Sunday, December 1, 2013

Kids These Days

I'm starting a little side project today, and I'd love for you all to contribute. The Tumblr site will collect content that challenges both nostalgia for a past the never was and anxiety about a present that isn’t. Please submit pictures/quotes/videos that capture the ways life is and has always been mediated.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Critique Grinder

It recently struck me how critique often functions like an intellectual sausage grinder. It takes up a mass of heterogenous materials, forces, and relations, squeezes them through one nozzle, and creates homogenous, discrete, and easily predicable packets. Now, I am a big fan of machines to think with, but a little adventure every now and then is necessary.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On Having Been Had

I recently contributed a "Big Ideas" video over at Itineration. Here it is if you want to give it a watch. Skip it if you like.

In brief, I attempted to articulate what is sometimes called the post-critical moment. For me, the way into this moment (or movement) is the work Bruno Latour, in particular his widely read and debated "Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam." In short, post-criticism, if we can or should call it that, is interested in modes of intellectual engagement other than a kind of ideological unmasking, where every act or action or thing is simply the manifestation of some deeper, realer underlying cause (e.g., ideology, neoliberalism). Here is Latour on the danger of this critical project to which post-criticism responds:

In which case the danger would no longer be coming from an excessive confidence in ideological arguments posturing as matters of fact—as we have learned to combat so efficiently in the past—but from an excessive distrust of good matters of fact disguised as bad ideological biases! (227)
Now, there is lots to unpack there, but hopefully it suffices for now.

At one point in the above video, during a litany of synonyms for the critical project (or the project of critical thinking), I mentioned the time I once heard a colleague describe critical thinking as "how not to be a sucker." This, for me, has never sat easy: it has always been the kind of attitude that makes critical thinking troubling. It is not that I am interesting in seeing people mislead or duped; it's that as someone in rhetoric I am much more invested in the operation, the work, of assent. And so I am necessarily interested in engagement, exposure, and vulnerability. Trying not to be a sucker is a terrible way to live.

Okay, back to why I am here. I have been slowly making my way through Latour's most recent work, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME for short). It is a tome that moves quickly and slowly in several directions at once. He has so far written quite a bit on BEING-AS-OTHER.

To obtain being, otherness is required. Sameness is purchased, as it were, at the price of ALTERITY. (110)
He later asks if there is
A single moment when we don't benefit from the formidable energy of what seems to transit in us? (192)
While the itinerary of this transit moves through "the flux of fears and terrors" (192),
it goes toward what allows it to be, to come, and to reproduce. (193)
This is a state, for Latour,
designated by a happy conjunction of the verbs "to be" and "to have": "We've been 'had'"—that's it: "We've been possessed; carried away; taken over; inhabited." (193)
To be is also to be had. And this, of course, is its own happy conjunction for me as the idiom "to be had" is rather synonymous with the designation of "sucker": one who is easily had.

Again, I am not opposed to the skepticism, doing your homework, or any other work associated with avoiding the primrose path. No one wants to be taken for a ride. Except, of course, that our lives are lived with, through, and because of others; we are because others have us. Making a chief intellectual virtue out of avoiding being a sucker too quickly forecloses on the value of seeking out different, unique ways of being had. There are worse things to be than a sucker; not being at all is one of them.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

New Project: Speculative Usability

Lars Söderlund and I have been working on what we are currently calling speculative usability. Combining Bruno Latour's work on ANT and his Heideggerian reading of the thing and work in speculative realism (e.g., Ian Bogost), we want to carve out a space in usability testing for more inventive, less normative approaches. That is, we want to treat usability as a thing that is always at stake in usability testing.

Speculative Usability calls us to attend more rigorously to the individual existences of objects, and as such it allows us to ask usability questions less exclusively wedded to the user than those posed in most usability tests. Rather than “Is the user able to quickly work this object as the designer intended?” or “Does the composition of this object satisfy the user?” we can ask, “How does this object work given its own particular set of relations?” and “How, then, might this object work otherwise?” This involves not only decentering the user as our focus, but also opening ourselves to non-normative evaluations of objects. Our goal is no longer to measure the distance between an object’s use and acceptable levels of efficiency, but to notice an object as it interacts with other objects (including the user).

Saturday, April 27, 2013

A Saturday Morning Juxtaposition: Bruno Latour and Phillip K. Dick

Phillip K. Dick, Ubik

Back in the kitchen he fished in his various pockets for a dime, and, with it, started up the coffeepot. Sniffing the - to him - very unusual smell, he again consulted his watch, saw that fifteen minutes had passed; he therefore vigorously strode to the apt door, turned the knob and pulled on the release bolt.

The door refused to open. It said, “Five cents, please.”

He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. “I’ll pay you tomorrow,” he told the door. Again he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. “What I pay you,” he informed it, “is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.”

“I think otherwise,” the door said. “Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt.”

In his desk drawer he found the contract; since signing it he had found it necessary to refer to the document many times. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip.

“You discover I’m right,” the door said. It sounded smug.

From the drawer beside the sink Joe Chip got a stainless steel knife; with it he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his apt’s money-gulping door.

“I’ll sue you,” the door said as the first screw fell out.

Joe Chip said, “I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it.”

Bruno Latour (Jim Johnson), "Mixing Humans and Nonhumans Together: The Sociology of a Door-Closer"

On a freezing day in February, posted on the door of the Sociology Department at Walla Walla University, Washington, could be seen a small hand-written notice: "The door-closer is on strike, for God's sake, keep the door closed." This fusion of labor relations, religion, advertisement, semiotics, and technique in one single insignificant fact is exactly the sort of thing I want to help describe.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


I am awake. It's about 4:00a.m. The rain and wind have me worried about the roof again. There are a few water stains on my office ceiling and sometimes a trickle down the inside of a window. My son's room has another spot. I think the flashing around the chimney may need some work. I am anxious, and I am awake. And behind the worry about the roof, come all the others. This is pretty normal. The anxiety a routine.

Will is awake. It's a little after 4:30a.m. He has a cold and a bad cough. It wakes him up, and so he makes his way over to our room. He is remarkably chipper, and he politely requests cough medicine. My wife obliges. I use his interruption and the light from the bathroom to check the ceilings. No new stains in either room. No trickle down the inside of the window.

Cough medicine distributed. Potty breaks all around. Will scampers to our bed toward the promise of a snuggle. We are all awake. Will talks for a spell about something I cannot remember. I am already trying to doze off. He falls silent and begins gently rubbing my cheeks. He combs the hair away from my forehead. These gestures we have performed a thousand times. And then he grabs my nose, just as gently. This, I think, is pure joy. I am melting.

And then he falls asleep, and so do I.

Monday, March 18, 2013

ATTW 2013

Here is my 2013 Association of Teachers of Technical Writing Conference presentation. It ends abruptly as I moved to discuss student samples. These can be found at The slides, with partial script and notes, are embedded below. Enjoy!

Assessing Popular Science Writing in the Classroom