Digital Digs (Alex Reid)

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digital rhetoric and professional communication
Updated: 1 day 22 hours ago

hold me closer tiny rhetorician

10 January, 2019 - 15:48

After all, who can resist an Elton John reference?

Well, I’m in the midst of book revisions (and there was much rejoicing). I’m thinking back–and perhaps modifying–a notion I had a few years ago: minimal rhetoric. I’m thinking “tiny” rather than “minimal.” Maybe both.

My attraction to “tiny” is from the line in A Thousand Plateaus that has stuck with me, punctum-like, through the years:

There is a micropolitics of perception, affection, conversation, and so forth. If we consider the great binary aggregates, such as the sexes or classes, it is evident that they also cross over into molecular assemblages of a different nature, and that there is a double reciprocal dependency between them. For the two sexes imply a multiplicity of molecular combinations bringing into play not only the man in the woman and the woman in the man, but the relation of each to the animal, the plant, etc.: a thousand tiny sexes.

Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, 213

Really just “a thousand tiny sexes.”

And then I was watching this EGS lecture from Manuel DeLanda on YouTube. I’d link to it here, but it’s been up there for 7 years and has averaged about one view per year, so you can go watch it if you like but I figure you’ve had your chance! Anyway, he said something fairly obvious but that struck me last night when I couldn’t sleep around 3:30 am. He observed that the direction of modern science was toward a proliferation of ideas and methods rather than toward a unifying theory. I mean, that is obvious, right? Instead of a single 21st-century science department we have more and more sciences, interdisciplinary centers, majors, journals, conferences, grants, etc., etc.

A thousand tiny sciences… minor sciences, even. So what about rhetoric?

As we know, one of the contemporary historiographic trends regards “big rhetoric.” For those who don’t know, it’s the expansion away from the traditional objects of study for rhetoric scholars (e.g. political speeches) and into the vast space of cultural representations. And the nonhuman turn opens that even farther. To make that happen we’ve had ever more capacious theories of rhetoric. I’m probably as big a rhetorician as you’re likely to find (seek me out at CCCC and see what you think). So I am generally in favor of these theories of big rhetoric. In my view, the restriction to the historical areas of rhetorical study are just that: a product of historical circumstance. I have argued in defense of and made my own versions of arguments for a general new materialist and posthuman theory of rhetoric. I see that as a necessary disciplinary step.

And yet it leaves me wondering: what about the thousand tiny rhetorics?

To be sure, we do a good job of analyzing specific rhetorical situations: our classrooms, this or that workplace, a particular text, and so on. Basically this is an interpretive/hermeneutic move: the application of a general theory of rhetoric to a specific instance. An act of deduction. So there are thousands of instances but they’re all of one thing…. Well not really because as a discipline we have disagreements about that general theory of rhetoric. So we often perform our disagreements about generalities through our interpretations of specifics.

I’m talking about something different here. A thousand, non-unifying irreducible rhetorics… and us being ok with that. In fact, not just ok, but recognizing that the ontological situation is that there really isn’t a general theory of rhetoric, or at least, there isn’t a theory with enough explanatory power to offer much insight into the problems we need to address.

What this really requires though is something intermediary, something in-between the general theory of rhetoric and the interpretation of a specific text/object/event. So I’ve started to think about my work as a digital rhetorician in those terms. If I am interested (as I happen to be) in the rhetorics of emerging digital technologies, which presupposes some posthuman/nonhuman/new materialist approach since I’m looking at the rhetoric of something that isn’t human, then why can’t that be its own thing? Why should the methods I use to study that be applicable to any other situation? So I’ve been thinking about a method that describes the rhetoric of digital media in a way that fosters the invention of further capacities. E.g., can we describe the operation of social media or smartphones in a way that allows us to invent and experiment with expanding the rhetorical capacities of these devices and their users? So it’s not just about one device or one situation. But it also isn’t a general theory of rhetoric. It’s somewhere in-between in a pragmatic space, trying to understand how material conditions here lead to certain rhetorical capacities and then using that understanding as a basis for experimentation.

But that’s just one tiny rhetoric. My point is there must be a thousand more.

Categories: Author Blogs

counting to zero: the hapless math of English Studies

12 December, 2018 - 08:09

In The Chronicle of Higher Education, Jonathon Kramnick offers an analysis of the contemporary academic job market in English in comparison with its state 20 years ago (coincidentally when I was first on the job market). This can be put in the context of statistics on the awarding of phds from the NSF. This chart shows degrees by subfield since 2006 and this one, which shows only major fields, gives a view back to 1986.

To my eye there are some curious rhetorical turns in Kramnick’s article. He recognizes the significant declines overall in the job market and especially for tenure-track positions (old, but worsening news) with the note that writing jobs remain comparatively strong. Of this he speculates “The rising proportion of tenure-track jobs in composition and creative writing appears to reflect a change happening within the structure and mission of many departments even as they get smaller.” This apparent change suggests to him “that the jobs crisis may be worse than it seems.” Really? For whom? I suppose one might similarly suggest that it is not as bad as it seems (though really it’s bad for everyone).

But here’s the funny part. He determines, with a few caveats, that the decline in literary studies jobs is evenly spread across all periods and fields and that as such “the field structure of English stands out as remarkably and encouragingly firm.” 

I don’t know. To me this is like standing on the curb and remarking at how evenly all the parts of your house are burning down. 

But let’s circle back to those phd stats. Though the chart going back to 1986 only shows the major field of “Letters,” you can see that in general there’s been modest growth in the number of degrees awarded as the number of jobs have significantly declined. Looking at the other chart, though the numbers are only indications (since the fields are self-reported by institutions), between rhet/comp and speech/rhetorical studies, there are ~250 degrees per year over the last four years of the report. It’s hard to compare this with job opportunities as jobs on MLA and elsewhere are often listed in multiple categories. However, generally speaking, there aren’t enough jobs for all the rhet/comp degree recipients, but the situation is comparatively worse for those in literary fields. Regardless, there’s nothing here for anyone to suggest creating or expanding phd programs. And the oft-remarked, ongoing decline in numbers of English majors only reinforces this evidence.

Kramnick ends by offering this observation about the failing job market. “

That pinch is real and urgent. It requires our care and our hardest thinking. But there is no evidence that individual fields need to fight it out, or that any one of them is going extinct.

In other words, we’re all in this together. We ought to do everything we can to understand how best to respond to the shrinking market — how to lobby for more jobs, how to reshape Ph.D. programs, and how to decide whether all such programs can be sustained.

How can I put this? It isn’t good news that the “field structure” remains firm. It’s one of the primary pieces of evidence, if not sources, of English Studies’ problems. It means that even as we declined we failed to do anything different. Anyway, I think for English it’s pretty much all over but for the crying at this point. I mean, there’s going to be literary studies for the foreseeable future. It’s just probably at around 1.5% of undergraduates rather than the 4% it was 20 years ago. 

As for my own field of rhetoric, I’d say its survival will depend on its almost wholesale transformation away from printcentric, belletristic traditions that still typify its research practices and much of its teaching. A multidimensional transformation is required. One that recognizes communication is/is becoming

  • digital/multimodal (we’re sort of there, but the varieties keep expanding faster than our adaptions to them and as a field we still don’t have enough practical-technical expertise)
  • global/multi-cultural-ethnic-etc (doing a better job of valuing cultural and human differences and the challenges of communicating across them)
  • data-driven/machinic (we have to do better at handling data and understanding the role that machines play in every aspect of rhetorical activity from invention to delivery)
  • specialized/technocratic (again, we’re doing a decent job of moving away from the premise of “general writing skills” but we’re still not adapting quickly enough to the proliferation/shifts of expertise)
  • public/distributed (somewhat in an opposite direction to the last point that more people are performing a wider range of rhetorical-compositional practices. E.g., who would have thought that technical communication would become a quotidian practice? Well anyone who’s seen a “how-to” video on YouTube or visited a wiki. 

And those are just the ones I can come up with on the fly. I’m sure there are many other equally observable shifts. The point for me at least is that all of this is quite different from where we were 30-40 years ago when we were really just graduating the first large generation of specifically trained rhet/comp scholars, when Maxine Hairston was talking “winds of change,” when we were just taking on postmodernism and cultural studies, or when we were just starting to talk about computers and composition. (In other words, the field I was introduced to in the mid-90s.) These days we need completely different specializations and coursework from undergrad to grad, even while we still connect to the history and tradition of rhetoric. 

Compare that with Kramick’s observation that over the last 20 years the fields of literary studies have remained basically static. I realize he doesn’t quite mean it to come out that way, and of course there have been various “turns” and theories have come in and out of fashion. But really if we looked at those undergrad courses, how many of the assigned readings would be the same? Would the students be asked to do different things? Sure things are a little different. But that has to be put in contrast to the fact that the communicational practices and literacies of most of humanity have been completely overturned during this period. 

I mean I’d give rhet/comp a “gentleman’s C” for its efforts to keep up, but English Studies is obviously failing, as every indicator will tell you. And I just am not sure how rhet/comp manages to do better while tied to literary studies. I also don’t think rhet/comp has much chance on its own. 

So… yay!

Categories: Author Blogs

the broken fun of the humanities

4 December, 2018 - 14:49

The moral of this story is probably that some Chronicle of Higher Ed clickbait articles are too absurd to pass by, in this case, Timothy Aubry’s “Should Studying Literature be Fun?” I find this to be such a bizarre question and ultimately I’m unsure what it has to do with the concerns of the article itself.

Aubry observes “So much of academic life seems colored by high-stakes political struggles.” Huh. Not sure, but you’ve got to love the passive voice there. Who is doing this coloring I wonder. This, it seems to my reading of the essay, is part of the “not fun” portion of academic life and studying literature (we can discuss disambiguating those two some other time). Here though it’s the decades long history of canon-busting, recovering voices, and incorporating new cultural perspectives that is familiar fare, or as Aubry terms it “The urge to dethrone literary heroes on the basis of their bad politics.” What is apparently lost (or wait, maybe not) is an opportunity for an aesthetic appreciation of literature. He notes the (again familiar) rite of graduate school passage where one learns to abandon (or at least not vocalize) one’s love of literature. “It wasn’t that professors spent much time debunking aesthetic judgment. Those battles had already been fought and won. It was just that certain questions to do with beauty or pleasure almost never arose; you learned not to ask them the same way you learned to stop liking bands like Coldplay.”

These are all familiar stories to me about grad school and English Studies. (Don’t worry, rhetoric has parallel processes to those of literary studies.) You can decide on their veracity for yourself.

My thought though was that I wasn’t really sure what any of that had to do with experiencing fun. I’ve witnessed glee in the critical evisceration of authors, scholars, fellow faculty and/or students. Plenty of people appear to love a good public pillorying on social media, in some online magazine, or maybe at a conference. And I don’t mean that as a negative judgment. My point is just that, from what I can tell, people enjoy these activities. On the other hand, I’m not sure that aesthetic appreciation is inherently fun. I’m not saying it couldn’t be fun for some people. I’m just saying I don’t think it’s intrinsically more enjoyable than a good expression of righteous indignation and anger. 

Now that said, I do recognize that there’s always been some odd pseudo-(?), Neo-(?), post-(?) Puritanical urge to insist that none of this critical/political stuff is fun and certainly none of it is done for personal enjoyment! Maybe that’s some version of the mommy/daddy “this hurts me more than it hurts you” (no, it doesn’t). Or an ethical/rhetorical warning that (to appear) to enjoy doling out judgment and punishment undermines its moral foundation: sober as a judge as the saying goes. Or perhaps, as Aubry suggests, a way of indicating the seriousness of our academic work.

So Aubry ends with what I’d consider a commonplace. Specifically he switches what he presents at first as an either/or (politics or aesthetics) and tries to turn it into a both/and.

Moreover, to struggle against inequity and discrimination, it is important not only to stop celebrating those bad modes of writing that denigrate particular groups, but also to work to spread the opportunity to have good, fulfilling aesthetic experiences as widely as possible — even when those experiences contribute nothing to the improvement of society other than themselves. To affirm literature’s aesthetic value is to argue that it does something more than serve as an instrument for a particular politics, that the experiences it fosters are worth pursuing not only because they reaffirm our political views or further our ideological aims, but because they represent a mode of fulfillment — a quickening of our perceptions, a dilation of our temporal experiences, a revitalization of our thought and feeling — unavailable elsewhere.

In short, there’s gotta be some overlap in that good politics/good aesthetics Venn diagram, right? I don’t know. You could ask Plato or maybe enjoy some good Socialist Realist theater.

But let me end on some fun. The work we do should be fun. Not all the time of course but I’m going to go out on a limb and say, on balance, at the end of the day, if you don’t enjoy the work you’re doing then maybe you should consider doing something else (or at least working somewhere else). I know that can be easier said than done for a variety of personal/unique reasons. But as general career advice and even more generally as a way of defining the work undertaken by humanities faculty: yes, you should be able to enjoy it.

Hell, work/life is hard enough as it is without insisting that you shouldn’t enjoy it whenever it’s possible to. What a weird idea. But the fact that this whole “no fun” notion is all too familiar is just another odd broken thing about the humanities or maybe academia.

Categories: Author Blogs

fake news and the distribution of critical thinking

12 November, 2018 - 14:09

Wired published an article a few days back based on this research from the journal Cognition. As the Wired article’s title suggests, if you want to be resistant to fake news then “don’t be lazy.” Basically this particular study indicates that people who exhibit critical thinking skills are more resistant to fake news than those who do not, regardless of ideological bent and regardless of whether the fake news favors them ideologically. Here’s the abstract to that article:

Why do people believe blatantly inaccurate news headlines (“fake news”)? Do we use our reasoning abilities to convince ourselves that statements that align with our ideology are true, or does reasoning allow us to effectively differentiate fake from real regardless of political ideology? Here we test these competing accounts in two studies (total N = 3446 Mechanical Turk workers) by using the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT) as a measure of the propensity to engage in analytical reasoning. We find that CRT performance is negatively correlated with the perceived accuracy of fake news, and positively correlated with the ability to discern fake news from real news –even for headlines that align with individuals’ political ideology. Moreover, overall discernment was actually better for ideologically aligned headlines than for misaligned headlines. Finally, a headline-level analysis finds that CRT is negatively correlated with perceived accuracy of relatively implausible (primarily fake) headlines, and positively correlated with perceived accuracy of relatively plausible (primarily real) headlines. In contrast, the correlation between CRT and perceived accuracy is unrelated to how closely the headline aligns with the participant’s ideology. Thus, we conclude that analytic thinking is used to assess the plausibility of headlines, regardless of whether the stories are consistent or inconsistent with one’s political ideology. Our findings therefore suggest that susceptibility to fake news is driven more by lazy thinking than it is by partisan bias per se– a finding that opens potential avenues for fighting fake news.

It’s worth noting that these findings are somewhat inconsistent with other research (like this) which suggests that even when people demonstrate critical literacy/numeracy they tend to “use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks.”

One thing that lies outside the scope of either of these pieces of research is how one acquires a capacity for the kind of critical-analytical thinking described here. Our received notions about this is that it is either innate (some people are just smarter than others) or learned. However, even in the learned case, our typical sense is that it’s kind of a one-shot deal or inoculation. E.g., you can learn critical thinking in high school and/or college, and once you have it you pretty much don’t lose it. However, we all know that isn’t true. If you’re drunk or tired or angry or excited or even just distracted, these “higher reasoning” skills suffer.

And I think I’ve just described the mental states of a significant portion of social media users while they’re on social media.

Both the Wired article and the researchers it cites moralize this situation by accusing those who fall prey to fake news of laziness (which is a mortal sin after all). Maybe. But that judgment fails to account for the media ecological conditions of social media, specifically its ubiquity/pervasiveness. It fails to account for its intentional design as an intrusive and addictive technology. So I say “maybe” as we can certainly ask more of one another when it comes to sharing fake news, and I think most people have become more skeptical in the last few years in regards to what they read online.

On the other hand, if one thinks about cognition as a distributed phenomenon then one would want to account for the media-ecological conditions that made social media such fertile ground for fake news and then ask how we might change those conditions. Clearly some of that is happening as social media corporations begin to own some modicum of responsibility here in terms of trying to detect and stop the spread of fake news. But I wonder if other strategies might not be possible. Namely, if we can design social media, smartphones, and related tech to incite our interactions with them, then can we also design them to facilitate a critical-analytical orientation? I’m not sure. It’s quite possible that those are irreconcilable intentions–simultaneously spurring our desire to engage while also encouraging a more deliberative approach to that engagement. For example, we might just decide “I don’t want to go on Facebook, Twitter, etc. right now because that’s too much work.”

Part of that challenge too is the see-saw of content. Just to give a quick example. I took a look at the first ten posts in my FB feed. 4 were personal updates. 3 were colleagues talking about their classes, asking advice, etc. 3 were articles shared, of which two were political news (one from USA Today and the other from Washington Post). I’m sure you get something similar, by which I mean that your rhetorical relationship to the author of the post and/or the content is shifting: family and old friends, work colleagues, neighbors, etc. and humorous videos/memes, personal news with varying emotional registers, interesting stories, advertising, political commentary, and news. You wouldn’t want to take the same critical-analytical orientation to each of these.

I’m just spitballing here but maybe we’d prefer to not have all this stuff in a single stream. Maybe with some intelligent digital assistant support we could split it up, so that when I’m interested in political news (and up for the responsibility of being a critical-analytical reader), I can dive into that feed, but that I’m not expected to be at my level best every time I idly turn to Facebook.



Categories: Author Blogs

the challenges of reading Latour

5 November, 2018 - 14:32

A couple of Latour-related articles have been going around lately, particularly this article in the NY Times and more recently this critical piece by Alex Galloway at least partly occasioned by the Times article. Galloway’s rejection of Latour (and Deleuzian, new materialism in general, if one reads other works of his) comes down to the infelicity of this kind of thinking for his political project. That is, it is, in my view, an ideological objection. And I don’t have any problem with that. Well, let me rephrase that. I don’t have any problem with people–academics or otherwise–having a goal and selecting the best tools for achieving that goal.

That said, at the end I think the only conclusion you can draw is that Latour doesn’t share Galloway’s political commitments, is not seeking to carry out Galloway’s political objectives through his research, and that therefore Galloway believes his work has little or no merit.

I will leave it up to you to determine whether or not you find that piece of news useful.

In passing though, I will point out what strike me as some misreadings of Latour. Galloway writes,

Latour very clearly enacts a “reticular decision” of economic exchange in which markets and networks are sufficient to describe any situation whatsoever. And thus to avoid these Latourian difficulties one might “degrow” this particular reticular decision — so engorged, so sufficient — refusing to decide in favor of the network, and ultimately discovering the network’s generic insufficiency. Latour does the reverse. Networks overflow with sufficient capacity.

I see this as a key point in Galloway’s critique as this notion of a reticular fallacy is something he has turned to before. As is suggested here, the reticular fallacy has to do with seeing everything as rhizomatic or networked or horizontal, plus assuming such structures are intrinsically better, freer, more just, or some such. I completely agree that it would be an error to see everything that way or assume there’s something necessarily better.

But I am confused as to how one sees that in Latour. Take for example, the concept of plasma as discussed in Reassembling the Social

plasma, namely that which is not yet format- ted, not yet measured, not yet socialized, not yet engaged in metro- logical chains, and not yet covered, surveyed, mobilized, or subjectified. How big is it? Take a map of London and imagine that the social world visited so far occupies no more room than the subway. The plasma would be the rest of London, all its buildings, inhabitants, climates, plants, cats, palaces, horse guards. (244)

To be clear, one can be critical of plasma also, but it strikes me that networks are like the subway system. They are hardly capacious at all despite Galloway’s assertion. And if plasma seems like a fairly minor point in Latour’s work, then one might try reading An Inquiry into Modes of Existence, which begins with networks as one of fifteen modes–a number which he does not claim to be exhaustive. Really Galloway’s point is that he believes Latour’s way of thinking is not progressive, that it merely reiterates an existing perspective when “The goal of critical thinking, indeed the very definition of thought in the broadest sense, is to establish a relationship of the two vis-a-vis its object, a relation of difference, distinction, decision, opposition.”

I can agree with that, but it’s that same value that is the basis of my dissatisfaction with Galloway’s argument. While he argues that Latour’s thought creates no difference or distinction in relation to its object of study, my complaint with Galloway is that he never really enters into a relationship with his object of study, having already predetermined his opposition. Perhaps that is just his rhetorical style. Maybe somewhere along the way, in the distant past, he engaged with Latour’s work in a way that was open to its possibilities. However reading this, you’d wonder how far along Galloway went before he came to this judgment or if he arrived at the text with this judgment in hand. And I don’t really care if the latter was the case. Most people are true believers of one sort or another. He already knows what the world is, how it can change, and how it should change. In that light the purpose of humanities scholarship can only be a political-rhetorical one: to persuade people to accept one’s beliefs and take up one’s cause.

The error one can find in Latourian-Deleuzian thinking comes when it is used in this same way, as if networks, rhizomes, becomings, etc. represent a teleology, as if we’d all be better off as nomads, schizos, or something. That would be a reticular fallacy as Galloway might put it. However I wouldn’t attribute such claims to either Latour or Deleuze themselves.

Latour’s methods might only be useful to people who do not believe they know how some part of the world works before they examine it and/or who are uncertain about how to act next. Even then, it’s quite possible that you won’t find Latour’s methods all that useful to you–if it doesn’t create more understanding and more importantly if doesn’t expand your capacity to act effectively in the world.



Categories: Author Blogs