Tag Archives: Johnson-Eilola

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.” jnd.org. 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.

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.