Cooper, Marilyn.  “Being Linked to the Matrix: Biology, Technology, and Writing.”  eds. Selber, Stuart A. Rhetorics and Technologies : New Directions in Writing and Communication. Studies in Rhetoric/Communication; Variation: Studies in Rhetoric/Communication. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010. 15-32.

  • C. begins by recounting how her early work in 1986 attempted to articulate a view of writing as social action or writing as a process that shapes environments and is shaped by environments.  This understanding of writing (eco-composition?) converged with many theories of complex systems that were being published at the time: Mandolbrot, Stengers, and Maturana/Varela were all published in 1986.
  • On page 16 Cooper provides a who’s who of complexity theory – running the gamut from folks in the posthumanities like Hansen, Hayles, and Taylor to the phenomenologists and scientists.  Here it is reproduced in all its glory:

  • C. claims that her approach to writing differs from the activity theorists (Bazerman, Russell, Prior) as well as the 3rd sophistics a la Vitanza because of her “emphasis on writing as arising from responses to others and to social and physical environments, responses that involve both body and mind and are only partly and sometimes intentional” (17).  This differs from the New London Group’s and Activity theorists group’s emphasis on writing as an “intentional cognitive process.”[1. C. claims that the activity theorists emphasis on the conscious act of writing can be challenged by cognition studies in animals (Uexkull, Csanyi, Griffin, and Hauser) that argue that humans have not “lost their instincts or that the link between need and goal is determined by ideal internal images” (18).  In other words, while AT argues that “people’s ideal images make it possible to foresee the product (goal-oriented activity), C. claims that cognitive studies in animals actually disputes this claim.].
  • C. claims that the 3rd sophistics see writing as a “flow” or autonomous force that animates humans who are largely unconscious of writing’s desire(s).  Writing is embodied in V.’s schema; however, the human subject doesn’t really play a role in “intentional response” (18).
  • Because C. sees writing as embodied, conscious interaction with the external world, she argues that writing is as much biological as it is a cultural practice:  writing emerges as people interact.. . . not as products of minds or free-floating linguistic flows but embodied, real-responses to the lifeworld. As she notes, the AT and 3rd sophistics are incorrect because in the process of writing 1) words and tools aren’t separate objects to be used but things experienced by our bodies and brains; and 2) composition is not an autonomous social action but an interaction that depends on stimulus and response (19-20); and 3) writing is a complex system organized by the dense interactions of writers and their worlds.
  • All this points to language (via Wittgenstein, animal behaviorists, and Maturana) of language not as symbolic system or instrument of communication but a coordinator of behavior (20).  This results in autopoetic systems or situations wherein, according to Maturana, “We literally create the world in which we live by living it” (“Biology” 61, Cooper 22).  This means meaning is contextually negotiated through mutual engagement in interaction.  This is further reinforced with the work of anthropologists that argues that tools weren’t “discovered” for particular uses but were, rather, “discovered” through kinetic physical extensions of the already present human body.
  • C. notes that an understanding of writing as interaction revises traditional assumptions about invention:  “Understanding skill as an interactive achievement of organisms and their environments rather than a flash of genius emphasizes the importance of playing around with stuff in any kind of production or invention” (24).
  • C. brings Writing Studies and evolutionary biology together by arguing that the “cultural evolution” that occurs as writers engage in complex systems structured by their responses to one another and the environment is much akin to the “structural coupling” that Maturana and Varela describe – a process through which beings whose interactions are recurrent and stable undergo “mutual congruent structural changes” in their composition.  This leads to coordinated action (like in AT but without the goal-directed action . . I think?) that we often end up calling “culture” or “society” (in its extremely complex iterations) (24).
  • The fact that human beings can continually remake their coordinated action by integrating and abandoning various tools (including symbolic language) accounts for their remarkable difference from other genetically similar organisms.  In this view, writing doesn’t liberate the mind by providing a record of past thoughts but by providing some problem-solving tools that allow cognitive shortcuts (25-6).  So, nonbiological elements (tools, instruments, writing, media, notation) used by humans “complement our basic biological modes of processing, creating extended cognitive systems whose computational and problem-solving files are quite different from those of the naked brain” (26).
  • C. claims that this understanding of writing as evolutionary cultural-biological structural coupling has marked implications for the teaching of writing using technology. . . specifically, it brings to bear new pressures on the rhetorical situation as traditionally articulated.  Instead of imagining the rhetorical situation, C. claims students should place themselves right in the middle of it. . . because that’s where the process of writing as technobiological interaction occurs.  C.’s explanation of writing as cognitive ecology also changes the way we think of instruction: not a dissemination of information but a participatory practice of tool-mediated engagement (28).
  • A lovely concluding paragraph:

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