On Throwing Out the Construct with the Bathwater

So a friend on mine shared a funny list of tweets taking aim at the idea of gender, in particular the gender reveal parties that many parents throw when they are expecting. My personal favorite went something like "colour-code your infants so that strangers know what their genitals look like." It's a lovely list of remarks ridiculing our sometimes overwhelming desire to know gender. As a parent, I have personally experienced what can only be described as a kind of moral panic in the face of gender confusion or misidentification.

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However, there is a trend across these tweets that troubles me, and that's the use of the language of "social construct" or "construct" as a kind mic drop moment in debates about gender (and other things beside). Typically, the invocation of "construct" is used as the argument against a concern or interest in gender. That is, people in these tweets typically say things like "gender is a construct" full stop. They generally go no further, as if establishing that gender is a construct is in itself an argument against gender (or an argument against caring about it so much). Now, I understand that many people who take gender seriously treat it is a kind of natural or biological feature, and so arguing that it's a construct is a good way to take them on. Indeed, it's the die hard essentialism of the gender police that most troubles opponents. But interestingly enough, in critiquing gender as a construct, opponents partake of the same biological essentialism they are taking issue with. Opponents of gendering babies argue that gender is a construct and so not real, which is to say not grounded biologically. The implication here is only that which is biological is real, and, furthermore only that which is real is good. Gender is a bad concept because it is made up, this mic drop moment suggests. This spells trouble for me, generally speaking, because most things we value are made up.

 

Now, one could argue that the whole list of tweets was just for funnies, a lark. But these one-off and admittedly smug "sorry to burst your bubble" moments have consequences. We must be careful in dismissing anything as a "construct." This line of thinking suggests that gender is a construct, which is to say made up, which is to say not real and so of no real value. Making the good reducible to some form of biological essentialism or even realism has a checkered past to say the least. I am much more interested in an argument that says gender is a bad construct. Justice is no more or less a construct than gender. Is gender as we know it a good construct or a bad construct? And for who? And when? A whole of host of interesting questions and contingencies present themselves when we start this way. Plus, it avoids the very biological essentialism that critics of these treatments of gender rightly want to avoid. William Connolly once argued, "social constructionism" shouldn't be the conclusion of an argument but an invitation to argue.

No Other Moment Besides

We are now well into the heart of the semester. Midterms loom (if you give midterms, which I hear are still a thing). It's time for an annual round of "what's wrong with my students?" posts. 

First things first, it is important to recognize that the kids these days narrative is largely composed and maintained by the news media. At some point in the history of journalism, somebody realized "The kids are alright" wouldn't move copy, and so we have suffered from endless stories about why kids can't write, why kids are having sex all the time and generally doing stupid shit that puts them at risk. And, of course, most of it is true. Kids have a bad habit of doing stupid shit and not caring about what we want from them. And kids are probably worse now more than ever. Not like when we were kids, which I myself remember as a series of injustices perpetuated upon me by people older and taller than me. 

I am not interested in debating the veracity of such claims. I am interested in the attitudes cultivated by such claims and their concomitant acts. In particular, I am interested in what this narrative does to teachers, what it does to pedagogy. 

Take for example, this Psychology Today column about student "resilience": "Declining Student Resilience: A Serious Problem for Colleges." (The evidence here is just other people making the claim that students aren't resilient. Fair enough.)

Again, I have no doubt that teachers have these experiences. I have no doubt these are truthful accounts. Again, I don't care. But three concerns do present themselves to me.

  1. The instinct to treat such incidents as symptomatic. As academics, we are trained to see the general from the particular: a particular form, subject matter, or attitude in a literary work, for instance, is symptomatic of its larger historical or cultural context, or symptomatic of the author's particular set of commitments or ideological positions. This might be a good way to deal with texts, but it's a pretty shitty way of dealing with people, in particular students still in the process of formation. I see my students for a fraction of their lives. Three days a week, for a couple of hours at time for sixteen weeks (assuming the video game playing, pot smoking fornicators bother to show up). That's it. I'll say it again, that's it. I am deeply uncomfortable reading anything they do as symptomatic of something else. As someone invested in actor-network-theory, whose's mantra is follow the actors, I let my students describe themselves. I offer no explanations as to why they do what they do. I find such explanations empirically and ethically suspect. And I find such explanations unhelpful. I am not here to diagnose my students; I am here to teach them. 
  2. We are part of the story. Such stories, such reports, assume such symptoms exist independently of the pedagogical context, of the teaching moment. This is how these students are in some vacuum sealed reality: it's essential to their character. As if student subjectivity is a walled city unchanged by what confronts it. That is, these stories, by privileging the teacher's response, generally fail to fully explore how these incidents might be driven by the instructor. How is the pedagogy and the power of the instructor creating (or not creating) empowerment on the part of students. I suspect that many times students crack under the pressure of assignments and projects over which they have little control and, paradoxically (but commonly) assignments that provide no creative constraints. For instance, "write about what you want to write about" isn't any more empowering than "please memorize chapter two; it is a trap that students see right through. Maybe students aren't resilient because they know full well that resistance is futile? (They might be lazy-ass snap-chatters, but they aren't stupid.)
  3. What are we doing here, exactly? Woven into these complaints about student resilience is a thread I can't help but pull at: namely, there isn't a whole lot of faculty resistance here either. This strikes me as a story about how hard is it to do your job: a complaint that students arrive in need of help and support and guidance in being students. Like a time when a colleague once complained that most students in his introduction to poetry class hadn't read much poetry, and if they had is was mostly stuff like Shel Silverstein (What the hell is wrong with Shel Silverstein this young assistant professor muttered to himself at the time?). Right, they are in an intro poetry class that you teach. Teach them some poems. There is also in these stories no hint of reassessing our mission, which the above story nods to. As I have written elsewhere about pedagogy, why shouldn't students resist us. Maybe their resistance, if it's symptomatic of anything, is bad pedagogy, or unthinking pedagogy. I often think of my son and myself as a father in such moments. Being honest, but also guessing, I suspect that at least half of the times I get upset with my son my reasons are not good ones. I am not upset because his behavior is a manifestation of some problematic trait or attitude. I am not mad because he could have hurt himself or someone else. I'm mad, plain and simply, cause the little shit said "no" to me. To me! He thwarted my will, and I am the adult, I'm in charge. I get mad because of my own lack of resistance in the face of his resistance, which is nothing other than his unique existence in the world. Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps this realization makes me the kind of parent who will raise a child destined to disappoint his professors and concerned news anchors and bloggers around the world.

Every thing one could and has said about students today is probably true, but I don't care about that truth. I care about what these stories and their incessant telling do to us. I care about what they do to students. How do these stories position our students? As problems to be solved? As a jumble of symptoms to be treated? We learn nothing about ourselves as teachers this way. My advice, for what's it worth, is to follow the students. Take everything they say at face value. This is no mere naïveté that I am proposing: students are neither saints nor angels. They are people, and people are complex from moment to moment. We know our students briefly and in finite ways. Be there for them then, in that moment, and no other moment besides. 

[UPDATE: Nathan Kreuter rightly pointed out that I am being a little unfair to Grey. I should have been clearer that it's not so much Grey's post itself; I agree with much of what he says in the Psychology Today piece. (What strikes me about his argument is how such a lack of autonomy persists in college.) It's just the way these stories concatenate that troubles me. The comments on his column are evidence of what I am talking about.]

Five Image Comics With Range

In response to the call from Rhetsy, here is my list of five. Here are five Image Comics that I am currently into. They are all early in their runs. Together, they demonstrate the range of contemporary comics. 

Material #1  

Material #1  

Material   

Weaving together several, at this point unconnected, story lines, Material explores and addresses overtly political themes (police violence and the consequences of terrorism) and philosophical questions (the nature of intelligence, the mediation of reality). It's jagged and often flat art pairs well with equal parts dense and sparse writing. Additionally, each issue features a short essay by a guest author.  


Kaptara #1  

Kaptara #1  

 Kaptara 

"Hilarious space opera" is perhaps the best way to describe Kaptara. "Cleverly veiled cultural critique" is another. Sucked through an inter-dimensional rift, our anti-hero Keith Kanga (a gay, Indian biologist) is thrown into a world populated by cat tanks, a floating orb that communicates only in cliched aphorisms such as "Every journey begins with a single step," and Glomps, a tribe of hyper-masculine elves that speak like members of a Men's Rights Organization. Colorful art resonates with crisp, witty dialogue. 


Descender #1

Descender #1

Descender

Centered around the adorable TIM-21, a robot boy who holds the key to unlocking a tragic mystery, Descender hits all the right science fiction notes while pulling the appropriate heart strings. Layered upon TIM-21's story is an exploration of the limits of robotics and the political complexities of trans-specious interaction. Beautifully painted to allow both for intricate details to standout and an ambience to emerge, Descender does a lot of its work visually. That said, the writing holds its own alongside stunning images.


ODY-C #1

ODY-C #1

ODY-C

The Odessey. In Space. No men. Such is a sparse description of a truly mindblowing comic. Fraction writes ODY-C in Homeric Verse (Issue #4 contains a short essay by a classicist), which creates quite the foil for Christian Ward's breathing-taking and fucking wild art. Working with and against the original story, ODY-C seems designed to mess with expectations whether they be gendered expectations of heroic Greek gods, the writing and organization of comic books, or just how long one can look at panel and still feel engaged by it. 


8house Arclight #1  

8house Arclight #1  

8house Arclight

Looking for a comic that provides a translation guide? One with ambiguous speciation and sexual differentiation? A vague, Chaucerian quest? Looking for all of these things? 8house Arclight is the comic for you. Only two issues are out, but this comic has already found its stride while not yet showing its hand. Sparsely written by Brandon Graham (using the style he honed penning Prophet) and hauntingly drawn by Marian Churchland, 8house Arclight is worth investing in early. Also, there is magic.

Spindly Arms

Here is a little ditty, an excised portion of an article I am writing with Steve Katz on posthumanism and Burke's weird formulation of predestination. It's an attempt to tell a posthuman story that privileges predestination, which Burke describes as "a combination of people and things" that generates outcomes beyond the will of particular individuals, over entelechy, which sees outcomes the product of internal drives (or causes): 


I’m watching my son playing baseball. He works with the bat, he wears a glove and a cap and moves across mowed grass to touch synthetic bases. Sometimes, if the stars align, he catches a ball, around which much of the game gathers. Now, Will is up to bat. The bat extends delicately from his spindly arms. He gets a hit; undersized, he is nevertheless determined and coordinated, traits that come from any number of genetic, environmental, and cultural forces. Even momentary, kairotic forces are at play: he looks to see that I am watching. Does that change the dynamic? How can I understand his hit, or properly, the hit? From where does it come?

There is something profoundly posthumanist about the superstitions of athletes. How does the hit emerge and why? We could see the hit entelechially, as always already residing in the technology of baseball. The bat wants to hit the ball as all hammers want to hit nails. The ball wants to be struck (and, to be honest, not struck) as all nails crave the blow of the hammer. But that bat is not not my son. It is not an external element coming from nowhere, and then being brought to bear. What would an account privileging predestination disclose? And how would it do that, what would it feature? The hit, of course, is predestined, but not in terms of any one thing’s entelechy, or even “entelechy” generally. The hit is posthumanist, a moment when inside/outside disappears into an act amongst as a particular “combination of people and things” (Burke, Religion 272). Not a function of what the bat might want, to borrow from Kevin Kelly’s somewhat entelechial formulation. Will and the bat and the wind and my attention and the pitch and the ball and Will’s hands, and a family friend who played in the majors all materialize (all these things happen) when/as one moving object connects with another moving object, which Ted Williams once described as the hardest thing to do in sports.

There is certainly nothing groundbreaking in this litany. But, when considered through a speculative predestination, which can at any moment, zoom in on any act and actor and trace its contribution (even while acknowledging it’s independence is purely methodologically). No mysterious, entelechial force (either human or nonhuman)  is needed. Or perhaps a better way to describe it is the entelechy seems to be a singular driving force whereas predestination is driven by a mixture of actants, to borrow from Latour, Bennett, Barad and others. So the meeting of the two moving objects is really the arrival, in that moment, of many things each on its own trajectory, which is itself shaped by other things. This isn’t a billiard ball causal relationship of blind and mute matter colliding; predestination privileges the blurry interactions of matter rather than the entelechy of particular objects. Tools like a bat do not have an entelechy but series of relations in and through which it comes a bat. And as the bat, so my son.

Mothers Day

Mothers Day should be a day for both celebration and commiseration

When Jodi and I first began to tentatively share the story of Annie, it was amazing how quickly others shared similar stories with us: lost children, miscarriages, infertility. It was immensely comforting to feel these collective bonds of course. To know that you are not alone in your grief is a balm. But Jodi and I kept coming back to how surprising it was that we were hearing some of these stories for the first time: we were close to many of these people. We were surprised (and sometimes shocked) by the long silences that had preceded these moments of commiseration. We didn't know what to make of it.

We still don't. There are many good reasons why we don't always want to share our hurts. That we all at times suffer in silence is a heartbreaking fact of life. And so there are many good reasons to be kind and gentle to one another: we each harbor such heartaches. Happy Mothers Day to all of you who have lost children. Whether shared or silent, know that your heartache is felt by others. 

Better (Not Smaller) Footprints

So, I am trying to put down some coherent thoughts on the trope of the carbon footprint and how it (perhaps) performs a troublesome ontology for environmentalism. Here goes: 

Carbon footprint has wandered in and out of environmental discourse for sometime now. It’s staying power is impressive and is a testimony to its power as a potent argumentative trope. It has no doubt shaped people’s attitudes and actions in ways environmentalists and environmental activists find amelioratory. Carbon footprint compels us to attend to our environmental impact in embodied as well as quantifiable ways: how does what we do and how we move discernibly impact our environment?

There is, nevertheless, something that doesn’t quite sit well in the metaphor of the footprint: the way it positions humans relative to their environments. Again, it bears productively upon movement and place, which constitute the two key elements of an environment. It very much grasps the stakes of footprints, but it does so at the cost of making the primary ethical stance one of absence, of disconnection, and one cast in terms of the lack of movement. The one who does the least does best. I argue that this hands-off (or foots-off) approach comes at price. In short, any ethics that disparages relations and the traces they leave can be no ethics, which are fundamentally relational. I want to trace the emergence and persistence of the footprint metaphor (affirmatively) and then read it through (and against) various new materialist and speculative approaches in order to suggest its ontological dimensions and limitations. What ways of being in the world does it de/prescribe and how does that ontology itself do rhetorical work that may in fact run counter to the sentiments of its proponents? I want as well to perform an affirmative recovery of the footprint trope in service of a more robust environmentalism.

Footprints compose. They can composes otherwise. But they cannot float above.  

Footprints compose. They can composes otherwise. But they cannot float above.  

The footprint works synecdotally for much contemporary environmentalism: absence, wildness, wilderness all suggest or argue for an ethics of distance, which I (following in the footsteps of environmental critics like Cronon and Birch and Latour) treat as suspect. This is not to suggest that environmentalism is reducible to this trope or that the trope perfectly and universally represents the work of environmentalism: it is a but a part, but its prominence suggests it might be a more concrete and strategic manifestation of environmentalism’s ontology presently.  

I want to think more intensely, more rhetorical, about the footprint. For instance, to think in terms of movement, embodiment, place and inscription, which are all sideline by our particular employment of footprint. What is it to place one’s feet, to inscribe with one’s own body? And then would more or less remain the proper continuum for adjudication? Furthermore, in privileging the quantitative over the qualitative (more or less rather than kind or quality) the move is fundamentally arhetorical.

To think intensely about/with the footprint metaphor beyond size, beyond measurement, not because such approaches are wrong or not useful, but because they severely limit our ability to think through the trails we make, the paths we trace as we move with/in an environment, which is something more than an already existing container. A walk through the woods. A walk instead of a drive. Thinking fully about our footprints, and where the meaning of better is precisely what is up for grabs, at stake, composed. 

 

Passenger

It's been two years to the day since Annie Louise Rivers was born and then died. 

It's a hard sentence to write. It's a harder fact to accept. 

But life accepts it for you. People grieve of course, but I'm rather partial to the idea that grief is something that overcomes you. It's something that happens to you. You are grief's passenger.

Annie's ashes are in an urn right over there. Everyday. Some days I notice them. Some days, honestly, I don't. Other days, then, I make myself notice them. Confront them. Confront her. In those moments, I can feel the pain, the physical pain, of hearing the news. I can feel the bittersweet joy of her in my arms. I can feel the moment when they finally take her away.

And then the feelings pass. They fade into the background noise of daily life and stay there for a while.

And that's how it goes. That's how you get to two years later. It happens to you. Tonight, like last year, we are going bowling. It's a thing we do, without rhyme or reason, to remember and to celebrate. 

I am grief's passanger. But I am joy's passenger as well.

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Geocaching in the Writing Classroom

I just put the finishing touches on a working draft of an article on my use of geocaching in a public rhetoric course I am just about done teaching. This article explores a collaborative, location-based composition project designed for student writers to rhetorically engage a responsive public through digital, placed-based (or locative) media. I have turned the comments on for this post, so that I might solicit feedback on the article's introduction, which defines the argument's contours.


Map, within the Geocaching mobile application, showing all ten caches placed by the class.

Map, within the Geocaching mobile application, showing all ten caches placed by the class.

Writing moves (in) the world. As writing moves it engages, bumping into others and generating effects. In bouncing around, writing shapes space and becomes a part of the environment. In this way, the writing classroom becomes a public, or what Rosa Eberly calls a protopublic, wherein writing moves through space composing connections among people, places, and things. Such a classroom pushes students into locales beyond itself where student writing engages and moves people and also invites feedback and evaluation. Writing composes connections: its agonism produces publics.

In this article, I describe and reflect upon a collaborative composition project I designed to explore how rhetoric and writing (collective action, urban design, public policy) shape publics and how public places themselves (civic spaces, parks, and mundane features such as traffic lights and trashcans) work to shape rhetorical activity. I was eager to have the students work together on larger project exploring public rhetoric. In addition to the desire to make such a project collaborative, I wanted the project to physically move students outside of the classroom and into the public places around them: to explore those places as both a function of rhetorical activity and to see how those places generate rhetorical activity. How do public places afford, constrain or otherwise shape the ways in which people relate to and communicate with one another? How do public places, which are more than inert containers, evolve in responses to such rhetorical interactions? Likewise, how do different media, digital and analogue, factor into rhetorical activity? To investigate all of these questions, the collaborative project (alongside the semester individual assignment focused on serialized production) was built around geocaching. As “an outdoor recreational activity,” geocaching participants use Global Positioning System (GPS) devices (e.g., handheld receivers and GPS enabled smart phones) to “hide and seek containers, called ‘geocaches’ or ‘caches’” (Wikipedia).

For example, I might hide a small geocache in the form of a plastic 35mm film canister camouflaged within a shrub. Using a handheld GPS device I gather the geographical coordinates for the cache. I compose a brief description, provide a clue and then upload the geocache information to the official geocaching website for it to be published. Once approved and published by a volunteer within the geocaching the community, the geocache becomes visible to other participants. Inside the cache would be a log that successful geocachers would date and sign. Using the official geocaching mobile application on their GPS enabled smart phone or handheld GPS device, they then log their finding letting me know what they think about the cache or its locations—in this case, adjacent to a mural celebrating the musical legacy of my hometown. They might also share a spoiler free picture.

Geocaching relies on what is often referred to as locative media: portable media designed both to function while moving and to work within the confines of physical locations. As Eric Gordon and Adriana de Souza e Silva write, such media “are connecting us to the physical world and providing a framework for geographically located social interactions” (61). Their articulation of locative media induces something like geocaching (an activity, we shall see, that is still largely discursive) to resonate with the goals of public rhetoric and writing pedagogy. Writing is itself a locative medium as it moves through and works within places. Making the connection between writing and locative media even stronger, they write, “Mobile phones have become writing utensils for net localities” (Gordan & de Souza e Silva 53).

Collaborative geocaching exposed my students to the mundane yet nevertheless vital features of the city and the ways in which such features shape their own experiences. For instance, in my own recent experiments with geocaching I located a cache in a secluded park in a neighborhood made very inaccessible by virtue of one-way and blocked-off streets. The neighborhood, located just south of a major east-west artery, struck me as akin to a fortress. The orientation of the neighborhood, its rhetoric, was rendered visible through the activity of geocaching. As a public rhetoric and writing class, it was crucial that students moved beyond the walls of the classroom and out into the world around it. Furthermore, the collaborative nature of the project would compel students to have this experience with others: an individual rarely moves through a public place alone, but rather always with others. This recognition of the social experiences of place was vital to a course devoted to public rhetorics. I saw my students developing the same situational awareness of public space while cultivating the rhetorical skills to navigate and negotiate that space with others. I expected to see mundane features such as road accessibility unpacked and articulated by my students. I would ask my students to reflect on how the activity of geocaching as a class informed their individual projects. For instance, how did working with others influence their thinking about audience? Likewise, how did the experience of geocaching in St Louis shape their arguments about the value of the things they were writing about?  


Thoughts?



Rhetoric and Listening

I shared this with my students today as a response to recent and ongoing events in STL:

I feel like I should say something today. This is a public rhetoric class after all, and there is no more pressing a public issue in our community today than the recent Grand Jury decision and our subsequent responses, which continue even now. A public occasion such as this would seem to demand that we each have something to say. That this is a class in public rhetoric suggests that I should have something to teach you about what to say.

I don’t. Not today.

But that’s alright. More than alright, it is entirely appropriate and just. Public rhetoric is as much about listening as it is talking. I have taught you to talk and write with empathy: to know your audience, to sympathize with your audience, to respect your audience. What I have not taught you is how to hear and read and watch with empathy: in short, how to be an audience of and for the public rhetoric of others.

In the absence of much to say, there is much to listen to.

Protestors in St. Louis. "Hands Up - Don't Shoot!" is a common refrain. 

Protestors in St. Louis. "Hands Up - Don't Shoot!" is a common refrain. 

But just as it matters how we talk, it matters how we listen.

  • Listen not to form a lasting opinion.
  • Listen not to sort allies and enemies.
  • Listen not to arrive at a final judgement.

Listen. Hear so that you might come to know other people: their position, their pain, their propositions. Take people at their word, their words, which are so very important.

  • Do not rush to ascribe motives, which are deeply complex and often unknowable.
  • Do not be secure in your understanding of someone else’s position or pain.
  • Do not draw parallels between their life and yours. Allow others to exist on their own, irreducible to you.

Just listen to them tell you about their life. This is hard of course. Damn hard. I am often not strong enough to listen. I want to quickly make sense of things so that I might know where I stand. But in my rush to make sense of things, I shut myself off to what else there might be. And that is a troubling rhetoric.

If I could ask anything of you now, as your teacher, I would ask that you take the upcoming break to listen and to hear. That’s all.

#OccupySLU

The overnight news is just in and the protestors are already thinning out. Though some do remain, the march on and occupation of Saint Louis University’s (SLU) campus is part of a longer and larger march through the streets of the St Louis area as part of #FergusonOctober.

Protestors gather around the clock tower at SLU late Sunday night. Photo by David Carson of the St Louis Post-Dispatch. 

Protestors gather around the clock tower at SLU late Sunday night. Photo by David Carson of the St Louis Post-Dispatch

These overnight hours, I suspect, have something to teach us about Public Rhetoric (a course I am currently teaching and of which I am thinking as I write this): not just the march itself as public rhetoric, but the rhetoric of how the march moved, how it came to campus, and how and why it stayed on campus. The people who stood and the tents that now stand around the clock tower reveal the complex workings of public rhetoric. Public rhetoric is best understood not as singular acts performed in singular moments, but rather as an ongoing flux of elements that momentarily emerge and cohere into discernable acts.

Here, in list fashion, are some of those elements (we'll be updating this throughout the coming week):

All these and of course more, equally effective/affective elements. Our collective and individual sense of this protest, the meaning it creates, and the material impact it will have, emerge from the interaction of these elements. These interactions might very well conflict, cohere, or contrast with one another. For instance, President's Pestello's letter speaks to the security of the campus (reassuring students and parents, faculty and staff) as well as its mission, which some might see as in conflict with one another. The purpose of campus security could be seen as protecting students, staff, and faculty from outside harm; the purpose of the university's mission is to confront outside harms in order to promote justice. The letter, if viewed as a positive step (which, full disclosure, is how I read it), functions so, in part, because SLU is a private campus routinely patrolled by its own officers and, in many spots, enclosed by fences. In other words, that SLU could choose to allow the protestors on campus or not is far from insignificant. Indeed, the private nature of SLU's campus in concert with its relative prominence in Midtown St. Louis might very well be what drew protestors to campus. 

More can and should be said here, and I hope to do so with my students here at SLU. 

Sort Of (Shirking Shirky)

So, Clay Shirky appears to have checked out, and I have but a few scattered remarks.

Digital Classroom, by Dan Hetteix

Digital Classroom, by Dan Hetteix

Let me start by acknowledging that I am actually okay with asking students to turn off particular devices as is necessary. Different situations require us to be present to one another in different ways. Teachers all the time ask their students to do and not do some things at some, certain times. Indeed, there is a boring mundanity to Shirky's otherwise melodramatic conversion.  

It is, nevertheless, the melodramatic and unthinking way in which Shirky, who really ought to know better, makes his case (and, even more so, the even less nuanced way his case has been taken up by others).  

Before I move to my numbered points below (oh, it's coming), I'll even grant that the evidence Shirky deploys about distractions is rigorous. Whether anybody needed evidence that distractions are, in fact, distractions, is another question entirely. Likewise dubious is the assumption that teachers who allow laptops simply don't know any better. All of this evidence, however, concerns the distractive potential of such devices, which presupposes that there is something else students ought to be attending to. In this case, I presume, this something else is Clay Shirky giving a lecture about new media technology, and, in that case, the evidence is equally rigorous that lectures aren't a very effective way of teaching. But all of this is rather quite beside the point. 

As I see it, there are three problems, generally, with how we discuss "technology in the classroom":

  1. We often employ a less that sophisticated understanding of technology. Here is great nutshell definition from Douglas Adams that gets at this: 1) Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works. 2) Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it. 3) Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things. In the case of teaching, this definition allows (or compels) us to ignore, for instance, that the classroom itself is a technology. We can also ignore that the lecture is a technology. I would rather we start from the assumption (where else?) that human experience always has, is, and will be mediated by technology, starting with language. (I'd link to something Walter Ong wrote here, but you can just Google it.) 
  2. We treat technology on quantitative terms (how much technology we have in the classroom) rather than on qualitative terms (what kinds of tools for which kinds of situations). A ban just tries to have less technology. And the same critique holds true for those who think more technology is some kind of solution. I'd prefer that we have the conversation in terms of "better" or "worse" technologies, which would necessarily be tied to specific goals.
  3. Treating technology as we do in points #1 and #2, and here is the big problem, leads us to leave un-interrogated the "traditional" ways we teach (see clause one of Adams's definition). The one thing Shirky hardly talks about in his editorial is actual pedagogy: the reasons he thinks he ought to be lecturing on this topic rather than some other form of teaching. To be fair and to be clear, I am okay with lectures when used effectively: I give and often eagerly listen to them. The problem is lectures, in particular, get naturalized in such discussions of technology. When we (quantitatively) add "technology" to the classroom, we imagine we are adding it on top of the lecture. Lectures thus become the (unchallenged) baseline for teaching, and, as such, they are no longer seen (or interrogated) as an historical, cultural artifact (historicize, historicize, historicize, except when...).

I'd like to hear us ask different, more complex questions. Debating the place of laptops and smartphones in the classroom is not unimportant; I am glad we debate this. I like the debate so much, that I would like to see debates about what we do in and bring to the classroom become the basis for all such pedagogical discussions. And, to return to Shirky's turning away, I'd ask why should students attend (listen, watch, respond) to us? In terms of technology in the classroom, this is a question that hardly ever gets asked, much less answered.

Offramp Rhetoric

Yesterday afternoon, a group of protestors, continuing the work begun after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO, met to block Interstate 70 in north Saint Louis County. The stated goal of the shutdown was to get Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to appoint a special prosecutor in that case. The organizer of the demonstration, Eric Vickers, tried this before in 1999, when about 300 protesters, upset by the lack of both black contractors and workers involed in public construction projects, successfully shut down the same interstate.

Planned immobility forcing residents and county officials alike to confront the systematic ways in which black residents of the county are excluded and exploited. 

A protester raises both hands during the I-70 shutdown demonstration on Sept. 10. IMAGE: @MEDIABLACKOUTUSA ON INSTAGRAM

A protester raises both hands during the I-70 shutdown demonstration on Sept. 10.

IMAGE: @MEDIABLACKOUTUSA ON INSTAGRAM

The protestors failed to make it out on to the interstate (a few individuals attempted to do so and where quickly arrested), but the response by local law enforcement and the rubbernecking curiosity of drivers resulted in a fairly significant, de facto shut down/slow down of traffic in the area. Law enforcement shut down N. Hanley Road, a road intersecting the interstate (where protestors had gathered in as a staging area), as well as the on and offramps to and from N. Hanley Road.

The intersection of I-70 and N. Hanley Rd.

The intersection of I-70 and N. Hanley Rd.

At a certain point, law enforcement began arresting individuals who moved from the curb onto N. Hanley Road (32 arrests were reported). Additionally, it is probably safe to assume that the threat of the interstate shutting down resulted in drivers finding alternate routes. 

Law enforcement encircles the protestors to keep them off of I-70. 

Law enforcement encircles the protestors to keep them off of I-70. 

In the above image, a screen capture, law enforcement work to contain the protestors in a (successful) effort to prevent them from reaching the interstate. There is much to say about this image. What strikes me most about it, and the roughly three-hour demonstration itself, is how the contained protestors nevertheless slowed (or contained) the traffic around them. Even within a wall of law enforcement, the protest works. Vickers was quoted as saying, "They are not going to allow us to get on the highway as we planned, but we did tie them up for a few hours." The response of local law enforcement was, intentionally or not, co-opted into the work of the protest: the police response helped the protestors to carve out a place.

A rhetoric of civil disobidience variety is a tough and unforgiven art. A rhetor doesn't read the speech and then walk off the stage; he doesn't write the letter and hit send; she doesn't take the image and make it speak. The civil and disobient rhetor moves her body in place, using its inopportune location as a proof. Civil disobience is required when channels for effective protest are not available: either because one is not allowed to move in/to those channels or because those channels do not (yet) exist. Civil disobience is a rhetoric that challenges and disrupts the agora. It does not take place in the agora; it displaces the agora as a place of rhetorical action.

What I see in this image, then, is the trans/formation of a place. 

The interstate is channel that generally allows for the frictionless movement of people across a large area. In the metro Saint Louis area, I-70 allows for people to move to and from (mostly from) the city and the surrounding suburban areas. While the interstate is certainly an agonistic place where people interact, negotiate and persuade, it is not a place set aside to address a public. On most days, sequestered in automobiles, racing to and from the city, the interstate is a place where citizens escape the agora. Getting in your car is the equivalent of Phaedrus leading Socrates out through the gates of Athens. 

Shutting down this main artery of the body politic, then, makes an agora. Furthermore, it makes an agora tailored made for the claims of the protestors. An agora such as the Clayton Goverment Center in Clayton, MO, is designed to conduct the regular business of the county. But the regular business of the county is precisely what's being protested. As an unnamed citizen remarked in a recent County Council meeting, "We're not going to let you go back to business as usual." The protestors gathered on N. Hanley Road want a special prosecutor. 

And business as usual was certainly interrupted yesterday afternoon. What will come of it, what effect it will have, is anybody's guess. Oftentimes unquantifiable outcomes are often another thankless aspect of civil disobedience. New places are made: sometimes they stick around, and sometimes they hurried into the back of a police bus. Nevertheless, the civil disobidence of slowing traffic is the important work of reminding ourselves and each other that public places cannot be taken for granted. They are built, and they are built serve. And who they serve is often not everyone. Places exclude and exploit. This needs to be said over and over and over again. It also needs to be felt. It needs to be lived. 

 

Stranger Attractions: Infrastructure Made Alien in the work of Bruno Latour and Jenny Odell

To think within infrastructure is to do more than render its components visible: it is to rupture the seams between the human and the nonhuman in collective, political life.

I am pleased with how the piece turned out. I am doubly pleased with the illustrations editor/illustrator Megan Gilbert composed. Check it out!

Jenny Odell by m.e.g

Jenny Odell by m.e.g

The Incredible Hulk, and Rhetoric

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In thinking through what I am calling the Strange Defense of Rhetoric, which, in brief, puts Richard Lanham in conversation with Bruno Latour, I find it helpful to keep in mind the Incredible Hulk. Stay with me now.

It is perhaps risky to imagine rhetoric as an uncontrollable and largely ambivalent force in the universe. Hulk is, after all, a monster. But, in using Latour to intensify Lanham’s Strong Defense of rhetoric, the story of the Hulk becomes worth the risk. Lanham argues that rhetoric is essential creative rather than ornamental: that the truths we live by are man-made and social. Using the social as a jumping off point, I use Latour to intensify the social by ratcheting up the number of actors, human and nonhuman, that compose the social. 

Back to the Hulk. As "a monster" is not, Marvel aficionados will know, the only way to understand the Hulk—or rhetoric (with which Marvel may or may not be familiar). The analogy works for me because I wish to attend to the strange strength that moves through the Hulk, and the precedence (the potential) for that strange strength in the body of Bruce Banner. Revisiting the Hulk, then, is about revisiting the body of thought that is rhetoric. In bringing Latour into rhetoric, I intend neither to save nor fix it. I use Latour to cultivate from within rhetoric the strangeness that is always there. Latour is thus the gamma radiation that turns Bruce Banner into the Hulk. And not just anyone and everyone becomes the Hulk. It's both Banner's past and his proximity to gamma radiation that creates the Hulk. In his most recent instantiation in The Avengers,  Bruce Banner, played by Mark Ruffulo, is asked what his secret is: that is, how does Banner make Hulk appear. His answer, "I'm always angry," is equal parts unsettling and revealing. The Hulk is always inside waiting to come out. (The Incredible Hulk should certainly be provided with trigger warnings at the beginnings of the semester.)

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This analogy, however fitting, is nevertheless suspect. The Incredible Hulk is after all a muscular, masculine body born of a white male. My embodiment of rhetoric, however strange, remains stereotypical given the history of histories of rhetoric. There is a risk as well in the centering of anger and strife. So, like any figuration of rhetoric, this embodiment of rhetoric in the Hulk must be provisional. I use the analogy here because it is uniquely suited to the strange task ahead. Every body is a risk the outcome of which will necessarily be a surprise, another point of departure.

 

 

Art and/as Infrastructure.

I've finally managed to put pen to paper on the art of Jenny Odell. Odell culls structures from GoogleMaps and arranges them into collages. There are lovely and endlessly fascinating.

A collection of swimming pools by Jenny Odell. From her work The Satelite Collections.

A collection of swimming pools by Jenny Odell. From her work The Satelite Collections.

Long story short, I am putting Odell's work in conversation with Bruno Latour and his work at Sciences Po: the tripartite work of science, politics, and art necessary to address large, global problems. Odell's art performs just the kind of poltical work of attending to the missing nonhuman masses that we live alongside. 

More later.

Talking on Paper

Readers will need the free smartphone/mobile device app PhonoPaper to access this very short blog post. The post is in three parts. The images must be scanned using PhonoPaper. Using the app you can adjust the playback speed and direction. 

Part 1

Part 1

Part 2

Part 2

Part 3

Part 3