Digital Digs (Alex Reid)

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on the “many sides” and moral equivalencies of free speech

16 August, 2017 - 10:15

I’m starting this post wondering if I will finish it, if I actually have something to say that hasn’t already been said. I am unconditionally opposed to the ideologies of the kkk and nazis, and I am as sickened as anyone that such statements even need to be made. I am not only opposed to these ideologies but also reject the notion that it is acceptable for others to hold or express such views in our country. Again, it is disgusting that such an opposition cannot simply be assumed.

Defenses of extremism, aside from those that straightforwardly espouse their views, appear to operate through an invocation of free speech and the moral equivalencies the first amendment appears to endorse. As we all have likely seen, this argument goes something like “Americans can believe anything they want and say anything the want. All views are equal under the law.” Certainly the state’s power to restrict speech is heavily constrained (e.g., inciting a riot, yelling “fire” in a theater, etc.). Every right or power, granted to either the state or its citizens, creates capacities that might have a range of outcomes. The freedom of speech, in theory, allows everyone to be heard and to work together democratically for the betterment of the nation. However, it also can divide and destroy the nation. That was the gamble the authors of the bill of rights were willing to take.

Of course, in practice, speech is almost always constrained. At work, in a church, in a place of business, in another’s home, in a classroom, etc: there are often restrictions on what you can say and when you can say it. There are also softer, implied constraints in many instances: e.g., you might not want to go into a bar full of local fans of a sports team and loudly cheer for their rivals. As everyone knows, you can say things that will get you into all kinds of trouble and no one will care about your right to free speech. They’ll still think you’re a jerk. There are very few places in America where someone can spout kkk/nazi ideology and be well-received. You can find such places is on the internet. It’s the long tail of bigotry.

But the first amendment doesn’t say that Americans should say anything they please. It only indicates that the state cannot pass laws restricting speech. The responsibility for ensuring that speech acts do not harm the republic falls upon the people. Free speech is our right and thus our responsibility. The first amendment doesn’t establish a moral equivalency among the views and words of “many sides” but instead leaves their deliberation in our hands.

It is undeniable that there are Americans who seek to remake our nation as some kind of white supremacist theocracy. There are also many Americans who wish to continue the project of establishing our nation as an evolving, diverse, and tolerant democratic community in which all people are treated equally by the state and with respect by their fellow citizens. That project is not easily achieved. In some absolute theoretical sense it might be impossible, but it stands as a set of values to which we aspire. In that project we might and do sometimes disagree very strongly about how to proceed. In such disagreements, the question that is before us is whether or not we will use our right to speech as a way to resolve our differences or as a mechanism for organizing division and violence. White supremacists have no interest in living equally alongside people who look, think, and act differently from themselves. In my view, they have declared themselves to be opposed to the project on which this nation was founded. While the first amendment may prevent the state from enacting a law to prevent their gatherings and speech, as citizens we have no such proscription. Of course, we are restricted from breaking other laws in our response to their speech (that’s another thing you’d wish didn’t have to be said but does). But there are many things we can do within the law to respond to such activities, to make sure that such speech has no place in our national dialogue. Doing so is not a violation of the right to free speech or the erroneous notion of moral equivalence some think it offers. To the contrary, doing so is carrying out the implied responsibilities of free speech in the first place. The Civil War was not simply about eliminating the institution of slavery but also abolishing the idea that one race was superior to others. The first task was accomplished; the second task is ongoing.

Categories: Author Blogs

near futures of professional-technical communication

11 August, 2017 - 09:41

Over the last few months I’ve been going through the process of proposing a graduate certificate in digital communication and professional writing. It’s a long bureaucratic slog in the SUNY system but, with fingers crossed, we’ll have full state approval in the next few months. In any case, it certainly has me thinking about what it is I’m getting myself into.

First, pragmatically speaking, this certificate requires students to take four graduate courses. The idea is to attract students graduating at UB–and at other regional colleges–who might stay one extra semester, current grad students who might fit this into their stay here, and possibly professionals in the local community. The university has had a recent interest in professionalizing and skill-building curriculum at the grad level, related to a kind of general alt-ac movement (it’s not just English Phds who struggle on the academic job market).  Second, as we know, there really isn’t a specific degree or certification one requires to pursue a career as a professional writer, technical communicator, etc. On the other hand, something on paper might give one a leg up, especially if one can back it up in an interview. That said, while I’m imagining some of the people who might pursue this certificate will be thinking specifically of linking the certificate to a job title, I’m also envisioning students who recognize that developing their communication skills will aid their employability and potential for advancement in related careers as a kind of secondary expertise.

I was reading Miles Kimball’s “Golden Age of Technical Communication,” which appears in the Journal of Technical Writing and Communication (actually I was reading a pre-print version on his academia.edu site). I was struck by his analysis about the stagnating prospects for technical writers as a profession. As he points out, the predictions for the demand for technical writers doesn’t really cry out for the creation of more academic programs. That said, at the same time, he argues that more people take on technical writing practices everyday, even outside the workplace where they make how-to videos, wikis, and so on. In short, he ends up arguing for an more expansive technical writing curriculum, integrated with general education and composition. I think there’s some good insight there, and one might say my own career is reflective of Kimball’s observations. I’ve never called myself a technical communication scholar, nor have I published in tech comm journals. Instead I’ve been a new media/digital rhetorician. Long ago, I did some work as a technical writer, and throughout my academic career I’ve done my share of professional and technical writing, as many of us have: policy manuals, procedures, reports, promotional materials, web content, proposals, etc., etc. I’ve also taught technical and professional writing at the undergraduate level and ran a professional writing major for a few years. I’m also like those people Kimball describes who have taken on aspects of technical writing in an extra-professional way–this blog, for example.

As we’re just starting out at UB, I’m thinking that while our certificate certainly does link to careers with titles like “technical writer,” since it is clearly a secondary kind of degree, I see the curriculum as equally linked to careers with different titles where communication is a critical skill. That might not fit neatly into a BLS job category but might instead be a subset of jobs within each category. For example, “computer systems analyst” is a career the BLS identifies as one that will see significant job growth: 118K new jobs over the decade. Do you need some CS/IT degree? Probably, but not necessarily according to the BLS. I’m betting that some portion of those jobs involve writing/communicating as a primary, daily activity. This is Kimball’s point, I think, or at least part of it: the amorphous, spreading nature of technical communication. When I think about a certificate with four courses in it, that’s what I think I’m creating–an add on to an existing set of qualifications that targets a particular set of careers within a profession. Even with 10-12 courses in an undergrad major, I’d still be thinking about how students combined it with something else.

However I don’t want to miss Kimball’s main point about the broader educational role of tech comm. Institutionally speaking, in order to make that happen you need to have faculty with expertise in the field, and in order to have those faculty, you need students in tech comm writing programs generating credits. That is, I don’t think you can get to what Kimball wants without a major. Composition is the cautionary tale in this regard. That said, just as tech comm spreads as a practice across professions and into extra-professional and non-professional spaces, so too these interests spread across campuses and faculty. In my view, the challenge is linking faculty in STEM interested in tech/scientific comm with those in business interested in professional comm with those in art/media interested in visual comm with those in education interested in digital literacy with those in English and communications, etc. etc. What can be built there? Are the interests too tertiary and weak to form bonds? I’m not sure.

 

Categories: Author Blogs

the digital cul de sac in rhetoric and composition

26 July, 2017 - 11:16

I’ve been catching up on some reading this summer and took a look at Courtney Werner’s article in the most recent CCC issue, “How Rhetoric and Composition Described and Defined New Media at the Start of the Twenty-First Century.” She looks at definitions of new media in some 70 articles across four journals: CCC, Research in the Teaching of English, Kairos, and Computers & Composition. Though her method is different, the impetus reminds me of Doug Eyman’s parallel investigation of how the discipline defines digital rhetoric (in his book Digital Rhetoric). I don’t have any substantive complaints about either piece. I think they both do a good job of capturing how the field has approached these closely-related concepts, as well as the broader gestalt that would include terms like multimedia, multimodal, computers and writing, and computers and composition. In that broader sense, I think their definitions, while not identical, are mutually reinforcing.

I would draw a different line across the field’s treatment of digital media technologies. The large majority of this work, like the vast majority of work across the discipline, is humanist and idealist. On the other hand is a far smaller, but still recognizable, segment that might be characterized as an electrate, posthumanist-cum-new materialist digital rhetoric. I’m not here to argue in favor of one over the other. To be plain, I really don’t care how other scholars decide to define their work. That said, I find this particular definitional distinction useful as it identifies a group that pushes up against the fundamental ontological boundaries of rhetoric. So without making comparative judgments about the relative value of different scholarly practices, the latter group offers a substantively different set of descriptions and understandings of digital media–not intrinsically better or worse though probably situationally better or worse for addressing particular kinds of concerns.

So what does this have to do with a cul de sac? I’m not going to argue that we’ve reached a dead end…. unless we do x, y, and z. In fact, there’s a important (rhetorical) distinction between a dead end and a cul de sac. With the typical suburban cul de sac (there are four in my neighborhood), you don’t have to put the car in reverse, make a u-turn, or whatever to get out. You can keep moving forward. You can go round and round the circle. Or, as in the case of my neighborhood, you can cycle among the various cul de sacs and at least have the sense that you progressing, even though you’re just wearing down the same paths. Structurally you can go on like that forever. Materially at some point you’ll run out of gas, the tires will go flat, and/or the car will break down but otherwise you’re good to go.

I suppose one could say that’s how the territorializing function of disciplines is supposed to work, an autopoietic underlining of boundaries. One of the common gestures (i.e. one of the cul de sac roundabouts) is claiming to break apart these paradigms.  For example, one might argue, as I certainly have, that moving beyond anthropocentric conceptions opens new capacities for rhetorical action. I don’t really see that as an argument against humanistic approaches to rhetoric. It’s not an either/or proposition as far as I’m concerned. My point here though is that an argument like that (or one that makes a more straightforwardly political argument for certain action) doesn’t lead one out of the cul de sac neighborhood. Instead, it attempts to enfold new dimensions along its existing paths. Indeed, one can make progress (e.g. improve social conditions, develop as a teacher, etc.) without leaving the neighborhood. So maybe the cul de sac is sufficient.  In fact, there’s really no foreseeable end to the potential topics for research and teaching–social media and consensus, algorithms and deliberation, fake news, mobile technologies, AI, machine learning, big data, etc., etc. If anything the prospects of the field are wider and deeper than ever.

So if the future is so bright, why call it a cul de sac? While the diagram of the cul de sac neighborhood is static, the movement across it maps a series of detours and enfoldings. This has always already been the case with rhetorical practice as technology. Rather than imagining driving around and around, imagine instead a process of weaving or tempering steel or lab experiments or recording music and video: recursive processes that eventually have their recursions, their detours, built into technologies. Imagine writing itself for that matter. From that shift in perspective, one can pick up the disciplinary cul de sac neighborhood and put it to work doing something else. This isn’t an escape from the dead ends. It’s a reconception of our relation to them. Of course, once you’ve done that, then you invariably have to see your practices differently.

Werner’s article led me to reflect on my own efforts over the last twenty years. Certainly I’ve argued for investigating the material, embodied, and cultural-historical conceptions of media technologies as they shape rhetorical practices and our understanding of rhetoric. I’ve argued for the necessity of incorporating instruction in digital rhetorical practices into English Studies and into first-year composition and for considering how the shift from print to digital might lead us to rethink fundamental values in the discipline. That’s how I’ve cruised the cul de sacs for the last couple decades.

Now I think the point is to pick up that enfolded tool and do something with it.

Categories: Author Blogs

republicans and colleges

13 July, 2017 - 07:35

Last week the Pew Research Center reported on “Sharp Partisan Divisions in Views of National Institutions.” Though the survey covers a range of institutions–churches, banks, unions, news media, and colleges–it was the last category that drew the most attention (predictably) among people I work with. The report notes that 58% of those who identify as republican or leaning republican believe that colleges have a “negative effect” on the way things are going in the country. Only the news media was deemed more negative among that group. On the other hand, democrats/leaning democrats viewed colleges as 72% having a positive effect but 73% of them identified churches/religious organizations as having a negative effect. Hence the aforementioned “sharp partisan divisions.”

The partisan division is hardly surprising, but as the report notes, republican attitudes have shifted considerably. As recently as 2015, a majority of republicans viewed colleges as positive, so it possible this is just a blip in response to the presidential election and related politics matters–that colleges are just caught up in the wash of a generally intensified partisanship.

However, I don’t think of this as a blip. Republicans have been attacking higher education since the Reagan era. It was in the 1980s that public, tax-payer support of higher education began to decline; today colleges are basically tuition-driven. The conservative value behind it was that a college education is primarily an individual benefit which should be paid by individuals. During this time, the funding for research also began to turn increasing toward commercial applications, beginning the era of academic entrepreneurialism we see today.

Of course we can go back a few more decades to the sixties.  We all know this story about colleges and the civil rights, peace, and women’s movements. But there’s an even more basic story. Universities were (and are) engines of technoscientific development that have been integral to the establishment of a post-industrial, information economy including not only the expansion of STEM-oriented careers and cultures but also the technocratic managerial practices running from finance to government. Part of that is also a shift in the way gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality, religious affiliation and other macrosocial identifiers operate in society. Colleges were (and are) intended to help citizens move into this (still new) economy and culture. Such matters are obviously sites of social and political conflict. And though academia is founded on the open consideration of ideas and the objective, impersonal evaluation of those ideas, this does not mean that it is (or can be) neutral  in these conflicts. Essentially openness and objectivity are themselves partisan values in this conflict, and those unwilling to hold those values cannot really participate in academia. Put differently, openness (academic freedom) is a particular discursive value; it doesn’t mean you can say anything at anytime or place. And objectivity points to particular rhetorical standards that vary by discipline to some degree.

However, I think it is a problem to conflate these values with those of a particular socio-economic class in the way David Brooks does in his recent op-ed, which begins by identifying “members of the college-educated class,” which he then re-terms the “upper-middle class” and the affluent.  I think Brooks might be relieving his youth. According to the NCES, in 2014, 44% of Americans aged 25-64 had a postsecondary degree. Obviously all of these people are not in the same class. What Brooks is actually doing is laying the blame for America’s woes on a wealthy and urban segment of Americans, who tend not to share his politics. I don’t agree with this attempt to shift the focus from the 1% to the 10%, but that’s a different conversation.

There are two kinds of stories here though that intertwine in a weird way. One, on which Brooks focuses, is about how education is failing Americans because urban zoning restrictions put poor kids in underfunded schools, college is so expensive, and the culture of this so-called “educated class” is alienating. The second is the rejection of education by the religious right and other conservatives. These are people who reject climate science and evolution as liberal plots. It is the conservatives in the second group that have been waging war on education for a very long time. The Scopes Monkey Trial was 1925. The Reaganite claim of college-education as an individual investment was partly an assertion that college education was not a benefit to society. I.e., if you want to go to college to make more money that’s fine, but the society isn’t going to invest in college education because that would mean endorsing the future that it’s creating on a social scale. That cultural war is largely responsible for many of the problems we now have with education.

That cultural war has only intensified in recent years along with the material effects of postindustrial culture. Colleges are an engine of those changes and I think that’s where most of the antipathy arises.

Categories: Author Blogs

Reflections on serving as a WPA

6 July, 2017 - 09:49

I have served as the director of composition at UB for seven years. Technically I’m still director for another month, but at this point, I’m basically done. In a way it was a strange job for me to do because I have always been and remain something of an abolitionist in relation to FYC, though my views have shifted somewhat. I still believe that if English departments and/or colleges are unwilling to invest the resources for FYC to succeed then it shouldn’t be taught. I am also still concerned that the existence of FYC can lead the rest of the university to believe they have little or no responsibility for teaching students in their majors how to communicate in disciplinary or professional contexts. Admittedly it is a bizarre contradiction that one finds across English Studies and higher education. On the one hand is the idea that FYC isn’t really part of the intellectual/scholarly mission of English departments, and on the other hand is the belief that English can teach all kinds of writing and communication to everyone. For me, in choosing to take on this job (and not be an abolitionist) meant working against those two tendencies. But now that’s coming to an end.

So here are a few unstructured reflections…

Almost every WPA will tell you how much work the job is. The research expectations don’t change. Many of the typical service expectations don’t change. My teaching load was reduced by half, which, of course was helpful. By that measurement, I suppose you might expect that being a WPA was estimated to be roughly 20-25% of my job. Heh. This is how that manifested for me. There is a certain amount of work that is predictable and cyclical: creating a schedule of courses, staffing, assessment, committee meetings, etc. Another part is predictable but variable: these are the regular stream of emails–complaints, concerns, questions, etc. Maybe if you were hyper-efficient you could contain 90% of this work within two half-days a week, but I doubt it. Really there is always more one can do, so it’s really more a matter of deciding what work doesn’t need to be done.

For me though it’s another more nebulous part that needs addressing. Maybe it’s just the way my mind works, but honestly I don’t think I’m that special. Basically I’ve spent the last seven years trying to figure out how to make this program work better–for the students, the TAs, the instructors, the department, etc. The wheels are always turning. If you’re a typical English professor, those wheels are probably turning around some research question or maybe around a class you’re teaching, a class which is, more likely than not, connected to your research interests. Perhaps a more disciplined mind than mine would be able to turn this preoccupation on and off. But I devoted a fair amount of cognitive load to administrative, managerial, and curricular challenges: logistical matters related to workflow; handling the politics and ethics of overseeing 80+ TAs and adjuncts; driving large-scale changes such as building a writing center or rebuilding the curriculum; trying to understand and address the shifting needs of students and the university; navigating departmental and university politics. I’m not quite sure that it’s fully hit me that I don’t have to think about any of those things any more. Much as Douglas Adams recounted in Life, the Universe, and Everything this all becomes “somebody else’s problem” and thus effectively invisible to me. Now perhaps that seems unfair, that the reason being a WPA is so difficult is precisely because of this attitude. Maybe. Though I’m not sure having more people involved in trying to figure these things out would have made my job any easier or reduced the amount of mental space taken up in my head by these issues. In any case I know I need to be not thinking about these matters for a couple years.

In any case, my point is that it’s hard to quantify the amount of work involved in being a WPA once one starts to think about it in these terms.

This might be particularly relevant to me as an academic blogger: being a WPA has constrained the nature of my writing. The “good” thing about publishing scholarship is that one can feel fairly secure in the expectation that no one is reading it. However, here on my blog, I’ve taken care to be especially circumspect in writing about anything that could be construed as comments about the program, its instructors, and its students… like this post. Some things are obviously confidential. Other things, like the goings-on of curricular reform, would not be improved by a public discussion. So I’ve learned a lot of things over the last seven years that I simply couldn’t write about here for one reason or another. And I’m not talking about airing dirty laundry, though of course there’s always gossip and such. I’m talking about insights into how universities function, how decisions get made, and so on: in other words, sausage-making. Partly my activity on this blog has declined in recent years because of other work demands, but it has also declined because much of my work and thoughts pertained to things I thought inappropriate to be the subject of a blog post. I’m looking forward to that changing some.

The last thing I’ll say is the primary lingering concern I have for FYC. Undoubtedly it is shaped by my work as a digital rhetorician. This isn’t particularly about the program I’ve run, but it also certainly pertains to it. In the last decade, FYC has started to catch-up with the shift toward digital composing by thinking about multimedia/multimodality. It has recognized the role that digital technologies play in all the “stages” of the writing process for any kind of composing practice. That said, overall it struggles with that curricular responsibility–with adequate professional development for instructors, with appropriate support infrastructures, and with integrating this topic into existing FYC courses. But that’s not my concern. My concern is that the present/near-future of communication is shaped by mobile technologies, the internet of things, the increasing speed and volume of data, and the operation of algorithms and other “intelligent” machinic activity. Basically I don’t think that rhetoric and composition has the first clue how to think through these matters. At best, the relationship of the field to “data rhetoric” (for lack of a better term) might be analogous to where we were in relation to multimodal composing 25 years ago. We are barely in a place where we could talk about what one might teach. But if you could somehow solve that problem, at least provisionally, then I would suggest setting aside objections for a moment and as a thought experiment trying to imagine how, as a WPA, you would get from where you are now–with the instructors, curriculum, classrooms, etc. that you have–to where you’d need to be to actually deliver on a curriculum like that.

Thankfully I don’t have to think about that anymore. I don’t have to preoccupy myself with these thoughts or pester other WPAs with such arguments. I can go back to studying these technological developments and teaching specialized classes for students who are (hopefully) interested in such matters.

Categories: Author Blogs

politics, free speech, and academic freedom

3 July, 2017 - 12:22

Trump on Twitter; Kathy Griffin, Stephen Colbert, and Johnny Depp’s remarks about Trump; academics being threatened or losing their jobs for political statements; academics being threatened or losing their jobs for making racist or similarly inappropriate comments online; conservative speakers having their campus talks either disrupted or cancelled due to security concerns: what do all these things have in common?

I’m going to say next to nothing. Well, they are all subjects of media reporting and social media “conversation” in the last six months. Ok, maybe that’s not totally fair. They all generally are conversations about what “free” means in free speech or academic freedom. What the limits are or should be. So a few obvious things (or at least things that should be obvious).

  1. The first amendment protection of free speech has to do with limiting the ability of the government to restrain speech. I say limited as we all know there are kinds of speech that are not protected (e.g. yelling fire in a theater; computer virus codes). Sometimes it seems important to distinguish between this legal right and general cultural values about free speech.
  2. Academic freedom. One could look at the AAUP statement. The thing with academic freedom is that you’ve got to convince a dissertation committee that your work is valid, then a hiring committee that gives you a tenure track job, editors and reviewers of academic journals and presses, grant funding agencies, and tenure and promotion committees. You don’t just get to say anything you want and keep your job. Also academic freedom is basically bounded by the contours of one’s area of research and teaching.
  3. The typical thing that gets said about college campuses is that they are a place for open investigation and discussion. Sure they are… as is your home, your workplace, your church/temple/etc., and so on. On a college campus, as with any social space, there are rhetorical and discursive structures that shape what may be said, how it may be said, when it may be said, and who might say it. It would be far more accurate to say that colleges and academic disciplines are institutions designed to construct and communicate knowledge according to particular sets of evolving methods and genres.

But you probably already knew those things, so what is the role of the university and academic disciplines in democratic, political discourse? The short answer to this is that they promote an open discussion of political issues within the bounds of established academic genres and discourses. Clearly there are occasional disruptions to these boundaries, such as student protests, that are accepted within other legal limits. However, there are many speech acts that are protected from government restrictions by the first amendment that would be and are prohibited with the bounds of university/disciplinary practices: these range from getting in a profane shouting match in a classroom to plagiarizing or fabricating test results. Universities–like churches, workplaces, shopping malls, and social media websites–get to establish those boundaries for themselves. Of course that doesn’t mean they won’t get embroiled in larger political debates when they do so.

The prevailing idea about free speech is that, in public, you can say just about anything you want… and people can reply however they want. You can be bullied, attacked, vilified, and even threatened to a fairly extreme point without laws being broken. We can fill the internet with this kind of crap; in fact, we have. While protection against government restrictions on free speech are crucial for our democracy, this does not mean that other kinds of discourse communities cannot or should not restrict expression. Free speech never really worked the way we say it should now. Prior to the rise of social media, we basically always lived in such spaces: your own home, other’s homes, your workplace, offices, stores, malls, churches, etc. Even in physical public spaces like post offices, parks, courthouses, town halls, and so on, there are rules that limit expression.

As I’ve written many times on this blog, we don’t have an established rhetorical practice for social media communication. I doubt there can be a single one-fits-all practice that would work for all of the 2 billion people on Facebook for example.  It probably says something about our fantasies regarding rhetoric and language that we would believe such a thing is achievable.

Certainly I’m not interested in getting into the business of telling other people what they should or shouldn’t say or even insisting that universities or disciplines act one way rather than another.  In my reading, what I do see time and again are academics who appear to expect their online audiences to respond to their statements in the same way that academic communities do and/or that do not fully anticipate what that broader audience might be or how they might respond or make use of what that academic has said. And who could really fault them for that? These things can be complicated and unpredictable, and it can be tough to ask people to always be so guarded and circumspect, to make every statement online as if it were going to be subject to blind peer review.

My general response though is not to make the “free speech” or “academic freedom” argument. I think the problem lies in not understanding the rhetorical operation of digital media. I’m not suggesting at all that that’s a response that can work in the context of these heated political exchanges. But I do think it’s worth further investigation. My sense of this ultimately is that rather than saying social media is “broken” in some way because rhetoric doesn’t function like we think it should that we need to be able to recognize that social media reveals faults in our understanding of rhetoric. Of course, that revelation about rhetoric doesn’t mean that social media isn’t also broken. But it does mean that a reconception of the media-technological operation of rhetoric would be an important first step to developing new social media applications and practices.

Categories: Author Blogs

tolerance in the late age of deliberation

30 June, 2017 - 10:29

I started this post about a month ago. Unsurprisingly, concerns with in/tolerance have not subsided. It was just two weeks ago that the shooting of Republicans during a baseball practice inspired a response that political rhetoric needed to change. As you probably recall, at the time Trump said “We may have our differences, but we do well in times like these to remember that everyone who serves in our nation’s capital is here because above all they love our country… We can all agree that we are blessed to be Americans. That our children deserve to grow up in a nation of safety and peace. That we are strongest when we are unified and when we work together for the common good.” Of course this week the news again is occupied, maybe preoccupied, with Trump’s viscous ad hominem Twitter attacks. We hear from the First Lady that when her husband is attacked, he hits back ten times harder. So we find ourselves once again in a situation where all we can promise one another is an escalation of violence. This recent circus is only a sideshow in the context of health care legislation where the Republican strategy of shutting down any possibility for deliberation quite clearly puts the lie to Trump’s earlier platitudes. They self-evidently have no interest in working together.

So what’s the point of tolerance anyway? Toleration is a firm political virtue in the West and globally, enshrined in such documents as UNESCO’s “Declaration of Principles on Tolerance,” which says “Tolerance is respect, acceptance and appreciation of the rich diversity of our world’s cultures, our forms of expression and ways of being human. It is fostered by knowledge, openness, communication and freedom of thought, conscience and belief. Tolerance is harmony in difference. It is not only a moral duty, it is also a political and legal requirement. Tolerance, the virtue that makes peace possible, contributes to the replacement of the culture of war by a culture of peace.” (I suppose this includes tolerance of comma splices.) In making tolerance a “duty” and “requirement,” it clearly points out that tolerance does not tolerate intolerance. So, in short, those who do not have “respect, acceptance, and appreciation” should not be tolerated.

Here’s a conservative perspective on the matter from the National Review, Fred Bauer’s analysis of “The Left and ‘Discriminating Tolerance,'” which focuses largely on Herbert Marcuse. Though I disagree with Bauer in many respects, his basic summary of Marcuse is fair. The idea is that you can’t proceed with tolerance in a society that is unequal and unjust from the start. As I see it though, this is really just saying that one must oppose the intolerance which is inherent in Western society–racism, sexism, etc. However this is not an exclusively Leftist argument. Certainly it has been the argument of the Right, especially the alt-right, that leftist politics were/are intolerant of their views. I think Bauer does have a point that leftist politics has the danger of becoming a kind of circular firing squad, but the same thing is true on the right. Bauer points to an earlier concept of tolerance as a solution in the work of 17th-century Puritan Roger Williams. Bauer writes, “Because we do not have absolute knowledge of God’s plan and because of the inherent value of each person, Williams called for a broad cultural tolerance, in which all creeds would be welcomed into the public square. This tolerance would not be moral nihilism (it is not, after all, denying the legitimacy of moral truths) but rather the cultivation of a sense of modesty and mutual respect.” But again this simply begs the question of what “moral truths” might be. In that respect it is no different than UNESCO’s assertion that one cannot tolerate intolerance. When it comes down to it, as a society, we do not agree on what constitutes morality, justice, or intolerance, so saying that we should tolerate each other within certain limits is problematic.

Of course that’s the point of deliberation. Deliberation is how we get together and agree upon these boundaries. The open question is whether or not we have the desire or ability to do so. Toleration is easy, one might even say unnecessary, when the other has not effect on you. It’s when the other’s actions do affect you that you have to tolerate them. Toleration is also pragmatic. I don’t have to tolerate the fly annoying me. The Republicans might be believe they do not need to tolerate Democrats if they can pass their legislation without them. With no need to tolerate the other there is no need to deliberate. An the other hand, when we do perceive a need for others then tolerance works temporarily, as a ceasefire, until the process of deliberation can hopefully produce a result that is more than tolerable. Where the new conditions do not put such pressures on the community that calls for toleration must be continually made.

However, I think we live in a late age of deliberation, meaning not that the capacity for deliberation is ending, but that we talk a lot about the limits of deliberation and the possibility of deliberation becoming impossible. That’s what we are continually seeing from Washington, the White House in particular, as well as from media pundits across the political spectrum. It’s the inability or unwillingness to deliberate and the assertion that we cannot or should not deliberate. I wish I could say that figuring out how to deliberate will solve our problems. Maybe, like Trump, you think that at the end of the day we have common values across the spectrum in things like “safety and peace” or the “common good,” but those are empty platitudes. We don’t agree on what they mean. It seems fairly obvious that what might make people of color or in the LBGTQ community feel safe is quite different from what might make many Trump supporters feel safe. One might even go as far as to say they are opposite, that these groups cannot all feel safe simultaneously.  Deliberation isn’t about a compromise where we all agree to feeling less than safe, where we are all walk away unhappy, as the cliche about compromises goes. It is about coming to a consensus about what safety is, based upon empirical understanding of threats and a careful deliberation of how to meet them.  The result should be that we all walk away with a better understanding of what a “nation of safety and peace” should look like for Americans. But who’s willing to do that now?

Categories: Author Blogs

rhetoric in the late age of the internet

21 May, 2017 - 11:51

Some 25 years ago, Jay Bolter described the “late age of print” not as an era when print media were disappearing but rather as time when the question of an impending end began to characterize how we understood the technology. In imagining a late ago of the internet, some semantic clarification is necessary. I do not think we are in a moment when we are questioning the end of a time when information is digital and networked. If any thing, that transition is only beginning. However, we do appear to be in the late age of a particular version and vision of the web, and its confluence and shared fate with postmodern theory is worth noting, particularly for those of us in the humanities.

Here are two curious articles worth a read. The first and briefer one in the NY Times, “‘The internet is broken:’ @ev is trying to salvage it” focus on Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and his somewhat quixotic attempt to forge a respectable public online sphere through his online publishing venture Medium. Williams recounts a familiar problem: “The trouble with the internet, Mr. Williams says, is that it rewards extremes. Say you’re driving down the road and see a car crash. Of course you look. Everyone looks. The internet interprets behavior like this to mean everyone is asking for car crashes, so it tries to supply them.”

The other is a far longer and somewhat meandering tale about the emergence of a transhumanist, alt-right movement called neoreactionism by Shuja Haider in Viewpoint. Haider tracks the emergence of this concept focusing on a few controversial figures, including one Nick Land, a mid nineties postmodern philosophy professor turned apparently mad turned clearly into a quite extremist alt-right ideologue. The whole thing certainly reads like a late cyberpunk Neal Stephenson/Bruce Sterling mash-up, a combination of Snow Crash and Distraction  maybe. I won’t attempt to summarize this article for you except to offer this “It’s a strange intellectual path that begins with ‘Current French Philosophy’ and settles on a right-wing Silicon Valley blogger whose writing is more Dungeons and Dragons than Deleuze and Guattari.”

You could look at Land’s story as an idiosyncratic tale of theory gone horribly wrong… You could if you weren’t able to trace the resonances between transhumanism and posthumanism that have been there for decades. You could say they’re two sides of a coin. You could think about how the internet was born into language about rhizomatic hypertexts, cyborgian politics, temporary autonomous zones, and so on and in the interplay between cyberpunk literature and the “theory-fictions” of the era (which Land himself still writes). Arguably all of this is fairly plain to see in A Thousand Plateaus where the potential for liberatory, nomadic, anti-state lines of flight can easily turn fascist. How does one discern the differences among the transcapitalist will to a globalist erasure of state power, terror networks grounded in anti-modern, anti-global religious fundamentalism, and the alt-right, libertarian, technocratic opposition to government? In some respects it’s easy, right? However, each is a version of a kind of rhizomatic, deterritorializing, nomadic assemblage operating against the modern, liberal, nation state.

While we’re at it, of course, we need to keep in mind that really all of critical theory in the humanities  is aimed at dismantling the state as well–as patriarchal, capitalist, colonialist, etc. Is there a Left version of these deterritorializing politics? Sure. There are a variety of leftist accelerationist politics that essentially look to speed up and/or push through capitalism to whatever comes next. As Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek write, “We believe the most important division in today’s left is between those that hold to a folk politics of localism, direct action, and relentless horizontalism, and those that outline what must become called an accelerationist politics at ease with a modernity of abstraction, complexity, globality, and technology… an accelerationist politics seeks to preserve the gains of late capitalism while going further than its value system, governance structures, and mass pathologies will allow.” Perhaps you find the idea of a leftist accelerationism enticing, but it’s worth remembering how easily these ideas turn fascist.

But let’s turn back to Evan Williams, Twitter, and Medium. In effect, Williams hope appears to be that the Internet could become some version of an egalitarian,  Habermasian public sphere: a place where all citizens (or netizens as we once romantically imagined ourselves) could gather for rational conversation and deliberation. In this scheme, it’s a move in the opposite direction: a reterritorialization of the web to reassert the modern state and its political rhetoric. I sympathize with the desire to do something about the mess that has been made of the web by capitalism, fundamentalism, extremism, and what ultimately amounts to little more than a pure affective urge to self-destruction, but an adequate response doesn’t lie in the 20th-century.

As much as the needed response is not a technological fix, it also is not not a technological fix. We simply need, for one thing, a better understanding of our digital media-ecological rhetorical situation. That’s something rhetoricians can provide, and while I wouldn’t say it’s the biggest piece of the puzzle, there’s still plenty of work to do. The question the late age of the internet poses is what will follow. That is, what follows on the social media communities and digital marketplaces that typify our daily engagement with the web and represent the globe’s most visited websites? The web began in the nineties as a fantasy about escaping the real world, as a place where we would have separate second lives and form parallel virtual communities. And the social web that followed in the next decade largely built on that fantasy by making it more accessible. But we can’t really think about the web that way. The digital world is not a separate world, as if it ever really was. We need a new web, one that supplants the social web as the social web supplanted web 1.0, one that recognizes the rhetorical-material stakes differently.

It’s anyone’s guess how to sort out the larger political problems, with time one would suspect and let’s hope that we have enough of it to spare. But if we’re happy with the contention that print technologies spurred literacy and hence democracy and capitalism but also a fundamentalist reaction, then certainly we can ask the same questions of digital media. What can we build? Hopefully something better than is on offer here!

Categories: Author Blogs