When reading Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus dialogues, as well as the Dissoi Logoi and Gorgias’ “Ecomium,” three motifs struck me: the role of relativism, the act of teaching rhetoric, and the power of language. I also couldn’t help but meld some of these readings with where my head is at lately, so I think I’ll start there.
The tension between more “objective” knowing and more “subjective” knowing has often followed me around. Lately, I’ve been thinking about it in terms of filter bubbles, as this post explores, but I think it also has more general connections, including to the task of comparative rhetoric from the readings.
Before diving into the readings, though, I wanted to start a bit where I generally come from: essentially, Kant and the question of metaphysics. With Kant, I’m always preoccupied with his argument that most knowledge is “synthetic” and therefore arrived at through experience, and furthermore, we experience things as phenomena through the “synthetic a priori”of our experience, not as the noumena of the “thing-in-itself.” I think this basic framework–that we never experience “Reality” except in a subjective sense–is productive beyond Kant, as one can layer up more lenses between the thing-in-itself and our experience of it. Language, culture, our prior experiences, cognitive biases, our senses, etc., color our perception, making the sort of transcendental knowledge of the Rationalists impossible. As Nietzsche put it, in Kaufmann’s translation, there is no “immaculate perception.”
And as someone who is trying to think about the world and “produce knowledge” (though the phrase knowledge production has always felt off to me), I am constantly faced with the ethics of knowledge. A certain hubris can come from a transcendent view of knowledge, as well as a potential violence. Even if one isn’t actually trying to produce a totalizing model for stuff or a transcendent theory, the deductive and inductive dance of explaining and knowing in most Western models still has a certain tendency to want to stretch beyond individual contexts.
And I think that’s where the readings come in: trying to find ways to ethically and responsibly theorize across different contexts, particularly different cultural and rhetorical ones.
The main takeaway I had from the readings this week is the ecological and complicatedly situated mode of discussing history. I remember back in middle school, my history teacher discussed the “story” of history, largely framing things in a linear line of causation.
Michelle Ballif critiques this somewhat, though, with”Writing the Event,” in which she draws from Derrida’s notion of “the event” to complicate this often linear approach. As she writes, “Events event all the all the time. Happenings happen all the time. But . . . the writing of history coopts happenings, events, and subjects them to sequences of progression and regression, making them evidentiary to greater paradigms (of ‘time’) and thus fulfills a chronological notion of temporality” (246). The sense that “events event all the time,” in unpredictable, rupturing ways reminds me of some pieces of read about recent history, how people make sense of the now only after the fact–something Heidegger also argues. Reading this en rout to the March on Washington, I couldn’t help but think what “events” or “happenings” will history remember–and where will these current events and happenings go. As Ballif notes, we are “historicizing the so-called present.”
Moreover, the way these breaks into unpredictable possibility get subsumed under an almost Hegelian sense of time and passing, I think, lulls us into a sense of security. It also brings up the question about what is “new” and what is a larger recurring pattern. But I’m not sure if I fully followed Ballif’s closing turn toward performance–rather than writing “of” and event. While I think it’s honest to consider things with an uncertain possibility, I also think deeper notions of place and identity often challenge that.
I think this came through in Baca’s “Chicano Codex” and in Villanueva’s “Rhetoric of the First ‘Indians,’ though in very different ways. In Baca’s piece, revisionist history gets a dynamic model through the 2000 Codex Espangliensis. In the Codex, more ancient traditions of symbolization, doubles, and jarring pairs uses modern icons and symbols, like Wonder Woman, to re-tell and re-frame the colonization of peoples by Columbus and more contemporary pop culture. In a sense, this connection aligns two parts of a colonial project, but subsumes the usual chronology into a more symbolic or thematic context. In this way, it links events, one could say, but it doesn’t do so in a chronological, linear path of cause and effect. European colonialism both echoes in the present and modern day pop culture revives elements of the past.
For Villanueva, I got a strong sense of the role of origins and the role of history and culture when discussing the Taino people. As he writes, “The people, the Taino, created a culture. There was an origin story” (17). Parts of their language and culture, like their valuing of the good and noble or their diets in fish, which Villanueva notes, come to us as historical fragments. This piece, to me, recognizes the complex work needed to recreate a culture that, temporally speaking, is historical–is not longer “alive” in a contemporary sense, though traces of their culture, language, and history is, almost like a rhetorical DNA stitched into contemporary fabrics. As he writes, “The memory cannot be killed, even when the people are” (19). Such recovery work, while a “bringing back” or “bringing to light,” as one might put it, also is grounded in the present in terms of how we are grounded in our inquiries.
Kellner’s “Is History Every Timely” takes this distance up squarely with the notion of chronoschisms, breaks in time–distances–that are inherent to the telling of history. Just as Ballif seems to point to, events are happening all the time, and the historian often has to pick and choose events through a particular method or lens. This inevitably creates gaps between where the historian stands and between events themselves. Even language, as Kellner points out, contains chronoschisms. As he writes, “The simplest words like ‘yet’ or ‘still’ contain within them a unusually unnoticed division between the moments represented and the expectations of either a narrator or the reader” (239-40). To draw from Barthes, a historian is a bricholeur of sorts, not only translating “events” into language, but arranging that language–whether as symbols or words.
And on the other end, in terms of audience, history also also has a rhetorical dimension as Martin Bernal’s Black Athena shows, with certain stories–in this case of Greece and “Western Civilization”–have different traction. While different “models” exist of how we conceive of what may have happened may coexist at any time, cultural and methodological trends may favor some models and disparage others, often with political and cultural motives. This is especially true in a “crisis” as he notes, where particular origins (European) are more valued than others (non-European).
“And once the storm is over you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, in fact, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.” -Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
I’ve never been a big New Year person. It’s position seems too arbitrary. Sometimes it fits, but often, like a poorly timed joke, it feels too late or too early, punctuating the calendar whether we want to celebrate it or not.
I think about other forms of time, like the slow waltz of geologic cycles or the Mayan Long Calendar’s b’ak’tun–the approximate equivalent of 144,000 years per cycle. I don’t mean to go full Rent, but the sense of days adding up to a pre-determined, arbitrarily assigned date feels a little bloodless to me. Abstract, even if its celestial and mathematical elegance has its own beauty. I appreciate the bringing-together mentality that each New Year offers, even though many countries don’t celebrate this crux between December 31st and January, but as an individual, I wonder if more valuable measurements exist.
Sorry for the long hiatus. I don’t know if you noticed, but I’ve made some significant changes to the site, both aesthetically and in terms of content. I’ve finally compressed my for-school blog into this site–including all of the past posts I did this semester–and will likely be doing both types of writing here from now on. I think the major changes are done, but I may be doing further tweaks, as I’m not quite sure how I feel about this aesthetic quite yet.
I hope to do my first post tomorrow, as a way to start the new year, but in the meantime, I hope everyone has a positive final day of the tumultuous 2016.
My main takeaway from this week’s readings concerns questions of agency. More specifically, I saw the possible tension between the human players and the nonhuman elements of the game through its rules or “procedural rhetoric.” This is the more localized interaction of agency. But, in a broader sense, one also has the agency of the designer, perhaps distributed into the game, and the agency of the larger ideologies and structures that further inform the designer.
Rather than a “magic circle” outside or “ordinary life,” as Huizinga would see it, playing a game is more of a crossroads or gathering where human and nonhuman open up a particular form of interacting, an “assemblage,” to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term, where larger experiences and practices may emerge and where the constitutive components, themselves, may also change. I want to argue more what I mean below, but first a quick note on agency.
I’m using agency here in the way that people like Bruno Latour, John Law, and Michel Callon have taken it up in work in Actor-Network Theory. In this outlook, agency is more about the possibility of acting and interacting in the world a certain way. Different actors have different possible actions, sometimes passive or active, sometimes sentient or insentient. A mug can hold liquids. A dog can bark or run. A human can generally perform a whole range of actions. And as different actors interact, link up, or break apart, argues Latour, both new actions, situations, materials, relations, etc., arise.
His famous gun example makes this clear. A gun alone cannot do much, though it can shine or exert weight on a table. Similarly, a human without a gun can’t shoot anyone, though they have a considerable array of possible actions. In order to shoot, the human must grab the gun, creating a gun-human hybrid, then decide to shoot.
Through this framework, I think one can see that the agency of the game rules presents a certain experience when the human players interact. But this agency is fraught and contested, and as Bogost and Flanagan discuss, it can be used for different things.
Walking to my car today, I was thinking of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, particularly his idea of the “thing-in-itself.” Trying to reconcile the rationalism of Leibniz and Descartes with the empiricism of David Hume, Kant cut a line between the phenomena of our experience and noumena of the thing-in-itself, of what reality is outside of our experience.
For Kant, we cannot gain empirical knowledge without our own cognitive filters. We can never actually experience reality in-itself, so we cannot actually “know” the world, except through self-evident a priori analytic judgements.
I’ve never left that dichotomy between subjectivity and objectivity, between our experience and what “is” outside our a priori glasses. And as time went on, the layers of separation added up. Our senses. Our cognitive biases. Mediators, like my own glasses. Language. Culture and normative hubris. Geography. People around me. Prior readings and the general assemblage that constitutes “me,” or the signifiers and self I identify as. All filters. All filter bubbles.
As Daniel Estrada writes, “in a very deep sense, you are your bubble. The process of constructing a social identity is identical to the process of deciding how to act, which is identical again to the process of filtering and interpreting your world.” While I would argue that identity is more than “the process of deciding how to act,” a point that I reckon Estrada would likely recognize, I think it definitely plays a central role. Sartre put it best: “We are our choices.” Our choices have echoes, and sometimes those echoes etch our being–or how others view our being, which Sartre also argues.
But what I like about Estrada, is that the key is not the act itself, but the “deciding,” the cognitive pathways and heuristics–conscious or unconscious, affective or analytic, cultural and idiosyncratic–that form our actions. And at some level this deciding reflects our worldview, or prejudices, and the information we use to understand and then act in the world.
And here, things get interesting–at least for me. As Estrada goes on, “Thus, any constraints imposed on your filter are also constraints on your possibilities for action, constraints on the freedom of your decisions and the construction of your world. If you are your bubble, then any attempt to control or manipulate your bubble is likewise an attempt to control you.” While for Kant, the self is largely insular, cognitive, sensory, and self-contained. Expressing such a view of self, Emerson, a foundation to our own American sense of self (and “self-relience”) describes it bluntly: “the universe is composed of Nature and the Soul. Strictly speaking, therefore, all that is separate from us, all which Philosophy distinguishes as the NOT ME, that is, both nature and art, all other men and my own body, must be ranked under this name, NATURE.”
But, as thinkers continue to argue, from a Buddhist metaphysics of emptiness and many Native American epistomologies (and axiologies), to Diane Davis in Inessential Solidarity and Thomas Rickert in Ambient Rhetoric, the self is more osmotic or relational. It is permeable and messy, bundled and blurry, oozy and diffuse, yet localized by language and materiality.
And here come the algorithms. These too, if you want to go this way, are part of us, and so is the digital pathways they “co-author” from our metadata (to draw from Jessica Reyman). To use Kant’s term, this digital world informs–or possibly is–our phenomenological experience and the self that this experience informs. And as both Reyman and Estrada point to, we don’t really own, or fully understand, these algorithms. As Eusong Kim has argued about trending, “We don’t know why something trends. The algorithm is a locked secret, a “black box” (to the point where MIT professors have built algorithms attempting to predict trending tags). The Fineprint: Trending is visibility granted by a closed, private corporation and their proprietary algorithms.”
And, to make matters worse, as Brock and Shepherd argue, these algorithms are persuasive, constituting “procedural enthymemes,” drawing from Aristotle’s enthymeme, a syllogistic argument finished by the audience. It requires audience participation, as Bogost argues in Persuasive Gaming and Richard Colby argues in his work in composition, saying it creates a “rhetorical situation.” But the procedure still influences, as these scholars point out, both in games and other digital and non-digital systems. There is this odd hybrid between human and nonhuman, what Tom Friedman in his view of digital games (extended by Alexander Galloway) calls “cyborg consciousness,” in which the player learns to think with the algorithm. But here, the player may not be aware how the algorithm is influencing their thinking.
And I think this leads me to three key points, which I end on. First, I would argue that these filters and filter bubbles are rarely a one-shot argument; they exhibit ontological rhetoric–or at least heftily influence what we see as “reality” or how we work through “reality.” To use Burk’s terms, they inform our identification and terministic screens. Second, it’s not just algorithms, but people, mainstream media, interactions, upbringing, etc.,–our filter bubble online and offline–that we co-create with other actants, with varying level of control and agency. Believing we were somehow less permeable before social media feels wrong to me; though we didn’t have the same procedural influences.
And finally, I really don’t think we can improve without heavily challenging this propensity to think phenomenological experience is the noumenal world–and that this phenomonlogical experience is based on individual, non-relational agency. Or at the very least, we need to challenge the idea that one must impose one’s phenomena on others.
In particular, I think this cuts two ways. On the one hand, this involves people trying to force people into certain ways of being, regardless of their own agency–what Lévinas termed “totalizing.” And here we have the destructive role of identity politics, which Trump’s rhetoric and neoconservative policy (I think) have capitalized on: enacting an ideology and identity so much that you feel need to threaten the identity of others at a material, ontological level.
It also cuts the other way. Here, I move back to Kant and his “Miscarriage of all Philosophical Trials in Theodicy,” in which he argues that once you abandon certain modes of verifying knowledge and regulating discussion (rules of discourse and epistemology), such a discussion becomes pointless. It’s like playing a game. If I play by the rules and you do not, we can’t play. And as Bakhtin argues, dialogue cuts both ways. If we are in different realities, phenomenologically speaking, we can’t do anything.
As Burke argues in “The Rhetoric of Hitler’s Battle,” when a religious rhetoric gets corrupted, it is one of the most damaging, as people lack a certain self-reflexivity. They believe on faith or on belief. And even more dangerously they may think that belief is universal–and needs enforcing. And, maybe somewhat paradoxically or provocatively, algorithms have the most blind faith of any rhetorical actant: their programming.
[Featured image: Robot! by Crystal, via Creative Commons]
Thinking through Bogost and Montfort’s Racing the Beam, I was reminded a bit of some of the conversations we had last class regarding design and the material constraints that technology imposes.
I think the role of hardware struck me particularly with questions of porting. As they write regarding Pac-Man‘s port to the Atari, “Porting a graphical video game from one computer platform (the arcade board) to another (the Atari VCS) does not demand a change in fundamental or representational of functional mode. Both versions are games, rule-based representations of an abstract challenge of hunter and hunted. Where the two versions diverge is in their technical foundations–in their platforms” (67).
This is a key observation, as it hits at the material implications of replicating player experience or game cohesion across platforms. The invention process of remaking a game for a different system requires ample creativity when the systems are different enough–particularly in graphic affordances and machine communication. In this way, the designer is not making new content or rules, but they are making a new means to express the content or rules, a new way to interface with the machine to attain a similar end. With this situation in mind, I think about parallels with translation or transcription, but I wonder how far those alphabetic, or at least textual, metaphors can apply in this case. In both cases, one is working in different systems, but the technology of a semiotic system differs from the technology of a video game hardware.
Chapter three begins with the “prosumer,” an idea that Alexander and Rhodes borrow from Daniel Anderson. The “prosumer,” they describe, is “a convergence of the consumer and the professional in terms of new media tools” (106). Many new media tools allow consumers, formerly just receivers, to produce products, thereby acting as professionals. This, in turn, allows a more critical focus on production, as it is no longer black-boxed behind the usual channels, but in the hands of the consumer.
This similar idea–that of consumer as professional or producer–also connects with the Situationalist notion of “détournement,” a form of “pillaging or appropriation,” as Frances Stracey describes (qtd. in Alexander and Rhodes 112). The Situationalists argued that capitalism had the constant need to project a “spectacle” of needs that inspire consumers to thirst after products, so people should critically produce to counter this.
Alexander and Rhodes connect these ideas to current DIY movements, but emphasize the “critical” dimension of this production. In other words, it’s not simply enough to be critical, in a humanities sense, or to produce; one must use production in a critical way, engaging in multimodal production through new media tools. They provide the example of images that grew in “excess” from their work that argue their work or ethos as “queer rhetoric” scholars in different ways.
In composition studies, a recent move to designer over author has started to take place in some areas of the field, and I think the readings present and interesting addition to this, as in composition studies this shift is often made in terms of “marketable skills,” reflecting the role of labor and capital in education.
But more to the readings. I find the notion of author or designer often has a tension with the Romantic creator view and the skillful rhetor responding to an situation. In this context, I feel like Miyamoto presents a nice case study. On the one end, as diWinter seems to argue, he has particular views or focuses that flow through his work, presenting a more Romantic, or expressivist, author function:
- “The strong connection to childhood and joy;
- The influences of nature and the natural world; and
- A desire to share a common feeling— kyokan— so that designers can feel closeness with players and players can be immersed in the experience of the game.” (1)
One can see, for example, how the “violence” in Super Smash Brothers, is rendered in the more contest-oriented approach like Sumo and not in terms of the violence of other games, or how Mario’s “violence” is more cartoonish and comical. This reflects the connection to joy and fun. And the abundance of caves and wonder that stud Miyamoto’s work reflect his own childhood experiences, as his own quotes argue, with childhood and the natural world. Regarding the last point, diWinter argues how Miyamoto, especially later on, uses experiences from his everyday life, like fitness or gardening, to inspire his work.
All of these design traits do seem to have a rhetorical deliberateness, even with the team-oriented approach, as John points out, that games have.
But on the other end, the market also informs design. Constructing Mario based on the Game and Watch controller not only presented a design constraint and philosophy; it also made good market sense. When Miyamoto was recruited to save the Wii, that was market-based pressure. And while his own experience of exercise informed Wii Fit, reflecting his design philosophy, it also opened up an important market and was framed in this way.
These market and labor forces are even more strongly articulated in the other works. For example, as Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter argue, “The ‘militainment’ of America’s Army and the ‘ludocapitalism’ of Second Life display the interaction of videogames and actual power in the context of Empire, an apparatus whose two pillars are the military and the market” (xiv). Videogames grew up in a strongly capitalist network, with strongly entrenched notions of modern empire. Past economies, like the clay tablets of Mesopotamia or the scribes of medieval Europe, operated through different trends and affordances of labor and circulation–and different views of autuer–though it’d be reductive to say that threads don’t carry through multiple periods.
This takes me back to my initial focus–author as Romantic creator or situationally astute rhetor–and the role this has in our current market. I increasingly think that designer and author works in a more networked process, and these networking skills are key literacies for work in the modern age; but the “innovators” are the ones who tend to get the most credit. In my current project, for example, Will Wright is considered to be genius behind The Sims, SimCity, etc., but his notebooks are threaded with phone numbers, questions and answers from meetings, user-testing notes, more signs of orchestration and teamwork. And, for another example, some books, like Doom or Console Wars, treat teams of people with an almost hagiographic aura, while technology and markets also play a major role.
As Kline, Dyer-Witheford, and de Peutur, articulate, games exist within a complex intersection of circuits. I reckon a designer is part of this, seizing on the kairos and tools of production when producing a game, but authorship is quite diffuse among the humans and nonhumans of the rhetorical situation. The magic circle isn’t really that separated from “ordinary life.”