Language Politics, Censorship, and Reality

The poet Charles Olson wrote, “Whatever you have to say, leave/  The roots on, let them/ Dangle/ And the dirt/ Just to make clear/ Where they come from.” Words are grimed, caked, and clotted with decades of use and wrinkled with age. Some words and phrases become anachronistic, like “winding” a window down in a world of electric windows. Others carry an explosive politics. Many get bleached by the endless passing of palms, losing a clear meaning.

But at a deeper sense, Olson’s line reminds me that we need to inspect our language in all its dirty history and daily use. To take it step further: Words impact our world, etching our reality like the steady run of water on rock or blowing it up like dynamite.

As George Orwell wrote, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” His classic 1984 also stresses the coercive and meaning-making power of language through “newspeak,” the official language of Oceania that uses simplicity and structure to limit free thought. For example, “bad” no longer exists; instead, one has “ungood.” By limiting expression, one limits thought. This, among other reasons, hits at the danger of censorship and its popularity among totalitarian regimes.

This, of course, leads me to the recent reveal of the Trump administration’s censorship of seven words for the CDC: “vulnerable,” “entitlement,” “diversity,” “transgender,” “fetus,” “evidence-based” and “science-based.” While the initial call seems like it was over-blown, the words being discouraged for the CDC budget to make it more palatable, it follows a larger pattern: the EPA’s censoring of scientists, the removal of “LGBT” and “climate change” from the White House site, Trump’s attacks on the media and use of “fake news” epithets, etc. Indeed, even if the Post’s story was overblown, the fact they needed to police their language along ideological lines for research funds troubles me.

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Rhetorics of Winning

With the tax bill passing Friday being touted as a “win” by Republicans, despite potential blowback, I keep coming back to an idea I’ve been nursing for a few weeks now: winning in politics. Phrases like Trump’s “you’ll be tired of winning” and reporter’s “Republicans need a win” saturate public discourse, and I keep asking what “winning” means. Like most buzzwords,”winning” leaves much unsaid–and unthought–but it still exerts its influence. And in this case, “winning” isn’t a good thing. What I call a “rhetoric of winning,” this trend to frame things as “wins,” feels like a significant danger for our current American politics.

Winning immediately brings up positive images. Triumph. Trophies. Confetti. The climax of a sports movie when our underdog protagonists finally overcome the big, mean team.  But these positive feelings overlook two key things: opponents and win/loss binaries.

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Tech’s Silicon Tower

I was just reading Cathy O’Neil’s (@mathbabedotorg) New York Times piece on the tech industry and academia, which argues how academics have not done enough to study issues caused by recent technology, including filter bubbles and big data. Others have already critiqued some of the tone and oversights of the piece, with varying degrees of sass, but I want to look at it as a rallying cry. While I think the piece could give more credit to current researchers, it recognizes a dangerous gap between this research and the tech industry.

A few of O’Neil’s points are especially key. For one, she notes how big data is often cloistered in companies, reducing access to academics. She also notes how private companies hire academics, and she describes how funding that drives engineering and computer science programs may not include more humanities-tinged concerns for the ethical, social dimensions of technology.

More contentiously, O’Neil also says, “There is essentially no distinct field of academic study that takes seriously the responsibility of understanding and critiquing the role of technology — and specifically, the algorithms that are responsible for so many decisions — in our lives.” While a distinct field of study may be harder to name and locate, plenty of sub-fields and inter-disciplinary work hits at this exact issue. For example, in rhet-comp, Kevin Brock and Dawn Shepherd discuss algorithms and their persuasive power and Jessica Reyman has analyzed issues of authorship and copyright with big data. Beyond rhet-comp, danah boyd continues to write on these issues, along with work from the University of Washington.

But a gap remains to some extent, despite this research.

Personally, I see two potential reasons: hubris and tech’s failure to consider social media more critically. Regarding hubris, George Packer’s “Change the World” (2013) explores Silicon Valley’s optimism and their skepticism of Washington. After describing how few start-ups invest in charity, for instance, Packer writes:

At places like Facebook, it was felt that making the world a more open and connected place could do far more good than working on any charitable cause. Two of the key words in industry jargon are “impactful” and “scalable”—rapid growth and human progress are seen as virtually indistinguishable. One of the mottoes posted on the walls at Facebook is “Move fast and break things.” Government is considered slow, staffed by mediocrities, ridden with obsolete rules and inefficiencies.

After Russia’s propaganda push and amid ongoing issues, like Facebook’s role in genocide, this optimism seems naive and dangerous. Zuckerberg’s trip to the Midwest , hiring more fact checkers, and increasing  government scrutiny seem to point to a change. But I’m not sure how much is actually changing in tech–or larger structures like education and law.

This leads me to my second thought. In Being and Time, Martin Heidegger distinguishes between the ready-at-hand and the present-at-hand. The former refers to how we normally go through life, interacting with objects without much reflective thought, while the later refers to the way a scientist or philosopher may look at stuff. In his hammer example, Heidegger says that we normally use a hammer without much second thought, but once the hammer breaks, we reflect on what it is or does.

Similarly, with the ugly realities of social media surfacing more, we are more apt to examine and reflect. Before it “broke,” we used it as a neutral tool to communicate and pontificate digitally. As long as we continue to see social media as a neutral tool, or a tool just needing tweaks or fixes, we miss considering what social media is within a broader context of culture, economics, and society. We may be waking up to these deeper questions now, but we can’t fall back on present-for-hand approaches to use and design.

As Lori Emerson (2014) argues, companies rush to intuitive designs and ubiquitous computing, but we must consider how these trends blackbox the values and potentials of our tools. As Emerson and others argue, we can challenge these trends with firmer technological understanding, more democratized development, and the resistance of hackers and activists.

But with tech having so much power, I am not optimistic for change without a broader attitudinal shift in tech and elsewhere. I only see incremental changes coming, like increased fact checkers and algorithmic tweaks. These are good and may lead to significant change in time, but fundamental outlooks in tech–what philosophers may call instrumental rationality–will likely stay the same. Many critique the Ivory Tower for its obsession with present-at-hand abstraction, but the Silicon Tower seems just as dangerous with its present-for-hand reduction.

[Image: “Hacker” by the Preiser Project, via Creative Commons]

 

Politics and Play

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, and an especially long time since I’ve blogged “for fun” outside of a class requirement, but with the semester starting up again, I wanted to start off with positive habits, creating a space to think through things. For now, I’ve been thinking a lot about politics and what my own interest in play can bring.

Wary of becoming another “It’s Time for Some Game Theory” guy or the writer of a naive think piece that praises some creepy gamifying tactic, I nevertheless think that play, games, etc., have a lot to offer how we consider politics.

Game theory
Image from Know Your Meme

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Computers and Writing Talk (2017)

When discussing games, composition scholars have long described the “literacies” that they highlight. James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Language and Learning (2003; 2007) acts as one of the anchor texts to this conversation, and Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’ On Multimodality (2014) provides a more recent example. Using classroom experiences with World of Warcraft, Alexander and Rhodes “argue that gaming offers a rich venue to see multiple literacies—the visual, the technological, and the textual—at play” (129). Doing so, they make some central additions, noting the social and contextual literacies that students draw from, “as students work collaboratively on one text” (146) and pointing to the critical and rhetorical literacies that students may develop as they critique games and the world views they present. The chapter also provides some concrete approaches to working with games in the composition classroom, like literacy narratives and examining games as rhetorical artifacts, fresh additions to the conversation on literacies and videogames.

This work on the practical application of gaming literacies in composition pedagogy—which includes work from Richard Colby, Alice Robinson, and others—offers potential, which I want to build on with this presentation. While many pieces point to the literacies offered by gaming and gamers, game integration with composition tends to rest on simply using games or talking about games in the writing classroom, despite broader models and concepts afforded by games and game studies. Or many pedagogy-based treatments of this nexus require extensive labor. Battlelines, for example, a brilliant multi-authored text on Kairos, offers one of the most complete treatments of gaming and pedagogy by detailing a whole class built on an alternative reality game, but the overhead required likely exceeds the abilities of most adjuncts, grad students, and teaching-heavy faculty positions. Instead, I want to offer a brief way to approach gaming literacies more generally, how they have affected my own pedagogy, and how one can create a reasonable synthesis between composition scholarship and game studies without a major knowledge base in gaming—particularly as these build from deeper ideas from game studies and not games themselves.

(Lit)eracy Review

Before moving fully to practical experiences, I do want to note some of the literacies exemplified in games, as outlined by scholars. On the surface, much of this work connects squarely with transfer approaches to composition pedagogy. As Gee argues, for example, language use is always situated in a particular context of practice, meaning, modalities, etc., which he calls “semiotic domains,” and each of those domains requires different literacies, different “practices” or knowledge to “communicate distinctive types of meanings” (17). With this situated approach, Gee argues we should teach a more reflective, critical set of skills to students, giving students a meta-awareness or flexibility to adapt across situations—not mere content knowledge—with videogames providing a solid model. As he writes, “video games are potentially particularly good places where people can learn to situate meanings through embodied experiences in a complex semiotic domain and meditate on the process” (25). The game makes the player engage, forcing them to work with and within a particularly designed system in order to succeed. And for a person to truly master this interaction, to become a “critical learner” in Gee’s taxonomy, one must learn “to think about the domain at a ‘meta’ level as a complex system of interrelated parts” (22).

Alexander Galloway (2006) puts this process clearest, I think, when discussing Civilization, a nation-building game: “The gamer is. . . learning, internalizing, and becoming intimate with a massive, multipart, global algorithm. To play the game means to play the code of the game. To win means to know the system.” (90). As Galloway shows, Gee is not alone in this outlook: learning to play a game, particularly if one masters the game, requires systems-level thinking and short-hand familiarity with sizing up situations and reacting appropriately, despite the unpredictable nature of those situations. In Half-Real (2005), another example, Jesper Juul argues that experienced players often have the ability to transfer familiarity with certain mechanics between situations, distinguish between valuable information and noise, and “chunk” information together into larger ideas to ease recall. And Alexander and Rhodes also describe the “transfer” ability and “critical” dimensions possible in gaming literacies.

Collectively, game studies has long noted the paradoxical nature of games that create a unique, emergent situation while carrying the same “rules” or “practices” across situations. Unlike a film or book, which always has the same words as one comes back to it hours or years apart, an individual gaming session can vary wildly, depending on the players involved, the algorithmic input, or the way rules and pieces get mustered in a single situation, despite being the same “game.” Note, I am not saying that books and other related media are a one-way street—reader-response theory and scholars like Michel de Certeau have complicated this fully—but games are uniquely interactive and ephemeral. As John Alberti (2008) writes, for instance, “From the perspective of print-based theories of literacy, gaming is an inherently dialogic discursive space, one that problematizes the distinction between ‘reading’ and ‘writing,’ ‘process’ and ‘product’” (267).

This interactive, uncertain element to gaming, and the literacy it requires, lies at the heart of what gaming can offer composition pedagogy. Games tend to value an adaptability and exploratory outlook, with players testing boundaries and “playing” within more rigid possibilities. This outlook has impacted my own pedagogy, and I want to briefly highlight two assignments drawn from this outlook.

In the Composition Class

The composition classroom is often in an odd, liminal position, where disciplinary genres, audiences, and exigencies mingle in artificial ways. As Elizabeth Wardel’s “Mutt Genres” observes, “When, in a classroom situation, students are asked to write genres outside of those genres’ natural contexts, those genres become pseudotransactional; they no longer do the same work in the world.” Abstracted and muddied by this abstraction, student writing in the composition classroom lacks the reality of writing “in the wild,” as Wardle and others argue, but for games, simulation has never been an issue. So the first obvious approach to writing in a composition class, particularly with genre, is to pursue simulation. In some ways, this approach captures some of the “deep gamification” in models like Battlelines, but one can downsize simulations. As scholarship shows, particularly work by Clay Spinuzzi and David Russell, writing occupies systems, and games, through their procedural nature provide ideal ways to model systems.

In my own pedagogy, this systems modeling takes two main forms. First, for a set of classes—often 2 days—I may put on a particular persona, like a project manager, a client, an administrative authority, a P.R. person, etc., communicating in the genres of a particular system and having students do the same. For a time, they must work with(in) the procedural simulation of a “real” system. In the P.R. example, I give students a few basic texts on the industry and the style of writing. I then give them (in groups) stories to write, one that often requires an exchange over e-mail or a call and a familiarity with University issues. They must write in genres mindful of the situation—professional e-mails, press releases, in-class conversations with “co-workers,” etc. Though it was a bit clunky at first, role-play has a strong tradition in game studies, starting with Huizinga’s emphasis on “disguises,” moving to Roger Caillois’ “imitation” play, and including Bernard Suits’ multiple examples of role-playing. The key, though, is to construct—and therefore simulate—a system.

Also involving the procedural nature of genre, I have also considered what Bernard Suits calls the “institution of a game,” elements of a game that carry across individual game sessions, as this echoes the genre’s own flexible persistence. For this, I employ an activity that often informs a unit project based on genre analysis, having them construct a genre for a particular situation or exigency, giving them a task and situation like a specific speech or application. To do this, much like any design problem, I have them actively consider the purpose, the users, the form the genre may take, etc. Unlike programming or actual game design, students can often employ similar UX and design-based thinking without the computational literacies—or proficiencies—those require. Doing this, I often employ teams, just as one may design an application, and increasingly employ an AGILE approach to design, which involves task management and checking in. As each team designs its “genre” for a particular situation, I have another team analyze it and provide feedback. At the end, we then discuss what populations the genre may be leaving out, what limitations it may have, and how genres are purpose-based and situational, not category-based and universal. My one stumbling block with this is trying to think further how to better contrast the messy ecological formation of genres in the wild with this designed one.

In any case, I am at time and would be happy to discuss this further in Q&A or e-e-mail.

 

 

Aspasia and the Methods of Recovery

Rereading Aspasia’s funeral oration–as well as the scholarship and controversy of Glenn, Jarratt and Ong, and Gale that surrounds Aspasia–I noticed the similar tensions with past work surrounding the role of interpretation, accuracy, and recovery. In general, I kept coming back to the standards we use to judge the accuracy of our recovery.

When it comes to Aspasia’s oration in itself, I couldn’t help but think of rhetorical accretion, though Vicki Tolar Burton (Collins)’s term does not come up in the scholarship. Considering the layers of (inter)textual sediment, encountering the image of Aspasia through Plato’s treatment of Socrates’ recreation of Aspasia feels almost comical. Like Conrad’s Lord Jim or Oxymandius’ column from a past post, the distance between the source and the recovery makes Aspasia and elusive figure, which is why I appreciated Ong and Jarratt’s approach to looking at the “discursive space” of Apsasia, not the “real” flesh-and-blood figure.

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History, Shelley, and Letters in a Bottle

Reading Kermit Campbell’s “Rhetoric from the Ruins of African Antiquity,” I thought of letters in a bottle and Percy Shelley. In general, Campbell hopes to challenge what he sees as the overly general treatment in comparative rhetorics, particularly George Kennedy’s  taxonomy between “Ancient Societies Without Writing” and “Ancient Literate Societies” from his seminal text. Campbell argues that many ancient cultures have a complex mingling of oral and written practices, and rhetorical studies of ancient societies often don’t dive into their “variegated and deep” traditions and histories.

Challenging this, Campbell studies artifacts from Axum, Nubian, and Mali cultures, reading examples from the period paired with historical and geographic elements, including stele from Nubia, inscriptions from Axum, and manuscripts from Mali. Overall, he points out the mindful use of ethos and pathos in the works, their variety, and the role they seem to point to in recording events and organizing the society they spoke from.

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Rhetoric and Ritual, Particularly Death

Of all the tombs I visited in Egypt, the “Bent Pyramid,” featured above, was my favorite. Pulling up to the monument, we parked in a barren lot beside a single guard listening to his radio and sipping tea. He approached with a gentle wave before turning back to his small hut. A cyan blue sky arched above, trimmed with a gentle haze to the north, and the Sahara’s dusty gray skin withdrew into flat horizon lines, warbled with gentle hills. Wind kicked up sand, disturbing the silence.

The Bent Pyramid likely marks the transition between the early step-pyramid approach of some rulers and the more recognizable models, like the Great Pyramids at Giza, a design also shared by the Red Pyramid nearby. Archeologists guess that the initial incline proved untenable, requiring a last-minute shift toward the tip.

But I remember the isolation of the pyramid most of all. While the Great Pyramid accompanies the throaty calls of merchants selling overpriced trinkets and Coca Cola to tourists, themselves snapping pictures and gawking at the monuments in a range of languages, the Bent Pyramid–perhaps from its crooked birthmark–remains isolated. And while Giza, itself sprawling from Cairo, continues to fill the desert around Khufu’s great tomb, the Bent Pyramid stands largely alone.

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Obligatory Great Pyramid pic, Giza

Outside the tomb, my fellow teacher Dea and I sat underneath a rocky archway, overwhelmed by the silence. I listened to the “heartbeat” of the desert, as I then wrote.

But throughout my time in Egypt, I experienced many tombs. Going to and from Cairo, our taxi passed “The City of the Dead,” a nickname given to a still-used necropolis of Muslim tombs inhabited and cared for by poorer families. A series of road- webbed grids, walls, tarps, and low-slung rooftops spilled into the distance, pierced by the spires of the occasional mosque. At sunset, the haze-infused orange of the setting sun timed with the muezzin’s call proved overwhelming.

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A “neighborhood” in the city of the dead, Cairo

I also experienced the quiet, bleached streets of Coptic Cairo, where churches held the relics and clothed caskets of saints and religious figures, icons of St. George covered walls, and fans spun slowly from high ceilings over long rows. In Cairo, the bodies of Muslim royalty remained concealed behind the arabesque of mosques, while in Alexandria we wandered the Roman-Egyptian catacombs of Kom al-Shoqafa. In the deserts, beyond the pyramids and their localized buildings, we walked inside the boxy tombs that housed non-royal figures and stood atop the ruined Greek town of Karanis, now little more than blanched stone under a relentless sun.

Outside Egypt, I’ve always been interested in death, from the Roman mummy masks that I perused while lingering in Oxford’s Ashmolean, to the various graveyards and grave sites in Europe in America. But I’ve never thought about the rhetorical power of ritual and death.

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CCR 634: Legalism, Quintilian, and Structure

Reading Han Feizi, Quintilian, and Arabelle Lyon’s treatment of Daoism, Legalism, and Confucianism, I kept coming back to the role of the individual rhetor and the larger context, as well as the role of different genres and different types of “persuasion.” But I will likely just focus on the first of these.

With Han Feizi, I often noticed the limits of rhetoric, particularly when he discusses how good words–or a good orator–can still end up in trouble. As he writes, after a litany of violent examples, “Why could these worthies and sages not escape death penalties and evade disgrace? It was because of the difficulty in persuading fools. Hence every gentleman 37 has to remain diffident of speaking. Even the best speech displeases the ear and upsets the heart, and can be appreciated only by worthy and sage rulers” (Book 1, Ch. III).

Here, I couldn’t help but think of Socrates–and to a lesser extent Cicero–as well as the book of Ecclesiastes railing against the efficacy of knowledge. What good is knowledge or eloquence when your audience doesn’t care? I feel like this is a question that doesn’t show up as much in other texts that we’ve read.

Countering this, I think feminist rhetoric tends to point to problems with the “available means of persuasion” when unwilling audiences and cultures are critical. Introducing their anthology Available Means (2001), Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald, for example, describe “women’s rhetoric” as “a tradition that has existed only in the shadows for centuries because women’s writing and speaking have not been gathered together as ‘rhetoric’” (xvi). And while many of the speakers they include were trained rhetoricians or employed deliberate rhetorical tactics, their anthology also includes “women’s writing that may not meet and that may even defy traditional rhetorical criteria and categories— especially concerning ethos, or the appeal of the speaker’s ‘character,’” as this reflects the often marginalized position where women spoke (xviii). They also include many alternative texts, like letters, and topoi that differ from Aristotle’s traditional conception of rhetoric and how people have taken that up. Without tradition audiences, many women rhetors had to use different “available means.”

And I think that’s where “shih” comes in, as Han Feizi, describes, which I gather is a sort of authority from institutional structure. Through shih, people are forced, or forcibly attuned, to listen. Order gets maintained regardless of “who” is governing.

This trust in order felt really interesting, because although Han Feizi also values “tact,” which reminds me a bit like Confucian ren as an ability to read people and navigate governing in a shrewd way, the roles of shih and fa (laws) are extrinsic to the rhetorician at some level.  As Han Feizi argues, the rhetorician does not need to be “worthy” to have this authority, as most people are “average men,” not particularly bad or good. Rather, one should construct a strong structure that can give rulers their authority and not allow them to disrupt things too much if they are not good.

This contrasts a bit with Quintilian who describes rhetoric as the “good man speaking well” and continually emphasizes the moral character of the rhetor, even noting in the later chapters that this is something that they must practice continually. Furthermore, individual training and a close relationship with individual teachers are important, almost forming a familial relationship.

And without being too reductive, I find this to be a more common thread in Western v. Eastern rhetorical traditions as we’ve encountered them. Again, this is not meant to be a totalizing generalization, but many of the traditions we have read–Legalism, Doaism, and Confucianism–seem to value how one relates to elements beyond the individual, while the Greeks and Romans tend to value how the individual navigates certain points as an individual.

On the one hand, the Daodejing values how one aligns with the Way; Dong Zhongshu emphasizes the relationship between emperor, Heaven, and the people; Confucius emphasizes the role of ritual and alignment with tradition and public harmony; and Han Feizi emphasizes the role of law.

Meanwhile, Isocrates values the individual abilities of the student, and Aristotle emphasizes the rhetor’s individual ability to read and intervene with the situation or wield their ethos in a productive way. Cicero and Quintilian also have a similar focus. With Cicero, trying to evoke the emotions of the audience becomes central, and Quintilian recognizes the potential individuality of the speaker as well.

Obviously, complications exist, though. For Confucius, it seems that the individual must spend a lifetime cultivating inner virtue, much like Quintilian’s ideal rhetor. And many on the Greek side, from the Dissoi Logoi onward, recognize the contextual nature of rhetoric, particularly how rules change. More generally, then, I think these readings emphasize the perennial tug-of-war between the individual and kairotic or contextual elements of rhetoric. As Thomas Nagel argues about philosophy, there is no “view from nowhere;” for rhetoric, even as we craft forms and heuristics, this seems equally true–if not more so.

 

CCR 634: Cicero, Part 2

Reading Cicero this week, with the emphasis on arrangement, memory, style, and delivery, I found a few threads that struck me.

First, particularly with Crassus’ interlude, I noticed the return of philosophy. Again, Crassus’ ideal orator feels like a polymath who can also vary their delivery depending on their situation. They have the knowledge of the philosopher, but can also convey that knowledge in ways that philosophers cannot. As Crassus concludes:

“if we are looking for the one thing that surpasses all others, the palm must go to the orator. If they [philosophers] allow that he is also a philosopher, then the quarrel is over. If, however, they keep the two distinct, they will be inferior  in that their knowledge is present in the perfect orator, while the knowledge of the philosophers does not automatically imply eloquence” (266).

While Crassus does seem to treat the ideal orator as somewhat Platonic, a goal we can strive toward more than attain, the role of knowledge feels particularly significant. His tracing of philosophical schools tries to tie his own (rhetorical) craft into these deeper traditions. The space his seeming “digression” takes up is substantial. And, this theme comes up regularly in the overall text. So, I want to focus on the role of knowledge.

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