainly not.  English, if nothing else, definitely keeps mixed and odd company.  But I do worry about a consistency of meaning.  Little Jurgen Habermas makes me do that incessantly.

Such, it seems to me, is the price of “ecology” in the readings for this and last week.  And I think it is a good thing to struggle with this.  Call it an ecology of doubt.  Observation of how doubt propagates and is distributed throughout the epistemological system by seed organisms.

In other coursework this semester, I’ve been crashing up against Grounded Theory – a theory of theory production based on grounded inquiry – which isn’t a theory, isn’t grounded, and doesn’t produce theories.  (There are times, I will not lie, when I believe that I am the last sane man, a Yossarian skeptic in a field predicated on meaning which values meaning not very much at all.  In these cases, I like to blame Little Guy in a Labcoat.)  But it has gotten me thinking quite a bit about what we can and can’t call a theory, and what does and does not constitute productive theory.

And I think the answer is dissonance.  A classmate, much smarter than me, pointed out that you can boil down the entirety of Grounded Theory to “you can come up with a way of thinking about things by thinking about coming up with a way of thinking about things.”  This, as it turns out, is not a groundbreaking practice – thinking to have thoughts.  If it is in the counter-intuitive turn that theories find purchase, GT’s wheels are spinning in the mud.

Gravity is not a fascinating theory because it tells us that things inevitably fall down, or even how those things fall down – it is fascinating because it proves that the thing falling and the thing being fallen towards exert the same and equal force upon each other. Cantor’s theory isn’t interesting because it proves infinity to be infinite and present, but because it demonstrates that there are different kinds of infinity – both real and imagined.  Darwinian evolutionary theory isn’t interesting because it proves evolution happens, but because it counterintuitively provides a model with no choice, no intentionality, no actors, which still moves away from entropy and into order.  Psychoanalytic theory, though it has largely been disproven, dissected, and re-deployed at this point, can at least be credited with being surprising.

To prove I’m not colored against English, I might even note that – even though I have beleaguered against it – Actor Network Theory creates meaning precisely by surprising the user of the theory with potential connections and actors and actants which defy rational expection.  ANT confounds.  It requires more of you in order to function than your simple presence and consent.

How do theories from/of ecology function in contrast?  Do they confound?  Do they confuse?  Do they surprise, shock, or require more than in order to synthesize new truths and generate new knowledge?

Let’s check in on the readings.

What’s an Ecology?  Or, What’s Not an Ecology? or, Steps Towards an Ecology of Trait Selection

The Cary Institute’s position statement (link) on the definition of ecology precludes almost all the other “ecologies” we’ve studied over the last two weeks.  Coincidentally, the Cary definition aligns fairly closely with my own, and I just haven’t found a lot of value in ecology as a metric for locating meaning or knowledge in network studies.

The Cary definition acknowledges three “pervasive definitions” within the field: 1) the study of relationships between organisms and environment, 2) the study of distribution and abundance of organisms, 3) and the study of ecosystems.  The definition itself notes that ecology is a “scientific study” of processes which influence organisms, influence their relations, and allow them to influence “energy and matter” (i.e., the world “outside” the organism).

What is missing, then, is an intraorganism mechanism of ecological influence or change.  This, of course, is the curse of Bateson – whether you elect to literalize his title and consider the mind, or you accept his ecology of mind as “the ecology of ideas,” (1) one must grant that the idea itself, the mind itself, is internal to the organism – and unknowable.

Little  Habermas would tell us there’s a reason so many philosophical ecologies are psychoanalytic or pop-neuroscientific at their core – because psychoanalysis gives you the loose ethos of certainty without requiring the authority of demonstrated truth.

Indeed, Bateson himself notes that “psychoanalysis has erred sadly in using words that are too short and there-fore appear more concrete than they are” (92), and I cannot help but let that argument float in the air for a moment next to “steps to an ecology of mind,” especially when Bateson, no more than two pages later, praises psychoanalysis precisely for demonstrating “the importance and value of loose thinking” (94).

And this is the crisis hiding at the core of Bateson; his arguments are solipsistically anti-Cartesian, but his examples are all relational, truly “ecological” in their interorganism protocols of meaning-making – the metalogues (12-69) certainly demonstrate that.

It’s either not Ecology of Mind, or it’s not an “ecology of ideas,” or it’s not consistent.

While Bateson argues for bidirectionality, his arguments trade in influence, not transit.  While his work synthesizes “biotic and abiotic,” it is through the cybernetic application of the abiotic that we reveal what Bateson’s Ecology of Mind functions as:


Of course, Little Spinoza knows what he thinks about techno-positivism, and its utopian-imperialist origins the primacy of the human animal as more than the ecology he inhabits.  Little English Major Alex, though – he’s more transactional about this whole contingency thing, and slightly less cynical than Little Guy in a Labcoat and his hyper-realist-pragmatic retinue.

He points out that it’s tough not to be a cybernetic techno-positivist in 1971, when the field was not technological, but regulatory, and that the blind spot of Bateson is not in his original work, but rather in the lack of a meaningful update to this argument in the 2000 re-release to address the techno-positive swerve of current cybernetics.  Little English Major Alex points out that if this is true, then we should see a pivot towards addressing the techno-positivist more overtly in Gibson’s 1986 work.

Little Habermas really likes James Gibson.  He likes anybody who will unapologetically say “I have made it up” (127) when explaining the terms of his argument. As noted in the epigraph, Habermas views meaning as negotiated in “the (linguistically disclosed) world” – a practice he notes connects pragmatics “with action theory, albeit in a way completely different from the attempt of intentionalistic semantics to explain processes of reaching understanding using action-theoretic concepts” (1998).  For Habermas, action – actors – require choices which are influenced by regulatory impulses, but informed by the environment itself.  That is to say, Habermasian pragmatism feels as if it generates meaning more ecologically than Bateson (in some ways).

As such, Gibson’s notions of perception (and misperception) of human affordances is profoundly pragmatic – and in many ways evolves from Bateson’s techno-positivism into a techno-cynicism, to the point where he notes that the potentiality for collision with a glass door is an affordance provided not only materially, but by virtue of the flaws of the mind-technology interface of human psychology.  Technologically, cyberneticism is imperfect for Gibson.  Regulatorily, cyberneticism is entropic (see “despite the restorative cycles that yielded a steady state […] prior to man”).

Little Zappa would likely enter the metalogue at this point to say he doesn’t know anything about ecology, but this all sounds very performative, and character-based performance he gets.  To this end, he would likely point out that Don Norman’s interpretation of affordance is one that preferences performativity and representation (as instructed by “perception” of affordance) over “true” environmental “ecologies” of technology in which all affordances, visible and not, are integrated into models of systems.

However, Little Spinoza still thinks this is useful.  After all, he notes, what Gibson calls “affordance” is actually just DeCartes’ “attribute” of essence.  If attributes are the essence of a use case, object, environmental factor, or organism, and the mind’s ecological essence is thought, perception, and decision, then any time the body “reaches out” into the environment to influence and interact, that, too, is performance.  Spinoza’s reformation of the Cartesian subject, however, would view that environmental affordance/attribute as extending into both body and mind as gradiated continuity (a little more of one, a little less of the other, but with the permeation of either necessitation the permeation of the second).

The point being, the Little Guy in the Labcoat may have his hand at the rudder of the “brain-ship” of the mind, but he does not drive the body alone, nor, truly, at all – because he is integrative to the experience of being, not having a body.

This is what Felix Guattari, after all, gives us – an interpretation of “ecology” which reveals that Bateson’s imperfect “ecology of mind”/”an ecology of ideas” can be deregulated, creating what can only be described as techno-pessimism (and capital-anarchism) on Guattari’s part.  Thus, when he argues that young people use media to guide themselves, and in kind to be guided, through various “cultural pseudo-identities” (23), when he rejects the modern as bringing oppression, phallocentrism, racism, “social and mental neo-archaisms” which if left to themselves “could be for the best, or for the worst,” (41-2) one is tempted to note that oppression, phallocentrism, racism, and the other archaisms of modernity have nothing to do with modernity, and are the purview as well of the pre- and post-modern hellscapes of “social ecology.”  One is tempted to point out that Rock ‘n Roll, sexting, and pillow talk have mediated youth pseudo-identities in some form or another since before Pompeii, to quote the misattributed Socrates quote about “kids these days” and note that all generations are segregated not by modernity, but performativity.

When Guattari says that “we might just as well rename environmental ecology machinic ecology, because Cosmic and human praxis has only ever been a question of machines [of war]” (43), one may be tempted to point out that all organisms are machines, and that war, like all influence between organisms, is regulatory – that “war” is “environmental” only to the extent that “war” is “environmental.”

Little Spinoza would argue, then, that all of Guattari’s three ecologies boil down to social constructionism tainted by the fallacy of human exceptionalism – Cartesian man with mere lip service paid to the integration of mind/body/environment through the affordances of material existence.  And so, when Guattari argues that “we will only escape from the major crises of our era” through articulations of 1) subjective interpretation of epoch, 2) shifting social demographics and cultural structures, and 3) environmental reimagination, both Little Guy in a Labcoat and Little Habermas ask why this era is any different in those respects than every other epoch of record when nothing new has happened besides the entropic transition from techno-positivism to techno-pessimism through techno-cynicism.

Little English Major Alex just wants to know why we’re pretending anti-capitalism is supposed to service as an ecology (or Cary-esque ecosystem) rather than an affordance of social ideology.

Little Zappa just wants to know why we’re calling rock ‘n roll fandom a pseudo-identity.



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