Monday, March 19, 2012

2012 CCCC Paper (Working Draft)

I am just about set for CCCC here in St. Louis (home field advantage is big at academic conferences). Here is my working draft, which connects (in under 15 minutes) the work of Walter Ong, S.J., and Andy Clark in order to construct a more interdisciplinary cognitive science.
2012 CCCC Paper (Working Draft)

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Bruno Latour and Leslie Knope

Juxtapositions are frequently fruitful. I am not sure where this one is going, but it's pretty sweet.

I've been re-reading Bruno Latour's Aramis and re-watching Parks and Recreation. Shot in the documentary style of The Office, the show increasingly strikes me as a performance of what Latour describes in Aramis as a "relativist sociology": "It does not know that society is composed of, and that is why it goes off to learn from others, from those who are constructing society" (200). Parks and Recreation is a portrait of government in action. Leslie Knope, of the Love of Local Government.

The show, at its finest, performs the work of negotiation and compromise that, in part, shapes civic life. In re-watching these moments with Aramis by my side, I can't help but see Leslie through Latour's eyes:
Bureaucrats are the Einsteins of society. They make incommensurable frames of reference once again commensurable and translatable. The protocol of agreement, red-penciled and ratified, starts moving again, going from one reference body to another, tracing a path along the way, a succession of fragile catwalks that make the agreement harder to break each time, because it is now weighed down with the word of the State.
Final shot of "Harvest Festival"
Part of the reason I love the show is its tempered faith in bureaucrats. Leslie Knope, the deputy director of the Pawnee, IN, Parks Department and star of the show, is an earnest, hardworking civil servant. She does her job amidst the incommensurability of democracy, balancing the angry feedback she receives at public forums, this disinterest and/or lack of faith in government, the libertarianism of her boss, budget constraints, etc. (The episode in Season Three when Leslie and the Parks Department pull-off the Harvest Fest may provide one of the most satisfying endings of a sitcom episode ever.)

I'll grant anyone, for the moment, any joke or insult about civil servants and bureaucrats. Yes, yes. But I ask, in light of the kind of sociology that Latour proposes, what does such a view, nearly ubiquitous outside of Parks and Recreation, get us? How do we benefit from demeaning such work (other than getting exactly what we deserve)? How do we learn to do it better by dismissing it out of hand? In rushing to judgement, we glass over the decided-ness of what we hold near and dear. We short-circuit democracy.

I'd argue that lurking beneath such a short-circuiting contempt is what Latour calls "classical sociology":
There are norms, and thus there are deviations with respect to the norm; there are reasons, and thus there is irrationality; there is logic, thus there is illogicality; there is common sense, and thus perverted senses; there are norms, and thus there are abnormality and anomie. (199)
When I watch Parks and Recreation I am not watching a documentary where "the actors are informants," telling what they did so that we can pass judgement (although certainly this happens: I can easily imagine a classical sociological viewing of the show). For me, I am watching government in action. Parks and Recreation is not a show where common sense, and logic, and reason are outside measures applied to political behavior; it is, at its best, a show where common sense, logic, and reason are all the end results--the effect--of political behavior. For instance, the reasonableness of the park Leslie wants to put in the vacant lot (this is the primary arc of season one) cannot be known ahead time: its reasonable-ness, its sensical-ness, its feasible and, finally, its reality are precisely what is being worked on. To borrow from Latour, things like logic and common sense "follow; they do not lead. They are decided; they are not what makes it possible to decide" (184).

As Leslie says of her first public forum (which goes terrible and to great humorous effect): "God I loved it. I loved every minute of it!"

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Introducing the "Sphere"

As I frequently read outside of rhetoric in my research, I am always interested in and often frustrated by treatments of "rhetoric" in those works, which is generally some version of Richard Lanham's Weak Defense: rhetoric is a specific kind of speech used to dress-up or dress-down content (I read discussions of "political rhetoric," "rhetorical devices," "rhetorical ploys," etc,). Generally, my response is "Hey chief, walk across the f-ing hall and talk to the person (or, if you're lucky, people) in your department or in your division who does this!" This is my disciplinary response, which is both reactionary and, I hope, well-earned. When I talk of philosophy, for instance, I can name people who are both currently publishing in it and who are also alive. I'm no expert; I don't know the intricacies of their discipline; but I am aware of and feel obliged to admit, acknowledge, and address it. So the reason for my frustration here what I take to be a general lack of interest in, engagement with, and respect for the current field of rhetorical theory or rhetorical studies. There are many explanations for this (and some are, admittedly, "our" fault), but I'm not after that today.

"Inventing The First Wheel: A Stone Age Rock Wheel."
John Lund.

There is also, and this might even be worse, another reason for these kinds of oversights. I suspect that some of the authors I am talking about here are not as ignorant, uninterested, and disrespectful as they seem. (I know, I am being exceptionally nasty here. Just go with it.) Let me put it this way: one of the reasons I am drawn to much of this work (in philosophy, anthropology, cognitive science, literary criticism) is that it speaks so much to rhetoric as I (and others) know it. All of these disciplines and fields have so much to say about the contingency, the relationality, and the generally suasory operation of things: anthropology mustn't draw sharp lines between nature and culture; cognitive science needs to examine the roll of conventional practices in the development of cognitive capacity, philosophy needs to acknowledge the place of affect in treatments of reason. All these are arguments one can find within each of these disciplines. Thus, my admittedly less-than-generous reading of an absent, generous engagement with rhetoric is a recognition that since the Sophists, we have been over "this" again and again. Critical Affect Studies? Read Gorgias' Encomium of Helen! Such scholars as I have been reading want to make wheels in a market always already full of them. 

So what remains to be done:  

1. Rhetoric must then be a specific kind of discourse. If it's more than that, then I've got a lot of reading to do.

2. Behold, I have invented the sphere! Pay no attention to Sophist selling wheels down the hall.

Again, I embrace, read, and utilize such areas of research. And I would never argue that they are re-inventing the wheel. But a trip to patent office wouldn't kill them, would it? And I don't think there is much value in claiming, as I appear to be doing, that "we were here first!" It is about both giving credit where credit is due and, more importantly, about the value in learning from one another. Some sort of intellectual exchange is in order. For Plato, Gorgias. For Descarte, Giovanni Battista Vico. For Kant, Johann Georg Hamann.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

French Accountants

In my current struggle with "accounting" for the nonhuman, Latour's Aramis again proves helpful:
Of course you have to "take into account" all the elements, as people say naively, but only the not very innovative projects know in advance which accountant to believe and which accounting system to choose.
The consequences of these choices will multiply, we suppose, at the level of the city, as in the case of Urbanized.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Feedback's Absence

By virtue of a new phone and, let's face it, many years on Facebook and now Twitter, I have grown rather accustomed to pretty immediate feedback. And not just any feedback--I mean the unambiguous feedback of the thumbs up and the retweet. The hermeneutically sealed "Like".

Of course, I am not describing feedback generally but instead a specific kind of feedback called reinforcement. The quick response that publicly says "I liked that." Like a parrot pecking away at the lever, I demand my treat.

I don't know so much where I am going with this, except to say I am noticing this in myself: a strange discomfort in not knowing what others think. As psychoanalysis reminds us, Che vuoi? can be a ruthless question--and no more so than in online social networks.

Location:De Giverville Ave,St Louis,United States

A Stray Latour Quote

In light of my last two blog posts (here and here), and as I am re-reading Latour's Aramis, I thought this line (presumably spoken by the train Aramis, who is a speaking character in the book) was particularly salient:
Good literature isn't made with noble sentiments, Gentlemen, and good transportation isn't made with ideas, either. It has to have a life of its own: that's your top priority. (55, emphasis added)
The above would be in response to the final bit of narration from Urbanized:
Fundamentally, as a species, we need things [I got hopeful] that can power our imaginations, that get our our passions going, that can give us a sense of meaning. And that is not a brick; it is not a pipe. It is an idea. That's what drives cities forward. (Emphasis added)

Urbanized and Object-Oriented Rhetoric, Part Two

This isn't so much a part two, as it is a revisiting of yesterday's post on the documentary Urbanized. Not too long after I clicked "Publish Post" (lying awake in bed, in fact), I began to have some regrets. In particular, my own conclusion now gives me pause:
Bad design is design that mistakes itself as purely human. If we ignore the missing masses as "we" plan, they will come back to haunt us precisely where we live.
See the trap? I have just argued, from an object-oriented perspective, that objects, or in this case the materiality of a city cannot be reduced (see Latour) to the intentionality of the designer: there is always excess. My argument makes sense, given my use of Latour. That said, how sound or practical or ontologically possible is my advice to account for missing, nonhuman, masses?

I'll here go to Graham Harman:
Behind every apparently simple object is an infinite legion of further objects that "crush, depress, break, and enthrall one another." (Tool-Being 296)
In other words, we cannot stop them from haunting us. We cannot possibly know everything about every thing and thus include any and every thing that bears upon city life. By requiring designers to ac/count for nonhumans, do I implicitly argue that every nonhuman can be fully counted? (For more on the tension between Latour and Harman, see Harman's Prince of Networks as well as The Prince and the Wolf.)

So let's try this: the best a designer or a city planner (you know, rhetors) could do is to leave room for accidents. Make a city that will bend rather than break. Perhaps that is the way of describing the limits of, in the case of Urbanized, Modernist city planning. It's not simply that they failed to account for the nonhuman (for such an accounting is fully impossible), but that such Modernism left no wiggle room for crushing, depressing, breaking and enthralling objects.

And, to make OOO more explicitly into an OOR, the designers' and planners' techne needs to leave room for tuche, which is bound to happen. Thinking more about what OOR might do, what its William Jamesian cash value is, this might be a line of thought worth pursuing (having just recently read Kelly Pender's Techne and re-read Ballif's "Writing the Third-Sophistic"). That is, in terms of an object-oriented rhetorical production/invention/action, can we think in terms of both techne and tuche? Within our plans and actions there is the irreducible materiality of the nonhuman (the object, the thing--boy I need to tighten up that terminology).

Anyway, there's my part two, my revisiting, my apology. I'll sleep better tonight for sure.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Urbanized and Object-Oriented Rhetoric

So I recently (and finally) watched Urbanized, the final installment of Gary Hustwit's Design Trilogy, which includes Helvetica and Objectified. While the first two documentaries look a smaller scale design (graphic design and industrial design respectively), Urbanized looks at urban design and urban planning: design at the level of society (which is certainly not to say the two previous documentaries don't bear on society as well). I have taught Helvetica in professional writing and technical communication and Objectified in a New Media and Rhetoric course. Indeed, the latter inspired this documentary that my students and I made:

The Rhetoric of the City Museum from Nathaniel Rivers on Vimeo.

And I am likely to teach all three in my Fall 2012 Problems in Rhetoric: Animal, Vegetable, Mineral course, which takes aim at nonsymbolic and nonhuman rhetoric, which I see as the key aspects of material and object-oriented rhetorics.

In terms of the nonsymbolic and nonhuman, Urbanized, like the whole trilogy, does a good job with nonsymbolic rhetoric: how we move one another in nondiscursive ways. For instance, how high quality bike lines can raise the social status of cycling and demonstrate that a person on a $30 bikes is as valuable in a democracy as someone in a $30,000 car. Watching Urbanized, I was reminded of James Fredal's Rhetorical Action in Ancient Athens, which argues that any attempt to understand Ancient Athenian rhetoric must account for the design and planning of the city of Athens itself--it's materiality.

Where the documentary falls short (and even this is unduly harsh as it does so much so well) is with respect to the nonhuman. As the film's emphasis is design, that it centers around the human should come as no surprise: those designing, building, and dwelling in cities are it's focus. (Although even here, the documentary could have attended to the materials with which the designers work and how those materials shape the design and building processes.) That said, the very materiality of the film itself calls our attention to the nonhuman: visually, the documentary is in love with the materiality of the city.

If anything, between the voices of the individuals interviewed (multiple interviewees rather than a single narrator, provide the dialogue of the documentary) and the visuals provided by the cinematographer there is an enactment of the human/nonhuman dynamic. As I watch the documentary, then, I feel the tug between the nonhuman that "speaks" for itself and the humans who claim to speak for it or reduce it to their intentions. [I'd also grant that in subsequent viewings I will find additional moments where the documentary foregrounds the nonhuman, granting it agency and ontological weight.]

In short, as I watch Urbanized I kept asking Bruno Latour's twenty-year-old question: "Where Are the Missing Masses?" And the ending of the documentary is telling in terms of how the missing masses--the nonhuman objects that are part and parcel of our urban spaces and our lives as we know them--go missing, how there are silenced or erase. The final, human voice (I can't recall the fellow's name and I don't want to look it up right now) of the documentary argues:
Fundamentally, as a species, we need things [I got hopeful] that can power our imaginations, that get our our passions going, that can give us a sense of meaning. And that is not a brick; it is not a pipe. It is an idea. That's what drives cities forward.
And while I would not totally disagree, I would say that it is precisely in the name of bricks and pipes and their agency in the movement and development of cities, that object-oriented ontology, or object-oriented rhetoric more specifically, (must) makes its intervention. To reduce cities to the meaning the provide for us and the ideas we can have about or build into them, irrespective of the city's thing-ness and of the many other nonhumans that shape that city and its inhabitants, is to miss a substantial portion of what it means to be urbanized.

I would never argue that design doesn't matter; the documentary makes a pretty damn good case that it does. I would argue though that design cannot be flattened out into a solely human affair. What is buried in the documentary, underneath the persuasive argument that bad design on the part of humans produces bad effects, is that bad (however and whoever defines that) urban spaces are due in part to designers and design that ignore the rhetorical agency and ontological weight of the nonhumans that were always part and parcel of that design. Bad design is design that mistakes itself as purely human. If we ignore the missing masses as "we" plan, they will come back to haunt us precisely where we live.

UPDATE: There's a Part Two.

At some point, after I teach them, I want to write something longer and more involved about Hustwit's trilogy in light of new materialism and object-oriented ontology. That is, your feedback would be greatly appreciated.