Particle 1

Literature and Communication


For a long time I was determined to do a project about the work of Gregory Bateson. I came across this odd paragraph in some notes and it gestures towards a study of the rise of “communication” as the dominant framework to a variety of post-war academic disciplines. I wanted to illustrate the history of that framework back into the early nineteenth century and to argue for its relevance to the study of literature today. I’m still trying to figure out if there is something there or not. It serves for me as one of the strongest indications of just how many dead-ends or tangents we go down as we complete a book project.
What I saw in Goethe’s work was a new interest in precisely those technologies and practices that governed the circulation of information that had so affected him as a young boy and that made concepts like Weltliteratur possible. And this attention to the conditions of circulation seemed to fit into what I saw as a larger epistemological reorganization driven by cybernetics that took place after the Second World War and that seemed to loom so large for me in the present. It was a movement driven by concepts like information, system, economy, circuitry, feedback, objects-in-environments, and most of all, communication and control (the subtitle to Norbert Wiener’s founding text, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine (1948)). For a post-war sociologist Niklas Luhmann or psychologist Gregory Bateson, communication had become the key term in observing societies or minds.

In an eclectic, yet brilliant essay, “Style, Grace and Information in Primitive Art,” Bateson argues that the function of art is to reveal what he calls primary process. Primary process is synonymous with the unconscious for Bateson, but it is important to understand the unconscious not in Freudian terms – as the storehouse of what we repress – but instead as the location of habitual processes or, simply, habits. In other words, the unconscious for Bateson was the location of all the rules for what we thought, saw, heard, spoke and did, but because of an evolutionary need for economization, we did not reflect consciously on those rules every time we performed those actions. We did not think about walking when we walked, we just walked. To reflect on walking (or to reflect on reflecting…) would require too much circuitry or would slow down the limited circuitry we possessed. It was far more efficient to develop habits and skills, but those habits and skills hid the rules that governed the very processes that they enabled. For Bateson, art was the place where those unconscious rules became conscious again. Art was, in other words, meta-communication. Whether in dance, painting, music, or literature, it was perception about perceiving, movement about motion, sound about hearing, thought about thinking, or communication about communicating.