Restructuring Thought: Leveraging Ong for an Interdisciplinary Cognitive Science
In Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, cognitive scientist Andy Clark argues that “the study of mind might ... need to embrace a variety of different explanatory paradigms whose point of convergence lies in the production of intelligent behavior” (95). In brief, Clark holds that human cognition is not the exclusive province of the brain, but is rather extended across the brain, the body, technology, and cultural and environmental scaffolds. In this paper, I embrace Clark’s model of the mind and offer the work of Walter Ong as such a “different explanatory paradigm,” which not only converges with cognitive science, but also expands the scope and relevance of the humanities (and rhetoric specifically) in the study of human intelligence. Doing so, however, might also push the contemporary humanities and perhaps our own discipline in some uncomfortable directions. The movement of interdisciplinarity is here twofold, and so to is resistance: 1) will they let us in, and 2) will we let ourselves out? Ong, I argue, is useful in both instances, making the case that a) the humanities have much to offer cognitive science and b) the humanities should not shy away from the sciences, in particular those engaged with questions of technology and human becoming such as Clark’s. As Ong writes in a review of Marshall McLuhan, “His critics often seem to feel that whoever does not stand off from technology and bureaucracy far enough to throw stones at them is betraying the cause of humanity” (69-70). Ong here echoes technical communication scholar Michael Knievel’s claim that “taking anticipatory, developmental responsibility for tools,” is a view that often “seems
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incongruous with the humanities' notion of self' (77). Overcoming this fear, this feeling of incongruence, is important, because I hear embedded in Clark’s work the claim that technology and bureaucracy (though he might say environment or scaffold) are fundamentally inseparable from humanity. Ong helps us claim a rightful and necessary (if not uncomfortable) place in any articulation of the extended mind. Ong’s work is not yet done—there is much we need from him still. What this paper needs to do, then, is to get Ong and Clark talking to one another and to get us to want them to do so in the first place. And to prove how potent Ong’s work is, I’ll do all of this with one essay: “Writing is a Technology That Restructures Thought” (my apologies to Paul for what amounts to an extended name check). The title of this essay already begins to make the move I will today advocate.
Echoes and Resonances As a cognitive scientist, Clark treats external, nonbiological elements as often part of the human mind. However, and as Clark himself admits, cognitive scientists typically treat the brain as their primary object of study. They often lack a theoretical framework and research methodology for understanding many of the nonbiological elements that are part and parcel of the human mind (were they so inclined, which, full disclosure, many are not). Clark has spent nearly two decades developing, defending, and refining his extended mind model. For example (and a better example, in terms of Ong, does not exist), describing the act of writing in relation to thinking Clark argues, “I would like to […] suggest that [the individual] was actually thinking on the paper” (Supersizing xxv). The physical task of writing—using pencil and paper—“reliably and
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robustly provides a functionality which, were it provided by goings-on in the head alone, we would have no hesitation in designating as part of the cognitive circuitry” (Supersizing xxv). Building from such examples of the mind as extended, Clark concludes, “The local mechanisms of mind, if this is correct, are not all in the head” (Supersizing xxviii). Rather than seeing us as brainbound, Clark posits humans as “creatures whose minds are special precisely because they are tailor-made for multiple mergers and coalitions” (Natural-Born 7). In this we should hear strong echoes of Ong’s work. Even though we have no way of knowing how far out Ong would place the human mind, he would surely grant that much of what comes in changes the mind. I can think of no better place to start than Ong’s argument that We can now view in better perspective the world of writing in which we live, see better what this world really is, and what functionally literate human beings really are—that is, beings whose thought processes do not grow out of simply natural powers but out of these powers as structured, directly or indirectly, by the technology of writing. Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does. (24) Perhaps the strongest echo, or the most salient one given rhetoric’s tortured relationship with the idea of “artifice,” lies in Clark’s title, Natural-Born Cyborg, which plays with the very idea of natural and Ong’s assertion that, “Technologies are artificial, but—paradox again—artificiality is natural to human beings” (32). And we hear it when Ong writes, “Writing was an intrusion, though an invaluable intrusion, into the early human lifeworld, much as computers are today” (27). And, Ong writes, “We recognize here the same complaint that is made against computers: they are artificial contrivances, foreign to human life” (27). Both Clark and Ong are resisting or at least complicating an age-old binary system—between the real, the natural and the artificial,
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the conventional—around which rhetoric and composition and, Clark argues, cognitive science have too long orbited. In finding ways to articulate Ong and Clark, I see a way around this binary—or at least a way through it. Once the bounds of cognition extend beyond the brain, the mind, far from simply or purely “natural,” becomes historical, political, ethical, and, thus, rhetorical.
Bridges and Tunnels Clark and Ong agree on the cognitive work made possible through technology and both mark the stakes of such a conception: the artificial contrivances of humans in turn constitute what it is to become human. “To say writing is artificial,” writes Ong, “is not to condemn it but praise it” (32). I now trace the work of cognitive extension and it implications in building bridges and digging tunnels between the Ong and Clark. First, both Ong’s and Clark's models necessarily if implicitly challenge how a science of mind ought to look and which disciplines are allowed to participate in that science. Clark confronts the problem in this way: “For the wider applicability of the [extended mind model] [...] requires us to be open to treating more transient external props and aids, assuming they are at least typically available in some problem-solving contexts, as aspects of human cognitive processing” (Supersizing 113). John Sutton, also in cognitive science, asks, “What would cognitive science be like, how could it continue, if its objects include notebooks, sketchpads, and tattoos as well as embodied brains” (214). He concludes by arguing that “[the extended mind] can thus tap and in turn influence the enormous and diverse scholarship on memory, perception, emotion, and so on in humanities disciplines, to see what might happen if we try to study cognition scientifically and culturally at once” (215). (It’s phrases
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such as Sutton’s “in turn influence” that might make a humanist nervous.) Additionally, Clark argues that not every external prop or aid works to forge “larger hybrid wholes” (Supersizing 115) and that such nonbiological elements are sometimes integrated and sometimes not. That is, my mind might very well extend through a notebook but not just any notebook. Not every aspect of an environment or just any available piece of technology becomes integrated. Clark describes the process by which we choose one tool over any other as “endorsement.” “Endorsement,” which isn’t much elaborated by Clark, creates a pretty comfortable space for rhetoric in cognitive science. Ong’s essay enacts a way rhetoric (from within the humanities) can account for the endorsements (why this technology and not some other?) that lead to what Clark calls cognitive extension. Ong traces the historical, cultural, political, and even mechanical emergence of writing. That is, Ong, in tracing how writing emerged gradually from orality, demonstrates how a cognition extending and augmenting technology became persuasive and pervasive (why it was endorsed) and thus provides an explanatory paradigm of the sort Clark has called for. In several brief passages, Ong lays bare the fraughtness of cognition that Clark can only imply. Ong writes, “Throughout its history, writing intersects massively [what an awesome phrase] with all sorts of social structures and practices, so that it by no means follows exactly the same development in all cultures” (35-36). Cognition here is not ubiquitous in either its form or function. Less earthshattering, perhaps, but no less important, Ong writes, “Writing itself has social causes” (35). This emphasis on the social and the historical is just what we expect from a humanist. Things start to get really interesting in terms of interdisciplinarity when Ong turns to the mechanical, the materiality of writing technology:
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Yet writing […] is a technology, calling for the use of tools and other equipment, styli or brushes or pens, carefully prepared surfaces such as paper, animal skins, strips of wood, as well as inks or paints, and much more. Writing technologies have differed in different parts of the world. In their own indigenous technologies of writing, East Asia […] typically used not pens but brushes, not liquid ink in inkhorns or inkwells, but ink blots, on which the wet brush was rubbed as in making water-colour paintings, in this sense ‘painting’ rather than ‘writing’ […] their texts. (30) Furthermore, “Todays ballpoint pens, not to mention our typewriters and word processors or the paper we use, are high-technology products, but we seldom advert to the fact because the technology is concentrated in the factories that produce such things, rather than at the point of production of the text itself, where the technology is concentrated in a manuscript culture” (30). If cognition is extended across technologies, then any scientific description or ethical treatment of cognition must extend beyond the brain and the production of the text itself and back through the technology and culture that first produced the technology. This isn’t exactly the emphasis we’d expect from a humanist: Ong moves us deeper into the technological rather than away from and above it. As Ong suggests in his McLuhan review, this is the move likely to make a certain kind of humanist frightfully uncomfortable. Yet, Ong’s humanist credentials are unimpeachable. Working with more traditional humanist fare, Ong also marks the ethical stakes of cognitive extension. The final move of his lecture is to describe 14 separations caused by writing. That is, after charting how writing was developed as technology, Ong marks how writing in turn turned on us. I will hit but a few of the highlights. And while we might not agree with any one of these and we might want to add nuance and additional depth, I discuss them only to demonstrate how a humanities scholar performs cognitive science and performs the sciences and
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the humanities as one in the same. • • “Writing separates the known from the knower. It promotes ‘objectivity’” (37).
“Writing distances the source of the communication (the writer) from the recipient (the reader), both in time and in space” (39). • • “Writing separates past from present” (40). “Perhaps the most momentous of all its diaeretic effects in the deep history of thought is the effect of writing when it separates being from time” (43). “Becoming becomes being” (44). All of these profoundly ethical implications are made all the more salient once we acknowledge, as both Ong and Clark do, that cognition as we know it is a function of persuasion across brains, bodies, technologies, cultures, and environments. Here is where Ong really starts to work for us: he makes us recognizable to a cognitive scientist like Andy Clark, while also keeping us close to home. With both of these moves—tracing how writing became persuasive and marking the effects of this persuasion—Ong performs how we would take part in an interdisciplinary cognitive science. In “Writing is a Technology That Restructures Thought” Ong is a cognitive scientist.
Where to Go (From Here)? First, interdisciplinary conferences provide new places for our work. Clark was a plenary speaker at a neuroscience and humanities conference at Bucknell University. During many of the sessions, it became increasingly clear that neither side was fully prepared (even while being committed) to talk to one another. The session attendees lacked a perspective that might have
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allowed them to more fruitfully engage each other. Such conferences are unique opportunities to for the interdisciplinary project I am describing here. Second, interdisciplinary journals provide new venues for our work. These outlets, often dealing with an area of scholarship known as “philosophy of mind,” make it clear that there are publishing venues friendly to scholars interested in asking questions about cognition and the human mind from within paradigms previously ignored by the sciences of mind. For example, Jeremy Tirrell and I have applied the concept of agonism to describe Clark’s approach to cognition and embodiment. Doing so, we argue, allows us (and this is “us” now includes scientists and humanists alike) to understand and describe both cognition and embodiment in exclusively rhetorical terms—terms, which, like Ong’s, attend to the ethical and suasory nature of cognitive development. Third, simply and rather obviously stated, become conversant in Ong and through him keep your ears open for resonant discourses. Use Ong at cocktail parties and Arts and Sciences mixers. Use him to make new friends while holding on to the old ones. Clark explicitly calls for the kind of broad convergence I have sketched here. Following Ong’s robust vision, we are uniquely positioned to participate in a still-emerging and largely unsettled area of the study of intelligent behavior. Cognitive science, which for decades treated minds in a vacuum, has turned to treat cognition in the wild. Once the mind is recognized as necessarily extended into a messy and complex world, paradigms already engaged in such environs must be included: Clark makes this call explicit. I argue that our discipline, rallied around Ong, offers just such a paradigm and that in the spirit of interdisciplinary discourse and committed to the goal of cultivating minds, we should make that paradigm available to others in the future.
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