Public Rhetoric and Geocaching

This Fall semester, I am teaching a 300-level Public Rhetoric course, which is designed to explore how rhetoric (collective action, urban design, public policy) shapes publics and how public places themselves (civic spaces, parks, and mundane features such as traffic lights and trashcans) work to produce or shape rhetorical activity. Individually, students in the course will produce a series of texts (blogs. videos. podcasts, photo essays) devoted to a topic or object of concern (local food, music, policy issues, scientific and/or technological developments). The texts will be composed for a particular public and will be released on a regular basis (think in terms of a podcast episodes, magazine issues, or a television series). Students have complete creative control over their productions in terms of medium, style, and content. The only requirement is that these texts be public and for an audience that needs to be persuaded.

This is the individual work students will do throughout the semester. However, I am eager to have the students work together on a larger project exploring public rhetoric. In addition to the desire to make such a project collaborative, I want to the project to move students outside of the classroom and into the public places around them: to explore those places as a function of rhetorical activity and to see how those places themselves generate rhetorical activity. How do public places afford, constrain, or otherwise shape the ways in which people relate to and communicate with one another?

I believe I have found such project in the activity known as Geocaching (the official website is located here). Brian McNely, at the University of Kentucky, describes geocaching this way.

Geocaching is a recreational activity similar to treasure hunting. Geocachers create and cleverly hide containers in both urban and rural environments, all around the world. After doing so, they create cache names and descriptions and upload this information, along with coordinates in latitude and longitude, to a public website accessed by other geocachers. Geocaching uses the tools of contemporary knowledge work for a kind of knowledge play, weaving together practice with sophisticated computing devices and applications, rich and varied forms of visual and written documentation, community-generated advice, hints, and grievances, and social media in several form. (Forthcoming)

Our first geocache.

Our first geocache.

One of the chief virtues of geocaching is the way it reimagines, in the case of this course, urban space. Most days we travel through the city without giving its mundane features a second thought. However, it is these mundane features that give shape to city life: road medians, intersections, small parks and other green spaces, barriers such as fences and walls, bus shelters, and even trashcans. Geocaching connects individuals with these mundane yet meaningful places. Geocachers must navigate everyday locations that become extraordinary by virtue of the hidden cache. Public places that are generally invisible suddenly become visible.

As I have currently imagined it, students in the class will practice geocaching two ways. Early in the semester, we will search for caches in the areas around campus. We will log these finds and document them using both video, still photography, and written text. The class will maintain a blog to both track our geocaching work and to reflect on how that activity reorients us to the city. Later in the semester, we will create and hide caches of our own based on our experiences earlier in the semester. In short, we will explore how we can distribute caches around St Louid in order to shape how other geocachers will move through and experience the city. How can we see geocaching as a form of public rhetoric that persuades people to see and enact the city of St Louis in new way?

Geocaches in Saint Louis, MO.

Geocaches in Saint Louis, MO.

Group geocaching will hopefully expose my students to the mundane yet nevertheless vitally important features of the city and the ways in which such mundane 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 Delmar Boulevard (a North/South as well as racial dividing line in the city), struck me as akin to a fortress. The orientation of the neighborhood, its rhetoric, was rendered visible through the activity of geocaching. I expect to see such mundane features such as road accessibility unpacked and articulated by my students.

As a public rhetoric class, it is crucial that students move beyond the walls of the classroom and out into the world around it. Furthermore, the collaborative nature of the project will compel students to have this experience with others: an individual rarely moves through a public place alone; they do so always with (often unseen) others. This recognition of the social experience of place is vital to a course devoted to public rhetorics. I see my students developing a situational awareness of public space while cultivating the rhetorical skills necessey to navigate and negotiate that space with others.

So, thoughts?

In Defense of Red Tape

Red tape is an object that is rather hard to defend. It is, however, a thing worth defending, worth honoring. It has done us a great service. To recognize this worth, we must defend it as a thing, as its own thing, because it is when red tape becomes something other than red tape (when it becomes a cultural signifier, for instance) that it becomes difficult to defend. Beyond indefensible, red tape itself becomes invisible. It becomes a kind of fetish, which tend to have everything to do with humans and nothing to do with the thing itself. Defending red tape requires first and foremost that we restore to it its own unique thing-ness. Red tape is more than a symbol, a metaphor, or an analogy: it is a thing that did work in the world. 

 Red tape is almost always portrayed in the above way: as an analogue for restrictive regulation and bureaucracy. Interestingly enough, a quick Google Image search reveals that most images of this type show white men constrained by red tape, which may, on the whole, not be such a bad thing.

 Red tape is almost always portrayed in the above way: as an analogue for restrictive regulation and bureaucracy. Interestingly enough, a quick Google Image search reveals that most images of this type show white men constrained by red tape, which may, on the whole, not be such a bad thing.

Red tape is generally seen as inhuman, as the institutional, and is as such equated with all things that constrain human flourishing. It is an nonhuman scapegoat for anything that challenges human autonomy. It has become, as Herbert Kaufman writes, as "object of loathing."

But it wasn't always this way. Red tape, which wasn't always red but was sometimes pink and white, was woven tape "used to secure legal documents and official papers" (OED). It bound documents together; it related them as belonging to a case, a brief.  "Legal documents have been among the heaps of junk lying around a building site behind the Law Courts" (OED). Junk eventually, but first agents of the law. 

Red tape is a missing mass that has dutifully carried out its work. It is not simply a representation of petty human desire or a focal point for rage against constraints; it has been a vital participant in the work of government and in the maintenance of civic life. Our ability to maintain order and to make sense of complex procedures is predicated upon the ability to literally hold together laws and court cases. Red tape emerged from a real need to hold such things together. The very patterns of modern life, with its rule of law, and the possibility of social life, with its networks of relationships, is made possible, in part, by red tape (and its ancestors: the staple, the paper clip, the file folder). Our ability to wrap our heads around the law is function its ability to wrap itself around laws. Red tape is less a thread that holds us down and more a ribbon around a gift.

 Red tape is gift.

 Red tape is gift.

Now, my defense of the labors of red tape may be more or less objectionable (anarchy certainly has its adherents), but either way the historical work of red tape is rendered invisible when red tape is taken first and foremost as a front for, as a representation of, some deeper, realer human motivation. Indeed, I would go as far as to suggest that red tape is not just a scapegoat for bureaucracy but for all such nonhuman actors in society. By making nonhumans mere vessels of our fears, anxieties, hates, joys, or beliefs, we push them away as actors in their own rights. 

 Red tape is more than a vessel for human motives; it is an actor that makes particular articulations possible. 

 Red tape is more than a vessel for human motives; it is an actor that makes particular articulations possible. 

What if we were to recognize red tape as a rhetorical actor that played a vital role in the production of bureaucracy and the institutions we daily take for granted? It's unique ability to bind together documents into coherent wholes was vital to the cultivation of a certain kind of order. It was, to borrow a turn of phrase from Katie Zabrowski, a "rhetorical powerhouse." Recognizing its rhetoricity could, for instance, short circuit our instinct to see particular institutional constructs or bureaucratic structures as the manifestation of discernible human intentions. If that is all institutions are taken to be, the scope of rhetorical activity is limited to addressing only the human actors, which, I'd argue, is far from sufficient. Institutions are complex assemblages that emerge through time and as an effect of relations, relations that include humans and nonhumans alike. A full rhetorical intervention needs to take everyone and everything seriously. 

 

[Authors note: I wrote this whole thing listening to the punk sounds of Sleater-Kinney.]

The Craft of Details

Yesterday, I finally made it over to Urban Chestnut Brewing Company's new location in The Grove neighborhood of St. Louis. It goes without saying that the beer was excellent: UCBC does fantastically original work with traditional styles of beer. The new location is huge: wide open spaces, a bar that stretches forever, and solid wood tables and benches in one large common area. There's also an outdoor beer garden. A great space for great beer.

A smattering of images from the new UCBC location in The Grove.

A smattering of images from the new UCBC location in The Grove.

As my friend and I where enjoying our beer, I noticed the hardware on the tables. Around the corners of each table, below the table top, there is what can best be described as a kind of metal brace. Each of these metal braces were emblazoned with the UCBC logo (see image below). 

image.jpg

My friend made the offhand remark that this is the attention to detail you tend to find at craft breweries. And in my experience this is largely true. In their graphic design, swag, tap handles, and interiors, most craft breweries feel just that: well crafted. The aesthetics of craft breweries seem as well-crafted as their beers. Ingredients are obsessively sought out and arranged; combinations are articulated and rearticulated; flavors, alcohol contents, and international bitterness units are listed and considered. It's an obsessiveness present in both the brewers and their customers. 

My friend's comment stuck with me because it explains both part of what draws me to craft beer and what I try to stress when I teach composition: craft involves attention to detail. The work of putting something together always hinges on how the components hang together. As a teacher, I am always pleased by some surprising, well-wrought detail: a finely-honed sentence, a delicately-placed design detail, or subtly-infused audio element. Say what you will about transfer when it comes to skills, my wager as a teacher is that the habit of attending to the details of craft, if cultivated consistently and with consequences, might very well persist. 

Make better beer: craft better compositions. 

A New Site: A Few Thoughts

For most of the Spring semester I have desperately wanted to update my professional site. First, it had just been a while and I wanted to do something different: I was bored with the old site. Second, I no longer thought that the site represented where I was at in my career. It was text heavy, and I have been doing more work in audio and video. The new site is better for embedding audio and video, but, more than that, it looks to me like the site of someone who does work in media other than writing. 

screen capture of new site: www.nathanielrivers.org

screen capture of new site: www.nathanielrivers.org

The look of the site is its chief work and, I hope, virtue. I want it to look less identifiably academic and yet still show up as academic (hence including the "Ph.D" and the categories of research and teaching). Casey Boyle's site is after something similar, I think. I am unavoidably and unapologetically an academic, but that can look different. And it should look different in light of the many ways one can be academic and do academic work. 

 

Love Your Monsters: A Worser Apocalypse (A Discussion of Spike Jonze's Her)

My English in the World talk at Saint Louis University addressing the intersections of technology, science fiction, and monsters.

A key question in science fiction specifically and, I think, in our culture at large, concerns the human relationship with the nonhuman. We are concerned about the shapes of these relationships as well as the possibilities of these relationships as such. Buried within these concerns is a more general anxiety about the very boundaries between the human and the nonhuman. Such concerns manifest an ongoing anxiety about the place of the human in the world. Monsters of all shapes and sizes are thus symbols and stand ins for this general anxiety. The human/not-quite-human intersection that forever threatens the very limits of what makes a human a human.

FALL 2014: Public Rhetoric: Write the World


We build our world around the things we love—food, films, books, beer, motors, music—and the people with whom we share them. And we build these worlds by sharing the things we love through all means of communication: we take pictures of our food, write reviews of books online, and endlessly debate our favorite songs in dorm rooms and at bars. And in this course, that is exactly what you will do: write about the stuff you love. But there is catch, of course. You must write about the things you love in ways that will help others to love them as well—no mere diary entries or talk among aficionados, you must produce public texts for unfamiliar audiences who might not yet share your love of cheese, craft beer, Carmen Sandiego, or Death Cab for Cutie. To engage such audiences, you’ll need to write persuasively and in media that grab that audience’s attention. Some students might produce podcasts, some might maintain a blog, and still others might film a series of video shorts. The goal of this course is for you to write in public so that your loves might become someone else’s loves—so that your world can be shared with others. Students in the course will produce a series of texts (loosely defined) devoted to a thing they love. The texts will be composed for a particular public and will be released on a regular basis (think in terms of a podcast episodes, magazine issues, or a television series). Students have complete creative control over their productions in terms of medium, style, and content. The only requirement is that these texts be public and for an audience that needs to be persuaded.

Re-Post: Curling TIme

In honor of the start of curling at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi Russia, I dug into the archives for this gem from four years ago:

To explain why, over the last couple of Games, curling seems to attract some attention I would argue that it is because it is very much unlike the other Olympic sports, which are, we must admit, largely like each other. A majority of the sports from skiing to bobsled to speed skating are go-fast-and-be-timed-on-a-sheet-of-the-cold-stuff sports. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the Super G as much as the next casual viewer, but after awhile even I get bored watching the clock. This is not say that doing the sport is boring or that skiing isn't in many many important ways not the same as bobsled (or that I am always "bored" watching them). Again, I am talking about spectators.

Curling, in large part (there is a clock even here), takes place out of time, or, better said, in a different sort of time. There is no rush. A lot of it is, to be honest, four men or women standing around staring at and talking about a rock. And this is precisely what makes it interesting. Some have explained that fans like curling because it looks like something we could do. While there is merit to this argument, it seems far more likely that we like a lot of Olympic sports, particularly the go-fast-and-be-timed-on-a-sheet-of-the-cold-stuff sports, because they look precisely like things we would never ever do unless we were dared or otherwise tricked. The Winter Olympics, which have been very popular this time around, have a much higher percentage of utterly "insane" sports relative the Summer Games. So I don't see curling as the Everyman sport because we like the rest that surely are not for us.

Curling is attractive because it offers a rhythm different from the rest of the Games. We get to see the athletes' think about what they are doing because their thinking happens out loud and in public. For the opposite reason, however, I like things like speeding skating and skeleton because you watch the athletes' think through their bodies. For the casual viewer, as well, curling does not require constant engagement. I can miss a rock or an end (I may miss something cool, but I am not out of it completely). This level of commitment makes curling the Olympic sport designed for the long haul. I feel engaged in the games, interested in the spirit of competition, and the engagement, because of comprehensive television coverage, is nearly constant. It is the sport I know and love between and behind the sports that excite me through terror and time. In this way, the go-fast-and-be-timed-on-a-sheet-of-the-cold-stuff sports are not boring (or do not become boring) precisely because I have curling to watch in between them.

Curling, the sport that should be the "boring" one, serves the important function of keeping all the other sports from becoming so. Curling is evidence that "excitement," like "boredom," is relative, and that all kinds of things have value if only we find a way to experience them as valuable.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Abstract:
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).

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.

Melting

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.


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 newmediasciencewriting.blogspot.com. The slides, with partial script and notes, are embedded below. Enjoy!



Assessing Popular Science Writing in the Classroom

How Strange To Be Anything At All

Sometimes alone in your head is a frightening place to be. This is particularly true when things go bad, and they have been going bad for us lately. As some of you may know, my wife is now 22 weeks pregnant. On September 21, the day we were supposed to find out the gender of our baby, we were informed that there were several abnormalities: the brain was not fully divided and the heart and kidneys weren't functioning properly. Even without a firm diagnosis as to why, we were told that our baby, a girl, had about a 1% chance of surviving to full term. We were devastated: what was to be a celebration became an unreal nightmare. We decided soon after to keep our baby as long as possible. Annie was our daughter, and we were past the point where we could imagine otherwise (my wife Jodi has written eloquently on our decision not to terminate the pregnancy).

We soon after learned that our baby had Trisomy 13 (an extra 13th chromosome), and that the abnormalities were critical and incompatible with life.  (I will say here that the folks at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital Fetal Care Institute are amazing.) At most, Annie might make it to full term and perhaps live a day or two. Most likely, she will pass in utero. We began to prepare ourselves for these eventualities, describing ourselves as actively-passive. We would work to accept what we could not control, and to live with what we had for as long as we had it. So Annie became Annie. We feel her kick. We read to her. Will (Annie's big brother) talks to her and rubs Jodi's belly (and worries about being sick himself and of not wanting to "go to heaven").

Some days are harder than others, but most days are full of the joy that is Annie's life. It takes a lot of work to carve out this kind of happiness, but it has been worth it.

It's been worth it because the universe wasn't quite done. Annie's form of Trisomy 13 (Down Syndrome is Trisomy 21) was a full translocation (which only happens in about 20% of trisomy 13 cases), which is when the extra 13th chromosome attaches to the 14th. In about 25% of these cases, this translocation is inherited. We had genetic testing done. Yesterday, we learned that my wife is a carrier. She was devastated. We were devastated. What does this mean? Can we have more children? Do we want to risk going through this again? We haven't really thought through any of this yet. We just resolved to look at our healthy and wonderfully amazing son and feel lucky as hell. Just look at him: pretty fucking amazing, right?

So, I'm in my head a lot these days. After all, as an academic I'm pretty much paid to think all day, which is not exactly a choice profession with all this on your mind. And so to get some work done, I have to start thinking about Annie in terms of my research: object-oriented rhetoric, new materialism, vibrant matter, where the lesson is over and over again the complexity of the world and the fact that everything has a kind of force. And you start to feel vulnerable. Even our genes are out to get us.

But that's rather pessimistic and counter to the actively-passive stance we had taken. Vulnerability brought us Will. Vulnerability brought my wife and I together. We are each us of affect-able, persuadable, moveable, and changeable. Because we are these things we get to be something at all in the first place. Most days I get to feel Annie kick. I have seen pictures of her: her rainbow spine and the hands that will never open all the way. And these kicks are more than signs, more than symbolic representations of life; they are her being alive. And these kicks aren't even her fighting the good fight: they are simply Annie living as Annie.

She isn't battling: we aren't battling. We are all of us vulnerable and alive because of it. All we are ever doing is being alive. I have a daughter that I will only live with for nine months, and most of that, all of it most likely, will be in utero. I celebrate that. I honor that. I grieve for that. This isn't a simple celebration or a treatise on the value of human life. This post isn't pro- anything. It is an active recognition of our permanent (and sublimely passive) vulnerability—not to a higher power, our own power, or some other life force, but a complicated jumble of other things, each as vulnerable as the next.

Vulnerability is the chance to be anything at all and often times for only a moment. We can only ever be actively passive in the face of this, in the face of others, in the face of a world we are thrown into, kicking and screaming.