Sunday, October 26, 2014

comments on "virtual environments and the emergence of synthetic reason"

Thus, while some of the uses of virtual environments presuppose that old and entrenched ideas (about essences or optimality) have been superseded, these abstract worlds can also be used to synthesize the intuitions needed to dislodge other ideas blocking the way to a better understanding of the dynamics of reality. -- DeLanda
This is a good one-sentence summary of DeLanda's realism.  He gives examples as follow:
Population thinking seems to have vanished "essences" from the world of philosophy once and for all. Nonlinear dynamics, and more specifically, the notion of an "emergent property" would seem to signal the death of the philosophical position known as "reductionism" (basically, that all phenomena can in principle be reduced to those of physics).
A relationship to phatics has to do with the nature of virtual environments, which themselves need to be synthesized.  So, here we have a connection between the theme of realism -- the idea that we can apprehend and understand reality -- and the theme of phatic communication, or at least phatic labour.

At the same time, let's point out that the synthesis of new intuitions is different from adopting some particular fixed way of thinking. Something like this is worth mentioning, because DeLanda continues as follows:
Connectionism, in turn, offers a completely new understanding of the way in which rule-following behavior can emerge from a system in which there are no explicit rules or symbols what so ever. This would seem destined to end the domination of a conception of language based on syntactical entities and their formal relations (Saussure's signifiers or Chomsky's rules). This conception (let's call it "formalism") has entirely dominated this century, leading in some cases to extreme forms of linguistic relativism, that is, the idea that every culture partitions the world of experience in a different way simply because they use different linguistic devices to organize this experience.
The virtual environments that we're talking about are not just specialized "language games."  It may be, for example, that the virtual environment, as an extension of man in the McLuhan manner is a different way of perceiving the world -- but not one that occurs "simply because" of a different linguistic device.

In this way, the ideas seem to connect with a suitably non-reductive "practice theory." 

This summary stages the end of the article:
Our intellectual habit of thinking linearly, where the interaction of different causes is seen as additive, and hence global properties that are more than the sum of the parts are not a possibility [...] needs to be eliminated. So does our habit of thinking in terms of conservative systems, isolated from energy and matter flows from the outside. Only dissipative, nonlinear systems generate the full spectrum of dynamical forms of stabilization (attractors) and of diversification (bifurcations).

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Comments on "Gilligan-Kohlberg Controversy and Preliminary Conclusion"

Thinking about the previous post on "Open-Source", I'm intrigued by the possibility that the simple, harmonious, and convenient narrative described on Lawrence Kohlberg's Wikipedia page might be true, at least as regards a "philosophy of open source":
The sequence of stages of moral development thus corresponds to a sequence of progressively more inclusive social circles (family, peers, community, etc.), within which humans seek to operate competently. When those groups function well, oriented by reciprocity and mutual care and respect, growing humans adapt to larger and larger circles of justice, care, and respect. Each stage of moral cognitive development is the realization in conscious thought of the relations of justice, care, and respect exhibited in a wider circle of social relations, including narrower circles within the wider. --
But Kohlberg's philosophical thinking, if not totally discredited, is at least put in its place -- as perhaps non-so-universal after all -- in a critique by Kakkori and Huttunen, on the "Gilligan-Kohlberg Controversy and Preliminary Conclusion".
In Kohlberg’s research, it was already decided what the highest moral level contains: the autonomic subject, who believes in universal moral principles, who is sure of his argumentation, and who does not change his opinion even if new information comes up. --Kakkori and
Huttunen, in the Encyclopaedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory
As indicated in the title, the primary lens of critique is that advanced by Carol Gilligan.  Gilligan's thinking brings in the theme of an "ethic of care" alongside the "ethic of justice" that is the focus for Kohlberg -- these are more or less "gendered" ethics.  This is --
...not because care is essentially associated with women or part of women’s nature, but because women for a combination of psychological and political reasons voiced relational realities that were otherwise unspoken or dismissed as inconsequential [within typical public discourse]. --  Gilligan, 1995, quoted in Kakkori and Huttunen
K&H point out that this isn't simply intended as a "battle of the sexes", but rather that
Gilligan stresses that the question is not whether women and men are really different or who is better than the other. Her questions are about perception of reality and truth, how we know, how we hear, how we see, and how we speak. -K&H
It may be a bit of a reach to say that this "reality" is the same one connected with the new realism, nevertheless, it does seem connected with the idea of connection, and this, itself, with the phatic turn:
The human being is understood as having myriads of connections and relationships to other people. This is fundamental to the essence of the human being. She is not considered an autonomic subject with separate being and sense of justice. -K&H
These authors describe the predictable criticisms of Gilligan's gendered theory, but these don't seem particularly damning.  More interesting in my view is the dichotomy between "social" and "reality" based considerations.
Like Hegel Gilligan wants also take moral feelings seriously and put much emphasis on the social nature of morality. -K&H
Perhaps the dichotomy can be resolved by taking a wider view -- like Mead's -- on what is "social."
[Contemporary Hegelians Axel] Honneth’s and [Robert] William’s notion of moral maturity refer to the ethical social totality (Sittlichkeit) in which the other person is encountered (faced) in a reciprocal dialogical relationship of recognition. -K&H
Except that he would broaden that to non-"personal" encounters, and that he might emphasize strangeness rather than recognition, this is not so unlike Deleuze.  Er, OK, maybe he flips the Hegelian thing on its head. I'll have to look a bit further here.^1

As a brief non-philosophical comment: It is also important to keep in mind that free/open source software has historically been very male-dominated, much more so than the world of computers and computer programming in general.  Also in Wikipedia editing, and a lot of the history of Western philosophy to boot.  In this, I think, we do see the "proof in the pudding" for Kohlberg.  It may well be that bigger and bigger "networks" of human interaction grow using the internet, and productive work is carried out on, and across, more and larger scales.  However, large scale and wide-spread does not necessarily mean relational.^2


1. A bit of googling on related ideas and I ended up at No hay banda. Prosthetic memory and identity in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.

2. Maybe a look at Deleuze & Guattari's "becoming-woman" would be relevant here...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

DeLanda: "Open-Source"

As for beginnings: DeLanda's (2001) title, "Open-Source: A Movement in Search of a Philosophy" reminds me of Six Characters in Search of an Author, which is said to have premiered to shouts of "Manicomio!" [Madhouse!] and "Incommensurabile!" [Incommensurable!].  Let's hope this association is not too inauspicious.  On to the paper's first sentence:
The hacker movement referred to by the term "open-source" has burst into public consciousness in the last few years due to its spectacular success in the production of reliable and robust software. -- DeLanda, 2001.
I fear that, these days, anyone who hasn't previously been steeped in "open source" for a decade would more likely think of Heartbleed. For example, in "How I Explained Heartbleed To My Therapist: Riding Open Source’s Race to the Bottom", Meredith L. Patterson put it this way:
These bugs that happen, these mistakes in software that lead to vulnerabilities, they aren’t one-off problems. They’re systemic. There are patterns to them and patterns to how people take advantage of them. But it isn’t in any one particular company’s interest to dump a pile of their own resources into fixing even one of the problems, much less dump a pile of resources into an engineering effort to fight the pattern. --Meredith L. Patterson, Sept. 25, 2014
Dr Patterson insists that this is "worse than a tragedy of the commons," perhaps because she's had no small taste of personal tragedy as part of the "making of."  In the end though, there's a very apt point here about how "it isn’t a hobby."  Rather, the business of providing public goods seems to conjure up all sorts of personal demons: hackerdom as a world of high-strung vigilantes, ego maniacs, and depressive narcissists -- perhaps not so unlike the world of Olympian gods which it, at least now and then, claims to draw inspiration from.

But, alright, to continue past the first sentence:
[W]hen I say that this movement is still in search of philosophical foundations I do not mean to imply that it does not have a philosophy. It has in fact several but, in contrast to the high quality of its software products, the philosophies in question are shallow and brittle. The purpose of this essay is not, however, to criticize these philosophical ideas but, on the contrary, to show that their low quality is quite irrelevant to the success of the movement [...] what matters about the open-source movement is not so much the intentional actions of its main protagonists, actions which are informed by specific philosophies, but its unintended collective consequences.  --DeLanda, 2001
OK, I'm prepared to accept that possibility, as long as we take into account that the unintended consequences are not entirely rosy, as indicated above.  And DeLanda highlights the double-edged nature of the economics here:
The economic problem of intellectual property is that when goods which are not rivalrous in consumption are made subject to property rights, the exclusion aspect of these rights generates social waste: given that additional copies of a given good may be generated and distributed at virtually no cost (this is particularly true of goods in digital form) excluding people from them means that wants will go unsatisfied, wants that could have been satisfied at very little cost to society. On the other hand, not making these goods subject to property rights means that those producing them will have no incentive to do so, particularly if the costs of production happen to be high. --DeLanda, 2001
The first move in the essay is to point out the somewhat perverse nature of the "missionary" version of free/libre/open source.
I have never thought it is a good idea to base one's philosophy on "universal moral principles", particularly when they involve the generalization of one's morality into everyone's morality. --DeLanda, 2001
DeLanda seems to fall squarely into the pragmatic "open source" flavor -- although I think even Richard M. Stallman (RMS) would agree with this part:
These pragmatic concerns have less to do with the "evils of proprietary software" and more with the kind of environment conducive to the creation of good software.  --DeLanda, 2001
Others involved with the free software foundation expand on similar points, e.g. B. Mako Hill writing on "When Free Software is not (practically) better".  However, part of my own critique has been that if the license is "a legal instrument for community-building" then it should not be the only one, or even the main one -- community building is rather a largely extra-legal affair.  And DeLanda expands on this point, following on and expanding a theme from Eric S. Raymond (ESR):
[An] appropriate description of the task of project leaders (other than their contributions as writers of code) is that their role is the creation of a community supporting a project. --DeLanda, 2001
So perhaps now we have project leaders playing a role a bit like the kings in the Golden Bough (work organizes around them, even ultimately resulting in their ritual sacrifice etc.).  On the other hand, it is not just that leaders on their own exert a "transcendent" organizing force, but that they actively engage in designing -- or at least -- deploying collaboration models that work well:
[The Linux] development model implied constantly releasing any new piece of code (so that interested users could immediately begin to work on it, thereby keeping them constantly motivated), delegating responsibility for specific areas to motivated users (making them co-developers), promoting cooperation through a variety of means, and being as self-effacing as possible to block any suspicion that credit for the work done would not be shared equally, or that decisions about the quality of a given piece of code would not be made objectively.  --DeLanda, 2001
This sort of model, or aspects of it, would be at least in principle replicable, even for someone without the charisma of Linus Torvalds.  One might even look for similar organizing principles in completely different media, as with DeLanda's "medium independent" ideas from Philosophy and Simulation, the emergence of synthetic reason.

So far there seem to be two forces at work: the leader, who provides a sort of pole or "singular point" around which things organize, and the "open, evolutionary context" (per ESR).  This 2-part system reminds me of Sloterdijk's Spheres I: Bubbles and the bi-centred spheres of incubation that he talks about.

Here is another place where the essay seems a bit dated: After ESR, "The dangers of forking cannot be underestimated."  But these days, a certain level of forking is a typical and necessary part of the open evolutionary context of distributed open source software development.  Perhaps if there is too much forking and consequent fragmentation, that would be make any kind of coordination impossible.  This can certainly be studied empirically, and I think my own experience with PlanetMath is relevant here.

I'm glad that DeLanda writes: "Locke's ideas seem to me to bear more on the question of the legitimacy, not the nature, of private ownership."  The issue of "ownership" as interpreted in the original PlanetMath (circa 2000, hereafter PlanetMath/Noosphere) emphasized an owner's control of individual articles.  Since there was no way to fork the article, any suggestions or changes had to be sent in as bug reports, otherwise known as "corrections".  This wasn't wiki-style editing but an explicitly Raymond-ite "homesteading."  It encouraged authoritative authorial control, but didn't avail itself of the quick "anyone can edit" features of Wikipedia.  This hasn't changed in the latest iteration of the PlanetMath software (circa 2013, PlanetMath/Planetary) -- but it could definitely be worth making some efforts to rethink things in the future.  There are a range of different methods for securing and maintaining "legitimacy" and it is interesting to think about how things have played out in various contexts over the last two or three decades.  This is perhaps especially interesting in light of the rise of "free culture" and other spin-offs from the free/open source software movement.
[A]s medieval markets grew and complexified their transaction costs increased accordingly, and hence that without a set of institutional norms and organizations to keep these costs down the intensification of trade in the West would have come to a halt. [...]  unlike the simple dichotomy of governance structures (markets coordinated by prices versus firms coordinated by commands) which results from including only a few transaction costs, the inclusion of a wider variety of costs leads to consider a host of hybrid structures between pure markets and pure hierarchies. --Delanda, 2001
So coordination itself can become quite complex.  Germane to the discussions here, this reminds me of Bateson's ideas about communication and learning.  Commands, in a Wittengenstein mode, are more or less only useful for direct control, whereas I can imagine markets achieving something similar to Bateson's "punctuation of experience" -- for example, by establishing a "going rate" for a given good or service.  Regarding these different varieties of organization, DeLanda cites Fernand Braudel [The Wheels of Commerce, New York: Harper and Row, 1983, pp. 225-228] who critiques Karl Polanyi's earlier (1972) clear-cut distinctions, and quotes Herbert Simon's description of Hayek style markets:
The pragmatic mechanism described by von Hayek is a much more modest (and believable) piece of equipment that strives for a measure of procedural rationality by tailoring decision-making tasks to computational capabilities and localized information. --The Sciences of the Artificial, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1994, p43
"The key is the decentralized use of local information."  In the case of the Linux kernel, it is almost as if the organization of work mirrors the logical organization of the software itself.  This would be an interesting comparison to make in the context of research on Human Computation (a new journal in this area started recently).  It is also fascinating to see such an essay -- written in 2001 -- conclude "Even non-programmers have a lesson to learn from this daring institutional experimentation."  2001 was the "watershed year for free culture."

Monday, October 13, 2014

a new realism

I initally wrote to Rasmus thinking about this call for proposals:
Both in the Continental and in the analytic world, philosophical realism is becoming ever more fashionable. On the Continental side, the experience of the post-9/11 wars and of recent economic crises has led to a harsh denial of two central tenets of postmodernism, both held, for example, by Foucault, Vattimo, and Rorty: (1) that reality is socially constructed and infinitely malleable, and (2) that ‘truth’ and ‘objectivity’ represent useless notions. Facts cannot be reduced to interpretations, as even Derrida (in his final years) and more recently Latour, have recognized. On the analytic side, too, the situation is very different from what it was in the heyday of Feyerabend, Goodman, Davidson, Kuhn, Dummett, van Fraassen, and Hacking – as is shown by the growth of analytical metaphysics and of alternatives to anti-realism in semantics and philosophy of science. Now, however, philosophy is polarized between the (mostly analytic) view according to which only natural science can tell us what really exists and another (mostly Continental) view according to which only an anti-naturalistic stance can do justice to socio-political phenomena. The challenge, then, is this: can a New Realism be developed that can do justice both to the scientific worldview and to the phenomena of value, norms, politics, and religion. Papers are invited which rise to this challenge. -- call for papers at The Monist, Advisory Editors: Mario De Caro and Maurizio Ferraris
While I'm not at all sure we'd be able to get a paper together by October 31st, I think it is still interesting to explore the ideas of philosophical realism and understand how they can influence what we're doing here.  If we do put together a paper in 2 weeks, OK -- and if not there will always be another opportunity.

I've mostly become acquainted with the ideas of realism in the writings of Manuel DeLanda, who seems to very nicely bridge the analytic and continental traditions. DeLanda is a Deleuzian philosopher trained in an analytic tradition, who writes in plain language that would be accessible to readers of Scientific American.  One place where he really weighs in about "realism" is "Deleuzian Interrogations: A Conversation with Manuel DeLanda, John Protevi and Torkild Thanem".  A third-party survey of his thinking is "DeLanda’s ontology: assemblage and realism".

In my thesis, I briefly compared what DeLanda says about realism with Ernst von Glasersfeld's "radical constructivism," as described, for example, in "Aspectos del constructivismo radical (Aspects of radical constructivism)" [N.B. the article is in English].   Von Glasersfeld gives a very erudite argument against realism, but unfortunately it seems only to amount to a perfect straw-man for DeLanda. Even so, in my thesis, I felt that I remained philosophically realist, while still getting some mileage out of certain constructivist ideas.  Von Glasersfeld and Seymour Paper both draw mostly on Piaget, and I'm sure they are all quite smart guys.  Being pressed for time I didn't follow up on all this reading, but I'm noticing now that Piaget had his own idea of -- psychological and moral -- "realism":
Realism occurs when children confuse events that happen in their minds, such as dreams, with objective reality. Children see names, pictures, thoughts and feelings as actual entities and treat them as unchangeable. For example a block, when called a cube, is a completely different thing; so different it does not even exist.  In the first stage of realism, children believe that their dreams are a product of the outward physical environment and that they use their eyes to see their dreams. In the second stage, children understand that dreams come from their minds and are unreal, but still think that they are happening in the room in front of them. In the third stage, children are now able to comprehend that names were given to objects by people and that dreams are thoughts that take place in their heads.  Jean Piaget's Child Developmental Theory
Piaget's ideas of moral realism and morality of cooperation play a role in [Lawrence] Kohlberg's theory. Children in Piaget's stage of moral realism believe that rules are absolute and can't be changed. Punishment should be determined by how much damage is done, and the intention of the child is not taken into account. For example, a child operating in the stage of moral realism would believe that a child who accidentally breaks three cups should be punished more than a child who breaks one cup on purpose. Gradually, as a child matures, he or she understands that people make rules and people can change them: the beginnings of Piaget's morality of cooperation. Eventually, both the damage done and the intention of the offender in a given moral dilemma are considered in this stage of moral development. Kohlberg Tutorial
Comparing this stuff with philosophical realism may end up being a matter of comparing apples and oranges, but I think maybe we can get somewhere with it. However, I would like to start with a reading of DeLanda's  Open-Source: A Movement in Search of a Philosophy -- I'll be curious to see if "new realism" turns out to be an adequate philosophical response.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark

Hamlet, as described in De la sérendipité dans la science, la technique, l'art et le droit : Leçons de l'inattendu:
«un expérimentateur qui met en une situation en abyme (une pièce dans la pièce) dans laquelle il pourra observer les réactions de son oncle pour trouver la preuve de son innocence ou de sa culpabilité. Comme le signale Merton, cette reconstruction n’est pas loin de la méthod de l’exérimentateur dans le domaine scientifique.»
This reminds me again of scattering theory, and the other flavors of the i → S → o model that we've been talking about.  An experimental situation is mise en abyme and typically also in medias res, that is to say: it's a small-scale situation that is bounded by events that are already in progress. When we talk about "phatics" it seems that we are not only talking about the scatterer S or even an experiment i → S → o that takes place in the abstract, but rather, a relationship between S and S′, where S′ is the "frame story".

Alas, poor Maurits...

With this image of "sphere projections" and possibly more abstract "sphere transformations" in mind, here are some words from Douglas Hofstadter:
«Much like the mathematical concepts just cited, our ordinary concepts are also structured in a sphere-like manner, with the most primary examples forming the core and with less typical examples forming the outer layers. Such sphericity imbues any concept with an implicit sense of what its stronger and weaker instances are. But in addition to slowly building up richly layered spheres around concepts (a process that stretches out over years), we also quickly build spheres around events or situations that we experience or hear about (this can happen in a second or two, even a fraction of a second). [...] [S]urrounding every event on an unconscious level is what I have referred to elsewhere as a commonsense halo or an implicit counterfactual sphere, so called because it consist of many related, usually counterfactual, variants of the event.» Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies: Computer Models of the Fundamental Mechanisms of Thought, p. 71
The implicit counterfactual sphere reminds me of what Rasmus was talking about with the topic of "implicit questions".  To me this suggests the nested, or, as Rasmus was getting at, onion-like, nature of contexts and frame stories.  Perhaps the implicit questions are -- sort of like Walton's "critical questions" -- the steps by which we move between S and S′.

Finally, thinking about counterfactuals, this caught my attention:
«Whoever wants to resist the disruption of the hitherto known economy of illusions, has to be something other than what had been known as human to date -- a surviver vaccinated against the madness of the truth.  [...] Does not everything point to the idea that according to Nietzsche the bad news possesses an edge oven the good news that cannot be compensated for, whereas all attempts to give primacy to the latter are based only on momentary vigor and temporary self-hypnosis.  Yes, isn't Nietzsche thereby exactly the paradigmatic thinker of modernity insofar as it is defined by the impossibility of catching up with the real through counter-factual corrections? Is modernity not defined by a consciousness that runs ahead of the monstrousness of facts, for which discourses about art and human rights only ever consist in compensation and first aid.»  Peter Sloterdijk, Nietzsche Apostle, pp. 41, 43
The first part of this book documents a quite striking critique of language as basically being a matter of bragging.  The µ-function of usual language is somehow supposed to en-voice a posture of confidence and of dominance, but, perversely, also a place of vengeance and compensation.

If Nietzsche is a paradigmatic thinker of modernity, maybe Hamlet is the prototype.  There's something about the sense that no matter what we throw into S, we are going to get "less" back -- the idea that every experiment is wrapped up with an entropic evening-out and mixing.  However, the idea that we could beat this system -- over time and collectively -- isn't a counter-factual dream, but a reasonably sober observation on the way things have evolved up to now.

The temporal features matter.  In the first place, we are not just talking about a "relation" between S and S′, that is, some static thing that could be pointed to.  To put it another way, S and S′ are embedded, together, in another larger context T.  Because T has a temporal structure, it is possible to run an experiment i/S/o with the property that one agent knows i and the result o is only available much later on to another agent.  In a typical scattering scenario one should know at least two of the elements of {i, S, o} in order to deduce something about the third component.  If these sorts of long-range experiments are going to be interpretable, it seems like some sort of error-correcting code or shibboleth needs to be used.

Here, of course, the word "Nietzsche" works quite well.
Individualism [...] is to be understood not as an accidental or avoidable current in the history of mentalities, but rather, as an anthropological break which first made possible the emergence of a type of human being surrounded by enough media and means of discharge to be able to individualize counter to its "societal preconditions." [...]  Individualism is capable of alliances with all sides, and Nietzsche is its designer, its prophet. [...] [F]or him, at stake is not only to throw products on today's market, but instead to create the market wave itself, by which the work is belatedly carried to success. ibid. pp. 66-67
If we believe all of that then this is this sort of thing that could makes Nietzsche part of the vanguard of a "phatic turn".

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Phatic duplex structures

So I realized only after the fact that what Joe called "phatic-x layers" have a precedent in Roman Jakobson's writings. Namely, he calls these duplex structures and in one instance dedicates a full chapter to four intersections between code and message. In Jakobson's view these are: "reported speech (M/M), the autonymous form of speech (M/C), a proper name (C/C), and shifters (C/M)" (Jakobson 1971[1957c]: 133). This part of Jakobson's work excited me greatly, because it was written in 1957 and in the next year, 1958, he first formulated his scheme of language functions, which suggests that even if his scheme isn't directly based on these duplex structures, he did think along the same lines when he formulated his famous scheme.

I am most excited over the fact that (M/M) and (M/C) can be reinterpreted as metacommunication (message about message) and metalingual operations (message about code). It would be nice to assign specific letters to all the components in his scheme:
  • C - code
  • M - message
  • S - sender/addresser
  • R - receiver/addressee
  • O - object/referent/context
  • P - channel/contact (P as in phatic)

Now all one needs to do is fill in the table:
CodeC/C - proper namesC/M - shifters - - - -
MessageM/C - metalingual operationsM/M - metacommunication - - - M/P - phatic function
Sender - - - - - -
Receiver - - - - - -
Object - - - - - -
PhaticsP/C - equalizationP/M - μ-functionP/S - communizationP/R - differentiationP/O - parachannelP/P - metachannel

Since the original triad (Sender, Receiver, Object) looks so empty, it may be that those rows (maybe even columns) can be discarded for the moment. I'll have to think it over.

All this is somewhat troubling because it demands a reconsideration of what is a "function" and what is a "structure":
[...] during the last decades the terms "structure" and "function" have become the most equivocal and stereotyped words in the science of language. In particular, the homonyms function 'role, task' - viewed from the means-ends angle and function as correspondence between two mathematical variables, are often used promiscuously, and as Lalande's Philosophical Dictionary justly warns, "there is here a source of confusion which makes certain pages of our time scarcely intelligible." (Jakobson 1971[1962b]: 526)
While his "language functions" are usually understood in the sense of "language use", e.g. the role or task that language fulfills in a specific instance of its application, the second possibility of interpreting "function" as correspondence between two mathemathical variables is more tempting, seeing as his own duplex structures rely on this interpretation. That is, I am inclined to view "function" as a correlation between means and ends: given that the the rows represent means (what is used...) and columns represent ends (...used on what).

There is also a bigger issue looming behind the corner. That is, whether it is a good idea to take Jakobson's scheme as a starting point after all? Even throwing out the columns and rows for Sender, Receiver and Object may not be enough to make it work, since Jakobson's components are inherently erratic and the duplex structures that would yield from such pairing of means and ends (as in the above table) would be equally, if not more, erratic.

Perhaps it would be more productive to throw out the bathwater and keep the baby. In other words, to return to Karl Bühler's original organon model and try to combine it with Ruesch's computer metaphors: sender/output/expression, object/central processing/evaluation, and receiver/input/perception. This would necessitate creating a whole new model, which I believe would be more useful, as the triad of perception, evaluation and expression is more compatible with Charles Peirce's three types of interpretants: emotion, action and cognition. Thus, instead of mere semantics of some types of phenomena it would include the sphere of pragmatics and allow discussing instigation (as Kockelman put it) of attitude toward object/referent, action toward object/referent, and thought about object/referent, etc. I see much more potental for theorizing in this approach than I do in playing around with Jakobson's scheme. Again, I'll have to think about it and let the idea settle in me.


  • Jakobson, Roman 1971[1957c]. Shifters, Verbal Categories, and the Russian Verb. In: Rudy, Stephen (ed.), Selected Writings II: Word and Language. The Hague; Paris: Mouton, 130-147.
  • Jakobson, Roman 1971[1962b]. Efforts toward a means-ends model of language in interwar continental linguistics. In: Rudy, Stephen (ed.), Selected Writings II: Word and Language. The Hague; Paris: Mouton, 522-526.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Phatic verbal art

Aside from searching "phatic" on youtube for the fun of it, I have searched "phatic" on deviantart and used some of the search results as heading images on the "soul searching" blog. But aside from a few seemingly random photos and drawings there are several texts among the search results (and one random poem by a user named Phatic which I didn't include because the poem itself was not about phatics). These are just some random examples of how the term "phatic" lives a cultural existence in the margins of the interwebs.

Phatic Man

You sat by me
Having never met before
And you burst with details
You drag me from my public peace
I hope this train derails

I count every word
That passes your lips
Then each one with meaning
I’d never reach the double digits
Partly because I’m leaving

Phatic Man
Keep on preaching
Sell me every word
To be blunt you just repeat
Everything you’ve heard
Phatic Man
Keep on preaching
Sell me every tale
As long as people keep on listening
You can never fail

Coincidence kills me
As we share the same stop
You never cease your noise
I can’t think with your pointless speech
So strongly it annoys

Carefully I plan
The best way to kill you
As you drone me into hell
They’d never find your body
I’d bury it so well

Phatic Man
Keep on preaching
Sell me every word
To be blunt you just repeat
Everything you’ve heard
Phatic Man
Keep on preaching
Sell me every tale
As long as people keep on listening
You can never fail

(PeccableII, Mar 7, 2007)
I hear so many pointlessly irritation conversations. It drives me nuts just how trivial everything is, and yet how obscenely important it is to these idiots.
I'm a very angry person. (ibid)
The author of this poem is expressing discontent at people in public spaces picking up pointless conversations. In the comments section he adds that the poem was "Inspired because I was trying to think about something fairly important, and a person I don't find all that... pleasant wouldn't stop talking to me." In other words, it was borne from the author's lack of - to invent a term - phatic control (e.g. interaction management, channel regulation, etc.).

-Insert Phatic Communication here-

I had a great birthday, I ended up celebrating for basically 4 days in a row. Really freaking beats out my 21st, the infamous birthday where everyone said they'd show up and no one did. Not a soul, save my boyfriend and his friend. I'm a little bitter, no? lol. But this time all my friends in Reno came out and we had dinner and went drinking and I got silly drunk and that was great. (AutumnOwl, Sep 2, 2013)
This is a blog entry that skipped the routine of inventing a headline by making a pun out of the technical term "Phatic Communication", which most likely signifies conventional formulae of greeting or approach for the author. Surprisingly, the phatic aspect isn't limited to the title of the entry. She bemuses how her 23rd birthday was better than her 21st, which is - according to American cultural norms - one of the most important birthdays a person can have (because of the legal drinking age), and yet noone but her boyfriend and his friend showed up. Despite the bitterness, this is a valid expression of emotion over the contact (party with friends) that was as-if promised (cultural representations) and turned out, as reality often does, to be different and lonely.

How ARE You

Default Usero 6fa Microsoft Word 9.0@J‹6 @˜\ÚÈX @2ï=ˆr ø How are you? No, really. How are you?!?
I get this all the time… it’s ridiculous! You feel so patronized. Like there has to be something wrong with me all the time and if you deny it then you really must be sick, there truly must be something going on that you’re trying to hide. Ugh! It’s so frustrating. I get a call from home a few times a day everyday now that I’m in college. And the first 2 questions are always the same ones. Sometimes I feel like turning the table just to see what other say, just to hear their reaction… but I never do. I don’t have that kind of courage, but I know it’s safe in my head. You see the first question is sincere and the second one is the one that can drive a girl crazy. (coloratura, Oct 13, 2002)
The first "How are you?" is a phatic utterance; the second "How are you?" is an emotive utterance. Instead of a mere greeting, the "No, really." that follows it turns it into an inquisitive statement about emotional states. Through repetition and the inflection of the are the addressee (our author) is made to feel pantronized and pathological. Her musing over how she feels like "turning the table just to see what other say" is a characteristic of the nature of contact: she is as-if wondering if she is the only one who get's that repetition and inflection of an otherwise pointless question and what others would say in a similar situation. Much of the rest of that entry is graphemic noise, probably from opening a MS Word file with Notepad. The subtitle of this experimental piece of verbal art is "Fallacies via phatic discourse."


I would argue that reputation, information and emotion constitute only half the story. Combining the phatic function in Jakobson's scheme with other functions we get: (1) phatic-emotive - meaning shared emotions or attitudes; (2) phatic-referential - shared frame of reference, cognition and information; (3) phatic-conative - shared acquaintances and reputation of those acquaintances; (4) phatic-metalingual - shared code, force unifiante or equalization in terms of language; and (5) phatic-poetic - shared messages like mass media, books, music, etc.  I'm not quite sure about the last two combinations and god only knows what would be phatic-phatic, but at least the first three seem concrete enough (perhaps these are the only ones necessary, as affect, cognition and conation were the original triad).--soul searching: phatic labor post
(Just for the record there it is, but we can discuss further.)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

creativity commons

A few of articles related to this topic are:
  • "Ethnographies of Co-Creation and Collaboration as Models of Creativity" by Penny Travlou
  • "Distributed Authorship and Creative Communities" by Simon Biggs and Penny Travlou
  • "Rizomatic Ethnographies", by Penny Travlou, in Remediating the Social
  • "Towards a Creativity Commons", by me
I will just briefly comment on what I think the ideas in the 3rd paper on the list above have to do with phatics.  Penny Travlou writes here about "processes of social formation" which I think speaks to our interests here while also restoring a "process" perspective; more on that below.  The research focuses on communities "assembling between physical and online spaces", or "in-between (and across) virtual and physical space."  To think about this in a Meadian way, the very idea of sociality is something that is always in between.  And to think in a Deleuze/Bergson way, maybe this virtual can be understood not just as "online" but as real-but-not-actualized, like attractors in chaos theory.   How far can we go with this sort of thinking?  Could we find creativity within text, within communities of symbols rather than people?  Is thinking this way necessarily de-humanizing, or is it merely "post-social" -- a word from Knorr Cetina that should suggest an expanded view on sociality, not its foreclosure.

The idea of emergent sprouting is what Deleuze and Guattari call "rhizome", often recycling Deleuze's earlier writings about "multiplicity."  I'm not sure how much they think of the rhizome as social in Mead's sense.  Ingold writes about a "meshwork" in, I think, a similar spirit.
As a (cultural) geographer, I am intrigued by the ways in which both rhizomes and meshworks open up new ways to conceptualise spatiality as bodily practice. --"Rizomatic Ethnographies"
This reminds me of the issue of process that I mentioned above.  Bateson talks about how language tends to speak in terms of objects, while necessarily-processual relationships are handled by non-language methods, between humans anyway.

Penny Travlou quotes five things that can be "followed" in such spaces, from George Marcus 1995: the artefact, the metaphor, the story, the life, and the conflict.  And she adds a sixth: "the rhizome [itself] wherein artefacts, metaphors, stories, lives and conflicts nest."  This is similar to the interpretation from Rasmus of the phatic-x layers.  The idea of following the rhizome as a "succession of detours" reminds me of Tristam Shandy, which is a spun yarn if ever there was one.

A couple example sites are discussed in the paper, not in a lot of detail but enough to make me interested: and  The most intriguing example, I think is AOS [Art is Open Source] which emphasised "temporary community" rather than emphasizing building a longer-lasting network.  The evanescence is interesting.  Also intrigued by the theoretical ideas from Ingold, whose book Against Space: place, movement, knowledge I haven't read.

Metacommunicative cues

In the previous post on Extra channels I finished with a distinction between diachronic and synchronic metacommunication. In this post I'd like to respond to some comments by the co-author of this blog, Joe, in some of his previous posts, by invoking Jurgen Ruesch's concept of metacommunication.

Gregory Bateson was interested in thinking about cybernetics, but didn't seem to feel constrained to think about it using a strictly computational or information-theoretic paradigm, while still being informed by the ideas. This gave him the freedom to talk about ideas like "context", "relationship", "learning", and "communication" without needing to define them in precise computational terms. Nevertheless, he handles the ideas fairly rigorously. (Joe, Phatic Workshop: towards a μ-calculus)
Gregory Bateson and Jurgen Ruesch, among many other notable thinkers, were part of the Palo Alto Group of researchers tasked to apply new methods (anthropology, cybernetics and communication theory among them) on studying schizophrenia in the 1950s and 60s. Their brand of communication psychology looked at mental health and asked how instead of why. Among their many contributions to the study of human communication is the concept of metacommunication, or "communication about communication".

For example, when a politician is giving a speech to an audience of potential voters, each of his or her verbal utterance acts as "a trial balloon" that instigates some feedback for the politician about what are the rules of the situation and "how far he can go" (Ruesch & Bateson 1951: 152). They affirm that in conventional (psychiatric) terms this is called "reality testing", but prefer to look at it pragmatically as "an implicit question" about the given verbal utterance itself and what effect it will have upon the relationship between the politician and his or her audience (ibid, 152). The verbal and nonverbal feedback that the politician receives in this context becomes a metacommunicative cue. Even in this illustration alone there are enough implicit questions about verbal context, social relationships and learning (of metacommunicative cues) to fill several chapters with rigorous theorizing.
In fact, much of that rigorous theorizing is evident in the separate works by both authors. Jurgen Ruesch developed the concept of metacommunication much further in his synopsis of the theory of human communication (Ruesch 1972[1953a]) while Gregory Bateson oriented towards zoosemiotic learning theory and developed this notion further to the concept of μ-function or "communication about relationship" (Bateson 2000[1966]). Both have a lot in common and overlap in some of their aspects and yet manifest wildly and creatively divirging theoretical application.
The first upshot of his analysis is that communication depends on learning. That is perhaps not so surprising, since it's basically an information-theoretic claim. The second key point, which I think makes his writing interesting, is that communication depends on a relationship. If were to read the word "channel" instead of "relationship", then there would be nothing new here either. But a relationship is not really the same as a channel. At the final point in this tower is "context" - that is, relationships exist within a context. Bateson says that means that there is no communication without a meta-communication that classifies the other communication. But I think the concepts of relationship and context are still richer. (Joe, Phatic Workshop: towards a μ-calculus)
This is quite a concise statement on Bateson's thoughts on the nature of communication or Batesonian Epistemology, as it is sometimes called. I'll try to translate these connections into axioms. I don't think these are particularly novel ideas in themselves, but I believe that when given a phatic interpretation they can powerfully further our aims. Gregory Bateson's positions on these topics can be broadly generalized as the following axioms:
  1. Communication depends on learning;
  2. communication depends on relationship; and
  3. relationships exist within a context.
These axioms can easily be complemented by the work of Ruesch, who holds that "The scientific model of communication is especially applicable to the study of human relations" (Ruesch 1972[1953a]: 47). Thus, firstly, communication depends on learning because "the ways and means by which people exchange messages" (ibid, 47) are culturally learned patterns of behaviour. The same goes for messages about how other messages should be interpreted, e.g. metacommunicative instructions or cues. Secondly, communication, especially in the aspect of conveying exact information, depends on "the correction of information through social contact" (ibid, 47), or the process of reaching understanding and agreement through communicative contact and relationships with other people. Thirdly, communicative contact and human relations compose the social context of communication and concerns "action undertaken as an outgrowth of communication" (ibid, 47) as it's effect; in other words, communication and relationships exist in a sociocultural matrix of people, ideas and practices that link shared cultural representations and networked social relations (sensu Kockelman 2011).

Metacommunicative cues manifest all three of these axioms in operation. As both channel and relationship are terms that signify some form of connection between people, be it physical (metachannel), psychological (parachannel) or both (objectchannel), we can take a modest example of the social roles factor as our illustration. Role, status, identity, position and group membership belong to the social class of questions about communication, specifically, who does or says what (cf. Ruesch 1972[1966]: 35-36). Ruesch describes the double function of roles: "they identify the participants; and they represent silent messages about communication which constitutes instructions of the receiver to the sender about the way he should be addressed and from the sender to the receiver about the way his message ought to be interpreted" (Ruesch 1972[1953a]: 61). Notice that the double function of roles consists of specifying the correct interpretation of messages (metacommunication in the sense of message about message) and simultaneously specify who the participants are, what should be the relationship between them, and how the receiver should be addressed (μ-function in the sense of message about relationship). The metacommunication of roles does not have to be explicit; it can also occur through implicit communication:
People identify status and roles in many ways. Uniforms, lapel buttons, and styles of dressing are external marks of identification; manners, gestures, and ways of talking are more intimate marks of identification; personal introductions - "I am so-and-so" - may overtly clarify a role. But regardless of what the criteria are, in practice almost all people use the sum total of cues and clues present, including the sensations which arise inside their own organism. (Ruesch 1972[1953a]: 60)
Although the connection between metacommunication and μ-function on the one hand and phatic communion and phatic function on the other may appear tangential in this discussion, here the connection is strong and clear. These very same marks of identification can be the means of both differentiation, as when status and roles are emphasized or invoked in order to distinguish oneself from others, and communization, as when group membership or speech community are emphasized or invoked in order to create bonds of union between people. We will discuss communization (e.g. Morris 1949: 118-119) in due time, but for now let us look at one of Ruesch's own example and some others from more recent literature.

"[When] a person who enters a room and introduces himself as the telephone repair man instructs the other people about his forthcoming actions" he is giving explicit instructions about who he is and what he does (Ruesch 1972[1953a]: 76). Less explicit metacommunicative instructions are given through uniforms, for example, which help to identify the official's role or function and enables him or her to assume that whatever he says or does will be interpreted and responded to in the manner appropriate for communicating with officials. Metacommunicative cues may also be held back or hidden, as when police officers wear civilian clothes and ride an unmarked car on duty and only identify themselves as police officers when it becomes necessary in order to control the situation. Ruesch does neglect to add that assuming a role may force one "to adapt to others, to control others, to mediate between others, or to complement the function of others" (Ruesch 1972[1953a]: 61).

Some recent studies on the phatic function have pointed out similar concerns in textual forms of communication. Dipti Kulkarni included "contextual information like the relationship between the participants" (Kulkarni 2014: 121) in her study of instant message chats. She found, for example, that in the two extremes of what she calls the solidarity continuum, people who either share a very close relationship or a very formal relationship tend to omit the opening sequence of ritual greetings and other pleasantries (cf. Kulkarni 2014: 123). She finds that in an unequal status relationship between people who may not be on chatting terms due to circumstances, "a greeting may be construed as an invitation for a casual chat (and [is] therefore inappropriate)" (Kulkarni 2014: 124). In other words, the lower-status interlocutor opens the conversation by jumping right to the heart of the matter because there is no "assured knowledge of the recipient's interest" (ibid, 124). Although a generalization about Indian culture would be unfitting on the basis of a single study, it is remarkable how this contrasts with Christiane Nord's analysis metacommunication as a variety of the phatic function. Nord finds in her corpus of West-European textbooks that the relationship between people and metacommunication about their relationship is more important "in an asymmetrical relationship in which the sender tries to persuade the receiver to take an interest in an object the latter would not have chosen on his or her own accord" (Nord 2007: 174). Thus it would seem that Kulkarni favors only informative communication in very formal relationships wherein the other's level of interest is not known and Nord favors a more phatic approach in an asymmetric relationship exactly for the purpose of evaluating and influencing the other's level of interest. More data is needed on this subject to make such generalizations specific, but these studies do point out the importance of roles, status, position, identity, group membership, etc. in relation with phatics.

A similar example is available in a study of yet another cultural area (Egypt). Julia Elyachar recounts how one anthropological informant, Um Hani, needed to get her family's apartment connected to the plumbing system and went about this by visiting her neighbours "until she found someone who knew someone in the right office to take care of this matter" (Elyachar 2010: 454). Although her rationale for doing so was that going straight to the municipal office without knowing anyone there would result in her being ignored and sent from one office to the next and that nobody helps you if you do not have connections (ibid, 454), a different reading would yield the following interpretation: her "back and forth visits with her neigbours [...] with no goal in mind" perhaps did indeed have a "disinterested nature" (Elyachar 2010: 455), but her goal on a broader scale was to find a connection exactly because mutual acquaintances are a means to incite interest and feelings of community in the official she ultimately ended up turning to with her plumbing troubles.

All these examples demonstrate the socially conditioned or learned character of communication and metacommunication. How one should address officials and other people of equal and unequal status is a matter of cultural norms of human relations. Since these examples are bound by the factor of interest or appeal to the addressee, they belong to the phatic-conative category of communicative phenomena (which will be explicated later on).

As a cursory note to a topic that may merit a discussion of its own, a few words can be said about the sources of learning metacommunicative instructions. It may be taken as a given that learning metacommunicative cues is situated in a communicative context, but the measure of sociality (specifically, it's orientation) can be differentiated on the basis of whether they were learned through self-action, inter-action or trans-action (e.g. Ruesch 1972[1953a]: 56). These terms were borrowed from Dewey and Bentley (1949), but here they can be complemented with somewhat clumsy terms like autodidactic, alterdidactic and codidactic.

Ruesch writes that "The experienced and mature person has a knowledge of all the implications and of all the metacommunicative shadings prevailing in a given culture and subculture" (Ruesch 1972[1953a]: 77). This kind of knowledge is of course learned through social interactions, but the modelling involved may take one of three paths: (1) learning metacommunicative cues through self-reflection, e.g. intrapersonal or "fantasy" communication with oneself, such as practicing certain vocal tones or facial expressions that cultural norms dictate should accompany certain types of statements; (2) learning through interaction with peers, e.g. interpersonal communication or social action, such as including the phatic utterances of another in one's own speech register; and (3) learning through cultural conditioning, e.g. sign systems such as literature, poetry, films, theater, etc. In the last case the model may not have to be a specific person but may be a generalized other or an anonymous mass of people.
There are a lot of problems with this division, though. For example, aside from being glossly inappropriate terms for the occasion, alter- and codidactic orientations overlap in some measure because peers are also others, but instead of authority figures who spew wool (receptive style) you have peers who spin yarn (reactive style). The distinction between "equal" others with whom one interacts and the "unequal" others, such as teachers and professors, with whom one transacts, introduces a somewhat arbitrary split between second persons (second persons who are equal to the first person) and third persons (who are on an unequal level). Thus, while this division does accord very generally to Bühler-Jakobsonian pronominal "verbal persons", it should be investigated whether these figurations (cf. Elias 1978[1970]) are universal across all relevant communication systems (and, in fact, what are the relevant communication systems in question). Lastly, the nature of "learning" in this context must be specified in terms of phatics, as learning metacommunicative cues is unlike learning math or philosophy, for example. There is no truth to metacommunicative clues, only suitability, just like with formulae of greeting or approach (cf. Ogden & Richards 1946[1923]: 234).


  • Bateson, Gregory 2000[1966]. Problems in Cetacean and Other Mammalian Communication. In: Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 364-378.
  • Dewey, John and Arthur F. Bentley 1949. Knowing and the Known. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Elias, Norbert 1978[1970]. What is Sociology?. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Elyachar, Julia 2010. Phatic labor, infrastructure, and the question of empowerment in Cairo. American Ethnologist 37(3): 452-464.
  • Kockelman, Paul 2011. Biosemiosis, Technocognition, and Sociogenesis: Selection and Significance in a Multiverse of Sieving and Serendipity. Current Anthropology 52(5): 711-739.
  • Kulkarni, Dipti 2014. Exploring Jakobson's 'phatic function' in instant messaging interactions. Discourse & Communication 8(2): 117-136.
  • Nord, Christiane 2007. The Phatic Function in Translation: Metacommunication as a Case in Point. Belgian Journal of Linguistics 21(1): 171-184.
  • Ogden, Charles K. and Ivor A. Richards 1946[1923]. The Meaning of Meaning: A Study of the Influence of Language upon Thought and of the Science of Symbolism. Eighth edition. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc.
  • Ruesch, Jurgen and Gregory Bateson 1951. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. New York: Norton.
  • Ruesch, Jurgen 1972[1953a]. Synopsis of the Theory of Human Communication. In: Sebeok, Thomas A. (ed.), Semiotic Approaches to Human Relations. The Hague; Paris: Mouton, 47-94.
  • Ruesch, Jurgen 1972[1966]. Social Process. In: Sebeok, Thomas A. (ed.), Semiotic Approaches to Human Relations. The Hague; Paris: Mouton, 21-46.


You can make me an admin now.

If you're okay with it, I'd like to add a favicon to this blog:

Edit: Our writing styles are different, but that shouldn't be an obstacle. I notice that your blockquotes are more exotic and complex. Mine are currently so modest because I'm trying to "hammer out" passages that I could use in my paper or thesis. I had two passages written on parachannel and metachannel, so I expanded them into a post. Now I'm trying to drain ideas or structure from your comments for an exposition on metacommunicative cues. But I'd also like to post fun random stuff, so I'll use this (apparently quite meta) post for that purpose. I wrote the following two paragraphs after I tried to search "phatic" on youtube. The results were quite interesting (for me).

"Super 'Phatic" is a brand of strong but slow glue by Delux Materials used for connecting thin strips of material as in constructing model airplanes. The name of this product is obviously inspired by the anthropological term "phatic communion". It is almost like a pun. Likewise, you could very easily draw on this for terminological purposes and discuss phatic communion as "the social glue" aspect of human communication. Cf. Youtube - Super Phatic! Currently with 3,196 views, this advertising video has gained one comment by tifosiman68, saying "It actually smells good." Even this can be paralleled with Jurgen Ruesch's discussion of how communication is pleasurable in itself. In fact, I now think all of Roman Jakobson's six language functions are something pleasurable: there is aesthetic enjoyment and poetic beauty in the message; there is delight in clarifying the code for someone else or oneself; there is gratification in the expression of emotion; there is appreciation of addressing someone; and there is pleasure in being in contact with someone. Oh, and one can definitely relish referring to the context; that is, there is great enjoyment in thinking about stuff.

In an video by something called the Real Social Dynamics (RSD) and it's supposed "Inner Circle", Todd from a reputed online community of pickup artist introduces the topic of phatic communication by defining it as "denoting speech used to express or create and [sic] atmosphere of shared feelings, goodwill, or sociability rather than to impart information". Cf. Seduce the World Through Social Conditioning - The Secret of Phatic Communication. Notice that the last part about not imparting information is a continuation of Ogden and Richard's suggestion that the referential function lapses in phrases of greeting and the first part about shared feelings, goodwill or sociability is Malinowski's continuation of the latter thought. [Sisuliselt, "tere" ei maksa midagi, sest see on mõttetu, aga sotsiaalne - faatiline.]
Todd explains that he learned about phatic communication in a redderick class. "How to Use Social Conditioning in Your Favor" (original capitalization) by "using the preconceived notions of man-woman interaction and [...] dating" and "flipping it on it's head". He is suggesting to use the culturally learned contexts of situations or situational behavioural patterns by actuating phatic communication that is commonunized through communication in that community. In effect he instructs future pickup artists to use the "formulæ of greeting or approach" (Malinowski 1946[1923]: 314). It is noteworthy that the primary definition of formula is "a mathematical relationship or rule expressed in symbols" and the secondary definition "a fixed form of words, especially one used in particular contexts or as a conventional usage" (Google define:formula). Malinowski's plural noun "formulae" is in this context tantamount to verbal forms such as phrases and aphorisms and nonverbal expressions such as signaling greeting, smiling, nodding head, all forms of touching behaviour, etc. Social dynamics appears in this video as a form of communication manipulation. Phatic communication in the sense of cybernetically "steering" the channel is framed as an issue of power, of total control. It is a willful or volitional operation on the social norms of human contact.

Also, I have a different style of writing because English is not my native language. In case this wasn't clear by my name, I'm Estonian. I don't have a good grasp or a great variety of English idioms, which is why my writings may seem stiff and more academic than is necessary. In my "soul searching" blog I make up for it with silly slang and interjections, but since our aim is to write out what we know about phatics, I'll try to contain myself. Also, is "writing out what we know about phatics" a suitable definition of our yarn-spinning?
One argument I'd like to make at some point is that "the definition of the situation" and shared understandings of what is or is not going on is part of phatics. I'd complement this notion with an equally useful one, the definition of the relationship. I know that some researchers have written explicitly on the verbal and nonverbal means of defining the relationship. I'd like to include some of that in phatics.

Edit #2 - Would you be into the idea of reaching out to other people who work with phatics? I'd very much like to extend the invitation to Dipti Kulkarni, the Indian pragmaticist who a few years ago wrote a doctoral thesis on the phatic function in instant messaging. It is possible that there are other people out there dealing with phatics who could benefit from and maybe even contribute to this blog. In short: maybe get some more people involved with our Phatic Workshop? Then it would be more like... Peer produced peer learning!
Seeing as we're theorizing phatics it would be only appropriate that we minimally open the channel with some select few people who may be interested in phatics and the possibility of a phatic turn (that is, e-mail them). Maximally, I think, we could write a public letter of sorts - compose a PDF document with this blog's logo (the favicon) and URL address, with a short statement about what we're doing (maybe even some cursory definitions related with phatics, e.g. phatic labor, μ-function, etc.) and an invite for anyone interested to become a contributor to our public forum of a blog on phatics, and upload it to with relevant research interests ("Phatic Communication", 25 followers; "Phatic communion", 5 followers, "Phatics", 1 follower) marked, so that the document appears in those people's feeds.

Extra channels

In the following, I would like to clarify the connection between channel and context and concomitantly the difference between metachannel and parachannel.

Paul Kockelman urges us "to notice the fundamental similarity between codes and channels" (2011: 725) but instead of that purported fundamental similarity points out the contrast between them. I argue that context, or objects and states of affairs (Bühler 2011[1934]: 35), demonstrate a closer relationship to channel than to code.

This is largely because the first three fundamental relations, sender or subject, context or object, and receiver or addressee, belong to Bühler's original organon model while code, contact and message, which were previously implicit in the organon model, are made explicit as additions to the model by Jakobson (1985[1976c]). Thus the most productive approach would be to pair a component from the original organon model with an additional component in the language functions model. When you add Jakobson's extra components to Bühler's original model, the contact component is very naturally positioned between the sender and receiver and opposite of the context (or objects and states of affairs). In fact, before channel was brought out as a separate component it was implicit in the "states of affairs": you cannot point to an object and capture another's attention through this signal without there being a transmission medium, a channel, through which the signal could be conveyed.
The connection between channel and context also makes a lot of sense when they are replaced by circumlocutions: context can be understood as verbal context (context in this sense amounts to co-text, the verbal material surrounding the given utterance); and channel can be understood as nonverbal situation, the physical surroundings (environment) and the medium through which communication occurs. There are of course problems with these definitions; the most problematic issue at present day is the lack of consideration for newer forms of communication. Dipti Kulkarni, for example, went through great pains to interpret Jakobson's "physical channel" as attention and "psychological connection" as interest and agreement (Kulkarni 2014: 119). Although this is a suitable reduction for her purposes of studying phatic utterances in instant messages, it does consciously avoid the question of what is "physical" in computer mediated communication. But since it's such a difficult issue to tackle, I'll leave it be for the moment.

I'd much rather like to suggest a solution through an expansion of the channel component by turning to other, older, approaches. Thus, I would identify the "physical channel" aspect with the possibility of a metachannel, or a physical "channel of observation" (Cherry 1977[1957]: 91) connected to an object-channel (the speech-circuit between A and B). And while the concept of metachannel has existed on the worn pages of 1950s communication theory, I would like to step on thin ice and suggest the concept of parachannel as the concomitant of "psychological connection". This addition is based upon the pronominal "verbal persons" aspect of the original organon model; namely, that Bühler's subject, addressee and object were originally the first person I, the second person you and not only the referential object it but also any third person he, she and they.

In other words, when referring to a third person, that person is "objectified" in the very narrow sense of being the object of reference. Jakobson notes that the third person is understood as the "nonperson" in some linguistic traditions (Jakobson 1981j: 786), but in my interpretation that third person is non-existent only in the given communication situation. I think this is a very important point, as the people we discuss, whom we reference, quote and make casual remarks about are very often real people with whom we have had some communicative contact before. When Jakobson writes that the context of the message must be graspable for the addressee, then it is implicit in this statement that if the referent of a message is a person then the addressee should know who that person is. This is how one arrives from the understanding of verbal context as an assemblage of interrelated utterance to the connection or relation between context and channel: that the combination of these factors constitutes the social context of communication.

Thus, when the third person observer who "listens in" on the speech-circuit between A and B, then he, she, they or it becomes a participant in the social situation. Communication in public space is rife with potential metachannels. For example, while walking in a park and discussing literature with a friend, any passer-by may catch fragments of the discussion and glimpses of the interaction. Every security camera set up in that park is a potential metachannel. The third person may also be an observer-participant in the communication system, as when in a group discussion two people get into a heated debate while the rest of the group is listening in and has the option to interfere at any moment.

The third person in the parachannel on the other hand is not present in the social situation but is present as a trace in the social context of communication, as when talking about him, her, they or even it. The third person is not present and cannot interfere, but his or her influence is reverberating through the communication system, by either the sender or receiver, or preferably both, being acquainted to the third person or because the sender just had an interesting chat with that third person and is now trying to relay the information to the second person.

The definition of parachannel would amount to something like an existing, pre-existing or potential communicative contact between the sender and/or receiver with a third person who is known either to the sender and/or receiver. In short, the metachannel refers to a third, fourth or n-th participant in the communication system, while the parachannel refers to a third, fourth or n-th person who is not a participant in the given communication system, but is the object of discussion and known to any given participant in the communication system.

It should be noted that the para- ("beside, beyond") in parachannel is here understood as a communication channel that is in some way distinct from the object-channel and not reducible to the metachannel. An example may be in order. Let's say that there is a social situation in which two persons meet up, exchange pleasantries and begin discussing what is happening in their lives while strolling in the park. The channel that connects these two people, A and B, is the object-channel (if they were to discuss rainclouds then then that would be the object that their channel is about). When they walk past an elderly man, C, sitting on a parkbench, they inadvertantly open a metachannel for C to listen in on their conversation (unless they restrict the metachannel by becoming quiet while passing C). Then one of them, say A, remembers that a mutual acquaintance D called earlier to inform A about something and urged A to inform B as well. This is the curious case of the parachannel: an earlier communicative contact (between A and D) becomes the object in current communicative contact (between A and B).

I belabor the difference between meta- and parachannel because common-sense notion of what is "meta" could argue that what I call parachannel is metacommunication. That would be true in the sense of diachronic metacommunication (communication about earlier communication) but not in the sense of syncronic metacommunication (communication about current communication). This artificial distinction must be called out when comparing how metacommunication was understood syncronically by Ruesch and Bateson (1951) and how it is understood diarchronically in some strands of translation studies which rely heavily on the communication paradigm (e.g. Nord 2007; Torop 2000).

All this concerns phatics in a unique way. While the Jakobsonian phatic function of language is operative only in the exchange of pleasantries in the initiation, maintenance and termination of communicative contact, para- and metachannels demonstrate how any communication act is in fact situated in a social matrix of metachannels (people who are physically part of the social situation and able to listen in or observe the communication act) and parachannels (people who are referentially part of the communication act and its social context).

On a broader scale parachannels make up what Elyachar calls the social infrastructure. When she specifies that "one can think of sets of channels as infrastructure" (Elyachar 2010: 455), these sets of channels should include not only object-channels (e.g. who knows whom) but also metachannels (e.g. who is known to whom) and parachannels (e.g. who knows someone who knows someone else). By considering these other types of communicative channels it is possible to elucidate the actual network structure of human sociability and arrive at the social matrix discussed by Ruesch and Bateson (1951).

Lastly, a word of caution towards the ontological status of the third person. Connecting channel and context this way has a lot to do with displaced and reported speech. Just like you can quote a nonexisting person like a literary character, you can also refer to people who do not exist in general or even "nonpersons" in the very literal sense (animals and machines are not persons in the strict sense). In this regard the act of "communication" in parachannels is of a questionable status. If I read Immanuel Kant, did he really communicate with me? Ultimately both para- and metachannels could be subsumed under the clumsy notion of unilateral communication. In this sense the metachannel amounts to third-party receiving (the old man on the parkbench overheard the conversation) and parachannel to third-party sending ("Immanuel Kant writes that...", "D called and informed me that..."). In other words, besides situating the communication system in a social matrix of people you know or know about, these notions could also situate the communication system in the cultural matrix of anonymous messages and "made-up" people or characters.


  • Bühler, Karl 2011[1934]. Theory of Language: The representational function of language. Translated by Donald Fraser Goodwin in collaboration with Achim Eschbach. Amsterdam; Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.
  • Cherry, Colin 1977[1957]. On human communication: a review, a survey, and a criticism. 2nd ed. Cambridge; London: MIT Press.
  • Elyachar, Julia 2010. Phatic labor, infrastructure, and the question of empowerment in Cairo. American Ethnologist 37(3): 452-464.
  • Jakobson, Roman 1981j. Retrospect. In: Rudy, Stephen (ed.), Selected Writings III: Poetry of Grammar and Grammar of Poetry. The Hague; Paris; New York: Mouton, 765-789.
  • Jakobson, Roman 1985[1976c]. Metalanguage as a Linguistic Problem. In: Rudy, Stephen (ed.), Selected Writings VII: Contributions to Comparative Mythology. Studies in Linguistics and Philology, 1972-1982. Preface by Linda R. Waugh. Berlin; New York; Amsterdam: Mouton, 113-121.
  • Kockelman, Paul 2011. Biosemiosis, Technocognition, and Sociogenesis: Selection and Significance in a Multiverse of Sieving and Serendipity. Current Anthropology 52(5): 711-739.
  • Kulkarni, Dipti 2014. Exploring Jakobson's 'phatic function' in instant messaging interactions. Discourse & Communication 8(2): 117-136.
  • Nord, Christiane 2007. The Phatic Function in Translation: Metacommunication as a Case in Point. Belgian Journal of Linguistics 21(1): 171-184.
  • Ruesch, Jurgen and Gregory Bateson 1951. Communication: The Social Matrix of Psychiatry. New York: Norton.
  • Torop, Peeter 2000. Tõlge ja/kui retseptsioon ["Translation and/as reception"]. In: Torop, Peeter, Kultuurimärgid [Cultural Signs]. Tartu: Ilmamaa, 16-26.

towards a 無-calculus

Phasis thero
As you have said, there is no essence of seeing with an independent nature apart from phenomena. -- Surangama sutra
This relates to our discussion of a phatic turn.  The Surangama sutra talks about how perception arises: seeing is not in the eyes, nor the brain, nor the lamp, but in the total situation.  On the face of it, this is a sort of "macro-reductionism".  But it's a start, and I think we can back up the claim by referring to the quantum mechanical ideas from the previous post.  Perception really does arise in relationship.  Actually, not just in relationship -- but in the development of further inter-relatedness.

From this idea we will move quickly on to the idea that "practice" and "enlightenment" -- hopefully ideas that will become clearer as we go -- also arise together:
Inasmuch as practice now is based on enlightenment, the practice of a beginner is itself the whole of original enlightenment.  Therefore, in giving the instruction for practice, a Zen teacher advises his/her disciples not to seek enlightenment apart from practice, for practice points directly to original enlightenment.   -- Eihei Dogen: Mystical Realist, p. 64
I like the idea that meditation and wisdom or practice and enlightenment are words that describe a pair approximately like eval and apply from the previous post.  That is, they are defined in terms of one another and constitute an overall approach.  They seem to offer us some further examples of Deleuzian multiplicities.

Indeed, portions of the Surangama sutra almost read like something from Difference and Repetition, or vice versa:
Thus from that which was beyond both identity and diversity arose all differences.  When the differentiating subject confronted its differentiated objects, the resultant diversity led to identification. Identity and diversity further led to that which was neither the same nor different.  These conflicting disturbances resulted in troubled perception which in time gave rise to objective form.  -- Surangama sutra
Phasis deals with perception, and isn't that all about how differences can arise in that which is beyond identity and diversity?

Which brings me to this quote --
"狗子還有佛性也無?" - There is no Buddha-natured dog child?
"無" - No.
The typical and perhaps somewhat over-clever interpretation of this passage is to read 無 as "N/A", in other words, to carry the teacherly suggestion "such categorical thinking is a delusion."   But from what we've traced above I think we can go a bit deeper.  Categorical thinking, in itself, is certainly not a delusion: the key step would be to figure out how the categories relate.

The en-mindment of sentient beings is just part of the universe as a whole -- a very Monist-ical thing to consider, I should say.  The idea that the universe does not arise apart from thought is the Buddhistic way of putting it.  The assertion could be that the dog is not going to go about creating entire universes with its thinking the way a Buddha does, even if it exists in the mind of a Buddha.

Can we make any sense out of any of that?  The dog is subject to the same quantum-mechanical forces as the rest of the world.  But apparently there is something special about humans, or at least, about enlightened humans -- which are said to exist, and which, in fact, are not different from humans who practice.  It could be as simple as saying that dogs do not practice doggie zazen, or, much better because intersubjectively verifiable, that they do not teach doggie zazen.

They may very well practice phatic communication -- biting on the scruff of the neck etc. -- but to what extent do they relate to relationship itself?

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

towards a μ-calculus

The λ-calculus was designed to deal with swapping variables into functional expressions.  Thus λx.x is the lambda expression for "right back at you" and λx.xy is the lambda expression for "right back at you times y."   You can encode numbers this way, so λf.λx.x means "take in a function f and a symbol x, and apply f to the symbol precisely zero times."  Similarly, λf.λx.fx means "take in a function f and a symbol x and apply f to it one time."   If we adopt the notation nf to mean "apply the function f n times", then the rather clever expression λm.λn.λf.λ nf x  means "take in n, m, and a function f and a symbol x, then apply f to x n times, and subsequently apply f to the result m times."

So, it's possible to define a function for "n+1" by λn.λf.λx.f nf x -- and so on and so forth.  In fact, any computation you can do you can express this way, which is the Church-Turing thesis.

I like the λ-calculus particularly because it is so close to the programming language LISP, which I find just great for practical programming.  That said, programming is based on the metaphor of language and of "effective procedures", whereas when we think about context, I think we have to be prepared to think in a very different way.  Sure, we could imagine that a given lambda expression describes a "context of evaluation" -- i.e. we could really stick in all the f's and x's and m's and n's and see what comes out -- but when we think about context as it applies in our own world, it's much richer than just a linguistic notion.

This may help to explain why various efforts to "formalize" context within a computational, er, setting, have not been entirely satisfactory.  Hirst 1997 writes that "the notion of 'context' can be defined only in terms of its effects in a particular situation."  This seems to to evade the point in a "micro-reductive" way.

Gregory Bateson was interested in thinking about cybernetics, but didn't seem to feel constrained to think about it using a strictly computational or information-theoretic paradigm, while still being informed by the ideas.   This gave him the freedom to talk about ideas like "context", "relationship", "learning", and "communication" without needing to define them in precise computational terms.  Nevertheless, he handles the ideas fairly rigorously.  The first upshot of his analysis is that communication depends on learning.  That is perhaps not so surprising, since it's basically an information-theoretic claim.  The second key point, which I think makes his writing interesting, is that communication depends on a relationship.  If were to read the word "channel" instead of "relationship", then there would be nothing new here either.  But a relationship is not really the same as a channel.  At the final point in this tower is "context" -- that is, relationships exist within a context.  Bateson says that means that there is no communication without a meta-communication that classifies the other communication.  But I think the concepts of relationship and context are still richer.

In any case, a simple example is the idea of a telos -- a goal or final cause.  Thus, a somewhat abstracted moth "relates" to a candle, or to the moon, as its goal.  Human beings set their sights still further and proceed per aspera ad astra.

Now, relationships themselves do not come out of nowhere -- they are themselves "voiced".  I put this word in quotes because the voicing may not be linguistic or vocal at all.  Thus, an adult wolf voices its relationship of pack-dominance by gently biting down on the scruff of the neck of a junior wolf, in order to say "I am your adult, you are my puppy."  And a cat voices its relationship to its owner by saying "mew, mew" in front of the refrigerator -- which Bateson translates as "dependency, dependency."

This becomes the prototype for an entire class of behaviors that "voice" relationship -- these are Bateson's μ-functions.  I think that the idea that Rasmus Rebane advances in the following quote nicely illustrates how this works in the context of human communication:
In other words, the "channel" that some phatic utterances are "about" are not the given contact between A and B but the contact that A and B both have with C. This is almost the reverse of a metachannel, perhaps something like a parachannel (although these communication theory terms are perhaps not the best ones for the occasion). -- soul searching: phatic labor post
When I say "Nice weather we're having" the remark may be overtly about the weather, but it's also more importantly about something we at least nominally have in common.  A possible reply would be "Oh, I don't know, I think we could do with a bit of rain."   This need not be seen as a combative remark, and may  indeed be an opening for a conversation with greater intimacy.

Indeed, this business with "C" opens up onto a huge space of potential commonality.  As context is being shaped and reshaped through use -- rather like the moguls on a ski slope -- there is every opportunity to relate to it in different ways.
"Infrastructure is a classic 'public good,' as a set of resources available to all. [...] The creation and maintenance of infrastructure is not itself directly productive of value and yet is essential to the capitalist system of production." (Elyachar 2010: 455)
I've been quite interested in questions about the creation and maintenance of public goods: they seem about as close as we get in this secular age to "sacred" things.  Well, sacred also means that which is set aside as opposed to that which is common.  So there is an interesting tension here to say the least.

The provision of a public good may be very unlike what we tend to think of when we think "public" or "good."  Here's an image from the comic Miracleman illustrating the fictional destruction of London through the effect of god-like wrath.  This isn't simply for shock value.  If we think of the destruction of the natural environment, we get something equally bad, just less directly visual.  The fact that the earth's environment is under serious threat is another reason to take Rasmus Rebane's idea of a phatic turn very seriously.   Bateson said similar things and sadly, environmental stuff has hardly gotten any better since his time.  We get into real-world moral dilemmas that would probably make Malthus squirm, and that seem to require theoretical treatment that goes farther than mere utilitarianism.  Maybe a μ-calculus could help with this, but I don't mean that it would specifically be a "moral calculus."

The doings of Kid Miracleman: Absolute power corrupts
What I would like to explore in a suitable framing is the development of a  μ-calculus that deals with the establishment, maintenance, and evolution of relationship(s).  Whereas the λ-calculus confines itself to very specific kinds of basically-linguistic relationships between terms, I think the μ-calculus should be much more physical.  I am partly inspired by contemporary ideas in quantum mechanics that basically says that as time goes by, everything is becoming more interrelated with everything else.  I am also inspired by my reading of Deleuze's Difference and Repetition.  A key concept in that work is the idea of a manifold or as he puts it a multiplicity.
By dimensions, we mean the variables or co-ordinates upon which a phenomenon depends; by continuity, we mean the set of relations between changes in these variables -- for example, a quadratic form of the differentials of the co-ordinates; by definition, we mean the elements reciprocally determined by these relations, elements which cannot change unless the multiplicity changes its order and its metric. -- p. 231 of Difference and Repetition (Bloomsbury Ed.)
At the same time I would also like the work to have an at least "quasi-" computational flavor.  It might not deal in algorithms per se, but if the theory was developed with regard to discrete structures, it could be computable. I would say that it should be possible to give a λ-calculus "reading" of μ structures in much the same way that a network can be decomposed into trees.

There's something just so elegant about this kind of stuff:
(1.) To evaluate a combination (a compound expression other than a special form), evaluate the subexpressions and then apply the value of the operator subexpression to the values of the operand subexpressions.   (2.) To apply a compound procedure to a set of arguments, evaluate the body of the procedure in a new environment.  To construct this environment, extend the environment part of the procedure object by a frame in which the formal parameters of the procedure are bound to the arguments to which the procedure is applied.  - Structure and Interpretation of Computer Programs 4th Ed.
 ... but even so I wonder whether this isn't just one example of Deleuze's understanding of multiplicity.