Monday, March 3, 2014

Reading Notes: Class Meeting 3/4/14

The Living Text

Latour's student and professor dialogue was a welcome play with form, but also an interesting exchange dealing with the very-well understood student frustrations when working with abstraction. My favorite exchange there had to do with the nature of text. Latour's professor offers, "The text...[is] the functional equivalent of a laboratory. It's a place for trials, experiments, and simulations" (149).

This speaks to me on several levels. First, it suggests that texts are not static, chiseled in stone, received wisdom from the author. Rather, if texts are laboratories, then they are inherently experimental, mutable as new data emerges, and can be places of productive action. The underground press movement is an interesting application of this idea; the texts in the movement were certainly places of trials and experiments. Ideas were placed on trial, perhaps not the scientific meaning of the word in the metaphor above but still valid. When voices are not represented in the media, the disenfranchised can either be silent or organize. The underground press movement writers chose to organize and use their texts to give full a full vetting of the social issues like equality, the environment, and war. Their texts, once received, could be interpreted; just as scientists interpret the data of an experiment, the readers were able to form hypotheses and determine results.

Example of text as "laboratory": Image from the Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church. Their Living Text program seeks to engage with multiple religious texts. The church believes,"While we are changed by the narratives we encounter, we also shape them, and when we participate in creating a collective account of our church by sharing our own stories, we make a sort of wiki-church (a collaborative community, in which all members participate in shaping and adding to the church and its story)." Texts - even sacred ones - are laboratories for experimentation, interaction, and change. 

The idea that a text is living and active appears elsewhere in Latour. He writes, "We have to lay continuous connections leading from one local interaction to the other places, times and agencies through which a local site is made to do something" (173). I am not sure I have this concept fully figured out yet, but here is my play so far:

First, what do we mean by "local interaction"? I thought of this as being a node in a network, a localized space in which interaction - exchange - occurs through "continuous connections". What I am fascinated by is the idea that these connections (in the form of "times and agencies") are the catalysts for doing something. 

By virtue of being connected, a node becomes activated and capable of performing work.

If a text is a local interaction, which it can be (if we think of Foucualt's argument that books are nodes in networks), then we can understand it as a connected object that can be "made to do something". Action is embedded in texts. This has strong implications for theory explaining the social (forgive me Latour for using this word as an adjective) functions of the underground press - a laboratory out which experimentation causes activity.

Latour and Foucault:

Speaking of Foucault... (and by the way, I took this quiz and got Foucault as my result. Coincidence or synchronicity?)

Latour describes two competing ways of understanding how "social" can be understood.

There is the more traditional and familiar idea that "there exists a social 'context' in which non-social activities take place; it is a specific domain of reality" (3-4). This conjures for me an image of a space in which people and objects commingle, and it is this addition of some human interaction that makes the space social. This reminds me of Foucault's field of discursive dispersion. The field then is is that inherently social space where objects and people come together. We can understand the field as a domain of sociability. The space is social. We understand things as social because they occur is this recognizable space that allows for interaction.

A bar: a space understood to be "social" because it allows for interaction between humans and objects. It creates social conditions and social connections. Image by Glenn Harper posted on Flickr

However, Latour rejects this idea. Instead of a social space, we should understand social as connectivity. He writes, "'Society', far from being the context 'in which' everything is framed, should rather be construed as one of the many connecting elements circulating inside tiny conduits" (4-5). Here, social-ness is not a lens through which to view actions (as having some social/human/interactive quality), but is a way human and objects connect. It is not the bar-space; it is perhaps the collection of activities that bring the people and objects into the space.

But is still has me begging the question...

What is Social?

Latour tells us that "social is not a place, a thing, a domain, or a kind of stuff but a provisional movement of new associations" (238). As above, social is not the space but rather the associations. Yet, this understanding is complicated by this statement:
"Things, quasi-objects, and attachments are the real center of the social world, not the agent, person, member, or participant" (238).
On one hand Latour tells us that social is not a thing, then later on the same page, he argues that things are at the center of the social world. What does this mean?

I suppose that how I choose to understand this is that Latour does not want us to confuse social as a tangible objects or cohesive space, yet he does want us to understand that objects and connections, while not themselves the definition of social, are at the heart of society. Consider the piazza below:

Piazza di Spagna image posted by Gaspa on Flickr

The piazza space is one in which people and objects - like a fountain and benches - intermingle. Like the bar, the piazza itself is not social. Rather, this fountain sits at the center of what we can understand to be social because in it/through it connections and associations are formed. Those connections/memories/exchanges between the people and the fountain and the piazza and the architecture are what we should think of as social. In this way the objects allow the social, and not the people. I think this turns social on its head. In the traditional definition, social is all about humans being sociable. This is not about human interaction, but about humans interacting with objects to make associations.

It's about connections, relations, and proximity. Very Foucault, I would say.

Rethinking the Macro and Micro:

Switching gears, there was an interesting connection between Latour and Spinuzzi in regard to macro and micro levels. Latour seems to refute some of the assumptions about these terms that Spinuzzi utilizes in his work.

Spinuzzi defines three levels: macroscopic, mesoscopic, and microscopic. He maintains the sense that the macro level is somehow "above" the other levels; the other levels are embedded within the macro, all-encompassing, big picture level. Conversely, the microscopic is minor, smaller, and myopic.

Latour rejects this hierarchical conceptualization. Instead, he argues that these levels exists in a "flat landscape" in which all levels are equal. A macroscopic concept might have more connections in this two-dimensional space, but it not necessarily more significant. It might have more breadth, but not situated "above" the microscopic level. He writes that when we render the landscape flat, "what is now highlighted much more vividly than before are all the connections, the cables, the means of transportation, the vehicles linking places together" (176). Again, Latour emphasizes the role of connectivity and relationships rather than ant individual or object in a network.

Latour's flat levels and Spinuzzi's hierarchical/embedded levels

I am not sure yet what conclusions or implications I see from these differing understandings, but I feel that Latour's view is inherently more democratic. Giving equal standing to ideas or activity does not privilege or diminish anything. This shift in assigning value could be potentially useful in legitimizing the subaltern. Simply because alternative media, for example, is not as well-connected as the mainstream media, we should not think of it as somehow less-than or just a smaller piece of the larger media. With further exploration, this could be useful.

Spinuzzi and CHAT on Mediation:

As is my pattern, I become fixated on a particular concept and begin to see(k?) it in each new reading. Lately that concept is delivery. Perhaps because my OoS is a delivery system, I am more aware of how this concept has ramifications spreading through several course concepts: networks (delivering information to and between nodes), digital composition (delivery becomes a more dynamic consideration in digital spaces), and mediating the delivery (how the rhetorician exerts agency over content and form). The CHAT authors work with this last concept extensively - mediation as opposed to distribution.

Spinuzzi also explores mediation in his chapter. He states, "These external artifacts, Vygotsky emphasizes, do not simply help humans do things they would do anyway; the artifacts qualitatively transform the activity, often in ways that exceed the unmediated capacity of the human being" (69). We use artifacts to mediate activity in ways that we are incapable of doing on our own. In composition, we use artifacts - like hypertext - to mediate or change our content to produce meaning we would otherwise be unable to convey without that artifact/tool. The effect is that "in using mediational artifacts, Michael Cole argues, people themselves are psychologically transformed; they begin to think, act, and value differently" (69).

This highlights the importance of reconsidering delivery as the CHAT authors argue, reinserting this element more significantly in our understanding of how rhetoric is produced. Mediation extends human ability and profoundly transforms the audience.

OoS as Boundary Crossing and Actants:

My blog would not be complete if I did not write about action/activism/activity from theory, so here is this week's installment.

Latour argues:

  • "Instead of simply transporting effects without transforming them, each of the points in the text may become a bifurcation, an event, or the origin of a new translation. As soon as the actors are treated not as intermediaries but as mediators, they render the movement of the social visible to the reader" (128).
  • "The tools, relationships, social languages, and so forth may be very different; the linked activities need 'boundary crossers' who can mediate between them" (79).
  • "'Action is simply not a property of humans but an association of actants'...The more actants are brought into a composition, and the more tightly interconnected they are, the stronger it tends to be...allowing the assemblage of actants to cohere as a single actant" (90).
An assemblage of actants in cohesion. Image of crowd gathered for Martin Luther King Jr. posted by Washington Post
What does this all mean? Well, I take the first quote to mean that readers and writers can change the content as they receive and relay it (the premise of the Living Text project of the church above). Nodes are not just passive conduits; they are active interlocutors. It is not just that an individual can be changed by discourse, but that discourse is changed by the individual as well. It's a powerful understanding of our field. For my OoS, it suggests that the US was not simply transmitting information across its members, but it was mediating the movement as well.

Secondly, the UPS is a boundary crosser, mediating between the linked activities (making underground newspapers). These activities are linked in the sense that they are producing similar forms based on overlapping influences, yet the papers often existed in isolation using different tools and having different relationships. The UPS was able to cross these boundaries by (re)distributing newspapers across these isolated pockets of action.

Lastly, action is brought to fruition not by humans but by human associations - the connections allow the participants to be "made to do something". The last quote suggests that the stronger these associations, the stronger the resulting action. The closer the connections, the more unified the actants and by extension their work. The UPS allowed members of the movement to be more tightly unified, and by sharing content, the readers across the country had a more singular message to become a more singular movement. This understanding makes the work of the UPS more significant than just a mail service. 

Works Cited:

Latour, Bruno. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford UP, 2007. Print.

Spinuzzi, Clay. Network: Theorizing Knowledge Work in Telecommunications. New York: Cambridge UP, 2008. Print.

1 comment:

  1. Suzanne, at this point, I just enjoy reading your posts. I like the connections you are making as a way to process your readings. Great job! And I got Thomas Hobbes as my result.