Introducing Coenetics

Wescott, Roger W. 1966. Introducing Coenetics: A Biosocial Analysis of Communication. The American Scholar 35(2): 342-354.

What is Coenetics (pronounced "se-NETT-ix")? As is suggested by its etymon Greek koinee, "I communicate," from koinos, "common," it is the study of communication. For this discipline, one may ask, why not use the more familiar and far more transparent phrase "Communication Theory"? To this objection there are two answers. First, "communication" is denotatively ambiguous, in that some writers use it broadly to cover the study of all signaling systems, while others use it narrowly as a synonym for Information Theory, the science of "intercom systems" and "information load." (Wescott 1966: 342)
Communication and information theory do get mixed up very often, but does this raise the need for a new term? And do we need to go back to the Greeks for such a term? Wouldn't "communicology" do the trick?
Wiener's broad erudition and avowed humanitarianism, his central interest appears to be in the application of mathematics to engineering. More specifically, it lies in constructing "thought machines" capable of parlaying feedback into a quasi-organic sort of creativity - without, at the same time, permitting them to become Frankenstein monsters. My own interest, on the other hand, follows my training, which is primarily in social science, with considerable overlap into the humanities and life sciences but comparatively little into the physical sciences. My chief objective is to relate prelinguistic communicative systems to language itself and both to such language-derived systems as arts and letters. In brief, then, however much actual subject matter they may share, Communication Theory inclines toward a statistical, Cybernetics toward a mechanical, and Coenetics toward a biosocial interpretation of communication problems. (Wescott 1966: 342)
In the first instance it appears that Wiener was interested in the same stuff as Juri Lotman - the latter was influenced by cybernetics so it shouldn't come as a surprise. In the second instance Wescott's own plight is similar to mine; even to the degree that I'm trying to relate nonverbal behaviour to such fields as the semiotics of art and literature.
The English word communication was borrowed, during the early Renaissance Period, from Classical Latin communicatio, "sharing" - which was itself derived from Latin communis, "common." This latter word, in turn, came from the root of Old Latin moenus, "service." Indo-European cognates of these Latin words are Lithuanian mainas, "barter," and Sanskrit menis, "revenge." All these terms can be traced to a reconstructed Proto-Indo-European stem *moyn-, "repayment," from a root *mey-, "to reciprocate" (whence Sanskrit mayate, "to exchange").
Historically, the English word communication seems to have had seven major and discriminable meanings:
  1. conversion (1462)
  2. eucharist (1549)
  3. charity (1579)
  4. coitus (1642)
  5. information (1690)
  6. connection (1715)
  7. transmission (1862)
(Wescott 1966: 342-344)
Surprisingly interesting stuff. I knew that generally it comes from "to make common", but this here is thorough in the extreme.
In these terms, minimal and maximal communication contrast in roughly the following ways:
Minimal CommunicationMaximal Communication
(Wescott 1966: 344)
He sure liked to make lists of terms. I have to think these connections over when I try to give my own definition of communication (if I ever do).
Man, the Psychotic Ape?
It would be too much to say that human life is less orderly than hymenopteran life. For men no less than for ants, communication is coordination. But cultural order is far less predictable than purely social order; and for that reason it would probably appear, from an ant's eye view, insane. A complementary observation is now made with increasing frequency by perceptive psychologists who have begun to discern rich and far-ranging, although intricate, regularities in the fantasy-structures of psychotics. All of this may even lead us to suspect that schizophrenics, for example, are "precocuosly demented" only in the sense that they are vainly attempting to communicate with our retarded humanity in a psychic code that may not become prevalent, and therefore tolerable, until ages hence. Their order may already becosmic in scope - as, indeed, they grandiloquently proclaim - while ours remains primevally earthbound. (Wescott 1966: 345)
This is THE most favourable approach to schizophrenia that I have read. I might just take it up and tie it with semiophrenia. "Oleks liiast öelda, et inimese elu on vähem korrapärane kui putukate elu. Inimeste jaoks ei ole kommunikatsioon vähem koordinatsioon kui sipelgate jaoks. Aga kultuuriline kord on raskemini ennustatav kui puhtalt ühiskondlik kord; ja sel põhjusel võib see sipelga pilgu läbi tõenäoliselt tunduda hulluna. Läbinägelikud psühholoogid, kes on üha enam hakanud tähele panema rikkaid ja kaugeleulativaid, olgugi, et keerulisi, regulaarsusi psühhootikute kujutelmade struktuurides, on kasvava sagedusega hakanud tegema üksteist täiendavaid tähelepanekuid. Kõik see võib meid isegi viia kahtluseni, et näiteks skisofreenikud on "varaküpselt dementsed" ainult selles mõttes, et nad üritavad edutult suhelda meie taandarenenud inimkonnaga psüühilises koodis mis ei pruugi saada valdavaks ja seega talutavaks enne pikka aega. Nende kord võib juba olla kosmilise ulatusega - nagu nad tõesti üleolevalt kuulutavad - kuniks meie oma jääb ürgselt maiseks."
According to Hockett, language has thirteen "design features" setting it off from less highly evolved communicative systems. Because his terminology is intricate and his features overlap broadly, I here condense them into four coenetic syndromes:
  1. vocality: the message, produced by larynx, is received by ear; although it can be received by anyone within earshot, it fades out rapidly.
  2. symbolicity: the message, being in an arbitrary code, bears no systematic resemblance to its referent; the auditor can transmit as well as receive the message; and the message is specifically communicative in intent, not a mere reflex of reproductive or self-preservative activity.
  3. perceptivity: the message is part of a system that can be taught as well as learned; it involves displacement, or the capacity to refer to things not immediately perceptible; and it creates tradition, a social inheritance that can be lost as well as acquired in a generation.
  4. productivity: the communicative system can generate new utterances that, although never heard before, are yet fully comprehensible; it is characterized by particulation, or the possession of minimal units (like the letters of the alphabet) that, although meaningless in themselves, can be used to construct meaningful messages; and it exhibits discreteness, or sharp functional contrasts between its units, which, even when acoustically similar (as p is to b), nonetheless so operate as to make auditors respond to words like put and bit as to wholly spearate utterances. (Wescott 1966: 345-350)
Compare this to the five conditions of language by Charles Morris.
...man also retains, more or less intact, several nonlinguistic communicative systems. These systems are succinctly graphed in the following diagram:
(Wescott 1966: 350)
Oh wow. What are strepitistics and phatics? I googled it and only one result came forth (that's the first time that has happened with me). And, not surprisingly, it is Thomas Sebeok. In a mimeographed paper titled "The Semiotic Web: A Chronicle of Prejudices" he refers to Birdwhistell's kinesics, Wescott's coenetics, as well as to haptics, prexemics, etc. as "quasi-classical coinages" - which is a spot-on label (just as his characterization of Goffman as a quasi-semiotician). He also notes that while these coinages may have heuristic value, they also play a significant role in academic territorial wars.
The next communicative system to be isolated and investigated is that of nonlinguistic vocalization, the nomenclature of which remains unsettled. Westor LaBarre, following Malinowski, calls it "phatic communication." H. L. Smith terms it "vocal modification." And A. A. Hill, as quoted by G. L. Trager, suggests "paralanguage." My own preference is to follow LaBarre but to toloscope his phrase "phatic communication" into the single word "phasis," the study of which becomes "phatics." In any case, the most striking difference between phasis and language is that phatic utterances (which I call "phemes") cannot be analyzed into distinctive particles or arranced in larger constructions. In a word, phasis lacks productivity. (Wescott 1966: 350-351)
This is where actually feel as if Wescott is going too far. My first thought was that it actually has something to do with phatic communication in Malinowsky's sense or with the phatic "channel" function Jakobson ascribes to it. But, no, paralanguage will do just fine - or, even Charles Morris's "modors" would do (he probably followed H. L. Smith with this). In the second instance I recognize, thanks to Martin Joos (1950), that "phatic utterances" are continuous. This is exactly the reason why Joos tries to distance himself from both semantics and phonetics (both are "continuous" according to him).
A third area, which has not yet received recognition even from students of communication, is what I have christened strepitistics. Strepitistics is the study of strepitus, or communicative body noise. (Putting it another way, kinesis and strepitus are types of body movement distinguished chiefly by their modes of communicative reception, the first being visible and the second audible.) Typically strepitative behavior is hand-clapping. Peripheral examples of strepitation are: foot-stamping, which involves contact with the ground or with artificial flooring; face-slapping, which requires the presence of another person; tooth-gnashing, which involves bony parts most of which are not so located as to facilitate phonation; whistling, which employs speech organs; spitting, which includes extrusion of body secretions; coughing, which may indicate pathology; and snoring, which is usually unconscious. (Wescott 1966: 351)
Oh God YES! Not long ago I was wondering why there isn't a term for this! The best I have come across is Poyatos's designation "self-adaptor sounds" which is three words that I have managed to forget several times. Strepitus, on the other hand, is just one word. I know of reviewers who badmouth Wescott for his "overabundance of subsidiary terms", but some of these might actually be useful! "Kolmanda ala, mis ei ole pälvinud otsest tähelepanu isegi mitte kommunikatsiooniuurijatelt, olen ma ristinud strepitistikaks. Strepitistika on strepituse, ehk kommunikatiivsete kehaliste helide, uurimine. Tüüpiline strepitatiivne käitumine on käte plaksutamine. Periferaalsed näited strepitatsioonist on: jalgadega trampimine, mis on seotud kontaktiga maapinna või tehisliku põrandaga; näkku laksu andmine [face-slapping], mille jaoks on teise isiku kohalolek vajalik; hammaste krigistamine, mis on seotud luuosadega mis on selliselt paigutatud, et võimaldavad heli tekkimist; vilistamine, mis kasutab kõneorganeid; sülitamine, mis on seotud kehaerituste väljastamisega; köhimine, mis võib osutada patoloogiale; ja norskamine, mis on harilikult alateadlik."
Of all symptoms, of course, dreams are those that most peoples have always felt to be most revealing. The talmud, in fact, called an uninterpreted dream "an unopened letter." But it was not till 1959 that William Dement, a psychiatrist at Stanford University, performed electronic experiments demonstrating that dreaming itself serves an even more indispensable psychic purpose than does dream-interpretation. He showed that if subjects are carefully prevented from dreaming, then, no matter how much dreamless sleep they get, they manifest emotional distress which increases in severity as dream-loss continues. (Wescott 1966: 352)
Wow that is a good piece of information.
The common denominator for all these cases is apparently coenetic deprivation, and the "moral" would seem to be that we all require frequent communication - with ourselvel as well as with others - to be at once healty and human. (Wescott 1966: 354)
So while Roman Jakobson claims that there is no communication without the receiver other than pathological cases (and being drunk), Wescott sees autocommunication as a requirement for mental health!
A fascinating possibility suggested by Dement's experiments is that of eventually constructing some sort of "window on the unconscious" analogous to the plastic windows through which physiologists are already quite literally observing the digestive processes of white rats. If the perodic nocturnal fantasies of sleepers, human and subhuman, could be cast onto some sort of "dream screen" and watched by investigators much as we now watch cinema, there is almost no limit to the amount we could learn in a very short time about still hidden mental processes. Needless to say, few more exciting prospects can be imagined for psychologists and coeneticists - or, for that matter, for the public at large. (Wescott 1966: 354)
According to Wiki, William C. Dement is the "father of sleep research" who discovered the five stages of sleep and the connection between rapid-eye movements and dreaming. He might also be an anecdotal case of people who study something related to their last name, e.g., M. P. Fish who studied fish, Elaine Scarry who studied pain, and Dement who is missing the letter "a" from the ending of his last name.
A final problem, potentially perhaps the simplest to solve, has in practice proven the most unyielding single obstacle to the progress of Coenetics. This is the stortage of funds, facilities, research time and, above all, coworkers that has so far kept pioneers like Birdwhistell and Trager from rapidly expanding their operations. Few fields in the area of communication research are as untouched, as challenging and - ultimately, I have no doubt - as rewarding as these early explorations of the minutae of human interaction. For they are the indispensable data without which all the theoretical sophistication in the world will never permit us to write what the practitioners of so many disciplines have so long dreamed of: a general grammar of behavior. (Wescott 1966: 356)
I didn't think it was lack of funds that stopped Birdwhistell's work. Actually I just don't know (we need historians of nonverbal communication research!). But I agree wholeheartedly with the contention that bodily behaviour is one of the most rewarding area of communication research. I am now taken by Wescott. I was prejudiced because of some aggressive reviewers, but this article has been thoroughly enjoyable. I hope I can read more of his writings.


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