ENG 730: Play, Agency, and Activism

My main takeaway from this week’s readings concerns questions of agency. More specifically, I saw the possible tension between the human players and the nonhuman elements of the game through its rules or “procedural rhetoric.” This is the more localized interaction of agency. But, in a broader sense, one also has the agency of the designer, perhaps distributed into the game, and the agency of the larger ideologies and structures that further inform the designer.

Rather than a “magic circle” outside or “ordinary life,” as Huizinga would see it, playing a game is more of a crossroads or gathering where human and nonhuman open up a particular form of interacting, an “assemblage,” to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, where larger experiences and practices may emerge and where the constitutive components, themselves, may also change. I want to argue more what I mean below, but first a quick note on agency.

I’m using agency here in the way that people like Bruno Latour, John Law, and Michel Callon have taken it up in work in Actor-Network Theory.  In this outlook, agency is more about the possibility of acting and interacting in the world a  certain way. Different actors have different possible actions, sometimes passive or active, sometimes sentient or insentient. A mug can hold liquids. A dog can bark or run. A human can generally perform a whole range of actions. And as different actors interact, link up, or break apart, argues Latour, both new actions, situations, materials, relations, etc., arise.

His famous gun example makes this clear. A gun alone cannot do much, though it can shine or exert weight on a table. Similarly, a human without a gun can’t shoot anyone, though they have a considerable array of possible actions. In order to shoot, the human must grab the gun, creating a gun-human hybrid, then decide to shoot.

Through this framework, I think one can see that the agency of the game rules presents a certain experience when the human players interact. But this agency is fraught and contested, and as Bogost and Flanagan discuss, it can be used for different things.

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CCR 633: Thinking through Things, Dwelling, and Fourfold

This past weekend, my parents and I attended a concert at a Anyela’s a winery just outside of Skaneateles. From our seats, we saw lanes of grapes, stretched out like topography along the hills. Behind the stage, the lake reflected back the setting sun in bleeding reds and oranges staining the the once-blue water.  The stage rose up like a wooden ark, seeming to sit becalmed amid the people, trees, lake, and grapevines. And the musicians–a motley collection of strings, brass, harpsichord, and players–played as the sky dimmed through stirred-up rainbows into muted black.

In time, crickets chirped amid bow-strokes and the temperature fell. Under-dressed for the cold, I buttoned up my cardigan and sipped at my Cabernet Franc–its living brethren growing on the hills nearby.  When the sky was a steady darkness, fireworks perched over the shoulder of a distant hill, occasionally sneaking a muted rumble into the music.

At one level, these noises and sites–combined with our distant seats–got “in the way” and impeded the “piece” of Vivaldi or Sufjan Stevens from reaching us, “the audience.” Vivaldi may have pulled out his (wig) hair imagining how fireworks, crickets, and someone tripping over a stair in the dark would fit is double cello concerto.

This is what my parent’s thought. But the whole time I kept thinking about Heidegger and Rickert’s ambient rhetoric, thinking how this particular concert was incredibly ambient, even down to the fourfold of Heidegger’s dwelling. How the crickets and the cold, the sloped earth and changing sky, fit together, indeed “spoke together.”

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CCR 711: Hauntology/Ontology and the Structures of Exclusion

“Haunting these [education] policy discourses is the existence of an absent presence. There are no bodies recognized here. Just test statistics. Research-based outcomes. A cornucopia of lifeless data. In the stolid precision of statistical measurement and evidence-based research, the introduction of bodies to the discussion is a dangerous and messy act. Bodies have history. Bodies transform in context. Bodies are mobile. Bodies are unpredictable. Bodies are not always compliant”

–Nirmala Erevelles, Disability and Difference in Global Contexts

“124 was spiteful.”
Tony Morrison, Beloved

The notion that Erevelles draws from Patricia Williams of an “absent presence” that “haunts” these systems of bureaucratic procedure struck me in particular, connecting to some previous thinking on “The Specter of Disability” and the exclusionary practices that the withdrawing nature of “normal” bodies can create.

As she notes, these systems can create imperializing ghettos that create outcasts in a given system, like an internal colony. Those excluded from the norm get walled away, often literally, in a material segregation that exists, despite the legal restrictions against segregation.  In the case of disability, this can often have more paternal forms, like “special education.” But as Erevelles points out, the paternalistic framing and “good” intentions cannot suppress the sense of punishment that such interventions have.

Reflecting this, Erevelles writes, “Educational institutions  present themselves as agents of benevolence for the billions of students it purports to serve on a daily basis. However, these institutions. . . fail to educate ‘different’ students . . . because they have transformed themselves into institutions of social control  intent on following bureaucratic procedures” (118). Far from neutral, these procedures perpetuate the normal and exclude the ‘different’ through various logics. For example, as Erevelles notes in her later chapters, the logic of humanistic citizenship implicitly excludes those with severe disability, even in its more liberal, inclusive variants. Locked into these logics, educational policy becomes colonial and ableist.

I think Erevelles’ grounded historical-materialist approach to these issues presents a powerful bedrock. But reading, I also was considering the way these “hauntings” might fit into a more ontological outlook on world.

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Internet Spaces

“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
There is a rapture on the lonely shore,
There is society, where none intrudes,
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not man the less, but Nature more,
From these our interviews, in which I steal
From all I may be, or have been before,
To mingle with the Universe, and feel
What I can ne’er express, yet cannot all conceal.”

-Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage

Starting off a reflection about social media with a quote from Byron about the solitude of nature seems counter intuitive. A “society, where none intrudes” clashes with the usual rhetoric surrounding the networked culture of social media and the digital, and the “lonely shore” and “pathless woods” probably lacks WiFi–or broadband.

But bringing in Byron highlights the paradox of place that the Internet and digital technology brings. We are networked selves, accessing the Internet in multiple ways from multiple places or portals, as our physical self continues to take up space and air “irl.” And much like the narrative locales of Romantic poetry, many digital spaces are constructed and emergent. They may have a url pinning them down, just as Byron’s saga traces the physical geography of Southern Europe, but Byron’s textual place–his “pathless woods” and roaring sea–arrive at us in ephemeral language. They are authored locales.

While I want to get into more concrete considerations of method, I want to pause initially and consider what “space” or “community” constitutes the subject of Internet inquiry.  More specifically, I think that the quality of born-digital space forces us to look at space as an ephemeral, emergent gathering, and this should affect our methods. As Richard Rogers argues in Digital Methods, our methods should “follow the medium.” For now, I want to reflect on what that medium is.

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Embodied Borders

“Not only does Roman society depend upon moral codes being as stable as Latin morphology, but it also demands that those codes emerge in visible, easily detectable signs. By using notions of the body simultaneously to create and reinforce social distinctions, the elite in Rome could check the power of marginalized groups such as women and ambitious politicians from outside Rome.”

-Anthony Corbeill, Nature Embodied

The distinction that the Romans had regarding “nature” v. training seems to represent a tangled area. Discussing delivery, for example, Quintillian writes,  “without the least reluctance, I allow that the chief power rests with nature,” although nature can be “assisted by art” (Institutes of Oratory, III.12). In other words, one must have a certain set of skills initially in order to build upon–like a good memory, a strong voice, etc. While one can certainly improve upon these qualities, both Cicero and Quintilian seem to stress the importance of a latent sound body and mind.

Complicating this, however, both Cicero and Quintillian describe ornate hand gestures, ways of planting the feet, modes of walking, etc., that lead to a “natural” delivery.  While some of these might sound inherently natural, like pointing, others are less intuitive, with specific placement of fingers in unnatural patterns.  Taking command of these gestures and setting the semiotic bridges of signifier and signified, training could construct these seemingly “natural” gestures.  Such codification creates stability and comprehension, but such stability, just like any monolingual intervention, often leads to exclusion.

As Anthony Corbeill writes, “tacit understanding between speaker and audience ultimately works to distinguish between bodies that accurately convey a speaker’s mind by moving in accordance with nature and those that can be marked as unnatural and therefore in some way deviant.” Constructing signs that constitute the norm, the “natural” within proper rhetorical discourse, instruction can be a powerful tool for exclusion.

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Thought Germs, Filter Bubbles, and Virality

Sunday night, a friend and I ended up talking about the trolley problem, a thought experiment by Philippa Foot that aims at the  differences that minor changes can make in our moral calculations. While the problem itself is interesting, it mainly launched us toward a related topic: moral consensus and disagreement, i.e. what to do when what you think is “right” differs from what I think is “right.”

Though I didn’t mention it in the conversation, the debate brought me back to studying medical ethics, particularly the beliefs of Christian Science and Jehovah Witnesses. Christian Science says that diseases arise from sin and prayer provides the only solution. As one can expect, the reliance on spiritual healing does not always work, and in the case of children, the result can be tragic, with families getting prosecuted for child death. A similar death from belief occurs with Jehovah Witness, only by refusing blood transfusions instead of medicine at large.

Here, two things are particularly interesting. First, while many people will consider this a foolish, tragic loss of life, one must also consider it from their perspective: either a single, painful death or an eternity in damnation. From this belief system, the rejection of medicine is morally right. This does not condone the belief system, but only shows why the stakes are so high.

Second, many people may feel fine with letting the parent die from their beliefs, but the sticking point is the “innocent” child. In other words, you can lose your own life for your beliefs, but shouldn’t cost the lives of others. This fallout from belief challenges the libertarian bias that many Americans may feel: we are not as autonomous as we like to think and our beliefs affect our society and those around us.

These two elements–the persistence of radically different views and their affect on others–force one to examine the role of belief and the mechanisms of belief as a moral and ethical issue. In a sense it echoes Emmanuel Levinas: we are always in relation to one another and have a moral imperative to respect that relation.

Particularly, I want to consider the role of the Internet and Internet technology in this: how it might help and hinder the process of belief.

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“Humanity” in the Hybrid

[My first blog post for CCR 733]

Digital humanities, and a good portion of academia at large, is a bit like RoboCop in RoboCop 3. For those unfamiliar with the brilliantly corny 90s flick,  the plot is essentially this: large, militarized corporation is trying to evict people for an international business deal. To get RoboCop on their side, the company tries to tune down his human elements and make him more susceptible to programmed orders. Of course, this doesn’t work, and RoboCop gets involved with the rebels, later joined by police and blue collar Detroit citizens, to fight the corporate army.

“Humanity,” in the movie, seems at odds with programming. Or more particularly, humanity lets RoboCop morally settle his conflicting programming  when law enforcement is no longer on the side of the people. RoboCop, unlike the fully robotic assassin he fights in the film, is human. And through that humanity, he can behave with compassion, violating immoral orders.

I think a similar fear is lurking in academia, especially in the humanities, that emotions and all the human elements that speak to our “human condition” are getting vacuumed out by technology and neoliberal policy.

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Rethinking social media spaces as storage

Like most adolescent Americans, or so I crudely assume, I used social media to “express myself” with photographs, quirky quizzes, links to other media sites, etc., and to contact friends, giving a space to socialize outside school.

Though persisting in that usage for a while, I’ve started seeing many social media sites, and similar apps, as tools for storing, grouping, searching, and sharing information about a variety of topics. Doing so has really shifted the way I’ve been approaching them, providing a different sense of self and a helpful tool for research and the classroom.

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Ontology of revision

editing

For most freshmen, revision seems like an afterthought. But in more process-heavy writing, it’s central. Revising the argument, the thinking behind the argument, the organization of the argument, and the grammar and syntax that laces and threads these thoughts together.

Revision, as its name suggests, is a “re-vision,” a re-seeing, and re-consideration of the work.  (Before one turns it in, presumably).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the ontology of revision. Phrased another way, what mode of being does revision cultivate–or vise versa?

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