Thoughts on Action and Thoughts
I’ll start by saying that I make a lot of references to both Melody‘s and Monica’s blogs on the same topic in this entry. So, if you haven’t read theirs yet, you might do that first, as this began as a response to their thoughts before it became anything else; it’s entirely possible that this will make little sense without them. Got it? Okay. Let’s rock:
What does this all mean? What are our options for understanding Meadows’ declaration? (you know, that whole “action is the highest form of thought” thing.)
I’ll start with Melody’s original contention about action and reflex–that from a biological perspective reflex bypasses thought (I know you discarded this later in your post, but it’s what got me started down this road, so I figured I’d better put it here). I think that Meadows’ definition of thought probably has more to do with “conception” than with “perception”–that is, from a cognitive perspective, he’s not so much worried about reflex and simple response to stimuli as he is about deliberated, schematized conception: thought.
I wonder, also, if Meadows is being broadly postmodern in the sense that Monica explains it (action as contextualized thought) or if he’s got something a bit more specifically Burkean in mind. While Meadows may or may not be thinking of him, I immediately (and unfortunately) did. According to my slightly muddled understanding of Kenneth Burke, there’s a distinct, binary difference between action and motion. Action is symbolic (i.e. the speech-act), whereas motion is nonsymbolic. Motion is change that is purely physical & autonomous; action is motion with intent. For Burke, while action and motion are intensely related, action is not reducible to motion. You can move without acting, you can’t act without moving, but action is not simply motion. So, action and thought are intimately tied together–action comes from thought, otherwise it’s not action.
My brain’s already starting to hurt. But that’s what I get for bringing in Burke… Let me take this in a different direction.
For another perspective, I point to college rhetoricians in the 19th century (not so completely randomly, as it’s a research area for me). Many rhetorical textbook/treatises (especially at mid-century) would argue that the highest end of discourse is that which provokes to action. Explanation is good, argument is fine, pathetic affectation is nice, but the real goal is persuasion–a change in thought or will leading to action. One possible perspective is that Meadows could be working from an assumption that activism is one of the highest purposes of rhetoric, of language (I don’t think that’s so, but it’s possible). To bring it back to Burke one more time, rhetoric is “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.”
After reading both Monica’s and Melody’s much more lucid blogs on the subject (“action…contextualizes our thought” and “action may be the result of thinking”), I was also struck by the following notion: if from one point of view thought becomes action, then one might say that thought quite literally takes form (physical, concrete form) in action. If thought is contextualized by action, isn’t that basically the same thing? Abstract thought is all well and good, I think most of us would say, but isn’t abstract thought made concrete even better?
(This takes me screaming back to metaphor, by the way. So, metaphor is action… Oh, and symbol too. What’s a symbol? A concrete object that suggests or makes reference to an abstract concept. M’kay.)
I’m going to do myself a metadiscursive favor and come back to the main questions at hand for this entry: What does this [statement of Meadows’] mean? It might mean something from a writer’s perspective, from a user’s perspective, and from a student’s perspective.
I think that, from a student’s perspective, I’ve got some nice exploration–action and thought are tightly tied together; I’m quite comfortable conceiving of this in Burkean terms: thought is symbolized (made concrete, thus made more real) in action (and speech is a kind of action). It’s not clean yet, but it’s a working perspective.
What about the writer’s perspective? The user’s perspective?
One possibility with our narratives is to think of this back in terms of steps and principles of interactivity.
The writer’s goal is for the reader (thinking purely in terms of purpose here, and not design) is for their thought (their observation and exploration, as well as perspectives interacting in narrative) to eventually take shape in modification and change–in action. For most writers, the goal is often some kind of action on the reader’s part (read, click, do, say, buy), so thought should move readers toward taking action. From a design perspective, not only should inside/outside worlds have a dialogue, but the inside world of the reader’s mind should eventually have an effect how they interact with the outside world of what’s been designed. Conception of how a design element works is created through action. Here, action then creates thought as well as results from it. It’s a relationship of reciprocal change.
The user’s perspective works similarly (at least for me right now). Among the highest forms of thought-engagement with a narrative is to continue reading or interacting with that narrative. I will interact with a narrative if it captures my thoughts: it may get me to learn something new, to procure some new product, to feel a particular way about an issue, or even to get up and fight for a cause. Thought in all of these cases is transformed into action, into change.
I dunno. That’s my grasp of it right now.
I honestly don’t have a question at the moment. I’ll think of one before Saturday, I’m sure, and edit it in forthwith. Oh, and all apologies for muddle-through thinking and cloudy discursivity. Mybad.