really thinking: rhetoric and cognition

I am at work on a chapter in my book that deals with cognition as it relates to a realist ontology and rhetoric, and I’m hoping this exercise will help me to crystalize my thoughts. I’m drawing on some familiar concepts (at least to me) from distributed cognition and extended mind to DeLanda’s fascinating and bizarre account of the development of cognition in Philosophy and Simulation. I also work through the research on writing and cognition going on in cognitive science, the neurorhetorical response to that, the sociocultural account of cognition in activity theory, and some of the posthuman accounts drawing on complexity theory in our field (e.g. Hawk, Dobrin, Rickert).

Obviously the question of cognition is central to our field, though the “cultural turn” has changed this into a question of subjectivity or agency. (I appreciate Dobrin’s admonishment that we focus on it too much.) My basic argument should be familiar within a realist ontological framework.

  1. All objects have the capacity to express and be perturbed by expression (though that capacity is not always realized).
  2. Those expressions are themselves autonomous. These are the ontological conditions of what I term a “minimal rhetoric.” I’m not interested in drawing boundaries between rhetorical and not rhetorical, except to argue against the boundary that limits rhetoric to human symbolic behavior.
  3. The relations of expression and perturbation create the capacities for cognition and agency. Again I’m not interested in drawing boundaries regarding which objects have these capacities. Assuming that you ascribe to a theory of evolution then you ascribe to the capacity of thought and agency emerging from nonliving entities.  As Latour would say, through interaction we are “made to act,” which would include being made to think.
  4. I also draw on DeLanda here. The specific development of biological cognitive capacities emerge from their simplest form through interactions with objects. As those capacities develop, the ability to be express and be perturbed expands. We (biological critters) expand our senses into larger spaces, and, with memory, into time as well. That works both backward and forward as we develop the capacity to generate nonsymbolic scripts (expectations of what will happen next). What we can get out of this though is that cognition is an activity that emerges through relations with others and that the increasing capacity of an object to think can be traced in those terms.
  5. So thinking joins a hypothetically infinite range of capacities available to objects through their interactions with others. It’s as real and material as any other activity. It is not ontologically exceptional, even though we tend to value it. As such there’s really no reason to build a universe around the perceived strengths or limits of thinking. When I consider an apple, I engage in an activity with certain capacities over others. When I eat the apple, I engage in an activity with certain capacities over others.
  6. Thinking through an interaction with language (symbolic behavior) produces capacities of its own. The whole process might be speculatively explored, as DeLanda does, as emerging from mechanism-independent processes. Of course no one empirically knows how language came about. From my perspective what’s important is understanding symbolic behavior as co-emergent with cognition as real activities that are ecological. By that I don’t mean that they are related to “everything,” but that there is an extensive network of relations, limited only by our capacities for perturbation, that are at play.

I’m not sure if these claims strike you as obvious or absurd. It would suggest that rhetoric cannot be limited to symbolic behavior or to culture (as opposed to nature) or to humans. It would suggest that looking for cognition in the brain or in language or in society will only offer partial pictures. A realist rhetoric can assert that it is not limited to human thought or symbolic behavior, but it does need to be able to account for them in a way that doesn’t lead one back to idealism or empiricism.

For the mainstream, postmodern rhet/comp person, I suppose symbolic behavior is cultural and ideological. It can overdetermine subjectivity and agency. The only possible escapes are through the indeterminacy of language or the chance that critical thinking produces enough resistance to overdetermination, but there’s never really any outside here. I call this the “agent complex:” which is really like the Higgs Boson problem for postmodernity. Posthuman rhetoric offers in turn a “complex agent,” one where complexity theory describes how agency can emerge in a non-deterministic way.

To end by circling back to DeLanda and Latour, both idealism and empiricism want to impart thought with special ontological powers: to create a space to act free from relation and/or to create an objectively true model of the world. Realism sees thought as another capacity for action, another means of construction or instauration, where acting outside of relation makes no sense and knowledge is always constructed without necessarily being fictional.