Meander and Make Meaning With Me – Stedman, Frankentheory, and the Ecology of All Things

 “One day a college student in Canada asked me to define reality for her, for a paper she was writing for her philosophy class. She wanted a one-sentence answer. I thought about it and finally said, ‘Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.’ That’s all I could come up with. That was back in 1972. Since then I haven’t been able to define reality any more lucidly.

But the problem is a real one, not a mere intellectual game. Because today we live in a society in which spurious realities are manufactured by the media, governments, by big corporations, by religious groups, political groups—and the electronic hardware exists by which to deliver these pseudo-worlds right into heads of the reader, the viewer, the listener” (Philip K. Dick, “I Hope I Shall Arrive Soon”).


INTRODUCTION

To be frank: the challenge of this synthesis is that – by virtue of how I progressed/functionally stumbled through Case Studies #1, #2, and #3, along with some significant over-theorizing in my Reading Connections (for example, see CHAT, Spinuzzi, Latour, Ecology of Mind, Castells, or Ambient Rhetoric) – much of the argument and theoretical process of this assignment chain has already been completed at this point.  I’m interested in reiterating these arguments through a broader context, sure.  But in the interests of the sandbox form of this course, I hope you’ll all permit me to be open about some of my intent, here.

I feel like I’ve beat a lot of this into the ground at this point, and I don’t think returning to the case studies en masse will prove productive – not to mention that I have already written perhaps 20,000 words more than was actually required/expected on the specifics of these theories throughout my Reading connections, which frequently exceeded 2500-3000 words each week.

If the goal of this course was to create a viable Frankentheory, I’ve done that already – or at least come close – a couple of times.  To be honest, I’m not sure I have 3500-5000 more words left in me (at this point) on my specific object of study.

This isn’t to to argue that I feel I needn’t put a real effort into this synthesis – but rather to argue that if I’m going to synthesize the theories of this course in application towards a specific Object of Study, my tendency is going to be to ignore the presumed standards of the assignment genre, and instead go completely overboard (yet again.)

So, let’s do that.  Let’s declare a new Object of Study at the eleventh hour.  Our new Object of Study will be – Network Theory.

I am expected to connect “2-4 theories in order to describe what [my] OoS is and how it functions in a way that is useful/meaningful to English Scholars.”

I’m supposed to note “where each theory has a gap or misses a critical part of the OoS as [I] see it, and [justify] why these theories can be made to work well with each other.”

Let’s instead argue that almost any two (or more) theories can be combined in this way, and in so doing interrogate the virtues – and pitfalls – of Frankentheory as an exercise within Network Theory.

After all, if I have another 3000-5000 words left to contribute in this course, they might as well make a splash.


WHAT IT MEANS TO “DO” FRANKENTHEORY

Let’s begin here: what does it mean to “do” Frankentheory as an epistemological process?

I’m obviously a fan of bizarre philosophical syntheses.  I’ve used a lot of rhetorical, philosophical, and epistemological… deployments over the course of this year in order to problematize the ways in which we understand the rhetorical concept of the network.  I’ve spoken about Diogenean Cynicism as a form of interrogation for theory and practice.  I’ve discussed Jurgen Habermas in significant depth in terms of the role of functional/formal pragmatics in the establishment of theories of meaning.  I’ve all but dragged the concept of Whig Historicism kicking and screaming into the 21st century in order to provide a novel context for understanding how Network Rhetorics tend to embrace technoscientism in their opposition to technoscientism.  I’ve quoted Slavoj Žižek more than was probably necessary.

At one point, I even killed God in order to prove that rhetoric isn’t pragmatically “real.”  That wasn’t even for credit, I just… did it.

I think all of these processes are viable and necessary contributions to my personal (and hopefully my classmates’) understanding of the role of networks in rhetorical theory.  And I hope God isn’t too mad at me.

However, none of these seemed as useful to my classmates as the production of the group activity pre-theory-tree-theory-tree, which was a bit of an epiphany moment for several students (myself included).

Dan Cox coined this tree as the “Complexity Model of Epistemologic Ecology,” based on ‘s note that – regardless of the scope of study or tree of theory applied – the system always tended directionally towards a lensing into more intrinsic ecologies of network theory.

Complexity Model
Figure 1: The “Complexity Model of Epistemologic Ecology” – Courtesy Dan Cox

The thing I found most fascinating, however, was Dan Cox and Megan Boeshart‘s contribution (located on the right-hand side of the diagram) of a parallel model to theoretical complexity – which studies the ways in which identity and meaning are mediated and explored in the network context (exploration from within – microscopic, exploration from without – mesoscopic, and mediation of meaning/identity – macroscopic).  It is critical to note that such mediation moves linearly, as well.

Essentially, what Dan and Meg demonstrated – through Laurie’s interpretation of the theory tree as an examination of laminae of varying complexities – is that the selection, designation, and deployment of theory works in tandem with identities and ideologies which develop in kind.

That is to say, if a theory can be rendered linearly across levels of meaning (or laminae, ecologies, scopes, etc.) the interpretation of that theory can also be processed linearly along the same “axis” of meaning.  What changes is the directive scope, according to both object of study and originating “lens” or site of initial observation.

The epiphany I had was this – if such theories can be rendered linearly, and if the scholar can determine the directive level of scope by changing the site of observation – any two linear theories (or more) can be aligned along similar (or the same) “axes of meaning.”

Is this a good thing?  Does this actually generate knowledge?


ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL

There is a Latin term which I always find fun and informative to apply when thinking about theory: ceteris paribus.  Colloquially translated as “all things being equal,” ceteris paribus is one of those great cynical tests which the anti-technoscientist practitioners of technopositivism loathe.  Remove all of the assumptions necessary to create viability in a theory.  Remove all the backgrounding theory, all the referentialism of other contexts, all the prestige of schools of thought, the metaphors of brains and mirrors and inward-looking prisons – ignore anything which might be viewed as a confounding factor for meaning – reduce the practical input and output of a theoretical application to two features: what is changed, and what changes given that change.

Now, all things being equal, does the theory produce new knowledge?  This question is loathsome to those who reject logical positivism and empirical models of knowledge – and that’s fine.  Ideology functions in social and epistemolical contexts, beyond any doubt.  But it’s an intriguing starting point for critiquing theory.

Ceteris paribus is dreadfully positivist, but danged if it isn’t fun.

By example: as Fred Alford notes (125), the center and the margins of society functionally appear in discipline as one and the same.  Foucault’s entire notion of power rests upon the is-ness of a dichotomy which functionally is not outside of a very specifically post-Enlightenment French society.  If the center is simply the undisciplined margin, then, all things being equal, is what Foucault tells us true?  Without a foundation in post-structuralism which is not poststructural, and postmodernism which shall not be named, what does Foucault tell us that Plato does not – that knowledge, truth, and meaning are all mediated by power and the ability to functionally convince others?

Ignore the history of Castells’ Rise of the Network Society, the compulsive countenance of the Iron Curtain within models of technological progress – models which predict almost nothing that actually happened in the decade following Castells’ work.  Do not permit the equivocation of consumer culture and capitalism as ideological equals.  All things being equal, do we actually live at the beginning of an age of Network Society?  All things being equal, don’t Castells’ definitions apply equally well at the advent of stone tools, of fire, of agriculture, animal husbandry, or transatlantic sea voyages?

Even if the answer is “this is not correct,” all is not lost; but we must then explore the virtues of knowing untrue things.  That is to say, there’s a reason I attempted to demonstrate that God is Dead and Rhetoric isn’t Real – all things being equal


THE STEDMAN AXIOM

Kyle Stedman, PhD (CV Link)
Kyle D. Stedman, PhD (CV Link)

In my write-up of my 3d craft project for network society (link), I quoted Kyle Stedman’s “Two Ways to Confuse Your Audience, A Guide” – but there’s a context I left out in my playful brevity.

  1. Use big-theory words over and over without tying them to anything that we can see or touch.

  2. Carefully compose a pastiche of sources, meanings, and ideas, leaving it somewhat up to the audience to put the pieces together, resulting in a lot of meanings that are all in the same key, even if no one self-composed exactly the same mental song.

    Corollary to 2: This may result in not so much confusion as pleasure” (2015)

Dr. Stedman is using this axiomatic guide to what I would capital-C Cynically label “obfuscational theory” as a counterpoint to a broader narrative he’s been crafting on the humanistic necessity for theory to “be part of the making” – be it the making of meaning, or materials, or knowledge, or  even making apparent the truths of human existence – within the context of Jeff Rice’s presentation on Jamesonian cognitive mapping at CCCC 2015.

To Stedman, Rice’s deployment of Jameson functioned because it was woven into the human fabric of narratives and experience; “Jameson was a node in a network of ideas” [emphasis added], leading to theory achieving equal footing “with beer flights, with pictures of children, with Stuart Hall’s coding/decoding, with William Least Heat Moon and Wendell Berry.”  For Stedman, to view theory as a node within a “network of ideas” (And here we might ask: in opposition to what? A network of facts? Of truths? Of knowledges? What is the default network if we agree that the default network integration of theory is not in ideation?  Ideology?) is to see it as equal in footing with experience, with narrative, with practice, with pedagogy, with making… and with the act of sharing all those things.  If theory does not illuminate, it cannot change anything.

Stedman

Stedman offers this tweet as something of an inevitable conclusion of his theoretical, material, and philosophical explorations of the CCCC panels, and notes that “this was actually me wondering all the things that it says I’m wondering, not telling-by-pretending-to-wonder” – wondering when we need theory, when theory gets in the way, when the self-evident is obfuscated by unnecessary complexity, whether that obfuscation might be fulfilling, or foolhardy, or fun.

Considering Stedman’s position as a scholar of the rhetoric of music as well as a compositionalist makes this all much more intriguing and complicated.  Dr. Stedman’s focus is on the confluence of musicality, of material manipulation, of art and making and theorizing; while my work here builds on that conceptualization of theory as a potential node within a greater “network of ideas,” mine will be precisely the opposite, to the same end.  That is to say, I don’t have a musical bone in my body.  But I think he’s on to something really here in terms of the humanistic impulse to understand theory through the act of “making” – as illustrated in the 3d tchotchke project in this sequence.

Is the obfuscation of theory an inherent facet of the “genre” of theory itself?  In the network of ideas, are theories actually nodes, or are they doing something else entirely?  How can we make artifacts of networks which tell us more than the theories themselves?  What is illustrative about that act of making?


WHAT IS UNEQUAL?

This may prove impossibly difficult to demonstrate without illustration.  To this end, let’s return to my actual object of study – the visual implicature of authority and compliance within the UI/UX of Blackboard Learn.  Let us make – in Stedman’s ideation of “networks of ideas,” a narrative and personal network of representations, for which theory functions as only a facet.

Figure 2: A grid-configured network map representation of Blackboard learn by three categories of nodes – (left) user/agent level, (center) activity/practice, and (right) pedagogical/pragmatic application level.

This illustration above may be said to function as the “nodes” of my network of meaning in Blackboard Learn’s UI environment.  We might consider the left column to be agents-as-nodes, the central column activities-as-nodes, and the right column meaning-as-nodes.

This is, for all intents and purposes, a network diagram of the Blackboard Learn ecology – linear relations between rows or columns maintain a continuity of purpose, in which network edges are implicit, and the flow of information within the network is clearly related by the proximal nature of the nodes in each column.

We can see that information from Blackboard, Inc. must travel through designers, universities, departments, and instructors in order to reach students.

We can see that the activity of representation can only reach student applications of the software environment through practices of production, integration, adoption, and implementation.

Finally, we can see that rhetorical meaning moves through “functional” meaning into the practical meaning of the interface as understood by end users.  This column may be a little unclear, but can be clarified by adding some more overt edges to the model.

Figure 3: Grid-configured network map from Figure 2, modified with connections for Spinuzzi’s three levels of scope.

However, what this network mapping is not is narrative or personal.  It fails to tell the story of how users inside the network understand their place within it, and it fails to give a situated idea of the observer’s place in understanding the network.

What we might do, then, is to apply theories as edges, rather than as nodes per Stedman’s suggestion.  From here, we can see our understanding of the network as lensed by observational perspective – a personal perspective for incomplete understanding of the object.  We are effectively building a determinant narrative of doors closed and decisions rendered.

For instance, as a scholar studying network ecology, I have rejected Object-Oriented Ontology as a foundation of knowledge – as such, the lens of Spinuzzian practice (applied here based on deployments in Case Study #1) considers as layers the authority of actor-agents (not technologies), and any material facets of the network would necessarily be ordinated along these scopes of study via a human factor (e.g. classroom level agents – Micro, institutional level agents – Meso, corporate agents – Macro).

What we reveal in this application is our own biases – introduced into the map by the application of a single theory.  The theory demarcates the outer bounds of our scope in a way that the simple map does not.  It is not simply that there is nothing displayed above the classroom or below the corporate interest – there is no scope of study which could internalize those categories under Spinuzzi.

In attempting to understand a network as genre, we are now strictly attached to this scope with no possibility of Spinuzzian expansion beyond the “genre” of the object.  The theory is handcuffs.

Figure 4: Grid-configured network map from Figure 2, divided into categories for Guattari’s “three ecologies.”

As an alternate single application, we might consider Guattarian ecosophy, as discussed in Case Study #3, and view each of the vertical columns not according to level of Spinuzzian scope, but rather according to ecology.  Again, theory serves not as Stedman’s node, but rather as a set of edges which delimit and bound further study.

Under such a model, we might delineate the space according to agents, activities, and meanings.  This, again, simply reveals that the issue of such mapping is one of lensing and situated observer influence.  There are not three ecologies.  There are dozens, hundreds, likely an infinite number of ecologies that might be applied to any single object.  The theoretical model is absurdly restrictive.

In attempting to understand a network as ecology, we can now no longer consider technologies as agentive – or truly consider technologies at all.  The theory is a straight-jacket.

Figure 5: Grid-configured network map from Figure 2, divided according to CHAT (Prior) “frames” of interpretation. Note the addition of categories according to each frame (literate activity (left), functional systems (center), and laminated chronotopes (right)).

And so, in order to reclaim agency in processes we might consider CHAT, as discussed in Case Study #2, and view each of the vertical columns not according to ecology, but rather the lenses of rhetorical canons – “the territory of rhetorical activity” (18) within the network.  The edges function to delineate the laminae of these territories, to segregate activity, systems, and rhetorical sites and chronotopes.

This implies several problems.  Firstly, the “activity” of practice under Spinuzzi and Guattari has shifted quite literally onto the agents of rhetorical practice, who engage in “literate activity.”  As such, we have an ideological conflict regarding who or what maintains agency in the network.  Suddenly, traditional activities have become systems of activity, which denude our previous attempts to “blame” organizational systems at the Spinuzzian Meso- and Macro-scopic levels for the restricted agency of microscopic actors.

In attempting to understand a network as activity, we can no longer interpellate meaning according to ideology unless we enforce the rhetorical nature of that ideology.  The theory is a shoehorn.  So is our original mapping exercise.

Figure 6: Grid-configured network map from figure one, synthesizing all modifications from Figures 3, 4, and 5.

The theories can be interpolated (and interpellated) within the physical “space” of the network map, and in this act of “making” under the Stedman model, we might reveal the artfulness, which is to say the intentionality, of the design.

What is revealed in the Frankentheory map above, then, is not the viability of a multi-partate theoretical approach.  Nor is it, precisely, the revelation of a “gap” – the missing of critical elements under specific theories.

Rather, what is revealed is that the map functions as an ideological screen, upon which we might project theories.  In truth, any linear theory (and they are all, almost, linear theories) might be projected at any layer.

This, unfortunately, was my epiphany.  Theories lack a value of specificicity in networks, because networks are infinitely regressive – “turtles all the way down,” in the memetic argument of Dan Cox and others in the course.

Figure 7: Modification of Grid-configured network map from Figure 6, with sample additional theory for network interpretation/practice (in this example, Spellman’s “Ecology for Non-Ecologists”).

All things being equal, one could apply almost any theory of network practice or interpretation to this mapping model, either vertically or laterally.  Because, all things being equal, all maps imply either spatiality or directionality , and all theories function in one of those two contexts.  We have already seen this with the class activity for the “Complexity Model” above (Figure 1) – what changes is not degrees of complexity, nor epistemological ecologies, but rather simply a theoretical lens.

Seen along the bottom of the illustration for the Complexity Model are a list of theories which students managed to apply in this way.  It is, quite literally, every theory of networks offered in the course.


CONCLUSION

In the end, the best theory, and the best art, enacts/incites/leads to change for the better.  It allows audiences to, in the words of Kyle Stedman, “make meanings that [are] both scholarly and non-scholarly (whatever that means)” and interpolate the two in order to see what is wrong not only with the world, but with the models we traditionally use to interpret the world.  For the academy, that means, for better or worse, theory.  The many-headed beast of contingent meaning.

Philip K. Dick tells us that reality is found in those things which, when we elect not to believe in them, obstinately remain in spite of our best efforts.

In spite of my best efforts, I can’t seem to make theory go away.  God knows I’ve tried.  So maybe it’s real.

But I would also argue that it is deeply unreal: that every time we don’t apply a theory, it suddenly no longer matters to the model.  There is not a theory void or gap to the original model of BBL provided above.  Not really.  There’s a purposeful map.  The whole time I made it, I never thought of Michel Foucault, of Don Norman, of Bruno Latour.

Obviously, those men are “real” in that they exist(ed) “in reality,” but their contexts for knowledge, design, and practice are certainly not.

Frankentheory, then, is the reification of legitimacy in the practice of theory.  Theory is like a goldfish – it will grow to inhabit any container you give it.  When you’re done, the question “what size is a goldfish” relates directly to the bowl you place it in, and little else (assuming you feed it, to extend the metaphor a step too far).

I’ll not speak to whether that’s bad or good, but that’s what’s real.

Figure 8: Grid-configured network map from Figure 5, with parallel gradient according to Daniel Cox’s “Complexity Model” contribution.  I worry, however, that it might be reducible to this:
Figure 9: A Mad-Libs-style form for completing any Frankentheory application.
Figure 9: A Mad-Libs-style form for completing any Frankentheory application.

I keep thinking about how none of this works for me – and that’s fine.  I’m not, I’ll be the first to admit, a rhetorician.  I care about operationalization.  I’m a pragmatist, and a moderate expressivist, and a compositionalist, and a technician, and hardly a theorist at all.  I got into all of this to be a better teacher of making for my students. This work just isn’t for me.  But it’s fun!  I’d just rather be making things – and I’d rather my students were, too.

But I’m supposed to argue in this paper for the validity of my object of study, so here it is: people with the chops to believe that studying networks changes the structure of reality (or our understanding of it) are welcome to do soand if they do, I really hope they’ll look at Blackboard Learn, too – because it is really problematic for Network Theories.

In speaking to the realities of networks, we so often ignore that these networks are intentionally designed – and that many of the presumptions of ecology, of genre, of activity, of agency, of meaning are embedded within that network by choice.  Blackboard Learn is a network we can understand in terms of representational choices.  It is a network which is omnipresent in our – and our students’ – daily lives.  It is a network that is digital, personal, global, capitalistic, agonistic, antagonistic, social, corporate, pedagogical, purposeful, dangerous, and imminent.

I know this isn’t the conclusion I was expected to write.  I know it was hoped that I would come to the conclusion that Frankentheories give us a novel lens for practice and interpretation, and allow us to locate hidden meanings and what-have-you.  All things being equal, I can’t write that conclusion – at least certainly not about my original BBL Object of Study.

I wish I could.  I could take credit for an integrative “Theory of Everything,” blaze trails, what-have-you.  But I don’t believe in it, and poof, it’s gone.


REFERENCES

Alford, C. F. (2000). What would it matter if everything Foucault said about prison were wrong? Discipline and Punish after twenty years. Theory and society, 29(1), 125-146.

Castells, M. (2011). The rise of the network society: The information age: Economy, society, and culture (Vol. 1). John Wiley & Sons.

Guattari, F. (2000). The Three Ecologies, trans. Paul Sutton. London: Athlone.

Prior, P., Solberg, J., Berry, P., Bellwoar, H., Chewning, B., Lunsford, K. J., … & Van Ittersum, D. (2007). Re-situating and re-mediating the canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity. Kairos, 11(3), 1-29.

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: A sociocultural approach to information design (Vol. 1). Mit Press.

Stedman, K.D. (2015, Mar 25) CCCC 2015: A Story through Tweets [Web log post]. Retrieved from transmediame.wordpress.com/2015/03/25/cccc-2015-a-story-through-tweets/

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