Syverson, Wealth of Reality

Margaret. The Wealth of Reality: An Ecology of Composition. Carbondale:
Southern Illinois Press, 1999.

Syverson’s The Wealth of Reality–revised from her dissertation, which
won the Berlin and Burns awards in 1995–calls for a reconceptualization of
writing activity as radically situated
in the interest of moving us away
from reductionism (182) and the idealized atomistic-individual
writer (synecdochic relationships fail to explain complexity). That
is, an ecology of composition affords us greater explanatory power
(203) in an era when the increasing presence of technology is adding
complexity to the environments in which writers write (205-206).
Understanding the rich ecologies of composition depends on a methodological
drawn from complex systems thinking and distributed
influences. The writing environment is integral, and our
understanding of "writers, readers, and texts" must take the environment into

Syverson’s method involves a blend of ecological perspectives on situated and
distributed cognition and case study. In the opening chapter, she
introduces the terms that constitute a simple graph (the analytical tools for
this ecological method).

Four attributes of ecological systems:

  • distribution (7)
  • emergence (10)
  • embodiment (12)
  • enaction (13)

Five dimensions or manifestations of "every object, process, fact, idea,
concept, activity, structure, [and] event" in an ecological system:

  • physical-material dimension (including technology) (18)
  • social dimension (19)
  • psychological dimension (19)
  • spatial dimension (20)
  • temporal dimension (20)

The "matrix" at the convergence of these two lists grounds us in a more
complex (counter-reductive; expansive) framework for studying writing in situ.

Note: Six challenges to the ecological model (202).


ecology: "a larger system that includes environmental structures, such
as pens, paper, computers, books, telephones, fax machines, photocopiers,
printing presses, and other natural and human-constructed features, as well as
other complex systems operating at various levels of scale, such as families,
global economies, publishing systems, theoretical frames, academic disciplines,
and language itself. For my purposes, then, an ecology is a kind of meta-complex
system composed of interrelated and interdependent complex systems and their
environmental structures and processes" (5).

emergence: Syverson offers three senses of emergence: structural,
dynamic, and integral or combined. The first applies to the structure of
hierarchical organization; the second applies to history or processes of change.
"Emergent properties suggest that all of our classificatory systems arte
actually open-ended, explanatory theories rather than closed, deterministic
containers" (11).

distributed cognition: "the way cognitive processes are shared, that
is, both divided and coordinated among people and structures in the environment"

situated cognition: "cognitive processes are always embedded in
specific social, cultural, and physical-material situations, which determine not
only how cognitive processes unfold but also the meanings they have for
participants" (9).

Key terms: metasystems (xv), complex systems (xv, 2), ecological systems (xv,
5), wealth of reality (1), complementarity (1), ecology of composition (2), unit
of analysis (3), complexity (3), case studies (3, 187), adaptive (4),
mechanistic explanation defied (4), complex adaptive systems (5), textual
ecologies (16), power law (142), reductionism (182), new technologies (185),
research, pedagogy, and assessment (187), Learning Record (192), developmental
scales vs. idealistic rubrics (195), analytical tools (203), areas of study
(domains of scrutiny) (204).

"Suddenly [with Syverson’s discovery of Hutchins] thinking was
revealed as not simply a matter of logical processing neatly managed by a
brain in splendid isolation but as a complex ensemble of activities and
among brains, hands, eyes, ears, other people, and an
astonishing variety of structures in the environment, from airplane cockpits to
cereal boxes to institutions" (xiv).

"Technological advances have proven to increase rather than
reduce the complexity and difficulty of our work. We cannot hope
to understand these situations by studying individuals in isolation; we
need an ecological approach that considers the dynamics of systems of
people situated in and codetermining particular social and material
environments" (xv).

"In a complex system, a network of independent agents–people, atoms,
neurons, or molecules, for instance–act and interact in parallel with
each other, simultaneously reacting to and co-constructing their own
environment" (3).

"Complex systems are also distributed across space and time in
an ensemble of interrelated activities" (7).

"Away from this familiar supportive environment [full of tools and
resources, see p. 10], writers think and write differently; when writing
while on vacation or at a conference, for example, they may feel either stripped
and helpless or liberated and refreshed" (10).

"Embodiment grounds our conceptual structures, our interactions with
each other and with the environment, our perceptions, and our actions" (13).

"Vision is enacted–what we see is brought forth (emerges)
through the coordination of our physical structure and our cognitive and
physical activity" (15).

"Composing practices such as freewriting, invention heuristics,
diagramming, outlining, sketching, and marking manuscripts for revision also
structure the form and content
of what is written" (17).

"The five dimensions outlined here [physical, social, psychological,
spatial, and temporal] are not categories of classes of objects; they are
five aspects of every object, process, fact, idea, concept, activity,
structure, event, and so on. Thus, although we can distinguish these
dimensions, they cannot be ‘separated out’ because they are independently
specified. As in geometry, single-dimension objects can only exist
theoretically, in the imagination" (22).

"I am not arguing for a mathematical approach to composing, but I am trying
to get at complexities in ecological systems that have not been addressed by
theorists in rhetoric and composition" (23).

"As contexts and technologies for writing continue to change at
an ever accelerating pace, we cannot cling to our familiar, comfortable
about writers, readers, and texts, or we will find ourselves
increasingly irrelevant and obstructive" (27).

"Composition does not consist in transferring what is inside the head
onto paper or a computer screen. It is a manifestation of the
coordination between internal and external structures, which are
constituted by and expressed through cultural and cognitive dimensions of every
human activity" (183).

"In my opinion, the real value in taking an ecological perspective
is that it compels us to ask a better set of questions about the dynamic
relationships among writers, readers, and texts and drives us toward a deeper
understanding of composition" (206).

Related sources:
Bak, Per, and Kan Chen. "Self-Organized Criticality." Scientific
. Jan. 1991: 46-53.
Bateson, Gregory. Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York:
Bantam, 1979.
Goodwin, Charles, and Marjorie Harness Goodwin. "Professional Vision."
American Anthropologist
96 (1994): 606-33.
Hutchins, Edwin. Cognition in the Wild. Cambridge: MIT P, 1995.