Seas, in her article, is redoscovering the problem of praxis that a lot of modern philosophy (of which I would argue rhetorical studies are properly considered a subset). In taking as the model an ecological model, Seas removes the ability to use intentionality as a meaningful metric. In other, clearer, words, the complex web of material realities, social mores, and individual perspective into which every bit of communication is tossed makes it essentially impossible to have any reasonable foreknowledge of what that bit of rhetoric’s effect might be. (Calling that clearer language may have been optimistic, I now realize).
Not being a particular expert in rhetoric, except perhaps in the sense of having an amateurs acquired practical expertise, I can’t really critique Seas’ theoretical points or framework. Nevertheless, I do feel I can offer some general points from the perspective of philosophy, and will attempt to briefly do so.
The view of rhetorical ecology, to me, seems to be bound up in two larger frames. First, there is the problem of praxis: every ‘rhetorical situation’ is a subset of the larger society. Society, of course, is a massively complex set of interactions between almost innumerable factors which interact in ways that nobody can really fully describe. Because of this almost inherent unknowability, most structural theorists since Marx have confronted the question of praxis. In short, the question of praxis is thus: given that we don’t know how our actions affect society (or even if we do), and given that actions are meaningful in their effects (this is a big point that I don’t have enough space to touch here), then how can anyone know whether their actions are meaningful? There is no bridge, in other words, from the analysis of society to the understanding of the individual action. Various philosophers have attempted to solve this problem: Herbert Marcuse and the other Frankfurt School philosophers were enamored with the idea of negation, Hannah Arendt with a reclaiming of the public sphere in its proper form, Hayek and the neoliberals with a return to the principles of a civic society.
This gets at my second point. While Seas is insisting that intentionality has to be discarded to gain a proper ecological view of rhetoric, as intentionality “fails to provide a truly ecological perspective” (55). This may well be true, but it points to a weakness in the ecological view of memetics, if not rhetoric specifically.
Take, for example, religions. (Dawkins, being one of the earlier theorists of memetics, seems to offer a clue here). While the spread of religious ideas certainly resembles the epidemiology that Seas describes, the epidemiology argument breaks down as time approaches zero. In other words, an epidemiological approach can describe how an idea spreads, but not how it begins. Islam, for example, is generally taken to be the original idea of a man named Muhammad. Of course, the set of ideas that we now call aíslan have been permutarse, changed, altered, and absorbed by a thousand different environments since then. Even Islam, as a discrete idea, comes out of a mix of Abramic influences and local Arab culture in the Byzantine-Sassanid period. But this brings me to the larger point.
We can say, I think, that Islam (to keep with the religious example) is a separate idea or set of ideas than Christianity. Yet, at the same time, we equally have to acknowledge that they have been and continue to be shaped by their interactions with each other, with the lives of their respective adherents, and with the rest of human society/societies more generally. But then the question becomes clear: how do we know–that is, what is the metric– by which we can say that Islam and Christianity are two distinct ideas?
if the question is solely about how each of these ideas has spread, then we’ve sidestepped the groundwork we need to do first, in defining how we understand an idea. For example, if I want to know how the H1N1 virus spreads, I need to rule out examinations of other flu viruses; I need to define my area of investigation. While Seas’ description of framing changes as more concrete measures of influence moves in this direction, the definition is hardly exhaustive (the idea of changing frames as a predecesor to changing concrete actions doesn’t take into account the fact that a concrete action must be preceded by a specific intention toward that action, no matter how momentary). So, when Seas argues that rhetorical success is outside of the rhetoritician’s control, that may well be the case. But when the assertion becomes that rhetorical success can only be measured with a fundamental uncertainty about effects, I can only wonder if that is because we have a vague definition of what exactly we’re looking at.
Again, these are clearly very incomplete and fragmented thoughts on the subject. They’re probably more informed by my previous biases and ideas than by the reading, honestly. (That in itself is interesting anecdotal evidence of a kind, though). The bottom line is that describing a second order process (dissemination and influence) without a firm grasp of the first order process (idea or meme creation) leaves the description of the second order process vulnerable to changes or ambiguities in the definition of the first order process.
(Sidebar/Note to Myself: this is a good article to illustrate the Kantian critique of instrumentalizing humans as baked into the whole field of communications as a basic assumption.)