Week 15 – Reading Connection: Killing God and the (lost) Body Subject – Rickert, Ambience, and Postmodern Boundary Objects

“In Ambient Rhetoric, Thomas Rickert seeks to dissolve the boundaries of the rhetorical tradition and its basic dichotomy of subject and object. With the advent of new technologies, new media, and the dispersion of human agency through external information sources, rhetoric can no longer remain tied to the autonomy of human will and cognition as the sole determinants in the discursive act. Rickert develops the concept of ambience to engage all of the elements that comprise the ecologies in which we exist” (Cover Blurb, Ambient Rhetoric)

Punny title aside – I can’t help but find Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric a little soporific.  I’ll say it does plenty of work: little that moves forward the debate, but plenty that moves out the goalposts of demonstrability in rhetorical practice.  But all in all, while it’s not dry, it’s hardly as cutting edge as its blurbs and glowing reviews might hint. Posthumanism is an eternal practice of humanism – okay.  The Greeks were philosophically digital and technical – okay. Rhetorical meaning and practice are interpolated and interpellated within the vacuum beyond the permeable membranes of overt social structure – sure.  Meaning has traditionally been negotiated in the space between subject and object – naturally.  What does ambience do?  What’s the mechanism of cultural permeation?  What does it change?  Rickert works to problematize the subject-object relationship (11-13), but everybody already knew this was problematic (even, yes, Descartes himself).  Hence the entire historical practice of rhetoric as the interaction of the self and the social.  Rickert wants to “dissolve the boundaries of the rhetorical tradition” – okay, but shouldn’t we first acknowledge why the boundaries of the rhetorical tradition were instituted in the first place, rather than basing this act solely on how we use the rhetorical tradition now?

As a necessary aside: Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric reveals something much more challenging about the notion of rhetoric in general – the multivariate purposes of rhetoric throughout history.  Rickert explores classical rhetorical forms – and medieval, pre-modern, and modern rhetoric – and then uses these to explore the network-social and posthuman nature of post-modernity; what I am astounded by, however, is the ways this reveals the caddywhompus formulation of contemporary views of rhetorical history.  Since contexts are subjective – the subject is subjective to postmodern readings, and postmodernity killed the subject-object distinctions of ideology – we can no longer take rhetorical purposes at their stated face value.  I.A. Richards’ interpretation of rhetoric as the study of “misunderstandings,” for example, reveals some of the rhetorical pessimism of modernity – which has doubtless carried into the postmodern readings of cultural rhetoric.  It also reveals that “rhetoric” is, in itself, a disciplinary boundary object – and one which will trip us up until we recognize that “rhetoric” is a dozen things to a dozen discrete fields which have been enjambed within Rhet/Comp and Cultural Studies.  Rhetoric, after all, isn’t the “study” of anything.  Or it is.  Where are we?  And how does the disciplinary concern change ambience?

I can’t help think that rhetoric was at its prime when all the rhetoricians were priests and holy men, and when they had at least one common purpose.  Not because they were right more often, but because the consistency allowed more vectors of “progress:” not forward progress (too Whiggish), but upward.

To wit: What did classical rhetoric do?  To my reading, it didn’t reveal a desire for hyper-intellectual theory, but a need for contextualization of political, spiritual, and epistemological approaches to create engaged, introspective practices for leadership and citizenship.  Similarly, medieval rhetoric served the needs of spiritually- and ethically-driven interpretation of social and political practice and knowledge.  At the same time, non-Western rhetoric explored the spiritual and cultural intersections of the self, community, and state (and we might – for Rickert as well as network cultural scholars like Castells – consider the problems of Western ethnocentrism in rhetorical historical representation).  Renaissance rhetoric explored and attempted to resolve humanism and the budding Reformation in contexts of the church and the subject-object concern through ethical and spiritual practice.  The Enlightenment rhetorics did work to resolve the scientific and naturalist frameworks of epistemology in contemporary society to the politics of church and state.

What is the move, then, into the modern?  It is (and here we might consider the linguistic turn more overtly) to reclaim rhetoric as doing work outside of pragmatic contexts, and through the desires of what I’ve previously regarded as Whig Historicism, resituate classical and pre-modern rhetoric as purely intellectual and interpellative of the self within mediation of spiritual meaning.  Progress, under the Whig ideology, is a move away from the Body Politic/Spiritual as socially despotic – is this true?  Is this good?  Is this useful?

I doubt it is necessarily true or useful in most cases.  I’d argue this is useful, but ignores many of the ways non-ideological (in a problematic sense which could view any work as non-ideological under post-Foucauldian postmodernity, to be sure) practices of pre-modern rhetoric were deeply pragmatic, and designed to resolve and organize social concerns of the body politic, the citizenry, the body natural, and the body spiritual.  Hyper-intellectualization of rhetoric lacked pragmatic value, and it is the reclamation of these rhetorics under a new body politic which formulates our modern theoretical and intellectual understandings of classical rhetoric.

I don’t mean to belabor the point, but how can we (Rickert) dissolve the boundaries of rhetoric when they are political, spiritual, personal, subjective, objective, sexual, animal, vegetable, mineral, essential, rational, historical, philosophical, literary, cinematic, and generally fictional?  Which boundaries will we dissolve?  Which will we ignore, step around, move beyond without comment?  That is to say, what modern rhetoric does as much as anything else is obviate the pragmatism of rhetoric in the turn towards linguistic, affect, and discourse practices.  The overwhelming theme of pre-modernity is the intersection of the body spiritual and the body actual, or the body spiritual and the body politic, or more simply the self and the other.  Of course rhetoric was subject-object driven.  What else could it be?

The modern abandons the necessity of the body spiritual, and denies in many ways the ascendancy of the body politic in the subject-object relation.  The postmodern then views this relation, essentially, as inherently expressing ideology.  Sure, useful enough.  Bourdieu and Foucault, as I discussed in previous reading connections, then did us the favor of killing off the subject, leaving a vacuum which was populated by power and ideology.  Ciao, body politic.  Sayonara, body natural.  Au Revoir, body spiritual.

And now we have not only postmodernity, but posthumanism.  What have we done in our conceptualization of network society – and network theory – if not relocated the body spiritual within the God in the Machine? What is the network if not our new god?

Of course, all of this rhetorical use value is deeply ideological – what isn’t – but in building an ecology of rhetoric, we lose contexts as the purposes of rhetoric throughout history are simply lost to the networked ecology of marching progress.

If Rickert accomplishes anything permanently theoretically valuable with this text, it is in demonstrating that the network culture theorists are – essentially – neophiliacs: Whig Historians. As he notes, “one reason network culture is perceived as new […] even if it is less so than appearance suggests, is the experience of ‘overconnection,’ akin to ‘overdetermination,’ in which multiple connections are always ongoing and interactive, and none of them can be said to be primary” (103). This is the honest work of Rickert – though I question the necessity of ambiance to make this claim, to be sure – in exploring network theory not as theory, but rather as an ideology of novelty ascendant.  Cavemen and smarter environments, et cetera (99).

If we believe that man’s relationship to the network is overly-connected or overly-determined comparative to man’s prior relationship to his gods, it can only be because the Po-Mos reduced the role of spirituality to discipline and punishment, ideology and power.  It can only be because Nietzsche killed God, and Nietzsche’s troubled but undeniable relationship with postmodernity perpetuates the death of God as the ascendancy of ideology as fascism-against-self.

If anything, network society has created a perfectly deterministic society where mediation is indeed – as Rickert would note – ambient; however, this is not a celebration of the posthuman, but a rejection of its complexity.  The posthuman anxiety is nothing new – it was Aristotle’s greatest fear.  The posthuman desire is nothing new – it is the Augustinian goal.  A call to view rhetoric as ambient is simply a call for radical relativism – nihil novi sub sole est.

We might also note that “Diffractions of Ambience” posits a language of ambience which is incongruous with actual ambience.  We might note that this is simply the “ecologization” of object-oriented ontology, and still requires the embracing of objective agents doing work in the network.  Reject that premise, and you reject under Rickert the very notion of continued human rhetorical progress.  Problematic, to say the least.

We might also note that Rickert’s reading of kairos and chora as environmentally-influenced transformative grounds for subject identity might be read as a gross over-simplification of (and modernization of) classical rhetorical purposes.  If words should mean things other than what words mean, I’d advocate for new words.  But that’s just me.  I understand the appeal of ambience as implying ubiquity.  Ubiquity, however, is not an indication of either truth or quality.  Arguments that we have constructed environments in modernity and beyond which have led to “rhetoricization of the world in the most concrete and material way” (36) ignores not the ways that that may be untrue, per se, but rather the ways that is a completely classical, pre-modern notion – called, conveniently enough, “god.”  The material, concrete world has been the structural ganglions of the social mind ever since man first decided that God created the world to communicate his pleasure – and special relationship – with man… and used that godliness to assert his own authority and dominionism.

As we come to the end of this semester, and as network theory has (arguably, and extending from Rickert) over-extended itself into the overconnected, overdeterministic realm of hyper-theoretical practices making broad, sweeping claims about the nature of society, civilization, humanity, and discourse, there are questions left unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable).  Is rhetoric ever post-human?  Is society ever post-human?  Are networks post-human?  How can we be sociobiological, neurobiological, and also Cartesian in our interpolation of the self, society, and the “network?”  Where is invention situated in an ambient or networked ecology of rhetoric?

Can postmodernism (and post-modernity) ever tell us what the post-human networks would (could) ever look like?  The question is prima facie absurd.  Rhetoric is essentially an actively human practice (regardless of your definition of rhetoric as practice, discourse, mediation, or anything else, few would argue that there is subhuman rhetoric (e.g. “bird rhetoric”), and I’ve yet to see a compelling model for anything but an anthropogenic rhetoric (e.g. a superhuman rhetoric).  With the exception of the analogue transhuman or the truly taxonomic posthuman, posthumanism lands cleanly in the purview of droll arguments that start with “kids these days” or “the thing about all this new tech is…”

To put it another way, it seems to me that the rhetoric of posthumanism is exclusively the purview of anxieties and desires about posthumanism itself.

Okay.  So maybe there are some things we might use postmodernism for after all.

So, I find little need (or value) in ambient rhetoric as new practice.  Not because it isn’t true or valid (it is, and is), but because it denudes little which currently obfuscates meaning – and perpetuates an obsession with tomorrow as a necessary course correction for today.  Hypocritically, I have just mocked my detractors for their obsession with newness.  I can live with it.

However, we might want to (if, you know, it wasn’t the last week of the semester) consider Rickert’s first book, Acts of Enjoyment, where he uses postmodernity and Lacanian psychoanalysis to apply some of the concepts which would find their way into Ambient Rhetoric to prove that ambience can be “useful…”

…if that use is pragmatically directed towards the present, actualized subject.  Irony.  However, Rickert himself provides a context for moving beyond the subject-deconstructive postmodern concern through Carter’s notion of “reconstructive postmodernism” (“On Belatedness and the Return of the Subject” 1-32) which allows the self to exist as the subject by allowing the subject to experience the enjoyment of meaning and rhetorical practice.  This is a “radical positivity,” which in many ways offers both extension and counterpoint to Zizekian “radical Otherness” and “radical negativity” (“Mirroring Subjects and Objects” 75).  Plus, who doesn’t love drowning in Zizek and the perversion of Western meaning?

That is to say, I would argue that Rickert’s ambient rhetoric cannot “do work,” but it can do the work of showing the radical negativity which Rickert’s pedagogical practices can reverse, obviate, or restructure into a productivity not only of meaning, but of practice – work of reinterpellating ideology away from the subject (at least long enough for the subject to experience meaning) in order to allow the subject their own objectivity.

Philosophically, it’s interesting.  Over the course of this semester, we’ve killed God and replaced God with the Network-as-God.  And now we’re killing that, too.

Posthumanism is strange, man.

Rickert, T. J. (2007). Acts of enjoyment: Rhetoric, Žižek, and the return of the subject. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Rickert, T. (2013). Ambient rhetoric: The attunements of rhetorical being. University of Pittsburgh Press.

Rivers, N. A. (2014). Circumnavigation: An Interview with Thomas Rickert. Interviews.



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.

 “It only does everything”: On CHAT, Challenge, and the Archive – A Reading Connections Synthesis


Because I was out for a family emergency and other family responsibilities last week, and classes were cancelled the week prior – resulting in some activities being moved in or out of the course period – I’ve been having some trouble reassembling a viable schedule of assignments that approximates the experiences of my classmates.

As such, I am going attempt to synthesize the readings from the last two weeks into a much larger general Reading Connections activity (at least twice the standard length) in order to attempt to make the connections I would have been expected to make in-class last week.

Because I was not able to previously select a CHAT reading, I have selected the secondary reading of “Remaking IO” by Paul A. Prior – the only reading not assigned to another student.

I have created a digressive exploration of my contextualization of our ability to “know meaning” through the study of rhetoric, titled “An Anecdotal Digression on Knowing, God, Rhetoric, and CHAT” – I feel it may provide an interesting (if controversial) context to my following argument.

I will also create an additional blog post responding to two fellow students’ works from previous weeks, a third post with my upcoming rubric assignment, and a Reading Connections post on Latour, Joyce, and Johnson-Eilola which resolves the questions I intend to raise in this week’s RN activity.

The general theme of this extended explanation, I suppose, is “don’t miss class if you don’t want to do make-up work.”


Mediated activity involves externalization (speech, writing, the manipulation and construction of objects and devices) and co-action (with other people, artifacts, and elements of the social-material environment) as well as internalization (perception, learning). As objects and environments are formed and transformed through human activity, they come to embody the goals and social organization of that activity in the form of affordances for use. Affordances do not determine how an artifact is used, but do make particular uses easier or harder. Mediated activity also means that action and cognition are distributed over time and space and among people, artifacts, and environments. Distributed activity inevitably crosses social and historical boundaries so that activity, people, and artifacts are always heterogeneous. Activity is thus also laminated, as multiple frames or fields co-exist in any situated act. (“What is CHAT”)

Prior et al. provide a challenge to the typical representation of the rhetorical argument, largely through the recodification of “delivery” (4-6) within the context of medium, rather than as a product of traditional rhetorical/oratory forms revised into new literacies. However, this challenge is also a reclamation of previous rhetorical knowledge; in recalling an anecdote from Plato’s Phaedrus, for instance, the authors note that “it is important to recognize that rhetoric was already multimodal for the ancient Greeks” (5).  As such, the re-application of (“re-distributing”) delivery serves to demonstrate the blind spots in rhetorical/theoretical approaches based upon the leaner dependencies of written rhetoric in the current-traditional mode of the modern academic discourse.  The challenge I would issue to Prior et al. here, however, would be to go further, and to demonstrate through the investigation of re-capitulated delivery the blind spots of their own knowledge/conceptualization of production, as well.  In searching for a meaningful lens for interpreting delivery, the authors argue that it encompasses “mediation and distribution” by illustrating methods of delivery, presentation, circulation, diffusion, formatting, encryption, and intermediation (e.g. print/screen/speech, read silently/aloud/recorded, delivered digitally/by mail/by hand) – but in doing so, a scholar with a historical interest in methods of literary and data production might note that each of their methods of construction and dissemination had preexisting, functioning corollaries within the current-traditional period.

Were the dependencies of rhetorical knowledge under the current-traditionalists so lean?  Or were the assumptions of production simply that – assumed as clear and delineated according to the course of most progress in the field at the time?  Latour would warn us that to append the label of “social” to a process or product is to play at a doubled meaning (more on this in the next Reading Connections), and that to explore this meaning one must be careful not to equate the challenges of the two.  What is social is not Social, and what exists in society is not societal.  Similarly, the challenge of exploring rhetoric “adapted to new modes” (4) may be the dual meaning of that exploration: new to who? New in what sense? Newly studied, newly created, or newly published upon?

Figure 1: A modified representation of the current-traditional expression of rhetorical canons. This model is argued against by Prior et al.
Figure 1: A modified representation of the current-traditional expression of rhetorical canons. This model is argued against by Prior et al. (12).

I would argue that the functional “newness” of these “new modes” may be no more that “newly combined”: the exploration of mediation and production as well as mediation and distribution within the same platform – for the first time, a text is digitally designed, digitally produced, digitally distributed, digitally consumed, and digitally interpolated on the same platform (See Figure 1).  Does this create new knowledge within the void of prime movement?  It’s not clear. Prior et al. would further revise this model through the application of “cultural-historical remapping” of the canons of the “synchronic rhetoric” of classical production (17-25).


Figure 2: A proposed laminar mapping model of CHAT rhetorical canons.
Figure 2: A proposed laminar mapping model of CHAT rhetorical canons.  Each facet of Activities, Systems, and Chronotopes might be combined iteratively with each other singularly, pluralistically, or totally – none is exlusive or exclusionary (18).

The challenge of the CHAT method of resolving rhetoric, then, might be that increased complexity does not inherently increase the probability of resolution of the rhetorical space.  In looking at the authors’ provision of a rhetorical model for consideration under CHAT (see Figure 2), we witness the creation of a factorial model of interpretation and interpolation which would yield for a single act of rhetorical production/distribution/consumption at least 126 different permutations of singularly-categorized meaning.  In reality and practice, the similarly-delineated functions of mapping approach irreducible levels of complexity even within the practical limitations of their own (restricted) model (factorially derived, a combination of mapped edges would yield over a quarter million interpolations of the rhetorical process).  Add a single chronotopic category to the Prior et al. CHAT model, and each act of rhetorical mapping yields over one million results.  Add additional sub-nodes of systems and activities, and the functional scope of the model yields infinite results.

As intriguing as solutions through mapped models of infinity might be (Hilbert’s Grand Hotel comes immediately to mind), part of the point of such models is to reveal fallacies of interpretation and paradoxes of mathematical proof – not to provide functional solutions to rooming shortages.

In theory, CHAT provides us a more nuanced context for exploring how works are created and distributed into meaning.  In practice, CHAT has made rhetoric omnipresent, omnipotent, infinite, and unknowable.

Does this help us?


The consideration of “challenge” (never directly named in such form, but hinted at in discussions of laminar, asymmetrical exigencies under Goffman, and of task-oriented actions under Sheridan-Rabideau) in mapping rhetorical meaning (10-11, 27) is perhaps CHAT’s major avenue of contribution to novel models of rhetorical inquiry – refining necessarily and significantly the notions standard within previous models.  Rhetoric, that is to say, not only occupies a need-based context, but a space, conditional restrictions, and cultural-historical context which cannot be reduced to a singular point of emergence – traditional exigence.

Figure 2: The current presentation of IO in Google Chrome Version 48.0.2564.116 m. Note the broken borders compared to Prior's illustrations, as well as the missing input frames, textual outputs, video outputs, and JPG slicing forms. Emulation of the current source code within the Netscape environment is similarly non-functional, due to the incompletely-linked BOB libraries.
Figure 3: The current presentation of IO in Google Chrome Version 48.0.2564.116 m. Note the broken borders compared to Prior’s illustrations, as well as the missing input frames, textual outputs, video outputs, and JPG slicing forms.  Emulation of the current source code within the Netscape environment is similarly non-functional, due to the incompletely-linked BOB libraries.

The challenge of “challenge,” of course, is knowing when it is differentiated from traditional exigence.  In “Remaking IO, Remaking Rhetoric,” Paul Prior effectively puts CHAT analysis practices to use in examining an art project titled IOIO is an interactive mixed-media site (which is remarkably technologically dated by any modern coding standard – a point I will return to momentarily) which functions as something of an interactive web-based pop-art photography installation.  Mapped through Prior et al.’s methods of Mapping Literate Activity (19-20) within a “multidimensional model” of (non)language function (due to the heavily image-centric nature of the current iteration of IO), Prior attempts to provide “insight into the visual, gestural, and filmic quality of the semiotic objects” of IO’s current presentation (as of the time of writing – the current iteration no longer performs correctly under current browser protocols and due to dependencies on the libraries for the pseudo-AI “Bob,” which no longer function; see Figure 3).

Does this reading of multimodal, digital texts actually present an exigent challenge within the frame of the semiotic objects presented in IO?  “Remaking IO” largely functions, especially before the conclusion, as a semi-ethnographic exploration of what the current-traditionalist movement would likely label a narrative of “revision processes.”  However, despite promises of an exploration of the meaning of multimodal artifacts, much of this meaning is lost to contemporaneous contexts of the link itself and the inability of the site to be meaningfully archived and explored by the reading user.

As such, the value of CHAT for exploring a project like IO is not made clear at the present time by work such as Prior’s.  This reveals a more significant challenge to the exigent notions of multimedia, multimodal rhetoric – and one known to the Current-Traditionalists and Plato well before CHAT’s formulation – the loss of knowledge within the technological, social, and historical vagaries of canon.  The work of CHAT is, in a much more traditional sense than Foucault would argue for, a de facto creation of neo-archaeological processes.  From the Library of Alexandria to the Archimedes Palimpsest, from the relocated lost masters of Lang’s Metropolis to IO, the recapitulation of multimodal work is inherently reclamation more than illustration, and exists within exigent challenges which greatly overshadow the rhetorical certainty of any such analysis as CHAT might actually provide.

In reading Prior’s article, one can’t help but think of Barthes and Foucault.  Strangely, it is in the heterochronicity at the center of Prior’s study of the processes of refinement and revision that the author is least dead – permitting the reader and scholar the least authority to engage with the developmental process (and presentation) of the work on the work’s own terms.  The text is broken, and so only the author and the past can speak to the text in the present condition. This, I believe, is where the future of CHAT would be best directed – at its own blind spot, the deference to a rhetorically-cosmic authority which ignores the inherent challenge of segregating the author from the author’s meaning.


NEXT UP: CHAT, BOURDIEU, & LATOUR – A Match Made in Contexts

For Prior, the story of the (re)formation of IO is one of reclamation, lamination, and remediation.  Perhaps the moment of articulation most intriguing to me is when Prior notes that “both [professors] noted that the revised IO marked the first time they had completed an object that had elements they did not understand and could not reproduce or repair.  [The students] had areas of expertise that were basic to the revised IO and that [the professors] were unlikely to ever develop” (2007).

It would not be vogue to say this, but Prior has demonstrated in this sentence, I believe, the impossibility of ever tracing rhetorical associations in multimodal texts.  The languages of media are multifaceted in ways which prevent meaningful creation of meaning through analysis, and the specialization of the creator over and above the consumer, mediator, or analyst is an inevitability of the process of creation.  Social contexts are too multivariate to ever be successfully interpolated into texts.  As CHAT demonstrates, a meaningful mapping diagram for multimodality is effectively infinite in scale.  To map a path through it is to inflict an intentionality of process upon a developmentally reactive challenge which is lost in a web of technology, hardware, software, society, culture, meaning, purpose, exigence, audience, author, psyche, theory, and bodies and spaces which can never be reconciled.

How do we interpret an infinity of meaning, one which can be reduced and simplified infinitely and still yield a need for infinite further regression before being simplified to the point of meaning?  I would draw upon my discussion with Dr. Richards on the parallels between rhetoric and God – rhetorical “truth” is, quite probably, unknowable, ineffable, and prone to melting your face off if discovered, a la “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

What, then?  I believe that CHAT’s primary contribution to my interpretation of networks – as pertaining to meaning, rhetoric, interpretation, et cetera – is that of my self-determined element of exigent “challenge.”  This (combined with the perpetuation of my belief that the more theories we generate for studying meaning, the more we prove the old adage of nihil novum sub sole est) produces a lens for recapitulating exigencies as the springboard for discovering contextual meaning in multimodal and digital rhetorical spaces – as an extension of past archaeological acts of discovery and meaning-making.

I will return to this in my next post.  It is my goal to consider the following week’s readings by Johnson-Eilola, Joyce, and Latour through the lens of this archaeological consideration, and challenge the assumptions of value from multimodal contributions as different by accentuating current-traditionalist parallels in artifact and argument structure.  I will do this through an integration of social theory, including practice theory by Pierre Bourdieu, as an extra-disciplinary reflection of practices laid out in Latour’s ANT contributions.


Prior, P. (2007). Remaking IO, remaking rhetoric: Semiotic remediation as situated rhetorical practice. In P. Prior, J. Solberg, P. Berry, H. Bellowar, B. Chewning, K. Lunsford, L. Rohan, K. Roozen, M. Sheridan-Rabideau, J. Shipka, D. Van Ittersum, D. & J. Walker (Contributors), Re-situating and re-mediating the canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity. Kairos 11.3.

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. Kairos11(3), 1-29.

An Anecdotal Digression on Knowing, God, Rhetoric, and CHAT

If you’ll pardon the digression: in order to begin looking at the framework of CHAT as a useful metric for exploring the “real-world” modeling of discourse, we absolutely must first have an answer to the question of whether or not “rhetoric” is “real.”  I think this is, of course, an impossible task, but it’s one I nonetheless embrace as a necessary implementation in the face of any theory that argues to revise the canon of either theories or texts in order to better align interpretation of discourses with the reality of discourses.

I once argued with Dr. Daniel Richards (within the context of Technical Communication’s place within the English Studies disciplines) that the value of studying rhetoric in society is the same as studying God in society – my position being that although neither are most likely real, and there is no evidence for the realness of either, the ways in which both lay members and experts of the community categorize, select, exclude, and support according to the belief in each illuminates their social function.

Needless to say, a devout Baptist like Dr. Richards – who is also a devout intellectual progressive with a love of theories which highlight the contingencies of truth and focus – was consternated by the overt implications of such an argument.  For Dr. Richards, the challenge of viewing rhetoric as “unreal” in the same sense as God functions as “unreal” in spiritual and social contexts proved sixfold:

1) As a Christian, his default tendency is to view statements about the irreality of God to be value judgments.  By extension, he admitted to a gut-shot reaction of assuming that similar statements about rhetoric must be equally judgmental.

2) He felt the argument positioned rhetoric as an item of faith rather than fact, which is constructed by readings of texts rather than presumptions of truth. As a corollary of this, one is (horrifically enough in the Digital Humanities) able to simply reject the value of rhetoric based on this belief – to argue that it contributes nothing that does not already exist without it.

3) The argument tends towards inferences that rhetoric is about a personal relationship with truth, as spirituality has generally been accepted to be in the late 20th and 21st centuries (especially in western contexts).  The interpretive nature of the act, then, implies that what rhetorical/religious genres do exist are the products of interpretation rather than revelation.

4) As a corollary, the personal is inherently microcosmic in the realm of “reality”.  In religion, the microcosm of personal faith is established (and is tied in most spiritualties to a greater, cosmic whole).  In rhetoric, we have not yet developed a model for viewing personal rhetoric as connected to the greater whole in a way which allows rhetoric to be “cosmic” in applicable scope.

5) The challenge of empiricism weakens the pursuit of knowledge of God, reducing God’s domain to the margins of what is not empirically demonstrable.  Similarly, rhetoric exists at the skirt of positivist claims – being purely personal and interpretive, rhetorical concerns are rarely touched upon in RAD scholarship.

6) Finally, there is the implication that rhetoric, like religion, might recall the Marxian categorization of “opium of the people.”  The attached weight of this claim (today) is often viewed as denigrating towards the spiritual – as most readers (today) infer Marx to be arguing that religion distorts reality and makes us complacent.  Of course, in the 19th century opium was viewed to be largely a social boon which had saved many lives and prevented untold pain.  As McKinnon argued in Critical Sociology, in the 21st century we might well translate the idiom as “penicillin of the people” (2) – or, as Marx himself argued “the soul of a soulless culture.”

I don’t bring up this discussion between Dr. Richards and myself to be contrary, nor simply to play at words.  In the end, Richards conceded that such an interpretation was pragmatic, provided a new perspective for “reading” rhetoric as a field, and allowed for a more compassionate reading of the social contexts of rhetorical meaning.  He also argued that such a position had severely limited use in the field, and would likely not be adopted by anybody doing rhetorical study.  I can’t help but agree with his final assessment.

I bring this up because I think it is important to understand why even brilliant rhetoricians struggle against the notion that rhetoric is not inherently real, nor the study of it inherently productive – even though at their core rhetoricians understand that the contrast between contingency of meaning and efficacy of mechanisms cannot be reconciled.  At the very least, this question will drive my argument for the remainder of this analysis, and so must be addressed.

When Dr. Richards argued against my position, he found it challenging, I believe for three reasons – first, rhetorical study has tended not to permit the rejection of rhetoric as an inherently valuable object of study (for obvious reasons); this means most rhetoricians, even the most brilliant, have never developed a defense of rhetoric as an object of study in the way most other disciplines, both within the humanities and without, have been expected to.  They simply have been trained out of the habit of position defense by the tradition of contingent truth.  Second, it is deeply personal; rhetoric, like religion, is a subject which Dr. Richards is expert in and has invested thousands of hours into refining his understanding of.  To equate the two is to challenge their segregation in a dissonant fashion.

Third, it is a doggedly pragmatic argument.  Rhetoric, like religion, manifests only in mechanism and effect.  Since there is no prime mover which can be defined, the challenge of rhetoric always returns to that absence.  For the theorist, this creates a fertile landscape for intellectual play.  For the pragmatist, it presents a void which must always be addressed before the “real work” can begin in the field – for both religion and academic study of rhetoric.

For the pragmatist, rhetoric (and God) tell us not about themselves, but ourselves, and serve as a mirror to reflect the processes, desires, and structures which created our own need to know ourselves.

I would argue that CHAT is a first step in an attempt to address the void of prime mover, though certainly not to fill it, and to recognize the inherent “unrealness” of discourse, genre, and rhetoric in general as a construct of our own desire to know our own selves.

That alone is reason enough to study it.  But I think it offers more than that.

RN#3: Towards a Methodology of Ontology in Genre Knowledge

“The urge to classify is fundamental, and although it involves the difficulties that Patton and Conley point out, classification is necessary to language and learning.  The variety of critical approaches referred to above indicates the many ways one might classify discourse, but if the term ‘genre’ is to mean anything theoretically or critically useful, it cannot refer to just any category or kind of discourse” (151).

The Big Question: Can We Classify Based on Rhetorical/Social Action (in Networks)?

Carolyn R. Miller (E-Portfolio Link)
Carolyn R. Miller – NCSU   (E-Portfolio Link)

I’ll be the first to admit that I am much, much less Rhet than Comp in the Rhet/Comp ecology, so a large part of this process for me is about exploring how much I’m able to muster an understanding, defense, or critique of a lot of what is happening in the readings this week. I think a large amount of my understanding of the topic is best filtered through the arguments made by Carolyn Miller in her 1984 “Genre as Social Action,” which I find problematic in the notion of the human categorization compulsion – which Dr. Miller both acknowledges as highly problematic (see block quote above) but also necessary.  I agree with her assessment, but view it rather as the impetus to exclude, rather than include, questions of social context from the speech act as an “archaeological” practice.

Charles Bazerman - UCSB (E-Portfolio Link)
Charles Bazerman – UCSB
(E-Portfolio Link)

Essentially, I would argue that categorization is necessary only insofar as it is a human impulse which will not be rejected simply.  However, I do not see any evidence within Miller’s argument that such categories can ever be stable enough (long enough) to function as a useful tool for comprehension in the extended-term, archival sense of “knowledge;” as such, I fear that any categorization of speech, of action, according to genre results in a lost notion of purpose and meaning.  We need look no further than the apologia for proof that even classical rhetoricians are found lacking when it comes to understanding the continuity and stability of genre forms as related to contextualized acts.  Bazerman tells us that “each text is embedded within structured social activities and depends on previous texts that influence the social activity and organization” (“Speech Acts” 311), that “such genres exist more for the process of their interaction with the reader or the details that go into the act, rather than for the act itself or the after-the-fact consequences” (“Systems” 90).

Miller herself recognizes that there are issues with stability, regulation of identity, the media divide in the modern era compared to the year of publication, and the cultural dependency of meaning (“Revisited” 56-7) which the field of genre studies has yet to resolve.

I would argue that this is because they simply cannot be resolved.  I would also argue that one of the issues with genre studies as a rhetorical enterprise and a rhetorical field of study is its dependence on positioning itself as either new or novel, or at least able to be differentiated from genre theory, which is a move which Miller makes not infrequently (58).

This is, Miller hints, in part due to an effort to segregate the agency concerns of the non-expert rhetor – a move which led to GS’s embrace in Rhet/Comp, TC, and linguistics – as opposed to genre theory’s previous focus on expert rhetors (e.g., orators, politicians, authors) (59).

In other words, there is a massive political and disciplinary exigency here, the avoidance of which serves to resolve most of the prickly little issues behind genre studies in rhetoric.  It is best if we don’t look behind the curtain.

So let’s do that.

The Diatribe: Because that’s my Genre

Okay.  The arguments made here by Bazerman and Miller, of course, imply that social knowledge has a momentum which moves through texts in a demonstrable, knowable (or at least study-able) way.  If we’re to look at genre and contextualize according to “the process of interaction,” we must locate a lens which sufficiently contextualizes the whole of the “textual” (i.e., “social”) ontology of the categorized thing.  That, of course, is impossible.  The map would be the territory.

This is why we both reject stereotypes as unfair in polite society, and yet leverage them constantly.

So, is genre a social action?  Of course!  Literally any action that exists in society is a social action.  And literally anything human beings do or think happens in society.

Is this a new notion?  I don’t know.  Is Aristotle “new?”  Or Northrop Frye, at least?

Is viewing genre as social action helpful?  Bazerman, in his section (quite helpfully) subtitled “Methodological Issues,” speaks to (and around) this issue (“Speech Acts” 319-26). His analysis is mostly spot-on, but I argue against it because his resolutions are resolutions of convenience, not theory or fact.

Are these objects of some form, and thus able to be objects of study?

Nope.  Sorry, that’s too restrictive!

It may prove noteworthy in coming weeks that this is the constant curse of (and appeal of) Actor Network Theory as well.  Bazerman and Miller, like Latour and Foucault (and there’s four names that I wouldn’t traditionally think of as agreeing on much) all found much of their argumentative precepts on the notion that collections of networks think or process knowledge in some sense, thus giving agency to objects.  For Latour, these objects are literal.  For Foucault, these objects are cultural.  For Bazerman and Miller, these objects are social.

The problem, of course, with saying “society does X” or “society thinks X” is that society doesn’t do nor think.  Society exists, and things exist in society.  Society is a context, not an actor.

Miller and Bazerman would resolve this by making genre equivalent to social action, and positing the reality of social action as reflecting the “real”-ness of society.  They are, in effect, begging for somebody to invent ANT contexts for Rhetoric.

I’m going to go ahead and strongly position myself here by informally arguing that ANT will not resolve these issues for Bazerman, especially.

The fact that genre isn’t “real” doesn’t resolve itself through Bazerman’s adjusted sample sizes or study scope (“Speech Acts” 322, 324), the old “plural of anecdote” cliche being valuable here; and Potter Stewart was providing a legal, but certainly not an epistemological, imperative (323, 325).  Furthermore, it should go without saying that all rhetorical analysis is interpretive, so “going beyond the most obvious features” can yield only a more nuanced interpretation of rhetorical agency, not a revelation, as Bazerman claims, that we can use to determine the factual (“whether or not state education standards attribute agency” etc.) (324).

Since we are approaching the question of genre through the question of category, and Miller views the lens of social action as a product of a both “genre” and “speech,” we must essentially categorize genre and speech as equivalent functions in a syllogistic understanding of the networked relation of these objects.  (This leads to an immediate categorical fallacy, because syllogism is stupid, but helpful for detecting equally stupid things.) Genre is neither concrete, nor stable, and the speech act is neither contained by genre, nor entirely defined by it – more than this, however, they are neither equal nor able to be exchanged within an equation of “social facts” (Bazerman 312-3).

I think that the damning moment for Bazerman’s methodological hand-wave, however, comes in his fourth appeal, when he argues that “to extend beyond the explicit understanding of what people in a field name, in order to see the full range of implicit practice, you can do ethnographic research […] making them extensive enough to provide substantial evidence in making claims, but not too broad to be manageable [emphasis original]” (325, 327).  Of course, ethnographic research will not allow one to see the full range of implicit practice, because no research will – the full range of implicit practice is infinite.  His hedge of this fact two pages longer reveals his awareness that to study the social machinery of meaning is to study an infinitely-regressive chain of nested meanings, acts, and genres which extend infinitely into the communicative past.

Like Capitalism, the Sun, the Old Gods, or post-1994 MTV, you can only look at “society” in your peripheral vision, or you’ll go slowly mad.

In short, socially-contextualized genre studies in “new media” are physically impossible.  There is no viable lens.  The map is not the territory.  Latour will resolve this three years after Miller’s essay by giving agency to objects, and then arguing that this agency compartmentalizes them.  Then, in 2005, he will upend pragmatism itself in order to claim that agency-wielding objects (of his own creation) metaphysically restructure reality itself in order to perpetuate his theories within the social network.  God is dead, but it’s okay; Latour’s doing a Weekend at Bernie’s thing.

If you haven’t guessed yet, I’m not a huge ANT advocate.


Bazerman, C. (2004). Speech acts, genres, and activity systems: How texts organize activity and people. What writing does and how it does it: An introduction to analyzing texts and textual practices, 309-339.

Bazerman, C. (1994). Systems of genres and the enactment of social intentions. Genre and the new rhetoric, 79101.

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social-an introduction to actor-network-theory. Reassembling the Social-An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory, by Bruno Latour, pp. 316. Foreword by Bruno Latour. Oxford University Press, Sep 2005. ISBN-10: 0199256047. ISBN-13: 9780199256044, 1.

Latour, B. (1987). Science in action: How to follow scientists and engineers through society. Harvard university press.

Miller, C. (1984). Genre as Social Action. Quarterly Journal of Speech, 70(1), 151-167.

Miller, C. R. (2015). Genre as Social Action (1984), Revisited 30 Years Later (2014). Letras & Letras, 31(3), 56-72.

RN#2 & Activity: Designing Use Cases as a Model under Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge

“In short, Foucault’s discourse is a mirror of the powers it describes. It is there that its strength and its seduction lie, and not at all in its ‘truth index,’ which is only its leitmotiv: these procedures of truth are of no importance, for Foucault’s discourse is no truer than any other. No, its strength and its seduction are in the analysis which unwinds the subtle meanderings of its object, describing it with a tactile and tactical exactness, where seduction feeds analytical force and where language itself gives birth to the operation of new powers. Such also is the operation of myth, right down to the symbolic effectiveness described by Levi-Strauss. Foucault’s is not therefore a discourse of truth but a mythic discourse in the strong sense of the word, and I secretly believe that it has no illusions about the effect of truth it produces. That, by the way, is what is missing in those who follow in Foucault’s footsteps and pass right by this mythic arrangement to end up with the truth, nothing but the truth” (Baudrillard, 29).

Introduction: Why Foucault in Network Analyses? Why not?

I’m not going to pretend that I dig Foucault.  I dig when people overtly use Foucault, if only because I view it as a the keenest method of revealing that the speaker didn’t read Foucault – Foucault’s work itself teaching us that in those moments when we find something unassailable in its truth value and usefulness, those are precisely the moments when such a source of cultural knowledge should be dismantled, dissected, and explicated in terms of its applications of power against others and society.

That is to say, Foucauldian theory may be unassailably useful among certain segments of the intellectual (and rhetorical) left, but the applications of his theory within academic practice are frequently (purely) ideological – a scholarly “flash” which codifies progressive epistemology and values within argument.  Critical interpretations of Foucault’s contribution, after all, tend towards the centering of the leftist ideology, as Daniel Zamora notes: “for [critical theorist and sociologist Geoffrey de] Lagasnerie, what Foucault has accomplished is to demolish the symbolic barriers between the left and neoliberalism” (Zamora, 2014).  Foucault’s work is, at its core, the ideological exploration of dynamics of power and the social restrictions leveraged against the emancipatory impulse of the self.

That is to say, the representation of Foucault within academic discourse is traditional and symbolic: two of the primary targets of opposition present within Foucault’s own work.  Foucauldian argumentation has become in no small part a contradiction – at least in practice.  But you either agree with his conclusions, or you don’t.  Methodologically, however, the epistemological territory is much more contingent and unclear.

Michel Foucault - Photo by Bruce Jackson
Michel Foucault – Photo by Bruce Jackson

Why, then, leverage Foucauldian methods in the study of rhetorical networks?  I would argue they are valuable; that what Foucault does best is to problematize the Dialectic of Reason, to demonstrate and rhetorically explore the irreducible complexity of networks over time (“archaeology”) as the relationships and exchanges of definition, meaning, and conceptualization (“knowledge”), in the face of a transition to neutral subjectivity.  If Foucault’s archaeology does anything, it is to defuse the notion of objective reason as the foundation of scientific or positivist knowledge – providing in its place a demonstrative framework for attempting to interrogate not only the individual and the moment (“history”), but systems (“archaeology of history”).  

In Chapter 3: “The Formation of Objects,” Foucault lays out a sequence of consequences for archaeological study (44-46), as follows:

  1. Due to contexts and complexity, “one cannot speak of anything at any [given] time” (44).
  2. The relations which influence and inform the object are not inherently present within the object itself (45).
  3. These relations are segregated into various sets, a) real or primary relation systems, b) reflexive or secondary relation systems, and c) discursive relation systems (45-46).
  4. As we explore these systems, we recognize that they do not characterize the language we use to define relations, but rather the discourse practice itself (46).

Therefore, Foucault tells us, although “we sought the unity of discourse in the objects themselves, in their distribution, in the interplay of their differences,” it is necessary instead that we “analyze and specify” systems according to “the relation between the surfaces on which they appear, on which they can be delimited” (47).

These systems must, of course, be interrogated.  However, in doing so we must be careful not to presume an ideology external to the system as valid – not our own ideology, not Foucault’s, not our audiences’, and not the cultural expectations – the “surfaces” – upon which these ideologies find purchase.

If Foucauldian argumentation has idiomatically “jumped the shark,” Foucualdian subject-power analysis (although rarely applied against post-structuralist arguments themselves) is still highly applicable in our pursuit of network comprehension.  In the logic that it survives its own interrogation (perhaps unlike Foucault’s ideological argumentation), it is perhaps the strongest and most cross-applicable facet of Foucault’s methodological explorations in The Archaeology of Knowledge.

Before applying this method, though, it is worth noting that Foucault’s book-length texts, such as Archaeology, are perhaps not the most perfect specimens for investigating these concerns.  Archaeology is, at least, a textual evidence of a mind at play, and may perhaps even be described as a work of apologetics for the founding of a post-Nietzschean  genealogy which avoids the linearity of assumed historical truth (Foucault would argue, in his “Nietzsche, Genealogy, and History,” that “a genealogy of values, morality, asceticism, and knowledge will never confuse itself with a quest for their ‘origins,’ will never neglect as inaccessible the vicissitudes of history” (80).)

As a text, Archaeology is perhaps too complete, too encompassing of its own epistemology.  “To know a thing, do not look directly at the thing” seems to be a key element of its argument.  Or, “to know a thing’s end, do not look at the end of a thing.”  Why, then, would we look at Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge to know what it means to practice Foucault’s archaeology of Knowledge?  Foucault would label this as the resolution of “contradictions” through the presumed security of a “coherent” discourse; in applying archaeology, “contradictions are netiher appearances to be overcome, nor secret principles to be uncovered.  They are objects to be described for themselves, without any attempt being made to discover from what point of view they can be dissipated” (151).

These contradictions may best be cataloged and comprehended through the application of Use Cases, which I will aim to do in each reading response this semester.

Actors, Systems, and Contradictions: “Doing” Empiricism and Experience-based Epistemology within Foucault’s Archaeology

Perhaps the best way to apply Foucault to the current approaches to network theory and network analysis is through the deployment of “Use Cases” in order to study Foucault’s subject-power relations throughout the long-term analysis of the networks relating to one’s object of study.

Use cases are perhaps the ultimate Habermasian gedankenexperiment for post-structuralist archaeological explorations of networks, the visualized (or actualized) application of subject-power relationships within restricted definitions of instances of both being and not being (e.g. the moment when “Plato, at Syracuse, did not become Mohammed.”)  How does Foucault’s Archaeology apply to use cases?  How does it not?  What contradictions are present in trying to locate “use value” in post-structuralist explorations of power under specific systems?

In order to examine an object specific to my own studies, over the coming weeks I hope to apply Foucault’s process of Object Formation within Archaeology in order to construct a series of interrogations to leverage against the platform of Blackboard Learn (BBL) as Object and product of socially discursive formations (31-39) in order to identify “enunciative periods” of the platform as a developing social, cultural, and economic process (148).  Interrogating how students, instructors, and administrators have leveraged the platform over time may seem to be contra-indicated by Foucault’s opposition to a linearity of progress, except inasmuch as I reject the notion that BBL is moving towards a more perfect iteration of the object.

Arguing for Use Case Study: Emancipatory Responsiveness and the Fabricated Falsity of Actor-Network Theory (ANT)

What are the use cases and why?  UCs must be designed with consideration to the ways that a specific actor achieves a specific goal by using and transiting a system which has been overtly and purpsefully designed (for more on use cases and their role in systems design, see Armour and Miller (2000), Advanced Use Case Modeling: Software Systems)Under Foucault, the UC is a particularly useful tool for studying networks such as Blackboard for several reasons:

  1. It synthesizes networks through the process of pathing, exploring how users (actors) navigate through a goal-oriented process, providing viable use data.  BBL is inherently goal-oriented, and each iteration of use tends towards linear single uses.
  2. It is already attuned to the concerns of User Interfaces, with a foundation in software and systems design; clearly, this is well-reflected in BBL’s own structure and design.
  3. It is linguistic and discursive.  Designed to consider precursor events and behaviors, stakeholders, and the role of technology within the sequence of actor choices, it can be analyzed through discourse analysis.
  4. Philosophically, use cases have ideological benefits in the face of post-structuralist criticisms of user-oriented systems: they are able to examine what Marcuse would label the “alienation” of systems, contextualize Habermas’ anti-postmodernity, or re-situate Walter Benjamin’s implications of the significance of non-neutral authorship in the modern network – which is in direct opposition to Foucault’s notion of “significant change” as a metric of authorship as stable and inherently less useful.

The question, then, is how we “archaeologically” investigate Objects of Study within networks – especially considering the reality that networks are so multiplicative and challenging to unfold – in order to provide empirical data points under postmodern restrictions?  It seems the use case may resolve this concern.

Over the coming weeks, I will attempt to design research-centric use cases which might be used to study and delineate how Foucault’s “Archaeology” might be studied empirically.

ACTIVITY: Archaeologizing through Use Case Diagramming (10 minutes)

Use Case Diagram (from WhatIs.com)
Use Case Diagram (from WhatIs.com)
  1. Read a basic introduction to use case diagrams at WhatIs.com (link).
  2. Choose a specific goal typical to (or implied by) the use, implementation, or design of your own Object of Study.
  3. Considering your own Objects of Study, consider how you might diagram and delineate the boundaries, actors, roles, and relationships present within a specific use case.
  4. Sketch a brief UC diagram for a specific instance, and bring in the sketch to our next course meeting.


Baudrillard, J., & Lotringer, S. (1987). Forget Foucault. New York, NY: Semiotext(e).

Foucault, M. (1979). Authorship: What is an Author? Screen, 20(1), 13-34.

Foucault, M. (2010). The Archaeology of Knowledge (A. M. Sherridan Smith, Trans.). New York: Random House.

Zamora, D. (2014, December 13). Peut-on critiquer Foucault? Retrieved January 24, 2016, from http://www.revue-ballast.fr/peut-on-critiquer-foucault/

Further Reading

Fox, S. (2000). Communities Of Practice, Foucault And Actor‐Network Theory. Journal of management studies, 37(6), 853-868.

Habermas, J., & Ben-Habib, S.. (1981). Modernity versus Postmodernity. New German Critique, (22), 3–14. http://doi.org/10.2307/487859

Reading Connections – Understanding WiFi and Mobile Hubs as Networks

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Arthur C. Clarke, “Hazards of Prophecy: The Failure of Imagination” (1973).


I think the most interesting facet of attempting to understand (or rather demonstrating that I understand) WiFi and Broadband mobile networks is the fundamental, nearly-fractal complexity of exploring the “networks” at the core of connectivity.  A close second, then would be the fact that I was able to locate precisely zero sources that managed to synthesize an understanding of networks at multiple levels of complexity (e.g.: network-level, device-level, data-level, global- or regional-level).

Give me a systems engineer, and I’ll be able to keep up in a conversation about network management and maintenance.  Give me a grandmother with her first laptop and a Time Warner account, and I’ll be able to set up her LAN network.  Give me a challenge of putting the two of them in the same room together and facilitating conversation, and I think I’d go insane before we even agreed on terms.

This is the WiFi antenna from my own model of smartphone, the Motorola Moto X (1st Generation). Functionally equivalent to a household mast antenna from two decades ago in terms of antenna gain, and with approximately twenty times the throughput, this device weighs under a quarter of an ounce, and is less than two inches across. (Source: iFixit.com)

My original notes for explaining this concept here were over seven pages long.  As implied in the epigraph above, WiFi may as well be functionally equivalent to magic for the traditional or typical consumer of digital media.  At the very least, the sum of its apparent parts is certainly far beyond the capability of the whole.

In the end, I settled for discussing simply the device-level, local- or immediate-proximity networks that would be most familiar to the lay reader.  It would certainly behoove the reader to be aware of concerns having to do with frequency, channels, and wavelength, electromagnetic and physical interference sources, baud rate, UL certification, communications protocols,  packet security, firewalls, loss differentiation, or encryption.  To do so, however, would merely move us one layer lower in an infinitely-regressing series of networks that would simply require further illumination, bring about further complexity, and require precise, nuanced technical understanding of everything from quantum theory to advanced cryptography.

Even in reduction after reduction, it would – to put it another way – be indistinguishable from magic.

Understanding Broadband as a First-Order Network

The simplest understanding of wireless networks, then, is the first-order network of things communicating with other things through the process of wireless connectivity.  Subnetworks within this network would include, perhaps, workgroups or subnets in Local Area Networks (LANs), Wireless Local Area Networks (WLANs), and Personal Area Networks (PANs).  Devices themselves may be structurally and hierarchically interpreted as networks of parts which similarly communicate and connect in order to receive, interpret, respond to, and disseminate information (data).  Above the (W)LAN or PAN level, there are Wide Area Networks (WAN), or connections of PANs, LANs, and WLANs (up to and including the entirety of the Internet itself.)

Figure 1: Rudimentary diagram of mobile device connecting to Internet data services and other user devices through telecom network. Carrier services are also connected to the PSTN through the Mobile Switching Center.
Figure 1: Rudimentary diagram of mobile device connecting to Internet data services and other user devices through telecom network. Carrier services are also connected to the PSTN through the Mobile Switching Center.

The mobile broadband environment exists primarily to do four things: 1) connect mobile devices with each other (e.g. cellular telecom), 2) connect mobile devices to “landline” telecom exchange networks (PSTN, or Public Switched Telephone Network), 3) connect mobile devices to the Internet or other public networks, and 4) to connect mobile devices to proximal networks and attached devices (e.g. PANs and WLANs).  For instances 1, 2, and 3, see Figure 1 (left).  For instances 3 and 4, see Figure 2 below right.  The primary challenge in communicating these networks to the lay user is threefold – typical users experience difficulty processing the necessary speed, area, and complexity of such networks, which makes it difficult to parse the reality that a simple voice call over a mobile network may include as many as two dozen “handshakes” between network nodes, including servers, centers, stations, extenders, and other devices.

Figure 2: Rudimentary diagram of mobile device serving as a central node in a Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN).
Figure 2: Rudimentary diagram of mobile device serving as a central “hotspot” node in a Wireless Local Area Network (WLAN) while also connecting with additional devices and networks through Bluetooth, NFC/IR, and RF signals.  Present beyond the Data Carrier/ISP is the Internet itself.

Although Local Area and Personal Networks are significantly less complicated in terms of scale, they are not significantly less complex in terms of the variety of technologies and protocols necessary to process and facilitate data transfer and maintain the total network ecology.  The typical mobile “smartphone” device may have upwards of four or five different wireless communications methods and protocols, including Infrared (IR) transmission and Near Field Communication (NFC) to communicate with line-of-sight devices, WiFi to communicate with WLAN networks, Bluetooth Ultra-High-Frequency signals (BT, UHF) to maintain connection to accessories and local devices, and finally Radio Frequency carrier signals (RF) to connect with the mobile network itself.

Rudimentary diagram of devices interacting in a Local Area Network (LAN).
Figure 3: Rudimentary diagram of devices interacting in a Hybrid Wireless Local Area Network (LAN/WLAN).

Due to this complexity, and the general cultural expectation of smartphones to serve as devices that “just work” as functional nodes, it may be best to instead explore the nature of networks as functional collectives through the LAN/WLAN specifically (See Figure 3.)

Most users will view WLANs as, quite simply, the way to get the Internet onto their personal devices (e.g., laptops, smart televisions, smartphones, WiFi-enabled dishwashers, or even home security systems.)  This interpretation of the network is functional for the vast majority of users; however, such users often do not consider the network as a whole ecology, including subnetworks – such as (at just the first-order network level) the RF connection between a laptop and a wireless mouse, the mediated WiFi communication between a smartphone and a wireless printer, or the facilitated handshake between a device and a central modem/router through a device such as a wireless network repeater or range extender.  They are also not likely to think about less overt elements of the network, such as protocols which allow for burst transmission in order to maintain connectivity during periods of interference, channel switching in order to minimize latency, appointment of Internet Protocol addresses (IP) to devices using the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP), et cetera.  And yet, without these functions, the WLAN network is effectively disconnected – not only from the outside world, but from itself.

ACTIVITY – Devices as Nodes, Connections as Edges, Networks as… Networks

In the face of such complexity of protocols, forms, devices, and connections, it may be best to consider WiFi/Mobile devices as nodes within a networked topology, and consider connections as edges of topological map of a digital territory, rather than as a bi-directional relationship between individual devices.

Indeed, though we do not often think of such limitations overtly, spacial proximity and other physical restrictions are often as important to the topology of a network as is any connection protocol.

As an exercise in understanding the complexity, scale, and speed of such networks and your device’s place within a hybrid wireless/wired topology, please consider completing one (or all!) of the following activity steps:

1) Through your command prompt or systems terminal, run a netstat analysis of your device’s connections over WLAN, LAN, and WAN (for Windows CMD prompt, enter “netstat f”; for MacOS terminal, enter “$ netstat ap tcp”.)

After reviewing your active connections within and without your local network, consider the following questions:

  • Sample Netstat analysis - Windows Command Prompt
    Figure 4: Sample Netstat analysis – Windows Command Prompt

    Did you expect this many connections routed through your device at once? More? Fewer?

  • Can you identify specific connections and the processes they are driving (e.g. internet radio, Netflix, cloud storage, software update services, etc.)?
  • What percentage of your connections are internal?  External?

2) Visit http://www.monitis.com/traceroute/  and track your mobile/wireless devices’ IP node connections in “pinging” a WAN network node (e.g., your favorite website).

Figure 4: Sample traceroute - baidu.com from Norfolk, VA.
Figure 5: Sample traceroute – baidu.com from Norfolk, VA.  This search traveled 11,380 kilometers at approximately 51,000,000 m/s – averaging 1/6th the speed of light over transmission.

Using IP Geolocation, the service will trace and locate connections for each of your server hops in connecting to another website.  For instance, it required 223ms for my laptop to connect to the Chinese search engine, Baidu.com, which has its primary server in Beijing.  In order to reach that server, my connection was routed through 24 separate nodes.  For your own search, consider the following questions:

  • Were you surprised to learn where servers were located for your favorite web content?
  • Consider the latency between your device and final connection node.  Approximately how far (and how quickly) have you “traveled” for access to this node?

3) Login to your wireless router for your home network and poke around.

Most routers default to a browser-accessible IP address at or – if not, you can locate your local host IP by entering “ipconfig – all” in your Windows CMD prompt, or “ifconfig” in your MacOS terminal.  Enter your localhost IP to access your router controls.  Consider locating your active connections tab (location will vary according to router manufacturer, model, and firmware) and seeing who and what is connected to your network.

Figure 6: Sample connected devices on WiFi network. Notice that device IDs often indicate device location, type, or owner depending upon settings, type, and configuration.
Figure 6: Sample connected devices on WiFi network. Notice that device IDs often indicate device location, type, or owner depending upon settings, type, and configuration.
  • Can you identify what devices (and how many) are currently (or recently) connected to your network?  What connections stand out?  Does anything you see here surprise you?  (e.g. “Dan’s iPhone” was last connected to my network on Friday, January 15th. However, due to a formatting bug, Dan’s “license” on my network will never expire; rather, it is set to expire in December of 1901, a date which will never occur within the system.)
  • Have you ever worked inside your own network configuration before?  What features surprise you?  What features were you unaware were available in your own network?


4) Finally, consider what these activities reveal about the breadth, complexity, and scale of data networks.

We’ve already investigated how many connections must be parsed outside the local network to connect to external resources.  Consider this in coordination with the internal network data from this activity.  Think about the following:

  • How many processes (approximately) must take place in order for your phone, for example, to receive something like a Facebook update push notification over broadband, or for your laptop to receive an email over WiFi?
  • Given the fragmented, multi-faceted sub-networks through which data must travel to reach your device (and vice versa), what sorts of data hierarchy, protocols, and technology must be in place in the physical world to facilitate this communication?  Consider looking into energy or financial costs for maintaining a for-profit data center, for instance.
  • Given the complexity of these networks, consider the following (philosophical) questions:  Where is the Internet? Does your device access it, or does it exist within it?  If the WiFi/Broadband network is broadcasting actively even when you are not connected to it, does the Internet exist in your home even if you are not “attached” to the network?


Brain, M., Wilson, T. V., & Johnson, B. (2001). How WiFi Works. Retrieved January 18, 2016, from http://computer.howstuffworks.com/wireless-network1.htm

Coustan, D., Strickland, J., & Perritano, J. (2001). How Smartphones Work. Retrieved January 18, 2016, from http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/smartphone.htm

Marling, C. (n.d.). Mobile Broadband Beginners Guide: What is mobile broadband and how does it work? Retrieved January 18, 2016, from https://www.broadbandgenie.co.uk/mobilebroadband/help/mobile-broadband-beginners-guide

Online Visual Traceroute. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2016, from http://www.monitis.com/traceroute/

Why Use Networks? | IGCSE ICT. (n.d.). Retrieved January 18, 2016, from http://www.igcseict.info/theory/4/why/index.html