IST 700: Using Ethnography to think through my own project

The main thing I took away from these ethnography readings in light of my own project(s) centered around fanfiction is my positionality as a researcher and the role that ethics plays in that. I guess I can largely think on this along three main lines: access, position, and representation.

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CCR 611: Materiality, Medium, and Voice(s) of History

Reading Gold’s Rhetoric at the Margins and Mailloux’s “Reception Histories” proved to be a somewhat refreshing contrast to the big picture histories of Berlin, Harris, and Gold et al. Considering these readings, I was thinking harder about the way medium, materiality, and genre affects the telling of history, drawing somewhat from my last response on the subject. Regarding this, I was somewhat inspired by Gold’s framing of the narrative, Mailloux’s use of quotes, and a recent project with Vani regarding a timeline with SWR. 

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CCR 711: Bodies and Webbed Worlds

Reading Kristen Lindgren’s “Bodies in Trouble,” I kept coming back to Heidegger’s distinction between “present-at-hand” and “ready-for-hand.” In Being and Time, Heidegger argues that people tend to encounter objects as ready-for-hand, meaning that we encounter them based on what they do or how we use them. He uses the example of the hammer. We encounter and look at hammers as a tool to “hammer,” not as an abstract object in itself.

Moreover, he argues, this object-defining function is grounded in a “world” of interrelations and definitions that help constitute “being-in-the-world.” For example, one couldn’t hammer without nails and boards, and one couldn’t build a house without the concept of “house,” and one may not need to make a house without nature’s capacity to storm. A world of relation webs out from this hammer, contextualizing its being.

But when ready-to-hand, the world of these interrelations and the hammer as an object recedes into the background and one sets to work.

This all changes once the hammer breaks. Suddenly it can no longer “hammer,” and it becomes an alien object in our hands, forcing us to reflect on what it “is.” This approaches Heidegger’s present-at-hand, when we look at an object in a more abstract, property-oriented way, like a scientist or theorist. In particular, Heidegger wants to critique the Cartesian tradition of looking at objects in abstract ways, outside of their more fundamental being as objects in the world, closely involved with our being.

But I’ve always been stuck on the breaking of the hammer.

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IST 700: Locating and Drawing the Boundaries of Research

A few things struck me from the reading, in particular the messy boundaries (and lack thereof) between online and offline and the difficulty of mapping and bounding digital projects. These pose significant implications for conducting online research. For now, I was mainly thinking about how some of these readings are impacting how I look at my own research project.

A map of the Internet by Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly, image via Brain Pickings.
A map of the Internet by Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly, image via Brain Pickings.

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The Telling of History and its Absences

Encountering the readings–Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality and David Gold, Catherine L. Hobbs, and James A. Berlin’s “Writing Instruction in School and College English”–I was thinking about the role that history plays. As someone who is new to the discipline, the past few readings have been helpful at giving some definitions and names. And with a few of them under my belt, I can start making connections and noticing absences.

But more broadly, I was thinking of these histories along four different frameworks: as genealogy, progress story, hagiography, and catalog.

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Dolmage’s recognition of the hidden body in rhetoric (and philosophy) proves a powerful starting point of critique, particularly considering his point that many ancient texts were quite obsessed with the body. For example, Socrates and Plato actively attacked the lustful qualities of the body. Continuing this, Augustine marked the potent marriage between the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus with Judeo-Christian dogma, giving a particularly powerful foundation to embodiment in the Western tradition.

Here, I think Nietzsche is particularly helpful, as he is incessantly asking one to return to the body. He also critiques the potential disembodied “view from nowhere” (as Nagel calls it) that this distance from body and experience may create. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, for example, Nietzsche critiques objectivism’s quest for “immaculate perception,” mocking science’s goal of passively lying before objects “as a mirror with a hundred facets.”

In pursuit of this immaculate perception and its rhetorical extension of immaculate communication, any unusual, distracting, or problematic body would be unwanted. So starting from the opposite end, as Dolmage does, in grounding rhetoric in the body, one must look at rhetoric in a more embodied, complex enterprise.

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(Post)Demographics and Trends

Until this semester, I had not encountered the term “postdemographic.” First hearing it, I assumed it referenced the more individuated way that data collection could take place, putting less emphasis on the demographic that one belonged to and more emphasis on individuals themselves and what they did. In a sense, this understadning approaches the term, but Rogers completes it: “Postdemographics could be thought of as the study of the data of social networking platforms, and in particular, how profiling is or may be performed” (153).

Rogers also stresses the shift from the “biopolitical” to the “info-political,” explaining a shift from embodied attributes, like age and race, to the information that these bodies generate and consume. This explains a shift in focus on the data. Though the sites of data collection are not necessarily limited to “social networking platforms,” these sites tend to abound and automatically collect the sorts of data that postdemographics focuses on: taste, pop culture influences, political leanings, groups, associations, and the way that these may line up with people that you know or interact with.

These are the curated ads and Amazon book recomendations. The “you-might-also-likes” and “people-who-liked-this-also-likeds.” In my case, an odd mix of books on wine, Zen philosophy, critical theory, composition theory, and research methods.

Rogers also notes that many of these spaces, particularly in platforms like Facebook,  the space itself reaches out for us to detail our preferences and network our contacts and interests through pre-set categories like books and movies that we like or more open-ended notes. It wants our data, takes that data, and constructs our experience accordingly.

That, very roughly, introduces postdemographics.

Contrasting the postdemographic with demographic, I see a complication: how do demographics impact postdemographics? As the Pew research reports note, demographic issues, like age and gender, connect with who uses a platform. For example, Pinterist users tend to be women: 42% of women online users, compared with 12% of men. Also, wealth and access still play a role in usage, which are again traditional demographic categories.

These potential considerations have both ethical and practical implications. On the more ethical side, I think it forces us to look at the dangers of essentialism and the issues of representation. Demographics may have a link to postdemographics–with certain demographics tending to prefer certain media–but this trend does not necessary make a truism. It is just a trend. And when value judgements and hierarchies enter the equation, as the often do with taste, attention to the fragility and complications of trends becomes more important. One must check assumptions and sloppy reasoning all the more, as more potential connections get put on the table and our pattern-pushing brains have more to work with.

This points to larger issues of big data and postdemographic data more generally. Though “the garbage in garbage out” caveat is common when it comes to the data itself, it also has some connection to our interpretations. When making claims and synthesizing findings, research requires self-critical analysis of our own thinking and transparency in our reasoning. One can easily see connections that a correlation may draw, but as often noted, correlation does not equal causation.

In a similar way, similar interest does not mean similar postdemographic–or demographic. Just because I like Doc Martin doesn’t mean I like Dr. Who. And just because people who like classical music may have similar browsing habits, values, or memberships does not mean I do.

On the one hand, this is obvious. But its obviousness should not detract from its importance.

Disability and Curriculum

“in the air     the slant snow

the bird rising away

from the wild and bare tree”  -Larry Eigner

Born with cerebral palsy in 1927, Larry Eigner spent most of his life using a wheel chair. He also wrote more than 40 collections of poetry, according to The Poetry Foundation. Often grouped with the Black Mountain Poets–and more broadly, the poets of the groundbreaking New American Poetry anthology–Eigner’s poetry has always struck me. Something about his wandering line breaks and latched-together images gives his poetry the spontaneous clarity of a Zen haiku. But it feels freer, spilling out of its forms. He composed most of them from his front porch.

About 100 years earlier, another poet named John Clair penned “I Am” from within the walls of an asylum:

I am—yet what I am none cares or knows;
My friends forsake me like a memory lost:
I am the self-consumer of my woes—
They rise and vanish in oblivious host,
Like shadows in love’s frenzied stifled throes
And yet I am, and live. . .
Allegedly broken by the weight of poverty and grief, Clare was institutionalized for suffering delusions the final 20 years of his life. Some biographers trace his breakdown with the rise of industrialization and the death of the commons.
To me, both poets represent powerful writing. They also represent work from people with disabilities–Eigner’s cerebral palsy, and Clare’s psychosis. When approaching Linton’s Claiming Disability, I wasn’t sure where to begin. Maybe the clarion calls it makes throughout for a more integrated, critical outlook on disability. Or the way it deconstructs the traditional curriculum. The stances it makes on language.
But, I think the point that likely struck the most from Linton, and what drew me back to this poetry, is her point about the dominantly medical mode of disability and the role of this sense of the term has. As she writes at one point, “What is absent from the curriculum is the voice of the disabled subject and the study of disability as an idea, as an abstract concept, and it is in the humanities that these gaps are most apparent.”

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Specialization and Openness

Something that rings through David Russell’s “Nineteenth Century Backgrounds” and Clay Spinuzzi’s All Edge and “Symmetry as Methodological Move” is the tension between specialization and openness.

For Russell, the changing demographic of students entering higher education and their educational needs and expectations created a conflict between more general education and the specialized training of a discipline. On the one extreme, outlines Russell, one has the elitist liberal arts curriculum, “a single required course, identical for all students, regardless of abilities, interests, or career paths” (37). In this model, departments were flexible, and each educator could change roles easily. Schools were small and communal.

This unified, homogeneous education broke down amid increased discipline-specific and technical needs, though vestiges sometimes remained–like Harvard’s “forensic system”–as a general writing requirement.

Often, this general requirement has seemed to gain power from serving some need, ranging from civic or moral formation in its early years to solving the 1970s literacy crisis more recently. Thus, a compromise often took place between the two extremes: a school empty of general requirements, and one with a substantial one. In Russell’s history discipline-specific training has seemed to push out much of the general requirement.

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Accessible Materiality

Accessibility can be defined as the ability to use, enjoy, perform, work on, avail of, and participate in a resource, technology, activity, opportunity, or product at an equal or comparable level with others. Separate is not equal and before or after the fact is also not equal. In the context of technology and systems, accessibility at the interface level, not as a retrofit or add-on, is true accessibility; all other options are fixes and are intrinsically inferior to the primary access available to the able-bodied.” –Sushil K. Oswal, “Multimodality in Motion.

Continuing the topic of space from my last post, I was considering the role that the “material” or “materiality” more generally factors into the construction and engagement of digital space. In particular, I’ve been increasingly thinking about how disability gets constructed by the material, embodied, and social.

As I increasingly look at the assumptions implied in the material, I consider how the material constitutes certain practices and ways of being. For example, I think of Selfe and Selfe’s 2004 piece about the “politics of the interface” or Oudshoorn et al.’s case studies in “Configuring the Everybody” in which design goals, design teams, and assumptions–whether innovation or male experience–exclude people from the “everybody.”

The design of a digital space–how its constructed and organized–inform the how and the who of use. And though space gets encountered at an individual level, I argue that space can also order the larger systems and societies that engage these spaces. The same is true of technology and the other materials. As Arnold Pacey argues, for example, “technology-practice” involves “the application of scientific and other knowledge to practical tasks by ordered systems that involve people and organizations, living things and machines” (6; emphasis in original). These “ordered systems” are not just algorithms and circuitry, but social practice and potential practice are closely bound up in the possibility space of the material.

This connection can have important impacts for people with disabilities in our generally nondisabled society.

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