Friday, September 17, 2010

Why English and Rhetoric Matter

I have returned to finish what I started this summer: reading through the dense, complex, and infinitely rewarding Cognition in the Wild by the cognitive scientist/ethnographer Ed Hutchins. The work is essentially a blend of cognitive science and ethnography focused exclusively on navigation. In his chapter on communication, Hutchins (channeling I.A. Richards) argues that meaning exists only in context.

Hutchins writes:
Meanings can only even be imagined to be in the message when the environment about which communication is performed is very stable and there are very strong constraints on the expectations. In many endeavors, creating and maintaining the illusion [a word Hutchins does not use pejoratively] that meanings reside in messages requires that a great deal of effort be put into controlling the environment in which communication takes place. Meanings seem to be in messages only when the structures with which the message must be brought into coordination are already reliably in place and taken for granted. The illusion of meaning in the message is a hard-won social and cultural accomplishment.
There is obviously a lot going on here, but I wish to make three things salient for my colleagues in English departments everywhere. First, Hutchins' assessment of meaning in the context of navigation at sea is why some kind of English course (focusing on literature, film, television, etc.) should be required of all university students. Here we have Hutchins treating the issue of navigation on board a ship in the US Navy, but what he is describing is also an issue routinely treated in literature courses around the country: namely, that meaning is a social and cultural accomplishment.

Second, Hutchins' assessment likewise indicates that a course on Rhetoric ought to be required: meaning is a social and cultural accomplishment and that accomplishment is hard-won via the effort of controlling environments (read contexts) and coordinating structures of communication. Rhetoric is and focuses upon the production of meaning through the coordination of communication and contexts. (I would add, regrettably here in passing, that its equally strong emphasis on the production of meaning is why creative writing ought to be home in English departments.)

Third, and this is important disciplinarily and departmentally, Hutchins implicitly makes a strong case for why literature/cultural studies and rhetoric ought to be housed in the same department. (This is not argue that either rhetoric or literature should not also be housed other places as well--they should). The twin abilities of studying and producing meaning through societal and cultural structures and environments is a package few other departments can offer, but which every university that claims to prepare students to navigate the complexities of life ought to provide.


  1. I like it.

    I have one observation, and one question: first, why this privileging of "meaning?" Suppose we simply stopped producing it? Santos likes to tell me that there's nothing that's not moderated by language: but this post makes it sound like that's only a conventional datum. Or is it impossible to not make meaning (and how do we/you know that?). Oddly enough, that's my observation.

    Then my question: granting that meaning is produced, that it is a "social and cultural accomplishment," from what perspective are we able to critique it? That is--well, you've read Huck Finn, right?--how does Huck, in a time when his church, his father, his friends, and the law tell him to turn Jim in... how does Huck tear up the letter and "decide," "All right then, I'll go to hell." See what I'm asking: it seems like to critique that meaning which we have produced requires an ability to "transcend" our current meaning-context.

    Isn't it that ability--that "other mental space?"--that suggests a kind of real-reality that Plato alluded to?

    Sorry that I'm struggling to articulate my questions here, but maybe you can fill in the gaps. Well, sure you can!

  2. Casey--I think you can posit the possibility of transcendence without reducing whatever is beyond to a stable/stoic/static representation of THE real. For a passing, fleeting second, Huck was touched by a gust of the force animating Being from Beyond. This doesn't necessarily manifest itself in the FORM of A recognizable real-reality.