The message “this is therapy,” with a horse

Our regretted colleague, George Bond, insisted that our doctoral students start their apprenticeship with us by struggling with Durkheim’s Rules, and particularly with the argument that, when individual human beings come together, what they do is other than what they could do by themselves, and that special tools are needed to study collective action and its productions, that is “social facts.”  Last week, Jennifer Van Tiem brilliantly defended a path-making dissertation that appears to fit within contemporary research on “human-animal communication,” but is actually about what can happens when two or three humans and one horse do something together, for example “therapy,” that neither humans nor horse would do by themselves.

The same week, I read something in Discover Magazine (my quick source for news from the hard sciences and what seeps of the social sciences into such a popular magazine) that should make all Durkheimians feel vindicated.  In an interview with Bonnie Bassler (June 2014 issue), the Princeton biologist explains how she established (think Latour) that bacteria, these most simple of life forms, tell each other that “I am here” (as well as “who are you?”) .  When the bacteria find out that they have something the biologists now call (metaphorically) a “quorum,” then they change state and produce something that will be experienced, by an outsider, as different from what this outsider might have experienced before (together, some bacteria become luminescent, others produce a film in an animal’s lung that might create life threatening problems, etc.).

The bacterial communication phenomenon that we study is called quorum sensing, which is a process that allows bacteria to communicate using secreted chemical signaling molecules called autoinducers. This process enables a population of bacteria to collectively regulate gene expression and, therefore, behavior. In quorum sensing, bacteria assess their population density by detecting the concentration of a particular autoinducer, which is correlated with cell density. This “census-taking” enables the group to express specific genes only at particular population densities. Quorum sensing is widespread; it occurs in numerous Gram-negative and Gram-positive bacteria. In general, processes controlled by quorum sensing are ones that are unproductive when undertaken by an individual bacterium but become effective when undertaken by the group. For example, quorum sensing controls bioluminescence, secretion of virulence factors, sporulation, and conjugation. Thus, quorum sensing is a mechanism that allows bacteria to function as multi-cellular organisms. (my emphasis . Bassler, retrieved on May 19, 2014)

Note that the bacteria themselves do not change as far as what we might now call the “affordances” of their biology.  It is this biology itself that allows from a transformation that, yet, cannot happen apart from the quorum.

My readers will recognize here a perennial theme in my work.  So I will not develop this further, except to react to one of Van Tiem’s critique of much of the work of the conversational analysts which, I do teach, revolutionized not only linguistics but also all the social sciences.  They did reveal how human beings coordinate their activities, particularly when they do it through natural languages and in direct interaction.  The focus on adjacency pairs, indexicality, ongoing assessment (feedback), etc., was a major breakthrough.  But, as Van Tiem argues, much of this research is based on propositional language and thus not very helpful when the interlocutor is a … horse (or the human cannot speak Goodwin 195).  Humans, of course, do not only speak.  They also point and qualify with fingers, eyes, heads, etc..  Horses do not have fingers they can use, but they also have ears as well as tails that can serve to point, qualify, and otherwise make something that responds to an earlier movement as well as possibly triggers further movements.

But the issue is not the affordances of peculiar biological bodies and how they can be used to maintain sequentiality within a conversation and thereby the conversation itself.  The issue concerns the organization of the particular conversation itself as this kind of conversation, rather than another one. (With thanks to Juliette de Wolfe (2013) who insisted on separating the peculiarities of the autistic body from the particularities of the institutionalization of autism)

The issue concerns what can happen when bodies, given their affordances, find themselves in a “quorum.”  This, I would say is the issue about which Durkheim started us wondering when he pondered stabilities and variations in suicide rates (1897).  In the process he gave us all a problem a version of which is implied in Bateson’s concern with the message “this is play.”  Ethnographically, the issue may be best exemplified in a related message Sacks investigated “this is a joke.”  The issue is that “this is a play” (or “a joke,” “a classroom,” etc.) frames a long (“length” is, of course, another problem) sequence within which everything must (be made to) fit the ‘play’ frame.  Every statement or move must (be made to) “make sense” (McDermott 1976), “be suitable” as Boas would say.  Every statement must fit but it does not have to index, in its own performative organization, the frame.  Indeed whether a statement fits (or not) is controlled by the quorum (a.k.a cohort, staff, congregation, set of consociates, endogenous population, plenum, etc.), rather than by the individual speaker.  The quorum can overrule the individual  about the consequence of the statement.  Van Tiem quoted Garfinkel’s wonderful experiment with the message “this is therapy” (1967: 79ff).  The experiment was so set up as to lead people to act as if random answers made sense thereby actually making the answers sensible and the whole event “therapy” (actually, in this case, “research into therapy”).

Van Tiem is exploring the message (“this is therapy”) when one of those who staff the therapy is horse.  A horse is anything but random in its responses.  But there is no strict way to access its motivations (though human participants routinely discuss them and thereby make statements-about-the-horse’s-motivations one aspect of this therapy).  This, for our purposes is good since the trick here is precisely not to speculate about individual motivations but to figure out how the quorum is maintaining its particular frame—whatever any individual’s motivations, or lack thereof.

Much research has hinted how this might be done.  Bacteria do it through various molecules.  How do human beings do it with horses? Van Tiem brings back to relevance Paul Byers work on biological rhythms.  Goodwin has written about gaze,  Garfinkel about ongoing instruction.  But maybe we can also learn from bacteria, or least take heart that we have been onto something worth pursuing.

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