RN#4: Spinuzzi – Exploring the virtues of layered sociocultural design

“As I looked at the other incidents in which participants had improvised genres, I could see that these generally introduced more flexibility into the system. The police officer had substituted the unofficial genre for the more cumbersome official one – but she still had both resources. She had built flexibility into the system, but she had not simply traded the old genre for the new; she had redundancy in case she needed it. Yet since each genre has its own ‘logic,’ that redundancy isn’t simple substitution, it’s a redundancy in ‘logics’ as well. The more genres you introduce into the ecology, the more complex the task of managing genres becomes.

By the time I was visiting campuses for job talks in 1999, I was able to talk coherently about how I was mapping these genre relationships via genre ecology diagrams. At one campus visit, I tried to explain these diagrams to a professor from another department. ‘Oh,’ he said. ‘Network diagrams'” (Spinuzzi 2009).

On the Art of Talking In Circles

I think my favorite word in the English language may be “rhizomatic.”  Not because it’s a useful word, mind you, or one–if we’re being honest–I’d ever use in earnest, but because it’s one of those great words that proves that the more you know about something, the less you can articulate it, the less you care to articulate it, and the less you notice that you haven’t articulated it.

I am not implying that “network,” “modality,” and “ecology” are these sorts of words (nor “genre”) but, yes, I am.  Of course, the issue here is the commutative property of these terms – each is used to explore and explain the next, and so the definitions for each become interminably complex except within the specific context of the whole.  And so, the notion of the network is inexorably tied to the definition of modalities.  The ecology of genres becomes entirely integrated within the rhizome of disciplinary knowledge.  And the discipline is fully rhizomatic.  This is, or is not, completely inescapable.  However, it is certainly happening.

Figure 1: Detail of craquelure, Leonardo da Vinci's La Gioconda
Figure 1: Detail of craquelure, Leonardo da Vinci’s “La Gioconda” (c. 1505)

As this is happening, has anything been said?  Certainly.  Even I’m not cynical enough to argue that circularity implies non-argument.  But what has been said is assuredly circular.  And if Deleuze and Guattari argue for the “smoothing” of cultural meaning as alike to water seeking cracks and finding its own level, well… culture still surely doesn’t act that way for all the theorizing that it might.  And so I would argue in counter that it is precisely the microscopic non-uniformity, the cultural craquelure, which provides the cultural map along which we might compose a network of our knowledge.  We are not looking at a system moving towards uniformity, but a representation moving towards entropy.

If the Post-Structuralists can just pick random French words and use them critically, well, so can I.

The Big Question: Are Genre Ecologies Networks?


“If knowledge isn’t self-knowledge it isn’t doing much, mate. Is the universe expanding? Is it contracting? Is it standing on one leg and singing ‘When Father Painted the Parlour’?”
– Tom Stoppard, Arcadia


Clay Spinuzzi (Link for Personal Website)
Clay Spinuzzi
(Link for Personal Website)


I don’t call upon the Post-Structuralists lightly.  Clay Spinuzzi’s Tracing Genres through Organizations is, I would argue, a redoubtable archaeology of reconstruction.  It is only because I take the “connections” part of “reading connections” so seriously that I would dare take Foucault back out of the closet having been done with him so recently.

However, like Foucault before him, much of the intellectual enterprise of Spinuzzi’s work is ethically directive – to the point where it makes me question the veracity of motions towards objectivity – the defusing of “victimhood” and the proposition of pragmatic analysis.  As Hubert Knoblauch notes, “by using notions such as ‘utopian system,’ ‘reactionary’ solutions […] or ‘subversive’ interactions which generate innovations from below, Spinuzzi gives his methodology a slightly (micro) political tone which, in the end, does not seem very far from those ‘designer as hero’ tropes he criticises in the beginning” (295).

This is not to call Spinuzzi’s work incomplete, insincere, or dishonest, but rather to indicate that it–as much as the work it serves to revise–is driven by an epistemology and ideology which is both obdurate and assumed in his arguments.  Some might call this dishonest, but I view it as inherently necessary to studying new networks of meaning.  However, I do wish Spinuzzi were more transparent about performing what is, essentially, an ethnographic archaeology of a singular genre form and applying its suppositions to the field of genre theory as a whole.  As he quotes regarding the broad application of ethnography, “a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing: superficial social research may confer the illusion of increased understanding when in fact no such understanding has been achieved” (Nyce & Lowgren in Spinuzzi 16). This is my main concern – for Spinuzzi understanding the ecology he studies, for myself understanding Spinuzzi, and for those attempting to perform this sort of archaeological tripartite research themselves.

There are unspoken assumptions, and that is essentially always dangerous. This ethnography-centric assessment of workplace communication lends itself towards not only Western ideals of communication, but even Midwestern and Middle American ideals and workplace values and expectations.  It is restrictive, and it provides a “superficiality” which bottlenecks the analytic process.  It is performative, and thus works toward a specific end which restricts Spinuzzi’s lens–either necessarily or not.

However, the work of exploring genre ecologies and tracing their contours has value specifically for the ways in which it subverts through its ideology the presumptions of genre theory which came before it.  The integrative approach of Spinuzzi’s “three levels of scope” (26-37), similarly provides a concomitant method for appreciating the broader contexts of microcosmic causes and effects within design.  However, I also have the concern that such work may not always be as valuable – or as explicit – as the primary example within this text, which notably has some 150+ pages within which to be explored and contextualized.  How a multiphasic analysis might function in a meatier ethnography, I’m not certain Spinuzzi is able to illuminate.  He certainly implies that time, longitudinality, is a nearly-necessary facet of meaningful genre tracing (such as through the lens of activity theory-based study, or through the duration of ethnography necessary to subvert Nyce and Lowgren’s “little knowledge”), and this presents special challenges for executing on – and testing – his model meaningfully in many contexts.

However challenging these presumed (i.e., recommended) restrictions on “ecological” tracing may prove, the ideology of “the long way” is almost Zen-like in its apprehension of a truth value which is likely to be missing from almost any ethnographic “snapshot.”  If there is one variable which Spinuzzi’s text truly contributes to the methodologies of network study, it is Δt.

If I might divert into 5th grade book-review mode for a moment:

I really enjoyed Spinuzzi’s Tracing Genres.  It presents a problematic method, but much of the problem lies in that it is trailblazing – and for every issue I took, the text was carefully crafted to resolve the last lingering concern I had through new approaches and the recognition of new questions.  Finally, I am a big fan of incomplete theories, and of theorists who are in the constant state of self-revision, of converting “knowledge” into “self-knowledge” and internalizing the universal functions of Truth into personal study of objects which reveal truth.

In his blog, Spinuzzi asks what might change were he to have come across the label of “network” before “ecology” in describing genre, concluding that “the metaphor of network, like the metaphor of ecology, only gets us so far. But it does point us toward some interesting analytical approaches” (2009).  Spinuzzi previously notes that his new text, Network (2008) synthesized activity, genre, actor-network, distributed cognition, and several other major theories in an attempt to expand and in some small way resolve the questions of genre-specific meaning and user experience.  I like that Spinuzzi throws everything at the wall and sees what sticks.  His methods lack a moral certainty (though they may be flawed in that respect) which is, after recent weeks, decidedly anti-French.  As Baudrillard argued that Foucault replaced the authority of power with his own power to declare authority, I feel that he would, contrarily, praise Spinuzzi’s methods as a seduction of the ethnographic form as a solution of its own in the generation of knowledge.

When Spinuzzi says that “genre ecologies develop, change, and form contradictions,” what his study reveals to me is the craquelure, the indelible spaces between readers/users and texts/genres. What I see is those anti-Deleuzian cracks which connect throughout the greater cultural work, and which reveal patterns of wear, conditions of entropy, and the slow, interminable decay into fixed meaning.  By being aware of that movement, perhaps we might restore or at least preserve texts and genres as breathing, living works which age, sag, and acquire gravitas naturally, and over time.

If you ask me, that’s a fascinatingly analog notion in an increasingly digital space.


Knoblauch, H. (2005). Book Review: Tracing Genres through Organizations. A Sociocultural Approach to Information Design, Clay Spinuzzi, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2003, 264 pp. ISBN 0-262-19491-0. Computer Supported Cooperative Work (CSCW), 14(3), 293-296.

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: A sociocultural approach to information design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Spinuzzi, C. (2009, July 09). What if I had called them “Genre Networks?” Retrieved February 08, 2016, from http://spinuzzi.blogspot.com/2009/07/what-if-i-had-called-them-genre.html

Stoppard, T. (1993). Arcadia. London: Faber and Faber.


4 thoughts on “RN#4: Spinuzzi – Exploring the virtues of layered sociocultural design

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