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Mind Map: Class Meeting 3/4/14

Suzanne's Mind Map

(Additions this week in green)

The first node addition this week was Latour's idea of text as a laboratory. I am highly interested in the idea of text as living and capable of constantly producing new experiments, results, and analyses. Rather than a fixed object, a text continues to do work in society. I connected this node to several nodes: hypertext, civic web sites, books, and genre. The implication is that each of these textual products can be rethought as a point of experimentation. It forces us to ask how are these types of texts producing results? How do these results change over time? For different audiences? Are the assumptions and hypotheses correct? The use of the scientific vocabulary brings interesting questions to the forefront and provides fertile ground for thinking of literary objects.

The second node is Latour's definition of social not as a frame for viewing objects but as a collection of associations. I see this as relating to Foucault's expression of meaning in the relational rather than the nodes. I connected this new node to a previous node referencing this Foucauldian idea of connectivity. I also connected it to the Rohan node from CHAT. Rohan explains how the vent writings were connected multiple writers into a community. It supports Latour's claim because each of these writers worked in isolation, it was not a social activity in the traditional sense of many people coming together in shared space - either real or digital. Although they were working in isolation, the collection of their utterances is what gives the activity a social quality. It is not about the people, but their statements left in the shared space relating to other statements and information (like the weather or rhythm of the semester).

The third node relates to the Spinuzzi reading that expressed the view that mediational objects change people. I connected this to the area of the map dealing with delivery started by the CHAT authors. I also connected this to Bitzer's node about how discourse can mediate a situation. It highlights how mediation is the tool we use to effect change in discourse, but that discourse changes the situation by changing people. This seems to be something Bitzer does not emphasize. He argues more that the audience if persuaded will take steps to change the situation either legally or in some other tangible way. Yet the Spinuzzi discussion suggests change is a more subtle process of using objects to change people psychologically, to change perceptions and then behavior.

Lastly, I added a node for Latour's actants. This concept incorporates all those who interact with discourse. It is connected to Vatz's rhetor node and Bitzer's audience node because it suggests a new way of thinking about this binary. Rather than the Vatz and Bitzer argument privileging one over the other, Spinuzzi equates the two - writer and reader - as equal partners, as actants, working together to create and mediate meaning. This seems to me to be a more realistic understanding of how audience and rhetorician are related.

Reading Notes: Class Meeting 3/4/14

The Living Text

Latour's student and professor dialogue was a welcome play with form, but also an interesting exchange dealing with the very-well understood student frustrations when working with abstraction. My favorite exchange there had to do with the nature of text. Latour's professor offers, "The text...[is] the functional equivalent of a laboratory. It's a place for trials, experiments, and simulations" (149).

This speaks to me on several levels. First, it suggests that texts are not static, chiseled in stone, received wisdom from the author. Rather, if texts are laboratories, then they are inherently experimental, mutable as new data emerges, and can be places of productive action. The underground press movement is an interesting application of this idea; the texts in the movement were certainly places of trials and experiments. Ideas were placed on trial, perhaps not the scientific meaning of the word in the metaphor above but still valid. When voices are not represented in the media, the disenfranchised can either be silent or organize. The underground press movement writers chose to organize and use their texts to give full a full vetting of the social issues like equality, the environment, and war. Their texts, once received, could be interpreted; just as scientists interpret the data of an experiment, the readers were able to form hypotheses and determine results.

Example of text as "laboratory": Image from the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church. Their Living Text program seeks to engage with multiple religious texts. The church believes,"While we are changed by the narratives we encounter, we also shape them, and when we participate in creating a collective account of our church by sharing our own stories, we make a sort of wiki-church (a collaborative community, in which all members participate in shaping and adding to the church and its story)." Texts - even sacred ones - are laboratories for experimentation, interaction, and change. 

The idea that a text is living and active appears elsewhere in Latour. He writes, "We have to lay continuous connections leading from one local interaction to the other places, times and agencies through which a local site is made to do something" (173). I am not sure I have this concept fully figured out yet, but here is my play so far:

First, what do we mean by "local interaction"? I thought of this as being a node in a network, a localized space in which interaction - exchange - occurs through "continuous connections". What I am fascinated by is the idea that these connections (in the form of "times and agencies") are the catalysts for doing something. 

By virtue of being connected, a node becomes activated and capable of performing work.

If a text is a local interaction, which it can be (if we think of Foucualt's argument that books are nodes in networks), then we can understand it as a connected object that can be "made to do something". Action is embedded in texts. This has strong implications for theory explaining the social (forgive me Latour for using this word as an adjective) functions of the underground press - a laboratory out which experimentation causes activity.

Latour and Foucault:

Speaking of Foucault... (and by the way, I took this quiz and got Foucault as my result. Coincidence or synchronicity?)

Latour describes two competing ways of understanding how "social" can be understood.

There is the more traditional and familiar idea that "there exists a social 'context' in which non-social activities take place; it is a specific domain of reality" (3-4). This conjures for me an image of a space in which people and objects commingle, and it is this addition of some human interaction that makes the space social. This reminds me of Foucault's field of discursive dispersion. The field then is is that inherently social space where objects and people come together. We can understand the field as a domain of sociability. The space is social. We understand things as social because they occur is this recognizable space that allows for interaction.

A bar: a space understood to be "social" because it allows for interaction between humans and objects. It creates social conditions and social connections. Image by Glenn Harper posted on Flickr

However, Latour rejects this idea. Instead of a social space, we should understand social as connectivity. He writes, "'Society', far from being the context 'in which' everything is framed, should rather be construed as one of the many connecting elements circulating inside tiny conduits" (4-5). Here, social-ness is not a lens through which to view actions (as having some social/human/interactive quality), but is a way human and objects connect. It is not the bar-space; it is perhaps the collection of activities that bring the people and objects into the space.

But is still has me begging the question...

What is Social?

Latour tells us that "social is not a place, a thing, a domain, or a kind of stuff but a provisional movement of new associations" (238). As above, social is not the space but rather the associations. Yet, this understanding is complicated by this statement:
"Things, quasi-objects, and attachments are the real center of the social world, not the agent, person, member, or participant" (238).
On one hand Latour tells us that social is not a thing, then later on the same page, he argues that things are at the center of the social world. What does this mean?

I suppose that how I choose to understand this is that Latour does not want us to confuse social as a tangible objects or cohesive space, yet he does want us to understand that objects and connections, while not themselves the definition of social, are at the heart of society. Consider the piazza below:

Piazza di Spagna image posted by Gaspa on Flickr

The piazza space is one in which people and objects - like a fountain and benches - intermingle. Like the bar, the piazza itself is not social. Rather, this fountain sits at the center of what we can understand to be social because in it/through it connections and associations are formed. Those connections/memories/exchanges between the people and the fountain and the piazza and the architecture are what we should think of as social. In this way the objects allow the social, and not the people. I think this turns social on its head. In the traditional definition, social is all about humans being sociable. This is not about human interaction, but about humans interacting with objects to make associations.

It's about connections, relations, and proximity. Very Foucault, I would say.

Rethinking the Macro and Micro:

Switching gears, there was an interesting connection between Latour and Spinuzzi in regard to macro and micro levels. Latour seems to refute some of the assumptions about these terms that Spinuzzi utilizes in his work.

Spinuzzi defines three levels: macroscopic, mesoscopic, and microscopic. He maintains the sense that the macro level is somehow "above" the other levels; the other levels are embedded within the macro, all-encompassing, big picture level. Conversely, the microscopic is minor, smaller, and myopic.

Latour rejects this hierarchical conceptualization. Instead, he argues that these levels exists in a "flat landscape" in which all levels are equal. A macroscopic concept might have more connections in this two-dimensional space, but it not necessarily more significant. It might have more breadth, but not situated "above" the microscopic level. He writes that when we render the landscape flat, "what is now highlighted much more vividly than before are all the connections, the cables, the means of transportation, the vehicles linking places together" (176). Again, Latour emphasizes the role of connectivity and relationships rather than ant individual or object in a network.

Latour's flat levels and Spinuzzi's hierarchical/embedded levels

I am not sure yet what conclusions or implications I see from these differing understandings, but I feel that Latour's view is inherently more democratic. Giving equal standing to ideas or activity does not privilege or diminish anything. This shift in assigning value could be potentially useful in legitimizing the subaltern. Simply because alternative media, for example, is not as well-connected as the mainstream media, we should not think of it as somehow less-than or just a smaller piece of the larger media. With further exploration, this could be useful.

Spinuzzi and CHAT on Mediation:

As is my pattern, I become fixated on a particular concept and begin to see(k?) it in each new reading. Lately that concept is delivery. Perhaps because my OoS is a delivery system, I am more aware of how this concept has ramifications spreading through several course concepts: networks (delivering information to and between nodes), digital composition (delivery becomes a more dynamic consideration in digital spaces), and mediating the delivery (how the rhetorician exerts agency over content and form). The CHAT authors work with this last concept extensively - mediation as opposed to distribution.

Spinuzzi also explores mediation in his chapter. He states, "These external artifacts, Vygotsky emphasizes, do not simply help humans do things they would do anyway; the artifacts qualitatively transform the activity, often in ways that exceed the unmediated capacity of the human being" (69). We use artifacts to mediate activity in ways that we are incapable of doing on our own. In composition, we use artifacts - like hypertext - to mediate or change our content to produce meaning we would otherwise be unable to convey without that artifact/tool. The effect is that "in using mediational artifacts, Michael Cole argues, people themselves are psychologically transformed; they begin to think, act, and value differently" (69).

This highlights the importance of reconsidering delivery as the CHAT authors argue, reinserting this element more significantly in our understanding of how rhetoric is produced. Mediation extends human ability and profoundly transforms the audience.

OoS as Boundary Crossing and Actants:

My blog would not be complete if I did not write about action/activism/activity from theory, so here is this week's installment.

Latour argues:

  • "Instead of simply transporting effects without transforming them, each of the points in the text may become a bifurcation, an event, or the origin of a new translation. As soon as the actors are treated not as intermediaries but as mediators, they render the movement of the social visible to the reader" (128).
  • "The tools, relationships, social languages, and so forth may be very different; the linked activities need 'boundary crossers' who can mediate between them" (79).
  • "'Action is simply not a property of humans but an association of actants'...The more actants are brought into a composition, and the more tightly interconnected they are, the stronger it tends to be...allowing the assemblage of actants to cohere as a single actant" (90).
An assemblage of actants in cohesion. Image of crowd gathered for Martin Luther King Jr. posted by Washington Post
What does this all mean? Well, I take the first quote to mean that readers and writers can change the content as they receive and relay it (the premise of the Living Text project of the church above). Nodes are not just passive conduits; they are active interlocutors. It is not just that an individual can be changed by discourse, but that discourse is changed by the individual as well. It's a powerful understanding of our field. For my OoS, it suggests that the US was not simply transmitting information across its members, but it was mediating the movement as well.

Secondly, the UPS is a boundary crosser, mediating between the linked activities (making underground newspapers). These activities are linked in the sense that they are producing similar forms based on overlapping influences, yet the papers often existed in isolation using different tools and having different relationships. The UPS was able to cross these boundaries by (re)distributing newspapers across these isolated pockets of action.

Lastly, action is brought to fruition not by humans but by human associations - the connections allow the participants to be "made to do something". The last quote suggests that the stronger these associations, the stronger the resulting action. The closer the connections, the more unified the actants and by extension their work. The UPS allowed members of the movement to be more tightly unified, and by sharing content, the readers across the country had a more singular message to become a more singular movement. This understanding makes the work of the UPS more significant than just a mail service. 

Works Cited:

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Spinuzzi, Clay. Network: Theorizing Knowledge Work in Telecommunications. New York: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

Reading Notes: Class Meeting 2/25/14

The Entry of Questions

A Theme Continues:

I just can't seem to escape certain ideas this semester. They keep appearing either by professorial design (in which case proving Vatz's argument about the role of the rhetor's choices and selections in constructing meaning for the audience) or by virtue of the message's significance. Whatever the case, the idea that English Studies must merge with technology is inescapable.

I have written about it as a concept appearing in Spinuzzi, Zoetewey, and CHAT, so seeing it appear again in Johnson-Eilola's work is like proof to me that as a student in this discipline, it is up to me to carry this mantle forward. It is a task that ODU also seems to be preparing me for with the New Media emphasis, but it is also one that is fraught with complexity as institutions are slower to turn than a large ship. It is frustrating to hear the call to incorporate digital rhetoric into my work as a student and as a teacher, but not yet have the support systems in place to deliver that to my students. The traditional printed (okay, uploaded) essay is the preferred and required product. How do we break these traditions, especially when we are relegated to contingent faculty positions?

Image from

Johnson-Eilola writes that the "world is already moving beyond conventional, print-based textuality", and that the discipline will continue to be marginalized in institutions if we fail to adapt to new digital modes of communication. We must break down the borders and boundaries between what we consider to be English Studies texts and writing and the technical/digital texts and writing produced in other disciplines. Are these not all acts of composing, requiring consideration of the rhetorical canons like audience, delivery, and purpose?

He continues, "Those 'other' texts, the ones we allow to pass without critical attention because we think they are purely functional or lacking in imagination, may in fact be our ways of leveraging broad social changes" (6). There are two ideas embedded here: our discipline cannot diminish the significance of digital compositions in favor of printed, literary texts and these often disregarded forms of communication can provide means for social change.

What's that? Using the discipline to effect social change? You know I'm in.

Hypertext and "Revolutionary Potential":

Whether it's Zoetewey's civic web sites performing action in a community or Bazerman's and Miller's position that genre produces social action, I am drawn - like a moth to a flame - to scholarship that highlights how the discipline can do more than just think. I don't want to use my brain to just consider and observe; I want to be able to improve my community. That is why I was excited to read Johnson-Eilola argue that "our position should be one of social critique, resistance, and reconstructing..attempting to situate writing and reading as political and social responsibility" (17). Yes! I agree! I want to shout that from the rooftops and in the department meetings. Where is the daring? Where is the revolutionary and unconventional in the current academic landscape of budgets and quantitative measurements of learning outcomes? Where are the voices urging the radical rethinking of and experimentation in the discipline? How can our students use reading, thinking, and writing to critique, resist, and reconstruct? To be political and socially responsible?

Johnson-Eilola seems to suggest that at least in part this can be done through the "revolutionary potential" (13) and the "democratic possibilities" (23) of hypertext. Basically, as more people have fast and free access to information, the more difficult it becomes to exert dominance over them. More autonomy is created and desired. Hypertext removes the barriers of library or university walls and admissions, and that democratic access is a powerful tool needed in creating revolutionary thought and action.

Consider the argument by Google executives Eric Schmidt and Jared Cohen in the clip below. Access equals liberation. Hypertext is the medium through which access is granted.

This clip and Johnson-Eilola's argument are certainly a utopian vision of how the digital realm can lead to revolution, but in the classroom we need to be wary of letting "acts of resistance" denigrate "into empty gestures" (188).

What this means to me is that it isn't enough to just assign digital composition that ask students to think about and speak to political or globally significant issues. We would run the risk of these assignments just being empty exercises. There needs to be authenticity behind the work, and perhaps the potential to continue to do work in the community outside the classroom. This is why I still like Zoetewey's work with civic web sites. these students create a digital product, which we can understand from Johnson-Eilola to have democratic, revolutionary potential, that will spread into a community and help shape discourse and action. How can we do more of this kind of work in the classroom in the context of the institutional pressure to meet measurable goals?

Foucault and Joyce:

In previous reading notes entries, I explored the Foucault assertion that meaning is constructed relationally. I was struck by the similarly expressed idea in Joyce's Of Two Minds.
"Electronic writing is both a visual and verbal description, not the writing of a place, but rather a writing with places, spatially related extension of a network of ideas in the mind itself" (Bolton qtd. in Joyce 23).
For Foucault, discourse and meaning are understood as ideas relate to one another, in thinking about the connections and boundaries between concepts or events. For Bolton and Joyce who agrees with him, electronic writing is also spatial. Hypertext allows for the writer/reader to move through space and thought, to bend boundaries and connect otherwise separate entities. Meaning is enhanced through connectivity and relationships.

It has me thinking. Is everything relational because the brain itself works this way? Bolton seems to argue that the mind works like hypertext. I see that thought does often occur in this way. Just lying in bed sometimes I find myself thinking of something completely random and try to trace backward to the initial thought that sent me down that particular path. We think of one things which reminds us of another that takes us to something else and so on. And these thoughts do not need to be chronological or limited to one area like work or school or family. We think in more than one dimension and make connections across and through and between things. Like a network. Like hypertext. Like Foucault.

Image by Pasieka on Science Photo Library
Can anything be understood without considering how it relates to something else? Is there meaning outside a network?

But Before it Gets Overwhelming...

I posed more questions this week than I answered, which can sometimes be unsettling for a concrete-minded gal like myself. However, I stumbled upon this little gem in Joyce's Othermindedness:

"In an age that privileges polyvocality, multiplicity, and constellated knowledge, a sustained attention span may be less useful than successive attendings" (74-5).

I found this sentiment buoying. I often get frustrated that despite working hard, the understanding may be fleeting or momentary, vague or unstable, or just beyond my reach. But Joyce suggests here that the approach may need to change in this spatially-related world. Perhaps it isn't the brute force of attention that will yield a clearer picture, but in the repeated approaches.

And this seems to be playing out in our class! In our repeated and different ways of accessing and thinking about our complex theories, the meaning becomes more stabilized. This idea decreases my anxiety in the sense that what may not be clear tonight may become clearer in subsequent "attendings."

Works Cited:

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York, Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

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

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

---. Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Print.