Gregory Bateson - Ecology of Ideas - Anthony Wilden

[WARNING: Long post ahead]

I want to take up another arc of thought instigated by Julian Bleecker (again) at techkwondo. In a recent post, there is an attempt to find ways "to describe the circulation of culture" beyond top-down and bottom-up modalities. He arrives at the idea of clusters of circulation and hints in the post's title at the ecosystemic roots of this metaphor. I think developing an ecological model for cultural production/circulation is a useful endeavor.

Four texts instrumental in developing such an "ecology of ideas" should be:

Steps to an Ecology of Mind - Gregory Bateson

System and Structure: Essays in Communication and Exchange - Anthony Wilden

A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History - Manuel De Landa.

Postmodern Ecology: Communication, Evolution, and Play - Daniel R. White

Bateson's book adapts ecological principles (recursive feedback, information patterns, network and individual flexibility/organization, etc.) to the discussion of anthropology, psychology (with particular emphasis on an ecosystemic model of the mind), and epistemology. His discussion regarding the replication of ideas is nice because it doesn't have the deterministic trappings of Richard Dawkins' work. A sample:

"It is commonly the more generalized and abstract ideas that survive repeated use. The more generalized ideas thus tend to become premises upon which other ideas shall become hard programmed…The same process determines that these hard programmed ideas become nuclear or nodal within constellations of other ideas, because the survival of these ideas depends on how they fit with the hard programmed ideas. It follows that any change in the hard programmed ideas may involve change of the whole related constellation."

Anthony Wilden (in what I previously mentioned as a shockingly unknown work) maps a number of domains utilizing a synthesis of communications/information and ecological theories. Of particular use in thinking through the circulation of culture, is the explication of the inter-relations of logical types and orders of complexity in feedback loops. Utilizing Wilden, we can start to trace the ways that hierarchies constrain, rather than determine how individual cultural agents operate, AND how those individual operations act to re-organize hierarchies. A sample:

"Any highly abstract and deeply programmed process is necessarily of a higher logical type than less abstract and more manifest processes…the epistemology of a culture or the ideology of a class are necessarily of a higher logical type than their manifestation in any particular 'individual' of that culture or class…"

Manuel De Landa offers a number of useful tools for conceptualizing cultural development:

autocatalytic loops[via Maturana and Varela]

double articulation [via Deleuze and Guattari]

The relationship of meshworks [bottom up] and hierarchies [top down] is especially germane to Bleecker. De Landa offers a reading of social formations as consisting of various degrees of "meshworks of hierarchies" and "hierarchies of meshworks."

In explaining the linguistic work of William Labov he offers this as a glimpse of enriching cluster or network models of cultural circulation:

"Given a network of a certain density, the higher the local prestige of an individual, or the larger the number of his or her contacts, the more likely it is that a variant originated by that individual will become collective and eventually become part of the accumulated heritage." [sounds an awful like the way blogging works no?]

Finally, we have Daniel White's brilliant synthesis of Wilden and Bateson's work with literary theory, continental philosophy, and structural anthropology. Explicating the non-deterministic ecology of ideas I mentioned above, White says:

"Thus DNA may not be said to 'cause' an organism to form in the sense that it initiates a linear sequence. Instead we should say that DNA is in a form of communication with its environment, that the genetic code only contains the possibilities of what can happen if certain conditions are met."

Related posts here and here.