My interests in recursion began with an empirical pilot study of revision practices. As the notion of process has expanded and dissipated since the cultural turn in composition, overt studies of revision have been displaced by broader theoretical examinations of writing; consequently, revision research has been subsumed within more complex examinations of process and post-process theory.
Lester Faigley has suggested that Janet Emig’s appropriation of the term “recursivity” from applied mathematics is “technically misapplied” to our notion of nonlinearity in the writing process (Faigley, 1986, p. 532).
Is it? If so, why has the notion persisted?
If not, what good is the concept for writing research?
A mantra and commonplace of Process Theory is the idea that writing is recursive:
This an overly simplistic formulation of recursivity; it reduces and closes off the notion of recursion within RWS research, severely truncating its role. Recursion, as we’ll see, is not contained within the movement between steps of a process, but central to both human ontology and epistemology.
Strange Loops <Video feedback loop> Hofstadter (2007) notes that “in the TV setup […] no perception takes place at any stage inside the loop. […] The TV loop is not a strange loop—it is just a feedback loop.” “ In any strange loop that gives rise to human [subjectivity] […] the level-shifting acts of perception, abstraction, and categorization are central, indispensible elements. It is the upward leap from raw stimuli to symbols that imbues a loop with ‘strangeness.’” Consciousness is a quintessentially strange loop. It is self-referential; it builds symbols and taxonomies.
Wittgenstein, L. (1999). Philosophical Investigations.
Recursive Hermeneutics In order to see both duck and rabbit, we engage in a complex, though deceptively simple and seemingly instantaneous interpretive gesture; for lack of a better term, lets call this recursive hermeneutics. Yet while this hermeneutic ability is essential to basic human pattern recognition, agency, and response, for my purposes here, I’m more interested in what comes after interpretation, how recursive hermeneutics is but one step in the formulation of new knowledge .
Recursive Heuristics Jeff Hawkins (2004) argues that “the brain doesn’t compute the answers to problems; it retrieves the answers from memory […] the entire cortex is a memory system.” Further, he states that “our brains use stored memories to constantly make predictions about everything we see, feel, and hear […] what we perceive is a combination of what we sense and of our brains’ memory-derived predictions.” Perhaps most importantly, Hawkins suggests that “prediction is not just one of the things your brain does. It is the primary function of the neocortex, and the foundation of intelligence.”
Rhetorical Invention Maureen Daly Goggin (2004), in surveying the history of needlework and sampler making as a conflation of visual and verbal rhetorics, argues that “sampler making served as a form of rhetorical invention,” that “early samplers served as the old from which the new can be fashioned.” While she doesn’t reference ideas from cognitive science and recursion theory, she makes a crucial (but tacit) point: Recursion is the fuel of rhetorical invention. By rearticulating the commonplace notion of recursion and highlighting its role in invention, we acknowledge the profound role that previous (often unconscious) knowledge plays in the production of new knowledge.
If recursion is an essential component of rhetorical invention, then it follows that recursion is also a key element of epistemological potential, an idea that has long been at the heart of contemporary writing studies (from Ong forward).
“ In the best sense of recursion, students revisit and re-see what they have previously learned. In a vertical curriculum, such moments of recursion should be intentionally designed to foster students’ growing complexity with each learning outcome” (Miles, et al, 2008).
As Peter Moreville (2005) argues: “what we find changes who we become.”
We should take extra-disciplinary knowledge about the impact of recursion on subject formation and epistemological potential to change what we mean by saying that “writing is recursive.”
We need more and better empirical studies of how complex knowledge and writing work is accomplished, with specific attention given to those recursive, “situational variables” and processes that impact invention and epistemological potential.
Ideally, we need collaborative study with cognitive science and evolutionary biology as we continue the charge of broadening our disciplinary understanding of our disciplinary object of study.