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.