Category Archives: Reading Notes

Coda: Rickert’s Wonderful World of Oz Meets Pocahontas

First, an aside: I couldn’t stop myself from thinking of this scene from The Wizard of Oz in an entirely new way. While it’s clearly made with the human worldview of home in mind, I began to think of the technology of the sepia tone, the production tools, the stage scenaries and props, a plot filled with concepts of place in terms of time and dreams, the natural (i.e., the tornado). Thanks a lot, Rickert.

I get it. There’s a pattern here; I think I finally see it. When I started reading Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric, I thought this was a logical next step to our discussions of ecology, ecosystems, affordances, agency, and ANTS, to bring us full circle to Rhetorical Situation where we began. I had no problems buying into Rickert’s premise that the subject-object binary and rhizomatic network pathways so common to discussions of Internet network theories might need some additional theorizing to be really useful. After all, that’s what FrankenTheory building is all about, right? Taking the theories of others and repurposing them or resisting them to fit an application or case study we see as worthy of analysis?

Cave paintings

Cave paintings

So I enjoyed this text and found innumerable ways to connect it to AND frame our semester’s worth of reading. Rickert’s visit to antiquity – from cave paintings to Aristotle to Plato, to (dare I say it?) the 1970s ambient musician Eno and Microsoft Windows’ early operation system music all created a foundational premise for his argument that was quite engaging. I drank in his discussions of complex systems as evolving environments where – like Deleuze’s rhizome metaphor – the human subject is no longer “all that” given the way our networked lives have evolved to become, well, cyborg like. His discussion of the Earthrise image and the rhetorical nature it reveals, the importance of distinguishing between things and objects – it all really makes sense to me. In fact, I found Rickert articulating so well what I’ve envisioned for many years now: humans and our worldviews err in seeing ourselves through the lens of the “I” for it ignores the almost spiritual balance of existence. I’m avoiding using the words “ecosystem” and “ecology” because Rickert problematizes them in significant ways in Chapter 8, but if delivered through the ambient, these terms may be rendered “safe,” revealing (as he argues) ways these concepts and theorizing “place” as ambient “can be transformative … when it affects our mode of being in the world, making our relationship to the earth not that of subject to depicted object but that of mutually sustaining assemblages of humans and nonhumans fitted into an ecologically modulated world” (218).

I thought of the many movies I’ve watched over the last decade or more with an ecofriendly message – Wall-E, Avatar, Fern Gully, and the one that started it all, Pocahontas – and thought how even the rhetorical moves embedded there remained somewhat human-centered. Even when the messages (as Rickert points out) encourage an eco-consciousness, they still localize the human agency as primary, with rhetoric in persuasive mode rather than a transformative ontological relationship (163).

Even though Pocahontas’ “Color of the Wind” comes close to how I started envisioning Rickert’s approach to ambient rhetoric as “one in which boundaries between subject and object, human and nonhuman, and information and matter dissolve” (1), it soon became clear that it missed one of the features of an ambient rhetoric in terms of how “rhetoric’s comportment toward objects in turn shapes rhetoric itself” (204). As Rickert observes, ambient rhetoric:

  • Can’t be separated from “material being,”
  • Emerges from the environment,
  • This emergence and relationship aren’t simply due to human direction, and
  • In “grappling with these entangled, mutually coevolving and transformative interactions among persons, world, and discourses,” we will need “a new appreciation for…their complexity” (163).

In other words, environmental messages miss the mark when it comes to successfully achieving a rhetoric of ambience. I can already see the benefit of this revisioning to comp/rhet, and thought again and again of how this book takes the call to remap the canon of rhetoric made by Prior et al. in a new direction.

Rickert’s journey through Latour, Heidegger, Foucault, and others clearly qualifies as a FrankenTheory, finding and resolving a gap in the scholarship that – by pulling interdisciplinary threads – offers a richer theory. At the heart of this is the object/subject dichotomy and, as he argues, its continued control of our theories and applications of rhetoric. Rickert’s Ambient weaves together theorists of sociology, psychology, classical rhetoric, linguistics, and more as a means of exploring how these often stumble over a continued reliance on this either/or scenario. As the Borg would say, Rickert is taking the “biological and technological distinctiveness” of others’ theories and rhetorical history and adding it to his own to deal with our culture’s (and our field’s) “standard technological quandary where we are either masters of technology or by technology mastered” (204).

His turn to the technological has ramifications for the way MOOCs are currently being theorized as places of learning and places for teaching. His exploration of the image Earthrise as ambient was just the start. His argument that even the network metaphor is insufficient for the task is compelling, pointing out that it still relies heavily on a binary conceptualization of our complex system of inhabiting (122), a flaw he asserts is addressed by his theory of ambience.

Figure 2. Optical array and its variation following the observer position (from J. Gibson, 1979)

Figure 2. Optical array and its variation following the observer position
(from J. Gibson, 1979)

While looking for appropriate images to supplement my post this week, I came back across Maury’s recent post on her 3rd case study, which embedded an image from Gibson’s 1979 work on affordances and the visual similar to that on the left. I found these images to be especially productive in terms of thinking of what Rickert was framing in his book on rhetoric and ambience as the “I” centeredness of rhetoric’s history of discourse and meaning (and the way we often continue to theorize rhetoric and networks in a technological era of MOOCs and communications’ technology). Earlier in the term, I considered Latour’s actants as a way to frame discussions about Composition MOOCs, but Rickert layers in Heidegger seem to carry it a step further: “things make claims on us that help constitute not just the various kinds of knowledge we produce but also our very ways of being in the world” (229). In the case of a MOOC, many scholars (who resist dismissing education MOOC technologies as pedagogically blasphemous) would likely agree with this, and certainly Gibson’s theory of affordances would align neatly here. I can see how conceptualizing the online environment of a MOOC as an ambient place, where learning happens not merely at the direction of the human teacher/student, but also when theorized and discussed in terms of ways the diffusion of knowledge through such a complex system must always already be seen in terms of Foucault’s traces. Indeed, at times I wondered in the marginal comments in my book at whether ambient rhetoric is Foucault’s trace metaphor reborn. What would happen if we discussed learning / teaching / collaboration / writing in a MOOC in terms of “dwelling”? How might that open up the discussion about MOOCs as place and the technology’s impact on design as actant / ambient / attunement? In fact, Rickert’s chapter 7 provided me with a host of new ways to discuss the tensions of the place of MOOCs in education. His exploration of the concept of “dwelling” as an “ecological attunement to the environment” (223) may suggest students and teachers (human actants) are less well served when seen through the “worldview” of a God’s eye perspective and its resulting treatment of objects / subjects and their interpretation (224-25). In fact, Rickert’s theory of ambient rhetoric highlights the cultural lens that may have been at the heart of one of my arguments that a “nostalgic” approach to face-to-face pedagogy is at the core of some of our field’s tensions when it comes to online pedagogy practices.

Really, Rickert’s work brought together for me much of our semester’s trajectory. His theorizing is thick with name dropping, clearly demonstrating how to build a FrankenTheory to fill the gaps made visible by those who have come before. Throughout the work, he builds upon Heidegger’s theories of rhetoric in interesting pathways, reinforcing his view that an ambient rhetoric is preferred over traditional rhetoric in the way it becomes “a responsive way of revealing the world for others” (162). His book brought to mind rhizomes and networks, hardware and ANT. For me, even our final mind map took on new meaning as I read his argument that “the complex cannot be…analyzed through…the component elements but rather enters a new state of order … that transcends the initial state” (100). As we watched our mind maps grow in complexity, we might also say we have been“haunted by increasing points of connection but also by their interactive emergence into new forms” (101). Thus, after reading Rickert, I found myself wondering if being asked to reconceptualize and recreate our semester’s worth of work in Popplet might have been the plan all along.

Coda: it seems only appropriate that I conclude my final reading post with a rerun…

"The A Team": Dr. Romrigo

“The A Team”: Dr. Romrigo

Works Cited

Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2013.

Reading Notes: Althusser and Hall, Tip-Toeing Toward Ambient Rhetoric

Several interesting take-aways from this week’s reading – although I will only focus on a few that really struck me as intriguing points of intersections. Indeed, I really seem to have more questions than connections this time around, and so this post seems quite fragmented. But, here we go….

First: Sir Ken Robinson’s TED talk “Changing Educational Paradigms” immediately came to mind while reading Althusser (and, to a lesser extent, Hall) this week. And so, I’ll begin by sharing this:

It’s fitting, I think, to jump next into Althusser’s input on the State-then-Educational System as ideological conditional “apparatus.” The concept of reproduction is key to both Althusser and Hall (and I suspect Rickert as well), but in slightly different forms – and I think in interesting ways. Althusser is, he asserts, promoting a “theory of ideology,” and advances a number of theses. But it’s where (i.e., which border node) Althusser seems to connect to Hall in terms of behavior and ideology that I found particularly worthy of note.

Production Line: Peeps

Production Line: Peeps

Althusser’s Marxist perspective frames his text in terms of the role of production in “social formation” (1). In order to keep this social formation in place, production plays a pivotal role, but this must be “reproduced” within the population in order to maintain it. To do this, he argues that this society must “reproduce (1) the productive forces, [and] (2) the existing relations of [the dominant mode of] productions.” Further, “what distinguishes the productive forces from the means of production” [emphasis mine] is “the reproduction of labour power.” But it isn’t simple addition to the labor pool; it’s reproduction that is key. And according to this author, reproducing the “infrastructure” or the economic base isn’t enough – the superstructure of state and ideology are what support the entire structure / system.

Interestingly, just when I think this is going to be a political / Marxist critique of ideological systems, Althusser insists that he is making a distinction between the “repressive state apparatuses” or RSA (the government or police forces) and the “ideological state apparatus” or ISA (the church, education, family, and even culture and literature). It is the ISA which is at the center of his theories in this chapter. Interestingly, he distinguishes between the two, in part, by referring to the scale of their function, with the ISA functioning “massively.”

(So I wondered at this point, what would Althusser think of educational MOOCs, which by this publication weren’t even a glint in a programmer’s eye?)

The turn toward the Educational system (supplanting that of the Family-Church influence) struck me as an interesting line of thinking given our graduate-level learning is currently focused on Theories of Networks, and we know that theories cannot be ideology / bias-free. When Althusser comments on what / how students learn (“’rules’ of good behavior” as well as “submission to the rules of the …ruling ideology”), I hear him channeling good old political Marxism, with ruling classes and the working classes at odds, but with class struggles taking place at these ISA sites.

(Would Foucault see these sites as nodes of differance?)

In other words, it isn’t enough to reproduce the working class system; the “relations of exploited to exploiters and exploiters to exploited” must also be reproduced. Thus, the nodes of the network PLUS the network relationships themselves are informed and multiplied.

Althusser’s a bit of a tough go for me at this point, but several of his points seem to provide potential connections into Hall’s article worth highlighting for future comparison to Rickert:

  • An individual’s “ideas are his material actions inserted into material practices governed by material rituals…themselves defined by the material” conditions / apparatus from which those ideas emerged.
  • “individuals are always-already subjects. Hence individuals are ‘abstract’ with respect to the subjects which they always already are.” (This reminded me a bit of the Hall comments about the relationship between individuals and society when it comes to mass communication methods and coding/decoding.)

Hall takes it from here: writing about mass communication studies as overly “linear” and lacking “a structured conception of the different moments as a complex structure of relations” (478), his statement strikes me as a possible push back to Althussers’ superstructure / linear materiality of these important relationships within complex systems involved in a “production process” (Hall 479). While Althusser focuses on ideological (re)production, Hall’s focus is on the systems of mass communication and coding/decoding messages passing through those systems (mainly television). Perhaps we might consider this a layer deeper – at the “genetic” levels” – of these infrastructures.


From blog page: Richard Cassaro, 2011

First, Hall defines codes as “the means by which power and ideology are made to signify in particular discourses” (483). So if Althusser is concerned with ideologies’ reproduction through dominant systems like government-run educational institutions, Hall jumps into the deeper end of this pool on the subject of another object of similar charges – mass media. Rather than Althusser’s theorizing of the ideology itself, Hall’s focus is on the communication process – specifically explaining the four stages of communication: production, circulation, consumption (or use), and reproduction. Interestingly, Hall’s comments bear a similar tone to Althusser’s when he says that messages are imprinted by “institutional power-relations” at each of these four stages, essentially “reproducing a pattern of domination” (477). Each of these moments, he argues, should be seen as “different moments” in a “complex structure of relations” (478). Relations which, at least according to Althusser, are marked by public behaviors commensurate with some form of conditioning – or as Hall would assert, a coding and decoding.

Hall pushes back against theorists who linger too long over the outcome of behavior in this media-ideological brewing pot (480). Instead, he fixes his gaze on the communication Production-to-Reproduction scale and the naturalization of some meanings due to wide distribution. This, he says, has an “ideological effect” of “concealing the practices of coding which are present.”

(Is this, then, what Althusser would see as the process used by the ISA? And what would Foucault say or add to this?)

QR Code

QR Code

These codes become wrapped in Hall’s nuanced meanings of connotation and denotation as they infuse the “structure of discourses in dominance” where meanings can be mapped into hierarchical and “dominant or preferred meanings” (483). This power of relationship ties between coding and decoding bring to mind our early discussions of Hardware Theory, and the compartmentalized nature of that communication system.

(I wonder – how have digital spaces impacted this, especially as Hall asserts that dominance = a “pattern of ‘preferred readings’” that are distributed through these systems of mass communication?)

So Hall’s discussion of coding and decoding and the relationships between those two acts as independent yet co-limiting, creating a system of dependence and even perpetual balance which he calls “a fundamental alignment and reciprocity” (481) is at the root of “class struggle in language” (482), reflections of how ideology affects discourse at the connotative level.

Final note: Hall’s argument is situated in the midst of mass communication systems (like television) being theorized as ideological influences upon public behavior. He insists that it isn’t the behavior we need to study – it’s the system by which messages are coded and decoded in discourse that deserves closer study. Also of interest is his approach to the “subjective capacity” of television’s power to mediate / transfer messages and meaning (485). Althusser states that “actors…and their respective roles, are reflected in the very structure of all ideology,” but does that mean they are no longer individualized in his theorizing? Hall seems to think such individualization vs. subjectivity when it comes to successful decoding has been misrepresented. He argues that miscommunication happens – not because individuals “misinterpret” the messages intended meanings, but because there is a lack of reciprocity between the first and fourth stages of the communication process.

The idea of how knowledge (and ideologies) are transmitted and/or infused into a network or community is one that carries with it all sorts of sharp edges. Educators can either be facilitators of knowledge creation and transfer, or we can be ideological reproductive agents. According to Ken Robinson, our traditional system of education is a mass production line from K-16.

Are MOOCs treated with such critical suspicion in part because their structures violate this system?

And so, the final connection: Hall writes about the influence of the media to shape and transmit the “structure of discourses in dominance” (483). His “definition of a hegemonic viewpoint” as one which “defines within its terms the mental horizon … of possible meanings of a whole sector… of society” (486) seems to serve as the “how” to Althusser’s argument that ISAs (education) create that horizon. Class struggle for both authors begin, then, with communication networks.

Works Cited:

Althusser, Louis. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatus.” Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays, Monthly Review Press 1971. Web (

Hall, Stuart. “Encoding, Decoding.” The Cultural Studies Reader, 3rd ed. Simon During, Ed. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Mobile Technology On the Move: Rainie, Scott, and Deleuze

Rhizomes and Social Networks –

This week’s readings bring us around to the rhizome analogy, one which Deleuze and Guattari wax philosophic over (when they apparently are indulging in some pharmaceutical hallucinations, I gather). Their rhizomatic illustrations seem to serve as a useful hinge upon which to balance Scott’s article that narrates the building blogs of an evolving system of theory, and that of Rainie and Wellman’s anecdote-filled discussion of the Third Revolution.

I read Scott first, in preparation for our Tree collaboration, and found it especially helpful in terms of the way it moved the reader relatively smoothly through a narrative of who was building upon whom. Interestingly, his self-proclaimed purpose is to “bridge [the] gap between theory and practice” (1), something many of our “show and tell” build projects seem designed to do as well. (Frankentheorists Anonymous.) His focus is on “social network analysis” (1) for the purpose of “identifying…key concepts” and finding “kinship patterns” (1-2), a useful foundation for the next two readings of this set, as he provides some useful pragmatic elements as balance to Deleuze/Guattari’s more ideological treatise, and as well to inform the analogous turn of Rainie and Wellman. Several key terms of note:

  • Attribute data = “attitudes, opinions, and behaviors” that serve as “characteristics” of individuals and/or groups (2).
  • Variable analysis= a way to measure the “values of particular variables” like “income, occupation, education” (2).
  • Relational data = “the contacts, ties, and connections…which relate one agent to another and [what seems most important] cannot be reduced to the properties of the individual agents” (3). He asserts that this is key to the social sciences in that it highlights the focus upon “the structure  of social action,” not simply the individuals (4).
  • Ideational data = describes the “meanings, motives, definitions and typifications themselves” (3)

He cites three main lines of development of analysis: sociometric & graph theory, dealing with small  groups; cliques or “cohesive sub-groupings” (16); and anthropologists / networks (26).  Interestingly all three claim to build upon the other, but differentiate by shifting the focus of outcomes in varying directions, largely based on the perception of scaling the cause-effect. The graph theory raises the ever-important element of research, and that is the influence of the group upon “individual perceptions” in terms of how social organizations inform the system a the very basic level of the “I” (8-9). Scott points to the usefulness of sociometrics in creating “analytical diagram[s]”  such as what researchers often use to map data: graphs, bar charts, etc. (10). He presents a variety of different diagrams other than basic lines that graph networks of behavior in terms of relationships (13) in structural terms that sound a great deal like the networks we’ve been exploring to date. His nod to interdisciplinarity as a strong influence in determining such representations struck a chord with me, thinking of ways we’ve been drawing upon any number of fields to make connections to English Studies. (I’m often surprised to see how well they fit!)

I appreciated his article’s focus on making analysis accessible, and for his advice on what potholes we need to avoid when theorizing any analysis – like forced applications. That seems to be a risk whenever working with metaphors – there is always something that doesn’t quite fit. Enter: FrankenTheory. Where one analogy fails, we usher in a second (or a third) as a layering system of interpretive tools.  His cautions are clearly well-founded. I especially appreciate his observation in Chapter 3 that one of the risks of “construct[ing] sociograms” is their tendency to obscure the important smaller nodes of connections – masking the trees in the larger scale of the forest (40). I was painfully aware of my wildly out-of-control Mind Map at this point – in anticipation of the need to restructure it by theme. (I wondered if that directed activity is intended as an offshoot of Scott’s observation here!)

Scott brings us back to the notion of boundaries in Chapter 3, observing: “What these  problems point to is the fact that the determination of network boundaries is not simply a matter of identifying the … obvious boundaries of the situation.” That’s because locating or naming said boundaries in research “is the outcome of a theoretically informed decision about what is significant in the situation under investigation” (54).  As Dr. Romberger pointed out recently, our research will inevitably require us to be transparent in recognizing our biases as part of our analysis.

From "How Stuff Works": "How Grass Works"

From “How Stuff Works”: “How Grass Works”

Next in the order of things comes – in my scheme of things, at least – Deleuze and Guattari’s treatise on rhizomes. I find their conceptualization of this physical schema especially useful as an alternative to a more traditional linear mapping of relationships and networks. Their attention to the characteristics of a rhizomatic form (grass-like) vs. an arborescent (tree-like) form became a bit of a mantra when our group was designing our theory lineage line. Especially helpful was their delineation of characteristics, again opening up possibilities for transferring to discussions of our Objects of Studies. The non-genetic nature of rhizomes seems to suggest that thinking of theories evolving out of previous theories overly simplistic, that such hierarchical imagery too often leaves out the multi-directional influences of other networks (cultures, individuals, etc.). This clearly gels with so many of our other theorists (Castells and Latour, most recently) who argue that we must see network influences happening in a multi-directional format – again, thinking back to Dr. Romberger’s asterisk when explaining ANT.

I found their commentary on Eastern vs. Western cultural thinking especially note-worthy, and in particular their suggestion that American cultures manage to blend both in many ways. Perhaps this has more to do with the “age” of a culture than ethnocentricity, with a culture of immigrants – blending a myriad of histories and cultures – creating  a multi-nodal sense of identity.

There is one concept that I must confess I have not quite wrapped my brain around – maps and tracings…that tracings must be put on the map, not the other way around (21). Perhaps, like Winnie the Pooh, I need to go to my Thinking Spot and ponder that for a time.

Meme: Cell Phone Culture and Zombies

Meme: Cell Phone Culture and Zombies

Finally, Rainie and Wellman cap off this trio by placing these ideas of rhizome connections and data collecting in the context of the age of mobile communications networks.  I must confess, thinking of our culture and communities as an OS – not unlike Maverick from Apple or (ugh) Windows 8 – is one I’m not entirely ready to embrace. Clearly, Rainie and Wellman resist the argument that our age of cell phone-networked cultures is creating isolationists. And while they do give a nod toward some of the downsides of the mobile-technology obsessed, I did get the sense that they are firmly in the cheer camp of “more mobile is good for us.” (Would this mean the meme above could be rendered as a Zombie Rhizome?)

Their distinction between networked versus embedded remains a bit fuzzy to me. They seemed to go to great lengths to clarify the notion of individuals networked vs. embedded into groups, pointing out ways in which mobile communication technologies allow for greater, rhizomatic growth beyond a spatially limited contact list. They clearly want us to see this in terms of social groups problem-solving by outreach and information gathering efforts. At the heart of this is what they call “three revolutions”:

  • The social network revolution – extending the social circle beyond proximity and traditional family / village units;
  • The internet revolution – increased communication and knowledge gathering powers; and
  • The mobile revolution – creating “appendages” to our physical bodies for the purpose of making connections unencumbered by time or space (even referring to  Castells’ “space of flows” on page 102).

These three revolutions are mutually influential “in the network operating system” (107), in good and bad ways. I laughed when they pointed to the examples of “present absence” (103) in an image of teenagers sitting in the same room engaging with each other through mobile devices rather than face-to-face interactivity. Or the public space invading private space in the case of cell phone conversations in public – I think we’ve all been a part of that.

Samsung: Social Networks

Samsung: Social Networks

But what makes this a “revolution,” exactly? Is this, in some ways, enthusiastic hyperbole? If we define revolution as “no turning back” change, then yes – the impact of communications technologies on our social interactivity is revolutionary. Is it rhizomatic? Yes, I think so, certainly given the ways in which these authors talk about individuals’ abilities to expand outside of their geographically located spaces and branch out into new networks at will, even jumping past traditional bridges (thinking here of Facebook’s Friend features as a “partial membership in multiple networks” — 12) to move into new realms of connections – the “Connected Me” (19). Such technology also shatters traditional (or else, long standing) boundaries such as work / home, public / private, and aligns with Deleuze and Guattari’s description of the rhizome beginning in the “middle” and not the ends (21), rupturing at “segmentary” points along the line yet still remaining connected (9). Could this be possible with any other technology other than Internet-linked channels?

The principal characteristics outlined on page 21 is quite useful when using a rhizome as analogy – it stands apart in many ways from an ecology, or a neurosystem of the brain. It appeals to the controlled chaos theory mentioned in Castells as well, but seems to offer some troubling qualities (like having neither subject nor object) that may make it unwieldy if combining it with a discussion of rhetorical spatial features (thinking here of the MOOC) – that is, of course, unless I weave in ANT.

In summation, I have to end with a reference to the graphic at the beginning of Chapter 1 in Deleuze/Guattari. My house is full of musicians, so staff paper is familiar to me. And when I first spotted the graphic I was reminded of what my book of blank music staves looked like in the hands of a two-year old with crayons. I did not at first spot the rhizome. In fact, I’m still not sure I do. But if we’re talking about the difficulties in crafting visual representations of data from a highly complex subject that seems perpetually in motion (in terms of theorizing, anyway), then yes. I can see it. Or maybe it’s just the Rorshach representation of our overflowing minds at the end of a very busy semester.

Rorschach Image

Rorschach Image

Works Cited:

Deleuze, Gilles and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: Univ of Minnesota Press, 1987. Chapter 1 only

Rainie, Lee and Barry Wellman. Networked: The New Social Operating System. London: MIT Press.

Scott, John. Social Network Analysis: A Handbook 2nd ed. Los Angeles: Sage, 2010. Chs. 1-3.

Castells: Time and Space Walk Into A Bar…

Star Trek: "City on the Edge of Forever"

Star Trek: “City on the Edge of Forever”

Several times while reading Castells, I thought of science fiction and the philosophical musings about time, space, dimensions, and what not. So imagine my surprise when I read Castell use the phrase, “city on the edge.” His references to time and space as abstractions made the next jump inevitable: one of Star Trek’s most feted episodes, outlined here. For those of you unfamiliar with the series, time isn’t tied to space and permanency at all. Perfect fit for Castells.

The Wall Street Journal, "A Revolution In the Making." (Image by Ryan Etter)

The Wall Street Journal, “A Revolution In the Making.” (Image by Ryan Etter)

Chapters 2 & 3: Castells’ early chapters lay the historical groundwork for these next sections, establishing as he does his argument that we are a part of a global (not planetary) information revolution on or above the same level of significance as the Industrial Revolution. (See this Wall Street Journal article for some interesting connections.)

Instead of the manufacturing industry, however, the new revolution is based on communication technology. His book describes this new network in terms of nodes and links, diffusions and systems – with transformations and innovations occurring where ideas are exchanged, usually at nodes that “interact with economy and society” (62-69). This new economy, however, is not one of power in terms of energy production but “informational” in terms of mass communication and the “new culture” it creates (77, xxx). Interestingly, he argues that the infrastructure itself is not at the heart of this phenomenon – it is the communication itself (xxxvii). This is the economy of chained networks and nodes he describes as being the components of this network society – what seems remarkably like an ecology.

Connections to Ecosystems and Neurobiology: In his early chapters, he outlines key agency nodes that are the basis of this society: information, pervasiveness, networking logic, flexibility, and convergence (69-71). The product of this new economy is not goods and services, however; it is “information” (78). Therefore, could it be he is describing not just an economy of knowledge, but an ecosystem of knowledge with information as its key medium for growth? Thinking back to the neurobiology readings, the chemical-based electrical impulses that constitute information and the neuronal system they travel could be considered a medium. Like Castells’ description of the economic system of his new society, these information corporations form strategic alliances very much like Spinuzzi’s chained activity networks comprised of nodes (each one an alliance). This system evolves and diffuses along what Castells calls a “global web” (122) – growing in ways that sound remarkably like neural pathways, networks within networks (131). I found his description of diffusion rather interesting, extending knowledge from major concentrations of states / businesses typically characterized as dominant economic / power centers (nodes again), but “skewed toward and defined by advanced cultures” (126). His  explanation of this seems to replay a long history of the ways in which economies and their “affordances” favor the strong and the rich — discrimination that is based on value systems, but in this economy, it’s information and communication that are the valued coins of a global system built on local nodes (134). It is the technology itself, Castells asserts, that changes how the market establishes that value (156), citing the growth and confluence of tech-influenced infrastructures composed of financial markets, software companies, companies like Yahoo that facilitate communication, and companies like Amazon that create a new market base of strictly online commerce (148-153).

So, key concepts for Chapter 2 might be summed up in these two quotations:

  • “The new economy brings information technology and the technology of information together in the creation of value out of our belief in the value we create” (160-162).
  • The “[e]ssential component of the new economy: networking. The organizational transformation of the economy, as well as … society … are … a necessary condition for institutional restructuring and technical innovation” (160).

rand_world_1_horizIn Chapter 3, Castells discussed a history of trends in the emergence of this new culture. He goes to great lengths to be sure we as readers understand that by culture, he does not mean “a set of values and beliefs linked to a particular society” (163). Rather, he grounds his definition of the term in the idea of “ideational bases for institutionalized authority relations” or “organizational logics” (164) – a concept that again seems highly similar to our exploration of intersecting ecologies (Guatteri, I believe). In this chapter, he takes us through the evolution of “the large corporation,” moving through Fordism (166) to the new management he calls “Toyotism” (169).  From Taylorism / Fordism to this new era of management and corporate systemization, he points to the evolution of what he calls a “horizontal corporation” (176) that is in essence “an articulated network of multifunctional decision-making centers” (178). Networks like the Cisco Systems are the new archetype that has emerged to replace the former (Fordism) with a “business model of the Internet-based economy…a global networked business model” (180). Like Bateson, Castells notes that the importance of the mind or “mentality” – not the tools or the computer-based infrastructure –is the driving force of this evolution (185). However, Castells also notes that without the computer, none of this would have been possible (185). Yin and yang.

He coins the phrase “spirit of informationalism” as a characteristic of this new networked society and, while rather interesting, it seemed as though it was Castells’ effort to avoid the traditional conceptual frame of the term “culture” in this discussion. He seems to want this term of “culture” to exist in multiple dimensions – which at times makes it a bit confusing, as though he wants it both ways – but settles on a definition of this defining “spirit” as “the culture of ‘creative destruction’ (215). Perhaps this is an inevitable dilemma of any discussion of this sort of networked ecosystem based on knowledge / information / communications – we are exploring a system that employs both the philosophical as well as the physical. Some ephemerality is to be expected, I suppose. (Just so long as we don’t need to follow Bateson’s use of LSD to be fully versed in the proposal.)

Chapters 5-7: With the basic definitional concepts behind him, Castells moves into a discussion of the “culture of virtuality” in Chapter 5, beginning with a brief discussion of language and communities. This chapter reminds me of the Amanda Case TED talk, “We Are All Cyborgs Now” (see video below) in which her explanation of communication technologies (ironically sponsored by Cisco) allowing us to fold space seems to offer an example of Castells’ “space of flows” and “timeless time.” He walks us through the influence of Marshall McLuhan in the 1960s on the “diffusion of television” creating “a new galaxy of communication” (358) and an environment of communication (362). Reviewing the criticisms of television as a communications media, Castells points out that while the system may be one-way, the communication process still allows for “each culture and social group” to form “a specific relationship to the media system, such as might happen if surfing channels is understood as a way the audience “create[s] its own visual mosaic” (370). This chapter explores the formative pressures created by government, business, and social policies / politics have influenced the emergence of communication systems beyond (diffused from) the television set that have contributed to the “notion[s] of mass culture” permeating this discussion (359). He asserts that references to this “mass media” system is actually incorrectly framed as a “form of culture”; it is more accurate to refer to it as a “technological system” instead (364). There was simply SO much packed into this chapter that I find myself forced to gloss over the depths to resort to summarizing it from the shoreline: he begins with culture and language, and he concludes the chapter with the observation that our new systems of communication blur the boundaries between virtuality and reality so much (he refers the the Dan Quayle-Murphy Brown episode as proof) that it creates a “new text of the real and the imaginary” (405). This creates the potential to “embrace and integrate all forms of expression” as well as “radically transform space and time” in its creation of “a new culture” (406). As students of new media, this observation should either excite or frighten us to no end.

Link to my Object of Study: This chapter’s observations led me to wonder whether MOOCs behave similarly to how Castells describes the television interactivity conundrum. I wondered if this isn’t an illusion, however, when proponents of MOOCs assert that the virtual space allows students to be co-creators of their learning and the learning space. But how much co-creation is possible if the spatial design must conform first to the educational system that funds its existence and awards credence by framing it in the system of milestones / assessment practices expected of an institution of higher education? Knowledge diffusion may be less prescribed, but the structural system would still dictate some degree of potential pathway order. In fact, Castells remarks that the “[s]patial inequality in Internet access” cited in many MOOC criticisms “is one of the most striking paradoxes of the Information age, given the supposedly placeless characteristic of the technology” (377). Yet it seems this may be countered by what Castells refers to as the system’s potential for “innovation, flexibility, and decentralization,” which then “translate into new patterns of communications” (385-86).

Chapters 6 and 7 move down a more theoretical, even metaphysical, pathway as he introduces two concepts: the space of flows and timeless time. These two chapters were especially challenging, as I’m clearly all about pragmatic application of theory. (This is where my reference to the Amanda Case TED talk came in handy, as a way to provide a touchstone reference.) The concept of space / flowing reminds me of the neuron pathways and “channels” described in last week’s readings, but it also seems to echo the theories of Activity and even Actor Network, where the movement and agency highlight both the limits and the permeability of boundaries (a form of space). One of the more interesting observations in this chapter was his assertion that “space is the expression of society” (440). It is as if he sees space much like we might see boundaries and pathways – but acknowledging that the “map is not the territory” (Bateson’s reference to Korzybski on page 455). This would seem to substantiate Castells’ comment that “[s]patial forms and processes are formed by the dynamics of the overall social structure.” A bit frightening is his observation that the “background of meaning” informing this space is no longer cultural “experience, history, and specific culture,” but is being replaced instead by “dominant interests” (450). To avoid this, Castells champions the concept of “nude architecture,” or his “space of flows” (450). But how can any type of architecture be totally devoid of influence or neutral? Even the hypothesis itself places a preferred value on this new culture and network system, lauding its benefits while also pointing out its dangers. This is a point in the book where I think the author extends his toe just a bit too far over the line.

In sum, his “space of flows” appears to be – like our neuron studies – a metaphor meant to replace pre-existing models or interpretive lenses with something more nuanced, more suited to the space/non-space that is our concept of the vast web structure of the Internet…a structure that can only be conceptualized if we include the non-forms like space, movement, ideas. And because our concept of space is grounded in not-space (i.e., the nodes of the material world), the same must be true of time. Humans are creatures dependent on the concrete – we tie ourselves to timelines and structures so we have a sense of place and identity. Castells argues that “linear, irreversible, measurable, predictable time is being shattered in the network society” (463), and we therefore need a new form – his “timeless time” – to take its place. He defines these two concepts as linked, and much like Case refers to the “folding of space” through a communication technology, one shapes the other…and in turn both shape / characterize this new “network society” (499).

Castells’ philosophy of society and technology is compelling, yet I wonder if it can really be a replacement or even an evolution if it can only be grounded through negation of existing frameworks of human activity and concrete concepts such as place / space. Thinking back to CHAT and the call to revisit the canons of our culture, I am reminded of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9) if one of the primary hubs of new systems remains the human being at the center of it all…the one who has the agency to step back and forth through portals christened “The Guardian of Forever.”

Works Cited:

Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1987.

Case, Amanda. “We Are All Cyborgs Now.” 11 Jan. 2011.

Castells, Manuel. Rise of the Network Society. 2nd ed. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

“City on the Edge of Forever.” Star Trek. NBC. 6 April 1967. Television.

“Unit 10: Neurobiology.” Rediscovering Biology. Annenberg Foundation. 2013. Web.

An Ecology of Reading Notes: Castells & Neurobiology, or NeuroEco

I’ll start this week with the readings on neurobiology because of my interests in that field. I’m actually quite fond of making references to mind mapping and neurobiology when looking for metaphors to explain critical thinking or other complex activities (whether for my own use or for my students – pity them). I’m sure this has to do with my life-long interest in the sciences, so it’s only natural I gravitate toward such analogies as black holes, synaptic connections, neural networks, and – of course – the Borg.

The Borg, Star Trek: The Next Generation from Memory

The Borg, Star Trek: The Next Generation
from Memory

While reviewing these materials, I was struck by the overt parallels with our theories covered thus far in terms of networks and network activities: nodes = neurons, boundaries = cell membranes, and neuron-to-neuron transfer = over gaps. So now that it’s clear that both these filters are permanently seated as my reading lenses, these connections – and their links to some of our theorists and our theme – take on a new level of profundity when linking out to ways my classroom pedagogy (and my Object of Study) can be articulated with the help of this week’s readings / concepts.

In sum, this chapter provides an overview of how the brain’s neurons essentially constitute networks within networks, part of the higher brain function – what the textbook refers to as a systems-level operation. These neurons process and transmit electrical impulses and chemical information as part of knowledge generation, transfer, memory, and a host of physiological functions. The description is vividly reminiscent of the chained activity system described by Spinuzzi, except that these neural pathways seem anything BUT “informal linkages” (Spinuzzi “Networks” 74). The textbook section on Neurobiology parallels many of our recent discussions and, of course, Castells’ preliminary chapters outlining a history of knowledge development (a knowledge economy).  Our brains take in information, process that information, and then create some product our “outputs” (“Introduction”).  With advancing technology such as imaging systems, researchers are able to examine knowledge at the molecular level, observing exactly how “neurons talk” by comparing the process to a “24-hour call center” (reminding me of Activity Theory). (This change of perspective remains that of an observer – something our previous week’s discussion pressures thanks to our attention to the Observer vs. Integrated Participant roles we as humans play within an ecosystem.) The specific nodes in this “talking process” that strike me as most compelling and connection-rich are the concepts of “voltage-gated channels” (buses come to mind), “LTP,” and the system of movement / boundaries / and mediators that is the neuron.

A Synapse, Image from Rediscovering Biology, Chapter 10 “Across the Synapse”

I found several of the key vocabulary terms as defined by the glossary important to both this summary and my OoS theory:

  • Neuron = a cell referred to as a type of “battery” which collects and transfers information. Key to communication in cellular activity. In essence, we might see it as an activity node. Two ends, one for reception, one for delivery/transfer. Neurons “make the connections” (Neurobiology video).
  • Dendrite = found on the neuron’s surfaces, akin to a “tree” structure, these receive chemical/electrical messages
  • Axon = found at the opposing end of the neuron, transmits the processed incoming signal to other neurons
  • Membranes = cell barriers, surfaces
  • Synapses = what connects two neurons in order to exchange information
  • Receptors = receiving the molecular information, on a “post-synaptic neuron,” before transferring on the information.
  • Neurotransmitters = molecules that travel “across the synapse and, by binding to the receptor on the postsynaptic neuron,” key to signal transfer
  • Exocytosis = when neurotransmitters are released
  • Vesicles = described like a “soap bubble,” nodes of transmission for the neurotransmitter. The boundaries or membranes essentially carry the information, serving like a moving truck for the information.
  • LTP or Long Term Potentiation =  key to memory. If a neuron is hyper stimulated, say with increased sensory stimuli like neurons become “more sensitive to stimuli.” It has to do with the pre-synaptic and post-synaptic connections. Rather than a synchronous 1:1 pre- post- activity, increased input or stimulation increases the firing duration. This might happen because more neuro-transmitters are released. Or, the receptor is modified somehow (chemically), increasing the action potential.
  • Neurogenesis = a key to adaptation. Apparently the adult brain holds “in reserve” new / potential neurons, contrary to what was previously believed to be limited to early brain development which ceases at a certain maturation stage. New technologies revealed that the brain isn’t as much like a computer – with limited input / data potential – as once believed. Interestingly, this was discovered by looking at the gaps – examining activity that suggested another force was in play (Foucault’s traces).
  • Voltage-gated channels = either open or closed, “membrane potential of the cell,” by chemicals like neurotransmitters. These occur in the cell membrane of the neuron. Essentially, the charged electronic particles (ions) move according to the gradients of the charge (positive moves toward negatively charged areas and vice versa). These channels might be seen as communication avenues, or conditions with a culture that permits (as Castells might argue) potential energies to move information from the local to the global (xxxv) in a “space of flows” (xxxiii).

The dendrites are in green; the axon is in blue. Taken from

The textbook chapter’s focus is on neurobiology, and specifically neuron activity and transfer. The video mentions “molecular to global perspectives,” creating a possible node of connectivity with our ecology readings of past weeks, as well as Castells’ discussion of economics. In fact, there is simply so much here that resonates as a potentially powerful metaphor for our exploration of networks, especially those that involve human agency (a link to ANT certainly). The environment of the ecologies discussed last week seem to parallel in many ways with the process of neurogenesis. Changes in the environment (or ecology) affect the nature of the brain circuitry. Behavior and the brain combine, effects moving in both directions. Behavior regulates the response by the brain to the environment, as well as the reverse. Such “two-way” transmission results in transformation, not unlike the systems described by Castells when he explores ways in which “major social changes” – or our environment – are “characterized by a transformation of space and time in human experience” (xxxi), perhaps what might create what he calls a “space of flows” within a networked society (xxxiii).

Castells' The Rise of the Network Society

Castells’ The Rise of the Network Society

Castells’ primary focus appears to be an explanation of what he calls “a new form of society, the network society” which is a culture “based on multimodal communication” (xvii). Rather than providing us another theory, Castells asserts that this is a “structural analysis” (xix) – much like what we read in the Neurobiology Textbook. What is learned? Certainly a host of new terms, but also a means of examining familiar concepts in new ways…concepts such as knowledge, communication, connections, and structures.

Castells’ preface mentions the idea of “mega nodes” (xxxviii), an interesting concept of concentrated power, nodes that serve as switching points in the global network or system of economies. Castells seems to argue that these mega nodes – usually concentrated intersections located at “points of connection in this global architecture of networks” which “attract wealth, power, culture, innovation, and people” – are places of convergence or intersections that are not only geospatial but economic (xxxviii). The function of these mega nodes remind me of a TED video about “filter bubbles” as these mega nodes act as directional potential for those at the farthest reaches of this system, exerting control much like the LTP of the synaptic connections might function. Castells argues that “our societies are…structured around a bipolar opposition between the net and the self,” creating a “structural schizophrenia between function and meaning” (3). His opening chapter (chapter 1) explores the history of technology in terms of a revolution similar to the industrial revolution – what he calls the “information technical revolution” (29). Essentially, information technology is akin to the new energies of the Industrial Revolution” (30). The “pervasiveness” of information technology is woven into everything and “the mind is a direct productive force” in this system, not simply something that “makes decisions in the ‘system’” (31) The computers then become extensions of the mind, and this is where the neurobiology readings intersect, for the neuroscientists now see the computer analogy for our brain’s functioning no longer sufficient – it’s far more complex. Castells’ early chapters also reveal a complexity to which the neurobiology readings create an interesting parallel – or overlay – in the ways that such systems function. Since Castells pointed out early in his book that he was not trying to create a theory, only a structural analysis…even so, it still feels like a theory, given his references to economic/political powers tracing the creation of nodes and driving innovation into the pattern of the system (Chapter 1) and the existence of a “new culture” (xvii).

In fact, it is this local to global framework which pairs so well with the neurobiology textbook reading, especially since Castells is apparently locating his discussion of economies within communication  — specifically an economy based on information. He points to agency nodes, “material foundations of the network society,” that point back to our readings on ecology, and even as far back to Activity Theory and Actor Network Theory. In many ways, Castells’ early chapters illustrate the foundations of a network system that seems to move much like neurons and neurotransmitters do.

It’s all really heady stuff (no pun intended), and its grounding in information being communicated seems to connect in complex ways with the complex neurobiology model we read this week. It may take me a while to process all of this – but there is so much potential applications to studying MOOCs here, I’ll likely need to sift through it to pick and choose.

In the meantime, all this talk of brains and neurochemistry has led me to one of my favorite movie scenes. Perhaps an appropriate reminder of how we must sometimes tread carefully when working with networks and nodes.

A Mind (Ecology) is a Terrible Thing to Waste (Affordances): Week of March 16th

Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination

Peter Turchi, Maps of the Imagination

“We can equate the place with geometry and space with geography. Geography or space is lived or practiced more than geometry of place … geometries are necessary ways of mapping relations among histories and constructing tactics of resistance that tie local to global concerns” (141) – Johnson-Eilola Nostalgic Angels

First, let me say Gregory Bateson‘s philosophical treatise reminded me of several of our recent theorists (naturally). Secondly, I found his reference to Korzybski that “the map is not the territory” (455) especially interesting. I don’t think I’ve plumbed all the potential of that concept, but I do know the first thing I thought of was the distinction by Johnson-Eilola (J-E) on geometric vs. geographic space  (in Nostalgic Angels) and that “[c]ommon sense tells us not to confuse the colored lines on paper maps with reality” (15). However, J-E also points out that “maps certainly participate in the real activities, suggesting and authorizing ways of living – maps are part of reality” (15). So I wonder: how would Bateson respond to Johnson-Eilola’s argument that “the borders of discourse formations are real practices and structures” (15)? I rather suspect there would be some agreement, as Bateson’s article is all about perception and ways ecologies and borders and “minds” are functioning within a system (465). But there is so much packed into a relatively small space (and I’m still trying to figure out if that’s at all related to the comment about LSD in the conclusion) that I felt as though I was only able to grab onto a small piece. In this case, it is his concept of mapping and “worlds of explanation” of that mapping: the physical cause-effect world of the “pleroma” and the idea world of the “creatura” in which “effects are brought about…by difference” or ideas. Where those two meet — the “bridges which exist between those two worlds” (Bateson 462) — however, seems to hinge on perception.

It seems that Bateson wants us to see maps with an eye toward layering in “abstract…philosophic thought” (454) when he addresses the related question, “what is the territory?”  He claims “the process of representation [by viewpoints or measurements] will filter [the territory] out so that the mental world is only maps of maps of maps… All ‘phenomena’ are literally ‘appearances’” (460-1). So if Johnson-Eilola’s borders are included in a map (as they surely must be), would Bateson’s theory of affordances when framed this way be a challenge to that concreteness? I am not sure it would, as I think J-E is also arguing for the role of perception of “borders” of a “landscape” that we actually “construct and maintain” – Bateson’s world of the creatura, perhaps. Yet it also seems J-E is arguing for borders that are the manifestations of “social forces” that are made visible at those “nodal points” of the border (16)… which reminds me of Bateson’s statement that we must “look at the bridges which exist between these two worlds” of pleroma and creatura in order to perceive the system (462). And as he asserts, if we “want to explain or understand anything in human behavior,” including the networks we inhabit and construct, then we must understand in terms of “completed circuits” – differences in perceptive agencies, whether it is “the cut face of the tree” or the visual cortext fed by the axe man’s retina (465). Could this be what our professors are referring to as “distributed consciousness”?

Then there is the subject of “affordances.” I must say, this is a concept for which I can see all sorts of deep-pool potential for my OoS (MOOCs). Gibson confesses that he simply made up this term (127), but I find his definition of the concept powerful. The connection to Bateson is in terms of relationships (455) – but Gibson puts this in somewhat less physio-psycho terms analogous to “the communication system of the body” (467). Such framing certainly seems appropriate given the cyborg nature of some of our network models. Gibson’s Theory of Affordance is designed to provide us with a “new definition of what value and meaning ARE” (140), something I think Norman qualifies productively in his string of design examples that focus on physical constraints and perceived vs. actual affordances. In truth, I think Norman’s article is the one that really clarified the application of this theory, while Gibson and (more so) Bateson lingered just a little too long in the ethereal domain for someone like me who is all about the practical application. Be that as it may…

For Bateson, there are two types of ecology: (1) bioenergetics or “units bounded at the cell membrane” for which “boundaries are…the frontiers” (466), which made me think of borders as nodes of multi-directional agency (Latour’s many-spoked nodes as illustrated by Dr. Romberger), a jumping off place. Then there are (2) economies of information – “boundaries as enclosing pathways” (467). Does “enclosing” mean limitations? Drawing the line “here, and no farther”?

At first, I thought of Latour and ANT when I started reading, thinking that these borders, relationships, and ecologies were mutually influential and equally capable of agency. But when reading Gibson’s claim that (129) “[a]n affordance points…to the environment and to the observer,” I wondered – since so much of this theory is about perception – is Gibson limiting (or privileging) this theory to the perceptions of the human observer? Norman points to perceived vs. real affordances in terms of designers and users (echoing Spinuzzi), but would this be the same as those “separations between ‘self’ and ‘experience’” about which Gibson cautions (469)? Gibson certainly puts the animal / material world on what seems like a subordinate level – something to be acted upon or damaged so how would this stack up against a Latour or Spinuzzi and Actor-Network Theory?

As I mentioned earlier, the concept of affordances as a means of expressing the physical as well as value-laden conditions of the network – especially in terms of online learning – seems to promise an interesting theory for my OoS. If I can just figure out how to align all these borders…  puzzle


Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1987.

Gibson, J. J. “The Theory of Affordances.” In R. E. Shaw & J. Bransford (Eds.), Perceiving, Acting, and Knowing. Hillsdale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1977. pp. 127-143.

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing, 1997.

Norman, Don. “Affordances and Design.” 2004. Web.

Latour & Spinuzzi Together Again: Reading Notes Post part II

Continuing from my previous post — I just couldn’t wait to share those two videos — So, back to Latour.

Let me start by saying — Flick’s facial expression in the image below captures my mindset while trying to correlate Latour and Spinuzzi‘s dance of AT-ANT. I rather feel as though Spinuzzi tossed me a lifeline toward getting a better handhold on Latour’s theory (which he says is not a theory at all), but I’m not quite on safe footing yet. In fact, even as I reread my marginalia, I find myself jotting down still MORE questions. So, to be safe, in this blog I’ll focus only on a few passages and concepts that provided discernible leverage for me on this climb.

Flik in danger A Bug's Life

(c) Disney A Bug’s Life

1.  Several of Latour’s ideas in the latter part of the book stood out to me, but I think it’s worth focusing on the chapter in which Latour creates an imaginary dialogue in the chapter entitled “The Difficulty of Being An ANT.”  Specifically, Latour’s assertion that ANT is a “negative argument” (141) at first seemed appropriate given the rather adversarial quality of his argument, and given Spinuzzi’s side-by-side look at AT and ANT as voices commonly treated as competing theories. But Latour also claims that it is “by comparison with other competing ties that any tie is emphasized” (32). Doesn’t a “negative argument” suggest a counter or negation rather than an illuminating relief, or potential “tie”? Certainly, that is how Spinuzzi approaches it, if I’m reading him correctly, when he writes on page 72 that such “contradictions” should be treated — not as binaries or negations — but as “historically accumulating structural tensions within or between activity systems” (quoting Engestrom). Indeed, I’m rather partial to the notion that we find more productive theorizing potential when we focus our lenses on areas of tension, borders (why, hello again, Monsieur Foucault), or threads of activity / movement. So, I seem to be standing on a bit of a fulcrum, but I find Spinuzzi’s approach to competing theories of networks to be a more compelling approach to this mapping expedition. Rather than choosing one path over another, seeking “common ground” (94) may be the more productive means of understanding these two lenses … reminding me at this very moment of our Case Study approach to a single Object of Study. Rather than seeing the dissensions as nodes of work-stoppage, I think I’ll find more productive leverage by seeking out — as Spinuzzi suggests — nodes or “points at which the approaches can inform each other” (95).

Mapping the Journey

Mapping the Journey

So, yet again, the borders are our friends — but what does that border look like? Is it a place? A space? An unseen trace? An actant? An acton? A Theoretical domain (like cultural historical nodes)?  A form? Is it the destination or the journey we need to be theorizing?

2. Latour’s critique of frameworks (137) led to a marginal comment of mine: “is this how a MOOC becomes a contested object / space when treated only as a genre of pedagogy / class type?” Latour points to the dangers of “descriptions” vs. “explanations” in his “Fifth Source of Uncertainty” chapter, which reminded me of a MOOC article I’m reading as part of my 2nd case study. He argues that once “a site is placed ‘into a framework’, everything becomes rational much too fast and explanations begin to flow much too freely” (137). I’m struck by how composition pedagogy over the decades has gone through stages of envisioning what “the perfect teaching classroom” should look like — from the Banker’s Model described by 1899classroomused_by_david_buckingham_in_-scaled1000Freire (see image on left on the predictions of an 1899 artist) to the “sage on the stage” to the student-centered / collaborative classroom we boast of today. But online classrooms have become contested borders, defining the “best” classroom model through the f2f standard. As Johnson-Eilola points out in Angels, the “nostalgia” (22) effect could be what Latour is describing as a “framework” into which all of our notions of learning are sealed. Is that what we want? Is that what a MOOC might challenge? And aren’t frameworks sometimes good things?

3.  Further, Latour defines a network as “a tool to help describe something, not what is being described.” I think this semester we’ve seen it applied effectively as both, and I wonder if it’s possible to use it only as one rather than the other, given the nature of network-noun / network-verb. There was a part of the Latour dialogue that led me down one of those “rabbit trails” that seem more and more purposeful, especially if we are to accept Latour’s claim that these trails are really where our focus should be.

4.  Finally, back to the imagined conversation between student and professor. Question: “what can it do for me?” (Latour 141). Answer: ANT is “a theory…about how to study things, or rather how not to study them — or rather, how to let the actors have some room to express themselves” (141). The learned professor goes on to point out that this may prove especially useful when “things are changing fast” and traditional theoretical frameworks are simply too rigid to follow suit. For my object of study — composition MOOCs — this may be useful. But wait — isn’t an anti-frame a frame itself? Latour-in-cognito-as-Professor observes that ANT “says nothing about the shape of what is being described with it” (142) — I rather like his twist on the word “worknet” as opposed to “network” (143) — but we are treating all of these theories as ways of framing a discussion about objects of study, a way of thinking and articulating concepts in a way that applying them in a practical way is more than possible — it’s productive. Does this mean that in exploring the ANT along all its twists and turns, it is more an “actor / actant” than a theory-as-tool?

There are plenty of other questions like these in my book margins, but I’m also finding a need for a running list of the vocabulary — especially since some of the terms are being contested and applied in varying ways. I’ve only just started creating this gloss, but I did locate a helpful List of Key Terms for Latour, while others that I’ll need to keep track of are:

  • Controversy – tracing the Nodes, connections
  • Actors
  • Informants
  • Intermediaries
  • Mediators


Works Cited

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network Theory.” New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.

Spinuzzi, Clay. “How Are Networks Theorized?” Network: Theorizing Knowledge Work in Telecommunications. New York: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Latour & Spinuzzi Together Again: Reading Notes Post part I

I suspect that the following video has been sourced in others’ posts (I  spotted it on Daniel’s after posting), but I found it packaged Latour‘s sometimes rambling / sometimes ranting first half. I must admit, his critique of the Activity Theorists and Sociologists made me laugh at times — he’s clearly quite secure in his position as critic — but by the time I made it through the 2nd half of the book, I found his posturing a bit disconcerting, especially having just read Spinuzzi‘s chapter on Networks  encouraging common ground.

Latour‘s work seems to be both theoretical as well as application — given his  examples of “how it works” embedded throughout the text. But I actually found our second reading for the week, Spinuzzi‘s chapter “How Are Networks Theorized?,” to be a helpful translator for Latour’s book, written as it is to be an overview of the tensions between Activity Theorists and Actor-Network Theory proponents. Indeed, I’m finding myself drawn more and more to both Foucault and Spinuzzi’s ways of translating theory to real-world frames (certainly no surprise, given their alliances), all the while thinking of how much it seems we’re still grappling with genres — only this time, the theories themselves are the genres. This struck me especially when reading about the “contradictions” versus “alliances” Spinuzzi writes about in his “Network” article. The attempt by Latour to categorize ANT and AT by examining their conventions of practice and reference certainly reminds me of genre theory, and Latour’s and Spinuzzi’s insistence that we trace the contradictions and conflicts as a way of truly understanding the activity / actor node theorizing priorities, certainly echoes the advantages of genre tracing (Spinuzzi again).

But Latour’s attention to science as part of his argument really appeals to me, given my background. So much so, that when I found the following RSA – TED video, I thought to myself, “THIS captures so much of our discussion over the past few weeks.”

More thoughts on Spinuzzi’s Network Chapter and Latour’s 2nd half in Part II.


Hypertext Theory & ANTS

“A structure is defined by what escapes it.”  Brian Massumi, as qtd. in Johnson-Eilola 175

A colleague of mine (a fellow composition instructor who has a fondness for old typewriters — as do I) posted the following video link to a FB thread today, and our recent readings immediately invaded my innocuous audience participation.

My first thought when I saw this was of our recent CHAT readings and the concept of remapping existing frameworks of meaning (i.e., the rhetorical canon). The text-based explanation is immediately reminiscent of Hardware Theory, with the overlaying or repurposing of one technology — and its associated rhetorical practices — with another. In some ways, it reminded me of this week’s readings by Joyce and Johnson-Eilola in terms of the way we approach hypertext and web writing; in others, I could see Latour‘s ANT at work (but perhaps that’s getting ahead of myself). I must say that of all the works assigned this week, Johnson-Eilola’s prompted the strongest connective potential for my MOOC work, while at the same time presenting me with new questions (such as the distinction she makes between geographical and geometric as ways of visualizing the spaces of hypertext and reading/writing). Her article — recalling as it does Foucault’s concepts of ecologies, Spinuzzi’s activity-based discourse communities, and genre theory — suggests to me it may well be a suitable Case Study Theory node for my next step.

The idea of borders and “border crossing” (which the above video seems to do on several levels — from repurposed technology and activity to (re)mixing genres) seems to be part of everything we comp/rhet (as well as literature) scholars write about, in one way or another. Quoting Giroux, Nostalgic Angels illustrates how the theory of “border pedagogy” (198) can be applied as a means of exploring hypertext reading as mapping the intersections of activity and even tensions — nodes. Yet Johnson-Eilola’s chapters from Nostalgic Angels seem to critique the postmodernist motives and interpretive activities as an undercurrent to her exploration of how hypertext has become a theorized object.  From Popham‘s “Boundary Forms” to Miller‘s and Bazerman‘s exploration of genres as border-busting devices, “the difficulties of our border constructions” (Johnson-Eilola 3) become nodes of critical activity. However, these nodes — as hypertext — do not always function in idealized postmodernist ways. While Joyce’s chapters seem to laud, and even idealize, hypertext writing as a means of exploding and remapping existing texts, Johnson-Eilola’s critique of two examples of  hypertext applied as literary analysis serves as a powerful rubric by which to test the theory’s promise.

The work of CHAT by Prior et al. advances an argument for remapping not just the borders but the geographic and geometrical spaces of that node and its related activities. Johnson-Eilola, as well as Joyce, have focused this conversation on the object of hypertext, whether as  a creative power of activity that makes possible new nodes and new connections — enhancing agency  (Joyce) — or as system that may actually be less utopian than advertised because it all too often is “constructed in a web of institutional forces acting as a form of nostalgia (Johnson-Eilola 7).

everything old is new again south of the border sign

South of the Border Sign

This concept of nostalgia struck me as a repeating theme for several of our readings. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Prior et al. write about remapping the canon in ways that made me question whether we can ever truly remove ourselves from the traditional rhetorical canon. Even their online theory-testing space at times renders this remap in traditional book-based layout or visual cues. This is a cautionary point made by Johnson-Eilola as well, as she states:

“We recognize the apparently radical enactment of nonlinearity inherent in the node-link structure of all hypertext; we proclaim in various ways that revolutionary potential; and then we immediately rearticulate those potentials in terms of our conventional, normal practices” (13-4).

Such pinpointing of nostalgia, and the tensions of contradiction exposed through critical assessment / applications, become a way to test such border technologies as hypertexts, argues Johnson-Eilola. I agree, finding that her critical analysis of applied hypertext examples recall Spinuzzi as well as Bazerman, Miller, and Foucault in that such a practice of juxtaposition of “the different discourses of hypertext can highlight some of the political, social, and technological forces constructing our lives” (14) — even our scholarly theorizing practices. But that leaves the question: what map do we use? Even Johnson-Eilola addresses this question, especially as a critique of the postmodernist views of truth and knowledge…views that remind me of Neo’s spoon dilemma:

I could go on for some time about Nostalgic Angels, but there is Latour to note. He too takes on this concept of borders — nodes and “geometrical shape[s]” (24) — as a means of making sense. However, I am not convinced he and Johnson-Eilola meet eye-to-eye on this subject. In an early chapter, Latour seems to push back against the use of borders as critical activity centers, preferring instead to focus on the “actors” and “movements” (25). It seems he is asserting that the most productive focal point is not the node-as-theory, but the tracing of connections, the patterns, and the relations “between the controversies themselves rather than try to decide how to settle any given controversy” (23). Essentially, this “Actor-Network-Theory” — a concept that reminds me of Foucault’s traces — asserts these disruptions and  tensions are where we must look for clues to understand that network’s (or social group’s) construction, structure, and function (30).

And so, what might these chapters offer my Object of Study (composition MOOCs)? Clearly, the way readers move through online spaces — often by using hypertext or other socially-constructed navigational tools — reflect mediated movement. Recognizing that mediation leads frequently to theoretical tensions (a la postmodernist deconstruction), but may also be explored in terms of “border spaces” or nodes through which movement (activity) might be traced. In terms of composition pedagogy, such movement in an online space carries great significance, especially in terms of production and agency. I am looking forward to applying both Latour’s and Johnson-Eilola’s lenses in the next round of Case Study application.

Works Cited

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing, 1997. Print

Joyce, Michael. Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan Press, 1996. Print.

—. Othermindedness. Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan Press, 2000. Print.


CHAT Reading Notes: Feb. 18th

 “Given the collaborative and integrated nature of this week’s assigned readings, I’m opting to treat them all in one post.”

The addition this week of the Kairos publication on canon reform, Re-situating and re-mediating the canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity, extended many of the frameworks I’ve been applying thus far to our class conversations as well as my OoS. (Even more, as it pertains to teaching composition.) Coming on the heels of an operationalized theory (Spinuzzi), the authors and researchers involved with the creation of this collaborative work — itself the very epitome of a network — evoked a strong link to the Rhetorical Situation theorists we began with (Bitzer, Vatz, Biesecker). However, I think I imagined Foucault’s most throughout these readings. This seemed especially pronounced in the introductory section as the authors argued that “classical canons have always represented only a partial map of rhetorical activity” (Prior et al., “Introduction”). Even in the construction of this node-based composition, Foucault “speaks” to me. After all, this text resists in multiple ways the homogeneity of linearities that Foucault argued were germane to a book-based literacy and culture (with which Wysocki and Johnson-Eilola concur).

As I annotated the text, I remarked how appropriate it seemed that the “Mapping Page” – or the “Start Here” node – serves as the main navigation hub, yet the nature of the web text allows the reader to enter at many other points, driven not by a directed funneling of cultural convention or theoretical bias, but by reader-centered agency. Even so… it also occurred to me that the authors may have also purposely built in familiar rhetorical structures in their decision to place each node / design the overall structural image of the page, possibly creating some of the latent system (a “back door,” of sorts) to the type of navigation system assumptions we text- / book-based readers / scholars might operate under. For example, the introductory text is located in the upper left corner of the web page, which for Western readers signals the “starting point.” This despite the rhetorical choice of situating the “core text” (made especially visually relevant by it’s stand-out choice of red as the color, along with it’s circular shape differentiating it from the rest of the articles (all square).

Map Overlay: ESRI, 2008; Geoscience Australia, 2008

Map Overlay: ESRI, 2008; Geoscience Australia, 2008

Perhaps, just as it seems Shipka and Chewning were doing in their visual construction of their research text and Prior et al. suggest by offering multiple versions of the “Core Text,” these authors are creating a “mapping overlay” for us, using both the canon of rhetorical tradition as well as their remapped and reconceptualized view of rhetorical activity. While I do not believe they intend to suggest a 1:1 trade, the layout does seem that the same logic is at work, the same understanding (Foucault’s rules) of how knowledge sharing works for readers. In other words, I wondered if this is a means of foregrounding the multimodal levels of this network of ideas in a way that makes the invisible structures — whether the gaps or the traces –- (Foucault) more visible? Reviewing my Foucault notes, I discovered a statement that captures my sense of these two rhetorical activity theories existing within the same plane. Foucault is writing of objects, but might we see the concept of rhetorical canon / rhetorical activity an object of analysis as well? Of course, this is precisely what Prior et al. seem to be doing in their proof of concept. Foucault writes that “[b]y deriving in this way the contradiction between two theses from a certain domain of objects, from its delimitations and divisions, one does not discover a point of conciliation…. One defines the locus in which it takes place; it reveals the place where the two branches of the alternative join; it localizes the divergence and the place where the two discourses are juxtaposed” (152). At the same time, I imagine Foucault would see the traditional rhetorical canon as every bit a “traditional history of ideas” (166), a force of sorts that hides or resists the types of “discontinuities, ruptures, gaps, [and] entirely new forms” (167) which Prior et al. propose as necessary to the transformative effects of technology and multimodalities. Through this juxtaposition of theories, the Prior et al. collaborative text (could we even refer to this as an “event”?) seems familiar as a “redistributions” (Foucault 5) of the familiar nodes of rhetorical activity.

The authors’ definition of CHAT is based on activity theory, so it is no surprise (but a delightful discovery) that the “Core Text” offers not one but three activities of reading and knowledge making by presenting what at first glance seems to be the same text delivered through three forms: PDF, Audio, and HTML. I took the time to review all three forms, and found that the Audio version provides the “motives” (Miller 152; Bazerman 309) behind the rhetorical activity, narrating as he does the “traces” of the creative context that are lost in the PDF and HTML versions: his daughter crying, music, sounds of nature outside.

"You Are Here"

“You Are Here”

Place, then, becomes part of the discourse – a reference to the book Cognition in the Wilda very relevant concept to analyzing multimodal and networked spaces of work and creativity. His design magnifies his point about the limits of the traditional canonical elements of invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery, and addresses his question, “What mediations, what kinds of detours, might delivery of a text involve?” (Prior, “Core Text: PDF” 6). This approach offers us what I might call a more “open” means of applying a sense of reading and/or texts as engaged with a system of networks, a map which demands we consider a complete “remap the territory” (Prior, “Core Text: PDF” 17) that we call rhetorical activity instead of a “retrofit,” in large part due to the binary framing pattern of speaker / audience on which the original canon was built. Given the complications and multiple possibilities for identifying just the act of “reading,” what Prior refers to as “lamination” (“multiple frames or fields co-exist[ing] in any situated act”), such thinking carries considerable weight for our work with networks.

Prior’s “Remaking IO” builds out from here, providing a case study in which such a remapped canon might apply to multimedia tests. However, I did wonder once again: are we still relying on the basic “genetic” elements of a traditional canon – the way we refer to language, text, author, reader, reception all seems to suggest that there is a multi-dimensionality here which may still rely on much of the same knowledge base. I was reminded of the 3-D chess set in Star Trek. The pieces in this 3-D game are the same, as is the goal, but the board has changed and therefore requires us to re-see the connections and possibilities from a very different sense of motion (potential energy of nodes once again – activity theory). With the new “board,” some new moves are now accommodated, and the flow of activity has been altered – or has it merely been expanded? This is the image I think of when I read Prior’s explanation of remapping and lamination.

Moving on to Van Ittersum’s Data Palace, dealing with another canonical element – memory – provides a pivotal tool for applying this concept. Van Ittersum writes that one goal of CHAT is to “direct our attention” to new nodes of activity, expanding our approach to rhetorical activity to incorporate systems terms – the role of the culture (the laminated layer offered by cultural-historical theory) AND the individual (the rhetorical canon’s binary core). Van Ittersum’s work points to an experiment that may impact the way I explore MOOCs in terms of seeing this a system of transfer and navigation, along with tools of memory (like using digital tools to maintain our note-taking records, for example), to see online activity as the means to “mobiliz[e] information within complex systems of tools, environments, situations, and people” – which in every way describes online classroom spaces like MOOCs.

Karen Lunsford’s work on “Remediating Science” in terms of socialization was a fascinating look at the “other” directional flow of this networked means of understanding rhetorical activity, one that rests heavily on cultural-historical theories of genres, I think, when that genre is both the text as well as the delivery / medium. Lunsford demonstrates that while conventions and rules (Foucault, Bitzer, Vatz, Biesecker, etc.) may inform the discourse community’s knowledge framework (i.e., what should a journal article look like), the digital system of publication itself “informs, shapes, and itself evolves thanks to the need to remediate a standard means of discursive practice – sharing of knowledge, a publication” when that publication moves to a digital space (Lunsford). She refers to the negotiations among those involved as an attempt at “alignment” of all the activity taking place (or being forced forward) between nodes – the researchers, journal editors, discourse community members, peer reviewers, publishers. CHAT, then, successfully “direct[s] attention” to ways in which the rhetorical activity of a science journal editor “is situated in concrete interactions” (Prior et al., “What is CHAT?”), framing the ways these nodes function and interact to “co-construct” this culture’s “material, formal, and social practices” (Lunsford).

Finally, as I pointed out in my MindMap blog commentary for this week, the project of Jody Shipka/ Bill Chewning in “Live Composition” modeled for me what Prior et al. refer to as “images of rhetorical activity” (“Introduction”).  The purpose of this article seemed to be to demonstrate how applying views made possible by varying network activities (audio narration, text-mediated narration, image-mediated narration), as well as moves to “recontextualize” the event (the act of narrating) and the composition activity at the center of the analysis, cause us to “pay attention” to the nodes of production as well as the text being produced (the artifact). The synchronization of each of these nodes creates yet another distinctive “remediation” of the narrative event, demonstrating and making visible (Foucault) the complexity of this human activity in ways that a traditional process model might not capture in such a degree.

The article is multifaceted, and at times seems to be approaching the text from multiple entry points. The introduction sets the stage to begin “rais[ing] questions about whom and how many people are recognized as active participants in the production of a process narrative” (Shipka and Chewning). Each iteration privileges different information and lenses, whether the student voice, the teacher’s curricular designs, the researcher, or the reader’s response / interaction.  Further, just as the CHAT lens is designed to do, the authors point to “the importance of attending to what participates in the production and reception” of this narrative. Their attention to the types of “mediations …[and] kinds of detours” that might be produced through these means are also under scrutiny (Shipka and Chewning).

At the forefront of my mind as I was navigating (not “reading”) this text, I found myself recalling the importance of Foucault’s attention to the “here/not here” of trace as part of conceptualizing discourse and history. In addition, I was reminded of Spinuzzi’s comments on disruption/innovation via “resistance…and chaos” (20) –- both in the way the authors describe their motivation behind the classroom activity at the center of this piece, as well as in the very design of the delivery.

Such disruptions were also part of my experience as a reader of Shipka and Chewning’s rhetorical activities in the form of their article’s design and flow. For “Telling 4,” I found myself at an impass when the .wmv file refused to play on my Mac. So in order to “participate” in the telling, I had to circumvent this software issue. Perhaps this was an intentional move on the authors’ part, to select a non-universal media player, as a way to suggest (draw our attention to) the barriers, borders, or limitations of the network’s reach? Or perhaps this was simply a glitch, with no rhetorical meaning intended at all. Yet, because we are using the CHAT theory to explore the canon as an activity, rather than static nodes or rule systems, such an event or deviation certainly must become part of the analysis – a continued lamination of parts (Prior, “CHAT”) in this complex human activity of discourse and discourse analysis.

Reading Bibliography:

Lunsford, Karen J.  Karen J. Lunsford: Remediating Science: A Case Study of Socialization. In Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Prior, Paul. “Remaking IO, remaking rhetoric: Semiotic remediation as situated rhetorical practice.” In Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Prior, Prior, Janine Solberg, Patrick Berry, Hannah Bellwoar, Bill Chewning, Karen J. Lunsford, Liz Rohan, Kevin Roozen, Mary P. Sheridan-Rabideau, Jody Shipka, Derek Van Ittersum, and Joyce Walker. Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

“Introduction + Navigation”

“What is CHAT?”

“Core Text”

Shipka, Jody and Bill Chewning.Live Composition: Four Variations of a Telling.” In Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.

Van Ittersum, Derek. “Data-Palace: Modern Memory Work In Digital Environments.” In Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (2007). Web. 14 Feb. 2014.