Digital Digs (Alex Reid)

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an archeology of the future
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slow of study and study of slow in academic life

21 April, 2016 - 09:37

The recently published book, The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy, is probably too easy a target. As comes up in a recent Inside Higher Ed article, few are going to feel any sympathy for tenure-track, let alone tenured, professors, least of all those who work most closely with us: graduate students, adjunct faculty, administrators, and so on. From a greater distance, one might legitimately ask who has greater job security or greater latitude in defining their work than tenured faculty?

The answer is not many.

Pleas for sympathy aside, there’s little doubt that the academy has changed a great deal in this century. The book refers to this change as corporatization. Certainly we’ve become more bureaucratic, more economically driven (both in terms of how students view their majors and how administrations value departments and programs), and been transformed by digital culture (like the rest of the world). Stereotypes notwithstanding, there is growing empirical evidence that faculty work long hours (61 per week on avg) and that a significant number experience stress and/or anxiety in their work.

Personally, there’s no doubt I’ve experienced stress, anxiety, and general unhappiness with my work at times. Who hasn’t? The fact that it’s a common experience doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do something about it; indeed, one might say it’s more of an argument for addressing the issue seriously. And I don’t just mean for academics.

As the book’s title suggests, the general condition under question here is “the culture of speed.” This notion is of interest to me, more from a technological than corporate-bureaucratic perspective (though the two are related). As I’ve often written here (as is perhaps the underlying kairos of my work), we do not yet know how to live in our digital culture. The struggles of academics are just once slice of that general problem. Our connections to media have altered our capacities such that we no longer know what it is that we should do. Institutionally we have new capacities to measure, analyze, communicate, organize, and so on, but I don’t think we know what we should be doing there either. And the related post-industrial shift in the economics of college only exacerbates the problem: we have (or at least feel we have) very little room for error. 

That’s not stressful at all, heh. We don’t know what we should be doing, but we had better start doing it fast, and we had better not mess it up.

So here’s my abstract-theoretical disciplinary response to this. We need to develop new rhetorical-cognitive-agential tactics for our relations with media ecologies. That begins with recognizing that rhetorical practice, thought, and agency are not inherent, let alone ontologically exceptional, qualities of humans but rather emergent, relational capacities. Once we recognize that, we can begin to develop those capacities. I’m certainly not going to tell you what you should be doing. If you’re looking for that, I’m sure you can find it elsewhere. I’ll just say that what you should do is logically a subset of what you might do, and what you might do is a product of your capacities, which are themselves fluid.

If I had to guess at this problem, I would imagine that the stress and anxiety arise from a  combination of the way academics tend to strongly identify with their work (moreso than people in other professions) and the growing disconnection between what academics imagine their work (and hence their identity) would/should be and what it is actually becoming. That is, if one didn’t identify so strongly with a particular imagine of one’s profession, then changes to that profession probably wouldn’t make one feel quite so miserable. My personal confession on this matter is that over the years I have come to view my work as a less central part of my identity. And I think I’m better off for that and, honestly, no less productive.

I’m not suggesting that academics shouldn’t be involved in shaping the future of the university. To the contrary, I think it is a key part of what we should be doing collectively, though that responsibility is likely one of the key examples of the kind of work most academics don’t really imagine as part of their identification with the profession.

I guess I don’t know how to conclude this post except to say that we need to invent in a collective fashion a better way for university to work and for academics to work within them and that whatever this is is likely not a replication of the past.

Categories: Author Blogs

Technical Writing Lecturer at UB’s School of Engineering.

8 April, 2016 - 12:53

I thought some of you might be interested in this position:

Position Summary

The School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) seeks candidates for a Lecturer position, beginning with the 2016-2017 academic year. We are particularly looking for candidates who can operate effectively in a team environment and in a diverse community of students and faculty and share our vision of helping all constituents reach their full potential.

The successful candidate is expected to develop a Communication Literacy 2 course (EAS 360), a central component of the new “UB Curriculum” for General Education. The aim of this course is to prepare students to successfully communicate, across a range of professional genres and media, to technical, professional, and public audiences; to produce communications individually and as part of a team; and to produce communications that are consistent with ethical engineering and applied science practice. All engineering and computer science undergraduate majors will participate in the course. The successful candidate would be expected to teach six sessions of the course per academic year. The lecturer will work closely with school and department leadership on course development as well as on accreditation-related assessment, and to coordinate activities with other aspects of the undergraduate engineering experience. The lecturer may also be involved in other professional and scholarly activities including developing proposals for educational funds to aid in pedagogical advancements.  

Position Category:


Minimum Qualifications

An M.A. or M.S. in English, Communications, or a related field, with a focus on professional/technical communication or composition. The Masters degree must be conferred before appointment.  

Preferred Qualifications

Demonstrated experience teaching technical or professional communication at the college level or experience in the practice of technical or professional communications. A Ph.D. in English, Communications, or a related field, with a focus on professional/technical communication or composition.  

Salary Range

$45,000 – $70,000

Categories: Author Blogs

students can’t write and other slow news days

6 April, 2016 - 07:13

Making the Facebook rounds of late is this article that makes the titular observation that “Poor Writing Skills Are Costing Businesses’ Billions.” Huh. Maybe so. The article, posted a week ago, cites three reports on this situation… from 2004, 2006, and 2011.

Maybe the situation hasn’t improved. Probably not. I doubt anything systematic has been done to address the issue, despite these and many other reports. Besides, “______ can’t write” is a timeless classic. It hardly requires evidence.

Here’s the number from this report that I love. Businesses are spending $3.1B annually to instruct employees in writing. That’s a number from the 2004 report. So I’m not sure what that means, except  you could easily teach a writing course to every college student (~20M people) in America for that money. But here’s really the one thing you’d want to say about this:



Meanwhile, a 2015 Ithaka SR study indicates that 54% of faculty believe students have “poor skills related to locating and evaluating scholarly information.” The same study though indicates that “Approximately two-thirds of faculty members strongly agreed that improving their undergraduate students’ ‘research skills related to locating and evaluating scholarly information’ is an important educational goal for the courses they teach.” So what do we make of that? 2/3 of us (more in the humanities) say teaching these skills are important, but most of us still believe our students are poor at them.

This is a familiar refrain about writing as well, as I’m sure  you know. Yes, we say, it is important that students learn to communicate. Yes, we say (especially in the humanities), teaching students to communicate is an important part of what we do in our classes. No, we say, our students are not good writers/communicators.

Meanwhile, in the corporate world, one spends over $3B trying to help college grads write better… I wonder how that’s working out?

Perhaps one might believe all this leads up to that traditional belief that writing can’t be taught. What does that mean? Obviously people do learn to write. I mean I’m not able to do this because I picked up a magic frog when I was 5. So are we suggesting that writing is the one thing that people cannot learn in a systematic socialized way? Sure we can’t all learn to write like “fill in your favorite author.” Similarly we can learn to play soccer but probably not like Messi. And that might be limitations of intelligence or some in-born talent but it’s also about the shear amount of time we’re willing and able to devote to the task.

So what if we start with a different premise?

Students, college grads, and corporate workers all are able to write and research well. They learn and adapt to the rhetorical-informational practices of the various communities and networks they encounter in reasonable and predictable ways, adopting these practices about as quickly and effectively as they take to other aspects of their community’s culture.

With this premise, we might come to a similar course of action but without finding fault in students. Our problem, I would (probably unsurprisingly) say, is that “we” view writing as an interiorized, rational skill that humans carry around in their brains. No doubt, part of writing happens there. If we viewed writing as a distributed, networked activity that is widely variable from one site to another then we would understand the challenge of helping students and workers link into this new activity differently.

So this kind of stuff drive me a little nuts.

  • Students come to college having never done college research. Imagine that. As it turns out, it takes a couple years to learn how to do that, even at the level we expect of undergraduates. In part because there’s almost no “academic” research that is written for undergraduate audiences, so it takes years to acquire the context to understand the scholarship. I wonder what it would be like if we wrote some research with them in mind? Not just instructional textbooks, but actual research we are doing communicated to an undergraduate audience for the purpose of helping them adjust to this new rhetorical practice.
  • Students also enter your major having never written for your discipline before. Shocking. I wonder what rhetorical roles we offer new undergraduate writers in our discourse communities? What rhetorical work can they do? What purposes can they accomplish? Maybe if there was something that students could write that served a purpose other than demonstrating that they don’t know how to write or do research then maybe we would discover some other attributes about their writing ability.
  • What structures exist to assist students in connecting to the rhetorical-compositional structures of an academic community (or later, workers in a corporate one)? I know we say we teach these things and spend billions on them, but given our misunderstandings of how these things work, I am skeptical of the effectiveness of these efforts.

Of course the other way of looking at this is to say that on the whole, college students manage to graduate, get jobs, and keep them (or at least not lose them because they are poor writers). People figure out what they need to figure out. We can undoubtedly help more students be more successful with a better-informed approach to this pedagogical task, but none of that is likely to change the views of professors and corporate officers about their students and employees.

Categories: Author Blogs

paleorhetoric and the media ecology of flint knapping

17 March, 2016 - 08:33

The feature article in Scientific American (subscription required) this month addresses the role that flint knapping (the practice/art of making Stone Age tools by striking one rock against another) might have played in the development of the human brain, language, and even teaching. (And here’s a related article in Nature if you prefer more academic prose.) Here’s the gist.

The basic idea that toolmaking shaped the human brain is not new. It’s at least 70 years old and ascribed to anthropologist Kenneth Oakley in his book Man the Tool-maker, though one might observe that the notion of homo faber is centuries old. It was discredited among behavioral scientists in the 1960s when it was observed that nonhuman species also used and even made tools. As the article recounts, “As paleontologist Louis Leakey put it in his now famous reply in 1960 to Jane Goodall’s historic first report of chimpanzee tool use: ‘Now we must redefine tool, redefine Man, or accept chimpanzees as humans.’” In abandoning tool use, behavioral scientists turned to complex social relations. Without putting too much pressure on a single sentence, one can see some of the difficulties here. First, why would tool use have to provide evidence of human cognitive exceptionalism in order for it to play a role in our cognitive development? That is, why would the fact that other animals use or make tools serve as evidence against the role of tools in forming our brains? In fact, wouldn’t it work the other way if we could see this effect across species? Second, why would tool use and “complex social relations” be exclusive rather than mutually reinforcing parts of an explanation for human cognitive development? That is, the discovery of better tools puts pressure on (and facilitates) the formation of more complex social arrangements in order to use those tools, which leads to further tool development, and so on: and all of this shapes human cognitive development. We certainly see that in the Industrial Age.

The research referenced above takes up a view like this and links the practices of experimental archeology with neuroscience. Experimental archeology is essentially the effort of archeologists to learn ancient methods through trial and error. In this case, it means learning how to flint knapp. What’s added here is neuroscientific study of the experimenters’ brains to see how learning to knapp affects them. Anyway, to make a long story short:

the toolmaking circuits identified in our PET, MRI and DTI studies were indeed more extensive in humans than in chimps, especially when it came to connections to the right inferior frontal gyrus. This finding became the final link in a chain of inferences from ancient artifacts to behavior, cognition and brain evolution that I had been assembling since my days as a graduate student in the late 1990s. It provides powerful new support for the old idea that Paleolithic toolmaking helped to shape the modern mind.

However, the research has some further suggestions. It’s certainly possible to learn knapping independently, through trial and error, learning from others through observation and imitation makes it a lot easier. One can imagine a small group of early humans creating tools and learning new techniques simply through observation. Then, at some point, one sets upon the notion that one could intentionally demonstrate a technique to another for the purpose of that other person imitating the first. That’s teaching. Needless to say some symbolic behavior could come in handy here as well. And that’s the speculation that ends the article:

The results of our own imaging studies on stone toolmaking led us recently to propose that neural circuits, including the inferior frontal gyrus, underwent changes to adapt to the demands of Paleolithic toolmaking and then were co-opted to support primitive forms of communication using gestures and, perhaps, vocalizations. This protolinguistic communication would then have been subjected to selection, ultimately producing the specific adaptations that support modern human language.

I’ve written about the notion of paleorhetoric a couple times here. It also comes up in The Two Virtuals. I think this issue is an important component of a new materialist rhetoric. Why? Though I find value in the speculative investigation of nonhuman rhetorical activity that typifies much current new materialist rhetorical study, I believe it is important for us to be able to see rhetoric as an ecological phenomenon in which humans and nonhumans co-participate. It is possible and often useful to cut the world at its joints and say “here’s human rhetoric” and “here’s nonhuman rhetoric,” but what we see here (possibly) is the emergence of symbolic communication among humans in the rhetorical encounters among people and rocks. It’s not just human rhetoric or human language.

And perhaps most importantly, rhetoric was already at work. The expert knapper learns to address his/her strikes of the stone: the angle and the force. One must conceptualize and plan. This is clearly composition, as we know composition has never been only about writing. However it is about expression in a medium. It is instauration, as Latour would put it. Perhaps, gentle reader, you are reticent to call this rhetoric, but we certainly seem willing to call it art, right? The art, and artifice, of flint knapping? Why do we find it easy to imagine art without rhetoric? Yes, no doubt, we could say that rhetoric is a kind of art. And when by rhetoric we mean the specific oratorial practices taught to young Athenians that would make sense. But when we think of rhetoric ecologically, as the capacity for expression and incorporeal transformation that arises in the relation among humans and nonhumans, it is more than that. Certainly, when a paleo human struck one rock with another that was hardly an “incorporeal” expression. And you can spend all day turning big rocks into smaller ones, expressing personal frustration or perhaps as punishment. But if you strike one rock against another until something that was a “rock” becomes an “axe” then you’ve done more than exert simple force. Those repeated blows have also incorporeally transformed that second rock. Its relation to the knapper has changed, and new capacities have emerged. Instead of a person with a rock we now have a person with an axe. In other words, it’s not just the rock that has been incorporeally transformed; the human has as well.

This is what new materialist rhetoric is (at least partly) about: understanding how the relations among humans and nonhumans shape capacities for thought and action.

Categories: Author Blogs

what if wolves and elephants were writing students?

27 February, 2016 - 09:09

Despite the title, this isn’t really about animal rhetoric, instead a video and a recent article about evolution. The video below explains how the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone Park not only altered the ecosystem but the physical geography. (Spoiler: wolves chased the deer out of certain areas of the park, allowing for trees and other fauna to thrive, which not only created habitats for other animals but strengthened the river banks such that the rivers flowed differently through the park.)

And the elephants? This recent article in Science reports on the familiar statistic that when polled on whether or not they agree with the statement “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” only 49% of Americans agree. However when humans are replaced with elephants then 75% agree, which is basically the level of agreement one finds in Europe. The article suggests this difference represents a religious belief in the divine creation of humans.

If you can watch the wolf video and generally agree with its explanation of what has happened at Yellowstone, then you can understand the ecological emergence of agency. The trees, birds, beavers, bears, and so on who come to occupy new spaces in the park gain new capacities for life in relation to the activity of the wolves. The face of the earth is rewritten.

In teaching writing, however, we tend to be more like that 25% of Americans who don’t agree with the idea of human evolution but are otherwise willing to accept that other critters evolve. If we thought of human rhetorical agency as not being ontologically exceptional, then we would see it more the way we see Yellowstone Park or elephant evolution, as an emergent, ecological process in which humans participate. Using the park as an analogy, it doesn’t really matter if you think of the human author as the wolf, the deer, the tree, or even the river. The video may lionize the wolf (if you can excuse the animal mash-up), but the wolf isn’t really the author of this transformation either. The point is that compositional processes are networked, ecological, relational, etc. In some quarters, this ecocompositional, media-ecological, new materialist view of writing is accepted. I’ve certainly written about it many times here, and I think the view has gained popularity within rhetoric over the last decade or so. However, it is a minority view, and I think even among that minority it is hard to imagine how its insights might inform pedagogy.

Perhaps the point is to ask, metaphorically (probably), how does one release wolves into the composition classroom ecology?

In the case of the wolves and the park, we would tend to tell the story as the “rebalancing” of the ecology, as a return to a natural state, that was interrupted by human intervention into the wolf population. Though the outcome for the park certainly strikes me as desirable, I am reluctant to assert the teleological values that would allow me to say that the park has returned to its “natural” state or what it is supposed to be like. Such valuations would be even harder in a composition classroom. However, one might observe Latour’s discussion of instauration here. Basically this means that in composing we have agency as writers–we are “made to act.” The writer is one of many actors and through her aesthetic-rhetorical-compositional acts something is instaurated, constructed. Is it good? bad? well-made? poorly-made? Who knows? We find that out later. We might learn from our compositions that we need to act differently in the future, and/or we might learn that by altering the media ecology in which we operate that we might gain new capacities, be “made to act” (faire faire as the French idiom goes) in new ways. In other words, we might decide to release the wolves.

But to make such decisions we have to recognize our role as composers in a media ecology as being analogous to the role of wolves (or another actors) in a biological ecology.

Categories: Author Blogs

Slavoj Žižek on Objects

25 February, 2016 - 11:19

Slavoj Žižek offers the following recent critique of Levi Bryant and object-oriented ontology, which evoked a single question for me:

What are we arguing about again?

I think I get Žižek’s argument. I don’t think there’s really anything new or unexpected in terms of an argument made from an idealist, Lacanian viewpoint. I understand he objects to Bryant’s use of Lacan in The Democracy of Objects and that ultimately the argument comes down to “if you accept Lacan’s theories then OOO doesn’t make sense.” So I suppose this could be an argument over an interpretation of Lacan, which honestly I could not care less about. Also, I’m not interested in defending OOO from Žižek’s critique.

So why am I writing about this here?

There are a couple points on which I’d like to make comment.

Žižek writes

ooo follows the premise rendered by the title of Bruno Latour’s famous book, WWerNever Modern—it endeavors to bring back the premodern enchantment of the world. The Lacanian answer to this should be a paraphrase of his correction of the formula “god is dead” (god was always already dead, he just didn’t know it): we were always already modern (we just didn’t know it).

So apparently Latour’s book is not famous enough for Žižek to actually remember the title. Based on the brief description here that the book “endeavors to bring back the premodern enchantment of the world,” it would appear that the book was also not famous enough for him to remember what Latour’s book is about. That said, he does recall well enough what the Lacanian response should be. The arrival of the modern, the birth of correlationism, the development of idealist philosophy–however you want to capture this history of Western philosophy–would certainly assert that the ontological condition it describes has always existed, that humans have always already been “subjects,” even if they didn’t know it. (To be honest though, since subjectivity in Lacan and elsewhere is so tied to language, I’m not sure how it applies to pre-historic humans without symbolic behaviors, but let’s skip that point.)

As the next passage demonstrates, language–symbolic behavior–is a central issue of Žižek’s critique. As he argues

one cannot include language into reality since what appears to us as reality is already transcendentally constituted through a horizon of meaning sustained by language. We have to introduce here the distinction between the transcendentally constituted phenomenal reality and the Real: the way to be a consequent materialist is not to directly include subject into reality, as an object among objects, but to bring out the Real of the subject, the way the emergence of subjectivity functions as a cut in the Real.

Here’s my rough understanding of this. Žižek argues that we can’t think of language as a part of reality because reality is constituted by language. Following the Lacanian argument, the subject is produced by a traumatic event which cuts the subject from the Real through the deployment of language. As he concludes his critique,

As to its content, it is a position of radical passivity (of a Kantian transcendental subject suspending its constitution of reality), but as to its form, it is a position of radical activity, of violently tearing oneself out of the immersion into reality: I am utterly passive, but my passive position is grounded in my withdrawal from reality, in a gesture of extreme negativity.

It is in this sense that the “democracy of objects” in which subjects are conceived as one among the objects-actants obfuscates the Real of subjects, the cut that IS the Real.

I’m not entirely sure what “it” is in this passage, but I suppose the response to that confusion is to say “Yes, exactly.” What I do get from this argument is what I’ve always gotten from Idealist critique, which is that the subject is that which is defined by its separation from reality, a separation, a cut, that is made with/by/in language.  I understand the internal logic of this argument.

In the end though this just strikes me as part of an ongoing performance of two philosophical positions that are irreconcilable with one another. I don’t think there’s anyway to hold on to the Lacanian subject and entertain any kind of speculative realist position. Maybe Bryant would disagree, but from my perspective I have no need to make those two things work together. I am happy to accept Žižek’s determination that “there is no place for subject in ooo,” as long as we can agree that by that “subject” we mean Lacan’s notion of the subject.

There could be, and in fact are, other kinds of concepts of the subject. My own particular interests in speculative realism/new materialism remain more with Latour and DeLanda than OOO, who certain each have a theory of the subject. I can only guess that Žižek might trot out similar critical performances in those cases. Though we have all experienced the conceptual difficulty of reading texts like this, we can always have confidence that such texts are made more accessible by our knowledge that arguments made from such positions never discover anything and reliably will end up where they began, utterly passive in their withdrawal from reality and extreme negativity (to take on some of Žižek’s words).

For my own disciplinary interests in investigating how digital technologies participate in our capacities for thinking and communicating (for rhetorical action), I’m not sure that the arguments Žižek puts forward have any value. I suppose that’s the point of being passive and negative. There’s no use to it, there’s nothing to do with it, and it only leads back to itself. Perhaps it has some interest in debunking the kind of work that interests me, and in a pragmatic-rhetorical sense, I suppose I need to have some strategy for responding to an audience that might take up a response of this kind to my own work. Honestly, it’s not a problem I’m particularly worried about. And ultimately I think the best answer is to say that these are two incompatible ontologies and that if you don’t find what I say interesting or useful then maybe you’ll find some alternative more productive for you. That works for me if it works for you.

Categories: Author Blogs

What would a new materialist composition program be?

16 February, 2016 - 10:45

Sure, there are many possible answers, which is why this is “a,” as in one of many, rather than “the.” That said, we’re familiar with plenty of other kinds of programs, classes, and pedagogies as they take the shape of particular theories, the strands that Fulkerson identifies: critical cultural studies, expressivism, various “rhetorical approaches” (argument-based, genre based, academic discourse, etc). To these we might add the CHAT-inspired Writing About Writing approach and a number of new, empirical approaches such as Yancey’s “teaching for transfer” and the “threshold concepts” of Naming What We Know.

While there’s a growing body of new materialist rhetoric, I haven’t seen a great deal dedicated to pedagogy or curriculum (maybe I’m looking in the wrong places). There’s the scene that ends Nathaniel Rivers and James Brown Jr’s “Composing the Carpenter’s Workshop,” which starts like this:

It is November 2015, and you are visiting what you thought was a college composition classroom. However, something seems to be amiss. In one corner, a group of students pass around a long wooden cylinder that they constructed using a lathe (they were able to get help from a professor in the Art department to gain access to the equipment). In another corner, a group huddles around a 3D printer as a strange looking blue plastic object emerges (it looks like a helmet). You find out from the professor (an excitable, bespectacled man with curly hair and a wry smile) that a third group is not present; they are across campus working with a group of architecture students and blowing glass. This happens a lot in this particular class. The English department has not yet approved the professor’s grant proposal for a workshop that would offer students the ability to work in various media. The proposal has been met with curious stares thus far, but the professor is undeterred. He tells you and anyone who will listen that these students are merely taking advantage of “the available means of persuasion” and attempting to gain insight into the “vacuum-sealed.” Whatever that means.


And there’s Marilyn Cooper’s  “How Bruno Latour Teaches Writing” in Thinking With Bruno Latour in Rhetoric and Composition, which narrates a hypothetical student’s efforts to follow associations through a network of actors in her research project. Though Latour’s been at work in rhet/comp for a long time, so I’m sure there are many more examples of discussions of Latour and pedagogy. That said, I’m not sure they’d all capture the new materialist edge of Latour’s work, especially the “second empiricism” of An Inquiry into Modes of Existence.” Instead, I’d imagine there’s a fair amount of recruiting Latour for critical-cultural studies pedagogies.

So what might new materialist composition pedagogy look like? A couple premises.

  1. Writing/media objects are not human. However they have their own agency. They are made to do as Latour says. This means they are neither the neutral transmitters of our intent nor overdetermined by some spectral ideological force.
  2. Composing processes are networked and ecological. This means they are not determined by humans, though humans can participate in them, are made to act through these relations, and thus acquire agency as writers/composers. This includes cognitive processes we have typically viewed as strictly subjective/internal.
  3. Rhetoric, as a “second empirical” investigation, describes the operation of expressive forces (including but not limited to symbolic actions) as they emerge in the relations among actors and develop capacities for thought and action. Is it difficult to differentiate expressive from other kinds of forces? Yes. Indeed they almost necessarily coincide. (E.g., you can’t hear words without the force of air striking your ear.) For a force to become expressive, an actor would need to be able to develop the capacities to sense the forces in question, and in the case of coded messages, the capacity to decode them. A slap in the face can send a message. I can understand English but not Italian. I can see certain light waves but not others, but that doesn’t mean that my body is unaffected by x-rays.
  4. Rhetoric as a composing practice is an experimental procedure, a matter of developing procedural knowledge (know-how) rather than declarative knowledge (know-that).  Most humans are capable users of language with little declarative knowledge about rhetoric. Indeed, one can become a best-selling author with little declarative knowledge. That’s not to say that some declarative knowledge can’t help you in practical terms, but rather that know-how is a different kind of knowing.  That doesn’t mean that it can’t be learned or taught, just not in the same way.

What does this mean for composition pedagogy? Well a couple things you wouldn’t do.

  • You wouldn’t teach an introduction to the discipline or a history of rhetoric. I think both of those things would make for good classes, as intellectually valuable and practically useful as any other course you might take, but slightly off the target: like learning to play soccer by reading the history of the game.
  • You wouldn’t teach a cultural-critical course on representation or discourse. Again, a perfectly acceptable course on its own merits, even if I don’t happen to agree with this theoretical precepts. But off the target as well: like learning to play soccer by watching movies about soccer and critiquing them as racist, sexist, etc.

That said, I think a new materialist composition pedagogy would be very familiar on a fundamental level. It would focus on composing, spending time writing, conducting a “second empirical” investigation of the experience (i.e., tracing the actors involved in our acts of composing and describing the media-cognitive ecology through which we are made to write), and then experimenting to see what leads to well-made instaurations (to use another Latourian term). In such an environment, some of the declarative knowledge of rhetoric or cultural theory might come into play. After all, those things are actors in our environments as well. So I’m not saying that one would abandon such things or assert they are untrue. And it would likely be valuable for an instructor to have a good grasp of such disciplinary knowledge in approaching this course. It’s just that the course wouldn’t be about teaching that content. As the Rivers and Brown article suggests, composing might expand beyond text to other areas. While the example strikes me as a little fanciful, it emphasizes how rhetoric and composing might be investigated in our relations with many objects. Ultimately, I think the CHAT-esque observation that students will need to learn how to communicate by immersion in their specific discourse-genre communities still generally holds. Instead, composition becomes a course about developing a procedural-experimental method for understanding how rhetorical-compositional practices operate: a method that can be brought to bear by students as they enter new media-cognitive ecologies.

Categories: Author Blogs

Brain to brain communication and the (new) materiality of thought

4 February, 2016 - 11:11

Brain-to-brain communication is probably something you’ve encountered in the news in the last year or so. We’ve seen things such as monkeys controlling robotic arms with their thoughts, paralyzed humans moving themselves with the aid of an exoskeleton, and recently experiments in communication between two people and linking rat brains together to create an organic computer. Given the plasticity of the brain, perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that such adaptations are possible. If the brain can turn sounds or marks on a page into concepts, then why not this? It is easy enough, as we have often done, to differentiate between the activities of the brain and thought, to imagine thought as being something more than the sum of electrochemical signals. No doubt that imagination has largely relied upon a faith in our divine creation or some other belief in our ontological exceptionality. And visa versa: our ability to think is evidence of our exceptionality. However, there are other, less self-aggrandizing explanations that suggest thought is more than what happens in the brain but only because thinking relies on one’s situation in a larger cognitive ecology.

Coincidentally, Levi Bryant wrote on a related matter yesterday. As he observes, “As Kant taught, thought is spontaneity:  the power of rendering present without requiring the detour of the presence of the thing.  Such is the secret of the famous synthetic a priori propositions:  they expand knowledge without the presence of the thing.  We broach, for example, new domains of mathematics through the power of thought alone.  No doubt this is why we only find prodigies in maths, music, and certain mathematical games like chess.  Experience is not required, just the patient unfolding of the thought.” And as he continues, it is our traditional reliance on such beliefs that leads to “a loathing of materialism throughout the history of philosophy.” On the one had, we have this desire for thought to be adequate to the things in the world, to be able to know the Truth, with the idea that such equivalence would lead to power. And yet that desire is susceptible to a sudden reversal where rather than the world being subject to thought, thought becomes subject to the world. As such, fully realized (or maybe I should say fully fantasized) brain-to-brain communication doesn’t become telepathy, where you and I can know each other’s thoughts; it obviates the need for thinking altogether. Of course we don’t get that either. Instead, as Levi points out, we get a series of experts relying on one another: “Everywhere we just encounter citation.”

This strikes me as a Latourian observation: the strength of knowledge lies in the construction of its associations. Here rather than trying to make a priori interiorized thinking equivalent to the world (or fearing the world dominating our minds), thoughts become a part of the world, real forces that can be followed through symbolic behaviors, physical actions, mechanical processes, computer networks, and the actions of brains, what Edwin Hutchins (and others in cognitive science) refer to as a “cognitive ecology:” a concept that goes back to the 60s and 70s in ecological psychology, ecology of the mind, cultural-historical activity theory, second-order cybernetics, and so on.

In imagining where we need to go next, Hutchins writes

Increased attention to real-world activity will change our notions of what are the canonical instances of cognitive process and which are special cases of more general phenomena. For example, private disembodied thinking is undoubtedly an important kind of thinking, but perhaps it receives more attention than it should. This mode of thinking is common among academics and can sometimes be induced in experimental subjects, but it is relatively rare in the global cognitive ecology. It is also deceptive. Far from being free from the influences of culture, private reflection is a deeply cultural practice that draws on and is enacted in coordination with rich cultural resources. The focus of intellectual attention is already shifting to the relations among action, interaction, and conceptualization. Perception, action, and thought will be understood to be inextricably integrated, each with the others. Human cognitive activity will increasingly be seen to be profoundly situated, social, embodied, and richly multimodal. The products of interaction accumulate not only in the brain but throughout the cognitive ecology.

These are matters that are relevant to more than neuroscientists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers. When Hutchins notes the deceptive nature of our faith in, and valorization of, “private disembodied thinking,” that deception does not only effect academic investigations into cognition. It also shapes our communities, our understanding of rhetorical practice (i.e. of communication), and, crucially from my perspective, our pedagogies. It’s not only that we expect people to learn in this private, disembodied way but that we also set out to train students in this ability. But private disembodied thinking is neither private nor disembodied. There is no a priori thought that does not rely upon existing cultural practices and resources, that is not situated in an ecology.

To be sure, I find some of the more speculative implications of “brain-to-brain communication” and organic computing disturbing. I’ve read my share of dystopian science fiction. But we shouldn’t fear the concept that thought itself is material and can pass along a network of nonhuman actors and return to us. As I see it, the capacity for the freedom of thought and the agency to act upon thoughts that we might fear we’ve always already lost is not threatened by a new materialist, ecological approach. A new materialist cognitive ecology probably would allow for the possibility of overdetermining forces, of mind control if you like, but mostly it would demonstrate how difficult (and materially expensive) that would be. To the contrary, it mostly illuminates the necessary work of conscious thought, not as a disembodied spirit forever and tragically separate from a world it can never truly access, but as an integral actor in an ecology.

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