Andrusyszyn and Davie’s article relates the methods, data, and results of a qualitative study in which students in a computer-mediated course engaged in journal writing with instructor feedback. They use a qualitative method by an analysis of journal transcripts and interviews of five students and one instructor. This study of journal use is part of a larger project examining the facilitation of reflection in an online course. Reflection in this study is defined as “intellectual and affective activities in which individuals engage to explore their experiences in order to lead to new understandings and appreciations.” The authors conclude that interactive journal writing leads to greater student reflection, and she argues that journals should be “carefully considered” as productive tools in an online course as they have been in traditional learning environments. I would argue that this study has compelling ramifications for several areas of research. First, the definition of reflection in this study indicates that it occurs when “individuals engage,” so research on increasing student engagement in online courses would benefit from considering the role of journals as suggested by the authors. It would also be helpful for research into pedagogical tools that aid critical thinking in an asynchronous course where class discussion and collaborative learning can be problematic. The study notes that “the volume of dialogue generated and the asynchronous medium can make it difficult to link disconnected threads of a discussion conceptually,” but journaling “promotes the synthesis of ideas.” Lastly, and most interesting to my own research, is the potential for this study to support the use of dialogue (interactive) journals as a means to build rapport in an online course. The authors find that “journal writing encouraged the use of personal voice and increased the warmth of an academic environment,” and that “there seemed to be a partnership, a mutual respect, a balanced, reciprocal, collegial relationship evident in the interactions between the instructor and students.” While this suggests that journals have a powerful and positive effect on relationships, there is no quantitative evidence to suggest that these relationships improved student performance. The students perceived the activity as meaningful and helpful in deepening their reflections, but the question remains unanswered here as to whether this has academic transference. It should also be noted that the study is limited by its small sample. The process of responding to student writing is time consuming. The instructor in the study only needed to write back and guide five students. It is not reasonable to think that for an average class size the quality and length of responses would be equal to what was produced in the study. This could diminish the positive effect of reflection and rapport if put into practice. Overall, the study is useful as evidence for a larger, more comprehensive study of dialogue journals in the classroom.
Stine, Linda J. “Teaching Basic Writing In A Web-Enhanced Environment.” Journal Of Basic Writing 29.1 (2010): 33-55. Education Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 29 May 2014.
Linda J. Stine claims that the affordances offered by a hybrid developmental writing course make such courses a better option than either online-only courses or face-to-face courses and that such courses encourage development of reading and writing skills more than do face-to-face courses, which develop speaking and aural skills. Her goal in writing is review online learning lore, question that lore, and discussing the need for further research, Stine explores these three question issues: 1) how the teaching role is changed, 2) appropriate assignments, and 3) tools/methods to encourage self-reflection. Stine claims that these issues are important because they help us knowledgably adopt, adapt, and reject practices. In order to define goals, values, instructional methods, and learning situations we must consider the following issues: students’ technical skills and access; how to talk and when talking takes place; when and how to respond (students expect instant gratification, which can make the student teacher bond hard to establish or maintain); where to respond on electronically submitted assignments (Stine’s students prefer oral feedback); how to facilitate feedback for peer review (Stine suggests allowing students to decide whether to use Skype, phones, or track changes); and when, where, and how to structure components. In designing the learning experience, we need to pay close attention to the “Five I’s” (interaction, introspection, innovation, integration, and information) and to what she refers to as the Octoplus (connect, reflect, share, learn, practice, personalize, experiment, and apply). Stine explains considerations that need to be in developing web-enhanced courses, and she describes research that needs to be done in each area, such as research into how non-text based composition should be incorporated into developmental writing classes. She describes the affordances and constraints of several basic tools: chatrooms (for engagement) wikis (useful for peer review), and blogs (safe spaces for exploring learning). She provides an in-depth analysis of the value of discussion forums for working through stages of the learning process and fostering communication and engagement. Stine concludes by reiterating that the hybrid class is the most effective structure, but solely online courses can also be beneficial if they are well planned and if more research is done to explore what makes online only classes successful.
Before I read the article, I expected that there would be more discussion of how both the online and the in-person elements of a hybrid class work together. (It seems she’s written other articles addressing this issue in more depth.) Because the article focuses on online tools and how they can aid learning and help build community, I came to the conclusion that Stine’s target audience are those stakeholders who may not be familiar with the benefits of online tools. For those of us familiar with online teaching tools and methods, Stine is [preaching to the choir a bit. The article is still valuable for anyone interested in teaching developmental writing in a hybrid or online-online course, as it analyzes tools we often use and identifies problems adult basic writers might have with those tools.
Rossing, J. P., Miller, W. M., Cecil, A. K., & Stamper, S. E. (2012). iLearning: The future of higher education? Student perceptions on learning with mobile tablets. Journal of the Scholarship of Teaching & Learning, 12(2), 1-26. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/
Grounded in the assumption that “the future of the classroom, including learning activities, research, and even student-faculty communications, will rely heavily on mobile technology” (p. 1), this article presents preliminary results of an experimental study at Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) on the use of Apple® iPad® mobile tablets in synchronous, collaborative, socially constructive class sessions. The authors conclude that mobile tablets offer nearly unlimited access to “information and advantages for collaborative learning” (p. 20) in a range of instructional settings and disciplines, but caution that these same devices may introduce distraction and frustration in the classroom.
The goal of the IUPUI study, ongoing since fall 2010, is to determine the effectiveness of mobile learning in classroom settings. The study involves students and teachers in several disciplines: tourism management, organizational leadership and supervision, music, communication studies, English, physical education, and library skills. The report’s conclusions draw heavily on qualitative data collected in open-ended questions, part of a mixed-methods research instrument (p. 6). Within these responses researchers identified five major themes: “1) access and availability of information, 2) sharing and collaboration, 3) novelty, 4) learning styles and preferences, and 5) convenience and functionality” (p. 10).
Survey results yielded several “amplifying advantages” of mobile technology:
- iPads, like other new technologies, evoke “excitement and anxiety from students” (p. 14).
- Connectivity and access to information “enhanced in-class discussion” (p. 14).
- Benefits of information access can be harnessed to “maximize the collaborative potential of mobile tablets” (p. 15).
- Mobile technology is flexible and adaptable “for many learning styles and preferences” (p. 16).
The results also yielded potential drawbacks to incorporating mobile technology in the classroom:
- Students may not be prepared for new technologies, and educators should not assume preparation.
- Tablets introduced the potential for easy distraction, requiring structured pedagogy.
- Mobile technology requires significant investment in wireless network infrastructure.
In its conclusion, the report recommended future study in three areas: learning habits of mobile tablet owners, potential competitive advantages of mobile technology literacy, and ways mobile tablets can improve or enable faculty work.
This article offers a wealth of results on student perceptions of iPad use. However, I hoped to see additional conclusions drawn from the data. Although instructors “designed iPad activities that promoted active learning, collaboration, and/or student engagement” (p. 5), I would like to review comparative effectiveness rankings of different instructional activities.
I was surprised that the study restricted students to using iPads in class sessions, and that some classes had only a single instructional session using iPads. Given the mobility of the technology, limiting its use to in-class sessions seemed incongruous.
As a result of these concerns, I would not recommend this article to colleagues seeking input on the use of mobile technology in distance learning. I would, however, recommend that colleagues review the evaluation instrument included in the report for ideas on developing their own surveys for measuring effectiveness of mobile technology in blended and distance learning environments.
The authors of this article conducted a study of using Twitter in two university courses, concluding that required use of Twitter with actively engaged faculty results in increased student engagement and academic achievement. In the study, one class was required to use Twitter and the faculty actively engaged with students on the platform, answering student-tweeted questions or offering tweets of encouragement in response to student tweets expressing anxiety. In the other class, Twitter use was optional and the faculty rarely interacted there with students. The authors used a mixed method with both qualitative analysis of tweet content and quantitative analysis of student grades and engagement survey responses. They find that students in the first group had significantly higher engagement over the course of the semester than the second group. Additionally, the first group had significantly higher grades and greater rates of improvement between a pre-test and post-test. Interestingly, the study found that there was no difference between students in the second group who used Twitter voluntarily and their peers who chose not to use it. This leads the authors to conclude that “faculty engagement on the platform is essential in order to impact student outcomes” (284). This article would be especially helpful to anyone interested in the pedagogical uses and benefits of Twitter. The authors clearly outline an effective strategy for use: requiring student use, meaningful course integration, and faculty interaction. I also recommend this article as an example of a systematic study of a pedagogical tool. Often studies of classroom techniques and tools rely on qualitative analyses only, such as anecdotal narratives. However, when arguing for the introduction of new tools in a department or asking for funding, quantitative or “hard” data is usually more convincing. Having a study like this that controls for external factors and uses reliable statistical analysis to show an unequivocal improvement in engagement and achievement is particularly useful. I also find this article helpful in supporting a position that faculty interaction is often the key ingredient in student success and building a sense of community.
Harrington, Anna M. “Hybrid Developmental Writing Courses: Limitations and Alternatives.” Research & Teaching in Developmental Education 26.2 (2010): 4-20. Education Research Complete. Web. 26 May 2014.
“Hybrid Developmental Writing Courses: Limitations and Alternatives,” was one of several 2010 articles exploring the possibility of using the hybrid course model in developmental writing courses. As the title suggests, Harrington believes that the hybrid model should be approached with caution as it has limitations that could be solved with alternative course delivery models in developmental writing courses. Harrington begins the article with a literature review establishing the need for attention to hybrid course delivery in developmental courses. She establishes this by reviewing literature suggesting that hybrid courses could effectively marry the success rate of online courses with the retention rate of face-to-face courses. Harrington establishes the importance of the discussion of hybrid course delivery by explaining that while they have economic appeal for the college, but that the cost of technology might prove problematic for students despite the fact that gaining technological skills in a hybrid course would likely benefit them in the long-run. The primary problem with hybrid courses, according to Harrington, is that while students need to develop technological skills, the lack of these skills may contribute to their struggles in their writing courses. She details issues that arise with hybrid course delivery: technological access, computer skills, community, and poor literacy skills (8). While many students have access to the internet, computer technology, and technical support, Harrington claims that most instructors assume that students have sufficient access to the required technology. That students may not have access or may be hesitant to seek assistance does not seem to concern some instructors who find it easier to operate under the assumption that all students have sufficient technological knowledge and support. Harrington suggests that the use of and reliance on technology in hybrid courses is problematic for developmental students they may have to learn computer skills while also trying to master literacy skills. Harrington also suggests that hybrid courses cannot build the same tight-knit community that face-to-face courses build. Harrington ends by suggesting alternatives to the hybrid classroom: modified course scheduling, use of computer classrooms, gradual easing of students into technology, and effective, convenient technological support. Ultimately, Harrington believes that face-to-face courses are superior to hybrid courses, so we must take that into consideration; however, writing teachers have a responsibility to help students learn to navigate and become comfortable with technology.
I would recommend this article for those seeking an understanding of considerations that should be made when developing a hybrid developmental writing course for a community college, though I would argue that many of the struggles these students face are faces by students at four-year colleges as well. Though Harrington has a clear preference for face-to-face courses, she does attempt to look at the affordances that hybrid courses offer in addition to looking at their limitations. This article is a good starting point for examining the debate regarding hybrid classes and would make an effective contrast to Linda J. Stine’s argument that hybrid courses are preferable to online and face-to-face classes, as they offer the best of both.
Rowe, M., Bozalek, V., & Frantz, J. (2013). Using Google Drive to facilitate a blended approach to authentic learning: Authentic learning and Google Drive. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(4), 594-606. doi:10.1111/bjet.12063
This article “describes the use of Google Drive to create a blended learning environment” in which “students completed authentic tasks that aimed to develop critical thinking” (p. 596). Using authentic learning as a pedagogical framework, the authors provide qualitative results to identify ways that Google Drive complemented and enabled authentic learning outcomes. They conclude that specific affordances of information communication technology (ICT) should be selected to meet specific pedagogical outcomes rather than shaping pedagogical principles around ICT affordances.
The authors describe a pedagogical refinement in a 2nd-year Applied Physiotherapy module at the University of the Western Cape. The refinement consisted of converting a didactic, lecture-oriented pedagogy toward a socially-constructed learning environment in which students actively engaged in authentic learning. Google Drive was selected as the ICT used to facilitate communication and learning, both of which occurred during and outside the class.
The authors identify three meaningful outcomes of the pedagogical enhancement and use of Google Drive:
- It transformed “student perceptions around learning,” enabling the facilitators “to help change how students perceived their own role in the learning process” (p. 601).
- It changed “power relationships as part of learning,” enabling students to openly and safely “explore their own understanding without fear of being exposed and shamed” for not always knowing the right answer (p. 602).
- It helped develop students’ critical thinking skills, enabling students to “grasp that knowledge is distributed and that the teacher is not the sole source of information” (p. 604).
The authors conclude that, if educators hope to improve critical thinking in students, they should seek first to change their pedagogy, develop authentic activities, and integrate those activities “across physical and online spaces” (p. 605) using ICT that complements the theoretical perspectives informing the pedagogy.
Although the object of study in this article was an applied physiology class, the practice of selecting ICT affordances to complement theoretically-grounded pedagogical principles applies across disciplines. The article’s focus on improving the application of critical thinking skills to real-world practices also applies to learning environments outside the clinical medical discipline.
And although I consider the sample size small (n = 12) and the methodology admits self-selection bias (students volunteered to participate in focus groups), the authors openly admit these limitations (p. 604) and, in so doing, invite larger-scale studies.
This article offers applicable advice to composition and rhetoric teachers seeking to draw parallels between academic and workplace writing. The article’s application of authentic learning principles in a clinical medical setting offers an intriguing model for considering authentic learning in FYC contexts, where assignments and assessments might be altered to highlight skills that are portable from academe to workplace.
As a result, I recommend that colleagues seeking to revise pedagogy to incorporate blended communications and learning read this article and take to heart its findings.
To de-stress from a very long, kind of grueling semester of my first year as a PhD student, I wrote this to capture some of the whackiness of grad school conversations. It’s not perfect, but it made me laugh to write. I wish I had the artistic ability to capture the images in my head as I wrote it, but this will have to do.
Dissertate On, Little Scholar of Mine
It’s time to go!
Pack up your bags.
Grad school awaits,
The committee said yes!
Your application stood out
Amongst all the rest.
An adventure is coming,
Despite the naysayers.
You’re going to go far, kid,
In your quest to be a scholar.
You arrive in the city
(Is it far from your home?),
And stock your pantries
With Vodka and ramen.
The apartment you’re living in
Might be small,
Might be cramped
But living in style
Isn’t in the plans.
Your stipend will grant you
Cheap living at best!
First day of classes.
Don’t be scared,
Don’t freak out.
The professors don’t want your soul,
Until the second semester, that is!
New things to learn,
New people to meet.
There’s no energy to squabble,
So say hi and pick a damn seat!
What will I learn?
You bravely ask the first day.
Why, a great many things!
You will start with some theory
And then add a whole lot more.
Add in some Grassman and Weed Boy, for sure!
You’ll tackle the hereness of here,
And the thingness of things,
And try to decide
If the there there exists,
For the thereness of there
Is a most contested thing!
You can always write a haiku,
Every time you feel stressed.
You’re going to go far,
Little scholar in training.
Unless you start screaming,
Off with her head!
It’s a juggling act from here on out.
Presentations and conferences
And journals to boot!
Just keep passing your classes;
Brain cells have died for less!
Time for the show,
Little scholar of mine.
You have years of such trauma
Ahead in your life.
Just keep going, my dear.
On this quest to be learned
What’s another seven years?
When you can hobnob with scholars,
You’ll see I was right.
One step at a time,
In this twisty academic world,
And dissertate on
As if Foucault was on your heels.
Places to Go Once We Start Walking
Pedagogically based on writing center philosophies, the Noel Studio is a multiliteracy center with a unique physical space and academic/administrative structure. Occupying 10,000 sq. ft of EKU Libraries’ main building, Crabbe Library, the Noel Studio provides both public and private spaces for consultants, students, and faculty to work.
Comprised of a core administrative staff of five (director, writing coordinator, research coordinator, technology associate, and administrative assistant) and a student staff of approximately forty-five (graduate assistants, undergraduate consultants, desk consultants, and writing fellows), the Noel Studio was created to support the various communication and research projects happening both in and outside of the classroom. To support that mission, the physical space of the Noel Studio contains the Greenhouse (a large, open space with a variety of computers and touch-screen monitors), the Invention Space (equipped with wall-to-wall white boards, a CopyCam, and creative materials), Breakout Spaces and Practice Rooms (small, reserveable rooms with a computer work station, large screen monitors, and recording capabilities), and a communal space that currently serves as an office for technology support.
The Noel Studio is a network of space, people, activity, ideologies, and ideologies that cannot be separated from one another. It is a complex system that impacts and is impacted by larger institutional networks. While at first glance the network-icity of the Noel Studio might appear to exist primarily in its administrative structure the complexity of the Noel Studio is reflected in many different ways.
For example, even though the Noel Studio replaced the existing writing center, it did not simply overtake the writing center’s philosophies, space, or budget. Instead, it became an interdisciplinary space in the main library, an interdisciplinary department under University Programs (UP), and an amalgamation of budget lines from UP, the English Department (graduate assistantships), SGA, and, most recently, an endowment from the initial donors, Ron and Sherry Lou Noel. The collaborative efforts to make the space a reality are seen in the artwork commissioned through LexArt and paid for through the fundraising efforts of the Friends of the Library, the physical structures and features (small and large rooms, glass walls, brightly colored walls and glass), and the upgrades that have been made over the last 3.5 years (more and larger whiteboards, more mobile furniture).
Recognizing the importance of supporting students’ composing practices, some institutions are investing in multiliteracy centers. As the first large-scale multiliteracy center, the Noel Studio has already served as a model for other universities investing in communication initiatives and support services. While many people have visited the Noel Studio for ideas and advice, it’s an often-acknowledged fact that there is no “ideal” organization or plan that fits every writing center or writing program. Instead, each situation is unique and complex in its own right, subject to a multitude of factors. The Noel Studio is not replicable, but using the Noel Studio as an object of study allows us to understand the different options we have for examining the complexity of any given writing program, answering Jackie Grutch McKinney’s (2013) call for writing centers to look beyond the traditional narrative to see and articulate the work we actually do. If we can better see and articulate this work and how our centers and programs exist as nodes within institutional and (inter)disciplinary networks, we can not only help others understand our nodual value, but we can also focus on the connections that strengthen our work and loosen connections that don’t.
Brief Literature Review
In his seminal article, The idea of a writing center, S. North (1984) defined writing centers as far more than fix-it-shops (p. 435) where faculty send their students for remediation. He cited frequent examples of faculty misunderstanding and the frustrations of framing the writing center as a remedial service. Critical of those who misunderstand and misrepresent writing center work, North challenged the field to clarify their services and work towards educating students and faculty to the real role of the writing center: “the object is to make sure that writers, and not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction” (p. 438).
Since then, writing center scholarship has taken up the charge and sought to define the writing center in terms of praxis by investigating the politics of place and space (Nelson & Everts, 2001), the role of administrators as WPAs (Murphy and Stay, 2006), and how writing centers adapt to changes (Carpenter & Lee, 2013; Pemberton, 2003). At the foreground, however, has been a focus of the work that happens in a writing center–the pedagogical approach to both working with student writers and training consultants to do so.
In her recent book, Peripheral Visions on Writing Centers, J. G. McKinney (2013) critiques the narrative of writing centers that has emerged from these examinations. Three themes, she argues, arise as the tropes of the narrative:
- Writing centers are cozy homes
- Writing centers are iconoclastic
- Writing centers tutor (all students)
These themes, she argues are reductive and neglect the complexity of the work that happens within writing center spaces. While Mckinnery begins to trace the complexities of writing center work, she only touches on a deeper investigation. This synthesis, then, examines the Noel Studio primarily in terms of Prior et al.’s Cultural Historical Activity Theory (CHAT), positing that the rhetorical work of writing centers occurs in a much more complex system of activity than traditional rhetorical theories acknowledge. CHAT’s approach identifies levels of rhetorical activity that can be more fully understood by also considering the Noel Studio as labor and ecosystems constituted by social networks.
The Noel Studio as a Center of Rhetorical Activity
As a multiliteracy center, the Noel Studio functions as a center for rhetorical activity. Designed to support all communication projects, the Noel Studio’s mission considered writing, research, and oral communication as the three cornerstones of its rhetorical work. In their chapter, Studio pedagogy: A model for collaboration, innovation, and space design, Carpenter, Valley, Napier, and Apostel (2012) identify six foundational criteria for the Noel Studio’s multiliteracy approach:
1) Critical and Creative Thinking: Consultants encourage students to engage in convergent (critical) and divergent (creative) thinking regarding, audience, purpose, context, and mode.
2) Information Fluency: Consultant encourage student to think divergently and convergently about the ways in which students gather, evaluate, interpret, and integrate information into their communication products and practices.
3) Integrative collaboration: Consultants encourage students to see their communication from multiple perspectives through the feedback process while incorporating insights offered from interactions within the space.
4) Interactive: Consultants encourage students to think about the dynamics in their collaborative groups and how communication is enhanced through this social process. Consultants promote interaction by allowing students to project ideas in high- and low-tech ways.
5) Visual: Consultants encourage students to think visually, embracing a design approach that allows students to actively participate with manipulatives and interactive resources
6) Dynamic: Consultations change with students’ needs and expectations. That is, consultants adapt their methods of consulting.
These criteria, developed by the founding administrators of the Noel Studio, reflect both disciplinary and institutional ideologies. These reflections serve as the foundation for what Prior et al. describe as an expanded theory of rhetorical activity. Laminated chronotopes reflect the underlying ideology of the Noel Studio, as they are embodied, represented, and embedded in its rhetorical activity.
Writing Center Ideology: Writing center policies and practices reflect their grounding in process pedagogy. Valuing such ideals as “HoCs over LoCs” (higher order concerns over lower order concerns), “meeting the writer where he’s at,” “minimal marking,” and “making better writers not better writing,” writing centers reflect composition theories that prioritize student reflection, student ownership, and collaboration. Students become better writers through discursive processes (the one-on-one interactions—these are important to writing center peeps…include them and explain why).
Inherent in this belief is the ideal that writing centers do not offer remedial services—rather, they support the growth of all writers in employing rhetorical strategies to develop effective communication. In addition to pedagogical strategies, writing centers also focus on space design as an important component in engaging students, resulting in what McKinney identifies as one of the tropes—writing centers are cozy homes. While the Noel Studio is not designed to be a “cozy home,” the importance of space design for the critical and creative processes of composing is one of its most important elements.
Institutional Ideology: Eastern Kentucky University is a regional university that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in general and liberal arts programs, pre-professional and professional training in education and various other fields. Established as Eastern Kentucky State Normal School in 1906, EKU began as a school for teachers and that legacy is still visible in the school’s self-described identity as an institution with three primary priorities: instruction, scholarship, and service, but the institution still claims the primary function is teaching (EKU, n.d.).
Like most institutions of higher education, EKU values grades as representations of academic success and predictors of future success. For the institution, success is often defined in terms of retention and graduation rates and programs that can demonstrate direct contributions to retention and graduation through quantitative assessments are more likely to receive funding.
Functional Systems and Literate Activity
From these laminated chronotopes emerge what Prior et al. identify as functional systems. According to Prior et al., “mediated activity means that action and cognition are distributed over time and space, and among people, artifacts, and environments” (pp. 17-18)–or functional systems. These functional systems are tied together by “some array of current objectives, conscious or not” (p.19). The primary objective tying these functional systems together in the Noel Studio is to help students become more effective communicators. Other stated and unstated objectives include creating opportunities for the students who work as consultants, creating an open and creative work atmosphere, and maintaining knowledge and practices to support EKUs evolving communication climate.
And from the functional systems emerge literate activities. According to Prior et al., the “terms of the map of literate activity . . . are not intended to evoke a series of steps, but to signal a multidimensional model” (pp. 19-20). This map of literate activity includes production, representation, distribution, reception, socialization, activity, and ecology. At this level, activity is concrete and visible, encompassing the enactment of rhetorical moves—the actions that enable the work of the Noel Studio to manifest in students creating visible representations of their ideas.
While Prior et al. identify functional systems as ecologies, people, communities, artifacts, and practices, they fail to explain how these functional systems emerge and contribute to the rhetorical activity of the larger network. The ambiguity of these functional systems (and thereby, the literate activities of the functional systems), however, can be better understood by looking at how other theorists have defined these various systems.
Even though the objective of the Noel Studio situates it as a system of rhetorical activity, we cannot ignore its multiple identities. It also functions as a labor system, an ecosystem , and a social network system that operates within the larger economic and social biosphere of EKU. Examining the Noel Studio in terms of its functional systems and literate activities in terms of these other network theories allows us to understand how meaning is made and transformed, how the network grows, evolves, or dissolves, and where operations and connections breakdown (or have the potential to breakdown).
Ecologies: Spellman defines ecology as “the science that deals with the specific interactions that exist between organisms and their living and nonliving environments” (p. 5). The Cary Institute expands on that definition, explaining ecology not just as interactions but as systems: “The scientific study of the processes influencing the distribution and abundance of organisms, the interactions, among organisms, and the interactions between organisms and the transformation and flux of energy.” In the case of the Noel Studio, the “transformation and flux of energy and matter” is actually the transformation of students’ ideas into the creation of texts. In this sense, the staff, students, and physical environment of the Noel Studio interact to create visible representations of ideas.
This representation, or the transformation as the Cary Institute described it, is reliant on not only the affordances (Gibson) of the physical environment but also what Norman identifies as perceived affordances. The more the student and consultant are able to take advantage of the affordances of the environment, the more effective their visual representation.
For example, when a student comes in to work with a consultant, the consultant typically first chooses a spot in the Greenhouse. With no stationary technology in the Greenhouse, the student and consultant can engage in conversation with little distraction from technology. For this example, we’ll say that the student has not yet started to write the paper—she has the prompt and an idea for a topic, but she doesn’t know how to narrow it down or start to organize it. Once the student has explained this, the consultant will ask to see the prompt, the construction of which affords the direction for the student’s paper.
After coming to an agreement about what the student is supposed to do in the paper and that the consultation will focus on brainstorming, the consultant will take the student to the Invention Space. As the consultant is already familiar with the spaces and technologies, she recognizes that the Invention Space affords brainstorming activities. The large whiteboards, CopyCam, and multicolored dry erase markers allow both the student and the consultant to contribute and organize ideas as they become represented through words and images on the dry erase boards. Additionally, revision of ideas is afforded as the representations are easily erased or modified if/when they no longer signify the evolving ideas. Once the student is happy with the representation of her ideas, she and the consultant could use an outline to create an outline—a visible representation of the logical structure of the student’s intended communication. The CopyCam then affords saving, as the student can print a copy of the work, save it as a file on a jump drive, or upload it to the Noel Studio’s CopyCam website.
If time, or in follow-up consultations, the student and consultant would use other spaces and technology in the Noel Studio to proceed through the drafting and revision processes (many times students do so in the spaces without a consultant, too). Together, they might use the Media Wall to conduct research, draft, review, and revise. If it’s a presentation, the student might also use a Practice Room to rehearse the presentation, then move to another space to work through the writing process again.
In each situation, the interactions between the student, consultant, and the tools of the environment transform the student’s ideas as they become represented in the various texts she composes throughout the process. Her (and the consultant’a) ability to perceive the various affordances of the technology that she uses shapes what the final text will look like. Similarly, the constraints of the technology also force her to make decisions, shaping the final project. For instances, if the student’s project is a video that she will share with the class, her construction of the video is reliant not only on her technical skill but also on her ability to perceive what she can and cannot do with the video editing software that she chooses. She knows that she wants to lay down a music track over the images in the video—a rhetorical choice that Movie Maker, iMovie, and most other video-editing software afford—but if she can’t perceive the function of the software, she will have to revise her plan and make new rhetorical choices with the functions she can perceive.
Communities: In this ecosystem of rhetorical activity, growth and balance depend on the population diversity (Spellman) and the abundance of resources, both human and environmental. Considering different groups of students and faculty as the different populations or communities, the ecosystem of the Noel Studio only grows when there is representation from the diverse disciplines, social groups, and demographic groups that make up EKU. Before the Noel Studio opened in 2010, the EKU Writing Center operated in the basement of Case Annex—an old dorm that has been converted to office and classroom space. Isolated to one department (the English Department) in terms of staffing, funding, and use, the Writing Center did not grow. When the Writing Center Director reached out to a new population (EKU Libraries) to discuss a potential collaboration, the idea of the Noel Studio emerged. Discussions between the Writing Center Director and the then-Dean of Libraries prompted further outreach to representatives of other populations, including the Department of Communication, Information Technology, Institutional Effectiveness, and the Office of the Provost. As ideas for what the space could be expanded, these representatives realized the increasing diversity of populations and their interests would require a new physical space.
The increased diversity also increased access to resources, as the English Department would no longer be solely responsible for the full funding (it still contributes to staffing through graduate assistant lines). Working with EKU Libraries Advancement, this newly-formed group was able to secure funding from donors, EKU Libraries, the Provost’s Office, University Programs, and a state grant. Since opening in September 2010, the Noel Studio has continued to increase the population diversity, expanding the Noel Studio Advisory Committee to include representatives from additional communities, including the Office of Undergraduate Research and the Teaching and Learning Center. Additionally, there has been an increase in population diversity among student use and faculty collaborations as we now see every college, social group, and demographic group that constitute EKU represented in the Noel Studio.
The distribution of population diversity, however, is still imbalanced as many communities are under-represented. While the ecosystem does include representatives from the college of Justice and Safety, for example, they are few and far between. If we cannot increase the Justice and Safety community’s interactions with the Noel Studio, that connection may die off as students graduate. As those connections die off, the system becomes less dynamic and resources less distributed as potential sources of funding decrease. If this trend of losing involved communities grew, the Noel Studio as a system would not be able to revert to its previous system of the Writing Center, as the resources and space have already been reallocated within the English Department. As such, the continued existence of the Noel Studio is dependent on increasing and maintaining connections with EKU’s diverse communities.
People: In addition to systems of community, the Noel Studio contains multiple systems of people as well. The primary network of people is the personnel: the administrative staff (director, coordinators, administrative assistant, and technology associate), the consultants (consultants, desk consultants, writing fellows, and graduate assistants), and the students (undergraduate, graduate, and online). Institutional ideology is most predominantly reflected in this component of the functional system, as the personnel structure is hierarchical. The consultants are responsible for the work that most explicitly addresses the objective of the Noel Studio, while the coordinators are responsible for guiding and supervising that work, the AA and technology associate troubleshoot and problem-solve resources necessary for that work, and the director makes programmatic decisions that situates the work within the larger system of EKU.
Within the labor network of people, there are social networks that are formed at and between various levels. As Scott explains, “A social group . . . exists in a field: a social ‘space’ that comprises the group together with its surrounding environment” (p. 11). This surrounding environment is not necessarily the physical space of the ecosystem—rather the space of the social group is constructed by the paths between people and their attitudes. With a full staff of approximately 50 people, interpersonal relationships and social balance is important for establishing a positive working environment. It’s unreasonable to expect that all 50 members of the Noel Studio will have what Scott identifies as “positive” relationships with all other 49 members. As he explains, social subgroups tend to form among people who have aligned ways of thinking and objectives. These subgroupings are evident within the Noel Studio as consultants tend to converge into cliques along their identified roles (their niches): desk consultants, graduate assistances, research consultants, undergraduate consultants, and writing fellows. However, as Scott explains, each person has multiple relations outside of these networks.
Understanding the social networks of the Noel Studio allows us to understand how interpersonal conflicts arise and, potentially, can be resolved with and ever-increasing staff. Thus far, the Noel Studio has had little trouble with conflict which is potentially due to the aligned objectives created by pedagogical and institutional ideologies.
Artifacts: The artifacts of the Noel Studio are the documents and tools used the employees use to assist in the daily work. The documents and tools used by the Noel Studio employees to assist in the daily work. These include the Records of Consultation, time sheets, handouts and resources, client reports, WCOnline, Google Docs, Outlook, and Facebook.
Spinuzzi explains that relationships, activity, and destabilization that occur can only be identified by examining the relationships of activity and genres (the tools of the work) at three different levels: the macroscopic, mesoscopic, and microscopic levels. At the macroscopic level is the entire the activity system–the Noel Studio and its makeup (director, coordinators, consultants, desk consultants, etc) and the artifacts it use (Records of Consultation, WCOnline, the furniture, the technology) to achieve the goal of improving students’ communication skills. The mesoscopic level, reveals the actions each of the workers perform in order to achieve the goal and how the instruments mediate those actions. And microscopic level actions are operationalized behaviors.
The distribution of labor within the network is visible through the tools or artifacts that we use and create. For example, a student’s consultation is not only the labor of the consultant who works with him or her. In scheduling the appointment, either the student or a desk consultant uses WCOnline to mediate the scheduling process. When the student arrives, the desk consultant again uses WCOnline to fill out the heading on the RoC (the Record of Consultation) and then mediates the introduction to the consultant with whom the student will be working. At this point, the consultant uses the training that he or she received from the administrative staff (prior labor) to engage with the student. In working towards the goal of the improving student’s communication skills, the consultant and student exchange the labor load throughout the consultation, using both the RoC and the student’s communication product to mediate the exchange. After the consultation, the consultant returns the RoC to the desk consultant who again uses WCOnline to create a digital record of the consultation (the client report). Finally, the desk consultant passes along the RoC to the appropriate coordinator who reviews it and uses it to discuss the consultant’s success within the consultation.
Networks grow and emerge as workers create and modify genres and they dissolve as contradictions, discoordinations, and breakdowns go unnoticed or unaddressed. In the previous example, for instance, we might see a breakdown as the consultant distributes the copies of the RoC. If the consultant forgets to give the student the original, then the behavior is not operationalized and the Noel Studio will be inconsistent (and perhaps perceived as unreliable) in its processes. In response, if a coordinator or consultant notices this breakdown, he or she might develop fix–a new genre–that increases and strengthens the network.
Practices: Spellman emphasizes that each organism in an ecosystem has a specific role, or a niche, to fill. As such, “in order for the ecosystem to exist, a dynamic balance must be maintained among all biotic and abiotic factors—a concept known as homeostasis” (p. 15).The concept of balance is important for all ecosystems and the Noel Studio is no different. However, it is in the functional system of practices that the tension between writing center and institutional ideologies start to emerge. Because of writing center values of process pedagogy, forming “better writers not better papers,” and collaboration and authorship, writing centers (and the Noel Studio) have developed practices that prioritize global concerns over proofreading and editing, discussion over “correction,” and minimal marking. In contrast, because institutions value grades and assessment reporting, there is often institutional pressure to transform writing center practices to focus on product, local concerns, and editing.
These tensions are evident in every aspect of the consultation. From setting goals with students, to filling out the RoC, to having meaningful conversation to meeting faculty’s expectations, consultants try to balance the values they learn in training (and by which they are evaluated in terms of job performance) with the expectations of students, faculty, and higher administration. Despite valuing process and recognizing that students likely need to visit the Noel Studio multiple times for significant improvement in skills, consultants feel obligated to help every student move their project from whatever “grade” it is at to an “A” (as subjectively defined by every instructor at the institution). As consultants face pressure from students, coordinators face criticism from faculty whose ideas of what a writing center should do have, unfortunately, evolved little since North’s 1984 article.
This synthesis feels woefully incomplete. I’m not sure if my reasons for choosing my different theories are obvious, so I’ll try to make them explicit here.
I chose CHAT as the overall framework because it explains how activity emerges from rhetorical motivations that are situated in cultural and institutional ideologies. It explains how meaning is embedded in systems that then represent the meaning through the resulting activities. Additionally, it accounts for various types of representation and how context influences rhetorical activity.
Using Prior et al. as a framework, however, was problematic for a few reasons that I tried to address with the other theories. First, it didn’t offer any ways of establishing boundaries for analysis of rhetorical activity. Even though my OoS itself helped set boundaries, much of the action that impacts students’ communication skills occurs outside of the Noel Studio on an individual basis, but examining those influences wouldn’t help us understand the Noel Studio as a network better.
Using Spinuzzi, Scott, and Spellman to define the types of functional systems in terms of a labor network, a social network, and an ecosystem help set useful boundaries and address ways in which the system grows, evolves, and could, potentially dissolve. Finally, they helped explain how the literate activity manifests from the functional systems and laminated chronotopes and how individuals and groups both form complex networks. Additionally, while CHAT accounts for the impact of environment on the rhetorical activity, theories of distributed cognition (Gibson and Norman) explain how that impact happens. In short, each of the supplemental theories attempt to explain the how that Prior et al. neglect.
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Carpenter, R. & Lee, S. (2013). Introduction: Navigating literacies in multimodal spaces. The Routlege reader on writing centers and new media, (xiv-xxvi). New York: Routlege.
Gibson, J. J. (1986). The theory of affordances. The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
McKinney, J. G. (2103). Peripheral visions for writing centers. Boulder, CO: Utah State University P.
Murphy, C. & Stay, B.L. (2006). The writing center director’s resource guide. New York: Routlege.
Nelson, J. & Everts, K. (2001). The Politics of Writing Centers. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook-Heinemann.
Norman, D. (n.d.). Affordances and design, Retreived from https://docs.google.com/file/d/0BzIskzHsjKsRN0NRRktncjBGb1U/edit
North, S. (1984). The idea of a writing center. College English, 46(5), 433-436. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/377047
Pemberton, M. (2003). The center will hold. Logan, UT: Utah State University Press.
Prior et al. (). Re-situating and re-mediating the canons: A cultural-historical remapping of rhetorical activity. Kairos, 11(3). Retrieved from http://kairos.technorhetoric.net/11.3/topoi/prior-et-al/core/core.pdf
Spellman, F. R. (2008). Ecology for nonecologists. Lanham, MD: Government Institutes.
Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: A sociocultural approach to information design. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Retrieved from Kindle.
A survey of literature over mother-to-mother and maternal support groups reveals that there is currently scholarship dedicated to examining maternal support networks, but much of the effort in this area is done in the health care related fields rather than in English Studies. Much of that work focuses on what makes such support networks successful and how and why mothers benefit from such networks. Karen Youens, Debbie Chisnell, and Di Marks-Maran explore a case study of a mother-to-mother breastfeeding group in the UK in order to examine the effectiveness of such a support organization. While they found the group to be effective, one of their most interesting findings is that the institution of the program, while it provided effective peer support, resulted in the establishment of a broader network of other support organizations. It seems that an unexpected result of the network is that exigencies for new and related organizations were revealed. Ellen L. Lipman et al. discuss a mixed-methods study that they conducted in order to examine the outcomes for single mothers utilizing support organizations. Before utilizing these support groups, many single mothers’ felts isolated and had poor coping skills, while membership in support groups gave many women self-esteem, support, confidence. They found that these outcomes mirrored outcomes from group psychotherapy sessions. María José Rodrigo and Sonia Byrne explored two types of support networks for mothers: informal and formal. They examine the mothers’ satisfaction with the support and the relationship of that satisfaction to their personal agency. They found that non at-risk mothers tended to have more informal support, while at-risk mothers relied more on formal support. Informal support includes private exchanges, are part of the natural framework surrounding mothers, and often includes mutual assistance in which individuals who respect each other may give and get help, community. Formal support usually comes in the form of unidirectional meetings and involves strict protocols. Formal support agencies include social services, volunteer associations, neighbors, child protection agencies, and law enforcement. Mothers who seek formal support are more likely to help form formal support agencies. Rodrigo and Byrne sought to explore how the agency of mothers was impacted by these types of support, and they found that women who utilized informal support had more self-efficacy defined as “individual judgment about how well a person can carry out the necessary steps to deal with a specific task or challenge” (14). Mothers who had informal support networks had more self-efficacy in the form of self-confidence. Mothers who had formal support networks had less self-efficacy because the support offered by the organizations was unidirectional and resulted in vulnerability, intimidation, and humiliation. Such support was also stigmatizing. Mothers utilizing formal support networks feel that they have less agency and often give up sooner than mothers who use informal support. Nancy Mohrbacher and Sharon Knorr also explore with the self-efficacy of mothers. Lack of experience with breastfeeding, whether firsthand or via observing other mothers breastfeeding, negatively impacts a mother’s agency and success in breastfeeding. Mohrbacher and Knorr claim that that mother-to-mother breastfeeding support groups offer “vicarious experience” which positively impacts their self-efficacy, making them feel that they can be successful at breastfeeding.
Some articles frame LLLI as a node within a network. This network includes those with an interest in infant feeding, including medicine, science, and manufacturing industries. Jennifer M.C. Torres, does not specifically examine LLLI, but her scholarship does shed some light on work that LLLI does. Torres explains in the article that lactation consultants “provide a unique lens for the complexity of medicalization because they are positioned at the crossroads of medicalization and demedicalization. The IBCLC certification originated from a combination of breastfeeding advocacy groups that resisted medicalization of breastfeeding and the contemporary medicalization of breastfeeding that emphasizes the nutritional properties and health benefits of breast milk” (165). Some lactation consultants create or lead breastfeeding peer-to-peer support groups (such as LLLI groups) in which medical control is challenged “by providing a setting that values breastfeeding women’s experiential knowledge” (163). Lactation consultants, in order to demedicalize breastfeeding, must also medicalize it since they operate within the realm of medicine, often working at hospitals. Much of LLLI’s work seems to be focused on developing mothers’ autonomy and challenging the medicalization of breastfeeding, which has resulted in views of breast milk as a product (163), the technological management of breastfeeding (164), and frequent dissemination of misinformation of breastfeeding by medical professionals (164). The concept of breast milk as a product is so pervasive in medicine and science that Kate Boyer was able to use it to “propose a new framework for how geographers might conceptualize mobile biosubstances” (np.). Unlike lactation consultants, LLLI does not have to walk a fine line between demedicalizing and medicalizing breastfeeding. Amy Koerber explains that, “In the words of one La Leche League leader, to breastfeed a baby in U.S. society a woman has to ‘buck the system’” (93). According to Koerber, “By consulting La Leche League, which resists mainstream medical discourse as well as broadly accepted social and cultural norms, a woman is empowered to resist the cultural norm that forbids public breastfeeding” (97). So, it is clear that what LLLI offers to breastfeeding mothers is the ability to resist the way in which medical discourse and the focus on breast milk as product has framed the nursing mother and the breastfeeding relationship.
The success of mother-to-mother support groups, the outcomes for the mothers, and maternal agency are the primary foci of the studies that were conducted in these articles. Examining LLLI’s organization, it’s foundations, it’s operation as a network, and the rhetoric that it produces through the lenses of Bitzer and Vatz’s theories of rhetorical situation, Bisecker’s response to the Bitzer and Vatz debate, and Thomas Rickert’s theory of ambient rhetoric, can provide a more complex understanding of the way in which mother-to-mother support groups form, grow, and change as the result of the use of rhetorical strategies and the agency that rhetorical strategies allow to various network nodes.
In order to begin understanding how LLLI is an important object of study in rhetorical studies, it is useful to examine the way in which the formation of the organization can be viewed as a rhetorical action. In rhetorical theory, there is often an exigence that is viewed as a starting point of a rhetorical situation. For Bitzer, the exigence is the cause of the rhetorical action. The founders of LLLI claim that they formed the organization in order to provide support and guidance to mothers at a time when the rate of breastfeeding was low and the medical establishment had a preference for formula. According to Amy Koerber, the field of medicine at the time viewed breast milk as a foundation upon which formula could improve. The role of the rhetor is to simply report the exigency to the audience. The rhetor has no agency. This doesn’t seem to be likely in the case of LLLI, however, since the founding members were stakeholders in the formation of the organization. While rhetorical action is the goal of rhetoric, and only those who are capable of taking such action are the audience of rhetoric, other parties do play a role in the network. People, events, objects, and relations all constrain the decision-making process and the ability to act. The women who founded LLLI were nursing mothers at a time when breastfeeding was not the preferred method of infant feeding. To take rhetorical action, the women who wanted to nurse had to navigate a society that looked down upon breastfeeding. Their families, their doctors, their friends, and the expectations of society more broadly, all constrained their ability to act. LLLI helped women take rhetorical action by supporting them in their decision to breastfeed and by giving them information. If we were to map the network according to Bitzer’s approach, the central node in the network would be the rhetorical situation. Most movement from this mode is outward, except for the possible alteration of the situation by the audience. The situation is not changed by the rhetor, as the rhetor as a node simply reports on or spreads information about the situation to the audience, who receives the information and does not transform the information, but simply acts to change the situation via a rhetorical act. What moves in the network is primarily information. This, in turn, may bring about a change in the rhetorical situation by sparking rhetorical action It seems that the network dies here, and may begin all over again with the altered rhetorical situation. One primary problem with Bitzer’s approach is that it seems to rule out the idea that the organization could be taking rhetorical action rather than simply passing on information to women who will then take rhetorical action. LLLI aimed to help these women by taking action on the exigence of the lack of support for breastfeeding mothers. LLLI is both the rhetor and an actor in this rhetorical situation, but there is more to the network than this. There is a type of support network that resembles Bitzer’s organization more closely: the formal support network that Rodrigo and Byrne discuss. These organizations seem to offer only a top down flow of information, and often the organizational rhetoric is presented as the one truth rather than an interpretation. These approaches give the audience little agency except to act or not act on the situation with the action that the rhetor prescribes.
Vatz’s theory of the rhetorical situation seems a bit more promising that Bitzer’s when used to analyze the rhetorical situation of the mother-to-mother support network. According to Vatz, the rhetor decides what is a rhetorical situation by deciding that there is an exigence that needs to be addressed; therefore, the rhetor is not neutral. LLLI decided that the low rate of breastfeeding and lack of support for mothers is an exigence. While formula was broadly preferred, these women felt breastfeeding was optimal. The medical discourse of the time suggested that need for breastfeeding support was not a clear exigence, since it was believed formula could improve upon breast milk (Koerber). Vatz says that rhetors cause a situation to be salient and translate it into meaning. The LLLI founders made the situation salient, and they did not operate as neutral rhetors. They were all stay at home mothers, so the arrangement of the organization and the advice that that the organization provided was tailored for stay at home mothers. According to Vatz, it was the action of these women in creating the organization that created a rhetorical situation. LLLI began producing materials about breastfeeding, the choice of language that was used in publications like The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding was in no way neutral. Even the choice of the phrase “womanly art” was not neutral. At a time when formula was viewed as preferential by the medical establishment, mothers chose formula in order to give their children the best infant-feeding option, and breast milk was studied as a disembodied fluid, the choice of the phrase “the womanly art” crafts a statement about breastfeeding. The audience, who does not necessarily have to be only those who are capable of action, receives the situation via the meaning that was crafted by the rhetor. The audience of LLLI was primarily mothers, but others could also learn from the rhetoric of LLLI. A map of the LLLI network based on Vatz’s approach differs from Bitzer’s approach primarily because of the idea that those involved in the network are not neutral. According to Vatz’s approach, the central node in the network would not be the rhetorical situation, but the rhetor’s perception of the rhetorical situation. Like Bitzer’s approach, most movement from this central node is outward. What is conveyed by the rhetor to further nodes in the network is the rhetor’s perception of the event or situation. The rhetor’s choice of words or language is an interpretation of the situation and is therefore not neutral. This perception is received by the audience, who then may or may not act on it. Like Vatz’s approach, the network may start all over again once the audience receives the information and acts on it. Though there are some changes in the central node, the organization is still primarily hierarchical from the top down.
While Bitzer and Vatz discuss various nodes in the network of LLLI, both of their approaches to rhetorical situation seem to leave something out of the discussion of the links or relationships between various nodes in the rhetorical network, such as that of the mother-to-mother breastfeeding support group LLLI. Biesecker pushes back against the notion that either an “objectively identifiable and discrete situation or an interpreting and intending subject” provide the foundation for rhetorical discourses. She says that differánce is a catalyst for the rhetorical discourse. Biesecker says that every element in a system, such as the symbolic act, “is a function of its place in an economy of differánce” (118). Biesecker’s approach makes the network much more complex, since difference is everywhere in the network. Biesecker’s theory of the rhetorical situation is different because there are many more opportunities in the network for perception of various nodes to affect the network. Biesecker says that “neither the texts’ immediate rhetorical situation nor its author can be taken as simple origin or generative agent since both are underwritten by a series of historically produced displacement” (121). The network is not so simple to map here. If difference is the origin of the rhetorical situation, then the central node in this network may perhaps be the conflict caused by the competing agendas of the medical establishment that was in favor of formula and the mothers who founded LLLI, who found value in breastfeeding their children. The relationships between the nodes are much more complex, like the interweaving of texts that Biesecker mentions. Another thing that Biesecker brings to the conversation is the idea that the audience plays a much more complex role in the network than Bitzer and Vatz recognize. Biesecker says that the individuals in a network, who all have complex backgrounds and cannot be viewed as having fixed identifies, are influenced by and influence the network. There is no central, fixed subject. In fact, “Like any other object, the subject is a historical construct precisely because its ‘unique’ and always provisional identity depends upon its operations within a system of différences and the larger movement of différance: the subject is neither present nor “above all present to itself before différance’” (125). So the subject is not fixed, but provisional, meaning that the subject is a product of identification in the moment and space; it is fluid and changing. This means that we should “see the rhetorical situation as an event that makes possible the production of identities and social relations” (126). The concept of différance “obliges us to read rhetorical discourses as processes entailing the discursive production of audiences, and enables us to decipher rhetorical events as sites that make visible the historically art” (126). We could build on a map of Vatz’s rhetorical network by starting out with a central conflict or difference, that is interpreted by the rhetor, who has a complex background and reports the situation through an interpretation. According to Vatz, that rhetor, in this case the organization itself, is the only one who is identified as having agency in the network of LLLI. The complexity of Biesecker’s rhetorical organization allows for more agency by various nodes in the network. Support networks organized in this way show more potential for peer-to-peer support, as found in informal support networks that seem to give more agency to individual mothers than in formal top-down organizations.
By introducing Biesecker’s concept of différance into the discussion of LLLI, we can see that it is likely that it was not a single event but a series of events or displacements that prompted the original founders to form LLLI. Breast milk was displaced as the ideal infant food, embodied feeding at the breast was displaced in favor of feeding with a bottle, and maternal knowledge resulting from “vicarious experience” was displaced in favor of the detached clinical knowledge of the medical establishment. These elements act as historically produced displacements that contribute to the origin of LLLI’s rhetoric. The audience of LLLI’s rhetoric was constructed of that particular moment in time. LLLI perceived the audience of that to be stay-at-home mothers who were married to a male breadwinner. The identity of the audience relied on the dominant system. The ideal family structure was a married heterosexual couple. Because formula feeding had become so popular, and was preferred by the medical establishment, it was likely that the audience, the subject, may have had no direct experience with breastfeeding. LLLI tailored the rhetoric, and in fact constructed a view of the situation, in response to the historical displacements listed above and to elements of the dominant cultural system. The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, LLLI’s breastfeeding manual, was constructed to reach this audience, as it has been constructed by the audience. This enduring construction of the audience of LLLI’s rhetoric continued in subsequent editions of the manual despite changes to the social fabric of American society. Despite the 1990s publication of a series of feminist critiques of the anti-feminist nature of LLLI’s rhetoric, even the 5th (1991), 6th (1997), and 7th (2004) editions contained an introduction that continued to state that the ideal audience of the manual consisted of women married to a breadwinner and the manual included a chapter on fatherhood. The manual had, thus far failed to adapt fully to the new displacements caused by societal changes, and the organization had failed to see the way in which it had contributed to or been implicated in the displacement of women who did not met the characteristics of the ideal LLLI mother. Women who did not fit this mold and who depended on advice from LLLI as a knowledgeable organization operated by mothers potentially felt that they had less autonomy and agency than those mothers that LLLI addressed themselves to, in part because LLLI did not give advice to help them with their situations. It wasn’t until the 8th edition was published in 2010 that LLLI began to re-envision its audience and address itself to all women, regardless of sexuality, marital status, economic status, and employment status. (Elements of the original preference for these characteristics of the intended audience were still evident, however.) If it had failed to begin adapting, then the changes in society may have contributed to the organization’s decline.
While Biesecker allows us to understand the rhetorical situation as being based on differences caused by displacement, Thomas Rickert’s notion if ambient rhetoric allows us to build on what we gain from Biesecker because it looks beyond the notions of difference and displacement to understand the way in which all elements of the ambient environment contribute to the development of rhetoric. By attuning to the ambient environment, we begin to understand that agency does not belong only to humans. Indeed, objects also have agency. Rickert asserts that the world is not simply a world of involvements, but that the world is itself involved in involvements (162). He proposes a new definition of rhetoric: “rhetoric is a responsive way of revealing the world for others, responding to and put forth through affective, symbolic, and material means, so as to (at least potentially) reattune or otherwise transform how others inhabit the world to an extent that calls for some action (which can include, of course, steadfastness, refusal, or even apathy)” (162). So rather than simply persuading others, Rickert suggests that the use of rhetoric reveals our being in the world and asks us to do something in response to our being in the world. Ambient rhetoric harkens back to Mohrbacher and Knorr’s claim that mother-to-mother breastfeeding support groups offer “vicarious experience” which positively impacts their self-efficacy, making them feel that they can be successful at breastfeeding. By creating an ambient environment in an informal support network meant to welcome breastfeeding mothers and offer them “vicarious experience” with breastfeeding, LLLI is practicing a rhetoric of ambience.
Concepts that have been ignored, such as the chora, which shows “how ideas and world come together a grace us with a powerfully destabilizing concept that unseats the dichotomy between nature and artifice,” (56), and the role of place in kairos, are vital to an understanding of rhetoric as ambient. Rickert’s discussion of kairos and the problem posed by the traditional rhetorical understanding of kairos, that it is concerned with time and decorum, rather than place, allows us to examine the role of space in the rhetoric of LLLI and breastfeeding in general. Rickert says, “I am trying to embed kairos more concretely in place, to see what happens when we attend to kairos’s material emplacement and unfolding and not just timeliness or decorum. I argue that without a more materialist understanding of emplacement, kairos is an empty concept” (76). To understand the way on which place plays an important role in LLLI’s rhetoric, it’s helpful to turn to an example of the way in which the concept of space contributes to developing a rhetorical construction of breastfeeding. In “Legally Public but Privately Practiced: Segregating the Lactating Body,” by LM Rose, explores the way in which the location of the lactation room on the campus of Ohio University frames the lactating body as other. I would argue that the action of the university of establishing a lactation room was as rhetorical as it was practical (if not more so). Rose’ article explores the othering that results from placing the only single occupant lactation room on the university campus in a remote area far away from faculty offices. Of course, one could argue that the establishment of a lactation room at all is a positive sign of the normalization of breastfeeding, but is it enough that it exists? What about where it exists within the context? Who has access to it? Certainly the decision to establish a lactation room was timely and considered to be appropriate, but it seems likely that those involved in the establishment of the room did not consider the implications of the location of the room. The establishment of the room itself seem progressive and a woman and mother-centered act, but when we examine the place of the room, we see that it plays a large role in the queering of the breastfeeding body. So what does this example of the kairos of place reveal about the rhetoric of LLLI? Depending on the place of the act of breastfeeding, it may be considered a purely nurturing act, or it may be considered an act of defiance (such as at a nurse-in). When LLLI meetings are held in a home, which is most often the case, the suggestion is that breastfeeding belongs in the realm of domesticity. When LLLI meetings are held outside in parks, as has sometimes been the case, the suggestion is that breastfeeding belongs in the public realm. The space of the organization is a critical node in the network.
Rickert’s theory and the discussion of materiality provides an excellent way to explore the way in which things (the bottle and the breast pump) have had an absolutely vital role in the rhetoric of breastfeeding. Bitzer, Vatz, and Biesecker didn’t really address the agency that belongs to non-living things. The quote above makes it clear that things play a significant role in making rhetoric possible, and this is certainly the case for LLLI’s rhetoric surrounding breastfeeding and attachment parenting. In fact, we could argue that technological innovations (formula, the bottle, the pump), necessitated LLLI’s argument, since these innovations made it possible for non-mothers to feed an infant. (Certainly manual expression and wet nurses also made this possible, but it became incredibly easy with these innovations.) LLLI was formed at a time (1956) when formula was preferable to breast milk because it was believed that formula could improve upon breast milk, and the scientist studying breast milk were often applying what they learned about breast milk to the improvement of formula. The properties and value of breast milk was being examined in a disembodied way. They were effectively divorcing the ambient environment of infant feeding from the act of feeding, and it was in part this loss of the non-food properties of the breastfeeding relationship (one of the displacements that caused the seven founders of LLLI to come together to share their experiences and understandings of breastfeeding).
The core philosophy LLLI is contained within ten statements that emphasize the benefits of breastfeeding:
- Mothering through breastfeeding is the most natural and effective way of understanding and satisfying the needs of the baby.
- Mother and baby need to be together early and often to establish a satisfying relationship and an adequate milk supply.
- In the early years the baby has an intense need to be with his mother which is as basic as his need for food.
- Breast milk is the superior infant food.
- For the healthy, full-term baby, breast milk is the only food necessary until the baby shows signs of needing solids, about the middle of the first year after birth.
- Ideally the breastfeeding relationship will continue until the baby outgrows the need.
- Alert and active participation by the mother in childbirth is a help in getting breastfeeding off to a good start.
- Breastfeeding is enhanced and the nursing couple sustained by the loving support, help, and companionship of the baby’s father. A father’s unique relationship with his baby is an important element in the child’s development from early infancy.
- Good nutrition means eating a well-balanced and varied diet of foods in as close to their natural state as possible.
- From infancy on, children need loving guidance which reflects acceptance of their capabilities and sensitivity to their feelings.
Several of these statements reflect the idea that breastfeeding is relational, that it is an ambient environment in which the mother nurtures the child.
Innovations in objects related to infant feeding (bottles, breast pumps, and formula) as well as innovations in food storage made it possible to view infant feeding as purely nutritive rather than also nurturing. Much of LLLI’s rhetoric centers around countering the affordances that infant-feeding related objects provide. LLLI’s rhetoric is not solely crafted to convince mother’s that breast milk is superior to formula, but also that the mother-child relationship created through the bond of breastfeeding is as important as the nutritive value of breast milk. Formula necessitated attention to the components of breast milk and the nutritive value; breast pumps, which allow women to work outside the home and leave their babies, underscore the idea that breast milk is disembodied. This necessitated LLLI’s argument for attachment parenting and the need of the child for the mother. The bottle necessitated the “back to the breast” rhetoric that explains that bottles result in nipple confusion.
A rhetorical analysis of changes between the 5th, 6th, 7th, and 8th editions of The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, reveals that in earlier editions, LLLI seemed reluctant to address the use of those objects (bottles, pumps, formula supplements) that make it’s rhetoric necessary. In fact, the 5th edition encouraged mothers to have babysitters give a few bottles as possible so that the baby would want to nurse from the mother’s breast when she returned home from work. Later editions dropped this advice. Some later editions, particularly the 8th, gave advice for using a bottle and pumping milk. This was important for LLLI because by ignoring the objects that necessitated their rhetoric in the first place, the rhetoric of LLLI created an either/or dichotomy: either you feed your child our way, or you don’t. By discussing how to use the objects in support of a mother-child relationship that, as closely is possible for the particular mother and child, resembles the one espoused by LLLI, the organization provides a middle way for mothers who must work.
Through this rhetorical exploration of the network of La Leche League International, we can see the way in which the organization was formed when the founders recognized displacements causing différances between what the dominant discourse regarding infant feeding, which valued disembodied infant feeding with formula, and the lived experiences and values of mothers who believed that in addition to providing optimum nutrition, breastfeeding is a relationship between the mother and child. These différances deterred some women from breastfeeding, while others sought support through vicarious experience, so the rhetor’s responded by taking rhetorical action in forming the LLLI network and by employing rhetoric to convince mothers that breast feeding is the better choice. In addition to différances, many other elements of the ambient environment contribute to the need for rhetoric and rhetorical action regarding breastfeeding support. While other theories of networks, such as Manuel Castell’s social network theory and Deleuze and Guattari, can help us understand how such support groups operate, rhetorical situation theories and ambient rhetoric help us understand who has agency in the LLLI network, how the network forms, and how it may eventually dissipate.
“A Brief History of La Leche League International.” La Leche League International. 27 July. 2012. Web. 19 March 2014.
Biesecker, Barbara A. “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within the Thematic of ‘Différance’.” Philosophy & Rhetoric (1989): 110-13.
Boyer, Kate. “Of Care and Commodities: Breast Milk and the New Politics of Mobile Biosubstances.” Progress in Human Geography 34.1 (2010): 5-20.
Lipman, Ellen L., et al. “Understanding How Education/Support Groups Help Lone Mothers.” BMC Public Health 10.(2010): 1-9. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.
Koerber, Amy. Breast Or Bottle?: Contemporary Controversies In Infant Feeding Policy and Practice. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2013.
—. “Rhetorical agency, resistance, and the disciplinary rhetorics of breastfeeding.” Technical Communication Quarterly 15.1 (2006): 87-101.
Mohrbacher, Nancy, and Sharon Knorr. “Breastfeeding Duration And Mother-To-Mother Support.” Midwifery Today 101 (2012): 44-46. CINAHL Plus with Full Text. Web. 23 Mar. 2014.
Rodrigo, María José, and Sonia Byrne. “Social Support And Personal Agency In At-Risk Mothers.” Psychosocial Intervention / Intervencion Psicosocial 20.2 (2011): 13-24. Fuente Académica. Web. 23 Mar. 2014.
Torres, Jennifer. “Medicalizing to Demedicalize: Lactation Consultants and the (De) Medicalization of Breastfeeding.” Social Science & Medicine 100 (2014): 159-166.
Youens, Karen, Debbie Chisnell, and Di Marks-Maran. “Mother-To-Mother Breastfeeding Peer Support: The Breast Buddies Project.” British Journal Of Midwifery 22.1 (2014): 35-43. Academic Search Complete. Web. 19 Mar. 2014.
Welcome, my dear readers, to my final case study, known as Frankentheory. Shall we begin?
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:
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).
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).
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:
When really, with our newly constructed list in mind, the mental image should include these two:
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.
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.
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
The Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) was an organization operating from 1966 to 1973 that collected content - including text, cartoons, and photographs - from individual underground newspaper titles and disseminated that content nationally to be freely reprinted by other newspapers with syndicate membership. UPS also attempted to secure advertisements, especially from record companies, to help financially support members. Additionally, archival attempts were a part of the mission with microfilming submitted issues and creating directories for sale to libraries.
Robert Glessing, arguably the first to scholarly address the underground press in his seminal 1970 text The Underground Press in America, speaks to the idea that the UPS helped the movement grow. He writes, “[T]he significance of the new left press is that it is a movement. The string that ties the movement together has been the Underground Press Syndicate, the Liberation News Service, and other cooperative agencies” (79). David Armstrong reiterates, “With the birth of UPS, the underground press became a true network, growing synergistically instead of in fits and starts” (59). Then again in 2011, John McMillian summarizes, “Most of these papers were interconnected - whether through a loose confederation called the Underground Press Syndicate (UPS) or a radical news agency called Liberation News Service (LNS) - they also became the Movement’s primary means of internal communication. Absent such newspapers and organizations, the New Left could not have circulated its news, ideas, trends, opinions, and strategies” (6). Ken Wachsberger argues that the redistribution of newspapers through the UPS helped “to plug [one] radical community into radical communities around the country” (qtd. in McMillian 46). Unfortunately, others see this unification as having an overall negative effect on the underground press.
This criticism centers on the way in which news sharing services gave “the underground papers a collective identity” (Armstrong 59). The “consistency of vision” made possible by content sharing through the UPS was problematic (Kornbluth 96). Kornbluth explains, “Most of the papers are printing the same ritualized reports…and cater to an increasingly ingrown audience” (93). Ridgeway agrees that news sharing services like the UPS can “also have an unfortunate effect. The papers…imitate one another much as the daily papers repeat themselves in relying on wire services. There is little local reporting, one of the major reasons for beginning underground papers” (590-1). This homogenization of the underground is a negative consequence for some of the emergence of news sharing services.
Other scholars also note the role of the UPS in breaking media boundaries. The UPS is credited with initiating a conversation about copyright. Ridgeway explains that “members of UPS promise not to copyright articles. Copyright is a form of property and UPS members are opposed to it” (586-7). Glessing also argues for the importance of this mission, adding, “The first rule of UPS [all members agree to free exchange of materials] is perhaps its most significant and served to break down the concept of copyright among underground papers from the start” (70).
Accordingly, these views situate the UPS as a significant actant in the underground press movement with both positive and negative effects on its growth. However, understanding of the UPS as a network reveals significances not outlined by these writers.
Application of Network Theories:
What works from each theory? What parts of the theoretical lenses lets you look at something interesting?
There are four network theories that can be applied to the UPS to help bring about greater scholarly recognition for the work of the UPS and the underground movement in general: Charles Bazerman’s work with genres; Lloyd Bitzer’s description of the rhetorical situation; James Gibson’s explanation of affordances, with development by Don Norman and Gregory Bateson; and Cultural-Historical Activity Theory (CHAT) as undertaken by Paul Prior et al.
Genre Theory: Charles Bazerman argues in “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems” that all human activity is comprised of hierarchical, embedded categories. Human activity is comprised of genre systems, which are in turn made up of genre sets. These sets contain within them what we understand as genres. Genres contain speech acts, and speech acts hold within them the smallest, indivisible category, social facts. The relationship between these categories functions much in the same way as do the various elements in networks.
With this understanding, it is possible to define the UPS as a genre system within the network of human activity. All human activity begins with social facts, “those things that people believe to be true” (Bazerman 312). In the late-1960s, some of the social facts appearing to the counterculture were the truths of segregation, the draft, and President Nixon. These elicited responses that when compiled made up a network of speech acts; typically these speech acts expressed various concerns for equality, personal freedom, and political reform. Underground journalists articulated these speech acts in recognizable patterns, or genres, such as the editorial, satirical cartoon, or even a creative poem - each type of document a node in a network of genres. Writers and illustrators collected these generic examples, as genre sets, into publishable newspapers and magazines. Each title, or set, a network connecting people and content, but also a node in a genre system. The UPS and other organizations like Liberation News Service (LNS) and Alternative Press Syndicate (APS) collected these genre sets, as genre systems, in order to redistribute their content to members or archive it. These genre systems produced social actions including disseminating information, creating a connected and informed public, and inciting protest activity. These social actions exist as nodes of human action in the network of human activity. This speaks well to the purpose in beginning an underground movement as responsorial in nature and ultimately producing social action.
|The UPS as situated in Bazerman's Theory of Human Activity|
Genre theory also allows for a discussion of social action. Miller explains that genres help “communities do their work and carry out their purposes” (“Rhetorical”). Blumer quoted in Miller also argues that “social action exists in the form of recurrent patterns [genres] of joint action [collaboration across a network]” (158 "Genre as Social"). When the underground press publications gained visibility and readership, the ideas expressed in recognizeable patterns (poem, editorial, news article) within the pages inspired and informed communities and became a platform for activism - the very effect of genre noted by the theorists.
Genre theory also allows for a discussion of collaboration. The relationship between the nodes is collaborative as they build unilaterally toward human activity; however, it could be argued that the activity produced at the culmination of the network would then bring about new social facts. In that regard, the direction of the relationships between nodes can also be understood as cyclical. This also plays out in the UPS as the co-constructed newspapers then created new social facts for the readers, perhaps encouraging them to also make utterances.
This theory also helps explain how the UPS grew and eventually failed. Genres and genre-based networks grow as a response to social facts as Bazerman explains, but he also suggests, through his ideas about multiple intentions and interpretations, that the network will emerge and move in new offshoots as nodes are utilized differently by different people. The UPS grew as a result of the available technology and emerged in new directions with each selection made by UPS editors or member papers in the exchange process. Bazerman also can be applied to explain how the network dissolved. As the social facts that once inspired responses changed—passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 for example—the kind of speech act responses also changed and no longer found the need for radical expression in underground publications.
Rhetorical Situation: Bitzer argues that there first exists a rhetorical situation, a “complex of persons, events, objects, and relations [constraints] presenting an actual or potential exigence” (6). The exigence invites a response from the rhetor in the form of discourse, which can mediate the situation if presented to an audience capable of enacting the change. He argues that “these three constituents—exigence, audience, constraints—comprise everything relevant in a rhetorical situation. When the orator, invited by the situation, enters it and creates and presents discourse, then both he and his speech are additional constituents” (8). These constituents are nodes in a network that produces discourse, but is one firmly centered on the rhetorical situation. The discourse is caused by the situation, and everything emanates from its existence.
Therefore, Bitzer helps explain why the UPS was formed, again as a response. The founding members were invited to respond to the exigence of the mainstream media’s failure to reflect counterculture values. There was also the problematic situation of an uncoordinated movement scattered across the country with many newspapers operating in locales more isolated from the broader radical community. This response is rhetorical because the audience, other underground press papers, were able to mediate the situation upon receiving the discourse UPS created. The UPS cannot be extracted from the counterculture movement, and this theory allows the network to be closely linked to a social context. The exigencies that Bitzer discusses speak to the urgency that many in the movement experienced, the sense that the situation could not be ignored.
|Bitzer's Network of Rhetorical Situation|
Bitzer argues that the audience is in a position to mediate the situation. This model would see the readers and member papers as having the most agency because they were in a position to engage in activism and political pursuits that could alter the problems being written about, which often occurred when a newspaper would advertise a protest or instructions on how to avoid the draft.
CHAT: Like Bazerman’s situation of human activity as a collection of connected people and objects, CHAT theorizes that all human activity is “situated in concrete interactions.” The interactions “over time and space and among people, artifacts, and environments” create a kind of network that produces human activity (Prior et al “What is CHAT”). Some of these interactions can be termed literate activity. This activity is a network that “enables and constrains” other functions: production (how the text is formed by tools and practices), representation (textualization through style, arrangement, and semiotic media), distribution (how the text is disseminated), reception (how the audience makes meaning from the text), socialization (how the text constructs society), and activity (goal-oriented projects) (Prior et al “Mapping Literate”).
|CHAT Network of Literate Activity|
The production node of the UPS includes the “collective invention” of texts, which was facilitated by the UPS as member newspapers eventually became a collaborative artifact through reprinting. It also contains the historically provided tools like light boards, cutting knives, and mimeograph machines common in the arrangement and production of newsprint in the pre-digital era. The representation node encompasses genre; the UPS genre is information dissemination service. The node of distribution is particularly relevant to the UPS as its primary role was to actively collect and widely disseminate underground papers. Reception is a node often “shaped by writers and distributors”. The UPS as a distributor shaped meaning for the members, especially those located in communities otherwise disconnected from the movement. It brought the ideals, news, art, and culture of the counterculture to the disenfranchised, helping them to form their own identities, politics, and activism. In this way, the UPS also embodied the node of socialization, the creation of society with a unified purpose. Lastly, the node of activity involves “goal-oriented” projects that bring people together in cooperation. The UPS project had the goal of disseminating and preserving the underground press. The number of people needing to come together in cooperation to ensure this goal is impressive particularly for the sustained success the syndicate enjoyed in a time when the nature of action tended toward the ephemeral.
With a focus on delivery as distribution and mediation, CHAT lets the UPS be discussed in terms of its primary purpose: to collect and distribute newspapers for the free reprinting of shared content. On the other side of distribution though, reminiscent of Bazerman’s constraints, the staff at the UPS mediated content; decisions were made as to which elements of which papers would be included in the packets. The production node made up of the tools, containing the member papers that contributed the raw materials for building packets, could exert agency over whether or not they joined UPS, over what to submit, and over what to reprint in their collective texts. In the activity node, writers, artists, editors and UPS staff had agency over participation in the goal-oriented project. At its core, the UPS relied on individual contributions of time, creativity, and work (assembling packets, administrative tasks). Without drawing any salaries, these individuals controlled the UPS functions, and it was their conscious choices to take part that kept it going. The reception node allows for some audience agency; the UPS audience being member papers, content selection allows for some freedom of choice. This seems to be at the heart of how CHAT remaps the canon, with Prior et al explaining, “audiences are constantly active, co-producers of the configuration of footings and the discourse itself” (Prior et al “The Rhetorical Scene”). Member papers contributed, UPS editors selected and distributed, member papers reprinted. Building on that, this theory offers a new way perhaps to understand the effects of delivery, the kind of community building that occurred as a result, not just on one rhetorical product, but on an entire discourse community.
The various contributing papers as production nodes and the UPS editors in shaping the representation, distribution, and reception nodes work together in the activity node toward that goal-oriented project. In this way, the relationship between the nodes is collaborative. Therefore, this allows us to understand that the discourse of the counterculture movement was co-produced by the texts and the audiences and nodes are not positioned in a particular order or hierarchy. Here, the production tools can be as important as the audience and as important as the distribution methods. This allows for a discussion that elevates the UPS from a simple "appliance" or addendum to the "real" work of the underground, to something equal in its significance to the movement overall.
Like the two previous theories, CHAT also explains network growth as a response. This time to poor rhetoric. “A ‘good’ rhetoric neglected by the press obviously cannot be so ‘communicative’ as a poor rhetoric backed nation-wide by headlines” (Burke qtd. in Prior et al “The Rhetorical Scene”). This seems to speak to the movement's purpose for being. The power of the mainstream media to spread unreliable or unrepresentative rhetoric needed to counteracted by an alternative media that would focus on "good rhetoric".
Lastly, this theory positions the UPS as a significant source of human transformation. The CHAT authors explain this phenomenon as psychagogia. They explain, “Plato (1989) defined (true) rhetoric as a psychagogia—the leading or formation of people's souls through discourse (public and private)” (Prior et al “Society and Socialization”). However successful or unsuccessful the paper might have been, the genuine desire to effect positive change as suggested by the quote was always there. The participants in the movement often risked harassment by local authorities or other negative consequences, yet the belief in the cause was strong enough to overcome those drawbacks. It was a sincere hope that readers and communities would be altered by the contents, that social and political change would occur as the souls of people were touched and shaped.
Affordances: Affordances are the allowable actions for a given object (Gibson). The term implies a relationship between object and actor (person, animal, other object) based on the properties of one and the needs and abilities of the other. Affordances, actors, and objects comprise a network within the larger environment. Additionally, the affordances that are not perceived are still part of the network. In that case, there are nodes of affordances that may be connected to an object without the conduit of the actor.
|Theory of Affordances Network|
In this theory, the UPS is the environment in which the actors engage with objects based on their perceived affordances. The object nodes would be the newspapers, content packets, microfilm, collective advertisements, and membership directories. The actor nodes would be the writers, illustrators, photographers, and editors at the member papers (content-producers). Other actor nodes would include the UPS staff members who compiled and mailed the packets, maintained the membership roles, obtained revenue by securing advertisements, created the microfilm, and wrote and distributed the library directories. The affordance nodes would be based on two things: the affordances perceived by the actors and the affordances possible but not perceived. Some of the more significant affordances for the main object nodes are reading, spreading alternative news and culture, cutting (to facilitate the reprinting of only selected content), reprinting, generating income through sales, offering an outlet for expression, and inspiring activism and social change.
Most interestingly, this theory allows for the UPS to be analyzed in the present. Some of the affordances possible, like the microfilm and directories of the UPS facilitating future research, are likely not affordances that were seen at the time by many, yet it is now one of the lasting and most significant contributions. For some papers, being listed in a directory is the only evidence available to the researcher that the title ever existed. This extends then network beyond the participants from the past. I myself can be included in the network because I have perceived affordances of the objects therein.
Because the nodes are situated in the network without hierarchy like Chat, there is strong undercurrent of interdependence that suits the UPS. Bateson sees the actors’ minds, responsible for perceiving affordances, as itself belonging to “the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology” (467). This is the concept of immanence; all things are connected and dependent upon one another for survival. With immanence in mind, the nodes in the UPS network are dispersed equally but dependently. The newspapers need the actors to produce and distribute them, but the actors need the newspapers as well for their affordances of self-expression and community building. The objects are no more or less important than the people, which elevates the role of the UPS “machinery” to something as important as the text.
This egalitarian positioning between the nodes in especially applicable to the UPS. When content was collected and distributed, there was an attempt to be inclusive regardless of the paper’s circulation. Smaller papers could be included alongside the larger papers (like a Twitter feed - before the latest updates - where all tweets are seen, none hidden or given priority, regardless of the number of followers for that tweeter). This application brings the value of equality and significance of every voice, that was so much a part of the movement, to the forefront.
Another interesting point is made by Don Norman, which is that affordances are constrained by cultural conventions. Norman argues, “Cultural constraints are learned conventions that are shared by a cultural group,” and these constraints can influence the affordances one attaches to a particular object. Consider how the UPS resembles the Associated Press (AP). Both organizations emerged from similar situations where information for print media sources was not readily available beyond the region in which the paper worked. The UPS learned from the precedent set by the AP, and the AP based itself on the rapid information sharing system used by the Pony Express that came before it (“AP’s History”). Therefore, the theory would also define the UPS as an example of the convention of information dissemination practices.
In this network, growth and dissolution are two sides of the same coin: diversity. Bateson argues that heterogeneity is necessary for survival: "The artificially homogenized populations...are scarcely fit for survival" (457). This is also true in application to the UPS. Growth was encouraged by the diversity of new papers becoming members; however, as sharing led to homogeneity, the underground began to lose relevance and papers rapidly collapsed, noted by Kornbluth. Importantly, affordances theory makes room for the theory that the underground was killed by sameness.
This theory also emphasizes that objects can have more than one affordance, or an affordance can be shared by more than one object. This allows for an analysis of network redundancies, like the multiple ways the UPS attempted archiving and income generation. We can then ask if this hindered efficiency or ensured it? Would centralizing the income generation efforts at the national level have freed up the creative efforts of those at the local level, or would this have caused bureaucratic bogging down of cash flows? These questions have ramifications for understanding the system’s ultimate collapse.
What are the problems with applying any one theory?
The UPS was a complex interaction of people, objects, society, and rhetoric. No single theory can adequately account for all the network participants and produced activity. Here is an accounting of the theory gaps:
Genre: Bazerman is most closely associated with a discussion of how action is produced and the relationships between different types of activities, collating them into sets and larger systems. The focus is less on what kinds of activities can occur and why one particular action does or does not lead to another. For example, why would the same social facts that existed in one community results in the collection of utterances into a newspaper where in other communities they would not? Also, why would some genres sets be more effective at producing activity than others? Bazerman does not seem to offer an explanation for how some papers increased in circulation and impact while others folded after only. This theory explains how the UPS belongs to the larger network of human activity, but cannot as readily address why that was the response over another.
Rhetorical Situation: Under Bitzer’s model, the rhetor has little agency because the exigence is so strong that it compels a response. Then that response is shaped by a set of constraints and audience considerations. The UPS and member papers then are simply responding to the exigencies rather than acting with internal motivation; it is just a byproduct of situations needing mediation. Yet the underground was full of passionate participants who mediated content and produced it. Is their role simply as a conduit for the discourse without any effect on the content? This model discounts the collaborative remediation that often occurs in the underground networks as information is shared, altered, subverted, emulated, shared again, debated, and compiled in a system that actively worked to eliminate leaders or concentrate powers.
Bitzer also has less dynamic explanations for content. After initially being shaped by the situation, exigencies, and/or constraints, the message moves unchanged through the audience. Content may be shaped by certain forces like constraints or interpretation, but these changes are controlled and limited and do not persist after the discourse is created. Again, this understanding is limited in its application to the UPS because its work was discursive. Many people created, shared, recreated, and reshared the information until there was a collaborative, unified invention.
Lastly, the rhetorical situation restricts discourse to specific nodes in a specific order. The process of making meaning is far less of a collaboration than it is a guided response. This approach does not allow for an explanation of the collaboration that was so integral to the UPS.
CHAT: CHAT seems limited in how it allows for growth and dissolution. We see growth as a response, but this speaks mainly to why content was produced as mediation of poor rhetoric. However, the UPS also grew as due to the simple celebrations of self-expression. This is also a problem for Bitzer and Bazerman. Some art is a spontaneous expression and not in direct response to a social fact or situation. I suppose one could argue that there is simply the situation of being human, but this is thin and does not account then for why some are compelled to create and others not. If we are simply reacting to powerful social facts, then why would we not all produce the same text? Some greater accounting for human individuality and agency is needed.
Affordances: Affordances is primarily a theory about human interaction with objects. Gibson does allow for affordances that arise from human to human interactions as well, but remarks that the theory does not apply as evenly there. However, there does not seem to be a recognition of how perceived abstract truths can also afford activity. The UPS produced as much invisible content as it did tangible objects. The UPS spread a sense of connectivity. This afforded greater feelings of inclusion, possibly the encouragement to continue publication, or even the shaping of personal values. The invisible concept of connection, without any perceptible surfaces, is not a part of this theory, but is certainly an integral part of what the UPS afforded.
This theory has an emphasis on action: what can be done, what is being produced between the actors, objects, and affordances. However, there is less on the content of the papers and the community building. Affordances theory does not seem to have a way to see one affordance of an object as more or less significant. Each affordance is just one more way to utilize the object, which may diminish some of the cultural work that UPS did as it focuses more on the processes of making and shaping the organization itself.
Theory Synthesis Rationale:
Why can these theories be made to work well with each other?
One main connecting thread through these theories is that of action. Genre theory and rhetorical situation both argue that the discourse produced by the network leads to mediation of the facts/situation. CHAT also speaks to this in the reception and socialization nodes where the audience constructs meaning and that meaning shapes society. CHAT’s production and distribution nodes, along with affordances, speak more to action on a mesoscopic level. These theories explain how the UPS was made, by what means and with what materials and tools.
Another connection is through the responsorial nature of action. Genre, rhetorical situation, and CHAT all have an explanation for how rhetoric is produced: as a response to social facts or problems. Affordances require the subject to perceive them, but we respond to objects based on what we need. We seek out the affordances that will help us successfully respond to a stimulus.
The first two theories are more conceptual and theoretical, dealing with why and how actions are produced in society. The latter two theories are more practical and concrete, dealing with what actions are produced. However different these approaches, it is clear that the four theories are all concerned with accomplishing something or purpose. In this way, the theories fill gaps the other presents. Where genre and rhetorical theory may not explain why some facts elicit responses while others do not, affordances can answer that we react to objects (or perhaps situations) with autonomous perception. What I perceive to be a meaningful affordance, will not necessarily be one for another. Where affordances may diminish the context out of which the underground grew, Bitzer and Bazerman emphasize the social constructs that catalyzed the movement. Where CHAT struggles to speak to growth and dissolution, the changing of social facts and situations can provide an answer.
Constraints are also at play in each theory. Genre constrains form through social convention. The discourse is shaped by the consideration of audience, to name just one of Bitzer’s constraints. CHAT has constraints dependent upon the available tools of production, and affordances has Norman’s cultural conventions that shape what we see as potential affordances.
Object of Study as English Scholarship:
How does it function in a way that is useful/meaningful to English scholars?
The UPS provides several opportunities for further meaningful examinations in the discipline.
It would also be interesting to view the object as seated in the intersection of delivery and memory. The work to archive the magazines and distribute these archives was a novel approach to publishing and for libraries. It would be useful to think of how dissemination and preservation are linked rhetorical activities. The UPS perhaps took this to a new level, seeing the role of distributing texts only part of the essential work of building a community. It was also necessary to document and archive the texts. Rhetoricians would find fertile ground in examining how these two functions are intertwined.
Cultural theorists could analyze the UPS as early crowd sourcing. This highlights its later efforts to obtain advertising that could be reprinted across its members raised funds to help sustain the literary work. But these efforts often distracted from other more creative endeavors, but ignoring the financial needs of operating, licensing, printing, and distributing the newspapers often forced smaller publications to fold. One question worth exploring is how economic networks support (or restrict) the production of literature?
New Historicists could examine the UPS as a historical artifact. The assembly of newspaper articles, political cartoons, poems, editorials, and photographs therein collectively capture the complex and often abstract counterculture movement of a particularly turbulent time in American history. The rhetorical discourse of that social and political movement is vividly preserved by the UPS.
Those interested in the transformative effects of literature could understand the UPS as a literary network responsible for social change by the sense of belonging it can create among participants, the support that can be channeled between the nodes, and the power of knowledge that it allows participants to access.
If we can understand the motivations, successes, connections, and weaknesses of the UPS network, perhaps we can understand the processes and contexts needed to engage in current and future activism for alternative social, cultural, and political views. We can begin to answer the questions this analysis poses: Why are we motivated to speak (Bitzer)? How does our speech make a difference (Bazerman)? How do we communicate our speech (CHAT)? How can our speech be used (Affordances)? And if those conclusions about action and activity can be useful, then the research has a practical and beneficial purpose.
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Armstrong, David. A Trumpet to Arms: Alternative Media in America. Los Angeles, Boston: J.P. Tarcher, 1981. Print.
Bazerman, Charles. “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activity and People”. What Writing Does and How It Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices. Eds. Charles Bazerman and Paul Prior. Taylor and Francis e-library, 2008. 309-340. Print.
Bateson, Gregory. Steps to an Ecology of Mind. Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1987. Print.
Bitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation.”
Gibson, James. The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1986. Print.
Glessing, James. The Underground Press in America. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1984. Print.
Kornbluth, Jesse. “This Place of Entertainment Has No Fire Exit: The Underground Press and How it Went.” The Antioch Review 29.1 (Spring 1969). 91-99. Print.
McMillian, John. Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America. New York: Oxford UP, 2011. Print.
Miller, Carolyn R.. “Genre as Social Action”. Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (1984): 151-167. Print.
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Norman, Donald A.. "Affordances and Design." Don Norman: Designing for People. 2004. Web. 15 Mar. 2014
Prior, Paul, et al. “Mapping Literate Activity.” Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (Summer 2007). Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
---. “The Rhetorical Scene.” Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (Summer 2007). Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
---. “Society and Socialization.” Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (Summer 2007). Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
---. “What is CHAT." Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity. Kairos 11.3 (Summer 2007). Web. 17 Feb. 2014.
Ridgeway, James. “The New Journalism.” American Libraries 2.6 (June 1971). 585-592. Print.
Coded Chaos, Decoded Fun: the Rhetorical Ontology of Live Action Role-Playing Games
Scholars have studied and theorized role-playing games in terms of information systems (Harviainen, 2012, 2009, 2007; Hakkarainen and Stenros, 2003), organizational structures and social processes (Montola, 2003, 2004, 2009), archetypal psychological forms and shared fantasies (Bowman 2010, 2012; Fine, 2002; Mackay, 2001), narrative immersions (Kim, 2004; Harding, 2005; Larsson, 2005; Torner and White, 2012) and as, well, games that are fun to play (Edwards, 2001; Bøckman, 2003; Huizinga, 1955; Salen and Zimmerman, 2003; Zimmerman, 2013; Stenros, 2012). Though some of these studies consider role-playing in its various forms — tabletop, live, and online — the primary focus of this theoretical paper is the experience of role-playing as a performed embodied character, within a physical environment, in interaction with others: Live Action Role-Playing, or larp (aka LARP). This particular type of RPG’s relevance as an object of study to English Studies is three-fold: larps are important sites of cultural production that both challenge and replicate social constructions; they are also an increasingly popular form of participatory media that can be seen as a space of interactive narratology and rhetorical activity. Furthermore, they function as an information system marked by enculturated networked individualism. This paper will explore existing theories of larp as a chaotic system that attempts to aggregate individual narratives into a cohesive whole by looking at larp activity as discourse within a rhetorical situation. I complicate this idea by bringing in Hall’s notion of encoding-decoding, which helps explain the interpretive and action-based agency afforded individual players in the game and the culturally dominant semiotic system that causes players to enforce or prefer certain interpretations, thus affecting game play and its outcomes. Ultimately I posit that using rhetorical theory to analyze larps helps us to understand how information in a larp travels, is interpreted, mapped, and enacted, thus creating the game itself. My goal is not merely to describe the experience of a larp, as other theorists have done, but to begin to think about why and how larps are experienced in this way.
Hansen (2003) claims that role-play is an emergent phenomenon that arises from individual players’ interaction with each other. Montola (2003) claims that larps consist of players who “construct diegeses in interaction,” and that these in-game truths are subjective to each individual player, but developed collaboratively over the course of the game. It should be noted that in a larp, as opposed to a table-top game, for example, the physical reality of the game-space is used as a basis for in-game (diegetic) reality. Unlike computer-based games, which have an interface of binary decision-making that forces players to make choices from among scripted opportunities created by game designers, larps have simply a starting point and the “vectors of the characters” (Hansen, 2003, Montola, 2004). The game emerges from the starting situation and is the result of improvisation and interaction among the players, who can draw from their imaginations, creating a wider range of play possibilities. Montola applies Aula’s (1996) chaos theory of human communications to the unpredictable but non-random system of larp. Montola notes that Aula’s three characteristics of chaotic systems — nonlinearity, recursivity, and dynamism — apply to larp game play.
Nonlinearity, or the absence of linear dependency on changes made during play, is similar to Latour’s concept of the mediator, rather than an intermediary. Messages or energy expended to cause change in the game are not merely transferred along a network of players. The message or action is changed as it travels, if it travels at all, as a player may choose to keep information secret. Inputs into the game do not equal outputs; there is a sense of randomness that is an integral part of the game experience.
Recursivity indicates that the “end result of the first situation is used as the beginning of the next one” (Montola, 2004). What is constructed by one player or gamemaster is used as the basis for what other players can and do construct as a result. This refers to both within a single instance of a larp (e.g. during game play), and over the course of a campaign game, played over many sessions. Recursivity is another way of stating that the game is co-constructed, woven together as Deleuze & Guattari’s assemblage or Levi-Strauss’ bricolage, from the available materials, over time, with each addition building on the next. A co-player’s contribution cannot be discarded, removed, or ignored. It must be incorporated. This, like nonlinearity, can cause the outputs to little resemble the inputs, as game play must veer into the new direction after the contribution of any player.
The third principle, dynamism, refers to the plasticity of the game situation, of the entire system’s ability to morph, in real-time, as a result of changes to the system. A change in the character changes the way the character behaves, and a change in the character’s behavior changes the system s/he participates in and co-creates. The interaction of these three principles accumulate over time in a game, causing a seemingly insignificant utterance at the starting point to have potentially enormous consequences later.
Hansen (2003) notes that communication changes social relationships, and since a larp is fundamentally about a network of social relationships being role-played, these relationships change constantly as a result of communication. However, that is the extent to which Montola and Hansen consider communication as the “change agent” in a larp. They identify the larp as an unpredictable, though not random, system best characterized as an emergent phenomenon and demonstrate that it follows the chaos system principles of nonlinearity, recursivity and dynamism. They do not look at what drives these principles, what causes them to be observable in the larp.
While these scholars have looked at describing what components comprise a larp, what players experience during a larp, or how to design larps that afford fun and authentic experiences, few, if any, scholars have considered what actually occurs during a larp, what creates or enacts the experience of the larp. They have looked at the “what” of a larp and not the “how” a larp happens. Larps are performed through speech, they are spoken into existence. Game play occurs as description, narration, and conversation among participants. Larps are discursive scenarios, and larps are fundamentally rhetorical acts.
According to Lloyd Bitzer (1968), rhetorical discourse “comes into existence as a response to a situation, in the same sense that an answer comes into existence in response to a question, or a solution in response to a problem” (p. 5). Bitzer refers to a situation that requires a discursive response as the “rhetorical situation”, which he defines as “a complex of persons, events, objects, and relationship presenting an actual or potential exigence which can be completely or partially removed if discourse, introduced into the situation, can so constrain human decision or action as to bring about the significant modification of the exigence” (p. 6). In other words, a situation is rhetorical if it can be resolved or changed through the introduction of discourse, or speech.
It’s not quite that simple, because Bitzer further defines exigence as “an imperfection marked by urgency; it is a defect, an obstacle, something waiting to be done, a thing which is other than it should be … an exigence is rhetorical when it is capable of positive modification and when positive modification requires discourse or can be assisted by discourse” (p.6). Conversely, an exigence is not rhetorical if it cannot be changed, or it can be changed without discourse, by the use of a tool or one’s own action, not in conversation with another. Furthermore, Bitzer notes that a rhetorical situation requires an audience that is comprised of not merely “hearers or readers” but those who can be influenced through the discourse to become “mediators of change” (p. 7). Lastly, Bitzer lays out the idea of constraints, or “persons, events, objects, and relations” which have the “power to constrain decision and action needed to modify the exigence” (p. 8). An orator who enters the situation harnesses these “beliefs, attitudes, documents, facts, traditions, images, interests, motives, and the like” and uses them to create change via the audience members.
Using Bitzer to look at the rhetorical nature of a larp, we can find some parallels. Certainly larps contain the basic elements of a rhetorical situation by Bitzer’s definition. The basic triangle of an exigence, audience, and constraints exist in the form of the game to be played and the central premise or conflict, the other players, and the mechanics and rules and setting of the game itself. The rhetor, or individual player, enters this situation, and through diegetic discourse, changes what happens in the game. Individual actions by a player would not be rhetorical under Bitzer’s definition, but speech by a player — the primary method to enact a larp — would constitute rhetorical action, especially as that speech evokes a response from other players, who in turn create change in the original exigence. As you can see, however, an immediate problem arises in trying to apply Bitzer to a larp. Bitzer’s model assumes a single rhetor (or a rhetor on behalf of a corporate entity) and a passive audience, neither of which exist in a larp. Larps consist of a multitude of rhetors, each discoursing in response to the perceived exigence, which, in another contradiction to Bitzer, may not be “the” exigence, as characters may have different goals and information about the situation they are engaging with. The only audience in a larp are the other players, who are not there merely to be acted upon by a rhetor and a mediator of the change s/he wishes to effect. They are there as their own agents of change.
Furthermore, for Bitzer, the situation is paramount: “rhetorical discourse is called into existence by situation; the situation which the rhetor perceives amounts to an invitation to create and present discourse” (p. 8). The situation itself drives the resulting speech and governs what is appropriate, or “fitting” speech that can be said matches the situation and resolve the exigence. Other responses that are not designed to cause audience members to change the situation are not considered fitting; each rhetorical situation invites, and often requires or demands, a particular and proper structured response (pp. 9-10). In fact, Bitzer notes that, “the situation controls the rhetorical response in the same sense that the question controls the answer and the problem controls the solution. Not the rhetor and not persuasive intent, but the situation is the source and ground of rhetorical activity” (p. 6, emphasis mine). Thus, Bitzer’s sense of discourse and the rhetorical situation is prescriptive, leaving very little — if any — agency for the speaker/rhetor. In fact, Bitzer seems to be advocating a linear pattern of communication; if I say this, I expect that, my outputs can be predicted by my inputs.
The primacy of the situation and lack of agency for the rhetor under Bitzer’s model makes it unsuitable for explaining a larp fully. While the genre of the game and the basic premise — the situation that requires a response — certainly constrain what is fitting for in-game discourse, the purpose of a larp is to create the game as an active agent, and to interact with others who also have that discursive power. Larps are unscripted, and also have outcomes that are restricted only by the players’ imagination and the constraints of the game’s runtime. As Hansen noted, the gameframe is only the starting point of the larp, and the character descriptions are seen as “vectors” that provide direction for the players. A larp that is too scripted or controlled cannot be played; a larp does not consist of a single question or a single problem to be solved by a single rhetor. The multiplicity of agency and situation through plot arcs, conflicts, and players, might create a network of Bitzer’s rhetorical situations, occurring simultaneously, and then recursively, one resolution leading to the next, but even then the structured approach of his argument fails to describe the dynamism of a larp’s continuously changing situation and the nonlinearity that belies Bitzer’s notions of predictable desired outcomes as a result of the “proper discourse” to the “proper audience.”
Unlike Bitzer, who believes rhetorical situations are discrete, discernible, objective, and thus “real” or “genuine,” Richard Vatz, in a direct response to Bitzer, contends that the speaker perceives a situation, and often does so as a result of communication created through the interpretation of another rhetor (1973, pp. 155-156). Vatz says that the characterization of a situation and the discourse used to describe or “respond” to it are not “according to a situation’s reality” (as Bitzer would have it), but according to the “rhetor’s arbitrary choice of characterization” (157). Vatz implies that we can manufacture exigence, and indeed situations themselves, out of language. Thus, Vatz flips Bitzer’s position to argue that rhetoric itself creates the exigence. Vatz contends that “meaning is not discovered in situations, but created by rhetors” (p. 158). Agency is placed within the subjective rhetor and not in a supposedly objective situation.
Vatz’s interpretation of a rhetorical situation comes closer to making sense for a larp, as it privileges the discourse itself and acknowledges the rtheorical choices made by the players as ones that not only are “fitting” or “dictated by the situation” (Bitzer) but also as ones that themselves create the salience of the situation (Vatz, p. 158). Vatz allows for the rhetor, or the player in a larp, to create reality through language, not merely communicate with an audience in response to a situation. Vatz acknowledges the primacy of the perception of the rhetor, and the choices s/he makes as constructing what becomes the “situation” or what discourse is put into play. The primacy of perception and the constructive nature of the reality that is acted upon with language liberates the player-rhetor from the prescriptiveness of an observable situation and makes more sense applied to the discursive activity of a larp, which takes place as Vatz would allow, in relationship to the rhetors who have come before, whose perceptions and interpretations through language have informed the current rhetor. This aligns with Montola’s explanation of the recursivity property of a larp, that one statement informs the next.
However, Vatz’s notions do not explain the synchronous and multiplicitous nature of simultaneous perceptions and utterances in a given larp. Indeed in a larp, there is no clear singular conversation (even though there often is a main story arc), but a multitude of them. Vatz does allows us to see that none of these competing discourses represent an “objective” or “correct” perception of the overall rhetorical situation of the larp; indeed, Vatz’s view of the primacy of the rhetor’s perception corroborates Montola’s (2003) view of that “every participant constructs his or her diegesis when playing” (p. 83). Vatz’s model acknowledges that interpreted language creates the perceptions that constitute the reality, recognizing that the discursive activity is indeed a representation not an actuality, further corroborating Montola’s theory that the larp consists of personal, subjective diegeses that coexist and are related through communication (2003, 2012). But his model also does not allow us to take into account the physical reality of the larp, an important component that distinguishes it from other forms of role-playing games. Additionally, neither Bitzer’s nor Vatz’s model allows us to think about the movement between the competing yet combined realities of the fictional game (diegetic) and the brute reality of the world it is played in (non-diegetic).
As mentioned, a larp has a multiplicity of rhetors speaking simultaneously, a variety of exigences that are both in game and out of game, and no true audience, since all who participate have agency to speak and create. Furthermore, in a larp, speech is more than an epistemological construct or a heuristic device. Speech is actually a creative activity; through discourse, the game, the character, the shared experience is made. This is quite literal in a larp. If you speak something, it becomes true in the world of the game, the game diegesis. Other players must accept what you have said or described as true or real, and they must adjust their views and play accordingly. Gamemasters may have to intervene to connect the new generative speech act to the game’s narrative or canon, but it cannot be undone. In addition, some actions in larp are not performed, but described, so as not to put the physical bodies of the players in danger or discomfort (for example, a player may say, “I’m stabbing you with my dagger” or “We are having sex.”). In a larp, rhetorical speech acts are ontological. Discourse is not only the way of knowing, but is the way of being, of bringing into existence, of making reality. This is, to a degree, what Vatz was saying when he noted that the interpretation of a situation constitutes it, calls it into being, but Vatz’s purpose is to negate the universality or unity of situation, thus allowing for his premise of the speaker’s rhetorical agency.
Speech in a larp is more than the mere interpretation of communicated ideas, and more than the rhetorical requirement of having to be persuaded before taking action or creating change. Another player-character in a larp could disagree completely with the rhetorical turn a player just enacted, not wish to follow that thread or engage that discourse, and even actively attempt to thwart the intentions of the rhetor. But what he or she cannot do is ignore or invalidate the spoken truth. It cannot be argued, only complicated or twisted through additional, recursive speech acts. Thus, speech in a larp actually does create a kind of unity and universality that must be accepted by the other players. However, unlike Bitzer’s notion, this unity is not pre-existing and waiting to be discovered, but instead is created together through the interactive dynamism of the game. Bitzer and Vatz allow us to see that rhetoric is a plausible way to look at larps, but they do not account for the interactivity of the discourse, the fact that other players talk back and interact, that there is no primary rhetor, no distinction between rhetor and audience, and no stable message or narrative — only the nonlinear, recursive dynamism that unfolds rhetorically.
Stuart Hall (1993) agrees that the traditional communication model of a circuit or loop, as advocated by Bitzer, Vatz, and others, is too linear and too focused only the moment of message exchange, failing to take into account moments that precede and follow that discursive moment. Instead, he posits that discourse is a process of linked articulations in five distinct moments: production, circulation, distribution, consumption, reproduction (p. 478). Communication must be translated and transformed from one articulation to the next; at any one of these border-crossing moments, there is the opportunity for miscommunication or misinterpretation. At these gaps, the message is decoded, transformed, mediated or interpellated, and what was encoded by the rhetor is not guaranteed to be decoded by the recipient. Hall notes that “no one moment can fully guarantee the next moment with which it is articulated” (p. 478). In other words, the inputs do not equal the outputs, capturing the nonlinearity inherent in communication and in a larp. The idea of seamless transfer from speaker to hearer is a fiction that rhetoricians such as Bitzer, Vatz and others pretend to believe as it gives credibility, and perhaps validity to the necessity of intervening in a situation with discourse, and of the importance of rhetorical training to effect these supposed seamless transfers of information and causation.
Hall notes that the audience does not play a passive role in his model, indeed if the audience does not take any meaning from the discursive form, then it cannot be said to have been “consumed” or to have the desired effect (478). Indeed, any one of these moments of encoding and decoding are “determinate moments” where meaning has the possibility of being communicated, and then acted upon. Furthermore, Hall notes that communication isn’t as simple as person to person, even if we acknowledge what may be implicit in the message being spoken or the ability to understand and receive that message on the part of the hearer. Communication does not take place in a vacuum; what is both encoded and decoded is a result of social norms and practices, and the action that an audience member takes in response to discourse must enter this structure. It does not do so strictly in behavioral or positivistic terms, Hall notes, but through a complex network of “social and economic relations, which shape their ‘realisation’ at the reception end of the chain and which permit the meanings signified in the discourse to be transposed into practice or consciousness (to acquire social use value or political effectivity)” (p. 480).
Hall helps us see that what is said is not the same as what is meant or what is heard. And what is heard is not the same as what is understood or done as a result. Hall calls these equivalences or symmetries between the “encoder-producer and the decoder-receiver” which “interrupt or systematically distort what has been transmitted” (p. 480). As meaning crosses these gaps, especially if it must cross unequal relationships of social, political, ideological or discursive power, there is opportunity for intervention from an outside (or internalized) force that causes the meaning to be changed or transmuted. Montola (2004) agrees with Hall that “communication is never perfect; no meaning is ever perfectly translated to symbols, and no symbol is ever understood perfectly” (84). As a result, Montola argues there cannot be “an objective diegesis shared by all participants” because such an “objective diegesis” cannot be shared via discourse. The opportunities for the communications misfires are at least doubled in a larp, as one negotiates between the brute and gameworld realities; it can be argued that they are exponentialized due to the sheer number of rhetors and the conflation of rhetor and audience. Thus, the chaotic system of the larp comes from the nature of the performative, and discursive medium.
In a larp, where the discourse quite literally creates not only the perceived reality but the actuality of the game, communication misfires change the outcome of the game itself; they are the cause of the non-linearity and dynamism that are crucial to the larp medium. Furthermore, these encoder-producer ←→ decoder-receiver determinate moments (Montola’s (2004) bifurcation points) can come from either within the game (diegetic) or outside of it (non-diegetic). They can also be discursive or ambient. For example, a player could actually mishear another player, perhaps as a result of other conversations or action going on simultaneously. To stay immersed, the player-character may choose to react based on what was heard and interpreted, rather than interrupt action flow with a request for clarification. The physical positioning of players at the start of a larp, as Montola (2004) notes, affects the order in which a character meets other characters, potentially affecting every subsequent interaction, relationship, and interpretation of discourse, and thus, the outcome of the game. Other possibilities for interruption in this discursive action are from non-diegetic sources: a player’s hunger, the reminder that his car needs an oil change, or some other thought not related to the diegetic conversation at hand. In addition, a psychological trigger that comes up unexpectedly as a result of a spoken or ambient rhetorical choices can create an interruption in the transfer of information that might otherwise occur in a more predictable or structured or anticipated way. When one of these interruptions occurs, or when a player says something in the larp that is a “game-changer”, Hall notes that such “new problematic or troubling events, which breach our expectancies and run counter to our ‘commonsense constructs’, to our ‘taken-for-granted’ knowledge of social structures, must be assigned to their discursive domains before they can be said to ‘make sense’ (p. 483). More often than not, these unexpected statements get default-mapped to what Hall calls “preferred meanings” that have “the whole social order embedded in them as a set of meanings, practices, and beliefs” (483).
Indeed, as we know from rhetorical theory, a speaker’s effectiveness is based in part on how something is stated, and who states it. A speaker’s ethos is important in allocating him or her rhetorical powers and creating what Bitzer and Vatz desire: the ability to persuade and cause change as a result of the communication. Ethos is certainly something that can be calculated and advanced rhetorically, via both discursive and ambient elements such as
grooming and dress/costuming, but ethos is also something that is interpreted by the receiver and may be connoted through social constructs that the rhetor may or may not be endowed with and powerless to change, such timbre of voice, height, squareness of jaw, or race, gender or sexual orientation. Hall discusses assigning these rhetorical choices and enactments to a set of “performative rules” or prearranged codes that “seek actively to enforce or prefer one semantic domain over another” (p. 484). Hall’s explanation of these default, or naturalized interpretative meanings, according to dominant social mores can help explain why, as Montola (2004) notes, “chaotic systems tend to follow attractors,” or “dynamic pattern[s] of behaviour the chaotic system tries to follow “ (p.158).
The only attractor that can be scripted in a larp is an initial one, such as a quest or a task, given by the gamemaster at the player briefing. After that, the players themselves choose whether to follow the given attractors or create new
ones (Montola, 2004). When the system attempts to decide whether to follow one or another attractor, mathematicians call these bifurcation points; we might call them determinate moments of rhetorical activity. Montola or Aula do not attempt to
discover how or why players might choose one attractor over another; they only report that such bifurcation points exists and additional attractors arise. We can discover, however, that players are drawn to one attractor or another based on their rhetorical choices and the interpretation of those encoded discursive and ambient rhetorical acts. A character who speaks loudly, or with authority, who presents as strong or as having qualities of a leader, or who happens to have the hegemonic attributes of the dominant code will draw more attention and credibility from the other players, even if he (and it usually is a he, though not always) and thus become one of these attractors that has additional agency in the larp through other players’ interpretation at the determinate moments and willingness to follow at the bifurcation point.Furthermore, Montola (2003, 2012) notes that although meanings are encoded in the “building blocks of role-play” and these are interpreted by the players, that the actual meanings arise “from the diegesis constructed [by individual players] using the interpretations” (p. 88). Though he does not say so explicitly, Montola’s explanation corroborates Hall’s notion that meaning is not assigned until it is made part of a system, which, according to Hall, will, in all likelihood, be uncritically adopted from the dominant hegemonic codes. Yet, Hall notes that “there is no necessary correspondence between encoding and decoding” and that we must recognized that “‘correspondence’ is not given, but constructed” (p. 485). The equivalence between a rhetor and his or her interpretive audience can thus be altered or engineered. By understanding how a player-character, aka rhetor, aka encoder-decoder makes rhetorical choices about what is said and what is interpreted (and thus what is possible and what is played in a larp) one can make more accurate predictions of the probable game play and outcome and make some order in the chaos. These can be useful in terms of designing and enacting game scenarios that might work toward Hall’s negotiated code and against the dominant codes.
Rhetorical theory is also useful in helping us understand how information travels, is taken up and interpreted, is mapped to existing systems of meaning, both diegetic and non-diegetic, and creates the game play from the realm of possible articulations. Montola (2003) argues that “in role-play the amount of diegeses equals the number of participants and telling a story by larp requires successfully communicating the story into every diegesis in game” (p. 88). Approaching the larp as a rhetorical situation, or, better yet, as Barbara Biesecker’s deconstruction-based rhetorical transaction, whereby discourse equals “radical possibilit[ies]” of symbolic action (p. 127), gives us the tools to understand what seems to be a chaotic system governed by unknowable bifurcation moments and unpredictable attractors that drive action. Though we cannot predict a larp outcome because of the multiplicity of interpretations, the imperfect nature of communication, and the encoded power structures contained within, we can understand that discourse creates the actuality of the larp, it’s nonlinear, dynamic recursivity and its playability.Thus, it’s not mere chaos, or even “organized chaos.” It is instead a rhetorical network of actors with the agency to speak the game into existence, to co-create, using diegetic and non-diegetic means, the flow and fun. Through this rhetorical transaction, meaning is interpreted, constructed, and enacted; the game is articulated and enacted, and the player-characters’ identities continually shift within the dynamic, nonlinear, and recursive contexts.
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Bowman, S. L. (2010). The functions of role-playing games how participants create community, solve problems and explore identity. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.
Bowman, S. L. (2012). Jungian Theory and Immersion in Role-Playing Games. In E. Torner & W. J. White (Eds.), Immersive Gameplay: Essays on Participatory Media and Role-Playing (pp. 31–51). Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co.
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Hakkarainen, H. & Stenros, J. (2003): “The Meilahti School: Thoughts on Role-playing”. In Gade, Morten, Thorup, Line & Sander, Mikkel (Eds.): When Larp Grows Up. Theory and Methods in Larp. Projektgruppen KP03, Copanhagen.
Hall, S. (1993). Encoding, Decoding. In S. During (Ed.), The Cultural Studies Reader (3rd ed., pp. 477–487). London; New York: Routledge.
Hansen, R. (2003). Relation Theory. In Gade, Morten, Thorup, Line & Sander, Mikkel (eds.). As Larp Grows Up — Theory and Methods in Larp (pp. 70-73). Knudepunkt 2003, Copenhagen. www.laivforum.dk/kp03_book.
Harding, T. (2007). Immersion revisited: role-playing as interpretation and narrative. In Lifelike (pp. 25–33). Dansk Ungdoms F\a ellesr\a ad. Retrieved from http://www.diva-portal.org/smash/record.jsf?pid=diva2:213070
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Zimmerman, E. (2012, February 7). Jerked Around by the Magic Circle – Clearing the Air Ten Years Later. Retrieved March 11, 2014, from http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/6696/jerked_around_by_the_magic_circle_.php
Boundaries in My Analysis of Google Analytics
I am limiting my analysis of Google Analytics as an object of study by focusing on its activities and its data model as reported in terms of dimensions and metrics.
- Google defines Analytics activity as collection, collation, processing, and reporting.
- Google describes its data model as consisting of user, session, and interaction.
- Google collects and reports data in terms of dimensions (“descriptive attribute or characteristic of an object”) and metrics (“Individual elements of a dimension that can be measured as a sum or ratio”) (Google, 2014).
These limits and terms are described in detail in my earlier Re/Proposed Object of Study: Google Analytics blog post.
I chose GA as my object of study because it’s a tool with which I work on a daily basis. I proposed GA as my object of study to my boss, the director of our school’s marketing and communications team, before formally proposing it in class because I wanted approval to use our school’s GA account in my study. I also expected my study to contribute to my understanding and use of GA in web development and management. A deeper understanding of GA as a network has provided both a tool for theoretical exploration and practical application.
Here’s an example of how applied this theoretical study has become. On April 16, with little fanfare, Google announced that it was replacing the term “visit” with the term “session” in its reports. I missed the announcement entirely, so I was surprised while measuring the result of online advertising efforts in our campus newspapers to discover that the “unique visits” metric that I had been using was no longer available; instead, it had been replaced by the “sessions” metric, without the “unique” modifier. I was also surprised to discover that the “unique visits” metric I had been using did not match the “sessions” metric when I re-ran prior reports to test data accuracy reports; “sessions” reported higher numbers than “unique visits” had reported. As we reached the first of May, when I normally complete April reports, I realized the full extent of the terminology change: “unique visits” were no longer being measured. Two plus years of reporting data were potentially compromised as inaccurate, since we report data for month on month and year on year comparisons (e.g. does April 2014 look better than April 2013 in terms of overall unique web visits, and does the calendar year-to-date period of January-April 2014 look better than the previous January-April 2013 period?).
As a result of my study of the structure and function of Google Analytics, I had learned how GA counts session data. Critical inquiries had questioned whether GA’s reporting of unique visits could be accurate given the browsing patterns of today’s web visitors. Visits (now sessions) are defined as individual browsing sessions on a given website on a given browser and platform. A visitor (now user) who visits the same website using two different browsers (Chrome and Firefox, for instance) would be calculated as two unique visits (when unique visits were provided) because the session is browser specific. Furthermore, a visitor who visits the same website on a desktop platform browser, then revisits the same website on a mobile device, would be calculated as two unique visits, because the session is platform specific. In short, “unique visit” is really a calculation of “individual session” without a distinction of uniqueness of the visitor. Using the term “unique visit” suggested (and my marketing team and I took it to mean) visits by unique users, a measurement we considered superior because it suggested the actual number of visitors. What we should have been measuring, however, was visits, regardless of their “uniqueness,” because there was no unique quality to the visit in terms of the visitor. The end result is that I will need to re-record our historical data in terms of sessions rather than unique visits, potentially revealing visit patterns we had not before seen or understood.
Without this study of GA as a network, I would not have understood why reporting data did not match, and I would have struggled to find documentation of the issue. There remains little documentation from Google itself about the disappearance of unique visit as a reported metric as of this date. In short, the application of my theoretical exploration directly benefited my and my team, and ultimately our school and our understanding of our data within the framework of industry benchmarks.
Theories of Networks and Google Analytics
I’m using two theories — Castells’ network society and Deleuze & Guattari’s rhizome — to flesh out my understanding of Google Analytics and sketch out my Frankentheory of a network.
First, here’s a review of some familiar territory: My application of Castells’ network society to GA from Case Study #2. I’ve brought this in as a piece rather than linking to it because I’d like to make departures from specific aspects of this application in discussing Deleuze & Guattari and in sketching out a Frankentheory.
Defining Google Analytics
Castells (2010) considers technology to be society (p. 5). As a result, GA can be considered social. As an information technology, GA creates active connections between websites (data collection), Google data centers (data configuring and processing) including aggregated tables (processing), and GA administrator accounts (configuring and reporting). These active connections collect, mediate (configure and process), and report on the three aspects of the GA data model consisting of users, sessions, and interactions. These connections represent social actions. So Castells (2010) might define GA as a global informational network (p. 77) that collects data from and reports data to local nodes (websites). Google servers where data are configured and processed might be considered mega-nodes (xxxviii) that, through the iterative process of increasing user visits and interaction by improving website design and content based on GA reported results, impose global logic on the local (xxxix).
Nodes in Google Analytics
Individual websites, GA account administrators, and website visitors are local nodes in the global informational network. Google data center servers are mega-nodes in the network. Google employees who program GA and maintain Google servers and centers are localized nodes in the global network. Google’s data centers are located in a variety of locations that include North America, South America, Europe, and Asia. Several are found in Castells’ (2010) “milieux of innovation” (p. 419) including Taiwan, Singapore, and Chile. Others are found in what appear to be unlikely global spaces, including Council Bluffs, Iowa, and Mayes County, Oklahoma. These locations reiterate Castells’ insistence that local and global are not mutually exclusive polar opposites; rather, the new industrial system is neither global or local, but a new way of constructing local and global dynamics (p. 423). Websites, administrators, visitors, servers, and employees are simultaneously localized nodes (even the the mega-nodes are situated in space and time) in the global informational network.
Agency among Google Analytics Nodes
GA account administrators and website visitors have the greatest level of agency in the network, while Google employees exert limited agency within the confines of their labor relationships and conditions. Account administrators would likely be considered among Castells’ (2010) “managerial elites” (p. 445), while Google employees who maintain and program the servers might be part of Castells’ disposable labor force (p. 295). Account administrators have the authority to configure GA data, including the ability to filter out results, narrow data collection according to metrics and dimensions, and even integrate external digital metrics in GA. This authority is not, of course, the authority of Google’s corporate structure and hierarchy, but within the boundaries of GA data model and activities, account administrators exude authority. Website visitors may choose to visit, or not visit, any given website, once or more than once (meaning a single session or multiple sessions). This agency includes the power to intentionally separate themselves from the network, meaning that, for users, they only enter into the network as a node when they visit the tracked website. Interestingly, only the GA administrator has authority to eliminate users from the network; account configurations may filter out visitors along several dimensions.
Nodal Situation and Relation
Nodes are locally situated. While simultaneously part of the global informational economy, all of the nodes in the GA network are situated in a space and time. This simultaneous here/there compression of space and time is the origin of Castells’ (2010) “space of flows” (p. 408) and “timeless time” (p. 460). Websites are simultaneously hosted on physical servers around the world and locally viewed on specific platforms and media. Users are simultaneously accessing global data in territorial space on hardware. GA administrators are situated while configuring accounts and loading reports from the cloud. Google data centers are situated in specific locations, but they collect and process global data from local spaces and times. Google employees are culturally and territorially situated in the global Google labor pool.
Data rarely travels along parallel paths in the GA data model or GA activities. Website visit data are collected in the data model — user, session, and interaction data — and sent to Google data centers for processing and configuration. Other than writing unique user identification data onto cookies on users’ browsers or apps, little data travels from GA to users. Website content is indirectly affected by GA reports configured and read by GA administrators, but within the GA activity network, websites are unaffected by GA activity on the data model. Beyond the boundaries of the OoS, of course, Google serves plenty of data, in the form of ads, back to users. But that’s now beyond the scope of this study.
Movement in the Network
Data moves in GA. More specifically, data in the GA data model moves in GA. Data are initiated by users visiting tracked websites. Specific frameworks must be in place for connections to occur and data in the data model to be collected. Namely, websites must contain GA tracking code, embedded in the website code through the agency of the GA administrator. The embedded GA tracking code enables, and the web browser and hardware afford (Norman, n.d.), the user to initiate a tracking pixel (gif) and generate data to be collected in the GA data model. Once collected, the data are configured (by the account administrator and by the GA algorithms), processed (in a largely opaque manner) and collated in aggregated data tables, and reported in visual and tabular representations. In Castells’ (2010) terms, data represent flow in the GA network (p. 442). That data is both spatial and temporal (it comes from and is attached to a specific territory and represents a specific, chronological activity), but it is also entirely global and digital.
Content in the Network
Data are collected and packaged — literally, in a gif image pixel — in parameters relating to user, session, and interaction. The GA tracking code encodes data and sends it to Google data centers where the data are decoded, configured based on administrator preferences, processed and repackaged in aggregated data tables, and made available to the account administrators. The reporting function remediates the data in visual and tabular formats for ease of reading and use. While the data reported are considered authoritative and authentic, the actual processing function remains largely proprietary, with only end results available to extrapolate what processing actually occurs. This black boxed processing function seems unlikely to represent Latour’s (2005) intermediary; as Fomitchev (2010) claims, there are probably processing functions that result in highly mediated, possibly even inaccurate, results. Castells (2010) would likely measure GA performance based on “its connectedness, that is, its structural ability to facilitate noise-free communication between its components” (p. 187). I hope we will see increased academic scrutiny focused on this perceived intermediary function in GA, even as we scholars rely on its results.
Birth and Death of a Network
Castells (2010) indicates that global informational networks emerge within milieux of innovation. These main centers of innovation are generally the largest metropolitan areas of the industrial age (p. 66), able to “generate synergy on the basis of knowledge and information, directly related to industrial production and commercial applications” (p. 67), and combine the efforts of the state and entrepreneurs (p. 69). Nodes on the network get ignored (and therefore cease to be part of the network) when they are perceived, by either the network or by its managerial elites, to have little value to the network itself (p. 134). The GA network grows as more nodes are added, either as users or as web pages with tracking code. GA administrators have agency to kill network nodes by removing tracking code from pages, or by directing IT managers to remove poorly performing web pages. Users have agency to quit visiting a website, thereby removing its value to the person. While many other actions by agents outside the GA network may affect the growth or dissolution of the network, they are outside the boundaries of the GA activity and data model.
And Now, the Rhizome
First a note about using Deleuze & Guattari. I did not enjoy or particularly “get” this reading the first time around. I grasped the broad strokes of the argument, but this is a chapter that requires close, multiple readings. What I discovered as I re-read the chapter in light of this analysis was that it addresses a significant aspect of networks that Castells does not — namely, a rhizomatic approach to networks problematizes the very definition of GA I established during my Re/Proposal. In short, applying Castells profited from the boundaries I placed on the OoS; applying Deleuze & Guattari requires eliminating the boundaries, preferring instead a situated, chronological cross-section as a set of boundaries enabling analysis.
Second, a note about this cross-sectional approach. In my scaffolding outline, I referred to a “flattened, rhizomatic” approach to composing and networks. Placing these two concepts together elicited useful feedback and discussion during the following class, as a result of which I realized that rhizomes are not naturally flattened. While Deleuze & Guattari (1980/1987) refer to flattened multiplicities, they do so in the context of many dimensions: “All multiplicities are flat, in the sense that they fill or occupy all of their dimensions” (p. 9). In fact, rhizomes are unpredictably dimensional; connections can and must occur along all dimensions: “any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be” (p. 7). Since the boundaries of such a “network” can’t really be established, one way to analyze the rhizome is to take a cross-sectional slice, situated in space and time, of the rhizome and examine the relationships among points in the rhizome in this “flattened” slice. The rhizome is a multidimensional assemblage, not a flattened network.
These two notes represent realizations that complicate and problematize the restrictive perspective I offered of GA as a network. Limiting the network to GA activities and data model resulted in limits to what I could discuss in my application of Castells. For example, in discussing the birth and death of the network, I cut short my analysis with this limiter: “While many other actions by agents outside the GA network may affect the growth or dissolution of the network, they are outside the boundaries of the GA activity and data model.” Similarly, when addressing nodal situation and relations, I wrote this limiting statement: “Beyond the boundaries of the OoS, of course, Google serves plenty of data, in the form of ads, back to users. But that’s now beyond the scope of this study.” These limits were real — the boundaries I established for describing GA as a network did, in fact, prevent addressing aspects of the network — but they do not reflect an accurate mapping of GA network activity. Deleuze & Guattari (1980/1987) point out that “the rhizome is altogether different, a map and not a tracing” (p. 12, emphasis original). Tracing is the role of centralized control, of perspectives limited by binaries and “tree logic”: “What distinguishes the map from the tracing is that it is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real” (p. 12). A mapped understanding of GA must address its real complexity, its nodes and connections in terms of real experiences, not centrally-defined boundaries.
A mapped, cross-sectional perspective on GA as a network was, to my surprise, the goal of my first case study. In fact, the first visualization of the network I provided was a portion of a Popplet titled “Visualizing a Partial Google Analytics Data Set.”
My original attempt to visualize and define GA as a network was more chaotically rhizomatic than any other depiction I’ve attempted since. In fact, for much of the rest of the semester, I’ve been struggling to trace my understanding of GA as a network, when in fact Deleuze & Guattari would have me do precisely the opposite: map the multiplicity of GA as assemblage, depicted as a cross-sectional portion of the network situated in time and space.
Mapping GA as rhizome means accepting that users, servers, computers, mobile devices, browsers, operating systems, marketers, developers, programmers, designers, GA account administrators, Google data centers, Google programmers and server maintenance personnel, homes, home offices, office buildings, network cables, routers, switches, weather conditions, satellites, trans-Atlantic communications cables, seawater, signal degradation, electrons, light energy, insulators, and theorists must be included as nodes in the GA rhizome. GA collects data on some of these dimensions; other dimensions, however, are embedded as affordances and constraints to the web technologies that enable GA to measure dimensions at all, so these affordances and constraints must also be depicted in a cross-section of GA as rhizome.
There’s a reason Deleuze & Guattari did not include a visualization of the rhizome on their chapter. It’s too complex, too multi-dimensional, to capture in a 2-dimension drawing. But I’m going to give it a shot.
Figure 2 depicts a rhizome cross-section of a single node, User, and the connections that exist among dimensions of the GA data model, website affordances and constraints, website creators, and Google personnel. What this depicts is that a User connects from and to most of the nodes, that the nodes connected to the User are connected to one another, and that relationships proliferate exponentially if extrapolated to the entire list of dimensions. And these dimensions are themselves necessarily limited (perhaps even cross-sectioned) by the visualization technology and my own time and patience. Were I to connect all of the non-technological aspects to the User—like location and weather conditions — the rhizome could go on forever. The point is that mapping the actual rhizome, rather than tracing the limits of the network, generates the rhizome itself. Or, as Deleuze & Guattari (1980/1987) propose, “The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious. It fosters connections between fields, the removal of blockages on bodies without organs, the maximum opening of bodies without organs onto a place of consistency. It is itself a part of the rhizome” (p. 12).
Castells offers a remarkably cogent and highly matched means of analyzing GA as a network as defined by Google itself: in terms of GA activities and the GA data model. Castells addresses issues of localization and globalization in ways that make sense for GA defined as Google defines it. Here’s my conclusion from Case Study #2.
While Castells addresses the local, he tends to discuss localization in terms of groups rather than individuals. In this way, Castells more closely resembles ecological theories that apply to organism categories rather than to individual organisms. He regularly refers to groups of people and nodes: the managerial elites (rather than individual leaders), the technological revolution (rather than revolutionary technology pioneers), and the global and local economy (rather than the economic wellbeing of the individual small business owner). The result is that I can’t really address the individual user as a single agent in GA. Then again, this is hardly a hardship, in that GA aggregates data and anonymizes identities. GA, too, resembles an ecological theory rather than a rhetorical theory; it focuses on profiles of territorially localized users rather than individual users in a specific city. As a result, Castells and GA match rather nicely in defining the boundaries of the discussion. In fact, I’d argue that GA (and Google more broadly) represent precisely the network society Castells defined in his text. It’s interesting that he didn’t predict or recognize the rise of Google as I would have expected him to do in his 2010 preface. And Castells’ (2010) discussion of communication media clearly did not predict the popularity or ubiquity of Google’s YouTube on the network as a differentiated medium whose content is driven by user tastes and users-as-producers (p. 399).
Once we admit the possibility that GA is not just what Google says it is, but that GA represents a much wider and broader rhizome of connections, Castells no longer adequately describes the network. GA as rhizome requires additional theoretical application for understanding and visualizing.
After a semester of theorizing, what’s my own theory of networks?
Networks are local. They are also global. This is not dualism, but convergence. Local and global converge in time and space, and we must be prepared to engage in both simultaneously. The global remains rooted in the local; local conditions and environments affect and influence connections to the global. In our efforts to understand global network activity, we should not lose sight of the affordances and constraints of local conditions, including available access to the internet, proximity to other nodes, and the politics of nodal connectivity.
Networks enable nodes. A collection of nodes does not a network make. Networks enable nodal activity; this means that network frameworks must be in place for networks to exist and start collecting nods. This also means that the activity of collecting nodes in networked. The network can grow well beyond its framework in unexpected and unpredictable ways, and this should be expected, anticipated, and planned to the extent possible.
Networks are rhizomes. Or at least rhizomatic. They are unlikely to require or have inherent hierarchical structures; these will have to be applied to the network. Rhizomatic structure and growth suggest unpredictability of nodal connections. As I understand rhizomes, the importance of any node being able to connect to any other node — or to anything, for that matter — cannot be overstated. It is this aspect of rhizomatic connectivity that I would consider “flat.” There are neither more nor less important nodes; there are no inherent political relationships between and among nodes. Any political power attributed to the node will either be self-contained or bestowed from outside the rhizome; within the ecology of the rhizome, all nodes are equally capable of connecting to all other nodes and to anything outside the rhizome. In this sense, I would suggest that rhizomes are politically flat.
Networks can be analyzed in cross-section; they are very difficult to analyze in real time as they exist. They are both too large to examine as a whole and too complex to analyze as active connections are “firing.” Cross-sections can be taken of specific aspects of the network or of the network as a whole. Cross-sections are frozen in time and show little activity, merely traces that can be followed and explored. Networks contains a multiplicity of simultaneous connective activity; our abilities to analyze simultaneity is limited. Instead, we must follow specific threads of connectivity through time and space to analyze them. Such analysis is made possible through cross section.
Google Analytics’ Contributions to English Studies
First, GA can and should be critically examined as a rhetorical technology. GA activity includes reporting. These reports are discursive and rely on visual and written rhetoric to communicate meaning. The “meaning” of a GA report can be manipulated like any other statistical data. Its meanings depend on local environment and conditions, comfort with standard and local meanings of GA terminology (like “session” or “user,” for example), and familiarity with the GA data collection model. Its visualizations can be analyzed for clarity and transparency, for cultural or sociological bias (related to colors used, default views, and other determined factors), and for its connectedness to other discursive elements (like websites whose visitor traffic it measures). Critical rhetorical analysis of GA reports could easily be an object of study by itself.
Second, GA can and should be critically approached as a black-boxed network whose data manipulation and configuration are largely hidden, lacking transparency. Google’s business model depends on its proprietary search results algorithms. It protects that algorithm carefully; while GA reporting is not directly dependent on the search algorithm, website visit data contribute to search results. Full disclosure of its data configuration and processing activities would likely reveal much about Google’s search algorithm; as a result, these processes are only partially disclosed. Google’s own Analytics help files and tutorials explain the order, purpose, and general procedures of data configuration and processing, but these files and tutorials do not reveal in-depth specifics on how collected data are processed into aggregate tables, nor how those tables are then indexed for rapid, near-instant on-the-fly reporting. Google’s market share in web search and advertising result in the formation of what Althusser (1971) called a repressive state apparatus; I suggest that GA is an ideological expression of that apparatus, or an ideological state apparatus. While neither Google nor GA is a state in a political sense, its size and clout suggest an industrial state-like entity with resources and influence strong enough to manipulate or evoke responses from other political entities, as it has done recently in relations with the government of Russia (Khrennikov & Ustinova, 2014).
Third, GA results themselves can and should be critically examined. Far too many otherwise critically-written journal articles use GA results as instrumental rather than mediated. That is, GA report data are accepted as unqualified and accurate reflections of website traffic rather than mediated reports of visitor activity. Little care is given to providing GA-specific definitions of terminology like “session” and “user.” This acceptance can result in significant reporting issues — I’m experiencing a particular situation as I type in which Google has revised a reporting criterion from “visits” to “sessions.” While these two terms are being used synonymously, one implication is that GA has removed the dimension of “unique visit” from its reporting matrix. GA’s definition of session doesn’t differentiate between unique or repeat visits among sessions, as each session is considered a unique event regardless of the identity (which may not be accurately known) of the visitor. Several reports I provide my dean and marketing director were based on unique visit numbers; as a result, I’m forced to rework all of my reports to reflect sessions rather than unique visits. This has implications for perceptions of “progress” and “improvement” among senior leadership, a particularly uncomfortable reality brought to bear this week. (Google changed its reporting structure without fanfare on April 16, announced in a Google+ post.)
Finally, GA’s data collection method can and should be understood as discursive. Individual GIF calls that report data back to Google servers do so in text tags attached to tracking pixels generated through data collection. For example, every GA tag begins with “utm,” a prefix whose meaning is unclear. Many data points are collected in abbreviations whose symbolic meanings would be interesting to explore. Again, GA offers few clues for more obscure abbreviations, although Google does provide a list of many (but not all) dimensions collected via tracking pixel calls. Some of these symbols are explained in the Google Developers (2014) Tracking Code Overview. While parameter abbreviations are obscure, the values themselves are even less clear. Consider the parameter/value pair “utmul=pt-br”: the utmul parameter represents “browser language” while the pt-br value represents “Brazilian Portuguese.” This symbolic communication system is itself fodder for rhetorical analysis and interpretation.
Althusser, L. (1971). Ideology and ideological state apparatuses (Notes towards an investigation). In B. Brewster (transl.) & A. Blunden (trans.), Louis Althusser archive. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/reference/archive/althusser/1970/ideology.htm (Original work published in Lenin philosophy and other essays)
Castells, M. (2010). The rise of the network society [2nd edition with a new preface]. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Deleuze, G., & Guattari, F. (1987). A thousand plateaus: Capitalism and schizophrenia. (B. Massumi, Trans.) Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. (Original work published 1980)
Google. (n.d.). Algorithms. Inside Search. Retrieved from 1 May 2014 from https://www.google.com/insidesearch/howsearchworks/algorithms.html
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