Reading Connections – “And How Did We Get Here?” or, William the Orange conquers the mind, capitalism, and computers.

“And it really wasn’t until the early 90’s that technology had advanced far enough so that one could use, for example, confocal microscopy along with antibodies which could be specifically stained for elements of neurons which were convincing, and then you could multiply label the cells” (CPB, 2003).

We were kindly offered the opportunity to “save the Castells” for next week’s reading notes.  I find this impossible, if only because the combination of Annenberg and Castells proves, finally, that we have unequivocally inherited a Whig version of history.


Okay, I really wanted to just make my reading connection this week be nothing but the block quote, the apparently unrelated parody video, and the statement above, but I suppose I’m expected to do more than that. However, I might argue that should be enough to respond to Castells, who comes close to realizing the Whiggish revision of knowledge, culture, and progress at several points, but whose reading of culture prevents acknowledging it – see the “indulgence” of postmodern culture and theory (4), the fall of sovetskii narod as the opening of network potentiality (1-2, 24), and the networked, implicit rhetorical parallel between the genome and the microprocessor (64).  We might also consider the casual equivocation of convergence, globalization, confluence, and restructuring throughout the prologue and chapters 1-3 (1-215)).

“The primary assumption of all attempts to understand the men of the past must be the belief that we can in some degree enter into minds that are unlike our own. If this belief were unfounded it would seem that men must be for ever locked away from one another, and all generations must be regarded as a world and a law unto themselves. If we were unable to enter in any way into the mind of a present day Roman Catholic priest, for example, and similarly into the mind of an atheistical orator in Hyde Park, it is difficult to see how we could know anything of the still stranger men of the sixteenth century, or pretend to understand the process of history-making which has moulded us into the world of today” (Butterfield, 1931).

So, what does it mean for Network Society to inherit a Whig version of history?

“As stunning as it sounds, I am not aware of any major criticism in published reviews, and I am aware of dozens of reviews in many countries. In fact, it is a little bit disappointing, since I am sure there are many weaknesses in the work, and I would like to debate it more” (Castells, qtd. in Fischer 1999).

I would argue that you cannot interpret the mind from within the mind, any more than you can commit historiography from within history, or critique capitalism within capitalist systems.  Of course, Castells would have us believe that not only can we do all three, but it is right and necessary to interpret these three acts as concomitant to an understanding of technology to interpolate the network within society and make networks recursive and reflexive.

It’s a fascinating challenge.  It’s also ideologically, methodologically, and contextually very problematic.

To exist in a Whig version of history is to believe that where we are is on track to where we are going, and where we are going is inherently superior because it is posthuman, communal, and democratic.  When we view society as moving through capitalism to something else beyond it, we view capitalism as a “bump in the road” to our inevitable completion of the act of humanizing society.  We do not view it as a turn, a diversion from our humanity, but a step on a path which must be walked towards a progress found in the capital gained through capital gains.

How do we move beyond technoscientism and triumphalism?  How do we avoid narratives of New Keynesian causation?  How do we ignore the indulgence of projecting the structure of economies upon the structure of society, the structure of technology upon the structure of economies, and the structure of all three upon the structure of our very biology?

What, in short, does it mean outside a Whig interpretation of history to claim that the mind is like a computer, or the neuron is a battery, or society is a social network?  It means nothing, because progress outside Whiggish impulse is not defined by shaping the world in the image of the self, nor by shaping the self in the image of the world.

What is Castells if not Thomas Macaulay’s praise song “history” of the Glorious Revolution, writ digitally across the space of the human mind?  What is a theory of network society if not losing oneself, and reclaiming oneself, as an egalitarian cog in a machine of equally-sized cogs?

How can one reject the globalizing Manifest Destiny of “network society” but to argue against Rousseau’s ascendancy of man within social contracts, or to simply state “my brain is not a microprocessor?”  What is “network society” if not the inevitable claim that Latour’s Leviathan is an organic product of progress, necessary, beautiful, and beautiful in its ugliness?

I suppose we could simply point out the lack of an Oxford comma on the cover, but that’s puerile and facile.  Not stopping me, though.  We could also point out that he hyphenates on-line and unironically refers to “The Internet Age.”  We could point out that any reading of the future situated within the past and crawling further and further back into it with each passing day is, by definition, an anachronism of knowledge.

We might note that there is a difference between post-industrial capitalism and informational capitalism.

We might note that capitalism is much more likely to be crisis than to be in crisis.

We might look at the BRIC nations of the 21st century and reconceptualize almost every single development claim that Castells made in the 1990s about the ex-Soviet Bloc and the role of globalization in exporting Western values.

We might question whether Castells’ view is colored by the imminence of the fall of the USSR in 1996, and reconsider just how important it is in defining terms in the BRIC-opposite market economies of the West today.

We might question what value network social analysis provides us today in a text written 20 years ago about the future of communication and information – in a year where AOL dial-up was the preferred ISP and platform for most users, the average Internet user was connected to the internet 30 minutes a month, and the mean baud rate of Internet connections was 28.8 kbit/s.

We might question what the network society 20 years from now will be – and how unprepared we are to speak to its quotidian realities.  We might ask how “The Information Age: Economy, Society, and Culture” could be “capturing” the “relations of the Information Age” when we likely haven’t even entered it yet.

We might note that the focus on globalized criminality is not a product of the topic’s significance or scope, but rather of the criminological foundations of many of his sources.

We might note that where Castells’ arguments stand free from the crushing yoke of postmodernity, they are colored mostly by the more formative and productive theories of Touraine (e.g., Self-Production of Society).  If we criticize Touraine for anything, it is for critiquing modernity from within modernity.  If we praise Touraine for anything, it is for rejecting postmodernity as a frame for criticising modernity.  Is this a contradiction?  Sure.

However, we can not consider Touraine’s reading of society as anything but Whiggish – when he views the “defense of the [human] subject […] against the logic of apparatuses and markets” as a shift from class-struggle to human-struggle through the technology of modernity, we must ask where these technologies took shape; who manufactured them?  Who designed them?  Who programmed them to serve against the machinations of the human subject beset with his own modernity (22-3).  When Castells’ argument has the opportunity to make Touraine’s modernity and cultural self-perpetuation more complex, he makes it more simple.

To say that these things are interrelational is not to provide a theory of anything, let alone a social theory of network society as a whole.  Nothing is caused but through correlation.  That is to say, nothing is causal.  Similarly, arguments that Soviet socialism fell through the influence of information, information technology, and Beatles records are nothing new – but then again, neither is Whig history at this point.

Only if you believe that Marxian-Leninist models were the sole expression of Soviet ideology, and only if you believe that Beatles records are social progress in comparison to non-occidental cultural socialism, can you read the early chapters of Rise of the Network Society as anything but well-intentioned progressive exceptionalism.

It’s one of the joys of reading Castells comes from watching him hinge so much of the Whig reading of communal democratic progress upon western readings of networked interrelation, while utilizing the fall of the Iron Curtain so frequently as the metric of the rise of the market economy of information – as if information was not the political coin of the realm since long before the socialist model was a twinkle in the eye of William the Orange (who had, it might be noted, his eye on an entirely non-constitutional, non-parliamentary monarchy returned to righteous ascendancy (posthuman-struggle over class-struggle?  Or is that too on the nose?)

It’s a noble effort, but for a globalized text heavily West-centric and almost jingoistically Frst-World in its interpolation of information and capital – as if it is not in the world of information specifically where the gap between have and have-not is closed by the generation of new, regionalized, specialized, and globalized knowledges formed through communities and discourses found as readily (if not moreso) within the Third World as in the First.  The absence of the remnants of Second World ideology and market practice in an exploration of how the Cold War and post-WWII global interrelationality functioned to give rise to the information society is… glaring, to say the least.

That in such a post-Marxian, post-socialist, post-Soviet reading of information culture, the author fails to even acknowledge the ideological (and numerical) vacuum between First- and Third-Worlders in “emerging markets” reveals a troubling understanding of how, precisely, the Cold War changed the social alignments of knowledge globally.  This, one might note, is a danger is assuming a commonality between ideations of “information” and “technology” as inherently related simply because of the linked terminology of IT Society.  No culture in human history, it is likely, has been more information-centered than the pre-digital Soviet Union.  No society has been more necessarily networked.

As such, what does it mean to say that “technology is society,” or to claim that society is defined only through “its technological tools?”  How can we claim that technology embodies society (5), but then fail to notice that it is humans, not networks, which are embodied within society, technology, and culture?  How is this not technological determinism?  How is this not Latour’s Leviathan?  How is this not technocracy redefining and reclaiming pre-technological “progress” on the path towards a Whig future?

In the end, what is a non-Whig reading of The Rise of the Network Society?  It is likely one, simply, which eliminates the notion of “rising” entirely from the argument, and views globalism as a facet, and not an effect, of networks.  Network Society has always, does currently always, and will always exist in all facets and at all levels of social knowledge and social structure.  But it does not exist within us, and it is not the perpetuation of an ideology borne of the past and moving into a liberal progressive technoscientific posthuman cyborg communality and commonality of the egalitarian future.

How to Actually Have an Ecology of Mind – Metalogues in Theory and Philosophy

“We understand a speech act when we know the kinds of reasons that a speaker could provide in order to convince a hearer that he is entitled in the given circumstances to claim validity for his utterance—in short, when we know what makes it acceptable” (Jurgen Habermas, 1998).

Figure 1: An Ecology of Alex's Mind. Pictured, clockwise from top left: Little English Major Alex, Little Frank Zappa, Little Baruch Spinoza, Little Guy in a Labcoat, Little Jurgen Habermas.
Figure 1: An Ecology of Alex’s Mind. Pictured, clockwise from top left: Little English Major Alex, Little Frank Zappa, Little Baruch Spinoza, Little Guy in a Labcoat, Little Jurgen Habermas.

A (Very) Brief Pre-Introduction

As the semester marches ever on towards Castells, I find my reading connections to be a lot more connections, and a lot less readings.  I hope this is okay.  I feel like the work we’ve been doing in-class has been very productive in exploring how the readings function and contrast, and I feel this space might be better-geared at this point (in this window) to exploring the stuff which, if I kept bringing it up in class, would devour the entire three two hours of discussion and activity time.


Introduction – Steps to an Ecology of the Voices in my Head

This thing that English Studies does, where it leverages scientific language and retools it to often purely rhetorical purposes: I won’t lie and say it doesn’t disturb me entirely as a pragmatist with a STEM background.  Every time a theory is borrowed into English and then explained to me as a socio-cultural-historic-rhetorical-function-of-whatever, the Little Guy in a Labcoat in my brain shudders a bit.  He’s is not always right.  But he’s always there, steering my brain-ship by using rational decision-making processes and demanding more empirical data so he can chart his courses.  Because he can make me walk into things, I like to at least pretend to listen to him.  Also present are Little Baruch Spinoza, and Little Jurgen Habermas, and Little English Major Alex.

Little Frank Zappa is there, too, most days, but that’s not an English thing, that’s just who I am.

This is the argument Little Guy in a Labcoat makes: whether it’s “rigor,” “theory,” “significant,” “memetic,” “paradigm,” or other terminology borrowed (“appropriated?” or is that too on-the-nose?) from the core sciences, the result ends up being the same – in the celebrations of contingency of meaning, we risk losing meaning altogether.

This already happened to “archaeology,” and I let it go.  For “ecology,” LGL would rather I not do that.  Little Zappa, frankly, doesn’t particularly care.

 


Post-Introduction – On what makes for good theory (subjectively, for Alex) or, Steps Towards an Ecology of Epistemological Habit

So let’s Cynically presume, if only for a moment, that ecologists understand what ecologies are better than, say, psychoanalysts do.  It would be odd, after all, to presume that ecologists know more about dream interpretation than the psychoanalysts – so apparently we’re already okay with essentializing expertises.

If we cynically presume that an ecologist is expert in ecology, and non-ecologists are thus less versed than ecologists in the designation and interpretation of “ecology,” what does that do to the notion of empirical-knowledge-based authority in conceptually designing the biological space of the organism in situ within environmental contexts for English scholars?   EECS experts, psychoanalysts, pop philosophers, psychiatrists, mathematicians, environmental engineers, usability gurus:  some ecologists, most most certainly not.  English, if nothing else, definitely keeps mixed and odd company.  But I do worry about a consistency of meaning.  Little Jurgen Habermas makes me do that incessantly.

Such, it seems to me, is the price of “ecology” in the readings for this and last week.  And I think it is a good thing to struggle with this.  Call it an ecology of doubt.  Observation of how doubt propagates and is distributed throughout the epistemological system by seed organisms.

In other coursework this semester, I’ve been crashing up against Grounded Theory – a theory of theory production based on grounded inquiry – which isn’t a theory, isn’t grounded, and doesn’t produce theories.  (There are times, I will not lie, when I believe that I am the last sane man, a Yossarian skeptic in a field predicated on meaning which values meaning not very much at all.  In these cases, I like to blame Little Guy in a Labcoat.)  But it has gotten me thinking quite a bit about what we can and can’t call a theory, and what does and does not constitute productive theory.

And I think the answer is dissonance.  A classmate, much smarter than me, pointed out that you can boil down the entirety of Grounded Theory to “you can come up with a way of thinking about things by thinking about coming up with a way of thinking about things.”  This, as it turns out, is not a groundbreaking practice – thinking to have thoughts.  If it is in the counter-intuitive turn that theories find purchase, GT’s wheels are spinning in the mud.

Gravity is not a fascinating theory because it tells us that things inevitably fall down, or even how those things fall down – it is fascinating because it proves that the thing falling and the thing being fallen towards exert the same and equal force upon each other. Cantor’s theory isn’t interesting because it proves infinity to be infinite and present, but because it demonstrates that there are different kinds of infinity – both real and imagined.  Darwinian evolutionary theory isn’t interesting because it proves evolution happens, but because it counterintuitively provides a model with no choice, no intentionality, no actors, which still moves away from entropy and into order.  Psychoanalytic theory, though it has largely been disproven, dissected, and re-deployed at this point, can at least be credited with being surprising.

To prove I’m not colored against English, I might even note that – even though I have beleaguered against it – Actor Network Theory creates meaning precisely by surprising the user of the theory with potential connections and actors and actants which defy rational expection.  ANT confounds.  It requires more of you in order to function than your simple presence and consent.

How do theories from/of ecology function in contrast?  Do they confound?  Do they confuse?  Do they surprise, shock, or require more than in order to synthesize new truths and generate new knowledge?

Let’s check in on the readings.


What’s an Ecology?  Or, What’s Not an Ecology? or, Steps Towards an Ecology of Trait Selection

The Cary Institute’s position statement (link) on the definition of ecology precludes almost all the other “ecologies” we’ve studied over the last two weeks.  Coincidentally, the Cary definition aligns fairly closely with my own, and I just haven’t found a lot of value in ecology as a metric for locating meaning or knowledge in network studies.

The Cary definition acknowledges three “pervasive definitions” within the field: 1) the study of relationships between organisms and environment, 2) the study of distribution and abundance of organisms, 3) and the study of ecosystems.  The definition itself notes that ecology is a “scientific study” of processes which influence organisms, influence their relations, and allow them to influence “energy and matter” (i.e., the world “outside” the organism).

What is missing, then, is an intraorganism mechanism of ecological influence or change.  This, of course, is the curse of Bateson – whether you elect to literalize his title and consider the mind, or you accept his ecology of mind as “the ecology of ideas,” (1) one must grant that the idea itself, the mind itself, is internal to the organism – and unknowable.

Little  Habermas would tell us there’s a reason so many philosophical ecologies are psychoanalytic or pop-neuroscientific at their core – because psychoanalysis gives you the loose ethos of certainty without requiring the authority of demonstrated truth.

Indeed, Bateson himself notes that “psychoanalysis has erred sadly in using words that are too short and there-fore appear more concrete than they are” (92), and I cannot help but let that argument float in the air for a moment next to “steps to an ecology of mind,” especially when Bateson, no more than two pages later, praises psychoanalysis precisely for demonstrating “the importance and value of loose thinking” (94).

And this is the crisis hiding at the core of Bateson; his arguments are solipsistically anti-Cartesian, but his examples are all relational, truly “ecological” in their interorganism protocols of meaning-making – the metalogues (12-69) certainly demonstrate that.

It’s either not Ecology of Mind, or it’s not an “ecology of ideas,” or it’s not consistent.

While Bateson argues for bidirectionality, his arguments trade in influence, not transit.  While his work synthesizes “biotic and abiotic,” it is through the cybernetic application of the abiotic that we reveal what Bateson’s Ecology of Mind functions as:

Techno-positivism.

Of course, Little Spinoza knows what he thinks about techno-positivism, and its utopian-imperialist origins the primacy of the human animal as more than the ecology he inhabits.  Little English Major Alex, though – he’s more transactional about this whole contingency thing, and slightly less cynical than Little Guy in a Labcoat and his hyper-realist-pragmatic retinue.

He points out that it’s tough not to be a cybernetic techno-positivist in 1971, when the field was not technological, but regulatory, and that the blind spot of Bateson is not in his original work, but rather in the lack of a meaningful update to this argument in the 2000 re-release to address the techno-positive swerve of current cybernetics.  Little English Major Alex points out that if this is true, then we should see a pivot towards addressing the techno-positivist more overtly in Gibson’s 1986 work.

Little Habermas really likes James Gibson.  He likes anybody who will unapologetically say “I have made it up” (127) when explaining the terms of his argument. As noted in the epigraph, Habermas views meaning as negotiated in “the (linguistically disclosed) world” – a practice he notes connects pragmatics “with action theory, albeit in a way completely different from the attempt of intentionalistic semantics to explain processes of reaching understanding using action-theoretic concepts” (1998).  For Habermas, action – actors – require choices which are influenced by regulatory impulses, but informed by the environment itself.  That is to say, Habermasian pragmatism feels as if it generates meaning more ecologically than Bateson (in some ways).

As such, Gibson’s notions of perception (and misperception) of human affordances is profoundly pragmatic – and in many ways evolves from Bateson’s techno-positivism into a techno-cynicism, to the point where he notes that the potentiality for collision with a glass door is an affordance provided not only materially, but by virtue of the flaws of the mind-technology interface of human psychology.  Technologically, cyberneticism is imperfect for Gibson.  Regulatorily, cyberneticism is entropic (see “despite the restorative cycles that yielded a steady state […] prior to man”).

Little Zappa would likely enter the metalogue at this point to say he doesn’t know anything about ecology, but this all sounds very performative, and character-based performance he gets.  To this end, he would likely point out that Don Norman’s interpretation of affordance is one that preferences performativity and representation (as instructed by “perception” of affordance) over “true” environmental “ecologies” of technology in which all affordances, visible and not, are integrated into models of systems.

However, Little Spinoza still thinks this is useful.  After all, he notes, what Gibson calls “affordance” is actually just DeCartes’ “attribute” of essence.  If attributes are the essence of a use case, object, environmental factor, or organism, and the mind’s ecological essence is thought, perception, and decision, then any time the body “reaches out” into the environment to influence and interact, that, too, is performance.  Spinoza’s reformation of the Cartesian subject, however, would view that environmental affordance/attribute as extending into both body and mind as gradiated continuity (a little more of one, a little less of the other, but with the permeation of either necessitation the permeation of the second).

The point being, the Little Guy in the Labcoat may have his hand at the rudder of the “brain-ship” of the mind, but he does not drive the body alone, nor, truly, at all – because he is integrative to the experience of being, not having a body.

This is what Felix Guattari, after all, gives us – an interpretation of “ecology” which reveals that Bateson’s imperfect “ecology of mind”/”an ecology of ideas” can be deregulated, creating what can only be described as techno-pessimism (and capital-anarchism) on Guattari’s part.  Thus, when he argues that young people use media to guide themselves, and in kind to be guided, through various “cultural pseudo-identities” (23), when he rejects the modern as bringing oppression, phallocentrism, racism, “social and mental neo-archaisms” which if left to themselves “could be for the best, or for the worst,” (41-2) one is tempted to note that oppression, phallocentrism, racism, and the other archaisms of modernity have nothing to do with modernity, and are the purview as well of the pre- and post-modern hellscapes of “social ecology.”  One is tempted to point out that Rock ‘n Roll, sexting, and pillow talk have mediated youth pseudo-identities in some form or another since before Pompeii, to quote the misattributed Socrates quote about “kids these days” and note that all generations are segregated not by modernity, but performativity.

When Guattari says that “we might just as well rename environmental ecology machinic ecology, because Cosmic and human praxis has only ever been a question of machines [of war]” (43), one may be tempted to point out that all organisms are machines, and that war, like all influence between organisms, is regulatory – that “war” is “environmental” only to the extent that “war” is “environmental.”

Little Spinoza would argue, then, that all of Guattari’s three ecologies boil down to social constructionism tainted by the fallacy of human exceptionalism – Cartesian man with mere lip service paid to the integration of mind/body/environment through the affordances of material existence.  And so, when Guattari argues that “we will only escape from the major crises of our era” through articulations of 1) subjective interpretation of epoch, 2) shifting social demographics and cultural structures, and 3) environmental reimagination, both Little Guy in a Labcoat and Little Habermas ask why this era is any different in those respects than every other epoch of record when nothing new has happened besides the entropic transition from techno-positivism to techno-pessimism through techno-cynicism.

Little English Major Alex just wants to know why we’re pretending anti-capitalism is supposed to service as an ecology (or Cary-esque ecosystem) rather than an affordance of social ideology.

Little Zappa just wants to know why we’re calling rock ‘n roll fandom a pseudo-identity.

 

Case Study #2: Applying CHAT and Hypertext to student UI/UX interactions in Blackboard Learn

The guiding motto in the life of every natural philosopher should be, ‘Seek simplicity and distrust it’ —Alfred North Whitehead (Quoted in Norman, 1).

INTRODUCTION

In my last case study, I spent a large amount of time experimenting to see whether or not we can study Blackboard Learn outside of the “victimhood” narratives inherent to most user experience study. Believing that Spinuzzian approaches could help students to understand and reintegrate the environment into their learning productively, I tried to “define the object of Blackboard Learn in any language which isn’t adversarial, or at least victim-based” (link). I failed, and concluded that “Genre Theory and genre-tracing make for interesting holistic views of the process of meaning making within the Blackboard network, but only within the highly-idealized context of the best-possible model of navigation” – that Blackboard is, in short, not studyable as a network not because it was not designed as a network, but because it was designed as not a network.

I had hoped that CHAT might resolve these issues for me by working in cultural contexts which are designed to interpret meaning through interpretations of mediation. Sadly, I simply didn’t find any evidence that CHAT’s methods are actually applicable to “real” networks (link). Like Spinuzzian methods, CHAT seems from my perspective – and certainly for my Object of Study – to be one of those “theories” which functions best when you don’t apply it to any subject not selected specifically to serve as exemplar for said theoretical practice. I referred to Spinuzzi as an “interminably complex” process of circular definitions which may or may not resolve even the core questions of what genres are, let alone how we might understand them (link) and I tend to stand by that for CHAT as well. The problem here is, simply, the technopositivism of trendy scholarship. It has its merits, but it also – like the poststructuralists before – serves as the high-water mark of not actually creating anything that adds meanings, knowledges, or operationalizations to Objects of Study.

All of this is to say that I have looked at a lot of literature at this point, and even though everybody is talking about Blackboard Learn, not a lot of people are looking at it as a network – and nobody is using theories of networks to do so.

Perhaps the person who comes closest – at least in execution – is Adam R. Pope in his “The Ethics of Adopting a Course Management System” (link). Pope views the starting point of any critique of a CMS/LMS as an organizational study – not unlike Spinuzzi’s – of “the System Behind the System,” of the interpretation of the economic, educational, epistemological, and environmental exigencies which drive development processes and the people “shaping the CMS to the perceived needs of their target users, a process which we know to shape those needs as it meets them.” As such, teachers are forced in progressive pedagogical contexts to do what Pope calls “teaching around the CMS” in an effort to counteract a platform which shapes “the idea of what [is] and is not appropriate material for a given course,” resulting in a transformation of the classroom which strips instructors of their pedagogical agency: “we become powerless to resist or critique and instead learn to merely cope.”

The challenge for Pope, as much as anything else, is in combating the very notion of merely-customized “universal” platforms for learning, the System Behind the System being one which preferences solutions which look good in shareholder reports and quarterly earnings – and which require as little consideration of student/instructor needs as possible, instead shaping those needs to the context of pre-existing platforms for assignment, collection, assessment, and grading. Pope’s problem, in short, is the same as mine – CMSs (and Blackboard specifically, as Pope notes) are anti-humanistic and violently anti-agentic. Pope does not turn to traditionally network-affiliated theories, but rather Nielsenian UX contexts, such as Donald Norman’s work on Complexity and complication (link). In the end, I think that end-user-integrated networks demand usability theory over the more deeply philosophical practices of CHAT, Spinuzzian, ANT, or “Hypertext” theories. There is an honesty in the work that Pope does: the system does not work. Speak to the ethics of systems which are designed not to work. Advocate for a better system. Done.

Terry Locke’s 2007 “E-Learning and the Reshaping of Rhetorical Space,” in The SAGE Handbook of E-Learning Research (link), on the other hand, proves that other deeply philosophical contexts external to network theory can provide useful contexts as well for understanding the laminae of agencies and meanings mediated within CMS spaces. Opening with Keats, Bakhtin, and Gee, Locke is essentially an anti-Pope, exploring the space of the CMS and asynchronous bulletin boards such as Blackboard Learn through heavily theoretical practices in the established rhetoric/composition canon. For Locke, the CMS is a space which might be considered as fully under contexts of encryption and surveillance ethics as under user experience protocols. The CMS/ABB is a rhetorical space which has the potential “radically reshape” not only the rhetorical situation of learning, but the authority – and authoritarian practices – of teachers in the digital space. As such, when Locke asks to what degree instructors should intercede in learning contexts and discussion contexts (198), he argues that those instructors are already “confronted with questions in respect of instructional design” in the contexts of asynchronous learning (Locke here references Sorensen and Baylen’s 2004 “Learning Online” in QRDE, and I think this is a valuable rhetorical addition as well as a strong pedagogical contribution).

Still, while Locke’s arguments are deeply canonical in their adherence to standby research of the Rhet/Comp OWI discipline, there are hints of CHAT practices in his rhetorical study, as well. And so, when he argues that “when courses attract culturally diverse participants, modes of cultural inclusivity, reflected in participant behavior and environmental design, need to be explored so that difference is viewed as a resource and not a deficit” (198), one cannot help but think that the “imagined communities” of scale which Locke is engaging with are a little less imaginary in their struggle with asynchronous meaning – seeing as he develops curriculum at a New Zealand public university with a significant Maori student population (17%) and located on Tainui lands (link). And thinking on this spatial and demographic challenge – in Prior’s language – one might think of the laminae which complicate the mediation of meaning in a segregated, asynchronous space such as the ABB.

Finally, connecting to that CHAT-esque cultural-historic challenge would be Rajendra Kumar Panthee’s 2014 PhD Dissertation at the University of Texas at El Paso, “Inviting Citizen Designers to design learning management system interfaces for student agency in a crosscultural digital contact zone” (link). Panthee’s work is particularly valuable in its contribution to the cultural inter-network premises it explores, and the study of cultural values’ influence on mediated “readings” of Blackboard Learn’s interface. Deeply empirical in its preliminary methods, Panthee’s literature review and originating research demonstrates that BBL is constitutionally incapable of addressing the writing needs of peripheral students in culture, including multi-lingual, ESL, disability, and class/income-limited individuals.

The theme of Panthee’s study is one of excessive and unnecessary constraints, and of streamlining of privileged linguistic trends into the de facto use cases of non-privileged users. (Sure, there’s a Foucault thing happening here, too). Panthee rejects (through Slack and Wise, Nietzsche, and Foucault) the progress narrative as regressive, ethnocentric, and colonialist (54-5) – and rejects the assumption that the techno-positivism of hypertextuality (here expressed through hypermediacy and the desire for use to be “invisible” to the user) as a “solution” is viable, a technology which “attains the real by filling each window with widgets and filling the screen with windows” (Bolter & Grusin 210, qtd. In Panthee 36).

As such, Panthee argues, “new media technologies in general and LMS in particular can not be treated in isolation from their designers’ cultural, social, and linguistic norms and values. Media technologies [like Blackboard] play a crucial role in creating and disseminating a techno-cultural hegemony in a cross-cultural contact zone of FYC” (37). Panthee then, through a semi-structured feminist narrative inquiry, works with “Citizen Designers” (read: “Panthee’s students”) to remix features of Wiki platforms, blogs, and other Web 2.0 and Web 3.0 platforms in order to recenter multi-lingual and multi-cultural practices and mediations in the LMS space of Blackboard Learn – an exercise which encourages said designers to remediate, but also to consider the original mediation in more explicit terms.

Is this generally helpful? Is this broadly viable? Does this matter in the institutional or organizational context?


How does CHAT function to interrogate Blackboard Learn?

One of the first challenges of CHAT is segmenting or compartmentalizing BBL into a viable Object of Study. While CHAT’s authors argue that “the broadest context” for remapping an object is through the segmentalization of Laminated Chronotopes (embodied, represented, and embedded – certainly reminiscent of rhetorical arguments by Locke and cultural claims by Panthee), I would argue instead for compartmentalizing “functional systems” which inform both the laminated chronotopes and the activities of practice themselves (“literate activities”). My reasoning here is that CHAT’s goal is to understand chronotopes as activity studied “in the wild,” such as it is – but BBL is not “the wild,” but rather the hyper-real of Bolter & Grusin’s “widgets” of reality. It strikes me that the Laminated Chronotope only works as a jumping-off point into CHAT analysis if the student (or instructor, or administrator, or developer, or product representative) is able to make choices within the network context. As we’ve already established a few times over this semester, BBL lacks agentic potentials that allow embodiment, representation, or embedding by choice. And so we must move up one order of artifaction, and use CHAT to consider instead Pope’s “System Behind the System.” People, artifacts, practices, institutions, communities, and ecologies are perhaps the only actual manifest evidences that Blackboard’s designs function as intended, perpetuating and mediating systemic practices through the platform itself – what Pope would call “shaping needs as it meets them.” And so, while many authors consider the cultural lens (as Panthee does) through the people within the system, and while other pedgogical texts interpret activities (such as production, reception, and representation) on Blackboard through the chronotopes of embodying, embedding, and representingvery little work is actually able to commit to connecting the systems themselves to the productive acts within the three chronotopes themselves. As such, we have difficulty viewing BBL as code, and due to this limitation, similarly fail to view it as a process tree capable of being refined (embedding). We similarly have trouble recognizing BBL as presenting (and augmenting) the practices and rhetorical spaces of the physical classroom, and so frequently fail to conceptualize the possibility that it is, while less-than-perfect, capable of being refined into a post-traditionalist pedagogical space (as Panthee’s students have endeavored to do) and thus lose perspective on the act of digital projection (representing). And finally, we frequently fail to view the materials generated in Blackboard spaces as “real,” considering them at best a shade of their more complete (process-oriented) “counterparts” in the “real” classroom. In this we lose sense of the possibility of truly incarnate digital presence and the viability of digital learning for OWI contexts (embodying).

If we can reclaim these contexts by re-ordination of the space itself, we might be able to move beyond Pope’s “merely coping” and into viable digital pedagogy – but first we must delimit the authority of Blackboard, and remove the limits of practice under the BBL model.

The “challenge” as Prior would say, here, is that such practices are political, ideological, and impracticable. But – at least for CHAT – that may be a problem, for once, for another day. CHAT gives a viable context for reconceptualizing the chronotopes, not as a base, but as a substructure beneath the structure of learning (which is, itself, aligned under a superstructure of literacies and ecologies).

Are these structures and vertically-realigned laminae “nodes” in the traditional sense of the “network?” I honestly don’t know. The challenge here is that I stand by my earlier statement that Blackboard itself is not a network, but rather a collection of edges between various pedagogical, social, cultural, and economic networks and systems. What are the “networks” we’re actually studying, then? Classrooms, certainly, and intra-instructor and inter-instructor multi-section or even multi-course networks. Departments, to be sure, and institutions. Corporate/college relationships. But there is not a cohesive network to study top-down, or even to path through, which is precisely, I would argue, what makes the rhetorical nature of BBL such a massive beast to slay.

What moves through a network that is not a network? Standards. Regulations and protocols and rules and walls which keep gardens safe – and walled. What would Prior et al. claim moves through the BBL ultra-network? Meaning in literate practices, most likely. The problem there is that such meaning falls apart at the top, which we’ve previously discussed under Spinuzzi as apathetic to change, and thus apathetic to mediation and meaning for the lower network “hubs.”

In other words, CHAT can only demonstrate meaning mediation as a network feature of BBL if BBL has changed over time to respond to these mediations. It, quite frankly, hasn’t. And so it cannot be responsive (See Figure 1). If meaning does not change the network as it moves through it, then by definition meaning is changed itself by this transit. What must be studied next is how we have allowed these changes to go unnoticed, or unchecked.


How can Hypertext de-wall the garden?

Frank O’Connor, the Irish writer, tells in one of his books how, as a boy, he and his friends would make their way across the countryside, and when they came to an orchard wall that seemed too high and too doubtful to try and too difficult to permit their voyage to continue, they took off their hats and tossed them over the wall–and then they had no choice but to follow them. This Nation has tossed its cap over the wall of space, and we have no choice but to follow it. Whatever the difficulties, they will be overcome. Whatever the hazards, they must be guarded against” (John F. Kennedy, 1963).

Hypertext gives me a tool that I don’t think is standard (entirely) to the reading of Hypertext, but remains nonetheless very important: the rhetorical sense of community that is inherent to the act of hypertextual connections between messages and media.

Let us begin here: the locus of community is trust. Trust is ethotic.

What Hypertext does is build the visual ethos of texts by connecting them digitally/physically to related texts to build a community of meaning. Hypertextuality is the creation of alternative models of authority by the supposition of a separate community coalesced by shared (agreed) meaning.

In our current Object of Study – quite frequently – the shared meaning of the classroom-as-community is “Blackboard sucks, let’s use it as little as possible.” Is this bad? I’d argue it’s actually remarkably productive, an act of communal mediation which brings instructor and student(s) together under the contexts of synchronicity and relationality. It deconstructs authority, and designs course relations around the notion, not of Spinuzzian “victimhood,” but of intellectual and pedagogical “uprising.”

But it also functions within the literally hypertextual space of Blackboard Learn itself, where students function subversively by linking their classmates and instructor out into the “open” from the dark web of the proprietary rhetorical scope of Blackboard as a locus of control (read: “not trust”). And so, following hypertextual networks out of the deep web and into the shared, public space serves antiseptically, but also agonistically, to reject the rhetorical lens of Blackboard as encompassing the classroom, as walling the garden.

In this context, then, we might reiterate the relationality of hypertextual readings of Blackboard by saying that the nodes are both people and content, and the edges trust and authority which connect people to each other, people to content, and content to other content. Situated in contexts both external and internal to Blackboard (and, in ways, interstitially or liminally in transit between the two, negotiated spaces), agency becomes subversive, and the network becomes user-centric. A focus on communities of subversion and repurposing allows us to view the transit through (and out of and back into) the network as the negotiation of authority and the renegotiation of boundaries – the authority of the system being negotiated specifically by the role of that negotiation in defining the confines and constraints of the classroom.

What we have then through hypertextuality is a nested layering of scopes of inquiry (in the Spinuzzian sense), which moves through three layers:

authority of system → authority of users → authority of boundaries

 

Expanding upon questions of hypertextuality raised in Johnson-Eilola, we can use this case study to consider how community is expressed and built through connectivity – and how the directive connectivity of Blackboard Learn fosters – and hinders – that connectivity (and by extension, the sense of community.)  Exploration of cultural/economic/institutional contexts would then be tied – de facto – to the user interface experience and the ways the UI communicates boundaries; in response to this, we must consider not only the ways students and instructors navigate such boundaries, but also ways in which institution- and program-centric “modules” drive this learning experience and express pedagogical and epistemological ethos (e.g. the presence of TurnItIn functionality within submission processes.)  These technologies create new walls – walls which must in turn be negotiated yet again by students and instructors walled within the authoritative system of CMS practice and application.

Considering Johnson-Eilola’s community arguments, then, we can explore the rhetorical force of the UI as a commentary on mentor/student relationship, questions of absence, absenteeism, inaccessibility, dehumanization, isolation, and alienation – as well as professionalization and standardization.  “Community” does much of the work of contextualizing what is and is not within Blackboard – in part because Blackboard serves as a black box for knowledge and authority generation (to the end user).  As such, we might also even consider Joyce’s more “poetic” arguments about the ways in which hypertextuality allows students to express creativity; as we consider the ways in which BBL is designed to prevent this creativity in a hypertextual space, we also begin to see the ways that creativtity makes the authoritative intentionality of Blackboard Learn matter not at all.

What Hypertextuality teaches us, then, is this: whether we use Blackboard begrudgingly, abuse Blackboard intentionally, or ignore Blackboard together, we are already subverting its rhetorical purposes – if we do so as a determined, negotiated collective.


 

References

Kennedy, J. F. (1963). Remarks at the Dedication of the Aerospace Medical Health Center. San Antonio, Texas21.

ENGL 840 -Blog Post #5: Monograph Summary

Bennett, J. (2009). Vibrant matter: A political ecology of things. Duke University Press.


For my monograph, I have selected Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A political ecology of things (2009) from Duke UP (complete preface available here).

Working in argumentative forms which run parallel to Latour’s Politics of Nature and Guattari’s Three Ecologies, Bennett argues (and here I must oversimplify) for a “vitality”-centered view of materiality which gives non-human objects agency (similarly to theories such as Actor Network Theory or Activity Theory) in order to recontextualize organizations, institutions, and political society through material forces “with trajectories, propensities, or tendencies of their own,” which the author considers to be a “political project” which encourages “intelligent and sustainable engagement with vibrant matter and lively things” (viii).

There are some challenges to using such a text “as research.”  First, inherent in a “political project” is the implication of bias.  Second, very little of the research contained within contains a consistent or coherent experimental or synthetic method.  By example, an early passage helpfully labelled “A Note on Methodology” contains nothing a researcher would traditionally recognize as “methodological,” with the exception of claims that the author will employ a method of “demystification” (xiii-xv) for the material practices of knowledge.  What Bennett provides, in a sense, is the connection of the mystic illuminated Human Being with the mammalian Homo Sapien Sapiens – a “touch of anthropomorphism” (99) which parallels natural and cultural forms in order to demonstrate that our own agency is precisely as suspect as “vibrant materials'” agency would be – unless we are able as thinkers to synthesize the two.

On reading deeply into this text – my gut sank as I realized that (for my limited purposes here) Bennett’s work was not precisely helpful.  Exploring why, however, might be informative.

Last week I expressed a concern that this might prove off-track or tangential.  I wanted to study Bennett because I believe that austerity contexts for humanities graduate research really deal with the agency of money in the process of meaning-making, and the rhetorical agency of things as more valued in research production than ideas.  As such, it’s easier to obtain research support to generate products, viable prototypes, than it is to generate data – and much of Bennett’s work helps contextualize a theoretical ground for why that has been the case in the past, and why the future of discourse on such research might be not to ascend the “thing,” but to equalize the Cartesian intellectual subject by bringing the researcher down to the level of the political/ecological context of material production.

If this all sounds too heady, I’m struggling to make Bennett applicable.  Out of intellectual honesty, I want to keep it in to consider the challenges Bennett offers to traditional research paradigms, but the empiricist in me fears the consequences of a methods-and-methodology-free practice of research – which is essentially what Bennett’s political practice ends up being.  However, there might be some ways to apply this to the graduate student struggle for research relevancy.  More work is necessary.

 

ENGL 840 -Blog Post #4: Dissertation Summary

Unger, D. C. (2015). What peer-to-peer networks teach us about institutional service (Order No. 3734369). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (1733665715).


 

In contrast to my analysis of the Smith dissertation, which dealt with a specific research process and use case for OSS applications in graduate student contexts, Donald C. Unger’s 2015 What peer-to-peer networks teach us about institutional service” is a deeply rhetorical and organizational analysis of academia discipline-wide, through the context of service relationships and responsibilities.

In his first chapter, Unger’s work studies the rhetorical and practical interpretations of the nature and role of service in the academy, and examines the conflict between post-structuralist liberal expectations of the academy against pragmatic, traditionalist questions of viability and productivity.  Through theoretical applications and institutional critiques in the second chapter, Unger hopes to resolve this opposition by considering service under peer-to-peer technological models which express service and support as relational rather than material or expertise-based, and through feminist care ethics which value the formation and growth of professional qualities through the lens of the interpersonal rather than the organizational context.

In the third and fourth chapters, the author applies these questions and the peer-to-peer resolution of liberal and pragmatic traditionalist approaches under specific disciplinary contexts – in Rhetoric and Composition, in Computers and Writing, and in Technical Communication (47-73).  Unger then provides a heuristic for considering how service does and does not function as a relationality, and how institutional critique serves to make visible the invisible “infrastructure” (37) of service and to blur the delineation between “critical thought” in the humanities and the “technical knowhow” of STEM disciplines (11).

Although this delineation is challenging, and the segregation between positivist and anti-/post-positivist notions still unclear (both in its presence and the necessity of its presence), the questions Unger raises are a necessary step in contextualizing my work on graduate research in the humanities – as the support of graduate research is inherently a form of (frequently informal) service, and the students’ practice itself is a form of service – as defined by Unger’s 8-point definition of service (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Unger's definition of institutional service
Figure 1: Unger’s definition of institutional service (101).

In exploring the “crisis narratives” of the humanities and their relationship to the current state of service and research in the field today (6-10), Unger’s work necessarily exists within ideological contexts which drive it toward specific solutions and conclusions about the nature of service and academic work in general.  However, this document may be useful to me because it recontextualizes and more carefully delineates service within the academy according to these ideologies and ethics of care and sharing, which reflect the use cases typical to the application of F/OSS within institutional contexts; as graduate students typically create research knowledge under mentorship, the questions which Unger asks about how we view service as inherently defined by relationships and networks provide a strong theoretical and ethical framework–which helps us to examine the ways in which research flows from service, service from research needs, and both from departmental, disciplinary, and institutional exigencies and contexts.

Case Study commentary – Adrienne and Kim

Case Study Outline response no. 1 – Adrienne

Adrienne is analyzing public profile images as rhetorical devices (or with rhetorical functions) using CHAT and Foucauldian analysis.

I think that contextualizing representations in digital spaces in this way is highly functional, but I’m concerned in the CHAT section by the presence of a sole laminated chronotope. I think one of the driving concepts of the theory is that the laminar nature of the chronotopes expects that such rhetorical practices would function at multiple levels concurrently. Are there other chronotopic features we might consider?

As for Foucault, I have no real questions or concerns. I might note that there are other functions of discontinuity in profile pictures, perhaps, besides the temporal changes of aging and maturing – including through group associations, group photographs, photographs of others (e.g. children/grandchildren/pets) as profile images, etc.


 

Case Study Outline response no. 2 – Kim F.

Kim is analyzing writing centers as functional networks through the lens of Spinuzzi’s Tracing Genre and Latour’s Reassembling the Social.

I am intrigued by the notion of viewing the writing center as a network rather than as a node within a discursive network. Obviously, the notion of a network scales up or down according to the locus of study and the lensing used to explore it – so any scale is likely viable. That said, I am interested in how this network would connect with other networks, as well as how it functions internally (that said, if you aren’t interested in that, that’s totally cool!)  I only bring this up because the “network” of the writing center is so strongly influenced by external (institutional) contexts.

One recommendation I might make would be to look at Spinuzzi’s “Working Alone Together” (2012), which explores how professionals function in shared spaces while working on individual projects and for discrete organizations (in, for example, shared office rental spaces). I feel like his direct applications of some of his theories to a practical semi-collaborative space might be informative for your own methodologies.  Although his work is more inter-organizational, it provides some great methods for intra-organizational study as well.

As for Latour – while I am not personally a fan of the agentive impulse he embraces, I think you do a good job of exploring how it would function for inanimate objects’ influence on the writing space and situated learning practices.   It’s a real challenge to contextualize technology within the WC network because of the complex organizational relationships between text, tech, and production practices.  I think your approach really nails this.  Great work across the board!


Case Study #2 – Outline

Applying CHAT and Hypertext to student UI/UX interactions in Blackboard Learn

  • CHAT – Prior and the tracing impulse of challenge-based exigency
    • application of cultural-historic analysis practices for action based upon evolution of Blackboard over time
      • Spoiler – Blackboard has not changed over time.
    • Exploration of cultural/economic/institutional contexts as tied to the UI experience – consideration of ways in which institution- and program-centric “modules” drive learning experience and express pedagogical and epistemological ethos (e.g. presence of TurnItIn functionality within submission processes.)
  • Hypertext – Expanding upon questions of hypertextuality raised in Johnson-Eilola, consider how community is expressed and built through connectivity – and how the directive connectivity of BBL fosters – and hinders – that connectivity (and by extension, the sense of community.)
    • Considering Johnson-Eilola’s community arguments, explore the rhetorical force of the UI as a commentary on mentor/student relationship
      • questions of absence, absenteeism, inaccessibility, dehumanization, isolation, and alienation – as well as professionalization and standardization
    • From here, consider Joyce’s more “poetic” arguments about the ways in which hypertextuality might allow students to express creativity; then, consider the ways in which BBL is designed to prevent this in a hypertextual space.