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Final Case Study: Synthesis

Noel Studio Greenhouse, Director's Office, and Artwork

Noel Studio Greenhouse, Director’s Office, and Artwork


Pedagogically based on writing center philosophies, the Noel Studio is a multiliteracy center with a unique physical space and academic/administrative structure. Occupying 10,000 sq. ft of EKU Libraries’ main building, Crabbe Library, the Noel Studio provides both public and private spaces for consultants, students, and faculty to work.

Comprised of a core administrative staff of five (director, writing coordinator, research coordinator, technology associate, and administrative assistant) and a student staff of approximately forty-five (graduate assistants, undergraduate consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows), the Noel Studio was created to support the various communication and research projects happening both in and outside of the classroom. To support that mission, the physical space of the Noel Studio contains the Greenhouse (a large, open space with a variety of computers and touch-screen monitors), the Invention Space (equipped with wall-to-wall white boards, a CopyCam, and creative materials), Breakout Spaces and Practice Rooms (small, reserveable rooms with a computer work station, large screen monitors, and recording capabilities), and a communal space that currently serves as an office for technology support.

The Noel Studio is a network of space, people, activity, ideologies, and ideologies that cannot be separated from one another. It is a complex system that impacts and is impacted by larger institutional networks. While at first glance the network-icity of the Noel Studio might appear to exist primarily in its administrative structure the complexity of the Noel Studio is reflected in many different ways.

For example, even though the Noel Studio replaced the existing writing center, it did not simply overtake the writing center’s philosophies, space, or budget. Instead, it became an interdisciplinary space in the main library, an interdisciplinary department under University Programs (UP), and an amalgamation of budget lines from UP, the English Department (graduate assistantships), SGA, and, most recently, an endowment from the initial donors, Ron and Sherry Lou Noel. The collaborative efforts to make the space a reality are seen in the artwork commissioned through LexArt and paid for through the fundraising efforts of the Friends of the Library, the physical structures and features (small and large rooms, glass walls, brightly colored walls and glass), and the upgrades that have been made over the last 3.5 years (more and larger whiteboards, more mobile furniture).

Recognizing the importance of supporting students’ composing practices, some institutions are investing in multiliteracy centers. As the first large-scale multiliteracy center, the Noel Studio has already served as a model for other universities investing in communication initiatives and support services. While many people have visited the Noel Studio for ideas and advice, it’s an often-acknowledged fact that there is no “ideal” organization or plan that fits every writing center or writing program. Instead, each situation is unique and complex in its own right, subject to a multitude of factors. The Noel Studio is not replicable, but using the Noel Studio as an object of study allows us to understand the different options we have for examining the complexity of any given writing program, answering Jackie Grutch McKinney’s (2013) call for writing centers to look beyond the traditional narrative to see and articulate the work we actually do. If we can better see and articulate this work and how our centers and programs exist as nodes within institutional and (inter)disciplinary networks, we can not only help others understand our nodual value, but we can also focus on the connections that strengthen our work and loosen connections that don’t.

Brief Literature Review

In his seminal article, The idea of a writing center, S. North (1984) defined writing centers as far more than fix-it-shops (p. 435) where faculty send their students for remediation. He cited frequent examples of faculty misunderstanding and the frustrations of framing the writing center as a remedial service. Critical of those who misunderstand and misrepresent writing center work, North challenged the field to clarify their services and work towards educating students and faculty to the real role of the writing center: “the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction” (p. 438).

Since then, writing center scholarship has taken up the charge and sought to define the writing center in terms of praxis by investigating the politics of place and space (Nelson & Everts, 2001), the role of administrators as WPAs (Murphy and Stay, 2006), and how writing centers adapt to changes (Carpenter & Lee, 2013; Pemberton, 2003). At the foreground, however, has been a focus of the work that happens in a writing center–the pedagogical approach to both working with student writers and training consultants to do so.

In her recent book, Peripheral Visions on Writing Centers, J. G. McKinney (2013) critiques the narrative of writing centers that has emerged from these examinations. Three themes, she argues, arise as the tropes of the narrative:

  1. Writing centers are cozy homes
  2. Writing centers are iconoclastic
  3. Writing centers tutor (all students)

These themes, she argues are reductive and neglect the complexity of the work that happens within writing center spaces. While Mckinnery begins to trace the complexities of writing center work, she only touches on a deeper investigation. This synthesis, then, examines the Noel Studio primarily in terms of Prior et al.’s Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), positing that the rhetorical work of writing centers occurs in a much more complex system of activity than traditional rhetorical theories acknowledge. CHAT’s approach identifies levels of rhetorical activity that can be more fully understood by also considering the Noel Studio as labor and ecosystems constituted by social networks.

The Noel Studio as a Center of Rhetorical Activity

As a multiliteracy center, the Noel Studio functions as a center for rhetorical activity. Designed to support all communication projects, the Noel Studio’s mission considered writing, research, and oral communication as the three cornerstones of its rhetorical work. In their chapter, Studio pedagogy: A model for collaboration, innovation, and space design, Carpenter, Valley, Napier, and Apostel (2012) identify six foundational criteria for the Noel Studio’s multiliteracy approach:

1)    Critical and Creative Thinking: Consultants encourage students to engage in convergent (critical) and divergent (creative) thinking regarding, audience, purpose, context, and mode.

2)    Information Fluency: Consultant encourage student to think divergently and convergently about the ways in which students gather, evaluate, interpret, and integrate information into their communication products and practices.

3)    Integrative collaboration: Consultants encourage students to see their communication from multiple perspectives through the feedback process while incorporating insights offered from interactions within the space.

4)    Interactive: Consultants encourage students to think about the dynamics in their collaborative groups and how communication is enhanced through this social process. Consultants promote interaction by allowing students to project ideas in high- and low-tech ways.

5)    Visual: Consultants encourage students to think visually, embracing a design approach that allows students to actively participate with manipulatives and interactive resources

6)    Dynamic: Consultations change with students’ needs and expectations. That is, consultants adapt their methods of consulting.

These criteria, developed by the founding administrators of the Noel Studio, reflect both disciplinary and institutional ideologies. These reflections serve as the foundation for what Prior et al. describe as an expanded theory of rhetorical activity. Laminated chronotopes reflect the underlying ideology of the Noel Studio, as they are embodied, represented, and embedded in its rhetorical activity.

Laminated Chronotopes

Writing Center Ideology: Writing center policies and practices reflect their grounding in process pedagogy. Valuing such ideals as “HoCs over LoCs” (higher order concerns over lower order concerns), “meeting the writer where he’s at,” “minimal marking,” and “making better writers not better writing,” writing centers reflect composition theories that prioritize student reflection, student ownership, and collaboration. Students become better writers through discursive processes (the one-on-one interactions—these are important to writing center peeps…include them and explain why).

Inherent in this belief is the ideal that writing centers do not offer remedial services—rather, they support the growth of all writers in employing rhetorical strategies to develop effective communication. In addition to pedagogical strategies, writing centers also focus on space design as an important component in engaging students, resulting in what McKinney identifies as one of the tropes—writing centers are cozy homes. While the Noel Studio is not designed to be a “cozy home,” the importance of space design for the critical and creative processes of composing is one of its most important elements.

Institutional Ideology: Eastern Kentucky University is a regional university that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in general and liberal arts programs, pre-professional and professional training in education and various other fields. Established as Eastern Kentucky State Normal School in 1906, EKU began as a school for teachers and that legacy is still visible in the school’s self-described identity as an institution with three primary priorities: instruction, scholarship, and service, but the institution still claims the primary function is teaching (EKU, n.d.).

Like most institutions of higher education, EKU values grades as representations of academic success and predictors of future success. For the institution, success is often defined in terms of retention and graduation rates and programs that can demonstrate direct contributions to retention and graduation through quantitative assessments are more likely to receive funding.

Functional Systems and Literate Activity

From these laminated chronotopes emerge what Prior et al. identify as functional systems. According to Prior et al., “mediated activity means that action and cognition are distributed over time and space, and among people, artifacts, and environments” (pp. 17-18)–or functional systems. These functional systems are tied together by “some array of current objectives, conscious or not” (p.19). The primary objective tying these functional systems together in the Noel Studio is to help students become more effective communicators. Other stated and unstated objectives include creating opportunities for the students who work as consultants, creating an open and creative work atmosphere, and maintaining knowledge and practices to support EKUs evolving communication climate.

And from the functional systems emerge literate activities. According to Prior et al., the “terms of the map of literate activity . . . are not intended to evoke a series of steps, but to signal a multidimensional model” (pp. 19-20). This map of literate activity includes production, representation, distribution, reception, socialization, activity, and ecology. At this level, activity is concrete and visible, encompassing the enactment of rhetorical moves—the actions that enable the work of the Noel Studio to manifest in students creating visible representations of their ideas.

While Prior et al. identify functional systems as ecologies, people, communities, artifacts, and practices, they fail to explain how these functional systems emerge and contribute to the rhetorical activity of the larger network. The ambiguity of these functional systems (and thereby, the literate activities of the functional systems), however, can be better understood by looking at how other theorists have defined these various systems.

Even though the objective of the Noel Studio situates it as a system of rhetorical activity, we cannot ignore its multiple identities. It also functions as a labor system, an ecosystem , and a social network system that operates within the larger economic and social biosphere of EKU. Examining the Noel Studio in terms of its functional systems and literate activities in terms of these other network theories allows us to understand how meaning is made and transformed, how the network grows, evolves, or dissolves, and where operations and connections breakdown (or have the potential to breakdown).

Ecologies: Spellman defines ecology as “the science that deals with the specific interactions that exist between organisms and their living and nonliving environments” (p. 5). The Cary Institute expands on that definition, explaining ecology not just as interactions but as systems: “The scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions, among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy.” In the case of the Noel Studio, the “transformation and flux of energy and matter” is actually the transformation of students’ ideas into the creation of texts. In this sense, the staff, students, and physical environment of the Noel Studio interact to create visible representations of ideas.

Madison Middle visits the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

Madison Middle visits the Noel Studio to work on their Google Sites for the Madison County Historical Society

This representation, or the transformation as the Cary Institute described it, is reliant on not only the affordances (Gibson) of the physical environment but also what Norman identifies as perceived affordances. The more the student and consultant are able to take advantage of the affordances of the environment, the more effective their visual representation.

For example, when a student comes in to work with a consultant, the consultant typically first chooses a spot in the Greenhouse. With no stationary technology in the Greenhouse, the student and consultant can engage in conversation with little distraction from technology. For this example, we’ll say that the student has not yet started to write the paper—she has the prompt and an idea for a topic, but she doesn’t know how to narrow it down or start to organize it. Once the student has explained this, the consultant will ask to see the prompt, the construction of which affords the direction for the student’s paper.

After coming to an agreement about what the student is supposed to do in the paper and that the consultation will focus on brainstorming, the consultant will take the student to the Invention Space. As the consultant is already familiar with the spaces and technologies, she recognizes that the Invention Space affords brainstorming activities. The large whiteboards, CopyCam, and multicolored dry erase markers allow both the student and the consultant to contribute and organize ideas as they become represented through words and images on the dry erase boards. Additionally, revision of ideas is afforded as the representations are easily erased or modified if/when they no longer signify the evolving ideas. Once the student is happy with the representation of her ideas, she and the consultant could use an outline to create an outline—a visible representation of the logical structure of the student’s intended communication. The CopyCam then affords saving, as the student can print a copy of the work, save it as a file on a jump drive, or upload it to the Noel Studio’s CopyCam website.

If time, or in follow-up consultations, the student and consultant would use other spaces and technology in the Noel Studio to proceed through the drafting and revision processes (many times students do so in the spaces without a consultant, too). Together, they might use the Media Wall to conduct research, draft, review, and revise. If it’s a presentation, the student might also use a Practice Room to rehearse the presentation, then move to another space to work through the writing process again.

In each situation, the interactions between the student, consultant, and the tools of the environment transform the student’s ideas as they become represented in the various texts she composes throughout the process. Her (and the consultant’a) ability to perceive the various affordances of the technology that she uses shapes what the final text will look like. Similarly, the constraints of the technology also force her to make decisions, shaping the final project. For instances, if the student’s project is a video that she will share with the class, her construction of the video is reliant not only on her technical skill but also on her ability to perceive what she can and cannot do with the video editing software that she chooses. She knows that she wants to lay down a music track over the images in the video—a rhetorical choice that Movie Maker, iMovie, and most other video-editing software afford—but if she can’t perceive the function of the software, she will have to revise her plan and make new rhetorical choices with the functions she can perceive.

Communities: In this ecosystem of rhetorical activity, growth and balance depend on the population diversity (Spellman) and the abundance of resources, both human and environmental. Considering different groups of students and faculty as the different populations or communities, the ecosystem of the Noel Studio only grows when there is representation from the diverse disciplines, social groups, and demographic groups that make up EKU. Before the Noel Studio opened in 2010, the EKU Writing Center operated in the basement of Case Annex—an old dorm that has been converted to office and classroom space. Isolated to one department (the English Department) in terms of staffing, funding, and use, the Writing Center did not grow. When the Writing Center Director reached out to a new population (EKU Libraries) to discuss a potential collaboration, the idea of the Noel Studio emerged. Discussions between the Writing Center Director and the then-Dean of Libraries prompted further outreach to representatives of other populations, including the Department of Communication, Information Technology, Institutional Effectiveness, and the Office of the Provost. As ideas for what the space could be expanded, these representatives realized the increasing diversity of populations and their interests would require a new physical space.

The increased diversity also increased access to resources, as the English Department would no longer be solely responsible for the full funding (it still contributes to staffing through graduate assistant lines). Working with EKU Libraries Advancement, this newly-formed group was able to secure funding from donors, EKU Libraries, the Provost’s Office, University Programs, and a state grant. Since opening in September 2010, the Noel Studio has continued to increase the population diversity, expanding the Noel Studio Advisory Committee to include representatives from additional communities, including the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Teaching and Learning Center. Additionally, there has been an increase in population diversity among student use and faculty collaborations as we now see every college, social group, and demographic group that constitute EKU represented in the Noel Studio.

The distribution of population diversity, however, is still imbalanced as many communities are under-represented. While the ecosystem does include representatives from the college of Justice and Safety, for example, they are few and far between. If we cannot increase the Justice and Safety community’s interactions with the Noel Studio, that connection may die off as students graduate. As those connections die off, the system becomes less dynamic and resources less distributed as potential sources of funding decrease. If this trend of losing involved communities grew, the Noel Studio as a system would not be able to revert to its previous system of the Writing Center, as the resources and space have already been reallocated within the English Department. As such, the continued existence of the Noel Studio is dependent on increasing and maintaining connections with EKU’s diverse communities.

People: In addition to systems of community, the Noel Studio contains multiple systems of people as well. The primary network of people is the personnel: the administrative staff (director, coordinators, administrative assistant, and technology associate), the consultants (consultants, desk consultants, writing fellows, and graduate assistants), and the students (undergraduate, graduate, and online). Institutional ideology is most predominantly reflected in this component of the functional system, as the personnel structure is hierarchical. The consultants are responsible for the work that most explicitly addresses the objective of the Noel Studio, while the coordinators are responsible for guiding and supervising that work, the AA and technology associate troubleshoot and problem-solve resources necessary for that work, and the director makes programmatic decisions that situates the work within the larger system of EKU.

A social group comprised of undergraduate consultants, research consultants, a desk consultant, and a writing fellow

A social group comprised of undergraduate consultants, research consultants, a desk consultant, and a writing fellow

Within the labor network of people, there are social networks that are formed at and between various levels. As Scott explains, “A social group . . . exists in a field: a social ‘space’ that comprises the group together with its surrounding environment” (p. 11). This surrounding environment is not necessarily the physical space of the ecosystem—rather the space of the social group is constructed by the paths between people and their attitudes. With a full staff of approximately 50 people, interpersonal relationships and social balance is important for establishing a positive working environment. It’s unreasonable to expect that all 50 members of the Noel Studio will have what Scott identifies as “positive” relationships with all other 49 members. As he explains, social subgroups tend to form among people who have aligned ways of thinking and objectives. These subgroupings are evident within the Noel Studio as consultants tend to converge into cliques along their identified roles (their niches): desk consultants, graduate assistances, research consultants, undergraduate consultants, and writing fellows. However, as Scott explains, each person has multiple relations outside of these networks.

Understanding the social networks of the Noel Studio allows us to understand how interpersonal conflicts arise and, potentially, can be resolved with and ever-increasing staff. Thus far, the Noel Studio has had little trouble with conflict which is potentially due to the aligned objectives created by pedagogical and institutional ideologies.

Artifacts:  The artifacts of the Noel Studio are the documents and tools used the employees use to assist in the daily work. The documents and tools used by the Noel Studio employees to assist in the daily work. These include the Records of Consultation, time sheets, handouts and resources, client reports, WCOnline, Google Docs, Outlook, and Facebook.

Spinuzzi explains that relationships, activity, and destabilization that occur can only be identified by examining the relationships of activity and genres (the tools of the work) at three different levels: the macroscopic, mesoscopic, and microscopic levels.  At the macroscopic level is the entire the activity system–the Noel Studio and its makeup (director, coordinators, consultants, desk consultants, etc) and the artifacts it use (Records of Consultation, WCOnline, the furniture, the technology) to achieve the goal of improving students’ communication skills. The mesoscopic level, reveals the actions each of the workers perform in order to achieve the goal and how the instruments mediate those actions. And microscopic level actions are operationalized behaviors.

The distribution of labor within the network is visible through the tools or artifacts that we use and create. For example, a student’s consultation is not only the labor of the consultant who works with him or her. In scheduling the appointment, either the student or a desk consultant uses WCOnline to mediate the scheduling process. When the student arrives, the desk consultant again uses WCOnline to fill out the heading on the RoC (the Record of Consultation) and then mediates the introduction to the consultant with whom the student will be working. At this point, the consultant uses the training that he or she received from the administrative staff (prior labor) to engage with the student. In working towards the goal of the improving student’s communication skills, the consultant and student exchange the labor load throughout the consultation, using both the RoC and the student’s communication product to mediate the exchange. After the consultation, the consultant returns the RoC to the desk consultant who again uses WCOnline to create a digital record of the consultation (the client report). Finally, the desk consultant passes along the RoC to the appropriate coordinator who reviews it and uses it to discuss the consultant’s success within the consultation.

Networks grow and emerge as workers create and modify genres and they dissolve as contradictions, discoordinations, and breakdowns go unnoticed or unaddressed. In the previous example, for instance, we might see a breakdown as the consultant distributes the copies of the RoC. If the consultant forgets to give the student the original, then the behavior is not operationalized and the Noel Studio will be inconsistent (and perhaps perceived as unreliable) in its processes. In response, if a coordinator or consultant notices this breakdown, he or she might develop fix–a new genre–that increases and strengthens the network.

Practices: Spellman emphasizes that each organism in an ecosystem has a specific role, or a niche, to fill. As such, “in order for the ecosystem to exist, a dynamic balance must be maintained among all biotic and abiotic factors—a concept known as homeostasis” (p. 15).The concept of balance is important for all ecosystems and the Noel Studio is no different. However, it is in the functional system of practices that the tension between writing center and institutional ideologies start to emerge. Because of writing center values of process pedagogy, forming “better writers not better papers,” and collaboration and authorship, writing centers (and the Noel Studio) have developed practices that prioritize global concerns over proofreading and editing, discussion over “correction,” and minimal marking. In contrast, because institutions value grades and assessment reporting, there is often institutional pressure to transform writing center practices to focus on product, local concerns, and editing.

These tensions are evident in every aspect of the consultation. From setting goals with students, to filling out the RoC, to having meaningful conversation to meeting faculty’s expectations, consultants try to balance the values they learn in training (and by which they are evaluated in terms of job performance) with the expectations of students, faculty, and higher administration. Despite valuing process and recognizing that students likely need to visit the Noel Studio multiple times for significant improvement in skills, consultants feel obligated to help every student move their project from whatever “grade” it is at to an “A” (as subjectively defined by every instructor at the institution). As consultants face pressure from students, coordinators face criticism from faculty whose ideas of what a writing center should do have, unfortunately, evolved little since North’s 1984 article.


This synthesis feels woefully incomplete. I’m not sure if my reasons for choosing my different theories are obvious, so I’ll try to make them explicit here.

I chose CHAT as the overall framework because it explains how activity emerges from rhetorical motivations that are situated in cultural and institutional ideologies. It explains how meaning is embedded in systems that then represent the meaning through the resulting activities. Additionally, it accounts for various types of representation and how context influences rhetorical activity.

Using Prior et al. as a framework, however, was problematic for a few reasons that I tried to address with the other theories. First, it didn’t offer any ways of establishing boundaries for analysis of rhetorical activity. Even though my OoS itself helped set boundaries, much of the action that impacts students’ communication skills occurs outside of the Noel Studio on an individual basis, but examining those influences wouldn’t help us understand the Noel Studio as a network better.

Using Spinuzzi, Scott, and Spellman to define the types of functional systems in terms of a labor network, a social network, and an ecosystem help set useful boundaries and address ways in which the system grows, evolves, and could, potentially dissolve. Finally, they helped explain how the literate activity manifests from the functional systems and laminated chronotopes and how individuals and groups both form complex networks. Additionally, while CHAT accounts for the impact of environment on the rhetorical activity, theories of distributed cognition (Gibson and Norman) explain how that impact happens. In short, each of the supplemental theories attempt to explain the how that Prior et al. neglect.


Carpenter, Valley, Apostel, & Napier. (2013). Studio Pedagogy: A Model for Collaboration, Innovation, and Space Design, (pp. 313-329) In Cases on higher education spaces: innovation, collaboration, and technology, (R. Carpenter, Ed.). Hershey, PA: IGI Global.

Carpenter, R. & Lee, S. (2013). Introduction: Navigating literacies in multimodal spaces. The Routlege reader on writing centers and new media, (xiv-xxvi). New York: Routlege.

Gibson, J. J. (1986). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

McKinney, J. G. (2103). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Boulder, CO: Utah State University P.

Murphy, C. & Stay, B.L. (2006). The writing center director’s resource guide. New York: Routlege.

Nelson, J. & Everts, K. (2001). The Politics of Writing Centers. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.

Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design, Retreived from

North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English, 46(5), 433-436. Retrieved from

Pemberton, M. (2003). The center will hold. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.

Prior et al. (). Re-situating and re-mediating the canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity. Kairos, 11(3). Retrieved from

Spellman, F. R. (2008). Ecology for nonecologists. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes.

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: A sociocultural approach to information design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved from Kindle.




The OoS Matrix: FrankenTheorizing Composition MOOCs

Composition MOOCs: Theorizing Pedagogy, Space, and Learning. Why Here? Why Now? As argued in earlier case studies, the Composition MOOC is one of many different types of course offerings in an emerging trend (some would call it a fad) of … Continue reading

MindMap: Week 15


For my final mindmap, I had to abandon Popplet. I enlarged all of my nodes, printed the Popplet, and began color coding the lines. I think my biggest frustration was that I wanted color coded lines so that the connections were easier to trace (I also wanted to be able to multicolor the different nodes, but my mind cringed at the unsightly mess that would ensue).

Because last week I began organizing by distinguishing between human and nonhuman agency, that’s what I began with in revising my mindmap again. I removed the nodes that identified agency, though, so I didn’t really feel like I had a starting place, and so I just began drawing arbitrary lines between the many nodes that allowed for human or nonhuman agency.

The challenge of where to begin also plagued me as it came to my next two categories. By groupings and individuals, I meant “does the theory analyze based on groups or individuals”? I realized that the majority of the theories we’ve read this semester break analysis down according to groups rather than individuals. As Latour demonstrated, this is probably due to the challenges of trying to make any sort of statement based on one individual.

I also wanted to account for the theories that considered the potential multiple levels of networks (e.g. CHAT, Spinuzz), which I differentiate from theories that consider the multitude of aspects that form networks (e.g. Latour, Rickerts).

Next, I identified which theories considered systems as hierarchical and which considered them rhizomatic. I did identify starting places for these connections, namely with Deleuze and Guattari as the starting place for rhizomal structures and Althusser as the starting place for hierarchical structures. This is due to their explicit focus on these structures rather than their chronological appearance in either the class or the scholarship.

Finally, I drew connections between the approach used to analyze the networks: whether we begin externally and branch outwards or externally and dig in. I saw this as more than analyzing and individual or a group–instead, I saw the distinctions as a focus on analyzing activities or behaviors  vs. cultures and/or ideologies.

Basically, my revised mindmap is a collection of binaries, but the binaries are not necessarily consistent. There are parallels and oppositions for almost all of these theories. Revising the mindmap and seeing these connections and distinctions definitely helps me think through my Frankentheory a little more and how the ones I’ve chosen help fill in each other’s gaps.

Building Castells in the Air

Castells points out the dark underbelly of global networks and franchises.

Castells points out the dark underbelly of global networks and franchises.

Don’t read Manuel Castells’ The Rise of the Network Society if you’re looking for either a light read or a feel-good tome. You’ll leave with a sense of foreboding and outrage and wonderment at how he can identify such global turbulence and selfish decision-making and yet no policymaker seems to listen. I’m left wondering why he isn’t a Chief Advisor to the President, or the head of the Federal Reserve, or in some position where he can lay out the inter-relations of the various short-sighted decisions and help those with political blinders on see the big picture.

It was only a matter of time before someone exposed the dark side of networking, of how it serves neoliberal late capitalist goals, of how it is a tool to connect those with power and amplify their power, and, by the same means, disconnect, disempower and disenfranchise those who are programmed with the wrong protocol or lack the means to connect. Rather than one, happy, flattened, connected world of unprecedented opportunity and a lack of traditional hierarchy, Castells exposes an inequality of networks within networks: networks of places and networks of flows; networks of implementation and network of decision-making and innovation; cultural networks and information networks; as well as “landscapes of despair” (xxxvi), a term coined by Dear and Wolch, to indicate areas and people outside of the places of networked value creation.

Castells points out the economies of synergy, where “potential interaction with valuable partners creates the possibility of adding value as a result of the innovation generated by this interaction” (xxxvii) are what is most important in the global real-time network. Largely a recreation of the “Good Ole Boy Network” of the past, these face-to-face encounters are where the strategic plans are developed, plans are made, decisions cast, and communication systems created. What emerges from these synergistic economies are the “economies of scale” and “networks of implementation” — areas which are transformed by the “information and communication technologies” into “global assembly lines” (xxxvii). In other words, it’s still a matter of of a manufacturing economy, but the factory is a virtual one, assembled from around the world, and controlled by the panopticon of the overseer: the networked computer.  As Castells points out, this virtual board room/corporate headquarters vs. branch offices and “worker bees” is merely an extension of the old model, but one, by virtue of the global connectedness that outstrips any national laws or regulations, that wields ever more power and controls both the means of production and the livelihood of the world’s workers. Indeed, though, all is not well for those who would control the network, because, as Castells points out, though we attempt to tame the technological forces unleashed by our own ingenuity, we struggle against “our collective submission to the automaton that escaped the control of its creators” (xliii).

Information technologies have replaced work that can be “encoded in a programmable sequence” and enhanced work that requires a human brain:  “analysis, decision and reprogramming” in real time (258).  These two main types of work can be further broken down into a hierarchy of  value, innovation, task execution, and production, completed by the corresponding stratified workers:

  • Commanders: strategic decision-making and planning
  • Researchers: innovations in products and process
  • Designers: adaptation, targeting of innovation
  • Integrators: managing the relationships between the decision, innovation, design, and execution to achieve stated goals [this is where the communication function of an organization lies, I think]
  • Operators: execution of tasks according to initiative and understanding
  • Operated: execution of ancillary, preprogrammed tasks that are not automated. (259)

Furthermore, Castells delineates three fundamental groups within the networked system:

  • Networkers: who set up connections
  • Networked: who are part of the network but have no say about their position there
  • Switched-off: not connected; perform specific tasks; one-way instructions; little to no input (260)

And at the top level of the organization, Castells creates a typology of the decision-making progress:

  • Deciders: make the decision; final and ultimate call
  • Participants: give input; are involved in decision-making
  • Executants — implement decisions (but do not have say in what decision was made) (260)

These various groups become nodes in nested networks, not a flattened system, but a tree network (a tree of enunciative formation, I would argue, channeling Foucault) with a clear root and a clear structure of branching with gatekeepers at critical points. What flows across this network? Information. Information which must be communicated. Thus, the entire network is a rhetorical situation.

Decision Tree Template

This PowerPoint slide placeholder graphic is designed to enable communicators and integrators to fill in the text specific to their organization’s hierarchy. It implies a basic replicable structure that can be templated.

Castells states that “infrastructure of communication develops because there is something to communicate” (xxxvii). He calls it a “functional need” that calls into existence the infrastructure. Bitzer and Vatz would refer to this as an exigence, something that drives discourse. Networks of communication, which disseminate information according to the role one plays in the organization (see above) are dynamically created among the variable pathways that may exists. In some cases, a specific pathway or communication channel is used; in other cases, multiple channels; in still other cases, new channels and media may need to be created. The level of detail, causality, and interactivity within that communication is determined by the place on the network. Some information flows all the way through to the very end of the pathway; other information is stopped by a gatekeeper who determines “need to know” as programmed by the deciders, executors and integrators. In each case, the audience is taken into consideration, and though Castells does not directly look at this communications infrastructure as a rhetorical situation, he does talk about media as the mode of a global society.

Castells points out that the acceleration of time and exploitation made possible by the global network has annihilated our concept of time, and indeed our very humanity, causing us to live in the “ever-present world of our avatars” (xliii). We have lost a sense of past grounding and future obligation, living along the bandwidth as flickering images moving from place to place, doing the work of the machine that keeps us imprisoned. Simultaneously, we will rhetorically position ourselves as having found freedom from the constraints of our bodies and our physical limitations, not realizing that our cybernetic existence is one of less agency and greater self — and world — destruction. Castells calls this the “bipolar opposition between the Net and the self” (3). We are simultaneously created and destroyed by our interactions in the information age, which made me think about Spinuzzi’s centripetal and centrifugal forces in an organization.

I also channeled Spinuzzi with Castells’ three dimensions to define the new division of labor:

  1. First Dimension:  actual tasks in a given work process. Also called Value-Making.
  2. Second dimension: Relationship between an organization and its environment, including other organizations. Also called Relation-Making.
  3. Third Dimension: Relationship between managers and employees in a given organization or network. Also called Decision-Making. (259)

These seem to correspond in interesting ways to Spinuzzi’s Microscopic, Mesoscopic, and Macroscopic levels of activity. Interestingly, I think, Spinuzzi’s levels seem to make sense in the way a telephoto lens works: focus closely on the workers’ tasks (microscopic), zoom out to the mesoscopic to look at relationships between workers and workers within a system or network or the organization; zoom out further to the macroscopic level of strategy and organization within an industry. However, Castells puts what would be Spinuzzi’s macroscopic level as his Second Dimension, and what would be Spinuzzi’s mesoscopic level as the third dimension. I’m wondering then, if these are to be seen in the same sort of stratified or wide-shot, mid-shot, close-shot way as Spinuzzi. It suggests that the OUTSIDE influence — the organization within the larger world — is an intermediary between the actual work done and the decisions made about that work. The paradigm of internal vs. external communications, as well as the flow from worker to organization to economy is disrupted, with more importance and relevance given to the competitive, connected, global environment rather than the immediate supervisor. Decisions made internally are connected through the external world. The model would look more like the managers and employees sending information up to the cell towers and satellites and then back down to the production line, informed by outside perspective, which is subsumed somehow into the organization.

I’d like to complicate Castells’ view with two articles in the past two weeks that seem to challenge the prevailing opinion of a globalized society, asserting instead a return to hyper-localization and regionalization. I am wondering, since Castell’s theory in this book is now 15 or more years old, if the pendulum is swinging the other way, toward a renewed sense of group affiliation and identity (which may or may not be connected to a modern constructed idea of a “nation-state”).  Robert D. Kaplan, in his Time Magazine March 31, 2014 cover story “Old World Order: How geopolitics fuel endless chaos and old-school conflicts in the 21st century” reminds us that although “the West has come to think about international relations in terms of laws and multinational agreements, most of the rest of the world still thinks in terms of deserts, mountain ranges, all-weather ports and tracts of land and water” (32). He goes on to show the instability of nation-states and the importance of actual physical spaces and resources to the world’s geopolitics and economy. While this seems to support Castells’ notions of space as well as flow, the concentration of resources and talent in particular cosmopolitan mega-nodes, it also underscores the importance of tribal, local, regional and national cultural pride and identity that cannot be merely summed up in the trade of ideas and the flow of goods across a global production system. What Kaplan continues to point out is that according to privileged Western philosophers, politicians, policymakers, and businesspeople (Kaplan calls them the “global elite”), “this isn’t what the 21st century was supposed to look like” (32). We were supposed to post-physical space, post-geography, post-political power grabs for physical resources. We were supposed to be an information economy and a global production system operating on trade among stable entities. Recent changes in Ukraine, and the Arab Spring remind us that what the mind can extrapolate and theorize often does not take into account visceral and physical loyalties that may operate beyond reason and individual or communal prosperity.

A week later, Rana Foroohar, in “Globalization in Reverse: What the global trade slowdown means for growth in the US — and abroad”, posits that many economists and trade experts are talking about “a new era of deglobalization, during which countries turn inward” (28). If this trend continues, then “markets, which had more or less converged for the past 30 years, will start diverging along national and sectoral lines” (28). While Castells discussed the convergence of the markets, there appears to be a counter movement, according to some, that would dismantle that synergy and supposed “free movement of goods, people and money across borders” (28). Personally, I do not believe that this means the end of the network society, only that the configuration of the network will change again, with a movement to more unique protocols for individual networks, attempting to communicate with a global mega-network. Rather than considering there to be a unified global economy or a “world-wide web”, there may indeed be more of a multiverse model, with pockets of independent development that coexist, and pathways must be set up to port between them.

Works Cited

Castells, Manuel. The Rise of the Network Society. Second Edition. Vol. 1. Oxford, England: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010. Print. 3 vols. The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture.
Foroohar, Rana. “Globalization in Reverse | TIME.” Web. 8 Apr. 2014.
Kaplan, Robert D. “Geopolitics and the New World Order | TIME.” Web. 8 Apr. 2014.

Pictures used

Decision Tree.

Welcome to the Dark Side.

MindMap April 6: Neurology

Neurology MindMap April 6

Neurology MindMap April 6

For this week’s assignment, I decided to map the way in which neurological principles resemble a network (as we discussed in the class activity) and to link neurology to ecology.

First, I added a new node called “Neurology.” From that node, I added nodes labeled “Nodes,” “Agency,” “Relationships,” and “State of the Network.”

From the “Nodes,” node, I added elements of the neurological process that seem to be nodes. From the “Agency,” node, I added postsynaptic (which only receives) and presynaptic (which only sends), and I added neurotransmitters.

These concepts are also linked to relationships, so I added connecting lines that connected to the words “receptor” and “transmitter,” which were branches from the “Relationship” node. I added another link between these two nodes to show that they are bound together by this relationship. I also added a node called “Movement,” from which I added nodes for the elements that actually move in the process.

From “The State of the Network,” I added nodes that explore those things that cause the network to grow or dissolve Neurogenesis and Neurodegenesis.

As I was reading about neurology, I thought a great deal about ecology, particularly the idea that the individual mind is a system within a system in ecology, so I linked the “Relationships” node in Neurology to the concept of the subsystem in the ecology section.

Because in ecology the relationships are bidirectional, I linked the unidirectionality of presynaptic and postsynaptic elements to the node in ecology discussing bidirectionality. I added a node in the middle of these lines to explore the links.

It seems to me that the unidirectionality in neurology is actually the result of looking at a subsystem within a larger system. If were were to examine the elements of the body that begin to trigger the process again, we would find that there are feedback loops that cause the neurological process to be triggered in the first place, but we only see this if we move out of the examination of the firing of neurons to look at the ecology of the body (biological processes) outside of this micro-level system.

As I was writing this, I realized that I could connect this to the laminated chronotropes in CHAT and to Spinuzzi’s multiple levels of scope in an activity system, so I drew new lines to connect neurology to them. It seems to me that neurology looks at the literal level in laminated chronotropes and it is the micro-level in the activity system.


Case Study 2: AT + GT + MOOCs = Alphabet Soup

Introduction: In my first case study, I examined the Composition MOOC from the lens of structural theory, which provided a foundation upon which to build this second layer of analysis. There are a number of scholarly discussions concerning the technological … Continue reading

Response to Peers’ Outline for Case Study #2 Theories

As my peers and I work toward the second case studies of our Objects of Study, we had to do an outline of the two theories we will be applying. Not an outline of what we would be writing, but of the application of the theories. I peer reviewed Leslie’s and Chvonne’s outlines. This assignment was more of a challenge than I usually find for peer reviews as the task was centered on giving comments for theory application without anything really being applied (that part comes next).

I started with Leslie’s outline as she sets forth her plan for putting Spinuzzi’s Genre Tracing and Prior et. al’s CHAT into conversation with one another. It’s interesting because both theories have to do with people’s relationship with technology and local solutions. Seeing her outline makes me curious about how my own OoS will reveal technology as agents and the relationship they will have to people.

As for Chvonne’s outline, she also chose CHAT to be paired with Genre Theory. I really the picture she took of a whiteboard with her mapping of the two theories; it was a great tool for conveying how she was holistically seeing her second case study. I am looking forward to seeing how CHAT’s remapping of the rhetorical canon to make way for new activities and technologies merging with people’s intentions in  conveying/persuading/arguing, especially with the creators of CHAT not being completely in their definitions of some of their terms. I am also curious to see how Snapchat plays out with Genre Theory as Chvonne has labeled it a closed network, with the rhetorical community located outside of the app.

In Which I Reveal My Deep and Abiding Love for Korean Drama:

*Warning: melodrama and mushy scenes contained within*

Mind Map: Week 8

ENG  894 Mind Map8For this week’s update to my mindmap, I created two new primary nodes–one for Latour and one for Spinuzzi. To Latour I added the primary features of actor-network theory (ANT): it’s an ontology, allows for multiplicity, and considers agency as distributed. To Latour, I added the primary features of activity theory (even though he offers a comparison of the two): distributed cognition, causality, and human agency.

It’s interesting to begin to consider the theories that we’ve read thus far in terms of activity theory and ANT. Even though it at first seems that we might find activity theory easier to understand in terms of analysis methods, I can see where much of what we have read can be seen through the lens of ANT. As Shelley explained, we can consider genre theories (especially Popham’s boundary objects) through ANT by considering how genres might act as actants. Additionally, even Bitzer seems take an ANT approach, positioning events as exigences.

Networks, Actors, and the Great Mindwarp

“To pay justice to the efforts of our predecessors and to remain faithful to their tradition, we have to take up their goal, understand why they thought it had been prematurely completed, and see how it can be pursued with slightly better chances of success” (Latour 248)

Bruno Latour. Image hosted on the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities.

Bruno Latour. Image hosted on the Doreen B. Townsend Center for the Humanities.

Ah, reading notes, we seem to keep bumping into each other. And, so we continue forth like ANTs making our way back to the nest as this week sees a return of Spinuzzi and a replay of Latour. Yes, you heard correctly. It’s time to wrap up Latour’s Reassembling the Social and introducing him to Spinuzzi’s chapter, “How Networks are Theorized?” Okay, my dears, it’s time to roll up our sleeves and get to work.

Continuing on from last week where we cut off after the third uncertainty, we pick back up with Latour’s four uncertainty: “Matters of Fact vs. Matters of Concern.” I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when looking at this title as I had never heard of “matters of concern” within the context of sociology. Was that a thing outside of ANT? How were actors involved? Of course actors were involved, but what was all this stuff about the melding of human and non-human entities? Settling back into my chair, I knew I was in for a mindwarp.

Enough distractions, young lady. Keep moving, keep unpacking threads of thought, and don’t forget to look back at the ghost of Foucault you imagine is judging every theoretical step you take. But, where to start? What thread to follow? Will I even understand the full tapestry when I stumble, rather ungracefully, upon it? Let’s just begin where I understand best and spiral outwards from there.

I have to say, Latour sure knows how to make a reader smile. When he is finished being snarky, or in the middle of a really good rant, the images his writing conjures give a sense of concreteness to theory I had not expected. Take, for example, his conversation about the word “construction” and all of the problems it had created for him and his colleague when they first used the term (the very beginning of their forays into the “construction” of Actor-Network-Theory). As he juxtaposed his ideas of what construction would mean in the boundaries of sociology with that of his colleagues, I found myself siding with Latour: “Moreover, to say that science, too, was constructed gave the same thrill as with all other ‘makings of’: we went back stage, we learned about the skills of practitioners; we saw innovations come into being; we felt how risky it was; and we witnessed the puzzling merger of human activities and non-human entities. By watching the fabulous film that our colleagues the historians of science were shooting for us, we could attend, frame after frame, to the most incredible spectacle: truth being slowly achieved in breathtaking episodes without being sure of the result” (90). All too often I see a movie or a theory or a book and think that it is perfect in its wholeness, never stopping to think of its flaws, the fact that there were probably times when the final product seemed nothing but a pipe dream. Latour’s concept of “construction” as a way to peek into the process of creation rather than something’s artificial-ness. I really loved the moment when he talks about learning of “the skills of practitioners,” as it relates to how the actors he is pulling from across all disciplines and boundaries of society are linked: “Those various trades are not distinct by the domains they deal with, but only by the different skills they apply to the same domain” (254). It is here where the ANTs start to make the most sense as he draws upon the example of a building being constructed, a concerted effort by people of all different trades and with all different skills. An architect may craft the designs for a building, but the actual work requires contractors, plumbers, electricians, foundation crews, suppliers, interior designers, construction workers, and all other types of subcontractors necessary to make a building not only visibly finished but also functional.

Construction Workers. Image hosted on The Daily Mind.

Construction Workers. Image hosted on The Daily Mind.

[add nifty stuff here]

[maybe a picture, or two, or three, or four]

“the question of the social emerges when the ties in which one is entangled begin to unravel, the social is further detected through the surprising movements from one association to the next; those movements can either be suspended or resumed; when they are prematurely suspended, the social as normally constructed is bound together with already accepted participants called ‘social actors’ who are members of a ‘society’; when the movement toward collection is resumed, it traces the social as associations through many non-social entities which might become participants later; if pursued systematically, this tracking may end up in a shared definition of a common world, what I have called a collective; but if there are no procedures to render it common, it may fail to be assembled; and, lastly, sociology is best defined as the discipline where participants explicitly engage in the reassembling of the collective” (Latour 247)

[lots of paragraphs]

To this discussion we add Spinuzzi, who has graced this blog before but had to be tucked away into interweaving of the theories my peers and I have approached. But, how does the man who sought for ways to accomplish Genre Tracing fit into ANT? Well, he decided to throw ANT into conflict/dialogue with its bitter enemy: activity theory.

Activity System Mode, hosted on the website, Information Research.

Activity System Mode, hosted on the website, Information Research.

Yes, Spinuzzi decided to throw them together to duke it out, to weave between, and to settle that while they do have differences, they also have similarities. As I am not too familiar with Activity Theory, I really couldn’t explain to you (yet. I’ll get cracking on discovering the tension).

[more information and quotes]

[discuss, discuss, discuss]


Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the SocialAn Introduction to the Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Print.

In Which All Roads Lead to Frozen:


Reading Notes: Week 8

Activity Theory vs. Actor-network Theory

Ah, welcome back, Spinuzzi! While I’ve enjoyed Latour’s snark and not-so-veiled disdain, I’m happy to admit that I’ve missed Spinuzzi’s straight-forward style and thoroughly understandable explanations.

In his chapter, Spinuzzi outlines the history, theories, and key points of both activity theory and actor-network theory (ANT).

Activity theory, Spinuzzi explains, is about distributed cognition and focuses issues of “labor, learning, and concept formation” (p. 62). As a result, its methodology relies on the foundations of dialectics, unity, and origin, taking an instance of a phenomenon, reducing it to a single abstract concept or principle, and using it to develop further variations (p. 64). In a nutshell, activity theory posits that “activity networks consist of a developing set of activities anchored toward a common object toward which people strive” (pp. 67-68). In this view, activity is mediated by physical and psychological tools, and, as a result of such mediation, the quality of the activity is improved and thinking is transformed.

The primary unit of analysis in activity theory is the activity system, the structure of which is represented here:

Activity System

Engestrom’s Activity System Diagram, from

Central to the dialectical account of development is contradictions, and Spinuzzi outlines the four forms these contradictions can take:

  1. exchange value vs. use value
  2. division of labor vs. advanced instruments
  3. culturally more advanced object or motive introduced into the dominant form of the central activity
  4. neighbor activities (pp. 72-73)

In addition to identifying two main types of activity systems (chained and overlapping), Spinuzzi identifies one of the most important features of activity theory: only humans have agency–nonhumans do not. In activity theory, artifacts serve as tools for activity that work toward the object.

In contrast to activity theory, actor-network theory (ANT) is an ontology that focuses on issues of power in science and politics, rhetoric, production of facts, agreements, and knowledge. Whereas activity theory relies on unity, ANT relies on multiplicity, associations, and relations (what Spinuzzi refers to as alliances). From the ANT perspective, “existence is achieved through accretion rather than development, associations rather than evolution” (p. 66). ANT assumes that interconnections are not necessarily organic, self-contained, or unified and rejects cause-and-effect relationships (pp. 80-81).

Primary beliefs of ANT include

  • relational interactions (unlike dialectical interactions) can always be reversed (p. 82)
  • symmetry-as-negotiation (p. 83)
  • one actant‘s point of view does not constitute the organizing principle for the entire network (p. 84)
  • actor-networks are unstable but are more stabilized through increased associations or alliances (p.87)
  • agency is distributed (everything mediates everything) (p. 87)
  • nonhuman objects can serve as mediators and thus have agency (p. 85)

Spinuzzi emphasizes the point that ANT is concerned not with how something is interpreted (as with activity theory) but rather how it is enacted into being. Emergence into being is mediated and this mediation “involves mutual transformation of the assemblage” (p. 87). Latour identifies four parts or moments of this transformation:

  1. Translation: power applied to change–allows us to trace through particular moments of negotiations
  2. Interessment: defining and splicing in the stakeholders who make themselves obligatory passage points
  3. Enrollment: wherein roles are defined
  4. Mobilization: wherein representation of the object is agreed upon

In short, ANT posits that all actors are networks and “actants are mobilized to commonly achieve a goal that accomplishes the accumulated goals of the various actants” (p. 90).

Activity Theory Resources

Interaction Design Foundation’s book on activity theory:

Martin Ryder, University of Colorado at Denver, bibliography of resources:

Video Introduction to activity theory:

Actor-network Theory Resources

Daryl Cressman’s “A Brief Overview of Actor-Network Theory”:

Actor-Network Theory in Plain English Video:

Other Comparisons

Bonnie Nardi’s “Studying Context”:

Reijo Miettinen’s “The Riddle of Things”:


Spinuzzi, C. (2008). How are networks theorized? Network: Theorizing knowledge work in telecommunications (pp. 62-95).  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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 … Continue reading

Reading Notes: Latour d’ANT (Final Stage) Reaches Spinuzzi

I believe I follow the broad strokes of Latour’s (2005) argument in Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory pretty clearly, but I find the detail he provides in places extraneous and, to be honest, a bit pompous and flippant. Latour recognizes this about himself, and suggests it’s intentional: “I have completed what I promised to do at the beginning, namely to be one-sided enough so as to draw all the consequences from a fairly implausible starting point” (p. 262).

In its broadest strokes, Latour introduces actor-network-theory (ANT) as a means of reassembling what the term “social” means in “the social sciences.” The term “social” has come to mean two things that Latour finds incompatible: “first, a movement during a process of assembling; and second, a specific type of ingredient that is supposed to differ from other material” (p. 1). He is especially critical of “the project of providing a ‘social explanation’ of some other state of affairs” (p. 1). He differentiates between sociology of the social and sociology of association, seeking to replace the former with the latter as a means of moving forward in social scientific fieldwork and production. Given the rapid rate of change that technological innovation introduces, trying to place our existing groupings into already existing categories limits the perspective of social scientists in ways that negate the scientific aspects of the discipline. In a way, Latour is seeking to rehabilitate the social scientific discipline as it appears to become less and less relevant in describing and explaining real, lived experiences and groupings.

One of Latour’s critiques of the social sciences, or the sociology of the social, is the willingness to categorize activity using existing descriptions and categories of social ties without adequately investigating its connections. This resonated with me as I consider what’s happening right now in the Ukraine. Existing frameworks and tools simply do not explain the social, political, and economic situation in that region, especially the speed at which change is occurring. The social sciences address stabilized social situations; ANT seeks to address and examine, perhaps even explain, existing social situations in and through their changes. ANT sees stabilized groupings and collectives as the exception, not the norm. Groupings are always seeking to change, to redefine themselves, to envelope or subsume other groupings. The current mixed reactions to Russians entering Crimea represents this ANT principle — groupings that were considered stable are revealed to have been fomenting, preparing, and making way for change, but economists, sociologists, and politicians missed the signs, likely because they sought to find an existing set of frameworks by which to explain what was happening.

How might ANT reassemble the social in the situation in the Ukraine? First, by seeking groupings from their traces rather than by placing groups into categories. Latour theorizes five areas of uncertainty that can be followed by their traces to identify actor-networks.

  1. Only action can identify groupings, so the key is to identify specific activities of group formation. Group formation can be revealed in the following traces: an active spokesperson, a set of opposition groupings, frantic attempts to redefine groups on their part of their spokespersons, and the potential for spokespersons to be scientists of the social. Actions are likely to involve mediators, which affect the activity in unpredicted and unpredictable ways, rather than through intermediaries, which are standardized and predictable.
  2. Actors consist of a “moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward it” (p. 46). Actors (in the theatrical sense) are always engaged with other entities when acting; the same is true in ANT, where the actor is really an actor-network, being made to act by many others objects and entities. Those objects and entities can includes hidden forces and impetuses that should neither be discounted nor highlighted, simply included among other forces. Neither “true” nor “false” agencies exist; there are simply agencies.
  3. Objects may have agency as actor-networks consist of all entities that swarm toward actors and make the actor act. The social is defined as the “momentary association which is characterized by the way it gathers together into new shapes” (p. 65). Social skills among actors seek to create connections; non-social means are used to extend these connections a little longer.
  4. Few matters of fact exist among connections; instead, matters of concern highlight connections. The aim of the sociology of associations: “there is no society, no social realm, and no social ties, but there exist translations between mediators that may generate traceable associations” (p. 108).
  5. Written accounts tracing the sociology of associations are risky and unlikely to successfully account for the myriad associations existing in an actor-network. However, it is the writing of the account that demonstrates ANT; the writing of the account following ANT principles is the practice of ANT.

Using these areas of uncertainty, we might discover that “Ukraine” is a construct of the sociology of science. What we consider “Ukraine” may not exist among tracings of connections; instead, what exists may be actor-networks engaged in unexpected mediated translations with Russian military leaders, the former Soviet fleet in Sevastepol, Crimean separatists, and Eastern Ukrainian loyalists (each of which is a grouping that needs to be reassembled of its connections, too). In short, written accounts that fall back upon existing sociology of the social groups simply cannot account for the rapidly-shifting transformational landscape of 21st century geopolitics, especially related to the former Soviet Union.

ukraine demonstration - photo

BBC News Photo, AFP: As the situation in Ukraine deteriorates, political turmoil could lead to default, which looks likely, according to one of the major rating companies, S&P.

There are other aspects of ANT, of course, including the need to “flatten” the social to eliminate external expectations of scale and importance; the need to identify and redistribute the local among its many actual times and spaces; and the need to highlight “connections, vehicles, and attachments” (p. 220) rather than actor-networks in the social. Such moves applied to the situation in the Ukraine might offer insight into the relative insignificance of the individual actor-networks (political and social leaders, for example) compared to the connections of individual actors gaining multiple connections (mass protests, for example); into the vital importance of history in the Crimean peninsula and technological innovation and substantiation in the Soviet-era Black Sea fleet; and into the importance of unseen, untraced connections that are generating lived experience in real time.

As this brief and incomplete application reveals, ANT seeks a complete redefinition of the political, too, towards seeking a common world we can all access and understand. “What ANT has tried to do is make itself sensitive again to the sheer difficulty of assembling collectives made of so many new members once nature and society have simultaneously been put aside” (p. 259). More specifically, “ANT is simply a way of saying that the task of assembling a common world [a social] cannot be contemplated if the other task [describing the social] is not pursued well beyond the narrow limits fixed by the premature closure of the social sphere [by the sociology of the social]” (p. 260). The world in which we live changes and moves too quickly for a social sciences that is “supposed to be ‘behind’ political action” (p. 261) to effectively or meaningfully describe it.

The lived world is far more complex than the substance and categories traditional social sciences can contain; ANT seeks to provide new methods for understanding the actions of assemblages.

Spinuzzi’s (2008) chapter “How are Networks Theorized?” offers an interesting caveat to this application. While ANT offers an ontology that can explain why or how the Ukrainian situation is what it is, its application can offer little in the way of instruction or development. ANT precludes forward-looking praxis; it can be applied to present and past events, but the unpredictable character of its connections and mediators makes predicting network operations nearly impossible. Activity theory, on the other hand, offers a means for development and education. ANT deemphasizes “development, learning, and cognition” (p. 93). As a practical matter, this means that activity theory offers an epistemology to be applied as praxis, and the theory can be more instructionally operationalized.


Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies

Spinuzzi, C. (2008). How are networks theorized? [Chapter]. In Network: Theorizing Knowledge Work in Telecommunications. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 62-94.

[Top image: Ken in Austin Bike Zoo [or, as I prefer, Latour d'ANT] : Creative Commons licensed image from Flickr user Ken Meyer]

Lalalala Tour d’ANT – Feat. Bruno L. and Clay S.

Latour loves the metaphor of the ant — small, seemingly insignificant, myopic. And he takes it as an apt description of his much confused and maligned “theoretical” approach: Actor-Network Theory. Latour says there is nothing wrong with the term except the word “actor” and “network” and “theory” and the hyphen in between. He proposes more of an anti-theory of work-nets traveled by actants — a redefinition of what is described and how it is described. He wishes not to be boxed or contextualized or constructed in terms of others, as that is against the project itself. But it must be called something, so the insignificant ant, which becomes significant through its interactions with other ants, is an appropriate metaphor he embraces. So Latour wouldn’t study the ants themselves, but the paths they travel, the connections they make, the traces they leave, the relationships they foster. But then, how is that different than activity theory, which does a similar project, mapping the movement to various levels of interaction?

Actor-Network Theory is Activity Theory gone meta, with a side of snark.  Unlike Activity Theory, ANT does not propose to create a  model or accept any fixed stabilities (an infiltration of other French philosophers — looking at you, Foucault and Derrida). Latour says, “ANT claims that it is possible to trace more sturdy relations and discover more revealing patterns by finding a way to register the links between unstable and shifting frames of reference rather than trying to keep one frame stable” (24). In other words, we can learn more by not trying to arbitrarily stop the motion that is “society” and to “solve” the controversies or “resolve” the tensions that create it. An analyst imposing such structures from the outside, or for some political agenda or “social engineering” necessarily changes those s/he is studying, in ways that can approach the kind of paternalistic “designer-as-hero” narrative that Spinuzzi rails against. ANT attempts to allow the actors to be free to “deploy the full incommensurability of their own world-making activities” (24) and for the analyst to never explain or theorize, but only to faithfully describe in ever greater detail. An accurate description requires no explanation, Latour says, and scholars become stymied at their sense of lost importance. If one doesn’t apply a theory, categorize a phenomenon, reason from the theoretical to the practical or from the case study to the generalizable, then what do we do? What importance can we have? How do we “make a difference?”

ANT attempts to make the invisible visible, as does activity theory, but a fundamental difference is in what each theory takes as its nodes/objects. In activity theory, there must be a “thing” — an artifact, an interface, an object, a person, a structure. And by observing the interactions of these structures, the analysts determine the “how” and the “why” and deduce patterns and opportunities for optimization. Spinuzzi says activity theory a theory of “distributed cognition” (which smacks to me as a fragmented unity, with the assumption that there is such a stable unity), while ANT is an “ontology — an account of existence” (62).  Spinuzzi notes that both theories are intersecting in work organization, which is interesting, but not surprising as ANT accounts for the movements of “everyday life”, which work (a hierarchical organized system) has now become an inextricable part of. What interests me most about ANT is that it attempts to account for the truly invisible and intangible actors — beliefs and knowledge — that affect the interactions that produce activity, perception, and reality of the actors.

Latour says that the fundamental problem with other sociological theories is an assumption that there is “something else” behind observed interactions (they tautologically and reflexively call this the “social” or “society”), that the movement “from the local to the global and from the macro back to the micro” must be “the shadow image of some entirely different phenomenon” (171) that is theirs to unpack and reveal. I am struck here about how this may/may not play into Platonic thought (which Latour briefly addresses) as well as Jungian shadow theory. I don’t have time to ruminate about this now, but that is going to stick around for a bit. Can the two be reconciled or made to communicate? Anyway, Latour advocates removing this artificial notion of a third dimension called “the social” and flattening interaction to two dimensions. We should not seek to add a layer (a lamination??) to try to understand these phenomenon. Removing these “crinkles” in the 3D map and “ironing” it out on the table removes context and allows us to see what is happening. In addition, we have to give credit to the actors as being mediators and not intermediaries. They are not merely repeating or transporting knowledge and beliefs, but transforming them as they interact. Themselves. Too often, theorists add a “frame[work]” that, as Latour says, does not explain or add to the painting at all.

Money concept: there is no individual and society existing as separate entities, one within the other or ranking above/below the other. Individual/society are two sides of the same coin, two ways of explaining the same thing. They are actor-network, with the hyphen showing how they are one concept, together.

I’m curious about how ANT relates to rhetorical situation. It seems that the response created by the exigence of the situation — and even the interpretation that there is a situation — would be the sort of presumed panoptical megalomania that Latour attempts to break down, in favor of a more narrow oligoptical view that “pins down” reality to a flattened map of interactions. As Vatz noted, a situation is interpreted by the rhetor, who gives it context from previous similar situations, and responds with speech acts that meet

Spinning yin yang symbol

A moving construction of society is represented by this spinning yin/yang symbol. It isn’t quite right, though, because the Eastern conception of yin/yang is more a swirl, with the black and the white in movement with each other, sometimes more of one, not a false equality like it is usually drawn.

expectations and align with goals. ANT would not, I think, allow for the primacy of the “situation” as an exigence. ANT would map the interactions and expectations without trying to understand why choices were made, only that they were made by the particular actor-network of that moment. The choices made become the movements to study, and the rhetor holds no more importance than others in the interactions.  Latour would definitely, I think, not allow Bitzer, because in ANT something such as a “situation” as existing to be discovered by the rhetor does not exist. What exists are webs of relations that dynamically and continuously co-create generate the social and natural world we inhabit.

I place the yin/yang symbol here because I think there may be a useful way to try to approach some of this discussion from a more Eastern (vs. Western) philosophical perspective. The Chinese symbol of yin/yang, imagined as a holistic entity divided into two halves that represent binaries — male/female, dark/light, good/bad, day/night, etc. However, the binaries are not strict–there is dark in the light and light in the dark. Nothing is all one or the other, and BOTH must exist simultaneously to have reality, balance, life, existence.  The Cartesian mind/body split has further entrenched our notion of difference, that is recognized, but not divided in Eastern thought. A picture of yin/yang is never recognized to BE yin/yang, only something like a freeze-frame of a video. A capture of a specific moment in time, and the way the swirls were at moment. As soon as it was captured, it was lost, and if we were to build theories upon that observation at that moment, we would be incorrect. That seems to be part of what Latour is trying to say, although with considerably more pomposity and derision of those who disagree with him.


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 … Continue reading

Reading Notes: L’hypertext et Latour d’ANT (part 1)

Finding common ground in this week’s disparate readings was difficult. More precisely, Latour’s introduction to actor-network-theory (ANT) had almost nothing to do with reading from Joyce and Johnson-Eilola, other than the fact that hypertext as object might be an instantiated mediator within a collective. More precisely, the hypertext itself may function as a trace of the collective, with actors including codewriters, narrative writers, software, hardware, network connections, and other elements required to read and interact with a hypertextual “document.”

With little common ground to try to synthesize, I’ll opt this week to omit summary and focus on key concepts, quotes, and course connections. Who knows, I might surprise myself by writing into something else, too!

What bothered my about readings by Joyce (1995, 2001) and Johnson-Eilola (1997) were how dated they felt. Hypertext theory interested me in the nascent moments of the World Wide Web (but never in its software-bound forms like Hypercard), and I admit to being among those who unproblematically accepted the coming glory of reader-as-author perusing a unique user-generated text with each browsing session. That said, I enjoyed the stroll down memory lane as a reminder of how far we’ve come — and, in some troubling ways, how little of hypertext’s socially active potential we’ve tapped. (I’m self-censoring based on reading Latour and concerned about using the word “social” ever again.)

Of Two Minds

In Joyce’s (1995) Of Two Minds I enjoyed this blast from my thesis past:

“At each stage of the developing consensus about these shifts [in conceptualizing hypertexts], new and sometimes contradictory definitions of hypertext have been advanced. Even so, a remarkably consistent line of thinking holds that hypertext in some sense represents the workings of the human mind…. [S]cholars continue to suggest forebearers of hypertext ranging from the Greeks to Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and beyond…” (p. 22)

book cover

The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, by Laurence Sterne

I am indebted to those scholars who saw in Tristram Shandy a forebearer of hypertext. In my master’s thesis, I advocated Tristram Shandy as a non-linear prototype of hypertext that responded directly to Locke’s aversion to “association of ideas” (non-rational thinking) as presented in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. In 1998 when I wrote my thesis, I was intrigued by the potential of hypertext as both a pedagogical tool and a representation of human thought. My thesis in fact addresses some of the aspects of reader-as-author of hypertext narrative, although only superficially. In my abstract, I present the claim this way:

“I review Tristram’s self-expression by focusing on techniques of non-linear narration and conclude by examining hypermedia as an alternative model for narrating consciousness that emphasizes the reader, comparing hypermedia’s reader to Tristram Shandy’s narrator.” (Hocutt 1998, n.p., emphasis added)

“Narrating consciousness” was surely a bit much, but I found useful parallels using Tristram Shandy’s narrator as my object of study in application of hypermedia theory.

I’m marveling at a recommendation Dr. Dan Richards made during last Friday’s “Curating Online Identity” workshop focused on LinkedIn and He recommended including older, even incomplete, lines of inquiry and scholarship among papers and presentations we uploaded to because one never knows how a chance encounter in previous research may come back around through the social network of scholarly collaboration. And then on Friday night I read Joyce’s words above. Serendipity. Or the instantiation of an ANT collective that included actors Dr. Richards, Tristram Shandy and Tristram Shandy, a dead Laurence Sterne, members of the RSODU attending the workshop, Webex, and the computer terminals and network hardware and software than enabled my presence from a distance. Either way, I’m sold. The thesis gets a place in my profile.

In the same chapter of Of Two Minds, I recognized what I termed “an interestingly prescient moment” in my professional life. Joyce writes of early warnings posted about the potential for hypertext to be co-opted by commercial interests if scholars did not problematize its exaggerated claim to renegotiate the definition of author:

“While not rejecting this promise [of hypertext as destroyer of the objective either/or paradigm], Stuart Moulthrop, in a prolific series of essays… has argued that hypertext could be pre-empted by the “military infotainment establishment” or offered as a diversion to a dissatisfied society in lieu of real access or power.” (p. 26)

I wrote this note to myself after reading that statement: “An interesting prescient moment? My professional role [as Web Manager] is to convert what was once considered an egalitarian tool for social change into a diversion provided by the infotainment industry. Well, maybe not that bad, but it’s an uncomfortable parallel.” It is uncomfortable. One important result of reading this week on a tool with which I am intimately familiar is to make me uncomfortable with unproblematically making one hypermediated page after another in a fairly large, fairly comprehensive website. What agencies do I too readily take for myself that should be left to the visitor? More to the point, what visitor agencies do my creative efforts omit or deem meaningless or powerless as I design information architectures and implement wayfinding options? What political boundaries and/or economic realities am I activating or exacerbating, for better or for worse, in my professional role? These are questions that I’m beginning to ask of myself, my tools, and my job.

Nostalgic Angels

dust jacket image

Trickster in Contemporary Film by Helena Bassil-Morozow

In Johnson-Eilola’s (1997) Nostalgic Angels I found interesting connections to another scholarly interest, the trickster in culture. One aspect of what Helena Basil-Morozov (2012) calls the “trickster principle” is its occupation of border areas, or liminal spaces. Trickster inhabits liminal space, breaking through boundaries established by culture and ritual in order to activate or introduce change and creation. “The activity of questioning and remaking borders in relation to real cultural conditions” (Johnson-Eilola, 1997. p. 16) sounds a good deal like trickster work, and hypertext has most assuredly served a trickster function of breaking through boundaries and ushering in change. Johnson-Eilola’s descriptions of boundary crossing, while quite tricksterish, also resonates with Bazerman’s (2004) activity systems and Popham’s (2005) boundary genre:

“What a hypertextual structure and process can bring to this discussion is the ability to cross discursive boundaries in an attempt to articulate the discrete, largely isolated and invisible activities of using a functional document to learn a system with the intersubjective activities of discussion and group critique.” (Johnson-Eilola, 1997, p. 227)

Crossing discursive boundaries requires genre tracing (a la Spinuzzi, 2003) through an activity system and understanding the unique aspects of boundary genres that enable understanding of disparate discourses. Hypertextual structure (by which I’d suggest Johnson-Eilola was defining what is now known as a group-sourced wiki) encompasses these several theoretical models as a boundary genre.


I found Joyce’s (2001) Othermindedness a little, well, otherminded. The text lacked a certain scholarly tone, but the result was accessible, if dated and difficult to resolve with the author of Of Two Minds. However, I found this prescient nugget in which Joyce predicts what we now know to be true: that the ability to navigate search in the digital age is far more important than the ability to recall facts and data.

“The value of what we collect [knowledge] is not as much embodied in what it is as in how we found it and why we keep it.” (Joyce, 2001, p. 73, emphasis added)

When I make the decision to use Google as my search engine of choice, what mediating choices have I made about what’s available to me and how? When I add a citation to my research collection using Zotero, what information have I included about how and why I conducted the search and why the source is important in the context of that search? These have become questions that are more important to me, especially in the early stages of research, than what the source actually says. Being able to recreate the search is vital to scholars and to those who follow our research; documenting the terms and scope of the search (and the political and social mediating decisions made along the way) are becoming of utmost importance to me as a digital scholar.

Reassembling the Social

Latour (2005) owes a debt of gratitude to Foucault, among others, whose ideas are clearly represented in ANT. “Trace” is one of the main Foucaultian concepts that Latour repeats regularly, and I believe he uses trace in the same way as Foucault to represent what’s left from a discursive formation. Here, Latour refers to group formation leaving traces, although I’d suggest these group formations have many similarities to Foucault’s discursive formations:

“Group formations leave many more traces in their wake than already established connections which, by definition, might remain mute and invisible.” (Latour, 2005, p. 31)

These group formations must be active to leave traces, and such activity matches Foucault’s insistence that discursive formations be systems of division or dispersion among statements (Foucault, 2010/1972, p. 38).

Another similarity to Foucault is Latour’s unwillingness to allow social science a “real” or typical society (to which all others are considered inferior or unreal).

“[E]verything happens as if social scientists had to claim that there exists “out there” one type that is real, whereas the other sets are all really inauthentic, obsolete, irrelevant, or artificial.” (Latour, 2005, p. 28)

In this statement I recognize Foucault’s unwillingness to allow the history of ideas to consider either some original ideal from which all ideas are descended or some ultimate idea to which all ideas ascend. Both Foucault and Latour engage in relativistic understandings of ideas and societies, in which meaning is found in differentiated relationships among statements (Foucault) or among groups (Latour). 


Bazerman, C. (2004). Speech acts, genres, and activity systems: How texts organize activities and people. In Bazerman & Prior (Eds.), What writing does and how it does it: An introduction to analyzing texts and textual practices (pp. 309-340). New York, NY: Routledge.

Foucault, M. (2010). The archaeology of knowledge and the discourse on language. (A. M. Sheridan Smith, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books. (Original work published in 1972)

Hocutt, D. (1998). “A tolerable straight line”: Non-linear narrative in Tristram Shandy [Unpublished master’s thesis]. Richmond, VA: University of Richmond.

Johnson-Eilola, J. (1997). Nostalgic angels: Rearticulating hypertext writing. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Corporation, 3-28; 135-242. New Directions in Computers and Composition Studies

Joyce, M. T. (1995). Of two minds: Hypertext pedagogy and poetics. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 20-29. Studies in Literature and Science

Joyce, M. T. (2001). Othermindedness: The emergence of network culture. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 67-106. Studies in Literature and Science

Latour, B. (2005). Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. Clarendon Lectures in Management Studies

Bassil-Morozow, H. (2012). The trickster in contemporary film. East Sussex, UK: Routledge.

Popham, S. L. (2005). Forms as boundary genres in medicine, science, and business. Journal of Business and Technical Communication, 19(3), 279-303. doi:10.1177/1050651905275624

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: a sociocultural approach to information design. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

[Image, top of page. Leaf Cutter Ants, Butterfly World, Chiswell Green, Near St Albans, Herts. Image from Flickr user Stuart Spicer. Ants (and rope and leaves) are the actors in this ANT visualization.]