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Part Three: the university of a tiny rhetoric

Digital Digs (Alex Reid) - 29 December, 2017 - 11:44

The last part of a three part essay. Here are parts one and two.

This brings me momentarily to the Stover article, but Latour’s interview ends with some remarks about the university (and rhetoric). Latour notes that rhetoric, from the start, is fundamentally a way to teach people:

It means that you can take someone who has no rhetoric coming out of school, doesn’t know how to speak, doesn’t know how to address people, doesn’t know how to speak well of things, and then after [a rhetorical education], he or she knows. Right? This is the basic idea. So, there is a sense in which rhetoric is the equivalent of what we expect from the university. You go from day one, and then at the end, you are Jefferson… So rhetoric is the university in the negative sense and in the positive sense.

I think this fits in well, though also oddly, with Stover’s argument for the humanities. I won’t rehearse the entire (quite long) article, but basically, although he clearly suggests “there is no case for the humanities,” he is really arguing that the humanities don’t need a defense per se. As he writes,

The confusion over the purpose of the humanities has nothing to do with their relevance. The humanities are no more or less relevant now than they ever were. It is not the humanities that we have lost faith in, but the economic, political, and social order that they have been made to serve. Perhaps we only demand a case for the humanities because we cannot fathom having to make a case for anything else.

And then as he concludes

The humanities and the university do need defenders, and the arts have had advocates as long as they have existed. The way to defend the arts is to practice them. Vast expanses of humanistic inquiry are still in need of scholars and scholarship. Whole fields remain untilled. We do not need to spend our time trying to come up with reasons. All we need to do is put our hand to the plow. Scholarship has built institutions before, and will do so again. Universities have declined, and come to flourish once more. The humanities, which predate the university and may well survive it, will endure—even if there is no case to defend them.

I think one must agree that we have lost faith in the economic, political and social order that the humanities was made to serve. I’m thinking that started some time around the Holocaust. And humanists were among the first to lose that faith. Still there’s a certain charm in Stover’s Nikean suggestion that we should “just do it.”

However, as rhetoricians we should remember Latour’s European perspective on rhetoric and how it might inform Stover’s. Classical, modern rhetoric-as-practice belongs among the seven liberal arts that found Stover’s humanities. And yet rhetoric doesn’t quite fit. Stover writes “The humanities have always been, just as their critics complain, self-contained, self-referential, and self-serving. Those tendencies are exactly what enabled the humanities to create a class that continued to demand them.” But rhetoric-as-practice has always been about the agora and about the skills that associate rhetoric with “the most maligned mode of politics” (to quote Latour again). Unlike the rest of the humanities, teaching rhetoric has never primarily been about reproducing the class of people who study rhetoric.

Personally I think Stover’s argument is either naïve, privileged, or both. As he notes, “The reality is that the humanities have always been about courtoisie, a constellation of interests, tastes, and prejudices which marks one as a member of a particular class. That class does not have to be crudely imagined solely in economic terms. Indeed, the humanities have sometimes done a good job of producing a class with some socioeconomic diversity.” How nice for us; let’s all offer up a courteous golf clap. Will the version of humanities Stover describes continue to thrive in the Ivy League and other hedge funds that use classrooms as tax shelters? I think so. Those 1% institutions still have faith in “the economic, political, and social order that [the humanities] have been made to serve.” Elsewhere I think it’s a toss up. As he noted, in the nineteenth century many land grant institutions added the humanities in an effort to be viewed as full universities. He seems to suspect that it is “the lingering presence of the humanities that allows the modern university to think better of itself, and to imagine itself to be above commercial or political vulgarity. This ‘case’ for the humanities is implicit in every glossy flier produced by a university development office, but no one could state it without blushing.” Let’s hope that the graying members of the MLA don’t throw out their necks while vigorously nodding along. If Stover thinks the humanities are above political vulgarity (or just straight out vulgarity) then his department (and department listserv) are quite different from any in which I’ve participated since entering grad school.

But I digress. I really don’t want to talk (yet again) about “saving the humanities that does not need saving.” I’m just interested in the two models of the university offered by Latour and Stover, and the role a tiny new materialist rhetoric (as opposed to a big rhetoric-as-practice) might play in it. One of the common complaints about new materialist rhetorics is that they don’t come, pre-installed, with an ideological operating system—whether that be indoctrinating students in the courtoisie of a scholarly class, overturning transnational capitalism, fighting for justice, or whatever. In my view, they’re too tiny for that, though you can certainly add one on, and maybe you can’t help but do so (a topic for another time). When Latour says that “rhetoric is the equivalent of what we expect from the university,” I think he means it’s an education in courtoisie. Both positive and negative.

One can use a tiny, new materialist rhetoric to investigate how that happens and describe the capacities that arise in various pedagogical encounters within academic ecologies. A good a place as any to study things. And a tiny rhetoric won’t predetermine what a university or university education should be. It can, however, be a tool for describing the matters of concern that arise in the diplomatic effort to decide the future of the humanities or the university. It can describe the capacities available and speculate about their significance. As Delanda suggests of a realist ontology, a tiny rhetoric might be better poised to take advantage of such inventions and discoveries of know-how. As Latour concludes the interview with Walsh, “I think the moment it would become really interesting is when we know how to assemble the diversity of these other modes, and the diversity of the collectives. For that we need many different people, probably” (424). I’ll take that one step further and say definitely. In this a tiny new materialist rhetoric does not see to cover it all but simply to be one of many. And for my money, the humanities (regardless of whether or not it needs saving) might also engage in that goal. Here’s where I can agree with Stover: that’s the plow to which the humanities might put its hand.

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Part Two: Making a Move on Ontology

Digital Digs (Alex Reid) - 29 December, 2017 - 11:43

Here are links to parts one and three of this essay.

Instead the purportedly “big” new materialist rhetoric is instead tiny, minimal even. Rhetoric is not so huge as to cover civilization. It does not take over after psychology explains coming to salience. I don’t believe there is a “realm of rhetoric,” neither in consciousness nor in the agora. I certainly don’t think “everything is rhetoric” or even that all things practice rhetoric.

Walsh asks if rhetoricians “have to make the move to ontology,” as if the discipline of rhetoric did not already have an implicit if not explicit ontology. If we are moving to ontology, where were we before? Is there not a theory of being that necessarily underlies the conceit that rhetoric-as-practice arises within conscious humans in the agora? Instead, I would argue that one thing a new materialist rhetoric does is question the existing ontology of rhetoric. However it doesn’t replace that existing ontology with a new answer. Instead it replaces it with an investigation.

Of course this is just my version of new materialist rhetoric—by which I don’t mean to suggest that others haven’t said similar things but only that I don’t mean to speak for others here. For me, rhetoric is minimally a capacity that might arise between two or more humans/nonhumans. Such encounters do not occur in an ontological vacuum, even if they occur in the vacuum of intergalactic space, so there are always larger ecological considerations. However the point is that in any given encounter, a capacity for rhetoric might arise. What is the capacity for rhetoric (as opposed, for example, to the capacity for thermodynamic exchange or electro-magnetic influence or tripping over a stick)? In the simplest terms I define it, a la Latour, as an encounter where one is “made to act.” As we know this “made to act” does not necessarily mean compelled to act. Instead it means something more along the lines of becoming linked into a network of actors that provide new inputs and new ways to act (e.g., distributed cognition).

I suppose one could begin by trying to establish two categories of being—those who can have this capacity and those who cannot. Similarly we can try to establish two categories of being—those who have agency/will and those that do not. But rather than deciding that in advance, I view new materialist rhetoric as a speculative realist/ “second empiricist” (again a la Latour) investigation into where and how these capacities and agencies arise.

To that, I would echo the point Jenny Rice makes in her response to the interview. “This is perhaps how I might explain what makes rhetoricians different from what Latour calls in the interview the ‘immense domain where people have made the voices of voiceless entities heard.’ Rhetoricians do not merely make voices heard; we are also on the lookout for ways to create new capacities for engagement” (436-7). For me this means that one of the principle aims of a new materialist rhetoric is to experiment with the development of new rhetorical capacities, insights that arise from realist/empiricist investigations. I think DeLanda puts this best when he differentiates between creating signification by “knowing that” and significance by “knowing how.” As he writes:

It is, of course, conceivable that idealists or empiricists could incorporate these two distinctions (know-that/know-how, signification/significance) into their theories of knowledge. But a realist for whom the world is filled with objective tendencies and capacities waiting to be actualized by skillful interventions, tendencies and capacities that provide a myriad of opportunities and risks, is in a much better position to take advantage of these insights. This, among other things, is what makes realism a better strategy to confront the political, economical, ecological, and technological problems of our time.

So this “big rhetoric” is really quite small. It’s just looking at one encounter at a time, trying to describe these capacities… and thinking about how we might turn them to practice

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A tiny rhetoric in a big univers(ity): three parts

Digital Digs (Alex Reid) - 29 December, 2017 - 11:43

This morning I’m writing about the place of rhetoric in a new materialist, plural ontology (starting with some comments from Latour) and moving into rhetoric’s place in the humanities (starting with a recent article in American Affairs, “There is no case for the humanities” by Justin Stover). I’ve divided this into three posts, so here are parts two and three.

A recent issue of RSQ includes an interview of Latour by Lynda Walsh and responses from several, mostly new materialist, rhetoricians (paywall). [A brief caveat: the interview reveals, unsurprisingly, that Latour is not very aware of the work in the contemporary discipline of rhetoric and that his experience with even the longer history of rhetoric is limited and fairly convention (which is to say he retains a fairly negative view of rhetoric, as one can see below. That’s maybe unfortunate, but it is what it is.]

That said, the interview is excellent in that it raises a number of opportunities for further investigation, but here’s where I want to start.

Walsh: So, if rhetoricians—especially rhetoricians of science—want to address non-humans, do we have to make the move to ontology?

Latour: I’ve never seen anything really interesting [on Classical rhetorical approaches to nonhumans], but maybe that’s my ignorance. Every time people are limited by communication, or by speech. But if you wanted to shift to articulation instead of communication, where are the resources for that? (my emphasis, 415)

And then a little further on, I’m going to cut some of the chatter in the interview to focus on this.

Walsh: An inability to attune is a rhetorical failing. And Thomas Rickert believes this is our dominant mode with respect to material life and nonhumans, lack of attunement, and he thinks this is a big problem. Our failure to appreciate the contributions of these chairs, and the sunlight, and the coffee, and this plant, and our institutional manners, and the conventions of the interview genre—that failure limits our ability to adequately describe the rhetoric of this interview.

Latour: Interesting. And you would maintain “rhetoric” to describe this whole field?

Walsh: Yes, well, they would. Personally, I think once things come to salience and make themselves available for recruitment as allies or devices in some political action, then we’re in the realm of rhetoric. The process of coming to salience—I think that’s in the realm of psychology or ontology or something that isn’t rhetoric. There’s a close interface or meshing for me, but I don’t think rhetoric covers all of it…

Latour: So the reason I was dissatisfied with rhetoric still holds for me, which is… we need a term that doesn’t break down at the limit of consciousness. Because the whole question is really one of what Whitehead would call penetrability or impenetrability of entities. So, of course we need practical wisdom to limit our scope, but the umbrella term should not be one which triggers the reply, “Ah, wait a minute. It is only about consciousness and it’s only about humans, and only in the forum, the agora.” So this is why all of this militates for a reduced, not reduced, focused sense of rhetoric for the most maligned mode of politics.  (417)

Latour’s question strikes me as an honest one from a scholar with a limited understanding of the field. If rhetoric, as a discipline, seeks to address the role of nonhumans, what resources does it have so that it “doesn’t break down at the limit of consciousness”? Indeed how does it move beyond the even more constrained space of the agora and the “most maligned mode of politics”? Latour is skeptical, to say the least, that this is possible, instead suggesting that “you cannot make the whole proliferation of voices fit inside anything that would have been the equipment of rhetoric at, say the time of Cicero or of a twentieth-century Perelman, to take two extreme examples. It immediately would become limited” (416). For the most part Walsh agrees that rhetoric cannot “describe this whole field.” while noting that new materialist rhetoricians would likely disagree with her.

So yes, in many ways this is a rehearsal of the “big rhetoric” argument. But I would press in a different direction. Returning to the scene of the interview with the chairs, sunlight, coffee, etc.: what discipline would “describe this whole field”? Physics? Biology? Chemistry? Sociology? Economics? Psychology? Philosophy? Certainly not actor-network theory, which we know only follows trails, creating a map that would be to this interview what the map of the London underground is to the city itself.

I don’t believe any new materialist rhetorician would argue that rhetoric “covers all of it.” That doesn’t make sense. Let me try to explain.

The main disconnect in this conversation may simply be semantic. What are we talking about when we say rhetoric? There is clear, long history of rhetoric as a practical matter. That’s not to say that rhetoric-as-practice is without a “theoretical” or “philosophical” element in some sense of these terms. We talk about football coaches having a philosophy. Business schools can teach theories of management. Rhetoric-as-practice has theories and philosophies like that. The “writing process” is one. They are concepts that inform practices. They are discovered through research and experimentation, and they have value both intellectually and practically.

However, rhetoric-as-practice is something humans do to and/or with one another. These are conscious acts, inasmuch as they pass through our conscious minds and we have the subjective experience of making conscious decisions about them. While some rhetorical strategies may target human audiences at an unconscious level, the strategies are consciously learned, practice, and deployed by the author/speaker. While we can talk about the varying affordances created by technologies and other material conditions (as well as less visible, ideological conditions)—how to identify them and work in relation to them—rhetoric-as-practice ultimately comes back to conscious human decisions about interacting on a conscious level with other humans.

My sense is that it is a definition somewhat like that which lies at the foundation of Latour’s thinking in this interview. This is “why all of this militates for a reduced, not reduced, focused sense of rhetoric for the most maligned mode of politics.” This is something like the traditional, little (?) rhetoric: “focused.”

Ironically though, from at least this new materialist rhetorician’s perspective, this rhetoric isn’t too little or focused as we see in this somewhat comical exchange from the interview.

Walsh: what theory or expertise from outside the rhetorical canon do you think rhetoricians should cultivate to better achieve their aim of helping humans (and non-humans) to live more justly together in polity?

Latour: You mean if rhetoric were taken seriously as learning how to assemble people speaking well of each other in a world which we would know to speak well of?

Walsh: Yes.

Latour: Then it’s useful, if it does that, if it has the skill to do that. Then it’s the equivalent of civilization! (423)

Talk about trying to “cover it all”! This is not, in my view, the aim of a new materialist rhetoric but rather the aim of a traditional, modernist, humanist rhetoric: a belief that through rhetoric-as-practice humans will live more justly. But as Latour notes, “the technical difficulty is that we still have no account of ontological pluralism with that” (423). In short, Latour sees little in rhetoric that would give it resources to account for ontological pluralism (since it stops at the borders of conscious human practice in the agora) and even if it did, it would still be little more than “clever elements for you deal with ontological pluralism.”

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the usual waffle on the plight of English Studies (holiday edition)

Digital Digs (Alex Reid) - 11 December, 2017 - 09:34

Many of the challenges we face in English at UB are not unique. In particular we share them with other public research university English departments who need to think about phd programs. The academic job market is awful, which raises all manner of questions about doctoral education. The STEM and business orientation of our undergrads has meant weak/declining enrollments on that end, both in terms of majors and simple numbers of students in seats. In-between, we have an MA program that serves the traditional function of preparing students to enter phd programs: a mission that makes even less sense in this climate than enrolling phd students.

Each of these has been a known problem for more than a decade. We had a national overproduction of phds before the recession dropped the floor out of the job market, cutting the number of tenure-track positions by two-thirds. Concerns about undergrad education go back farther than that. While much of the focus is on doctoral education, for me you have to start at the undergrad level.

This is my sense of undergraduate attitudes toward English. Yes, they are concerned an English degree won’t lead anywhere career-wise. However, statistically that’s not true, and many such potential English students are in majors like psychology or communications that don’t lead anywhere in particular either. More importantly, many students don’t know what they want to do anyway (not that there’s anything wrong with that). A more likely reason for not choosing English is not seeing the relevance of the coursework. Fair enough, I guess. Maybe communications or psychology are more scientific and/or focused on contemporary concerns. However, I’m willing to bet that there’s plenty of grumbling among students in those majors about why they’re being asked to learn X or Y.  I think the primary problem English has is that students have an antipathy for the general activity of English classes: reading books, talking about them, and then writing essays. Yes, there is a small group of students who highly value these activities. The emphasis there is on small. As such, fewer students are interested in taking even a single English class as an elective or to meet a Gen Ed req.

To rebuild these enrollments we need to communicate the relevance of our curriculum to students, and we need to shift the activity, the experience, of the classroom.

If we can rebuild enrollments, then the job market should stabilize. While we are doing this, we also need to revise the size and curriculum of doctoral programs so that we’re graduating an appropriate number of phds and preparing them to work in these shifting conditions. We also need to rethink MA programs so that they are valuable on their own. They will need to be more professionally oriented and not only on the profession of English professor.

These are things I’ve said before. And out of professional respect, I’ve basically always left it by saying that literary scholars need to figure out how to put their expertise to work in this context. But I’ll take it a little farther today. Here is the basic relevance of literary studies as I see it.

  1. It provides an understanding of cultural differences in communication.
  2. It develops skills of rhetorical and poetic analysis (i.e., reading skills).
  3. It offers historical contexts for communication practices.

The first part of this is moving beyond the strictly “literary.” Fortunately that is something we already see, though less at the undergrad level than elsewhere. The first thoughts students have about English cannot be that it’s about literature or literary history. Until we change that, we’re screwed. Courses with a primarily historical orientation, including histories of rhetoric, should probably comprise no more than 20% of the curriculum. Notice I said primarily. Generally speaking any course whose primary focus was some explicit contemporary concern or practice might benefit from some historical context.

That proposal might be felt as a horrible wound by many literary scholars. However, I don’t think I would be asking anything more of them than I do of myself or my own field. In such a curriculum, what I would do, what I really already do, is primarily teach students how to communicate in a digital media ecology. That’s related to my research, but it’s an adaption of my research to serve student interests and needs. If I were teaching courses analogous to what literary scholars typically do, I would be teaching digital-rhetorical theory and examining the shift in rhetorical practices over the last 50 years or so. That would be like the survey course. I would teach a 400-level course that focused on Web 1.0 in 1990s: the rhetorical practices of frames, image maps, and early hyper-linking or the emergence of desktop publishing. I could teach similar courses focused on the rhetorical history of social media in the 2000s or mobile media since the iPhone or video games in any of the last 5 decades, etc. etc. Those courses might even enroll better than some conventional advanced literature courses focused on a single author, a literary movement, or an area of critical theory. But really what would be the point? The real question for me is how to use my disciplinary expertise to benefit students. So maybe some history of how PowerPoint developed would be helpful for students trying to understand why it operates as it does, has particular limits, and tends to push users toward questionable rhetorical practices at times, but the relevant point is that they are learning how to communicate using slides. So it makes much more sense to create a course on visual communication practices than one on the theory of visual rhetoric, the history of PowerPoint, or, god forbid, a new materialist rhetorical analysis of how digital machines participate in the construction of thought and agency.

To be clear, that last one is where my research lies, and I don’t imagine I’ll ever teach such a course, even at the doctoral level. I can’t imagine UB ever having enough scaffolding in rhetoric and media theory for students to have the preparation where a course like that really makes sense. Oh, I point to such things all the time, offer thumbnail explanations of it, and so on in a grad class—because I have to give students some context for where I’m coming from and they certainly know enough to know such things are out there. And I am totally fine with that reality. I don’t need to teach that course. One benefit is that I never have to think about the student who has trained in my field and whose dissertation I’ve chaired trying to get a job somewhere as a digital rhetorician. Instead, I teach more introductory courses in media theory and courses in pedagogy. Soon I’ll be teaching some grad level professional-technical communication courses, but those won’t be aimed at phd students trying to get academic gigs in those fields. They’ll be focused on using disciplinary knowledge to help students develop communication skills for other career aspirations.

Again, I’m really only suggesting that literary scholars will need to think about the relationship between their scholarship and the curriculum in a way that is analogous to what I’ve always done, what I think many rhetoricians have long done.

Maybe if we had an undergrad program where students could clearly see how they would become better communicators and better prepared in a broad sense for a swath of careers that would help. More importantly, if the activities of those courses were clearly focused on doing and making and interacting with the world, with creating things that had the potential to be valuable, then maybe students would want to do them.

Then again, maybe not. But it’s the best shot we’ve got as far as I can see. Oh, and happy holidays.

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An alternative to plumbing the depths of fascist souls

Digital Digs (Alex Reid) - 26 November, 2017 - 22:31

Many have noted their displeasure/anger with two recent NY Times pieces both by Richard Fauset: the first is a piece of reporting about a particular Nazi/white nationalist, Tony Hovater, and the second is what I think one would call a reflective op-ed follow up to that story. The displeasure/anger stems from the way in which the pieces normalize white supremacy. I won’t get into that here, though its fairly self-evident now that, even in the most generous reading, those pieces were ineffective since its hard to imagine their rhetorical aim was to create the conversation that has resulted. You can read the stories for yourself or read this satire of the whole business in Atlantic. I am interested though in the ostensible impulse behind these stories–to understand why seemingly “normal” Americans become white supremacists. Why do we have this impulse? Would it be a useful question to answer if one could answer it?

At one  point in the second piece, in which Fauset reflects on his frustration at not being able to answer the question of why Hovater became a Nazi, he writes the following:

I was thinking about an album I grew up with by the Minutemen, the Southern California punk group, and its brilliantly koanic title: “What Makes a Man Start Fires?” To me, that question embodies what good journalism should strive for, as well as the limits of the enterprise. Sometimes all we can bring you is the words of the police spokesman, the suspect’s picture from a high school yearbook, the acrid stench of the burned woods. Sometimes a soul, and its shape, remain obscure to both writer and reader.

Maybe. But the smartass answer to the koan is “a matchstick.” The resulting insight is that the problem may be that you’re looking in the wrong direction when you try to look for someone’s “soul.” To put it in lawyerly terms, you’re assuming facts that are not in evidence. Toss out the soul hypothesis, and this project might become easier. And in tossing out the soul, I don’t mean just the religious notion but also the entire concept of an internally consistent psyche. This isn’t about someone’s soul. It’s about the operation of the social assemblages we populate.

Demographically, there are a lot of white guys like Hovater–married, blue collar, living in small-town America surrounded by farms, and driving to a nearby small city to enjoy Applebees, Wal-Mart, and the other roadside attractions of contemporary corporate culture. Of course one doesn’t have to be in that demo to feel dissatisfied with one’s life, to be angry or scared, to feel existential angst, or to become a hate- and rage-filled bastard. Maybe it isn’t so surprising that Jack and Diane end up building a Nazi website in the spare bedroom of their little pink house. None of this is really surprising. As some critics of Fauset’s article point out, all the article manages to point out is the banality of evil, and we already know about that. But think about it this way…

fascism is inseparable from a proliferation of molecular focuses in interaction, which skip from point to point, before beginning to resonate together in the National Socialist State. Rural fascism and city or neighborhood fascism, youth fascism and war veteran’s fascism, fascism of the Left and fascism of the Right, fascism of the couple, family, school, and office: every fascism is defined by a micro-black hole that stands on its own and communicates with the others, before resonating in a great, generalized central black hole. (A Thousand Plateaus, 208)

My sense of this is that we’re surrounded by, soaking in, microfascisms, banal evils. There’s not much point in asking how microfascism arises. The question is about resonance.

No one needs to be told that the internet, social media in particular, has operated as a tool for building virtual communities among ideological extremists, fascist or otherwise. Sharing news, rhetorical strategies, political tactics, and more immediately dangerous information as well as serving as a platform for logistics and organizing are obvious  uses of the web for political extremists. Also not surprising is that the web serves as a medium for attacking one’s enemies. However we also ought to be able to recognize the deterritorializing and decoding effects of digital communication. I’m not going to go through the Deleuzian chapter and verse here, but the result, which is fairly easy to observe, is the intensification/purification of an ideological line of flight that would be unlikely to arise (or at least would not so easily arise) in face-to-face, territorial communication.

One doesn’t need to be a fascist to experience this, btw. All you have to ask is whether or not you are a more ideologically extreme/pure version of yourself online than in other aspects of your life. Or you might ask if the online communities in which you participate demand more pure ideological expressions than you might otherwise give. I think in many cases, this does happen. Rather than such investigations serving as an excuse for fascism (society made me do it), the point is to stop trying to peer into the soul of the fascist as if his secrets can be found there. What we need to understand isn’t in the hearts of people like Hovater. It’s in the mechanisms that turn those microfascist tendencies into a political movement.

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carving cognition at its joints

Digital Digs (Alex Reid) - 31 October, 2017 - 12:43

I’ve started reading Katherine Hayles’ Unthought: The Power of the Cognitive Nonconscious. I have to say that I recognize (and am sympathetic toward) the difficult gyrations this topic demands in the humanities as one is called upon the establish various boundaries. In the first chapter, she creates a three-step pyramid comprised by (from top to bottom) conscious/unconscious (that’s one), nonconscious cognition, and material processes. In the prologue, she makes certain to differentiate herself from those who might argue for vitalism or panpsychism:

One contribution of this study is to propose a definition for cognition that applies to technical systems as well as biological life-forms. At the same time, the definition also excludes material processes such as tsunamis, glaciers, sandstorms, etc. The distinguishing characteristics, as explained in chapter 1, center on interpretation and choice—cognitive activities that both biological life-forms and technical systems enact, but material processes do not. A tsunami, for example, cannot choose to crash against a cliff rather than a crowded beach. (3)

She then goes on to differentiate herself from those who argue over the human/nonhuman binary and observes that “It is fashionable nowadays to talk about a human/nonhuman binary, often in discourses that want to emphasize the agency and importance of nonhuman species and material forces” but that “there is something weird about this binary.” Instead she prefers “cognizers versus noncognizers. On one side are humans and all other biological life forms, as well as many technical systems; on the other, material processes and inanimate objects” (30). For Hayles, this difference ultimately boils down to choice: cognizers have one, and noncognizers don’t. All of this work then seems oddly deflated when she then writes “The better formulation, in my view, is not a binary at all but interpenetration, continual and pervasive interactions that flow through, within, and beyond the humans, nonhumans, cognizers, noncognizers, and material processes that make up our world” (32-33). Still there is this matter of “choice” to deal with, which Hayles defines as an ability to interpret information rather than as “free will.” For example, an autonomous automobile interprets information and makes decisions about how to drive. This makes the car a cognizer, unlike the tsunami.

ahhhh, decisions, decisions.

I’m going to have to see how this all plays out in Unthought, but for now I’m guessing that Hayles would agree with the following. First, that cognizers arise from material processes/noncognizers… i.e., that we are not ontologically separate even though we have different capacities. Second that whatever loose bonds tie together a human, a worm, and an autonomous drone as cognizers, the material processes and cognitive capacities associated with each have little, if anything, to do with one another. That is, until they encounter one another: when the drone sets its sights on the human or when the human figures out the worm is good for his/her garden soil, then there are obvious associations.

My inclination is more toward the “continual and pervasive interactions” approach. I don’t think there is a class of cognizing objects (human, biological, and/or technological) that is distinct (except in an abstract/conceptual way) from a class of noncognizing objects. E.g., if we say a drone is a cognizer, then what about when it’s turned off? Is an unconscious human a cognizer? I certainly agree that a tsunami does not exhibit the kinds of cognitive capacities we observe in worms or iphones. That said, I’m not too concerned with establishing an absolute, ontological boundary between that which cognizes and that which does not. Instead, in conceiving of cognition as a capacity I mean to suggest that thinking arises in an encounter among objects. As Delanda points out, a knife has a capacity to cut but that capacity might never be realized unless it encounters another object that can be cut by the knife and third capable of wielding it. From a broad perspective, capacities for thought arise from encounters within material processes. Among biological objects those are evolutionary processes, or at least they start as evolutionary processes. Later they become social and technological processes. Of course Hayles is coming from the other direction, imagining an audience that will object to her expansion of cognition rather than one that will question its limits.

I should note, as an aside, that I find Hayles’ chapter on new materialism somewhat mystifying, except as a somewhat typical example of straw man argumentation at work. First new materialism is so broad and discontinuous that the notion that one can make sweeping claims about it is just irresponsible. Second, making claims about Deleuzian scholarship is probably even worse on the same grounds. One can have a conversation (not here) about whether Hayles’ particular critiques of the particular texts she chooses to treat are valid. My concern here is with the broader claims. For example, she writes, “Despite their considerable promises, the new materialisms also have significant limitations. Conspicuously absent from their considerations are consciousness and cognition, presumably because of the concern that if they were introduced, it would be all too easy to slip into received ideas and lose the radical edge that the focus on materiality provides” (65-66).  This is a claim that is fairly central for the argument she wishes to make about new materialism and the (corrective) relationship of her work to it. From my perspective the assertion that consciousness and cognition are “conspicuously absent” from new materialism is just plain wrong. I mean, if you want to disagree with the treatment of these topics that’s one thing, but saying it doesn’t exist just strikes me as oddly (suspiciously, cagily) ill-informed for someone like Hayles.

But I want to get back to her connection of cognition with interpretation and choice. It is an admittedly low bar in terms of choice. E.g., the autonomous car “chooses” the safest, most efficient route to its destination. It’s not an expression of will or freedom. If there were different inputs, they would result in different interpretations, which would lead to different choices. It’s difficult to narrate human choices any differently. Conventionally, we call a choice any conscious cognitive experience in which we feel/believe we have options to choose among. In my view, choices emerge from relatively indeterminate encounters. As we know from experience, rhetorical situations are a common example for humans. Should we speak or not? What should we say? Often there are many different ways one might say roughly the same thing, and it can be hard to know how an audience will react to a rhetorical act. However, I would say that the capacity for thinking and choosing emerges in this rhetorical situation. Part of it has to do with the specific objects. Not every object can read Hayles’ book. If it wasn’t in English, then I couldn’t read it. Not every English literate person has the disciplinary background to read this book. Not every disciplinary reader has the capacity to blog about. Not every reader who might have sufficient access to and ability with technology to be able to blog has a long-standing blogging practice that would make writing a post about reading Hayles’ book a likely option. Still in that context, I might have decided not to write a blog post (or write it and not publish it), and I could have written something different. In fact I did write some other things that I later deleted; that’s part of the process.

But to what extent are those choices coming from me? I won’t deny the experience of making choices. Of deciding right now that this post is really too long already, but that I still need to wrap it up. I guess what it comes down to is that I am very intrigued by Hayles’ concept of nonconscious cognition, but I find the way she sets it up to be very odd.



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