Case study #3 – Ecosophical orientation of Spinuzzian Genre and CHAT Canons

In terms of discovering viable tools for understanding my selected Object of Study – namely, the rhetorical/pedagogical (visual) implicature of Blackboard Learn’s UI/UX design – Case Study #1’s vision of Spinuzzian genre-tracing proved an operationalization failure, which I resolved (as noted in Case Study #2) by arguing that:

“[w]hat this means, finally, is 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 – one in which the user has the power to subvert and habituate, and experience is designed non-agonistically.  However, Blackboard is designed agonistically, if not antagonistically; a platform cannot be designed and implemented primarily to provide authoritative knowledge and assess users’ incorporation of that knowledge in a prescriptively-graded environment and not be hostile to independent agency of meaning.”

Were that I had at that point elected to restructure my Object of Study rather than double down on this significance of visual implicature.  However, I elected not to revise my position or OoS, arguing that the issue of Spinuzzi is not that victimhood narratives are not frequently accurate representations of the UI/UX environment, but rather that focusing on ameliorating such victimhood is rarely productive, stating that:  “various researchers’ findings have established that Blackboard does victimize users.  While Spinuzzi may be correct that the researcher is not a hero-in-waiting for the victimized user, the user may still be well and truly beset upon” (Nielsen, “Case Study #2”).  It is in this argument that I finally find issue with Spinnuzi, as well as CHAT and many other theories of analysis and practice from within the field of Network rhetoric; it is in the pursuit of a theoretical body of meaning functioning through networks—whether those networks be physical, digital, or genre-defined theoretical—that we fail to recognize the ideological drive of network practice.

I’ve spoken about ideology to a significant degree in most of my reading connections this semester; memetic jokery about the Capitalist Machinery of Death notwithstanding, ideology generally connects to technological adaptation, and technological adaptation (especially within the modern academy) defines the scope of networks.

The problem with Spinuzzi and with CHAT, then, is that such ideological purposes as serve as theoretical foundations for practice—as I had previously established in reading connections and case studies—are subsumed within the paratextual trappings of the theory itself.  To view Spinuzzian genre as an ecology of meaning is to argue against the virtue of a genre-based pedagogical canon, for instance. To argue, as Paul Prior does, that rhetoric before CHAT is “too centered on the producer rather than the system” (2007) is to make an implicit evaluation of both the rhetor and the rhetorical situation as non-viable sites of meaning in the digital, post-network ecology of post-modernity.

I have called this many things.  I’ve called it “technopositivism,” “Technoscientism,” “The Latourian Leviathan,” “Whiggish,” and “Whig Historicism.”  The assumption, implicit in almost all network theory, is that “onward” equals “progress.”  At the core of all the theories of practice observed in this course has been the presumption of progress through forward movement or network development and added complexities of form – and this (I’ll not say false, but I will consider its falsity) dangerous and damning presumption remains unresolved in both Spinuzzi and CHAT.

I would like to resolve this through the introduction of a third theory of practice (and not only because that is what is expected within this particular assignment) in the form of Guattarian ecosophical theory.  When initially applying CHAT in Case Study 2, I argued that “we can reclaim [objective] contexts by re-ordination of the space itself;” however, “first we must delimit the authority of [the object], and remove the limits of practice under the [object’s] model.”  I would argue that this is precisely the power Guattarian practice might offer – except that Guattarian practice is precisely as bogged down in the practices of ideological progression through neo-scientism. In effect, Guattari gives us an anti-authoritarian strain of systemic opposition which functionally adopts the ecological benefits of technological and epistemological progress (“society” as ecology) without acknowledging the practical origins of such “progress” within the psychological, psycho-social, and economic contexts he rejects.  Socio-anarchism as rhetorical theory.  Daddy’s money activism in psychotherapeutic contexts.

One might optimistically label this practice as “a reclamation” of the technopositivist space, but it would be challenging to claim that it is not in some way an extension of the pro-luddite visions of ecological theories of practice which views technology as a tool to subvert the selfsame technology—ideological peace through superior firepower.  When Guattari paraphrases Bateson (15) in noting that “for too long humanity has adopted ‘survival of the fittest’ as its maxim,” it is tempting to interrogate of Guattari precisely what point in human history he is studying; it is only through the lens of pure ideological representation that any modern (Western) culture of recognizable scale has – in the last century, at the very least – believed in (or executed social programs according to) this “maxim of humanity” on any cultural scale.

Let’s be overt, here.  Capitalism sucks.  Its influences on the “network society” are profound, and the inequality that it engenders into society is severely uncool.  Its influence is both perverse and pervasive to the point of becoming something akin to a toxicity of thought; as Slavoj Žižek (2005) notes “it’s much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.”

For Guattari’s dependence on Whig progressive ideals of practice, here is a truth his text rejects: under capitalism, we also live in a time of unparalleled quality, perhaps the finest era of humanity not only in terms of the social, but the personal.  In history, the mean of humanity has never leaned so nearly towards absolute prosperity, security, and healthfulness.  The human polis has never experienced such wealth, been so well fed, so free of disease, so near-universally free by almost every metric of knowledge, of human bondage, of political franchise and representation.  Our public waters are cleaner, in urban centers around the world, than they have been since the onset of urbanization.  Our air is cleaner than it has been since the onset of industrialization.  And surprisingly few of our children have smallpox.

Is this a result of capital, and of the ideological and economic practices of capitalism?  Of course not – if anything, it is almost certainly because of the regulation of capitalist drives that humanity moves forward through this progress.  And yet the truth of the matter is that, while we could have less overfishing, we could have more renewable energy, and we could definitely stand to have less (or no) global warming, we did not live under capitalist systems when the disaster of human dominionism was born, and the resolution of capitalism would not reveal utopia, but the naked human desires which drive progress (and reveal equally that progress is not inherently productive).

We do not live in Leibniz’ “best of all possible worlds” (link), but we do live in the best of all possible times… to date.

So, how is this argument on my part not the Leviathan?  How am I, in declaring the best of all possible times, not engaging in technoscientism?  Well, in part, Guattari’s argument is inherently tied to the conceptual inexorability of sociological and environmental outcomes; that is to say, if social culture is toxic, that cultural toxicity influences the mind/self and the ecology of the environment similarly.  This has not, in practice, proven true – it is, however, a typical shorthand of specific Marxian predictive models of capitalism.  Technoscientism, the Leviathan—these concepts thrive upon a correlative feature of technology/science/knowledge and progress.  However, such a correlation does not exist.  Systems and the improvement of those systems and around those systems need not be directly (or even indirectly) entangled.

When analyzing my object of study, I recall my criticism of Spinuzzi during my first reading connections work on his Tracing Genres in week 4: “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” (link).  In other words, never trust a politician’s unemployment numbers while he is running for office, a barfly’s history of volunteering while he’s vying for a date, or an academic’s definition of genre while he’s formulating a theory.

That is to say, I address this issue with Guattari because it should be clear at the outset what Guattarian ecosophy cannot do – represent or comment upon reality.  Guattarian theory exists to comment upon the felt sense of a rhetorical or ecological space; this is, of its own right, useful.  If the Three Ecologies can demonstrate that environment, mind, and society are connected, then the ways in which mind and society might apprehend ecology still matters very much, because it is capable of modifying user behaviors (in this case, users being society) functionally in spite of realities which demonstrably negate the rhetorical claims of the rhetor/actor.

This is useful.  This, strangely enough, can be used to comment directly upon Blackboard Learn in ways CHAT and Spinuzzian genre theory cannot.

If it is easier to imagine the end of all social life than a minor change in the “interfacing” of capital with society, it is also easier to imagine the end of all learning on Blackboard than it is to imagine a change in the literal and rhetorical interfaces of Blackboard with the student-user or instructor-user.

Let’s get to the actual requirements of the case study assignment, and flesh out the relationship between the broader context and this specific object of study.

So, the question of Guattarian ecosophy—in the face of the pre-existing case studies of CHAT and Spinuzzian genre tracing—is how Blackboard functions as an ideological and rhetorical ecology, a confluence of mind/self, society/culture, and environment.

Let’s begin by moving back to Spinuzzi and the most rudimentary of UI/UX design principles.  At the core of assumptions of good design is a practice which meets the needs of users, and an interface which is developed in tandem with the user, either through feedback or other models of design, so that the core understanding of practice within the UI/UX environment is as naturalistic as possible.  What Spinuzzi shows us is that when UI/UX fails in this most basic expectation, users modify the work environment themselves, creating derivative genres of document and/or practice which function as either supplement or replacement to the non-naturalistic form.

Meanwhile, Prior et al. might be applied to the same UI/UX environment from the interpretive side of the (re?)design process – if Spinuzzi tells us about user behaviors in the face of design implicature, CHAT tells us about how designers might integrate such implicature by virtue of their point-of-entry into the aesthetic design process of UX.  For Prior et al., this demonstrates that “people, institutions, and artifacts are made in history” (2007), demanding a view of design which happens “in the world” as rhetorical “activity-in-the-world” and as only an initial step (“production”) in the multi-process “literate activities” of deployment and reception.

I have argued previously for entry into CHAT from the central point – “Functional Systems” – in a rejection of the linearity of Priorian process.  Prior advocates for entry at the most procedural level, “literate activity,” while a Spinuzzian, genre-oriented interpretation of the CHAT space of an object would expect theoretical entry at the ordinal layer of the “laminated chronotpes,” the most abstracted layer of integral practice or design.

It’s worth noting, then, that Guattarian ecosophy also encourages the understanding of functional systems as a point of entry into systemic analysis of an object – after all, both ethical and political “articulations” are inherently protocols of functionality, and unquestionably systemic (28).  When Guattari argues for a connectivity between the three, it is inherently systemic, ideological, spiritual, communal… social.  That is to say, we might argue that politics and ethics are inherently capable of being literacies, but they are not inherently literacies.  They are certainly not chronotopes, the laminae of ordination; which functionally provides a space for Guattari’s ecologies at the social-ordinal, global-environmental, and human-subjective scale only within the systemic layer.  Indeed, we see a place for them clearly demarcated within CHAT’s second layer quite clearly (people, artifacts, practices, institutions, communities, and ecologies).

So, what is the theory configuration of the “network” of Blackboard Learn in the rhetorical space – according to Guattarian ecosophy?  It’s hard to say.  In many ways, the notion that BBL is already factually a network problematizes projecting its entire “ecology” as a separate network of meaning.  However, we might presume it looks something like this:

Fair warning: this network illustration will also be doing double duty as part of my final illustration for the synthesis.
Fair warning: this network illustration will also be doing double duty as part of my final illustration for the synthesis.

Let us take a moment, one last time, with Genre vis-à-vis Spinuzzi in the above illustration: if we are to view the “micro”scopic level as accounting for “social-psychological stability, identity and [comforting] predictability [within] organizations” (45), then certainly the Guattarian ecological view of CHAT rhetorical practice makes sense if we view microscopy of the classroom environ not as ecology but rather as layer of rhetorical purpose (that is to say, the embodied layer of the laminae).  Meanwhile, the institutional/organizational context similarly holds to the expectations of Spinuzzian mesoscopy, which views genre as the “maintenance of activity systems,” which are intrinsic to “the construction of motives” within that genre.  Certainly, we can view this as an embedded rhetoric of maintenance-based (i.e. “status quo”) practice. By final extension, the macroscopic level is systemic and ideological, generalizing according to systemic practices of design, execution, and representation: a truly represented rhetoric of ideological practice and form which through the implicature of design enforces the dominant cultural ideological practices of the corporate interest (Blackboard Learn).

That is to say, the practical application of Guattari functions in parallel with the laminae and ordinations of Spinuzzian and Priorian theory, if–and only if—we view the environmental ecology as purely rhetorical (as we should, Cynically, based on its un-truth in representing “reality” as  rhetorically unreal – as discussed previously), and if we view systems (under CHAT, “Functional Systems”) as inherently socially relative.

To recap, and prepare the theoretical orientation of this case study for the final synthesis:

  • How does the theory define BBL?
    • This theory views the visual/rhetorical implicature of BBL as a coherently-designed, authoritative product (either intentional or not, likely not) of the macroscopic ideological practices of social-relative production – which can be demonstrated by the human-subjective lens and demonstrated by the environmental-rhetorical lamina as compared against other laminae.
  • What and/or who is a network node?
    • The nodes of this network functionally may be understood in many ways. However, for the sake of this illustrative model, we can safely consider both literate activities and functional systems as nodes.
  • What types of agency are articulated for specific nodes?
    • This is dependent upon laminal stratification. The move towards the macroscopic level of design implies a greater productive/authoritative agency.  Agency at the mesoscopic level must be negotiated communally, and at the microscopic level must be negotiated subversively.
  • How are different types of nodes situated?
    • As illustrated, each node is situated according to three interrelated strata – scope of genre inquiry (Spinuzzi), revised category of canon (CHAT), and ecosopic ecology (Guattari).
  • What are the types and directions of relationship between nodes?
    • The network is multidirectional; that said, specific features of the network, such as authority, likely flow from the macro through the meso and into the microscopic. Other facets, such as knowledge, might flow differently in specific contexts and from different originating nodes.  Standards likely flow from the meso outward into both the micro and macroscopic levels.  Meanwhile, if practices move “vertically” within the diagram, mediation and meaning likely are negotiated “laterally” between ecologies.
  • What moves within the network?
    • Everything: that said, most likely Objects of Study for the current research direction would be visual implicature, ideology, rhetorical meaning, authority, and standardized practices.
  • What happens to content or meaning as it travels through the network?
    • This would be entirely dependent upon content type, originating scope, ecology, canon, and lamina, or nature of practice. Effectively, the system (as designed) changes transformative articulations dramatically according to the originating site of both content and observation.
  • How do BBL networks emerge, grow, and/or dissolve?
    • Capitalism. Guattari is a little bit right, after all.

2 thoughts on “Case study #3 – Ecosophical orientation of Spinuzzian Genre and CHAT Canons

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