Friday, September 17, 2010

Why English and Rhetoric Matter

I have returned to finish what I started this summer: reading through the dense, complex, and infinitely rewarding Cognition in the Wild by the cognitive scientist/ethnographer Ed Hutchins. The work is essentially a blend of cognitive science and ethnography focused exclusively on navigation. In his chapter on communication, Hutchins (channeling I.A. Richards) argues that meaning exists only in context.

Hutchins writes:
Meanings can only even be imagined to be in the message when the environment about which communication is performed is very stable and there are very strong constraints on the expectations. In many endeavors, creating and maintaining the illusion [a word Hutchins does not use pejoratively] that meanings reside in messages requires that a great deal of effort be put into controlling the environment in which communication takes place. Meanings seem to be in messages only when the structures with which the message must be brought into coordination are already reliably in place and taken for granted. The illusion of meaning in the message is a hard-won social and cultural accomplishment.
There is obviously a lot going on here, but I wish to make three things salient for my colleagues in English departments everywhere. First, Hutchins' assessment of meaning in the context of navigation at sea is why some kind of English course (focusing on literature, film, television, etc.) should be required of all university students. Here we have Hutchins treating the issue of navigation on board a ship in the US Navy, but what he is describing is also an issue routinely treated in literature courses around the country: namely, that meaning is a social and cultural accomplishment.

Second, Hutchins' assessment likewise indicates that a course on Rhetoric ought to be required: meaning is a social and cultural accomplishment and that accomplishment is hard-won via the effort of controlling environments (read contexts) and coordinating structures of communication. Rhetoric is and focuses upon the production of meaning through the coordination of communication and contexts. (I would add, regrettably here in passing, that its equally strong emphasis on the production of meaning is why creative writing ought to be home in English departments.)

Third, and this is important disciplinarily and departmentally, Hutchins implicitly makes a strong case for why literature/cultural studies and rhetoric ought to be housed in the same department. (This is not argue that either rhetoric or literature should not also be housed other places as well--they should). The twin abilities of studying and producing meaning through societal and cultural structures and environments is a package few other departments can offer, but which every university that claims to prepare students to navigate the complexities of life ought to provide.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hot Dog!

I happen to be a big fan of hot dogs. I am, you might say, a connoisseur of hot dogs. This is, I'll admit, not something to brag about. But it is as good a way as any to begin a short blog post about rhetoric and taste.

There are numerous studies (I am working on compiling a list) centered around how perceptions other than the sense of taste impacts taste itself. For, instance, beer taste tests that indicate people who swear by one brand of beer are unable to to pick that beer out from its competitors. The argument, then, is that, for instance, Miller Lite, Bud Lite, and Coors Lite all really taste the same. There are likewise instances, for my more sophisticated readers, of wine drinkers being unable to tell the difference between red and white wine when it was served in opaque glasses. The typical narrative in these studies is that "taste" as we commonly know it is simply an illusion. There is no real; only those differences created by our knowledge of brands, or our knowledge of something's color. This knowledge then colors our taste of whatever it is we are consuming. Your favorite beer isn't really any different than someone else's beer--you have just been tricked into believing so.

I often have to fight this reaction myself, as I imagine the many times in grad school I had to defend myself against the refined pallets of my more well-traveled and sophisticated colleagues. Of course, the food at that restaurant is better--you went there already believing it would be. "Admit that your food is not really any better than mine but that your own expectations are part of the taste of the food."

But this urge, I argue, must be resisted (not because they were right and I was wrong) for two reasons: 1) everybody's tastes appear to work this way, and, 2) we need to reassess the materiality and rhetoricity of taste itself. Not that taste has been revealed as a hoax, but that taste has always already been multiple-sensual, contextual, and contingent. Is it crazy to assume that sight can be as important to taste as we would acknowledge that smell is? Why would we dismiss our predispositions and biases when describing taste: isn't a bias also an expertise? That is, no one would argue that someone who has never tasted wine is a better judge of a wine's true or pure taste than someone who has much experience. Unless, of course, you are Burger King:

It is precisely the bias of judges that makes them, we might argue (without sounding like Hume, mind you), better able to assess the taste of the wine. Honestly, I don't care what someone who has never tasted a hamburger thinks is a better hamburger. I have tasted hamburgers. I want to know what this guy thinks of hamburgers:

I would go so far as to argue that without bias there is no taste. This is not to argue something like "social construction" with respect to taste. There is something material about taste. I probably can't talk myself into preferring dirty dish water as a seasoning. Although, I might talk myself out of caring if I was hungry (and it was a hot dog).

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

You Are Where You Picnic

Sarah Williams Goldhagen, architecture critic at The New Republic has a splendid review of and essay on several, recently completed public parks (including Chicago's Millennium Park, pictured below). Like the environmental artist Christo, Goldhagen, in this and other essays, treats of the political, social, and economic work that gives rise to architectures and the the political, social, and economic work done by architectures. She thus treats, in my mind, the double work of rhetoric and materiality. The architecture,as the material, works to shape the public, its movements, its values, and its future. However, the material, the architecture is not pre-specified and automatic: it must be made and it is made rhetorically.

Agency Through and Within the Grid

There is, in some circles (that even I sometimes run in), the assumption that nudges (or "hidden persuaders" or "the power of suggestion") somehow render the nudged less active and less critical, and that nudges undermine individual human agency. If you got tricked into eating healthy food, the argument goes, then you were not exercising any critical agency. I have argued elsewhere(s) (and sometimes until I was blue in the face) that rather than a challenge to critical human agency, the presence of nudges (and I would argue that they are ubiquitous and unavoidable) should compel us to redefine just what we mean by and count as agency. Nudges remind us that human agency is imbricated in larger social, cultural, technology, and biological ecologies. Human agencies (those we like and those we don't like) have never stood apart from such ecologies, whose nudges cultivate the very agencies we come to count as part and parcel of who we are.

This imbrication is discussed (or suggested) in a July, 2010, National Geographic story on "The 21st Century Grid." One of the arguments built into this discussion of the evolution of the "smart grid," complete with new nudges, is that a smarter, more automated power grid can mean savvier, active consumers. Currently, our individual use of electrical power is difficult to monitor. In most places, the feedback consists a person coming to your house at intervals and reading your meter. Then, you get the bill in the mail. That's the one nudge you get. I would argue that even sparse nudges are nonetheless nudges. The current grid is not a no-nudge environment but a bad-nudge environment. Moving away from this nudge model, which is basically the same as it was the 1960s, new nudges would include smart meters "that allow consumers to program their appliances [...] at off peak hours, when electricity is cheap." This is similar to the way some cars today allow drivers to their current fuel consumption rates. Anecdotal evidence suggests that such feedback nudges drivers to be more fuel efficient (my father has made this into a game, for instance). The article thus proclaims, "In the 21st century we'll become active participants in the management of this vast and seemingly unknowable network that makes our civilization possible."

Certainly, this will strike most of us as optimistic if not naive. However, there are two key points to be made here with respect to nudges and agency. First, the electrical grid itself cultivates a series of agencies not possible without it (computing, film, television, and ice cream consumption whenever). Second, and related, such nudges do not eliminate something like agency; what they do is cultivate agencies. I'd argue that agency is always already nudged and cultivated. The running agent is made possible by legs; the driving agent made possible by a car. The car nudges us to drive it (it suggests, in other words, that we drive it). A car, however, does not impede upon agency because it "tricks" us into driving it. The car defines an agency that does not exist apart from it.

I thus see nudges as just such technologies. Having a "smart grid" does not make us uncritical un-agents (zombies?). It could very well produce agencies we do not like, but, then, we'd have to argue about that particular agency (without prematurely boiling down a debate about what and why to whether or not). To assume that a "smart grid" impedes upon agency is to presume agency does (or has ever) existed apart from, to borrow from Burke, acts, scenes, purposes, agents, and attitudes. Nudges (re)define the conditions of possibility for human agency. The gird as is is not more empowering because it appears to leave us alone to decide as autonomous agents whether or not to turn the lights off. It simply enables another kind (or quality) of agency--a quality of agency that seems to be increasingly problematic if we hope to increase the efficiency and sufficiency of our power grid, itself the ultimate nudge that cultivates us as the electrical-technological agents we have become: not more or less active or passive, but differently and, thus, debate-able agents, active and wise.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Memory As Activity: Collin Brooke and Proteins

I have finally gotten around to remembering to post this.

In his Lingua Fracta: Towards a Rhetoric of New Media, Collin Brooke, to make a long story short, rewrites the rhetorical canons through the lens of new media. I was particularly interested in his treatment of memory, given my own interests in cognitive science and the extended mind. With respect to memory, Brooke argues that with new media we can move away from the traditional and Platonic model of memory as absence/presence (or memory as storage) and towards memory as pattern and randomness. Brooke writes,
Perhaps more than any of the other five canons, memory is the one canon whose status as practice is in need of rehabilitation.
That is, memory is not simply or only about absence or presence (you either have a memory that is complete or incomplete), but is also, and perhaps more importantly, about the activity of constructing and dissolving "patterns over time," or what Brooke calls persistence. In this model, memory is not about accurately representing some past event (getting it right), but about constructing memories in particular ways for particular uses (and a lot of this, my psychoanalytical colleagues will justly point out, is unconscious, driven by desire, and thus exceeds critical engagement). Memory, in short, is not something we have; it is something we do.

All of which leads me to fascinating article in Smithsonian about "Making Memories." While the article is haunted by the specter of absence/presence (i.e., speaking of inaccurate or incomplete memories), it deals with memory research and therapeutic practice that are both very much in sync with Brooke's practical take on memory. Researcher Karim Nader has advanced the hypothesis that each time we remember something that memory is literally (at the level of proteins) rebuilt in the mind. That is, we do not simply access a memory in a brain as we remember it. Each time we remember we re-make the memory. For a bit of shorthand: as the Michael Keaton movie Multiplicity demonstrates, each time we re-make something it is slightly different from the original version. The organic reproduction of memory seems to work the same way. It explains, for instance, why Nader, and 73% of the rest of us, remember
seeing television footage on September 11 of the first plane hitting the north tower of the World Trade Center. But he was surprised to learn that such footage aired for the first time the following day.
The "very act of remembering," Nader argues, "can change our memories." We rebuild them, we reorganize them, new or related information is blended into them. It is not about storage so much as it is about stories.

The second part of this article, however, really puts this hypothesis to work (and in a way equally relevant to rhetoric and the work of moving people. I would nod her to Diane Davis' work on rhetoric and suggestion in her treatment of Kenneth Burke and Freud.). Alain Brunet, a psychologist, works with sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder.
The hope is that caregivers might be able to weaken the hold of traumatic memories that haunt patients during the day and invade their dreams at night.
And they do this, simply put, by having PTSD sufferer remember their trauma while they are on drugs that inhibit the brain's ability to rebuild the memory, which Nader argues we do each time to remember something. Thus, each time the traumatic memory is remembered it is rebuilt weaker (it is made, to borrow from Brooke, less persistent). It is not, however, just that the memory goes away (this is to re-inscribe the presence/absence understanding of memory). It is, Brunet puts it,
They start to care less about that memory.
The ability to rewrite memories, far from ruining them in terms of accuracy (the presence or absence of true details) reconstructs memories that are less painful and debilitating.
In other words [the article concludes], it just might be what keeps us from living in the past.
And that, I guess, is kairos too.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

I Write Like...

Apparently, the prose on this blog reads like David Foster Wallace (and I submitted a couple of different chunks). Interestingly enough, a sample from a journal article I wrote reads like James Joyce, which may not be the best result.

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

Friday, July 9, 2010

The Positions We Are Given

Reading Everitt's Cicero, more things continue to strike me both about Cicero and rhetoric. Many have argued, myself included, that the ethos of the rhetor emerges from rather than proceeds rhetorical interaction. Ethos is as much a given as it is a got. This is clearly the case for Cicero whole struggle for and against various emergent ethoi his entire life. He worked hard to establish himself as a successful advocate. Once in positions of political power he worked to secure his reputation (by writing self-promotional works), which were often criticized by his opponents. He also struggled against his status as a "New Man": he lacked "then appropriate blue-blooded pedigree" (14). That is, his ethos continually reemerge within the shifting political climate of republican-becoming-imperial Rome.

Just as important, however, were the forces that shaped Cicero's political views and positions. Cicero moved from an optimate to populare on several occasions. He was sometimes with Pompey and sometimes with Caesar. He often represented both friends and enemies in the courts. History is harsh on those who are found, at different points in time, to occupy competing positions. And, often, rightly so. However, I would argue that our rush to judge harshly marks the instability of political views and position--including our own. In other words, we judge others for switching positions so that we might maintain the view that we pick at all.

The notion that we freely choose our views is easy to complicate in the case of Cicero because of how personal politics were in Rome. Tullia, Cicero's beloved daughter, chose for her third husband "a reckless and womanizing playboy" (200). Cicero did not approve. They were further, political implications. Cicero was, at the time, the governor of Cicilia (a position he was assigned in the wake of new laws about the duties of former Counselors). The previous governor, one Appius Claudius, had decided to stick around. This created several problems with respect to Cicero's ability to govern and protect the province. Cicero had "chosen" the diplomatic path: don't piss Appius off so that he might, at least, not work deliberately to make things difficult. This choice made sense given the fragility of the situation in Cicilia and in Rome. And the arrangement was working.

That is, until Tullia married the playboy Publius Cornelius Lentulus Dolabella, who was just then bringing Appius to trial "on a treason charge" (200). Cicero, by virtue of his daughter's marriage, found himself positioned against Appius. "Here I am in my province paying Appius all kinds of compliment, when out of the blue I find his prosecutor becoming my son-in-law" (200). This situation, thankfully, took care of itself when Cicero's term (his position) as governor ended. Cicero was also coming to terms with Publius as a son-in-law: "We all find him charming [...] He is clever and agreeable as you please. Other characteristics, of which you are aware, we must put up with" (200).

We are agents making choices to be sure; we are not, however, the only agents. Circumstance, the actions of others, often choose for us. This is not to say that we cannot struggle, but it is to argue that rhetoric (and its critics) must acknowledge that the moment, more often than not, seizes us. And, in such moments, we must muddle through, which seems to be the strategy that most aptly describes the life and times of Cicero.

Monday, July 5, 2010

A Material Marcus Tullius

As part of my summer research campaign, I am reading Anthony Everitt's biography of Cicero, Cicero. Reading it, I am amazed but not surprised by Cicero's material rhetoric, by which I mean his persuasive efforts through spatial and temporal action (as opposed to oratorical efforts). I am not surprised because as a successful orator, politician, and advocate, I assume Cicero did more than give a good speech. I am surprised by the extent to which Cicero marshaled space and time in his persuasive efforts. I attribute this to the fact that much of we (in rhetoric) know of Cicero we know through his speeches or writings, which exist, to a certain extent, outside time and space. I might also attribute it to a certain privileging or understanding of rhetoric as purely or only discursive.

A few notes before I proceed. I do not mean to discount speeches or other discursive efforts. I mean only to mark the rhetoric that occurs other ways. Indeed, much of Cicero's effectiveness in the case I will shortly describe comes from his speeches and how he arranged them. I would also acknowledge here that "material rhetoric" is, as with most things, a concept currently under construction. In brief, it concerns the rhetorical force of materiality (spaces, bodies, etc) and the rhetorical constitution of things such as spaces and bodies. Finally, it is probably also true that the material and the discursive are not polar opposites or even mutually exclusive. Speaking and writing are surely also bodily (and technologically mediated) acts.

The trial of Caius Verres, former governor of Sicily, and about whom there is a Mountain Goats song, showcases Cicero's material rhetoric. Cicero, who apparently rarely acted as prosecutor, was constrained by several (material) factors. First, at this point in Roman history juries were composed entirely of senators, making bribery and peer pressure of a sort more common. Second, Verres and his allies went to great lengths to delay the trial both to allow them time to stack the jury and to draw out the trial (over Roman holidays and other conventions of the time) in order to weaken the impact of the evidence.

To combat these material rhetorical moves, Cicero enacted his own robust rhetoric, both discursive and material. Primarily, Cicero worked to speed-up the trail to force a decision before a long break. As a result of his own detective work, Cicero had an "air tight" case, but the longer the trial took the less likely it became that a conviction would be secured.
It was crucial that Cicero finish his presentation before the court went into recess with the opening of Pompey's games on August 16. In the event, he managed to set out his material expeditiously as well as comprehensively. On August 13 he rested his case. (79)
Cicero's move to speed up the trial was accomplished by augmenting the traditional order of the trail. Securing permission to do so, Cicero began with his evidence against Verres rather than his opening remarks.
Cicero's coup was devastating for the defense and had immediate consequences. (79)
By virtue of what we could call a rhetorical move that addressed the material conditions of the trial, Cicero reversed what had been a foregone conclusion: Verres acquittal. Because Cicero forced the issue, the senate had no choice but to convict Verres.
Today the eyes of the world are upon you. This man's case will establish whether a jury composed exclusively of Senators can possibly convict some who is very very guilty--and very rich [...] No such excuses can extenuate the number and scale of his offenses. (79)
Surely a great speech that played an important role in convicting Verres; however, it was Cicero's material rhetoric which forced such a scrutinous gaze upon the Roman Senate.

Cicero's success had, then, its own material consequences. His actions, including composing and distributing speeches "he might have delivered had he had the chance" (80),
made a powerful case for reform of the courts and the jury system [...] Later in the autumn the Senatorial monopoly of juries was rescinded and their share of the memebership reduced to one third. (80)
Cicero well understood that oratory takes place in space and time, and that if these are stacked against you your words have little chance of achieving any effect. Cicero, as Everitt demonstrates, understood that the rule of law and the various institutions that uphold it are vital to the law working at all.

As a figure for and of rhetoric, Cicero and his victory in the trial of Verres marks rhetoric's materiality.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

In(tro)ducing Symbolic Action

I have always found it more than a little difficult to introduce students to the concept of symbolic action in rhetoric. Specifically, marking the distinction between sign and symbol (a sign as "representation" of sorts and a symbol as a "projection"). The etymology of "symbol" suggests putting together or throwing, whereas "sign" is seen as a token or a representation. The difference here has always struck me as crucial with respect to rhetoric and language. Language from rhetoric's perspective is about doing something out in the world rather than merely representing something in the world. Or, put another way, language is not about communicating or packaging an idea but is part and parcel of how we generate ideas at all. Language's primary purpose is asignification, which is why Will continues to fascinate me. Muckelbauer describes the "'asignifying' dimension of language" as focused "forces, actions, and effects" and less on something like meaning, which I would align (for my present purposes at least) with the sign.

As part of my summer reading (for both pleasure and profession), I have been working through Ed Hutchins' Cognition in the Wild (as I work my way back from Andy Clark, my go to scholar for all things cognitive), which advances the argument that human cognition is often distributed across groups and artifacts. I had been reading it to mark the difference between the "distributed cognition" model Hutchins proposes and the "extended mind" model advanced by Clark (I want to post on this soon as it is, in part, the crux of an article I am finishing). To flesh out his model, Hutchins focuses exclusively on ship navigation or pilotage. And navigation, with its various discourses, and methods of "representation" turn out to be a great way to chart the particularities of symbolic action as distinct from the process of signification.

The charts of navigation are often assumed to be simple representations of territory, which are valuable only in their accuracy. Maps, then, are taken as signs. But Hutchins points out that, particularly in the case of navigating at sea, that a chart is likewise "an analogue computer" (61). A chart is certainly in part representational, but it is also computational. I don't mean to suggest that computation be made synonymous with asignification, but the notion of maps as computational moves us further in the direction of the projecting, throwing, and putting together that marks symbolic activity. It is also to argue (in a bit) that Hutchins can help to complicate the distinction between sign and symbol and signification and asignification.

Moving us even further in this direction is Hutchins' discussion of star charts and constellations. Star charts could certainly be seen as a sign system. We attach labels to stars or collections of stars in order to ascribe meaning consistently. They are signifying and interested in meaning.
In this superimposition of internal ["the ability to identify the linear constellations"] and external ["the arrangement of stars in the heavens"], elements of the external structure are given culturally meaningful relationships to one another.
Constellations are also very much about meaning. However, they are also very much about actions and effects. As Hutchins argues, it makes very little sense to judge a navigational representation based solely on their accuracy or ability to convey meaning. Hutchins makes this point by comparing Western navigation traditions with those of Micronesian ones (and they differ quite a bit in several key aspects). In addition to demonstrating the operational bias of previous ethnographic work on navigation and its misrepresenations (yes) of Micronesian navigation, this comparison draws out the asignifying thrust of navigational signs. Accuracy takes a back seat to what Lewis (quoted in Hutchins) calls "the stern test of landfall." Micronesian navigators, for instance, invent phantom islands is order to aid navigation. That is, they create signs that represent nothing. They are asignifying signs created solely to achieve a particular effect. Meaning makes sense not only in terms its ability to accurately translate geographical features into geometric lines. The meaning makes sense in terms of its ability to activate successful navigation.

And this seems to form a part of the problem, though. I am moving back and forth between describing the same thing as either a sign or a symbol. I am tempted into arguing that symbols are distinct from signs; but I am simultaneously aware that the same thing can be seen as either a sign or a symbol. And this, then, is the difficulty of introducing symbolic action: to make the familiar strange. To move from seeing what I am doing when I label something as a far less passive action than I might suppose. Hutchins argues that looking up at the night sky
in terms of linear constellations is a simple representational artifice that converts the moving field of stars into a fixed frame of reference.
And while Hutchins uses "representation" here, I would argue he has in mind something much more like symbolic action. Constellations are not simply or only labels, they are a conceptually framework that does something out in the world to enable a certain kind of action.
This seeing is not a passive perceptual process.
But constellations are also signs that ascribe meaning. They are, as Hutchins writes, representations.

Is the key (difficulty) recognizing the sign's asignification? To treat words or labels or charts as signs (which is accurate - hey) is to miss the action?

Monday, May 31, 2010

My Dream Student

So, over at Both Wearing Black Masks there has been a post or two about "My Ideal Student." Here is mine:

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Writing in the Disciplines, Disciplinarity, and Threshold Concepts

Here is a bit a text I am working on as part of my participation in Thresholds of Writing, "a multi-year initiative to study and transform the way we teach writing as an integral part of a liberal education in the 21st century." We are holding a colloquium with faculty across the college, and we will soon be discussing "reflections" as a pedagogical tool. This bit of text is designed to place the practice of reflections within the broader concept of writing in the disciplines, disciplinarity itself, and threshold concepts. For the uninitiated, threshold concepts, drawn from theorists Jan Meyer and Ray Land can be defined as,
an approach to disciplinary thinking that proposes there are certain foundational ideas that serve as gateways to subjects that students must understand in order to progress in that field. These thresholds are more than just core concepts but often serve an integrative function within fields.
One of the primary goals for the project is to promote writing as a way for students to move through such threshold concepts on their way into their discipline.

Here is what I have so far:
As we talk together of writing, we necessarily confront our disciplinary differences and similarities: what about writing can we agree upon and what about writing in our own disciplines creates unique challenges and opportunities. Likewise, the interdisciplinartity effort of fostering writing in the disciplines necessarily involves a discussion of threshold concepts: what are the defining portals (or ways) into our disciplines that constitute them as unique. As portals they must be somewhere along the walls around our fields of study.

In light of this double move, we would like to suggest that thresholds of writing serves as a catalyst for writing in the disciplines, which brings into sharp relief the boundaries of those disciplines and then discovers those boundaries as threshold concepts. Thus, we as a colloquium enact this coming-to-thresholds-through-writing in much the same way we hope our students might. In having to articulate what exactly we do, what makes us different, and what difference those differences make we come to articulate our threshold concepts. As we have discussed, and as Randy Bass has explored in his work on visible knowledge, we must be able to articulate the threshold concepts of our disciplines if we are to have any hope of bringing students through those very portals.

This moves us then to reflection. We see reflection enacted in a variety of ways, places, and times depending upon the discipline and the task at hand. Students can be asked to reflect upon the significance and implications of a philosophical text, they can be ask to describe and justify rhetorical moves made in a set of technical instructions, or they can be asked to articulate their methods and discuss the results of an experiment in a lab report. Reflection need not be soft, holistic, and after the fact; it can be down and dirty and in media res. In can be a highly detailed post mortem or brief cover memo attached to an assignment.

Reflections can also reveal a student’s struggle with threshold concepts. A student who is unable to articulate a choice he has made with respect to word choice or document design is a student not yet through one of the key thresholds of rhetorical activity. A student who can describe the procedure of an experiment while being unable to explain how the process works or the experimental design itself, maybe struggling with troublesome knowledge and a threshold concept. Reflection need not be extra work for either students or teachers when made part and parcel of the task. Reflections so integrated do not necessarily add work; they might, in fact, make less work for teacher and student by demystifying the aspects of the course, materials, or discipline students struggle with.

As a colloquium, our emphasis on writing stresses its inventional qualities. That is, writing is not simply (or only) the communication, transmission, or delivery of information. Writing is itself a coming-to-know and the chief method we have for generating ideas. Reflections should be no different. Ostensibly about describing work in progress or products completed, reflections are likewise places to generate new ideas, new processes, and new ways forward. More specifically, for students and teachers reflections can become a way to grapple with troublesome knowledge and invent ways to move productively through thresholds to become scholars deeply integrated in the values and methods of a discipline.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Blog from the iPad

So I have had my iPad for a little over a week now, and we are settling into our cyborgian relationship nicely. I have been exploring the features most likely to be useful to me as a professional (which is not to say that I haven't been playing), and I am so far pleased with the experience and the offerings. I have found reading and annotating PDF files works very well, as does email, note taking, and dictation. At some point I will post a more lengthy review, but as of now it works quite well for a variety of tasks.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Swapping Disciplinary Genes*

So this recent story about the possibility of early hominid species interbreeding has got me thinking again about a conversation I had with my graduate students last week about interdisciplinary work (and its obstacles). First off, I am quite fond of interdisciplinary work. My research moves in and out of several disciplines, and I am currently collaborating with a psychologist who works on, among several things, how humans self-cultivate within a complex matrix of biology and culture. That said, the above story, and the nature of species themselves, both invites and challenges interdisciplinarity.

At the most basic level, species are distinct when can no longer share genetic material or produce viable offspring. "A common definition is that of a group of organisms capable of interbreeding and producing fertile offspring of both genders, and separated from other such groups with which interbreeding does not (normally) happen" ("Species"). We are distinct when we can no longer exchange genetic material and produce something together. This suggests that once disciplines become particularly specialized they will no longer be able to share with other disciplines and produce viable offspring (e.g., successful students and viable, publishable scholarship). In this case, intellectual work that moves in between disciplines maintains a vital flow of information that would not be possible otherwise. Interdisciplinary work keeps us related enough so that we might do things together that will make sense and work.

However, the species analogy (tenuous as it has already become) suggests the need for such disciplinary divisions. A diverse set of species seems to be the key to healthy ecosystems. Even within species, the deeper the gene pool the more robust the population. This, for me, has always been the strongest argument for diversity in a variety of contexts. Part of the value in different, specialized disciplines is that they do speak different languages, privilege other methods, and promote competing values.

Thus, the tension for interdisciplinary work lies in the value of diversity and the challenges of specialization. I would argue that the boundaries of disciplines must be maintained to allow for the diversity that specialization (a term in evolution, I believe) affords. However, interdisciplinary work is intellectually vital if we hope to connect to other fields and to learn from them, which is to say the work of interdisciplinary is valuable precisely because it ought to be difficult.

As difficult, I imagine, as a Homo neanderthalensis hitting on a Homo sapien.

*This the second version of this (I like the first one better, but my own offspring pushed the right sequence of buttons and deleted it).

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

A Technique of Assent

So, my first graduate seminar concluded yesterday with the sharing of papers and the passing of pitchers. Before we moved from the classroom to the barroom, I shared these final thoughts:
I want to conclude the semester by suggesting another way of reading and engaging texts—one I feel is an alternative to common, critical engagements with texts that operate in the negative register (e.g., what does this text leave out, overlook, or otherwise exclude, simplify, or gloss?). This is not to say that such readings are unproductive or unnecessary (as such readings are often both productive and necessary).

It is to suggest other ways of reading that mine each and every text for something that can be “taken away,” “augmented,” “adopted,” or “utilized.” It is a way of reading that leaves one open to persuasion—to approach a text perfectly willing to be “converted to the enemy's camp.” And it is a way of reading that generates new questions, new ideas, and new ways of thinking.

Here are some sample texts from this semester that suggest and enact such approaches:
  1. Muckelbauer’s “reading productively” or “affirmatively”

  2. Gorgias' rescuing of Helen

  3. Jarratt’s re-reading of the sophists

  4. Rickert’s use of Plato’s chôra

  5. Burke’s notion of “discounting”

  6. Corder’s invocation of “love”
This technique of assent is also a reminder that readings in the negative register (where a text is “problematized”) are likewise always already acts of assent: every no bellies a previous yes. From where do we say “no,” and by what "yes" are we enabled to do so? Opening or starting with the "yes" may very well highlight the assumptions upon which our critical responses are based (or cultivated).

I likewise find this technique of assent—as a pattern of response or habit—very helpful for my work as a teacher (and all scholars are, I hope, teachers). And not just because teachers should be generous or “nice” (which they should be), but because one of the joys of teaching is learning. How does the thinking of students and their work productively change my own thinking or teaching practices? What can I, in other words, take away from each and every class and student?

Finally, another excellent reason for affirmative readings or this technique of assent is this: you will come to publish scholarly works many of you. And these works will enter into a community of scholars. Articles written in the safety of solitude will go out into the world and be read by others. What are your obligations to other scholars and their work? How do you want to position yourself within a community of scholars? How do you want to respond to and assent to the work of others?

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

U.S. Board on Geographic Names

Easter Break and trip back to S. Indiana (which entails intermittent internet access) has prevented me from blogging for a bit. I am going to sneak a short one here to get back into the swing of things.

This from a Los Angeles Times story on the agency, named in my title, that is
responsible for deciding the names of natural features, including glaciers, mountains, valleys, rivers and ponds.
Now, I obviously love this sort of thing because it draws attention to the inherently political/rhetorical act of naming: no naming is value-free or "innocent." Additionally, the presence of a board to adjudicate such matters (the board does not propose names; it only acts on suggestions from citizens) reminds us that because naming is value-laden it is necessarily contested. Names matter and so we fight about them (or, better yet, we all know they are important because we fight about them, which is to say that if they were indeed value-free and innocent we wouldn't care one way or the other: the proof of my argument is in the argumentative pudding).
Soon the naming authority will find its own name in the spotlight.

In an upcoming decision, the panel will take up a controversial request by a Bay Area man who filed a request to change Mount Diablo in to Mount Reagan because he finds the name, Spanish for "the devil," to be offensive. His request touched off a flood of Internet opposition, and the Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors voted against the idea and sent an opposition letter to the federal panel.
Given that the board has recently approved the name "Devils Anvil Peak," it seems unlikely that they will likewise find "Mount Diable" offensive. Now, of course there will be cries of "politicization of the naming process" and howls of "why does everything have to be so political?" I have suggested it is inherently political, and I would suggest that such instances serve as uncomfortable reminders of this. And I would conclude this short blog by suggesting that complaints of "politicization" come not just from those who disparage politics but from those who lose naming contests.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Gut Over Glut

In 1990 Carolyn Miller took decision science ("a theory of choice with an accompanying battery of 'decision aids' for 'modeling problems of choice' in management and public policy"(163)*) to task for both what Wayne Booth calls motivism and for what Chaim Perelman refers to as reducing "problems of action" to "problems of knowledge." Miller dings decision science for a few other things; I am interested only in these two for my present purposes (as I am likewise thinking about my Computers and Writing presentation in May): the dangers of motivism and the action/knowledge problem in public life and how rhetoric should respond pedagogically.

Troubling Decision Science
Miller defines decision science as a kind of rhetoric in that it is a "theory of choice" (163). Nevertheless, Miller argues it is a problematic rhetoric because it abdicates or avoids reasoning about values, what Booth terms motivism. My more cynical response is that those folks in economics and management who typically employ decision science are avoiding addressing values purposefully to prevent them from being challenge (but this is, perhaps, another problematic kind of motivism that Burke admonishes against).

The second issue Miller addresses is how decision science boils problems of action (what should we do? should we do something at all?) down to problems of knowledge (how much will is cost? what are the risks and rewards?). The problem is that in reducing action to knowledge decision science erases conflict and avoids the question of values.
Problems of action involve conflict between people; even solitary deliberators negotiate conflicts between possible versions of themselves. Problems of action are "essentially contestable"; problems of knowledge are not. (175)
Decision Science Troubles the World
For example of how both aspects of decision science problematically operate out in the world (one of Miller's chief concerns), I would draw our attention to the NOVA documentary "The Spy Factory". The oddly titled documentary explores the role of the National Security Agency (NSA), in combination with the FBI and the CIA, in the "intelligence failures" preceding and following the 9/11 terror attacks. In particular, the issues of motivism and problems of action/knowledge show-up in the Bush administration's response to those attacks. (Obviously, this blog post is limited and much of the work now being done within the intelligence services is to be commended. This post and the documentary it draws on have a necessarily limited perspective. That being said, I am responding to stated desires and policies.)

In brief, the Bush administration's response was to remove barriers to searches and spying so as to increase the amount or volume of information available to our intelligence agencies. Many critiques of this policy -- beyond the legal and moral ones -- persuasively point out that information or the lack thereof was not the issue -- was not the root of the problem. There was enough intelligence in terms of raw data. Indeed, the ease with which government investigators were able to piece together the events leading up to the attacks suggests as much. The problem was a problem of action, of value-laden decision-making (not "do we have enough information?" but "should we be sharing it with other agencies and how and when?"). What was required, to borrow from Miller, was an ability to reason about values, about the culture of the intelligence community, and about how information was allowed or not allowed to circulate. Most importantly, however, reducing this problem of action to a problem of knowledge has potentially threatened core legal principles and not made us all that much safer. A primary contributor to the documentary, and a long time historian of the NSA, concludes the NOVA documentary this way:
Is this flood of information making us any safer? [...] We should have been safe the way it was [...] How much information is enough -- and won't too much information end up making the world more dangerous?
At first this seems counter-intuitive: how can too much information be a bad thing? If you are a decision scientist and assume that "if our information were more complete or our calculations more accurate, we could know with complete certainty whether it will rain today" (Miller 175), then it very much is against your intuition. However, if the problem is one of action (one of human relations and values and contingencies and probabilities), which I think it is, then it is rather reasonable to question the absolute value of information. And I would suggest, as I move to conclude this discussion in rhetoric's pedagogy, that it is precisely in the direction of intuition/instinct that we should head.

Conclusion: Rhetoric's Pedagogy for Deciding
To return to Miller's assertions for a rhetorical understanding of decision science (and for an accounting of how decision science has influenced pedagogy and so impacted decision making), I would ask what all this means for rhetoric's pedagogy. How might those of us in rhetoric teach decision-making in and against the context of decision science?

If traditionally education has been about information (P. Friere's influence notwithstanding), what do we make of such persuasive arguments against decision science, which is largely predicated upon this Enlightenment ideal? I would propose (although I am far from the only one) that rhetoric draw on recent research on instincts and gut feelings. For instance, the work on Gerd Gigerenzer and his book Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious is quite informative (yikes!) in this direction. I argue that an education that would avoid motivism and the reduction of action to knowledge should focus less on "information" and more on "instinct."

I like a focus on instinct because instincts become an excellent way to address how we reason about values. In essence, instincts are about response-ability. They are about patterns or habits of engagement. Instincts filter what information counts as valuable and they motivate particular actions over others. Instincts are, in other words, were the rubber of values meets the road of action. Values, however, and as Gigerenzer argues, are not beyond human (pedagogical) agency and they are not automatic. Instincts, he argues, are cultivated. Instincts are neither value free nor beyond rhetorical deliberation and persuasion. Indeed, instincts must necessarily be cultivated precisely because they are not pre-specified (we could take numerous examples of this from athletics where it is the honing of instincts that is so much a part of practice and improvement. The work of Debra Hawhee is valuable in this regard).

In addition to being a call to discuss values (or patterns of response), instincts are a way around one of the oft-described problems of teaching rhetoric, which presumes to address the contingent and situational (thus making the teaching of formulas problematic). Rhetoric strikes me as instinctual (which are always geared towards problems of action) rather than formulaic (which strikes me as largely focused on problems of information). I would argue that what we (should) teach are instincts. In so arguing, I necessarily invite a discussion about what kinds of instincts. And it is a discussion of what instincts and what values we should teach that potentially protects us from the troubles of decision science and from the charge of motivism, which is as damaging to teachers as it is economists.

*Miller, Carolyn R. "The Rhetoric of Decision Science, or Herbert A. Simon Says." The Rhetorical Turn: Invention and Persuasion in the Conduct of Inquiry. Ed. Herbert A. Simon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

GUEST BLOG: Why the Happy are Nuts*

Today's blog post is from guest contributor, and sometime commenter, Thomas Rivers.

Sophist_Monster concludes:
The historian thus argues that these are not simply questions of science but are also and always moral questions as well. I would sum this up by arguing that the question is not simply/only "Is homosexuality a mental illness?" The questions is/should be "What are the consequences of asking whether homosexuality is or is not a mental illness?" "Should we ask such a question at all?" That is (what) the debate (should be) about because the rest, the science, is entelechy, so to speak. We should not use, in the words of the interviewed historian, "the rod of science to beat back those we don't agree with." Because it is about agreement, an admission few seem willing to make, we have to be able to confront sources of disagreement and do so "honestly." Science alone cannot claim to settle questions of the good life because science itself already takes place in context made possible by previous decisions, previous values. If we stop at the "scientific" we miss the complexity of any and all other debates.

Spare the rod: save the argument.
To this focus and conclusion I would add in support the following (liberally borrowed from “A Proposal to Classify Happiness as a Psychiatric Disorder,” by Richard P. Bentall, in the June 1992 issue of the Journal of Medical Ethics, published in London. Bentall then was a senior lecturer in clinical psychology at Liverpool University):

Bentall first claims that, though counter-intuitive, happiness should be classified as a disease and so included in diagnostic manuals. Using the language of diagnosis he notes the behavioral components of this “disease” including joy, smiling, and being carefree. What is noteworthy in diagnosing for the disease of happiness is that one of the most reliable ways to diagnose is to ask the “patient,” just as one does in diagnosing a person who is depressed—a good indicator or at least one in current use is the patient says they are “happy” or “sad.” It would be hard to diagnose someone as sad or depressed if they self-reported that they were not.

As expected Bentall’s proposal goes through the usual criteria including epidemiological studies (rich score higher on being happy then the poor,) and genetic studies. Philosophers distinguish between behavior that might be worthy of psychiatric attention and behavior that is not by determining whether the behavior is rational. “There is consistent evidence that happy people overestimate their control over environmental event.” In sum, Bentall notes, “that happiness meets all reasonable criteria for a psychiatric disorder. It is statistically abnormal and consists of a discrete cluster of symptoms; there is at least some evidence that it reflects abnormal functioning of the central nervous system; and it is associated with various cognitive abnormalities—in particular a lack of contact with reality.” Bentall then recommends inclusion in the DSM the name “Major Affective Disorder, Pleasant Type.”

Where it gets interesting apropos of sophist_monster posting is when Bentall notes the objections to this. One of them of course would be that happiness doesn’t normally come under “therapeutic concern”—but this objection would then rest on the fact that the naming of diseases (which is to do something) are culturally and historically relative phenomena. “On this account, sickle-cell anemia, anorexia nervosa, and psychopathy were not diseases before their discovery.”

The second objection is that happiness is not normally negatively valued; but implicit in this objection is that value judgments (persuasion) “should determine our approach to psychiatric classification.” In sum Bentall is making the claim of rhetoric and the strong defense—that subjective values are the basis of such scientific systems of classification.

*The title of the post comes directly from a Harper's Magazine story on the Bentall article.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Let me start by saying that I have argued the following since my introductory psychology class ten years ago, I continued to argue the following as a psychology major, and I continue to argue the following within the context of rhetorical theory (and in pragmatics):
Though recurring tummy aches from irritable bowel syndrome are among patients' most common complaints, drugmakers have had trouble coming up with a safe and effective treatment. But in 2008 Harvard's Ted J. Kaptchuk devised a safe remedy that helps far more people than any designer drug ever did.

His magic cure: fake acupuncture delivered with lots of warm talk from a sympathetic acupuncturist--but no needles. In a trial of 262 patients with severe IBS, 62% of those who received the fake treatment got better, according to results published in the British Medical Journal. By comparison, only 28% of a control group of patients put on a waiting list saw their symptoms improve markedly. A third group who got the fake acupuncture, but without any warm talk, showed in-between results: 44% improved.
This according to a recent story entitled "For Nothing."

Save this kind of research, I never quite understood why the placebo effect was so routinely dismissed by medicine. It is producing a "real" effect, but because it was not producing a "real" physical effect it was not treated as real, or, as one astute commenter to the story writes, it is treated as "noise."
However, my major problem is that traditionally any results generated by placebos is treated as noise in the experiment. It's a good control, in that it accounts for the role of the action of being treated as a separate variable from actually being treated. Therefore looking for meaning in placebos strikes me as a sort of data mining.
While there are certainly concerns about doctors misleading patients, these concerns privilege a certain kind of reality. If the pill works, then to what extent are doctor's "lying." In fact, many of the negative responses to this story expressed this discomfort with doctors "lying" to patients. (I kind of have Nietzsche's "On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense" in mind here. "Lie" and "deception" assume a reality I am uncomfortable with. I am also thinking about a collaborative project I am working on with a psychologists in Holland: we are investigating "manipulation" and "deception" as social technologies.)

This is not to say that placebos always work or work equally well for everyone, but in this regard they are like any other pill. What is to stop a doctor from lying about any and all treatments? When it comes to ethical medical practices we must rely on the profession and external auditors to review and promote agreed upon ethical practices. Again, such an arrangement is what we always already rely on. A doctor wouldn't (or could just as easily and dangerously) prescribe Tylenol to treat a brain tumor. So fears about placebos in this direction seem unfounded (or at least no different from common concerns about medical treatments and professional ethics).

I think one place the fear comes from (yes, here it comes) is a particular orientation to the real as only the biological/the natural. I have posted on this issue previously here and here. The placebo threatens this biological foundationalism that has been at work in Western thought for a few thousand years. For instance, I think this distrust of the placebo effect can be traced to Plato's treatment of rhetoric as cosmetic (rather than real health, which comes from medicine). In other words, I read into the mistrust of placebo a mistrust of rhetoric.

I hear both then in the following comments on this story as posted to BoingBoing:
  • There are massive ethical issues with doctors giving something to a patient, knowing that there is no active ingredient, and lying to make them feel better. I wouldn't want my doctor doing that to me!

  • The placebo is, regardless of the intent, a lie. Using placebos as a therapy could endanger the trust in their doctor or doctors in general. This trust is crucial, however, to the function of a doctor. [the irony of arguing that trust is crucial is not lost on me: how could trust possible matter if its is the real cure you are after?]

  • There is a real and distasteful paternalism in lying to your patients to make them happy and leave your office.
Again, I think we should always be concerned with how doctors communicate with us and what and why they prescribe: these are always concerns (a doctor telling you to lower your blood pressure is being no less paternalistic). Again, what I want to (get at) know here is why the placebo is perceived as "fake" because this understanding of the effect leads to the dismissal of an effect we might very well want to have available to us. In short, and in the end, I think it is "fake" for some because the placebo effect seems to be a function of rhetoric (ignoring the fact that rhetoric is hugely important in the production of pharmaceuticals themselves). And rhetoric can't be real, can it?

Update: Here is another story on the placebo effect.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Spare the Rod (Really)

I have been meaning to post on an amazing This American Life story as it relates to one of my favorite intellectual intersections: rhetoric and science, which means it is also about everything. As W.H. reminds us:
Science, like Art, is fun, a playing with truths, and no game
should ever pretend to slay the heavy-lidded riddle,
What is the Good Life?
Looking back forty years at the struggle to change the DSM entry for homosexuality (it's very presence in the manual - and thus its status as a mental illness - was itself debated) reveals much about the relationship between politics and science (and much about what we want from that relationship and what we don't).

Introduction: Stigma
The report begins with a necessary discounting (which is not a defense) of the presence of homosexuality in the DSM. While it's definition and categorization later proved just as harmful, several of the psychiatrist who defended its place in the DSM argued that it was a defense from harmful stigmas, namely religious stigmas that made homosexuality a sin. Better an illness, they assumed, than a sin. What is unusual is that some of those who wanted to keep "homosexuality" in the DSM did so for ostensibly "progressive" reasons, which we can no doubt question now. Even at this stage, the story is a complex one.

Part One: Science "Becomes" Politics
What is immediately clear from the story ("81 Words") is that labels are never passive nor innocent. Language, Kenneth Burke reminds us, is symbolic action; it is not about labeling but about projecting, about doing something in and to the world. Thus, labeling homosexuality a "mental illness" is an action that will have results (it will cause effects), and claiming that one is merely labeling something is no defense against liability for what that label does. So here we have our first intersection of science and politics (I am assuming the intersection itself is rhetoric): to label something never happens in a vacuum away from politics. The label itself works politically (even if it is not "politically motivated" -- although in this case all the motives can be seen as political, which makes this story a good case study for all such stories).

Part Two: Politics Motivates Science
Moving in the other direction, we can see not only how the labels of science work politically, but how any scientific endeavor to label, to discover, to know, is necessarily (a priori) motivated. At the most basic level, the argument goes, a scientist chooses (has to choose) the question she wants to ask after choosing the phenomenon she wants to investigate. In this case, investigating homosexuality in the terms of "mental illness" is already a political act, just as not investigating it in terms of mental illness is a political act.

This is not to argue that all motivations are equal, that just because we can understand both as motivated that both are equally "good" or equally "true." What I am building to (in terms of rhetoric) is that neither are outside of having to make arguments for themselves. Rather than moving away from prejudice (i.e., to deny prejudice), we must make arguments for our prejudices above and beyond other prejudices and do so not just on the basis of accuracy but on the basis of effects -- not whether "true" but rather conducive to "desired effects."

Conclusion: "The Earth is Round"

Problematically (even while I agree with the sentiment of celebration), when the DSM was changed -- when homosexuality ceased to be a disease -- one headline read "The Earth is Round." This is problematic because it assumes some "Truth" had been discovered rather than that an argument had been successful. To wrap both of these threads up, then, I move to the end of the "81 Words" report, which includes an interview with an historian. This historian points out that both sides of the debate (inclusion/exclusion of homosexuality from the DSM) claimed that the other side was politicizing science, and that both insisted that other side was being unscientific. This should come as no surprise: the oldest trick in the book of rhetoric is to claim it is the other side that uses rhetoric while you are simply telling it as it is. The historian argues that this is the nature of such controversies. And I would argue that it is such behavior that plagues such controversies, as both sides move to belie rather than confront questions of value and politics in science.

The historian thus argues that these are not simply questions of science but are also and always moral questions as well. I would sum this up by arguing that the question is not simply/only "Is homosexuality a mental illness?" The questions is/should be "What are the consequences of asking whether homosexuality is or is not a mental illness?" "Should we ask such a question at all?" That is (what) the debate (should be) about because the rest, the science, is entelechy, so to speak. We should not use, in the words of the interviewed historian, "the rod of science to beat back those we don't agree with." Because it is about agreement, an admission few seem willing to make, we have to be able to confront sources of disagreement and do so "honestly." Science alone cannot claim to settle questions of the good life because science itself already takes place in context made possible by previous decisions, previous values. If we stop at the "scientific" we miss the complexity of any and all other debates.

Spare the rod: save the argument.

Update: I would apply Wayne Booth's label (get it) of motivism here. Booth understood motivism to be an inability to reason about values. I hope this label moves readers accordingly.

Sunday, March 21, 2010


I have been mulling this over for a while, and as my graduate students read a book on gut feelings and decision making, I am ready to say something. As my students embark on an understand of self, agency, and cognition as very messy things indeed, I would like to do the same here.

Researchers in psychology recently published this article. In this article the authors claim that, contrary to what one might assume, online profiles (e.g., Facebook) "reflect actual personality." (Please read the article for things like research methods). Now, I do have some problems with the conclusions of the article: "Instead, [online social networks] might be an efficient medium for expressing and communicating real personality, which may help explain their popularity." I would argue we could interpret or study such networks for how they cultivate "real personality" - that is, the study treats as stable what I would treat as rhetorically unstable. That aside, their findings point in interesting rhetorical directions. The two I will deal with are:
  1. The parts of our online profiles (ethos?) we cannot control (i.e., what other people post to our profiles)
  2. The agonism (this is a term I apply here) that constrains our profiles (i.e., putting things up that others will "agree" "reflects" us accurately)
The first is interesting in terms of how our audiences become our co-authors. What this finding suggests is that we are perceived not just directly but through others. This is really nothing new ("it's a motley crew I run with"). What is "new" (at least outside of rhetoric) is that these identifications are accurate ways to assess someone -- that who you have identified with says something about you. This is, for instance, why I typically shudder when people start a conversation with "you would like this." I shudder because I am about to have something about me revealed to me (whether I like it or not -- which is not to say that that other person is always "right"). We are, to some extent, what people say to and about us. This is the social nature of ethos/identity/personality (a hard to define-parse matrix to be sure).

The second finding strikes me as another way of saying the first thing: that the "honesty" our expressions of personality (ethos?) are shaped by audiences. Not only do our "friends" reveal our personalities in what they say to us in public, they constrain what we add to our profiles implicitly. The study suggests we are not likely to put "false" impressions of ourselves up if we think our friends will see it this way. That is, we shape our profiles on the fly based on what we know our friends and relations to already know about us. Our friends, in other words, keep us who we are (online and, I would argue, in the flesh).

This is, likewise, why I never quite understand Plato's worries about rhetoric. Just because things are subject to rhetoric/persuasion/manipulation does not mean that they can, at any and all moments. become whatever. Anybody who has ever attempted persuasion knows that you don't need foundational truths to stop persuasive attempts (you just need your own argument).

Thus, here is my conclusion. Identity (as a loose and trouble stand-in for many other "self" terms) while not simply static and expressible but rather dynamic and cultivated, is not infinite. We find ourselves always in communities to whom we both present and owe our identities. And those communities help to cultivate and constrain those identities. I could certainly remake my Facebook profile to make me into Johnny Bravo, but I would have a lot of convincing to do before anyone bought it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Census Communus

Yesterday we received our pre-Census letter, which informs us that the 2010 Census is on its way. The letter, however, does more than this: it attempts to persuade us that completing and promptly returning the 2010 Census is vital. Let me start by saying that so do I. I think it is important that everyone is counted so that everyone, in a certain way, counts. This does not mean to say that I think the Census is perfect. There are important debates about how it counts, how it organizes people into categories, etc. What I find interesting about this letter is the particular pitch it makes and what that pitch says to us about what we think democracy is all about.

A colleague of mine in the Government Department has written a book, Democratic Faith, that describes what he calls "a state of quiet crisis" in democratic theory. His introduction, which is all I have read so far, explores the tension between the idea that democracy "takes men as they are" and the idea that people must be fashioned for democratic life. "While claiming to take 'men as they are,'" he writes,
democratic theory from its inception, even to its dominant contemporary expressions, exhibits anything but satisfaction for the civic capacities of ordinary humans, and seeks, sometimes to a major extent, to alter that condition for democratic ends.
As a teacher and researcher in rhetoric and writing, I can attest to this tension, while freely admitting that I do not feel it as strongly. I very much see my pedagogy as focused on something like citizenship: that the ability to engage others rhetorically through writing and other forms of composition is vital to the life and health of democracy. I see cultivating (better) citizens as necessary because I do not find democracy (nor any other form of government) "natural." I do not feel that if only we somehow removed all external forces humans will naturally desire democracy.

I believe this, in large part, because much of my research is centered around the idea that much of what we take as "natural" in human beings is cultivated or inculcated. Forms of government do simply arrive after the fact of subject formation and then are either accepted or rejected (America's recent efforts at "nation building" certainly point to this fact). Societies, with their cultures and forms of government, fashion their own subjects both implicitly and explicitly. I see my pedagogy as in largely in the "explicitly" category. A government is not simply added to already existing subjects, but is, in many important ways, the sub-stance of subjectivity itself. But this moves me in other directions.

So I return then to this pre-Census letter:
Your response is important. Results from the 2010 Census will be used to help each community get its fair share of government funds for highways, schools, health facilities, and many other programs you and your neighbors need. Without a complete, accurate census, your community may not receive its fair share.
Obviously, one would take more time and care in conducting a fully rigorous rhetorical analysis, but a few things strike me as obvious here:
  • "get" and "receive" are prominent (essentially, the same notion of "getting" appears twice in a very short letter)
  • what we get are "funds" (for important things, mind you)
What isn't mentioned, or what is implied we could say generously, are notions of representation, a sense of gaining an understanding of the changing demographic landscape of the United States, and many of the other things Census data can be used for. Also, no appeals to citizenship are made: "fill this out because you live here." "Freedom Isn't Free - All True Patriots Complete the Census."

What is valuable about democracy, this letter argues (as I have haphazardly read it) is its ability to satisfy individual or group interests. I want to be careful here, obviously. Fair and equitable distribution of resources is about more than self-interest. Indeed, the allocation of government resources is one of the primary ways we manifest our values. What I focused on is the appeal made here. The appeal is not social (I recognize the use of community and the "your neighbor" line) in any meaningful way. In fact, as I read it, "community" in the first line is always about "your community" in the last line. What about communities that are not mine--neighbors that are not mine? The 2010 Census, and thus, I would argue, democracy, is about you getting what you want. There is no sense here (or not enough for me, at least) of what my colleague in Government calls "civic excellence."

In conclusion, I am not all that impressed with this letter and the perspective on democracy it bellies (I would not, however, automatically attribute these values to the author of the document--many civil servants are clearly not just in it for themselves). Nor would I say that I am surprised. I will not, however, despair; I have a rhetoric and writing class to plan.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

My Son the Cyborg?

As of late, I have been paying increased attention to the moments when my son attempts to incorporate my wife and I into his actions. For instance, when Will reaches over and grabs my arm and directs my hand to:
  • the bag of Goldfish that is just out of his reach
  • the box full of blocks that he just can't seem to pry open
  • tickle mommy's feet
With the exception of the last one, which is really just for fun but still just as clever, all of these strike me as moments of (or, at least, candidates for) genuine cyborg extension. Will works actively to augment his own abilities by tapping (into) various external resources. My interest in these moments is informed by Andy Clark's most recent treatment of extended cognition. Now, Clark is particularly interested in how cognition is extended, but that sort of extension is not opposed to or without connections to what we might call "extended embodiment." In the case of Will, it probably makes sense to think of what he is doing as both. Many of things my wife and I are asked to do Will is probably physically capable of doing himself; there is just one aspect of the task that he hasn't quite mastered. He certainly could have the dexterity to turn to crank that raises and lowers the elevator in the Bat Cave. However, reliably turning it in the directions that either raises or lower it is difficult for him. It is in these cases that Will makes our hands his hands.

Clark advances the following criteria "to be met by [...] candidates for inclusion into an individual's cognitive system" (79):
  1. "That the resource be reliably available and typically invoked."
  2. "It should not usually be subject to critical scrutiny."
  3. "easily accessible as and when required."
  4. "That the [source] has been consciously endorsed at some point in the past."
The first three are met rather easily, I think. Although, at times, Will does shoot us looks that indicate we are indeed being scrutinized. Nevertheless, we are typically invoked in many matters, we are quite reliable, and we are easily accessed whenever he requires us. The forth, however, is somewhat of a stumbling block both for my application of Clark's criteria and for my assessment of that criteria.

Clark himself argues that it is only in rare cases that "other people" would be considered part of one's extended cognitive network. So, we are in good shape here in general. However, given the attachment behavior of infants, on which I am not much of an expert at all, I think it is safe to assume that whatever definition of "consciously endorsed" we might develop, Will would in all likelihood not meet it (and we probably wouldn't even need to be psychoanalytic critics to say so). However, if the forth criteria is indeed an important and necessary "step" for inclusion, then much of the nonbiological resources Clark identifies would seem to be out. Couldn't we think of many technologies that we use that we are not fully aware or choosing? The first to go (and one that Clark himself devotes significant time to), it seems, would be language. I know of few children who reasoned out for themselves consciously whether or not they would like to acquire language. Nor, as Clark himself argues, is language acquisition automatic or innate. So, we cannot get around criteria #4 by claiming language is simply automatic and subject to neither conscious nor unconscious thought. Language is inculcated, which is not an entirely conscious activity. In fact, we might even argue that language, as an engine of thought, is properly seen as an engine (not the only one mind you) of consciousness itself: how can we choose without the means we often use for choosing.

In other words, I would argue that not only am I a part of Will's extended cognition and embodiment, but also that Clark's forth criterion is unnecessarily strict. So many of the nonbiological resources that become embedded in our extended cognitive processes are neither automatic nor conscious. We incorporate them out of necessity (good luck getting around without language) or by virtue of societal norms (everyone uses pens and paper). These incorporations are neither entirely unconscious nor entirely conscious (or at least we don't remember choosing them).

This is what a colleague of mine in psychology and me are interested in exploring. What kinds of manipulations, cultivations, or even deceptions are at play in the incorporation of nonbiological elements of extended cognition? The iPhone can certainly become such a component of cognition, but why does anyone buy one in the first place?

And why or when did Will decide to make my arm his arm?

Friday, March 5, 2010

Biological Identity

A recent story about a father and son being reunited after 32 years has me thinking, as always, about nature and culture. His parents were political dissidents in Argentina and they were targeted the by authorities. The mother, then pregnant, was abducted and, thus, the son was kidnapped in utero. The mother's story after her abduction is, as of yet, untold. The story of the father's life since then is incredibly heart-wrenching. After the abduction he fled Argentina and lived in exile.
"At times I wondered what the hell I was living for. I had to find a way to continue, thinking about everyday things, hoping for this moment of happiness," the elder Madariaga said. "Hugging him that first time, it was as if I filled a hole in my soul."
The son's story is equally tragic, and it is the nature of this kind of tragedy and the cause of that tragedy that interest me in particular. In this case, the sons adopted parents were fully aware of and participated in stealing the son from his birth parents. And the son's childhood appears to have been anything but positive. His adoptive father was abusive, for one thing.
Francisco Madariaga's [the son] doubts increased, until finally he confronted his adoptive mother. "She broke down and was able to tell me the truth," he recalled, adding that he can't say he blames her. "There was so much violence — physical and mental — and she suffered. She also was a victim."
So the particularities of this case are hard to extrapolate to other cases of adoption. However, the story ends this way:
"Never again" will I use this name, he said. "To have your identity is the most beautiful thing there is."
His trauma and search for his "real" parents evidences a particular attachment to the "natural" as the "real": that his real identity is his biological identity. This is certainly not demean this man's pain: his life is a testament to man's inhumanity to man. It is also not to devalue the physical or biological (many of my other posts clearly demonstrate my commitment to an embodied understanding of just about everything). However, the narrative of children being reunited with their "real" parents and discovery their "true" identity belies what I believe is particularly problematic equation of the "natural" (read genetic and biological) with the "real." This equation is problematic, in the case of adoption, because of the emotional burden it places on children who "don't know who their real parents are" even if they have been raised, often happily and healthily, by adoptive parents or guardians. I want to ask, in other words, if we shifted the emphasis away from the biological and genetic would the experience of adopted children be different, less emotionally and psychologically fraught?

There are consequences to how we frame identity, and I would argue in this case that the emotional pain that confronts adopted children can (perhaps) be traced to a deep-seated cultural belief that biology is "reality."