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Frankentheory, Your Time is Now_Final Case Study

Welcome, my dear readers, to my final case study, known as Frankentheory.  Shall we begin?

You don't have to answer that question.

You don’t have to answer that.

And Away We Roll

As I have discussed in my previous case studies, World of Warcraft (WoW) is a massive, complex, global network composed of nodes functioning on different levels inside and outside of the gamespace. Attention to this Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) game has been directed towards its ability to offer teachers and students a virtual environment in which to learn, while other studies have looked at MMOs in terms of what observers see as the game’s ability to fulfill player needs (social needs) and side effects (like addiction and escapism). But what are other aspects of the game and gamespace that would be of interest to someone in the field of English Studies? It is with this question that guilds and what is happening amongst their members become of interest. Since WoW’s guilds and their activities have been my focus this semester, I have been looking for a theory that would allow me to better explore guilds and their members’ positions within and outside of (though still related to) the gamespace. However, for each of the theories I have applied so far, they usually do not focus both on what is occurring in the gamespace at large as a network and what nuances are occurring on the local level within the guilds. It tends to be one or the other, especially since the players are heavily dependent on game software and hardware and on communication technology to be part of and help shape the network in which they play. So, what do we do when our theories cannot completely cover our objects of study and have blind spots? Theoretical synthesis, which is better known among my peers as Frankentheory. But how will this Frankentheory help us decide how studying WoW can be useful to English Studies?

First, let’s list my theories on the field:

Lee Rainie and Barry Wellman’s Networked Individualism

Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network-Theory (ANT)

Bitzer’s Rhetorical Situation Theory and Vatz’s “Myth of the Rhetorical Situation”

Networked Individualism and MMOs, But What Could Be Missing?

To begin the rise of Frankentheory, I have to start with a strand: Networked Individualism. Rainie and Wellman’s theory looks at how the three revolutions of Social, Internet, and Mobile are reshaping the fabric of social groups, what they call the “social operating system” (6). It is now normal for people to exist outside of close-knit communities and instead primarily operate within a variety of more loosely connected groups, with different groups fulfilling specialized needs that often have nothing to do with proximity. These new social groups, generally mediated by advancing communication technologies, allow people to enter into a number of networks that are more connected and have greater access not only to information but also to virtual spaces in which they can create and share media of their own. People become the nodes of the network, constantly exchanging information with one another: “When people walk down the street texting on their phones, they are obviously communicating. Yet things are different now. In incorporating gadgets into their lives, people have changed the ways they interact with each other. They have become networked as individuals, rather than embedded in groups. In the world of networked individuals, it is the person who is the focus: not the family, not the work unit, not the neighborhood, and not the social group” (Rainie and Wellman 6). In the changing landscape of social relationships that Rainie and Wellman find is occurring as more people are turning towards their communication devices (cell phones, tablets, computers) to center their everyday communications, information gathering and producing, and their relationships within a group, online games have become part of the “new neighborhoods” that are popping up as the social operating system shifts gears towards networked individuals rather than physical communities of people (13).

People as nodes in the network. Image hosted on VectorStock.

For gamers, this reshaping of the social operating system allows them to craft social groups for themselves (inside and outside of the game) that fulfill needs prompted by their experiences within the gamespace and, more specifically, by being members of the same guild. There is no longer the need to play games with the people who are physically close (though that does still occur) as players can now log on to servers with others from around the country or around the world, creating communities of people who may only ever meet through text chat, in-game voice chat, discussion forums, Facebook, YouTube, and Skype. Here, we have groups of people whose main connection is their interest in a computer game, though they may have other interests, characteristics, and connections that could then bind them closer together during their interactions in the game, but this depends on how much information they are willing to provide and how closely they bond with their teammates. To be in an active member of the gamespace (as opposed to a casual gamer) and to be an active member of a guild, takes work and effort, just as it does to be part of any virtual group (Rainie and Wellman 9). There is no physical presence to say “I’m here,” so the player must renew his/her account, take time to level up, and take time to talk and quest with guild members. The gamespace and the guilds let these players from all different backgrounds come together for a few hours or so a day to engage in group raids or role-playing scenarios, to talk with others who share common interests that extend beyond their daily physical lives, and to play specialized roles in a group (which is another point Rainie and Wellman point out that is happening to networked individuals).

WoW Guild. Image hosted on PC Gamer.

PC Gamer’s WoW Guild. Image hosted on PC Gamer.

WoW brings together gamers from all walks of life and gives them common ground, with fan culture emerging. Image hosted on website Intense Gamers.

WoW brings together gamers from all walks of life around the world and gives them common ground, with fan culture emerging. Image hosted on website Intense Gamers.

Rainie and Wellman’s theory acknowledges that communication technologies and people’s desires to be continuously connected are reshaping the ways in which we interact with one another and how we (re)align with social groups. By looking at the form and function of this new social operating system, application of this theory takes a look at the fabric of guild members’ interactions with one another in-game and how they keep connected even when they are outside of the game. Questions can be raised about players’ empowerment within new social, virtual dynamics as they access a wide variety of resources: Since WoW players do have access to many more resources than those found within the gamespace (official and unofficial forums, guild websites, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, guild ranking websites, and Wiki pages for the game), how does this empower players as players in the gamespace but also as members in their guild? Players are, essentially, not alone in the challenges they face in raids, on quests, and within social guild dynamics the way they would be if communication technology was not as far along as it is, but how does a player harnessing the “information at his/her fingertips” change the dynamics of the group? If the players are nodes in various networks and WoW and their guilds are only a small part of the network that the players themselves have become, where and how do players gain their agency?

Within the scope of Networked Individualism, players gain agency by doing something with all of the information accessible through their devices and making the effort to be part of the groups they have joined. Just like within physically close-knit communities, players have to reach out and engage one another, because if they do not, they will eventually lose their places within the group, even more so than if they were dealing with their teammates in person. Let’s take an example, for a guild member, there can be several forms of the group within which to stay active and to have agency. By having an interest in WoW and signing up to play, the player is taking the first step and putting in the initial effort that will lead to guild membership. The player then has options: he/she can just play the game and either stumble upon or be recruited into a guild he/she comes into contact with over the course of gameplay, or the player can look through guild rankings, explore guild websites and forums, and talk to other players about guilds and potentially joining. There are options as to how a player chooses to operate within the gamespace network and how much agency he/she takes for him/herself. Once a player has joined a guild, a new set of social dynamics occurs that does not usually happen for a player going solo through the gamespace. Most guilds set up a mentor-mentee relationship among new and veteran players in order to ease the new players into the game, into how the guild works socially, and also to train them for the specialized they will take on during quests and raids. This new player again has options to how much agency he/she has within this guild. The player can research his/her role, profession, and class in order to better acquaint him/herself with his/her character’s potential but also to become a more effective teammate. A player who does not know how to do something like add-ons for battles has a steeper learning curve than someone who actively sought out the knowledge and used his/her place in the network to better understand the gamespace and his/her group. Information is out there, across a multitude of websites, discussion posts, and player-player interaction.

This sounds like a great theory for looking at guild members playing in World of Warcraft as we are looking at players not just as nodes, but as focal points of networks themselves. By being a node in many loosely connected networks, the players become networks in themselves and has agency in how he/she uses that connectivity. So what could be missing from this theory?

Add the Second Strand as ANT Comes Marching in

While Rainie and Wellman’s theory of Networked Individualism looks at the ways in which communication technologies are allowing people to reshape their social communities (branching away from solely functioning within local groups to take part in a variety of networks in which they often play specialized roles), Actor-Network-Theory fills in the gaps of Networked Individualism in that it allows the very non-human entities of hardware and software being used by people to have just as much agency as the people themselves. For my study, this applies to the hardware and software guild members use and interact with when playing WoW. The programming code that makes everything work is not pushed off to the side; it is allowed into the discourse, becoming a major (and acknowledged) part of the network. With ANT, the actors are the nodes, but who are the actors? Gamers, of course, are on the list of actors, but so are representations of the code through non-playable characters (NPCs), loot from raids, quests logs, monsters, characters’ pets, parts of the environment, and other objects that can be handled in the game. But our list is still incomplete. We have to step outside of the game and look at what allows gamers to actually play: keyboards, CPUs with monitors or laptops, mouse, and headphones, as well as additional technologies that can now be used to access the game (thank you, add-ons from Blizzard) like cellphones. In Networked Individualism, the emphasis is on people using these technologies, but with ANT, the technologies are just as important as mediators as other people. By linking ANT to Networked Individualism, we are broadening out the scope of who/what should be studied when looking at WoW. So, is this a more complete list? Sort of. Guild activities do not only take place in the gamespace, but outside of it as well in forums, through software like Google Hangouts and Skype, through social media like Facebook, and through unofficial game websites. There could be other actors involved, especially if the guild members know each other in person, but this will be okay for now as our list is more robust than simply just listing humans. This is what a WoW ANT network for a guild would like.

Normally, when a guild is mentioned, people imagine this:

WoW guild, anyone? Image hosted on the C Trust Network.

WoW guild, anyone? Image hosted on the C Trust Network.

When really, with our newly constructed list in mind, the mental image should include these two:

Example of what a screen for what a player sees during a raid. Image hosted on C Trust Network.

Example of what a screen for what a player sees during a raid. Image hosted on C Trust Network.

Guild playing at a tournament. Image hosted on website SK-Gaming.

Guild playing at a tournament. Image hosted on website SK-Gaming.

Now that we have our larger (if not totally exhaustive list) and our handy-dandy new mental image, we must deal with a new way of conceiving how the nodes in our guild network have agency and are situated within the network. Why would I choose to list these actors? According to Latour, “If we stick to our decision to start from the controversies about actors and agencies, then any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor– or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant. Thus, the questions to ask about any agent are simply the following: Does it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not? Is there some trial that allows someone to detect this difference?” (71). Let’s see if we can tease out how this works within an MMORPG in a way that Networked Individualism Theory cannot. What do all of these actors even do for the network? The gamers, their hardware, and the game’s software have one major collective goal. They are all working towards the creation and maintenance of the gameworld in which the guild exists. Sounds odd that gamers are part of this, doesn’t it? But, that’s how games work. The developers design the code that then puts the gameworld into existence on the chosen platform(s) players will then access through their chosen hardware. If the gamers choose not to play, eventually the designers will have to shut the game down or the game remains in its plastic casing on a shelf. In order for the gameworld to be activated and maintained, it needs someone to be playing. But if the designers do not actively work to maintain their game and add new content, players will have no incentive to spend their money and continue populating the gamespace. A great deal of effort needs to be expended on both sides if this gamespace network is to remain active and be successful.

But, we need to narrow this down further. Our target network is not the game as a whole, but individual guilds. What gamers, the software, and the hardware do for the game at large works the same way for the guild on a more microscopic level. The guild’s boundaries must be defined and redefined constantly (which aligns with Rainie and Wellman’s discussion of the effort it takes to keep in touch with the various networks people engage in), which Latour mentions when discussing the creation and maintenance of groups: “all need some people defining who they are, what they should be, what they have been. These are constantly at work, justifying the group’s existence, invoking rules and precedents and, as we shall see, measuring up one definition against all others. Groups are not silent things, but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what” (31). In this sense, the guild is a network node inside a much larger, far more extensive network. And, the gamers, who would have been just one node among (literally) millions of other player nodes, and those are just talking about the human elements of the game. What being part of a guild does then is offer players greater agency in their own gameplay experience of WoW by making them a node in a network that is comprised of a more manageable (usually) number of human players.

However, if those guild members stop redefining the boundaries of their group, against the world, other guilds, and against players with no guilds at all, the guild itself will dissolve. The code and gamers’ hardware is not enough to maintain a guild. The guild may have an archive of some kind as having once existed, but the players are the core nodes who meet and interact in a way that makes a guild what it is. That being said, the guild would not exist without the code that is always underlining the game. There would be no reason for a guild unless the environment of the gamespace provided dungeons to conquer, raids to take on, a world to explore, cities to visit, and servers where players can face off against one another or players (PvP) face off against the environment (PvE). And, without the hardware of the computer and the headphones, players would not have access to the gamespace and to each other. All of the actors are necessary, especially with digital games.

What Ant can do that Networked Individualism cannot is allow me to follow the threads (or trace the associations) of players’ activities through the technology they are using and with one another to define what a guild is within and outside of the gamespace. What do players do with the technology of the game, their own hardware, and other communication devices, as well as resources found on the internet, to maintain the guild as a group? This complements Networked Individualism because it is adding in and granting agency to the non-human entities that help networked people to network. Actor Network Theory and Networked Individualism are similar in that they are looking at society with technology in mind: ANT as humans and non-human actants working together to create the boundaries and maintain the group (guild, in this case), and Networked Individualism as people (gamers) using technology to create diverse and yet loosely collected social groups that fulfill needs that traditional social groups (those once limited more so by proximity) cannot. For both of these theories, technology and the social are focal points in the sense that they are looking at how actors (human and non-human, though the agency is emphasized differently between the theories) are working together.

But what does Networked Individualism do/offer for ANT in regards to WoW and guilds? If the two strands are going to come together, they must each offer something to the other. Actor Network Theory takes a pretty broad view of human and non-human actors working together to define what is social (and, in this case, what is a guild). Networked Individualism narrows this focus to the needs being met for or sought by the humans within these social networks, and how these humans are using communication technology that is in turn reshaping how they interact with one another. ANT brings technology as an actant into the discourse, while Networked Individualism provides a framework for what people are doing within social groups and how they are defining the groups of which they are members. For my case study on WoW, these two theories combined will give me a macro and micro view of technology at play alongside humans, ensuring that the communication technology and game software are receiving as much attention and agency in developing and maintaining the networks within which the humans (physically, in some senses, and through their avatars) are operating.

Friends until the technological end: ANT & Networked Individualism. Image hosted on We Know Memes.

Friends until the technological end: ANT & Networked Individualism. Image hosted on We Know Memes.

Final Strand, or What is Moving through the Network

If ANT can give us a macrolevel view of how groups (in this case, guilds) are expending effort to define and redefine their boundaries in order to remain a group, and Networked Individualism is looking at how people are changing their relationships with one another by using communication technologies to have membership in different guilds that are not usually defined by physical proximity, we are still missing something.What is moving between these nodes (both human and non-human)? Rhetorical Situation Theory adds to the discourse between ANT and Networked Individualism because rhetoric is moving through the networks being defined by the human and non-human actors and shaping the kinds of experiences being had by the guild members using the technology. In a gamespace, codes in the forms of zeroes and ones are the not the only things moving within a network. In a guild, code helps to relay the rhetoric moving between players during situations (both formal, such as raid planning, and informal, such as conversations between players about the dividing up of loot). By threading Rhetorical Situation Theory in with ANT and Networked Individualism, we can explore how players in the guild are using rhetoric to define the boundaries of the group, while at the same time, the hardware, software, and players are working together simultaneously within a network defined by the relay of code and commands.

Rhetorical Situation Theory may seem to be the odd theory as it looks mainly at humans and human activity, but rhetoric is something being passed within a Networked Society (such as when networked individuals create content on the internet, read news articles, or communicate with friends and family) and may be part of the associations that ANT researchers trace through actors as defining and maintaining a group (such as the activities taking place within a labor union). All three of these theories are about the social (however each defines it) and about what happens within that social (to different degrees and outlooks). WoW may be an online game, but what is occurring between people, especially guild members, is what is happening among other networked societies. People still have to deal with one another, even if it is at a distance through technology with avatars in the place of human faces. By adding Rhetorical Situation Theory into the mixture, we are filling in the microlevel relay that is happening between the various nodes across the different servers that compose the WoW gamespace.

ANT diverges away from theories like Rhetorical Situation Theory because it complicates how we see interactions in a network, which is something we need now that people are producing rhetorical discourse in non-traditional spaces between people who are, often, only loosely connected to each other about social dynamics that are happening even during gameplay. So, what exactly can be moving through a guild network when we must take into account the software and hardware? How does it move among the different nodes? One of the major things moving through the network is code, zeroes and ones that render the visuals, relay information  about characters’ statuses, allow for environmental sounds and pre-established soundtrack selections, and initiate reactions from the environment, NPCs, and monsters in which the guild members interact. There are also the zeroes and ones that allow players to have their avatars do physical gestures towards one another and allow relay their textual conversations. But, that’s not all. The hardware players may opt to use like headphones and mics allow for verbal communications. Rhetorical discourse may be part of what is being conveyed, but, in this more inclusive list of network nodes, the code is central to all transmissions.

Who/what are the mediators and what are the intermediaries making all of this possible? “Every time a connection has to be established, a new conduit has to be laid down and some new type of entity has to be transported through it. What circulates, so to speak, ‘inside’ the conduits are the very acts of giving something a dimension. Whenever a locus wishes to act on another locus, it has to go through some medium, transporting something all the way; to go on acting, it has to maintain some sort of more or less durable connection. Conversely, every locus is now the target of many such activities, the crossroads of many such tracks, the provisional repository of many such vehicles. Sites, now transformed into actor-networks for good, are moved to the background; connectors, vehicles, and attachments are brought into the foreground” (Latour 220). We are looking to ANT to understand how guild members are using the technology but also how the technology is taking an active role in transforming actors who come into contact with the code (through visual representations) and through the rhetorical discourse that is being relayed through the code. So, let’s talk Rhetorical Situations (myth or otherwise) and the discourse initiated in those moments by guild members acting as rhetors.

Within WoW, Rhetoric is everywhere as players move as network nodes between interactions, joining and leaving guilds as well as joining and leaving raiding parties. Within guilds, players must convince one another of battle strategies as raids can often be difficult undertakings, requiring hours of planning and hours of execution, sometimes with little success; in player-player conflicts, with some players defending themselves and their potential virtual property against other players; when player-player conflicts cannot be resolved, there are ruptures within guilds, leading to the creation of separate guilds; and within the creation of new guilds, the recruitment of players into the guilds, especially when the gamer is new to the server or has been relatively isolated prior to creating a guild charter.

Guild social dynamics are essentially playing out in a microcosm of social and political (usually within the guild, not in the gamespace at large) tensions, mediated through character avatars over Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and textual messages. But rhetorical situations do not only occur in-game for guilds, but also outside of games: in forums (official and unofficial), on guild websites, through YouTube videos, and in personal communications. Much of this discourse is written by guild members for guild members, creating a circular audience, though gamers outside of the guild and even non-players (depending on the medium) can have access to out-of-game texts about in-game activities. So, through Networked Individualism, if players gain agency by accessing information and creating media in order to make their presence known in the networked social groups they have joined, rhetorical discourse is what those players are creating and using the technology (ANT) to relay.

Rhetorical discourse always has a human agent, what Bitzer calls “mediators of change”: “Rhetorical  discourse produces changes by influencing the decision and action of persons who function as mediators of change” (7). Biesecker mentions that, for Bitzer and his Rhetorical Situation, rhetoric is the name given to “those utterances which serve as instruments for adjusting thè environment in accordance to thè interests of its inhabitants,” which occur in response to some event that “invites utterance” (113). Agency is taken by those who are willing to take charge and produce rhetorical discourse as a situation arises, and then agency is taken by others who hear this rhetorical discourse and do something with it, whether it is to add to what they have heard or in resistance to it as new situations arise and call for rhetorical discourse. This raises the questions of who would constitute the rhetors, the mediators of change, and the audience of those moments of discourse? The answer to these questions will always be guild members, but there are different kinds of guild members. There are differences between guild officers, raid leaders, guild leader, power players versus non-power players, and veteran players versus rookie players. The differences in-game are not based on outside elements like age, profession, race, financial status, or social class, but are based on experience and skill in-game. While the ideal is that every member of the group be given fair and equal treatment within the guild, there are often moments where players’ agency depends on their perceived level of commitment to the group and what level of guild hierarchy they have reached. It all depends on the rules established by the guild for how the guild operates in gameplay. And, by thinking about rhetoric as a way for speakers and potential mediators of change to adjust their environments to better align with their interests, this would (ideally) allow guild leaders to work within rhetorical situations (such as raid strategizing, conflicts between players over loot, other leadership roles) as they emerge to strengthen the group’s cohesiveness. Members who are active within the group’s activities are the mediators of change who will take what the guild leader says and apply it to the communal experiences within the game. If a guild leader is not successful at managing the rhetorical discourse happening within the group, then members of the group tend to splinter off to create new guilds in the hopes that someone else as guild leader may provide better group environments. The guild leader is not alone in managing the quality of the group’s interactions (as this is based on voluntary membership), but the guild leader is the rhetor in the group, one whose opinions hold the most weight in taking charge and offering solutions to problems. A guild leader who cannot successfully navigate situations that call for rhetorical discourse cause players to lose faith and find or found a new group.

Oftentimes, a guild’s success at continuing to exist is based on the quality of guild management and how much agency each member (as a node in the network) has in the relationships formed through rhetorical discourse. The conversations that arise during the whole process of raids (from the pre-planning, the decisions as to who will play what role, the instructions and conversations that crop up as the raid is taking place, and the distribution of loot after the raid has been successfully completed) reflect the quality of leadership and companionship of the guild to its members, even if to no one else. If there is a break down in communication, if the leader (or rhetor) has no responsibility placed upon him/her for the rhetorical situation he/she has decided to take advantage of or ignore, the group may become fragmented as the members (who are more than “mere hearers and readers”) become mediators of change in a way that can ultimately dissolve the guild. Players may leave the guild (alone or with others) if they feel they are being treated unfairly (such as them feeling cheated if they are not allowed loot they have requested, if they feel the loot is being hoarded by guild officers, and so on), if they feel they have outgrown what the guild can offer their character, or if the guild is not operating efficiently enough (too many members missing raid meeting times). If the rhetorical discourse require for a situation is ineffective or absent when most needed, the guild as a whole may be left at a severe disadvantage if the best players leave. Even a player who feels he/she has no agency in the group, still has enough agency to leave the group and find a new guild.

Vatz complicates Bitzer’s idea of agency for rhetors, putting more responsibility on the speaker and the moments in which the speaker decides to speak. The speaker, essentially, privileges the moments and subjects within, and chooses to discard or ignore others: “This very choice of what facts or events are relevant is a matter of pure arbitration. Once the choice is communicated, the event is imbued with salience, or what Haim Perelman calls ‘presence,’ when describing this phenomenon from the framework of argumentation” (Vatz 157). For Vatz, it is not solely that situations call for rhetoric, but that rhetoric can shape and define the character of a situation when the speaker chooses to give meaning to that situation and the rhetorical discourse happening within it. This is where the author/speaker of the rhetor gains agency, by being the person who takes the information selected for the situation and gives it meaning, especially since audience members only see an event as “meaningful only through their linguistic depictions” (Vatz 157). In this theory, agency is granted to the guild leader when he or she chooses moments in which he or she deems suitable or necessary for rhetorical discourse. This would be a guild leader finding “the right moment” to address something like player-player conflicts so as to manage the problem before it gets out of control, rather than just waiting for problems to arise and then speaking about it. There are dangers to this for the guild leader who is not at least semi-conscious about what he or she is privileging, what moments are deemed best (or better timed) and what rhetorical discourse is produced (what information is given meaning). This sense of agency for the guild leader allows him or her to establish the level of quality of the team’s work and play during raids and just as a cohesive (or otherwise) group.

From the angle of rhetorical discourse, what is moving through the network are the rules and guidelines that the members are continually establishing and putting into effect (or neglecting) for the experience they are seeking as a collective. Vatz states, “To the audience, events become meaningful only through their linguistic depiction” (157). Guild members could play the game alone (whether that gameplay would be successful or not would be another story), but it is the rhetorical exchange that underlies the guild activities that gives the events meaning for the players. A raid would be just hack-and-slash and magic-casting except that the players are using language to persuade themselves and each other that this raid, this dungeon, this boss fight means something for all of them. The raid leader may need to persuade others that a certain strategy is the correct one, but that explanation and the resulting discourse makes it a lived experience. Even a breakdown in communication or a consistent lack of quality guild management is a rhetorical discourse that can lead players to become mediators of change through guild dissolution. Rhetorical discourse is necessary for the networked individuals to stay together as a group, but they are the ones who must harness the technology and that which it affords them and actively work to maintain their boundaries. Rhetorical Situation Theory and the discourse that happens within those moments also draw attention to the networked individuals and their places within groups, drawing attention to the changes in the social landscape (social operating system) because players are aware that are meeting in non-traditional spaces and forming groups with people they would never have interacted with had the game not provided such a social space. For gamers, though, this rhetorical discourse also (often) acknowledges the technology that they are using, makings its agency and effect upon them part of their discourse.

So, why is studying World of Warcraft useful to English Studies?

Outside of pedagogy and player habits, MMOs like World of Warcraft are useful to the field of English Studies because it is, as Rainie and Wellman would say, a “new neighborhood” in the social operating system that is emerging through advancements in communication technologies and people’s reliance and implementation of those technologies. Within the gamespace and outside of it, guild members are employing rhetorical discourse to define their roles within their groups but also to define the boundaries of those groups. By studying WoW and games like it, and by studying how gamers are using the space and interactions with one another to fulfill social needs that had been filled (and are still being filled) by traditional groups, we can understand how the reshaping of our society around our virtual presences is granting us new avenues to gain agency. We are not just members of groups now, but nodes in a variety of networks, and we rely on technology to make ourselves present within those groups, reach out to new groups, and how to access and create media that engage us in the world at large. By crafting a Frankentheory from Actor-Network-Theory, Networked Individualism, and Rhetorical Situation Theory, we can start to understand how online gamespaces afford their players with spaces in which a microcosm of social dynamics can play out, but can be more inclusive in the study by understanding how technology acts upon us and changes our discourse as much as we act upon it and can change its code. For these networked societies and as networked individuals, we need the technology in order to have agency in the new landscape, and English Studies can benefit from taking the time to explore how rhetoric and interactions among people are adapting to the needs and demands being placed upon us by one another as start to navigate a more virtual society.

So long and thanks for all the network. Image hosted on tumblr, #whatshouldwecallgradschool

So long and thanks for all the networks. Image hosted on the tumblr #whatshouldwecallgradschool

References

Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 25 (Selections from Volume 1) (1992): 1-14. PDF.

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

Raine, Lee and Barry Wellman. Networked: The New Social Operating System. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. PDF.

Vatz, Richard E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 6.3 (1973): 154-161. PDF.

And Now I Bow Out

Bowing out or sinking down? Dean from Supernatural does it best.

Bowing out or sinking down? Dean from Supernatural does it best.

 


It’s All in the Way You Scaffold Your Theory_Assignment for Case Study #4

As my classmates and I head towards the final case study (in which the Frankentheories begin to emerge from the colossal stitching together from the breadth of theories we have read this semester), we were asked to do a scaffolding assignment (an outline in the best sense of the word) to begin thinking about how we would answer the question, “Why is studying my Object of Study useful to English Studies?” So, deep breath, and away we go.

1) Which 2 – 4 theories are you choosing and why? 

For this upcoming Case Study/Frankentheory, I am considering meshing together Rhetorical Activity Theory, Actor Network Theory, and Networked Individualism.

Rhetorical Situation Theory

-Looking at the ways in which rhetorical situations can occur within the gamespace of World of Warcraft. This theory helps me to look at the types of situations that produce rhetorical discourse for those within guilds, such as raid planning, player-player conflicts, and decisions regarding role-playing quests.

-With the application of this theory, I can look at how the quality of the rhetorical discourse within the guild can either mollify members (depending on the situation) or lead to ruptures within the group that may cause the guild to divide or fall apart completely. Vatz’s notion that rhetors must be held responsible for claiming the moment as a rhetorical situation as well as for what was done within the situation may be useful when going down this rabbit hole.

Actor Network Theory (ANT)

-This theory allows for me to explore technology as an actor (mediator as well as intermediary) alongside human actors to define and redefine the boundaries and existence of a group. It raises questions: What counts as an actor when looking specifically at a guild rather than at the gamespace at large? Are the actors the same despite narrowing of focus? And how do these actors work together, even though some are non-human?

-This theory also allows me to follow the threads (or trace the associations) of players’ activities through the technology and with one another to define what a guild is within and outside of the gamespace. What do players do with the technology of the game, their own hardware, and other communication devices, as well as resources found on the internet, do to maintain the guild as a group?

Networked Individualism

-I want to use this theory to explore how the social groups that are being created through the three revolutions (Social, Internet, and Mobile) are allowing gamers to craft social groups for themselves (in the game and outside of the game) fulfill needs prompted by their experiences within the gamespace and, more specifically, by being members of the same guild.

-Since WoW players do have access to many more resources than those found within the gamespace (official and unofficial forums, guild websites, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, guild ranking websites, and Wiki pages for the game), how does this empower players as players in the gamespace but also as members in their guild? Players are, essentially, not alone in the challenges they face in raids, on quests, and within social guild dynamics the way they would be if communication technology was not as far along as it is, but how does a player harnessing the “information at his/her fingertips” change the dynamics of the group?

How are they similar enough that you can justify getting them to work together?

Actor Network Theory and Networked Individualism are similar in that they are looking at society with technology in mind: ANT as humans and non-human actants working together to create the boundaries and maintain the group (guild, in this case), and Networked Individualism as people (gamers) using technology to create diverse and yet loosely collected social groups that fulfill needs that traditional social groups (those once limited more so by proximity) cannot. For both of these theories, technology and the social are focal points in the sense that they are looking at how actors (human and non-human, though the agency is emphasized differently between the theories) are working together. Rhetorical Situation Theory may seem to be the odd theory as it looks mainly at humans and human activity, but rhetoric is something being passed within a Networked Society (such as when networked individuals create content on the internet, read news articles, or communicate with friends and family) and may be part of the associations that ANT researchers trace through actors as defining and maintaining a group (such as the activities taking place within a labor union). All three of these theories are about the social (however each defines it) and about what happens within that social (to different degrees and outlooks, of course).

How do they fill each other’s gaps?

Actor Network Theory takes a pretty broad view of human and non-human actors working together to define what is social (and, in this case, what is a guild). Networked Individualism narrows this focus to the needs being met for or sought by the humans within these social networks, and how these humans are using communication technology that is in turn reshaping how they interact with one another. ANT brings technology as an actant into the discourse, while Networked Individualism provides a framework for what people are doing within social groups and how they are defining the groups of which they are members. For my case study on WoW, these two theories combined will give me a macro and micro view of technology at play alongside humans, ensuring that the communication technology and game software are receiving as much attention and agency in developing and maintaining the networks within which the humans (physically, in some senses, and through their avatars) are operating.

Rhetorical Situation Theory adds to this discourse because rhetoric is moving through the networks being defined by the human and non-human actors and shaping the kinds of experiences being had by the guild members using the technology. In a gamespace, codes in the forms of zeroes and ones are the not the only things moving within a network. In a guild, code helps to relay the rhetoric moving between players during situations (both formal, such as raid planning, and informal, such as conversations between players about the dividing up of loot). By threading Rhetorical Situation Theory in with ANT and Networked Individualism, I can explore how players in the guild are using rhetoric to define the boundaries of the group, while at the same time, the hardware, software, and players are working together simultaneously within a network defined by the relay of code and commands.

How do these theories align with how you position yourself as a scholar?

This question took me a little while to consider and I am still not completely sure about how all three of the theories align with my own position as a scholar (or what that position is or will, ultimately, be). While I do not consider myself a rhetorician, Rhetorical Theory meshed together with the more technologically-laden theories of Actor Network Theory and Networked Individualism seem to be inherently linked to Cultural Studies, which I am hoping to work with as I continue making my way through the PhD program. Both ANT and Networked Individualism include or revolve around, respectively, technology as working alongside the humans who are using them, which offers interesting insight into how players and software and hardware mingle together to create or disrupt the experiences that video games offer for a single player, limited groups of players, and millions of players across different servers.

How do these theories align with your own biases and background (the reason you came to this project in the first place)?

I chose guilds in Massively Multiplayer Online (MMO) Games, narrowing down to World of Warcraft while working on my first case study, as my Object of Study because of my interest in Video Game Studies from an English Studies point of view. At first, I thought of looking at how narratives bind members of guilds and how such interactions could be used for college students, especially those in Composition courses. This emphasis switched, without me recognizing it until we were asked to rewrite our Object of Study Proposals, to how rhetorical activity can take place in a virtual environment and be influenced by the technology players have access to.

While Rhetorical Activity Theory was outside of my range as a scholar (I had never taken a class on Rhetoric, and had only worked with concepts from Classical Rhetoric with my Composition students for lessons on argumentation), the idea presented in Latour’s Actor Network Theory of technology as something more than just hardware and software that we manipulate really drew me in. Technology as a mediator (rather than as just an intermediary, though it can also be that too) connected with what I want to study for Role Playing Games (RPGs) on consoles (primarily PlayStation and XBox). As for Rainie and Wellman’s Networked Individualism Theory, I was familiar with how communications between people in society has been altered through advancements with the technology they use, but I am curious now to see how that Networked Individualism can play out for players in guilds whose sole communication can occur because they are networked in this way. As video game console developers continue to harness and enhance players’ abilities to communicate nationally as well as internationally with one another through the developers’ networks (PlayStation Network and XBox Live), this idea of a networked individual becomes increasingly relevant.

Though I am relatively new to the direct (conscious?) exploration of rhetorical activity in video games (I was most likely doing it without realizing it), I could say that one of my biases that came with me as I approached this project (series of case studies) was the idea that technology has a greater influence on players than just being what the players use. Game Studies scholar recognize that the limitations of technology and the constructs/boundaries of the gamespace can push players in certain directions for how they behave, how they communicate with one another, and what kinds of work-arounds they often look for or create in reaction to the limitations of the gamespace (such as the use of forums, Skype if the in-game communication system is lack or non-existent, creation of YoutTube videos).

Rise, Frankentheory, Rise!


Mindmap Doused with Network Societies

Mindmap: http://popplet.com/app/#/1589875

Mindmap updated_April 13

Mindmap updated_April 13

So it begins. Rise of the Network Society Theory by Manuel Castells, and it all wraps up into the mindmap. How to connect a theory that is so vast, encompassing economics, technology, culture, societal growth, metropolitan regions, global relations, historical pathways? Castells’ theory, at least what I read in volume 1 (the other two volumes were not assigned), had a lot of traces of Actor-Network Theory, Ecology Theory, Hardware/Software Theory, and Genre Tracing Theory. There were probably others, especially since Foucault is that which is always found to be underlying theoretical works we have read since our introduction to him, but these four theories made the most sense for me to connect to Network Societies for the frame of my mindmap.

Now that we have the overarching (though consciously limited) connections out of the way between Castells’ mega-theory and previously dealt with theories, let’s see what nodes I’ve made.

First node: “The most important characteristic of this accelerated process of global urbanization is that we are seeing the emergence of a new spatial form that I call the metropolitan region, to indicate that it is metropolitan though it is not a metropolitan area, because usually there are several metropolitan areas included in this spatial unit. The metropolitan region arises from two intertwined processes: extended decentralization from big cities to adjacent areas and interconnection of pre-existing towns whose territories become integrated by new communication capabilities…It is a new form because it includes in the same spatial unit both urbanized areas and agricultural land, open space and highly dense residential areas: there are multiple cities in a discontinuous countryside. It is a multicentered metropolis that does not correspond to the traditional separation between central cities and their suburbs…Sometimes, as in the European metropolitan regions, but also in California or New York/New Jersey, these centers are pre-existing cities incorporated in the metropolitan region by fast railway and motorway transportation networks, supplemented with advanced telecommunication networks and computer networks. Sometimes the central city is still the urban core, as in London, Paris, or Barcelona. But often there are no clearly dominant urban centers” (Castells xxxiii). I linked this quote with one from Latour regarding “the question of the social,” with social actors defining and redefining the movements. Networks of people, businesses, cultures, and social groups, along with the objects and technologies they employ to function, are the actors in ANT, but the groups within which they move and act and trace are part of a lager network that is part of an even larger network, with the layers extending out into the global society.

Second node: “the network enterprise makes the material the culture of the informational, global economy: it transforms signals into commodities by processing knowledge” (Castells 188). I chose this quote because it reminds me of the ways that Cloud Computer, hardware/software, Foucault’s archives, Latour’s conversations about technology and objects are helping to transform what are the material goods of our globally interlaced, informational economy. Goods are still being sold, but information tends to have a higher price.

Final node: “the shift from industrialism to informationalism is not the historical equivalent of the transition from agricultural to industrial economics, and cannot be equated to the emergence of the service economy. There are informational agriculture, informational manufacturing, and informational service activities that produce and distribute on the basis of information and knowledge embodied in the work process by the increasing power of information technologies. What has changed is not the kind of activities humankind is engaged in, but its technological ability to use as a direct productive force what distinguishes our species as a biological oddity: its superior capacity to process symbols…The informational economy is global. A global economy is an historically new reality, distinct from a world economy…A global economy is something different: it is an economy with the capacity to work as a unit in real time, or chosen time, on a planetary scale” (Castells 101). I linked this quote with Foucault’s concepts of “History of Ideas” and the dangers to the historian being too complacent by that which has been written in history books. I made the strongest connection here and chose this quote specifically because it was a new way of seeing how different societal economies do not just end. Instead, they continue folding back into the newer movements going on. Agriculture never ends because people always need food. Industry never ends because people want (and, usually, need) things. History is not linear, even within movements towards societal restructurings. It also showed that the network of society is founded on many things, and different types of economies create the foundation upon which people work and live, even when certain types are maginalized, pushed out of view except to be viewed with nostalgia (reminds me of the truck commercials with farmers).

It’s Another Day, Another Week


MindMap #8: Latour

Latour has been added to the list of people I plan to avoid forever (along with Foucault). I did not enjoy reading about ANT. I have read about and used ANT before in digital humanities; however, I did not read Latour. I cannot remember who I read, but I remember enjoying it. This was not […]

In Which ANT Meets Rhetorical Theory, And Even Objects Have Agency_Case Study #2 WoW

WoW Guild. Image hosted on Think Tutorial.

WoW Guild. Image hosted on Think Tutorial.

For this second case study, I am approaching guilds in World of Warcraft from Rhetorical Situation Theory (Lloyd Bitzer and Richard Vatz) and Actor-Network-Theory (Bruno Latour). While Rhetorical Situation is focused on humans as rhetors and the functions and effects of rhetorical discourse on and within audiences,  ANT looks at non-human as well as human actors as they are constantly defining and redefining groups and what is, ultimately, the social. Both of the theories look at those who are acting within a group, with one being more inclusive as to who/what can be an actant, and effects of the actors’ movements rippling through the network rather than looking at the network from the outside in.

Literature Review

The research that surrounds computer and video games is usually limited in terms of what is being analyzed. The major scholarly tracks seem to be violence, effects on children, Hzuinga’s “magical circle,” how games can be used for learning, gamer-avatar identity, and addiction (with this last one being a major component of research done on WoW). The international popularity of WoW (and some other MMORPGS, though WoW tends to have the most active subscriptions) is reflected in the scholarship surrounding it, as researchers from around the world turn their attention to the game and the effects it has, or can have, on its players. Scholars like Shelia Murphy as well as Nicholas Hoult and Douglas Klieber attempt to understand how computer games and video (console) games provide spaces for players that draw them in to identify with their characters (as well as how that gamer-avatar identification can be disrupted) in a way that television and movies do not, drawing upon the psychological needs being fulfilled. Like Murphy, Alex Golub also explores the visual elements of computer games, with WoW as his primary object of study, but ultimately concludes that the players’ experiences in virtual worlds are not based on enhanced sensorial realism, but on downplaying that realism because, “Rather than describe people who turn databases into worlds, I will describe a community which has taken a virtual world and turned it back into a database” (19). Golub finds that players use what the game provides them to strip away the levels of realism to work more closely with the code, the language of ones and zeroes, to enhance their experience of the game and their activities within guilds, and such activities take place not only in the game through verbal and textual communication between players and actions of avatars, but also through out-of-game spaces like websites and forums, email, phone calls, and through software like Skype and Google Hangout. Work like that of Chien-Hsun Chen, Chuen-Tsai Sun, and Jilung Hiesh is an outlier to the usual research being done on computer and video games as they use quantitative analysis to track the constant evolution and dissolution of WoW guilds in Taiwanese servers, finding that there are patterns to the creations, maintenance, and disbanding of guilds, based on players’ movement between guilds based on level ranking and quality of guild management.

Rhetorical Situations in a Game?

For the first part of this case study, I am going to be working with Rhetorical Situation Theory (focusing on the works of Bitzer and Vatz), looking at moments of rhetorical situation and the boundaries within which rhetors produce discourse in the gamespace of WoW.  But, are there moments of rhetoric in an MMORPG? If, as Bitzer says, “rhetorical discourse comes into existence as a response to a situation,” what kinds of situations in-game would create moments of rhetorical discourse (5)? It’s just a game, isn’t it?

Well, yes, it is a game, but it is also an environment, one that is heavily grounded in social interaction. Rhetoric is everywhere as players move as network nodes between interactions, joining and leaving guilds as well as joining and leaving raiding parties. Within guilds, players must convince one another of battle strategies as raids can often be difficult undertakings, requiring hours of planning and hours of execution, sometimes with little success; in player-player conflicts, with some players defending themselves and their potential virtual property against other players; when player-player conflicts cannot be resolved, there are ruptures within guilds, leading to the creation of separate guilds; and within the creation of new guilds, the recruitment of players into the guilds, especially when the gamer is new to the server or has been relatively isolated prior to creating a guild charter.

Guild social dynamics are essentially playing out in a microcosm of social and political** (usually within the guild, not in the gamespace at large) tensions, mediated through character avatars over Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) and textual messages. But rhetorical situations do not only occur in-game for guilds, but also outside of games: in forums (official and unofficial), on guild websites, through YouTube videos, and in personal communications. Much of this discourse is written by guild members for guild members, creating a circular audience, though gamers outside of the guild and even non-players (depending on the medium) can have access to out-of-game texts about in-game activities.

VoIP. Image hosted on official WoW site, Battle.net.

VoIP. Image hosted on official WoW site, Battle.net.

Unofficial World of Warcraft website for the guild Frostwolves.

Unofficial World of Warcraft website for the guild Frostwolves.

With this theory, rhetorical discourse always has a human agent, what Bitzer calls “mediators of change”: “Rhetorical  discourse produces changes by influencing the decision and action of persons who function as mediators of change” (7). This raises the questions of who would constitute the rhetors, the mediators of change, and the audience of those moments of discourse? The answer to these questions will always be guild members, but there are different kinds of guild members. There are differences between guild officers, raid leaders, guild leader, power players versus non-power players, and veteran players versus rookie players. The differences in-game are not based on outside elements like age, profession, race, financial status, or social class, but are based on experience and skill in-game. While the ideal is that every member of the group be given fair and equal treatment within the guild, there are often moments where players’ agency depends on their perceived level of commitment to the group and what level of guild hierarchy they have reached. It all depends on the rules established by the guild for how the guild operates in gameplay.

Oftentimes, a guild’s success at continuing to exist is based on the quality of guild management and how much agency each member (as a node in the network) has in the relationships formed through rhetorical discourse. The conversations that arise during the whole process of raids (from the pre-planning, the decisions as to who will play what role, the instructions and conversations that crop up as the raid is taking place, and the distribution of loot after the raid has been successfully completed) reflect the quality of leadership and companionship of the guild to its members, even if to no one else. If there is a break down in communication, if the leader (or rhetor) has no responsibility placed upon him/her for the rhetorical situation he/she has decided to take advantage of or ignore, the group may become fragmented as the members (who are more than “mere hearers and readers”) become mediators of change in a way that can ultimately dissolve the guild. Players may leave the guild (alone or with others) if they feel they are being treated unfairly (such as them feeling cheated if they are not allowed loot they have requested, if they feel the loot is being hoarded by guild officers, and so on), if they feel they have outgrown what the guild can offer their character, or if the guild is not operating efficiently enough (too many members missing raid meeting times). If the rhetorical discourse require for a situation is ineffective or absent when most needed, the guild as a whole may be left at a severe disadvantage if the best players leave. Even a player who feels he/she has no agency in the group, still has enough agency to leave the group and find a new guild.

From the angle of rhetorical discourse, what is moving through the network are the rules and guidelines that the members are continually establishing and putting into effect (or neglecting) for the experience they are seeking as a collective. Vatz states, “To the audience, events become meaningful only through their linguistic depiction” (157). Guild members could play the game alone (whether that gameplay would be successful or not would be another story), but it is the rhetorical exchange that underlies the guild activities that gives the events meaning for the players. A raid would be just hack-and-slash and magic-casting except that the players are using language to persuade themselves and each other that this raid, this dungeon, this boss fight means something for all of them. The raid leader may need to persuade others that a certain strategy is the correct one, but that explanation and the resulting discourse makes it a lived experience. Even a breakdown in communication or a consistent lack of quality guild management is a rhetorical discourse that can lead players to become mediators of change through guild dissolution.

**Side note: There are also times when political rhetoric crosses into a gamespace as players adapt the web of interconnectivity that a popular game can provide. An example of this is an in-game political rally for Ron Paul supporters that was established by players. These players carved a non-traditional space (non-traditional for a game, at least)for themselves within WoW by collecting supporters for an out-of-game cause.  Can the video below be considered a rhetorical text? Can these players be considered mediators of change as both rhetors and audience members?

Enter the ANT

While Rhetorical Situation Theory is very much about the human and the rhetorical discourse, ANT allows the very non-human entities of hardware and software as having just as much agency as the gamers themselves in a study on WoW. The programming code that makes everything work is not pushed off to the side; it is allowed into the discourse, becoming a major (and acknowledged) part of the network. With ANT, the actors are the nodes, but who are out actors? So yes, gamers, of course, are on the list of actors, but so are representations of the code through non-playable characters (NPCs), loot from raids, quests logs, monsters, characters’ pets, parts of the environment, and objects that can be handled in the game. But our list is still incomplete. We have to step outside of the game and look at what allows gamers to actually play: keyboards, CPUs with monitors or laptops, mouse, and headphones, as well as additional technologies that can now be used to access the game (thank you add-ons from Blizzard) like cellphones. Is this a more complete list? Sort of. Guild activities do not only take place in the gamespace, but outside of it as well in forums, through software like Google Hangouts and Skype, through social media like Facebook, and through unofficial game websites. There could be other actors involved, especially if the guild members know each other in person, but this will be okay for now as our list is more robust than simply just listing humans. This is what a WoW ANT network for a guild would like.

Normally, when a guild is mentioned, people imagine this:

WoW guild, anyone? Image hosted on the C Trust Network.

WoW guild, anyone? Image hosted on the C Trust Network.

When really, with our newly constructed list in mind, the mental image should include these two:

Example of what a screen for what a player sees during a raid. Image hosted on C Trust Network.

Example of what a screen for what a player sees during a raid. Image hosted on C Trust Network.

Guild playing at a tournament. Image hosted on website SK-Gaming.

Guild playing at a tournament. Image hosted on website SK-Gaming.

Now that we have our larger (if not totally exhaustive list) and our handy-dandy new mental image, we must deal with a new way of conceiving how the nodes in our guild network have agency and are situated within the network. Why would I choose to list these actors? According to Latour, “If we stick to our decision to start from the controversies about actors and agencies, then any thing that does modify a state of affairs by making a difference is an actor– or, if it has no figuration yet, an actant. Thus, the questions to ask about any agent are simply the following: Does it make a difference in the course of some other agent’s action or not? Is there some trial that allows someone to detect this difference?” (71). Let’s see if we can tease out how this works within an MMORPG. What do all of these actors even do for the network? The gamers, their hardware, and the game’s software have one major collective goal. They are all working towards the creation and maintenance of the gameworld in which the guild exists. Sounds odd that gamers are part of this, doesn’t it? But, that’s how games work. The developers design the code that then puts the gameworld into existence on the chosen platform(s) players will then access through their chosen hardware. If the gamers choose not to play, eventually the designers will have to shut the game down or the game remains in its plastic casing on a shelf. In order for the gameworld to be activated and maintained, it needs someone to be playing.

But, we need to narrow this down further. Our target network is not the game as a whole, but individual guilds. What gamers, the software, and the hardware do for the game at large works the same way for the guild on a more microscopic level. The guild’s boundaries must be defined and redefined constantly, which Latour mentions when discussing the creation and maintenance of groups: “all need some people defining who they are, what they should be, what they have been. These are constantly at work, justifying the group’s existence, invoking rules and precedents and, as we shall see, measuring up one definition against all others. Groups are not silent things, but rather the provisional product of a constant uproar made by the millions of contradictory voices about what is a group and who pertains to what” (31). In this sense, the guild is a network node inside a much larger, far more extensive network. And, the gamers, who would have been just one node among (literally) millions of other player nodes, and those are just talking about the human elements of the game. What being part of a guild does then is offer players greater agency in their own gameplay experience of WoW by making them a node in a network that is comprised of a more manageable (usually) number of human players.

However, if those guild members stop redefining the boundaries of their group, against the world, other guilds, and against players with no guilds at all, the guild itself will dissolve. The code and gamers’ hardware is not enough to maintain a guild. The guild may have an archive of some kind as having once existed, but the players are the core nodes who meet and interact in a way that makes a guild what it is. That being said, the guild would not exist without the code that is always underlining the game. There would be no reason for a guild unless the environment of the gamespace provided dungeons to conquer, raids to take on, a world to explore, cities to visit, and servers where players can face off against one another or players (PvP) face off against the environment (PvE). And, without the hardware of the computer and the headphones, players would not have access to the gamespace and to each other. All of the actors are necessary, especially with digital games.

It is here where ANT really diverges away from theories like Rhetorical Situation Theory, complicating how we see interactions in a network. What exactly can be moving through a guild network when we must take into account the software and hardware? How does it move among the different nodes? One of the major things moving through the network is code, zeroes and ones that render the visuals, relay information  about characters’ statuses, allow for environmental sounds and pre-established soundtrack selections, and initiate reactions from the environment, NPCs, and monsters in which the guild members interact. There are also the zeroes and ones that allow players to have their avatars do physical gestures towards one another and allow relay their textual conversations. But, that’s not all. The hardware players may opt to use like headphones and mics allow for verbal communications. Rhetorical discourse may be part of what is being conveyed, but, in this more inclusive list of network nodes, the code is central to all transmissions.

Who/what are the mediators and what are the intermediaries making all of this possible? “Every time a connection has to be established, a new conduit has to be laid down and some new type of entity has to be transported through it. What circulates, so to speak, ‘inside’ the conduits are the very acts of giving something a dimension. Whenever a locus wishes to act on another locus, it has to go through some medium, transporting something all the way; to go on acting, it has to maintain some sort of more or less durable connection. Conversely, every locus is now the target of many such activities, the crossroads of many such tracks, the provisional repository of many such vehicles. Sites, now transformed into actor-networks for good, are moved to the background; connectors, vehicles, and attachments are brought into the foreground” (Latour 220).

**This quote always reminds me of Tron: Legacy.

In ANT, there are mediators (those that cause other actors to do something) and there are intermediaries (objects that relay information without causing change), though intermediaries can become mediators. How to picture this, though, when zeroes and ones are at the heart of everything in-game and players must continually be mediators while they are immersed in the gameworld? The hardware seem most likely to be continually be mediators so long as gamers are playing, in much the same way as Latour’s example of telephone wires being persistent mediators for the British Empire. It took me a while to puzzle this one out, but the best example I could think of for an intermediary in relation to a guild in WoW would be NPCs and monsters populating the world. As guild members move through the gamespace, signing off and returning to the world of the game when the guild and the meatspace demand, NPCs and the other creatures of the gamespace continue to exist, but what are they doing? In a sense, they are code-in-waiting. They are physically representing the zeroes and ones that program an NPC or a monster to be in a particular location, but they are not really causing change in the network of the guild until a player (or the group of players) interacts with them. These digital entities are always ready, either standing in the same physical space or roaming predetermined pathways, waiting for something to trigger them (through conversation or battle). Once activated, the NPC or monster then becomes a mediator by either giving players details for a particular quest or transporting them for the former, or attacking them for the latter. The players may then be sent in a new direction (to find an item, location, or just to run away), or find themselves needing to defend and attack.

Example of an NPC. Image hosted on the WoW Insider on Joystiq.

Example of an NPC. Image hosted on the WoW Insider on Joystiq.

Conclusion

When applying ANT to guild activities in WoW, there is as much need to define and redefine the boundaries of the network for the researcher as the actors when they are defining and redefining the groups within which they find themselves working. The code of the game may play a major role in what the guild can do in the gamespace, but it does not limit itself to that. The code is always working throughout the game, across the different servers in the different countries where people are playing. When talking about this angle in my case study, I always get the sense that I am stepping away from my object of study as the boundaries blur. The zeroes and ones are hidden from the more casual player under layers of what they render, though the games allows players the option of stripping away the visual elements in order to have greater access to the code underneath. This makes tracing the associations in ANT a little more difficult. Game developers make the world as seamless as possible so that players can immerse themselves, and hardware and software are only truly noticed when they malfunction. In comparison, Rhetorical Situation Theory seems easier to implement, primarily because it is not as inclusive and, therefore, more manageable. By only focusing on humans dealing with other humans, the extra variables made visible in ANT are left out.

References

Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 25 (Selections from Volume 1) (1992): 1-14. PDF.

Chen, Chien-Hsun, Chuen-Tsai Sun, Jilung Hsieh. “Player Guild Dynamics and Evolution is Massively Multiplayer Online Games.” CyberPsychology & Behavior 11.3 (2008): 293-301. Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 March 2014.

Golub, Alex. “Being in the World (of Warcraft): Raiding, Realism, and Knowledge Production in a Massively Multiplayer Online Game.” Anthropological Quarterly 83.1 (2010): 17-45. JSTOR. Web. 26 Jan 2014.

Holt, Nicholas A. and Douglas A. Kleiber. “The Sirens’ Song of Multiplayer Online Games.” Children, Youth and Environments 19.1 (2009): 223-244. JSTOR. Web. 26 Jan 2014.

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

Murphy, Sheila C. “‘Live in Your World, Play in Ours’: The Spaces of Video Game Identity.” Journal of Visual Culture 3.2 (2004): 223-238. Sage. Web. 17 March 2014.

Vatz, Richard E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 6.3 (1973): 154-161. PDF.

Sunday Begins and Ends with Music


Case Study #2: Apply CHAT and ANT – CH[A(N)T] – to Google Analytics

Literature Review: Google Analytics, My Beloved OoS 

In general, researchers appear to use Google Analytics™ (GA) web analytics service as a tool for  measuring web visits and, to an extent, visitor behavior. In discursive terms, GA collects and visualizes an archive of traces of user interactions with web pages. The discursive activity of visiting (and, presumably, reading) a web page is seldom referenced in research that uses GA for measurement; instead, the archival trace of the discursive activity gets captured, archived, and visualized.

Most research uses an enthymeme that reads something like this: GA data can help developers improve websites. For example, Kirk et al. (2012), in an article seeking to monitor user engagement in an Internet-delivered genetics education resource developed for nurses, report that GA “informs approaches to enhancing visibility of the website; provides an indicator of engagement with genetics-genomics both nationally and globally; [and] informs future expansion of the site as a global resource for health professional education” (p. 559). Similarly, Mc Guckin & Crowley (2012), in an article evaluating the impact of an online cyber-bullying training resource, the CyberTraining Project, report that GA data have “allowed for the project team to further understand how best to optimize the product (i.e., the Website and the eBook) for ease of access and navigation by unique and referred users” (p. 629). Focusing more specifically on GA reporting over time, Plaza (2009) notes that “GA tells the web owner how visitors found the site and how they interact with it. Users will be able to compare the behaviour of visitors who were referred from search engines and emails, from referring sites and direct visits, and thus gain insight into how to improve the site’s content and design” (p. 475). Missing from the enthymeme are assumptions that connect GA to improved websites, assumptions that can be phrased in questions about the relationship between GA, website visitors, and website developers: What data are provided by GA that can directly relate to specific improvements in website design? What user behaviors can and should be examined via GA to evaluate the success of the website? What benchmarks should developers set to measure success or failure? While these questions are not ignored in research that uses GA reporting, they are not directly or specifically addressed. As a result, readers miss out on key assumptions that researchers make about specific ways the data provided by GA reports can and will be used to make concrete changes to website design and structure.

Bruno Latour’s (2005) introduction to actor-network-theory (ANT) identifies transporters of meaning among connections as “mediators” or “intermediaries.” An intermediary “transports meaning or force without transformation” while mediators “transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry” (p. 39). When researchers present GA as a means of measuring user interaction with websites, they generally describe GA as an intermediary. By describing GA as an intermediary, researchers ignore, potentially to their peril, the mediating potential of GA reports. For example, Dahmen & Sarraf (2009), reporting visitor analytics of an online art museum exhibition, claim that “through the use of Google Analytics, this research seeks to understand how the public used the Web representation of the special exhibition” (p. 2). Their report represents GA data as authoritative and unmediated; the GA interface that visualizes and reports visit data is accepted as accurate, without comment. Mc Guckin & Crowley (2012) take a step toward recognizing the potential mediating effects of GA reports by claiming to “ascertain the efficacy of GA as an effective resource for measuring the impact of the CyberTraining project” (p. 628), but they conclude, “Such information [provided by GA] proves valuable in the iterative development and dissemination of the project and has, directly, informed the planning of the new CT4P project” (p. 629). GA is considered a blackboxed intermediary for reporting web visits. In other words, current research offers little theoretical perspective on the potential mediating effects GA may have on the data it reports and visualizes. This blog post seeks to remedy that omission by applying both ANT and cultural-historical activity theory (CHAT) to Google Analytics and the data it provides on visitor interactions with the website of the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies (SPCS).

An OoS on the LOoSe

One of the most interesting aspects of using GA as my object of study (OoS) is that it remains a product continually in production. Although Google does not address it explicitly, it’s become clear that Google is working to make GA a digital analytics platform that expands well beyond the measurement of interactions on websites. I’m working toward a certificate of completion for Google Analytics Platform Principles (2014) as a followup to a certificate of completion I received for Digital Analytics Fundamentals (2013), and both of these online learning modules address Google Analytics as a broad-based digital analytics platform that handles data from a wide array of sources, even non-Internet-connected applications and appliances. The result, as I’ve experienced it, is that the Google Analytics Platform (yes, that’s the proper noun) is expanding its reach and scope on a weekly, perhaps even daily, basis.

This makes applying activity theories like the cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical theory (CHAT) and actor-network-theory (ANT) quite comfortable. GA as OoS is itself in active flux, continually redefining (perhaps more accurately expanding) itself for a fast-changing connected world.

ChOoSing a Definition

Screen capture of Google Analytics data model

Visualization of the laminated chronotope in Google Analytics. In this overview of the Google Analytics data model, the user (a CHAT node) engages with web content in space (interaction) and time (session).

CHAT might describe GA as a representation of practices within a laminated chronotope. As a tool that measures interactions between visitors and web pages, GA collects the results of “mediated activity:… action and cognition [that] are distributed over time and space among people, artifacts, and environments and thus also laminated, as multiple frames or fields co-exist in any situated act” (Prior et al., 2007, emphasis original). The action that gets represented as a visit in GA is loading a specific web page. Cognition gets represented in the action of following a link on a specific page to load a new page or resource. This activity is collected over time in a session, defined in GA as the time within 30 minutes a single visitor, identified by an anonymous, unique identifier and saved in a first-party cookie (“Platform Principles,” 2014) remains engaged within a surveilled website before leaving that domain or expiring the session time. GA represents all of the activity within that session in an aggregated visualization. Session data are collected over time and are the result of laminated activity among people, artifacts (like web pages) and environments (like browsers, computers, mobile devices and the like).

ANT might describe GA as traces of connections among networked actants. Actants captured in a web session might include the visitor, the technological interface (computer/mouse/monitor or mobile device), the web page content and links, the writer of the web content, the host server, the network gateways and cables, and many more too numerous to detail. ANT would likely chafe under the need to define the collecting mechanism itself, however, and suggest that GA might be an artificial data assemblage that needs to be reassembled. Specifically, since GA is a data framework that collects only preselected data points (“Tracking Code Overview,” 2012), GA might be accused of “filtering out” and “disciplining” the data collection: “Recording not filtering out, describing not disciplining, these are the Laws and the Prophets” (Latour 2005, p. 55, emphasis original). More useful might be the preprocessed data collected by Google Analytics servers; processing organizes the web session into a predefined framework, precisely the activity ANT seeks to avoid in its practice.

LOoSe the Nodes

CHAT might define nodes as literate activity “among people, artifacts, and environments” (Prior et al., 2007). Using this definition, GA includes such human nodes as website visitors, web writers (including CSS, XHTML, JavaScript, and other programmers), website designers and developers, and marketers who determine the content of the web pages and websites. In the case of the SPCS GA account, institutional nodes would include the University of Richmond and the School of Professional and Continuing Studies, each of which contributes in a meaningful way to the visual and textual rhetoric of the site. Working together as an ecology in the functional system of the website, these nodes would all be aspects of CHAT’s literate activity. Visitors might be ascribed limited agency for their roles in reading content and authoring linked narratives. Web writers, marketers, and developers would have full agency as content creators. The website itself is ascribed no agency; it’s not considered part of the natural ecology of the network. Institutional entities (UR and SPCS) have minimal agency as regulators of environment and work.

ANT defines nodes as actors, and there are myriad actors (more precisely, actor-networks) at work in GA. From the programmed codes written and interpreted to the software and hardware mediating and displaying web pages to the visitors and writers and programmers to the network providers and databases—ANT accepts any and all of these actants as nodes with the potential of agency. Latour (2005) refers to these objects as “the non-social means mobilized to expand them [the basic social skills] a bit longer” (p. 67) and confesses that ANT will “accept as full-blown actors entities that were explicitly excluded from collective existence by more than one hundred years of social explanation” (p. 69). The implication is that all the technological hardware and software — the GA code, the wired and wireless networks (cables, routers, and servers), and the Google Analytics processes server — work together to enable the web visitor to interact with this creation of the web writer, developer, coder, and marketer. This collective is incorporated at the moment of loading a web page, and its momentary connectivity is both enabled and expanded by agency of the object actors.

Where ROoSt the Nodes?

CHAT locates nodes in hierarchical relationships with one another in the network. Prior et al. (2007) conceive of literate activity producing socialized interaction within the functional system as part of the laminated chronotope of activity in space and time (Take 2: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Theoretical Activity). In this hierarchy, web visitors are outside the system except during literate activity, defined as interacting with the multimodal text(s) within the site. Web writers, developers, and marketers are members of the functional system where literate activity (defined as creating and instantiating the multimodal text) occurs. The website itself is the functional system; the School gives the system chronological and spatial existence while the University gives the system technological existence. GA collects traces of literate activity among nodes within the functional system of the website, visualized and reported as interactions in space (between pages) and time (within sessions).

ANT flattens the network entirely. Latour’s (2005) conception of ANT works to keep the social flat (pp. 165-172), connecting all of the actor-networks (nodes) within the activity network in a single, non-hierarchical surface. Within GA, this flatness is largely retained within the report. All actor-networks have mediated, translated experiences of web content — there are no intermediary experiences, whether visitor or writer, software or hardware. GA reports a visualization of mediated network activity in a flattened data table. The flattened data table in GA treats the visitor’s web browser or operating system as equally significant to the actor-network represented by the visitor or web writer. Relationships between actors are largely un-disciplined; they are simply reported, regardless of the inherent logic (or lack thereof) in the relationship uncovered.

FootlOoSe Nodes

CHAT stresses an ecological relationship among nodes, limiting that ecology to the natural and material world (Prior et al., 2007). Visitors enter into the functional system of the website and navigate through it. Web writers, developers, and marketers engender the navigation links through the system, giving visitors pathways for narrative production. The website functions as the system, enabling web visits in time and space. The School provides content for the system, while the University provides the localized instantiation of the content in the website. GA records the traces of interactions within the functional system, visualizing them in laminated chronotopes in time and space. GA does not clearly identify the human actors in the network, preferring to aggregate identities. However, GA enables web writers, developers, and marketers to examine the traces of aggregated literate activity by visitors and revise website content and structure accordingly. This provides the opportunity for dialogue among human actors.

ANT stresses incoming connections among interconnected nodes. Latour (2005) frames this according to what it means to be a “whole”: “to be a realistic whole is not an undisputed starting point but the provisional achievement of a composite assemblage” (p. 208). Nodes that have more incoming connections than others are considered more settled and blackboxed, meaning they shift from being merely actors to becoming conduits for the flow of mediators: “an actor-network is what is made to act by a large star-shaped web of mediators flowing in and out of it” (p. 217). Such a star-shaped web of mediators is immediately visible in GA reports: the page in a website that receives the most visits or page views is the most connected page. This page is generally the website’s home page, and its purpose is not to provide content but to allow mediators to flow through it — to allow visitors to find what they’re seeking and connect to it.

WhOoShing through the Network

In GA, visit data — encrypted bits and bytes, assemblages of sequenced zeros and ones — moves from the visitor’s device to the GA server for processing and reporting. The collection process leading up to this movement differs between browsers (mobile and non-mobile) and mobile apps: browsers send data collections with every page load, but mobile apps bundle visit data and send it in timed intervals to protect mobile device battery life. This too simply describes a very complex ecology of network and computer hardware and software that transmits data from web content creators to web visitors to GA servers, but I’m limiting this discussion of movement to data from visitor’s device to GA servers. See the Google Analytics (2014) Academy “Data Collection Overview” video presentation (below) for additional details.

CHAT might describe this movement as distribution in the literate activity of viewing a web page or using a mobile app. Prior et al. (2007) define distribution as “the way particular media, technologies, and social practices disseminate a text and what a particular network signifies” (Mapping Literate Activity). In this case, two distributions occur: the distribution leading to reception (by the web page visitor) and distribution leading to the assemblage of visit data collected for interpretation on GA servers.

Screen capture from YouTube video

Visualization of Google Analytics data points. The tracking code packages visit (hit) data in an image request that looks like this. Screen capture from Google Analytics Platform Principles – Lesson 2.1 Data collection overview

ANT might describe this movement as the social. The assemblage of connections from hundreds of thousands of SPCS visitor pageviews flowing into the GA server could be what Latour (2005) calls “the social — at least that part that is calibrated, stabilized, and standardized — [that] is made to circulate inside tiny conduits that can expand only through more instruments, spending, and channels” (p. 241). In this case, the conduits are standardized in the GA’s preselected data points (“Tracking Code Overview,” 2012). When and if GA adds new data points for collection, these tiny conduits would be expanded. This definition also suggests that many other connections remain unsurveyed, Latour’s “plasma.” The assemblage of all connections would be the social fabric of the network.

Meaning Released from the HOoSegow?

CHAT might describe meaning as the result of literate activity in the functional system. Prior et al. (2007) map literate activity as a multidimensional process that can include production, representation, distribution, reception, socialization, activity, and ecology (Mapping Literate Activity). The results of this literate activity are recorded and transmitted from visitor’s devices to GA servers. The meaning of these data points are processed (interpreted) and reported as visualizations. That meaning becomes the basis of analysis; analysis leads to conclusions about visitor behavior, which in turn result in changes to the web content leading to new literate activities.

ANT, on the other hand, ascribes no meaning to the results of CHAT’s literate activity. Latour (2005) remains adamant into the conclusion of Reassembling the Social that the social is dynamic and active, not a substance: “the social is… detected through the surprising movements from one association to the next” (p. 246). As a result, what GA does in processing and visualizing the results of activity in the SPCS website is not about ascribing meaning, but about tracing associations. And because those associations (connections) are mediated by the limited data points collected, the processing done by the GA servers, and the visualizations available, the reassembled social of GA is likely too limited to trace the plasmatic connectivity of the visitor’s web browsing experience.

Networks Emerge, Networks VamOoSe

CHAT and ANT will agree on this: actors initiate, grow, and dissolve networks. Prior et al. (2007) and Latour (2005) build their arguments on the social activities of actors. CHAT engages those actors in literate activity, while ANT engages those actors as connected actor-networks. Only activity on the part of actors can cause the network to emerge. For CHAT, only the activity of web content creators, web developers, database administrators, marketers, and web visitors can generate the first packet of data to flow across the network from visitor device to GA server. For ANT, the list of actors can extend much farther into non-human actants, but the principle remains the same: actors must initiate the network. Actors can grow the network through more visitor sessions — by many measurements, adding visitor sessions and growing session length is my primary professional objective as web manager — and actors can also dissolve the network by removing a web page (authors) or no longer visiting the website (visitors).

ClOoSing Thoughts

GA itself is a fairly limited network. Its boundaries could easily be drawn around the connection between the GA code on the web page or in the mobile app and the GA server. Any other activity that either leads up to the connection or follows the connection — namely writing and viewing a web page or viewing and interpreting GA visualized data — could be seen outside the network. Except that CHAT and ANT seek to problematize such limited perspectives of networks by addressing the activity that enlivens connectivity. So for these two theories, I found myself widening the focus to include the biological (CHAT and ANT) and non-biological (ANT) nodes in the network. This perspective turns into an ecology whose various members are only momentarily connected at the moment of accessing a web page or mobile app. But in that moment, myriad connections reveal actors and build a remarkably complex assemblage of networked components. As a result, I found few limits in CHAT or ANT to addressing GA as my OoS — other than the shortage of meaningful English words that contain the character string “-oos”.

References

Dahmen, N., & Sarraf, S. (2009). Edward Hopper Goes to the Net: Media Aesthetics and Visitor Analytics of an Online Art Museum Exhibition. Conference Papers — International Communication Association, 1-28.

Digital analytics fundamentals [Online course]. (2013, October). Retrieved from Google Analytics Academy https://analyticsacademy.withgoogle.com/explorer

Google Analytics platform principles [Online course]. (2014, March). Retrieved from Google Analytics Academy https://analyticsacademy.withgoogle.com/explorer

Kirk, M., Morgan, R., Tonkin, E., McDonald, K., & Skirton, H. (2012). An objective approach to evaluating an internet-delivered genetics education resource developed for nurses: Using Google Analytics™ to monitor global visitor engagement. Journal of Research in Nursing, 17(6), 557–579. doi:10.1177/1744987112458669

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

Mc Guckin, C., & Crowley, N., (2012). Using Google Analytics to evaluate the impact of the CyberTraining Project. CyberPsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, 15(11), 625-629. doi:10.1089/cyber.2011.0460

Platform principles: Website data collection [Video transcript]. (2014, March). Google Analytics Platform Principles. Retrieved from Google Analytics Academy https://analyticsacademy.withgoogle.com/course02/assets/html/GoogleAnalyticsAcademy-PlatformPrinciples-Lesson2.2-TextLesson.html

Plaza, B. (2009). Monitoring web traffic source effectiveness with Google Analytics: An experiment with time series. Aslib Proceedings, 61(5), 474-482. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1108/00012530910989625

Prior, P., Solberg, J., Berry, P., Bellwoar, H., Chewning, B., Lunsford, K. J., Rohan, L., Roozen, K., Sheridan-Rabideau, M. P., Shipka, J., Van Ittersum, D., & Walker, J. R. (2007). Re-situating and re-mediating the Canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity [Multimodal composition]. Kairos, 11(3). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/11.3/binder.html?topoi/prior-et-al/index.html

Google Analytics. (2014, March 11). Google Analytics Platform Principles – Lesson 2.1 Data collection overview [Video file]. Retrieved from http://youtu.be/qQdPXouWeJE

Tracking code overview [Web page]. (2012, October 29). Google Analytics. Retrieved from Google Developers https://developers.google.com/analytics/resources/concepts/gaConceptsTrackingOverview#howAnalyticsGetsData

[Header image: I’m a Google Analytics Geek: Screen capture of the Google Analytics Academy]

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]

Citations:

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: 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.

References

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]

ANTs, Scatter at Will_Latour, Joyce, and Johnson-Eilola_Reading Notes

Calling All Actors! Image hosted on The Minority Eye.

Calling All Actors! Image hosted on The Minority Eye.

Actors, you say? Now what does that have to do with networks? Or hyptertextuality? Or even Foucault, for that matter? Are you mad? Obsessed with Hollywood? Ohohoho, my dears, your lives are about to get so much more interesting. Mine certainly has.

Cue evil laugh. Imaged hosted on Upnetwork Forums.

Cue evil laugh. Imaged hosted on Upnetwork Forums.

However, before we can continue, we must add just one more thing to our call for actors.

Travel Guides. You're going to need them. Image hosted on the website Visiting Bologna.

Travel Guides. You’re going to need them. Image hosted on the website Visiting Bologna.

Tada! Yes, a travel guide. May the squiggly river lines be ever in your favor. So this completes our necessary metaphors, or does it? haha You will just have to wait and see. Now, onwards and upwards. Theory waits for no individual! Which brings me to this guy…

Bruno Latour_Actor-Network-Theory. Image hosted on Vimeo.

Bruno Latour_Actor-Network-Theory. Image hosted on Vimeo.

Meet Bruno Latour, author of Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Now, you may be thinking of actors like those in Hollywood ( Bollywood, Japanese, Korean, or Chinese dramas, all of which are amazing), but that would be a little too reductive in terms of Latour’s use of the word. While the image fits, they are not the only actors on this stage. You, gentle reader, are also an actor in this fine frenzy we find ourselves moving through. Now, to help us get adjusted as we move into Actor-Network-Theory (or, as Latour has dubbed it, ANT), I am going to give a list of some terms we will be needing for this adventure, though it is not entirely inclusive as this entry only deals with a part of Latour’s work (the second section will be for next week):

Actor-Network-Theory – is a sociology approach that centers on the “sociology of associations” (rather than “sociology of the social”). Its practitioners trace the actions of “actors,” following moments of controversies and uncertainties in relation to group formation, maintenance, and dissolution: “in situations where innovations proliferate, where group boundaries are uncertain, when the range of entities to be taken into account fluctuates, the sociology of the social is no longer able to trace actors’ new associations. At this point, the last thing to do would be to limit in advance the shape, size, heterogeneity, and combination of associations…it is no longer enough to limit actors to the role of informers offering cases of some well-known types. You have to grant them back the ability to make up their own theories of what the social is” (11).

“instead of taking a reasonable position and imposing some order beforehand, ANT claims to be able to find order much better after having let the actors deploy the full range of controversies in which they are immersed. It is as if we were saying to the actors: ‘We won’t try to discipline you, to make you fit into our categories; we will let you deploy your own worlds, and only later will we ask you to explain how you came about settling them.’ The task of defining and ordering the social should be lest to the actors themselves, not taken up by the analyst” (23).

Latour, calling upon a comment made by another, declared,  ”the acronym A.N.T. was perfectly fit for a blind, myopic, workaholic, trail-sniffing, and collective traveler. An ant writing for other ants, this fits my project very well!” (9)

Actor – While Latour seems to give no clear cut definition of what he considers an “actor” (or, if he does, I totally missed it), he does give out statements that serve to function as boundaries for what an actor does, such as the idea that actors should not be limited to the role of informers. Actors are active agents in the assembling, disassembling, and reassembling of what composes the social, such as when they “incessantly engage in the most abtruse metaphysical constructions by redefining all the elements of the world” (51). Actors are individuals moving fluidly between groups (sometimes inhabiting multiple groups at one time), helping to define what those groups are and what they are not, and being the focal point of “social” activity that sociologists are (in the boundaries of “sociology of associations”) supposed to be tracing (rather than defining and limiting).

Tracing of Associations – “In this meaning of the adjective, social does not designate a thing among other things, like a black sheep among other white sheep, but a type of connection between things that are not themselves social” (5)

Sociology of the Social - Latour, very openly, decries the pathways and objectives of this brand of sociology as he finds their methods too engaged with political aims than with the original goals of social sciences (“the political agenda of many social theorists has taken over their libido sciendi” (49)). He describes them as, essentially, what not to do with sociology, as they are too limiting and not looking from the right angles. For example, “When sociologists of the social pronounce the words ‘society,’ ‘power,’ ‘structure,’ and ‘context,’ they often just straight ahead to connect vast arrays of life and history, to mobilize gigantic forces, to detect dramatic patterns emerging out of confusing interactions, to see everywhere in the cases at hand yet more examples of well-known types, to reveal behind the scenes some dark powers pulling the strings” (22).

Sociology of Associations – On the other side of this sociological divide are the sociologists of association. These practitioners seem to be in the relatively good graces of Latour (I’m not even kidding when I say that he will openly bash whoever and whatever he thinks is frolicking in the wrong social sciences’ direction), as they focus on the associations within which the social emerges and dissolves: “[Sociologists of associations'] duty is not to stabilize–whether at the beginning for clarity, or to look for reasonable–the list of groupings making up the social. Quite the opposite: their starting point begins precisely with the controversies about which grouping one pertains to including of course the controversies among social scientists about what the social world is made of” (29).

Intermediary – “is what transports meaning or force without transformation: defining its inputs is enough to define its outputs…No matter how complicated an intermediary is, it may, for all practical purposes, count for just one–or for even nothing at all because it can be easily forgotten” (39).

Mediators – “cannot be counted as just one; they might count for one, for nothing, for several, or for infinity. Their input is never a good predictor of their output; their specificity has to be taken into account every time. Mediators transform, translate, distort, and modify the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry…No matter how apparently simple a mediator may look, it may become complex; it may lead in multiple directions which will modify all the contradictory accounts attributed to its role” (39)

Meta-language - is “a language used to talk about language” (Merriam-Webster Online). Latour states that actors have their “own elaborate and fully reflexive meta-language” upon which sociologists should not encroach (30)

Infra-language – language that “remains strictly meaningless except for allowing displacement from one frame of reference to the next” (30).

Now that we have a lexicon with which to approach Latour’s work, let’s get moving into our roles as ants reading about an ant writing for other ants.

We are all just ANTs in Actor-Network-Theory. Image hosted on the website Families.

We are all just ANTs in Actor-Network-Theory. Image hosted on the website Families.

I really enjoyed reading the first part of Latour’s book,  with his snarky comments, brutal honesty about how he sees the direction of his field, circular thinking, and just the language he employs to promoting this “sociology of associations.” There were so many moments where a paragraph of his would give me an aha! moment about the still muddy waters of Foucault. Latour’s emphasis on the controversies and uncertainties of social sciences, group formations, actors being active agents, and the roles of sociologists helped me to put into perspective the fluctuating history, enunciative formations, and discursive statements that are the heart of Archaeology of Knowledge. I think what gave me some clarity was how thoroughly he seeks to completely shred the idea of permanency that seems so inherent in society and social groups. When we discuss civilization and civilized lives, it is in opposition to the wild, ever-changing face of nature, and yet, there our civilizations are just as fluid (maybe even more so) as nature. As Latour mentions, “For ANT, if you stop making and remaking groups, you stop having groups. No reservoir of forces flowing from ‘social forces’ will help you….Whereas, for the sociologists of the social, the great virtue of appeals to society is that they offer this long lasting stability on a plate and for free, our school views stability as exactly what has to be explained by appealing to costly and demanding means” (35). Here again, Foucault seems to resonate. Controversies, uncertainties, ruptures, suspicions over stability. By looking towards a sociology where activities, actors, analysis are in constant motion, not just layering one on top of the other, but with movement like atoms in motion.

It took a few moments for me to wrap my mind around the idea that a group dissolves once effort has stopped being placed in the sustaining of a group. What about all of those historical groups that still influence our modes of thinking, our current choices, and the ways we see how we want the future to unfold? But, then I realized that by continuing to draw upon, adapt, enhance, and introduce to others groups of the past, effort and means are still being funneled into that group. Take, for example, a university (it was the example that popped into my head while I was reading). What composes a university? A university, with its various departments, potentially looks stable from an outsider’s perspective. It is an institution set in place to deliver knowledge onto maturing generations, helping to guide them towards the next stage of their life while also populating the ranks of the colleges, departments, and disciplines. Places like Harvard, Oxford, and Yale have been around for a very long time and can be seen as rooted within their communities and our nation at large. But, universities are a group, composed of smaller groups and connected to a group of other universities, associations, businesses, and so on. And, it takes a lot of work to keep them running, smoothly or otherwise. There are accreditation boards, alumni, sponsors, funding committees, political interest groups, recruiters, sports associations, student organizations, departments, faculty groups, staff groups, unions, public media outlets. All of these different groups are constantly in motion, defining and redefining the boundaries of what a university is, how it should be run, what it is doing wrong, what departments and subjects are being considered outdated and not worth funding, the point of higher education, the place of the university in conjunction with the community surrounding it. This activity defines the institution of a university and keeps it in existence. If all of these people suddenly walked away from Harvard, that university would no longer exist. An institution is not the buildings or the lab equipment or the computers; it is the people who ascribe to being a part of that institution that give it life and meaning. The same goes for a civilization, or even a species.  A group must be composed of something, even if they are  fragments of what had been continually being called into existence by the memories and dialogues of others.

Megamind. Image hosted on the website Comic Mix.

Megamind. Image hosted on the website Comic Mix.

Ah, right. Sorry about that long-winded monologue (well, I guess this whole thing is a monologue, really). Anyways, it was in this stream of thought where I remember Latour criticizing the efforts of the sociologists of the social for distancing themselves from this beehive of activity and his acknowledgement of the sociologists of associations’ opposite approach: “For the sociologists of associations, any study of any group by any social scientist is part and parcel of what makes the group exist, last, decay, or disappear. In the developed world, there is no group that does not have at least some social science instrument attached to it. This is not some ‘inherent limitation’ of the discipline due to the fact that sociologists are also ‘social members’ and have difficulties in ‘extracting themselves’ out of the bonds of their own ‘social categories.’…Although in the first school [sociology of the social] actors and scholars are in two different boats, in the second school [associations] they remain in the same boat all along and play the same role” (33-34). As I am not a sociologist or a social scientist (literature is my flavor of academics), I cannot be sure how sociologists of the social feel about their role in society and the extent to which they perceive themselves to be part of the beehive of living. I love the idea of people, regardless of where they are living and how old they are and what background they are from, recognizing that we are all just little ants living in a particularly complex system because we have made it complex. People may claim that they are “sticking it to the man” or “going around the system,” but we are the system and we are the man. Society is based on collective agreement, even if that agreement is unconsciously indoctrinated from childhood all the way up until death. Civilization is really just a group of people, however loosely tied or tightly knit, functioning together, until that system is abandoned, dissolved, replaced.

haha I know, again with the rants? I’ll try to behave from here on out. Maybe…

So, as part of his goal, Latour outlines five “major uncertainties” that he explores in his book (for this week, we only read three of the five):

1) “the nature of groups: there exist many contradictory ways for actors to be given identity;”

2) “the nature of actions: in each course of action a great variety of agents seem to barge in and displace the original goals;”

3) “the nature of objects: the type of agencies participating in interaction seems to remain wide open;”

4) “the nature of facts: the links of natural sciences with the rest of society seems to be the source of continuous disputes;”

5) “and, finally, about the type of studies done under the label of a science of the social as it is never clear in which precise sense social sciences can be said to be empirical” (22).

I wanted to lay out this list to give myself a reminder as to how Latour saw his exploration playing out. Before I move on, there was one more moment of this first section of the book that I wanted to draw attention to: “empirical metaphysics.” What exactly does that entail you ask? Well, according to Latour, empirical metaphysics is “what the controversies over agencies lead to since they ceaselessly populate the world with new drives and, as ceaselessly, contest the existence of others” (51). Maybe my brain just died at the word metaphysics (physics was mind-boggling enough), but this is definitely a concept that I am going to have to tease out before I feel comfortable enough to invite it to tea.

Ah, but I did promise to move on. I feel like I will be giving short shrift to the other two authors, but how to compete with a man who so eloquently weaves a Foucauldian thought process and then can switch over, with startling speed, to declare, “Down with the Muses and other undocumented aliens!” side note: For those of you who just bristled upon reading the phrase undocumented aliens, he really had been talking about alien beings who people believe “pull the strings” of our society (more like alien gods than someone who came to the U.S. without documentation, though I guess an extraterrestrial might not be aware that documentation is necessary before landing a spacecraft on “American” soil). He also calls some other sociologists vampiric, so supernatural beings seem to be a motif in this work. No judgement.

Right. Still moving on. I should probably give the other two authors their own blog entry (or entries) to make up for how grand the academic love affair with ANT had been, whereas my relationship with these other texts pales in comparison, despite me also finding their writing refreshing. For Joyce and Johnson-Eilola, both of their works felt like case studies for what Latour was proposing. They seemed to each be actively engaging and struggling with attempts to permeate the boundaries of their disciplines (Joyce by simultaneously occupying the spaces of being a “professor of English and the Library,” and Johnson-Eilola by struggling with how hypertextuality could fit within the realm of composition.

Michael Joyce. Image hosted on the website for the organization FC2.

Michael Joyce. Image hosted on the website for the organization FC2.

Johndan Johnson-Eilola. Image hosted on the webiste for Clarkson University.

Johndan Johnson-Eilola. Image hosted on the Clarkson University wesbite.

I do want to wait and go into another blog looking at the texts of these men specifically, but before I wrap up this entry of reading notes, I wanted to include some of my favorite quotes from the early chapters of their works, especially since these quotes are going to be my link to the entry of them under the microscope of the ANT lens.

“This narrow focus [traditional five page papers] was helpful historically for composition in defining itself against a range of other disciplines and academic departments; today, however, we must expand our definitions to gain broader influence and relevance. The focus on redefining composition motivates the selection of hypertext as the topic of my study” (Johnson-Eilola, “Border Times” 7)

“We all hope to be one thing or another especially in strange company; however, as someone who was simultaneously a professor of English and the Library (though not a librarian) as well as a hypertext novelist and theorist, the question of whether I came to the library as a wolf in sheep’s clothing or a lion lying (in whatever sense one pleases to understand that term) among lambs was not clear at the time to me or to them [librarians]” (Joyce, “Lingering Errantness” 67)

“Writing has always been about borders, about the processes of mapping and remapping the lines of separation between things. Writing constructs implicit and explicit boundaries between not only product and process and said and unsaid, but author and reader, literacy and orality, technology and nature, self and other. Although we often build these borders in order to help us assert a disciplinary identity, these same borders also threaten to marginalize us” (Johnson-Eilola, “Border Times” 3)

“In ‘Coming to Writing,’ Helene Cixous says, ‘I didn’t seek. I was the search’ (1999). We could say that in the electronic age we don’t collect, we are the collection. The value of what we collect is not as much embodied in what it is as in how we found it and why we keep it” (Joyce, “Lingering Errantness” 73)

“I would note that I am not in the business of predicting change. In fact I am not only not in any business at all but I also resent the current fashion that urges us each to claim that we are in a business. Instead like most of us, librarians or humanists or whatever, I live in change, living not a business but a presence. As an artist and teacher and technologist I make change and am changed by what others make” (Joyce, “Lingering Errantness” 71)

For me, each of these quotes embodies the struggle of being an ant, while recognizing being part of ant-dom. Joyce and Johnson-Eilola are attempting to consciously take a system that seems inflexible and make it understand that it is inherently permeable. University departments are always in flux, shifting borders and boundaries as new sub-disciplines emerge and old ones fade. Newer technologies like hypertext also shift boundaries, becoming tools that are shaped by and shape in return the users. Joyce’s declaration of “I live in change” represents an actor who is aware that he is an actor, not just some outside observer. The activities of these two men and their texts are actions being taken by active actors, from vantage points that would suggest a bird’s eye view but instead are realized as nodes in a system that is constantly being made and remade by the people who compose it.

Citations

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. “Chapter 1: Border Times: Written and Being Written in Hypertext.” Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing (Advances in Discourse Processes). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp., 1997. Print.

Joyce, Michael Thomas. “Chapter 4: The Lingering Errantness of Place, or, Library as Library.” Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture (Studies in Literature and Science). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Print.

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

Other Readings for This Week

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. “Chapter 5: X-Ray Vision and Perpetual Motion: Hypertext as Postmodern Space.” Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing (Advances in Discourse Processes). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp., 1997. Print.

Johnson-Eilola, Johndan. “Chapter 6: Angels in Rehab: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing.” Nostalgic Angels: Rearticulating Hypertext Writing (Advances in Discourse Processes). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Pub. Corp., 1997. Print.

Joyce, Michael Thomas. “Introduction” and “Hypertext and Hypermedia.” Of Two Minds: Hypertext Pedagogy and Poetics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2002. Print.

Joyce, Michael Thomas. “Chapter 5: Beyond Next before You Once Again: Repossessing and Renewing Electronic Culture.” Othermindedness: The Emergence of Network Culture (Studies in Literature and Science). Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001. Print.

Even Vampiric Sociologists Need Music:


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 academia.edu. He recommended including older, even incomplete, lines of inquiry and scholarship among papers and presentations we uploaded to academia.edu 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 academia.edu 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.

Othermindedness

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). 

References

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.]

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 academia.edu. He recommended including older, even incomplete, lines of inquiry and scholarship among papers and presentations we uploaded to academia.edu 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 academia.edu 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.

Othermindedness

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). 

References

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.]