Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Complex Rhetoric

As I was reading the section of the book where Arthur and Kauffman are discussing bootstrapping and self-replicating systems (‘round page 126 or so), I began to wonder what the implications of these systems were for the study of rhetoric. Kauffman’s genetic networks and the book’s discussion of emergent properties had put me in mind of the connectionist diagrams Hutchins had in chapter 7 (?) and their implication that too much information was a bad thing—it tended to bias all the agents to a particular outcome. This interpretation seemed to dovetail nicely with Arthur’s ideas about the ways in which technology gets a foothold and tends to root out other technologies: VHS tape killed Beta, cars relegated horses to the care of enthusiasts, gasoline engines beat out steam-power. It seemed to me that similar sorts of phenomena occur in persuasive situations. Consider the Al Qaeda link to Iraq. Near as I can tell, this particular link was always a little fuzzy, but it was insinuated so often that it was accepted as true by a majority of Americans long after it had been shown to be ill-founded. Why—when the information that would counter that claim was so widely available between TV news and the Internet—why did it persist? Perhaps Arthur’s theory of “early adoption” or “self replication” indicates how it was initially privileged so that it was almost impossible to eradicate quickly.

Does this seem like a plausible reading of that event? Can you guys think of similar sorts of events that would support or contradict a self-replicating kind of rhetoric?


Blogger Anthony M. said...

Well, I'm not going to answer either of your questoins I don't think.... But I do want to say how I think what you're talking about is related to one thing I mentioned (sort of in passing) in my post.... or maybe it doesn't

So, let's say that what you're saying is true: the mention of an Al Qaeda-Iraq connection was repeated enough times that it conditioned our cultural synapses to tend to see that as reality, regardless of "information that would counter that claim" being "so widely available". Isn't one possible implication for rhetoric the fact that repetition is the most effective "argument," since any slightly extended reasoning would lead you to reject the connection? Maybe thinking in terms of the simplified nodes of a connectionist network leads us to see all "arguments"--extended (a well put together political speech) or not (calling Saddam an international terrorist)--as equivalent: simple bits of information. um... Am I being cynical or maybe just totally unsophisicated here?

2:36 PM  
Blogger Annie said...

I'm not an athlete or an advertising guru, but I can think of two possible examples from these industries. Visualization is a common technique athletes use to "program" into themselves a belief in their ability to succeed. Studies have shown that visualization and "self talk" does influence the behavior of athletes (and, for that matter, people wanting to change their outlook on life). This seems like an example of self-reinforcing or self-replicating rhetoric.

Another one is that mega advertisers like McDonalds have found that after seven exposures to a particular advertising message, consumers are more likely to buy the product.

9:17 AM  
Blogger jmj said...


I think I was heading towards some statement along the lines of your 'repetition is the most effective "argument"' comment. Additionally, I would add order to repetition. It seems that in complex situations, the earliest solution that promises to order the problem is accepted.


That's an interesting factoid about McDonalds. (I wonder if the same number of repetitions would work for my students.)

10:33 AM  
Blogger mdl said...

Hi John--Cool question!
I think that, yes. And what an interesting link.

To look at another specific example, Aristotle says that rhetoric works best when an audience can supply the "missing link" in the enthymeme, which on the surface, at first suggests that no--it's not "what which has gets." But it is, as Scholes and other people talk about how the best enthymemes ask audience members to supply a "missing" piece of information that supports their already preexisting cultural assumptions.


Saddam hates America.
(Terrorists hate America)
Saddam must be one of the terroists.

The unspoken warrant plays upon the fears that have already been propagated across people's minds. But, this is most powerful because audiences can make this conclusion themselves.

You know what it reminds me of? That stuff that Holland is talking about when he used the capitalism metaphor to describe how cell evolution happens. Some systems benefit from the "billboarding" or "advertisement" of other systems. athough, this is a fuzzy link.

2:28 PM  
Blogger IB said...

jmj, great questions! Social psychologists would answer a little differently to your exaplanation of why the link between Al Quaeda and Iraq became so deep-rooted that even counter evidence could not break it. From what I know about social psychology, it is not so much the quantity of information that feeds such links but the quality of this information and the match with pre-existing beliefs. First, newspaper reports about persons or events were shown to be better remembered when the reports were pronounced as having been incorrect. Thus, a supected criminal who is cleared of all suspicions is more strongly associated with the crime than were the clearing of suspicions not reported in the newspaper. The underlying processes behind this are not yet fully understood though but a one time report was shown to be enough. Second, information that is consistent with pre-existing beliefs is remembered better than information contradicting these beliefs - if the information is not deeply processed (which I assume of the average tv viewer who does not have access to any more information than is presented in the news themselves). Therefore, a one time exposure to the information would have been enough to sweep away a large portion of tv viewers to believing in the link. These would be the persons who in Hutchins diagram are already very close to one corner at the start.

3:13 PM  

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