Wired UK reports on a new study about the effects of simple scents (e.g. oranges) on shoppers. Pumping scents into stores to affect shopping behaviors is not a new practice, though apparently this is new research on the effectiveness of particular scents. The article reports
According to the researchers, the increase in shopping activity stems from the fact that simple scents are more easily processed. Complex scents take more resources to deal with and therefore interfere with cognitive task performance.
Support for the cognitive explanation for the increased spending came from a second experiment, in which participants were able to solve a greater number of word problems and in less time when a simple scent was present, than when working in an atmosphere with a complex scent or no scent at all.
Should it surprise us that our environment can affect our ability to think on both unconscious and conscious levels? I don't think so. Of course we can be seduced by beauty and by the tones of a voice: we have been aware of the rhetorical power of the sensorium since the dawn of rhetoric. However, I was interested in this explanation about cognitive processing. Here we are looking not only at receiving some particular message from a scent but a change in cognitive operation. Equally of interest to me is the abstraction of the scent here. Oranges do not produce an orange scent to encourage holiday shopping, but the scent does serve an expressive purpose for orange trees. What do we discover when such expression is abstracted from its "original purpose"?
So here's how we begin to move toward this example of rhetorical objects. One might say the following things about the two usesu of orange scent here (in stores and by trees). In the first case, one might object that it is humans (store managers) using the scent to achieve their rhetorical purpose (increase sales) on other humans (consumers). The second case one might argue is a matter of nature and science: scents attract insects because of instinct rather than rhetorical persuasion. Both of these positions can be questioned, but for the purposes of my example they are both missing the point as neither really identifies the object that is at work here: the complex organic molecule that finds its way into your nose.
The human olfactory sense is apparently very complex with ongoing theories and experiments regarding its function, but it would appear that human sensory receptors interact with these molecules to produce sensory data. Does the molecule care if you shop, polinate, develop a thirst, or remember eating oranges as a child? I'm going to guess no. Does the molecule contain a message "orange smell"? Not exactly. It has a certain molecular structure that your nose "reads" as orange. The expression "orange" isn't in the molecule; it arises from your encounter with the molecule. If you have a bad cold, you could be sprayed with orange scent and maybe still not smell it. You have to encounter the molecule in a particular (nasal) way.
Now we can hypothesize that by some co-evolutionary process, oranges and mammals developed so that we would find them tasty, eat the fruit, and distribute the seeds. The particular taste and scent (i.e. the specific orange molecule) formed as part of this process, a kind of rhetorical process whereby animals are persuaded to eat fruit and/or trees are persuaded to produce tasty fruit. In other words, hypothetically one can trace a (pre)history of rhetorical attunement between oranges and mammals that participates in our current preference for oranges and the unconscious response measured in the shopping experiment. While the molecule itself doesn't have a stake in that attunement, it does have this expressive potential, a potential that is autonomous and auto-objective: an expressivity that is autonomous of humans, trees, and molecules; an expressivity that emerges in that olfactory relation but withdraws from the molecule and nasal sensory receptors that produce it.
Does the smell of oranges tell us to buy home decor (as in the experiment)? No more that it tells us to disperse orange seeds. But it does create an affective state of mind wherein certain behaviors are statistically more likely. This is where a nonhuman rhetoric begins. Take the human out of it and think about the squirrel, the nut, and the molecule that makes the nut tasty for the squirrel. That molecule too has an expressive, rhetorical potential that is autonomous from the reproductive needs of trees and mammals.
In any encounter where there is expression and hence cognition (and we can define cognition as broadly, as pan-psychically, as you like) there is an intermediating expression-object (a sound, an image, a gesure, a scent, an electromagnetic signal) with an expessivity that is autonomous from the two objects encountering one another through the expression. That same signal can be abstracted and reused with different results because its expressivity is not tied to anything except its capacity to express in relation to an object with the necessory sensors.
Now bring the humans back in and consider this blog post. It is a series of images on a screen. To you they are letters, words, sentences, paragraphs. They are creating an expression in your mind, but they have no more interest in that expression than the orange molecule. They might be reused elsewhere to different effects, like the orange scent in the store. Like our evolved preference for oranges there is nothing intentional about our evolved capacity for symbolic action. It just happens that oranges and humans developed along a path that was mutually beneficial. Other plants interact with other species to reproduce, and some have unsucessful reproductive strategies. Of course it's not wholly random either. Orange trees have evolutionary pressures to develop edible fruit and humans have evolutionary pressures to develop means for figuring out what is edible. Our capacity for symbolic action is not wholly random either. But, as with the relation between the orange scent and purchasing, perhaps symbolic action is a kind of abstracted expressivity. Perhaps that it is a interesting way to look at how rhetoric develops from the more immediate expression of the scent of a flower attracting a polinating insect to the seductive perfume scent: a kind of increasing abstraction or distancing of expressivity that emerges into symbolic action.