“Was not their mistake once more bred of the life of slavery that they had been living?—a life which was always looking upon everything, except mankind, animate and inanimate—‘nature,’ as people used to call it—as one thing, and mankind as another, it was natural to people thinking in this way, that they should try to make ‘nature’ their slave, since they thought ‘nature’ was something outside them” — William Morris

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

“The Difference That Makes a Difference”

Why does this phrase of Bateson's bug the hell out of me? It sounds so smug to me—why? I think it's the hey-presto quality that I also find in Spencer-Brown's Mark. Some kind of illegitimate prestidigitation is going on. My literary sensibilities detect the presence of at least one more entity in the room, noticing the difference. As in, “Hey, that new paisley wallpaper really makes a difference!”

“Making a difference for” is the sense here. In which case, there is already something there for which this information-based ontology doesn't account. Of course this something doesn't have to be human or even sentient. It could be some kind of universal difference-ometer. But there it is, noticing the difference. Remarking on the mark. Some kind of linguistic meaning is already in place.

Of course if someone were to use this concept in a non-cybernetic way, that would be quite a breakthrough.

It's a happy coincidence, then, that Levi Bryant has just posted something to this effect, on a-signifying semiotics. And I know he makes huge strides towards a different view of Bateson and Spencer-Brown in his forthcoming book.


Anonymous said...

'The difference that makes a difference' and 'the pattern that connects' are two Bateson phrases that can be connected by another, 'news of a difference'. Surely the whole experience of similarity and difference and new(s) is that of the noticer, the remarker, the patterner (to borrow a word/idea from Ursula Le Guin). And 'making a difference to [whatever]' is part of 'making a difference for [whomever]'.

To whom is the difference material, to whom does it matter? The very idea of wallpaper, and wall, and room, let alone paisley, matter only (in those terms) to those to whom those experiences matter. To woodlice munching the (old/new) wallpaper glue, and to spiders munching the woodlice, the differences matter in different terms (cf http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Being_and_Time : "Thus the question Heidegger asks in the introduction to Being and Time is: what is the being that will give access to the question of the meaning of Being? Heidegger's answer is that it can only be that being for whom the question of Being is important, the being for whom Being matters."). I think 'being' includes the being(s) of iterativity in/and/as similarity and familiarity and variability. Have elsewhere argued that these dimensions of experience are the parameters of both epistemology and ecology across all entities.

Timothy Morton said...

I would like to read what you wrote--can you send?

Leaf said...

Thanks very much for interest, Tim. Will knock 'elsewhere' (bits of my MSc diss) into a very short sendable (and readable!) form.

Regarding a non-cybernetic ecology, some ecologists are starting to prefer the concept of 'enformation' to that of 'information' for some purposes, which has implications both for semiotics and pervasive teleology. It may get around the focus on meaning as meta more than matter, refocussing on materiality, ie on material meaning.

(NB Ecology is used here in its widest applicability, to/as all entity-environment relations, with environment meaning experience pre-/post- emergence-to-experience of entity at issue.) (Sorry, this is laboured; haven't yet acquired or devised adequate precise terms.)

Will go get on with shaping up.