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Digital Digs (Alex Reid)
In our Teaching Practicum, we’re reading Naming What We Know: Threshold Concepts of Writing Studies. If you aren’t familiar with it, it’s an interesting texts with many contributors that seeks to identify some of the threshold concepts of our discipline where “threshold concepts” have some specific, though unsurprising, characteristics:
- Learning them is generally transformative, involving “an ontological as well as a conceptual shift . . . becoming a part of who we are, how we see, and how we feel” (Cousin 2006).
- Once understood, they are often irreversible and the learner is unlikely to forget them.
- They are integrative, demonstrating how phenomena are related, and helping learners make connections.
- They tend to involve forms of troublesome knowledge, what Perkins refers to as knowledge that is “alien” or counterintuitive (qtd. in Meyer and Land 2006, 3).
I’ll return to that characterization in a moment. The book is edited by Linda Adler-Kassner and Elizabeth Wardle, who start our their introduction to the collection by reminding us of the struggles we have had even with naming our discipline, let alone figuring out what it is about. There they come up with the following line, while we have struggle to define what the field is about, “researchers and teachers in the field have, at the same time, focused on questions related to a common theme: the study of composed knowledge.” The study of composed knowledge? Trying to define this discipline is an unenviable task, and I’m not saying that I have a better answer, but… the study of composed knowledge? They continue:
Within this theme, our work has been expansive. To name just a few areas of practice within it, we have studied what composed knowledge looks like in specific contexts; how good and less-than-good qualities of composed knowledge are defined, by whom, and with what values associated with those definitions and qualities; how to help learners compose knowledge within specific contexts and with what consequences for learner and context; the relationships between technologies and processes for composing knowledge; connections between affordances and potential for composing knowledge; and how composed knowledge can be best assessed and why.
This explanation helps make clear what is meant by composed knowledge, and I imagine most scholars in the field can see themselves in these generalities somewhere. Still. One might “compose knowledge” by practicing a golf swing, performing a laboratory experiment, or watching your dog play in the yard. Some of that knowledge may be trivial. Some might involve writing somewhere along the way, or not. So either I’m confused about what “compose” means or I’m confused by what “knowledge” means because I think we study a very narrow slice of composed knowledge, and, I think we study things that are not composed knowledge also. That is, in my mind anyway, rhetorical-expressive processes and events are not simply knowledge, if by knowledge we mean something along the lines of declarative statements. Maybe I could replace “composed knowledge” with “rhetorical-expressive processes and events” in the passage above, but I’m not sure if that’s very helpful.
Fortunately I think we’re better off not attempting to identify essential, defining characteristics of the discipline but rather describing the population of assemblages within it. How do you know where the boundary is? Good question. The short answer is that you have to go look. Perhaps it will be clear, as when the land reaches the sea, but maybe not. Meanwhile though, the rest of this book is about trying to describe those assemblages or threshold concepts. All the threshold concepts in the book are about writing. That is, each concept makes a claim, and most of the claims are about writing. Some are about writers or text or words or genre. I guess it would be too tautological to say that writing studies studies writing. If, as DeLanda observes, assemblages can be territorialized by code, then one way our field is populated is through activities coded as writing. Writing itself has become destabilized (or decoded or deterritorialized) in the digital era, so that boundary is not as crisp as it once was.
But let me return to the notion of threshold concept itself. As described above, they sound to me like “aha” moments. The overarching threshold concept in Naming What We Know is “Writing is an Activity and an Object of Study.” As Adler-Kassner and Wardle note, “the idea that writing is not only an activity in which people engage but also a subject of study often comes as a surprise, partially because people tend to experience writing as a finished product that represents ideas in seemingly rigid forms but also because writing is often seen as a ‘basic skill’ that a person can learn once and for all and not think about again.” Yeah… ok. I think that’s probably because people tend to separate “writing” from “composing knowledge.” And also they probably don’t give the matter much thought. The average person knows they can’t sit down and write an article for a physics journal but that’s because (they would say) they don’t know physics not because they don’t know how to write. The idea that part of learning to know physics would be learning to how to write physics articles is one of those subtle points. Actually it’s not that subtle but let’s give “people” the benefit of the doubt. Admittedly it’s frustrating when the physics professors thinks she can teach the physics and I can teach the writing and the two will just magically combine inside students minds so that they can just write physics papers. Probably no one really believes it happens that way. We just don’t tend to give a lot of thought to how it actually does happen. But then again, that’s what writing studies is for! Investigating how writing happens… or as I so charmingly put it in an earlier paragraph investigating “rhetorical processes and events.”
So, does this concept seem to be a threshold? Is it that kind of aha moment? I’ve had some aha moments as a scholar. I remember in grad school when I first “got” the idea of rhizomes and the next week felt pretty trippy as I was seeing rhizomes everywhere. I don’t recall having that kind of experience around this notion. Maybe because it came on slowly. Maybe it was because I wanted to write sci-fi novels when I was a kid and so I’ve been studying writing and trying to figure it out for a long time. In fact, I’m not sure I ever though of writing as a basic skill that a person learns once.
For me, the metaconcept here is that writing is a messy business, and that’s something around which I have had recent aha moments in building a WID curriculum on campus. It’s one thing to understand this conceptually. It’s another to encounter it on the ground.
I’ve been working some more on basic concepts coming from assemblage theory and DeLanda, specifically in this case “population thinking.” Very briefly, populations are the way that Delanda thinks about relations among individual singularities. The idea is that individuals form a population in a statistical way through the historical use of a common set of compositional processes (or assemblages). Depending on the particular assemblages at play a population may have greater or lesser degrees of variation within it and more or less fixed boundaries. One of the examples I was using in what I was writing earlier today is the industrial corn field with its population of corn plants with little variation and very fixed boundaries assured through certain industrial-genetic-chemical processes of farming. Of primary interest to DeLanda here (and often) is describing ontological processes without relying upon a concept of essence. So in this case there is no essential corn (or corniness, I guess), no Platonic corn critter in some heavenly plane. Instead there is a fixed process of assembly that results in a statistically reliable process of producing this population of corn. Of course “errors” in the process do occur, which is what is meant by statistically reliable.
But I got to thinking about populations that are more germane to rhetorical study: genre, for example. I won’t attempt a review of the rhetorical scholarship on genre here: write your own lit review! However, of the available definitions, I am sympathetic to that of activity theory where genres might be defined by the actions they accomplish. But in activity theory it’s more complicated than that because it’s never the “genre” of the memo that does the work in an office, for example. It’s the particular piece of writing that has the word “Memo” at the top of the page. The genre is always somewhere else it would seem. In addition, the qualities that define a genre always remain elusive: e.g., what’s an “A” paper? What Derrida’s line about this? “The re-mark of belonging does not belong”? Something like that.
Population thinking offers a different approach to the problem, one that looks at the processes that produce a group of individuals that form a given population. For example, the students at my university: they do not have common essential characteristics but rather are produced through a process of admissions and enrollment in the institution. The degree of variation among the individual students, as opposed to other universities or a random sampling of humans, can be described through those admissions and enrollment processes: high school degree (or equivalent), test scores, English-speaking ability, ability to pay (or eligibility for financial aid), etc.
So, for example, let’s consider the genre of the academic journal article. Where to start? First, these are historical processes: i.e., they develop through time. Second, one can think about genres as part of larger genres or other populations. So the genre of journal articles in English has a history (going back to the 1880s anyway). It is part of larger concept of scholarly genres and other populations of human symbolic action. If one wants to think about those commonalities, they would include shared media ecologies, cultural values surrounding authorship, and common institutional formations. These things resulted in writers sitting in offices with pen and paper (and/or typewriters) surrounded by books and other printed materials. One can look at how material limits and economics shaped the size of journals (and the length of journal articles), as well as the labor involved in producing articles in all the steps, as well as how those things fit into procedures like hiring or tenure review. These are the kinds of matters that all academics share in one way or another.
As all academics have experienced, one goes through this process in graduate school of reading and discussing journal articles and of writing seminar papers, dissertation chapters, and journal articles oneself. One gets feedback (from colleagues, mentors, editors, reviewers) and attempts to understand the necessary features of a journal article in one’s field in order to get published. While those particular descriptions of the characteristics of published articles may prove useful in helping one write a publishable text, from the point of view of assemblage theory what is at stake are the mechanisms. This is about statistical distribution. Thousands of graduate students and assistant professors typing away and trying to produce their first published journal article: many will fail, especially at first, but over time most will figure it out, or at least enough figure it out for the population to sustain itself. If you wanted to be cruel about it, you could think of how many monkeys and typewriters it takes to reproduce Hamlet. An assemblage of monkeys and typewrites would produce a highly deterritorialized population of texts. A population of human writers, thoroughly trained through years of higher education, and linked to a common media ecology with territorialized and coded disciplinary structures and mechanisms, is a far more reliable assemblage.
The point here is that while one can go about describing the characteristics of individuals within a population like articles in a particularly discipline, you might be better off looking at the assemblages that produce them. And the real advantage to that is how it might switch one’s orientation on the relationship between humans and genres.
Ulmer writes in his introduction to Holmevik’s Inter/Vention that one might say that humans are the sex organs of machines. DeLanda has a similar line in War in the Age of Intelligent Machines where his imagines a robot historian for whom “the role of humans would be seen as little more than that of industrious insects pollinating an independent species of machine-flowers that simply did not possess its own reproductive organizes during a segment of its evolution.” What if we think of genres this way? We are the sex organs of genres? Pollinating an independent species of genre-flowers? If so, one cannot define genres by what they do (for us) or even what with do with them for us.
All these blog posts, tweets, status updates, text messages and so on. Genres? I suppose. Nonhumans? Undoubtedly. We re/produce them. Do they exist for us? I don’t think you can really say that. They are a population, a growing population, growing among and with us, but not for us. That’s a genre.
As you may have seen, the LA Review of Books completed its series on the digital humanities today with an interview with Richard Grusin. I don’t know Richard all that well, though of course I am familiar with his work, and our paths did cross at Georgia Tech when I was a Brittain Fellow in the nineties. I have expressed some disagreement in the past with his arguments regarding the “dark side” of the digital humanities, but I’m not going to rehash those here. Instead I want to focus on this interview and connect it with some other ideas banging around in my head these days.
Grusin begins with this:
In the 1990s, I was really enthusiastic for this change because I was convinced that Western culture had undergone a major transformation in technologies of representation, communication, information, and so forth. It seemed to me that since education was not a natural form — it emerged at a certain historical moment under certain historical and technological conditions — and since those conditions were changing, we needed to change our response to it.
I’m not sure what to make of the past tense here. Is he no longer convinced there has been a “major transformation”? Certainly he still sees education as a historical process, and as such it would be only logical to assert that technological changes would result in educational changes–regardless of the degree to which “we” steered those changes. I put “we” in scare quotes as I’m not sure who is in that group. And, to be clear, education has changed a fair amount in the last 20-25 years. Maybe not as much as some other aspects of our culture, maybe not in ways we like, but it has changed. And while we should (and do, extensively) discuss larger technological, economic, and other cultural forces that have shaped those changes, we (meaning those of us in the humanities, and English Studies in particular) should acknowledge our general, collective failure to rise to this challenge over the last quarter century.
If I were to summarize the response of English to the Internet over the last 25 years (roughly the period of my participation in the profession, starting in grad school), I’d say we ignored these changes at our peril and got steamrolled.
But on to the next quote, actually two quotes:
digital technologies in the classroom are really a way of engaging students, both in terms of talking to them about social media and in terms of objects of analysis. This is the life students lead. And as a teacher I think making what you teach relevant to your students is really important.
I think there are two places where digital work in the humanities is being done, and often being done outside the academy. One of these places is participatory culture. There has been an explosion of students writing online, be it blogging or fan fiction or whatever. And I think this is really one of the places where digital work in the humanities is being done as a result of changes in technology. We haven’t really made enough of a connection between this kind of participatory culture and the classroom, but I think we are moving in that direction. The other place is in the classroom. We think of the public in a kind of consumerist way. But our students are also the public.
In effect, here are the changes mentioned in the earlier quote. Humans interact in fundamentally different ways than 25 years ago. They routinely make things, share things, and do things that were largely unimagined in the 90s. This is as true of our students as it is anyone else, maybe more so. Undoubtedly those digital cultural spaces are replete with social, political, ethical, rhetorical, and aesthetic challenges. In other words, there’s plenty for us humanists to do there: plenty for us to study, to make, and to teach. I imagine that’s what Grusin was thinking himself 25 years ago. Maybe it’s too late now for the humanities. Maybe. But no one can really know that and there’s no point for humanists to act as if that were the case.
So when we think about the digital humanist engagement with these issues (and here I’m going back to the other part of the title of this blog post), we think about questions of the impact of technologies on literacy and thinking (or at least that’s where my head goes). I’ve been thinking about Katherine Hayles’ now familiar distillation of reading practices into the “close” (what you were taught in grad school), the “hyper” (what teenagers do on their phones), and the “machine” (what some many of the DH debates are about). As I was mulling these over in my head, I kept repeating them: close… hyper… machine… close… hyper… machine… Close, hyper machine.
Sure, it’s obvious. It’s that phone in your pocket. That machine that is close against your body, prone to spasmodic and hyper vibrations and tones. It’s that device you touch an average of 2,617 times every day. [I’ll give you time to insert your own joke here.]
The smartphone works as a good starting point for what interests me. However I also want to think about a more abstract machine, but one that is no less proximate, intimate, or excitable for its abstraction. Grusin notes his own enduring interest in mediation, and that’s what at stake here. The smartphone is one instantiation of an interface between the human body and the digital media ecology, but there are others. On the other side of that interface are a plethora of nonhuman interactions, and then, somewhere beyond them, there’s you, reading this text (that is, assuming that you’re a human reader). It’s important to investigate all those nonhuman interactions, but our relations with these close, hyper machines are equally pressing (pun intended). If we can think about media, documents, genres, software, hardware, discourse, symbols as these close hyper machines that activate our capacities for conscious thought (as well as other affective, subconscious, and unconscious responses), then I really think we’re on to something durable as humanists. That’s what I think Grusin was seeing in the 90s. Certainly other people were seeing it, other humanists (Ulmer comes to mind).
I know all this digital humanities talk is largely about something else. It’s about what literary scholars are going to get up to in the next decade or so. As I’ve said before, that’s not a problem to which I give much thought. I do find interesting the ways they articulate digital media when they argue for or against this or that. I wish I could say that now that this LARB series is over we could just put all that business in the rear view mirror. Certainly we could use with a more productive discourse about how the humanities will operate in the digital world, maybe one that started by drawing on the rich existing conversations in media study, the cultural study of technology, and digital rhetoric about these matters.
If you happen to go back and look at my posts from a decade ago (though why would you?), you’d find some very strongly-worded political commentary. Maybe it’s because I’m older or maybe it’s because social media is such a morass of political invective that it just doesn’t interest me anymore as a writer. That doesn’t mean I don’t still have strong political views; I just don’t write about them. I suppose that decision is like a decision many people face today that gets discussed in terms of pragmatism, values, and feelings. Maybe I should be honest to the way I feel about my country, regardless of the facts or consequences. Maybe I need to vote my values recognizing that a pragmatic choice for a likely candidate I don’t especially like won’t get me what I want. Or maybe I need to be practical.
[A short aside on pragmatism. Everyone remembers the hanging chad Florida recount thing. People don’t really remember that in New Hampshire, Bush won by ~7,000 votes and ~22,000 people in the state voted for Nader. If 1/3 had voted for Gore instead, he’d have been President. You could say the protest vote almost worked if the point of the protest vote was to bring about radical national change. The Bush administration almost destroyed the United States with economic devastation, illegal wars, the abridging of human rights both at home and abroad, and so on. Trump is easily 10 times crazier than Bush. The only question I have is if far left voters think a Trump administration will stop short of causing a global depression through trade wars, a multi-continent military conflict among nuclear powers, and military occupation of American cities to put down protests. I’m not saying that a Trump presidency would necessarily be that awful, though I think it would be bad enough. I’m just wondering if the protest voters on the far left are hoping that the consequences of a Trump presidency would be so bad as to finally lead to a revolution.]
But I digress.
As I see it, the basic point of an object-oriented democracy is recognizing the way in which nonhuman actors produce political agency. I.e., we are made to act as candidates, voters, elected officials, and so on. In Latour, it’s always about trials of strength, so some of those nonhumans can be fairly directly influenced by human action, like creating laws or forming committees and so on. Others, like climate change or markets, operate a different levels of complexity and power. We affect them, of course, but we can’t simply exert control of them in a trial of strength. So we gather human and nonhuman actors together for the purpose of producing knowledge, technologies, policies, laws, and practices that might have the strength to act. And here perhaps I diverge more into DeLanda than Latour: we participate in governments, markets, and similar assemblages that include humans but are not in themselves human or necessarily “for humans.” That is to say they don’t naturally exist for us, for our betterment, or to serve our interests. Figuring out how to thrive in these assemblages is what politics is about.
So here’s how “revolutionary” I get. We might reform the democratic process so that we have at least five viable political parties where no single party can acquire more than 1/3 of the popular vote. How would we do that? We’d probably have to just agree to dissolve the Democratic and Republican parties. Maybe that would be enough. We might cap an absolute limit on the amount of money any one political party can spend on candidates, preventing the formation of massive national parties. I’m not sure.
We need to reduce the power of the executive branch. I’m not sure if that would take rewriting the Constitution or if it is really more a matter of changing how we view the job ideologically. The point would be that the president would no longer set the direction for national policy, and I don’t believe there’s anything in the Constitution that would need to change for that to happen.
Here’s the tricky part. Rather than having a simply majority vote in the legislative branch, there would need to be consensus. Every political party with at least 10% of the representatives would need to agree to a proposal in order for it to pass. In other words, people would actually have to make concessions to one another; if you agree to this, I’ll agree to that. What a nightmare, right? Also, (just for the hell of it), we might say that every proposal would include some empirical measure for its promised outcomes (assessment for everyone!). Then we could really know if the efforts we were making were having their intended effects.
Or we could make it regional. We could divide the nation into five or six regions and say all the regions would have to agree to any national law. That could be pretty crazy. Not as crazy as violent revolution in the hope something better comes out the other end but still pretty crazy.
We could just break up into a dozen or so separate nations with something like the EU to join us together.
To be clear: I’m only kidding about this stuff. I have no intention of defending such ideas. I don’t have confidence that the reformation of these kinds of political structures would result in justice, equity, or whatever other name one might call one’s ideological aims and values. My point is that we would require some significant structural changes to the legislative process to make the United States work differently, and even then who knows what would happen.
At the same time, none of that is an argument in favor of the status quo either. My only point is that this is the site of political change: the revision of the networks and assemblages by which capacities for political agency arise. Those revisions need not be partisan any more than the US Constitution is itself partisan for the way it describes the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. Maybe, regardless of political leanings, we all just want to operate by a different set of rules.
Perhaps you are familiar with the recent and excellent essay collection, Thinking with Bruno Latour in Rhetoric and Composition (edited by Paul Lynch and Nathaniel Rivers). If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it, but I’m not here to talk about it today. It’s just the inspiration for the title of this missive, where I playfully ask why don’t we have a similar book about Manuel Delanda?
The occasion for this post is the publication of Delanda’s latest book Assemblage Theory, which, if I were to compare it to a book of Latour’s it would be like Reassembling the Social, in that it represents an overview of the assemblage theory which Delanda has built over the course of his career in much the same way as Reassembling the Social is “an introduction to actor-network theory.” Though one could write a dissertation on the differences between Delanda and Latour, assemblage theory and actor-network theory have some key similarities in that they both find inspiration in the work of Deleuze and Guattari. Latour terms himself an empiricist (of a sort) and Delanda importantly calls himself a realist philosopher and was among the earliest “new materialists.” Put from a different perspective, I imagine Latour and Delanda annoy many of the same people in very similar ways. That said, if a book like Thinking with Bruno Latour is part of growing interest in our field in new materialism (or as Lynch and Rivers put it”Rhetoric’s new thing is, in fact, things.”) then Delanda should be a part of that interest.
So why don’t we have a Thinking with Manuel Delanda book?
Pragmatically speaking, it isn’t hard to come up with an answer. Not that many people in our field know much about Manuel Delanda. Rhetoricians have been writing with some frequency about Latour since the 80s, and Latour is simply a more widely-cited and better known scholar across the humanities. So in market terms, I don’t know if a book with that title would really fly. But for my purposes that response just begs the question why don’t rhetoricians know more about Delanda?
I suppose Delanda’s work is strange and difficult. War in the Age of Intelligent Machines and A Thousand Years of Nonlinear History attend to matters fairly far afield from rhetoric and composition. They take up difficult concepts from Deleuze and Guattari. As the opening of Nonlinear History notes, despite the title, it’s a book of philosophy not history. Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy is, if anything, even more difficult in its deployment of scientific and mathematical concepts. It may be Latour that we most often (and appropriately) identify with science studies, but Delanda really takes up science and math in powerful but also very complex ways. And all of that seems quite distant from our disciplinary interests.
As you might imagine, I’ve long felt differently about this. My book The Two Virtuals took up Delanda’s work, and in ways that have only more recently come clear to me, there are important fundamental connections. Basically, the “two” virtuals in the title are the “virtual reality” we associate with digital media and the “virtual philosophy” that comes from Deleuze (and Delanda). In what I think is an obvious but still overlooked point, the “composition” in rhetoric and composition asks “how are texts made?” The answer to that question stands on one’s more fundamental ontological commitments. That is, any question about composing is a question of ontology. Our earliest disciplinary answers, which created the writing process, had empiricist commitments; our more contemporary, post-process answers about power, ideology, and discourse have idealist commitments. Delanda’s realist ontology is quite different from either (and it is different from Latour’s “second empiricism” though I think one might deploy both usefully, even if they are not fully compatible).
At it’s core, Delanda’s assemblage theory relies on two conceptions: emergence and exteriority. This is an over-simplification, but basically emergence asserts that when an assemblage forms (from other assemblages, yes all the way down in the actual world), it takes on new properties and capacities that were not available to its components. Here are two examples: a single molecule of water cannot boil, but a pot of water can; a roomful of phds cannot grant degrees, but a university can. In familiar terms, the whole is more than the sum of its parts. The concept of exteriority goes the other direction. It asserts the ontological independence of the parts. So I am a professor at UB but I can leave that job and still be me (though a version of me with different capacities); a water molecule can be part of an ice sculpture but once it melts way it is still water. Delanda’s focus has been on exploring the processes by which assemblages form.
If Latour offers a powerful empirical practice where one can follow human and nonhuman actors to describe how particular rhetorical acts are composed (or instaurated, to use Latour’s term), Delanda provides a way to investigate the machines by which these assemblages operate. Just to think about something very familiar to all of us as an example: the scholarly article. Latour would offer us an empirical practice for observing and interviewing scholars as they compose and publish an article. One could consider the nonhumans involved in the composing practice and follow the network through editors, reviewers, and so on. One would consider how the author describes the genre of the article and how she is “made to act” but her relations with it. Delanda’s assemblage theory allows one to work at other scales however, both larger and smaller. The author composing an article is an assemblage. The interactions within her brain are assemblages. The discipline is an assemblage. The genre is an assemblage. Assemblage theory describes the mechanisms by which assemblages work, but importantly they are not mechanisms that convey specific characteristics to the assemblages that they form.
I know I’m not really doing justice to the concept here, especially when there are many other texts that take up this matter in far greater detail, including the occasion for this post, Manuel Delanda’s Assemblage Theory. I’m hoping it’s a text that will lead to more engagement in our discipline with this work.
In the nightmarish scene below, a purple dinosaur commands that you “share your stuff:”
If you are of a certain generation, younger than I (or parents of that generation), then the refrain that “sharing is caring” might be echoing through your skull. In the world of Fb, of course, sharing takes on a whole new dimension. As familiar as you might be with Barney, most of my colleagues would recognize the Marxian argument of Trebor Scholz‘s notion of “immaterial free labor.” As Scholz writes (in 2008), “People like to be where other people are. They enjoy using these platforms: from entertainment, to staying in touch with friends and family, to chatting, remixing, collaborating, sharing, and gossiping, to getting a job through the mighty power of weak links. It’s a tradeoff. Presence does not produce objects but life as such that is put to work and monetary value is created through the affective labor of users who are either not aware of this fact or do not mind it (yet). In short, sharing is producing, though we might also note recent concerns from Facebook that people aren’t sharing the personal details of their life as much as they once did but rather shifting to sharing web content. Though Fb might struggle to figure out what to do with this sharing practice, there’s much to investigate in this burgeoning habit of ours to share.
If your Fb is like mine, then the occasion of various violent acts–police shootings (now in both directions), mass shootings, terrorist attacks–have become all-too regular content on your timeline. If your friends are like mine, then they remark on their struggles to figure out how to respond or on the affective effect of the content. Some take up the political kairos of the moment. Some are angry; some are hurt. Others respond to the ethical obligation to express sympathy. No one would deny that there are bigger issues to address regarding these events than what happens on Fb: racism, terrorism, our cultural propensity for violence, etc., etc., etc. And yet, here we are, on Fb. Undoubtedly we are getting something from it. I will admit that it is elusive to me, at least on a subjective level. That is, I’ve never felt the desire or obligation to share, comment, change my photo, and so on in response to such events, or at least I’ve not felt it strongly enough to do it. So for me to understand it, I have to try to get at it from a more distant conceptual level without falling for the easy errors of such an approach to judge, criticize or explain away what others do.
So that’s what brings me back to the idea that sharing is caring. The “share” button doesn’t really mean sharing in the way Barney meant it. For Barney, sharing means giving something to someone else that they want and by doing so denying yourself that thing, like when kids share their toys. On Fb we mean something a little closer to sharing ideas, which others may not want and which, rather than denying them for ourselves, actually might make our hold on those ideas stronger. In that respect, sharing ideas is more like sharing a cold than it is sharing toys; so much so that we commonly say ideas can be viral. In a meta sense one might say that the idea of sharing has gone viral. Oddly we seem to like the notion of viral ideas. We are quick to share them. As the TED talks remind us, they are “ideas worth spreading.” I suppose I could (and briefly will) offer a pseudo-anthropological explanation where human societies have been held together by our ability to share information and that one’s standing in one’s community is bolstered by one’s sharing and reaffirmed when others value that sharing. In short, sharing is a mark of belonging and a way to belong. The more an idea has been shared the more likely it is to be shared again. And you can see this on your timeline where friends keep sharing the same information over and over. Do you friends really think that you don’t know about the global/national tragedy that happened yesterday? Of course not. So why do they care to share?
Here I suppose I would turn, as I tend to, toward media-ecological, materialist explanations of distributed cognition and emergent capacities of agency (as Latour would say, we are “made to act”). In the world of Fb, when we encounter an idea (or more specifically a media object because we aren’t literally sharing an idea), we gain the capacity to share it. We can then look at the rhetorical forces involved that lead us to act on that capacity. On Fb, users are made to share. Not forced to share, but composed as agents capable of sharing, who inevitably will share given various other conditions.
If sharing on Fb isn’t quite what Barney meant, then maybe neither is caring. There’s caring as in caring for a child or caring for the victims of a tragedy. Then there’s caring as in caring about the presidential election: an expression of interest and value. It’s possible that sharing a news event could be an act of care in the first sense, but mostly I think it’s more in the second sense. If I share something I care about then it is an expression of my values and a way to mark my place in a community. Maybe that sounds cynical, and I suppose it could be cynical at times, but mostly it’s just the way we connect with one another. But just as we are made to share we are made to care. Not forced to care but composed as agents capable of caring, who inevitably will care about something.
What I get from all this and from the operation of Fb, especially recently in my timeline at least, is that it is probably worth investigating the way we are composed to share and care through our encounters with this platform. As apropos as Scholz’s warning about affective labor was and is, the rhetorical-cognitive-agential capacities that emerge through our relations with social media seem to be more pressing to me.
Have you ever persuaded someone to change their mind about something? Not just convinced someone to take your advice on a matter about which they were undecided, but actually shifted someone’s view from one strongly held view to another? It’s not that easy. It’s even harder to build a consensus within a community, even when many in the community might not have strong feelings about the subject at hand. In social media though it’s nearly impossible. Or at least I imagine it’s nearly impossible; I don’t think I’ve every actually witnessed it. For example, have you ever seen someone change their views on our current presidential candidates during the course of a social media exchange? Of course, I don’t think we expect that to happen. The kinds of arguments that take place in social media are not really about persuasion, or at least not about persuading one’s opponents. They are some different kind of rhetorical performance.
When one thinks about how views are changed or consensus is built in a discourse community, one realizes that the rhetorical features of the texts involved are only a minor element in the process. For example, when a widely-held scientific theory is challenged and replaced, texts are certainly involved: journal articles, grant applications, laboratory records, and so on. But those texts are only part of a larger apparatus that lends strength to the claims made in the text and gives durability to the conclusions. Eventually grant programs shift their criteria, researchers and labs change their agendas, and curriculum and textbooks alter their content. Over time, the people involved change their views but not without all of these other non-textual structures in place. Without them, a journal article reporting on research and challenging an accepted theory is easily ignored.
Similar processes happen in other disciplines, in business, government, religion, law, and so on. In academic life the most familiar example of this occurs with first-year students. It’s the cliché of how the student returns home for Thanksgiving break only discover that s/he no longer quite fits in with his/her parents or hometown friends who have not gone off to college. Families pass along values and some will have duration, but once one is separated from the apparatus that gives those views duration, they can start to weaken. The student finds herself in a new apparatus on the campus and comes to share the values of that new community. (It’s worth noting, of course, that the same student might return to her hometown after graduation and slowly revert to those old values once the campus is no longer a part of her life.)
Social media provides none of the mechanisms that would allow for arguments to be persuasive or to have any durability. They can become part of other apparatuses and do. Integrated into a disciplinary community social media can obviously be a place for extending and shaping an existing conversation. It might shape that conversation as well by the way it impacts the dissemination of scholarship. Similar things might happen in other discourse communities where the members share enough genres, values, and objectives. However, one conversation moves beyond those fairly narrowly shared elements or one moves into more loosely-bound communities (e.g. networks of friends or participants in a hashtagged conversation) there’s not enough strength in the bonds and even the most elegantly worded and carefully argued text will have little strength.
Here’s what Latour writes in An Inquiry into Modes of Existence on politics.
According to the principles of this inquiry, every time we manage to isolate a mode of existence, a type of hiatus (here, the curve, the exception), a trajectory (here, autonomy, freedom), we also have to be able to define an explicit form of veridiction. We saw earlier how such a demand appeared incongruous in the case of political discourse: either speakers rationalize too much, or they overestimate irrationality. Might it be necessary to give up speaking truths on the pretext of speaking politically? Must one change oneself into a ghoul, as Socrates demands at the end of Gorgias, in order to be right, but only after the fact, emerging from Limbo, a shade judging other shades, a phantom judging other phantoms? No, of course not, since, dispersed in institutions, buried in practices, captive in our imaginations and in our judgments, there is a whole know-how concerning speaking well and speaking badly, acting well and acting badly in the political realm, which should make it possible to define the felicity and infelicity conditions of the Circle. Let us recall that to make this competence explicit is not to formalize it according to a different enunciative key but, on the contrary, to follow it in its own language.
Latour’s point rests on our notion that politics bears little resemblance to facts. Our current presidential cycle, to say nothing of the Brexit matter, has been rife with fact-checking and assertions that we now live in a “post-fact” society. Latour has long approached this matter in relation to climate change, which offers an excellent example of how hard it is for science to speak to politics or visa versa. We cannot expect Science or Reason or some other mode to do the work of politics.
I think Latour might be overly optimistic in his assessment that we have the know-how to speak well in political realms. I suppose it depends on who the “we” is in that sentence. There’s a line. I think it’s in Virilio’s Art of the Motor but I may be misremembering about how in Europe the arrival of trains led many people to believe there would be increased understanding among the peoples of different nations as they would now be able to travel and interact more easily, but what the Germans realized was that trains improved troop movement and logistics. It would be nice to think that social media would similarly increase understanding but that has hardly proven to be the case. If anything social media makes us more divisive and more entrenched in our views. We can try to imagine some better, more civil way of talking, but in my mind the challenges are more object-oriented. How do we build structures that support felicity conditions, giving strength and durability to a way of speaking politically that might lead us beyond the shambles of political discourse we currently “enjoy”?
In The New York Times, Randall Stross opines on the pending incorporation of LinkedIn into MS-Word. Apparently the idea is to create an opportunity for people on LinkedIn to participate or assist you in whatever you’re doing in Word. As Stross writes
My version of Word, a relatively recent one, is not that different from the original, born in software’s Pleistocene epoch. It isn’t networked to my friends, family and professional contacts, and that’s the point. Writing on Word may be the only time I spend on my computer in which I can keep the endless distractions in the networked world out of sight.
I have to agree. It’s really difficult to imagine desiring an intrusion from the friendly experts at LinkedIn, or, god forbid, being asked to perform the role of expert yourself for one of your contacts there.
This got me thinking along a tangent though. Since the early days of web 2.0 and social media there has been this idea that writing would become a more social, collaborative experience. We have Wikipedia, of course, and the many more focused wikis one can find. And that’s a useful example of collaborative, networked writing. However I would imagine that on many wikis individual pages tend to be largely created by a single author, perhaps with some editors coming along to touch things up. The advantage of the wiki structure is that it is plainly subdivided, and thus one might approach them the way students generally approach group writing projects, by dividing the work into parts done individually. When we think of other forms of social media, the level of collaboration is very low: e.g. commenting on some’s FB status update. There’s collaboration in the sense that an asynchronous online conversation can be collaborative. FB is more like parallel play than it is a group endeavor.
Nevertheless we still seem to be left with this idea that writing should be more networked and collaborative. Not only that it could be, but that it should be. Where does this value come from? I’m not sure. I suppose from general valuations of the ideas of crowdsourcing, collective intelligence, and so on. If one approaches this perception from a genre studies perspective, one might say that whether or not multiple people should compose a text together largely depends on the activity system, genre, and objective of the composition. So for example, if there was going to be a shift in scholarly writing in the humanities to where the common approach was to have a half-dozen or more co-authors, then we’d have to start creating new genres, which would probably mean creating new research paradigms and methods as well. In other words, it’s not the kind of thing one just decides to do on a whim.
But there’s a more pressing point here I believe. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised by the implicit anthropocentrism in this apparent push by Microsoft toward networked composing. That is, there is this notion that the media ecology is for us and should serve our interests. Of course, you or I might disagree with Microsoft’s notion of what is in our interest. We might critique the ideology of labor that informs their notion of how we should write. Nevertheless, it is still a human-centered notion.
However, the digital media ecology is no more interested in us than the dirt is in the worm. It doesn’t tell us we should collaborate or that we shouldn’t. In a Latourian turn of phrase, in our encounter with the media ecology, we write and are made to write. Like Stross I spend many hours with Word documents, “alone” (i.e. without other humans) and avoiding the temptations of social media and the web. But even if I turn to Facebook, Twitter, email or whatever, I am not suddenly less alone in human terms. I write this blog post for the web. I write a status update. An email message. I am still writing alone. And the digital media ecology in which I participate is largely indifferent to it all, just as the rest of the world I normally inhabit is indifferent: the toaster, the front lawn, the stop sign, the sidewalk, etc.
Of course we are all also interdependent and in that sense we never write alone; we only gain the capacity to write through our relations with others. But that is not an argument for this anthropocentric model of networked composing where “we” should write together. It is only an observation that, in fact, we never write alone. “Should” has nothing to do with it.
I am very skeptical of this LinkedIn/MS-Word model of networked collaborative composing. In fact, it sounds like a nightmare. After all, hell is other people LinkedIn contacts. But it’s not about that. Writing is already a largely nightmarish labor of wringing out and sorting out thoughts, of trying to organize and find something useful to say, of confronting some internalized demand of an imagined external audience.
Despite all that negativity, I am curious about the notion of writing with other humans in a more collaborative way, or at least, writing in a different network of relations than the one in which I participate now.
Probably not LinkedIn though.