Sunday, July 15, 2012

Meeting and Introduction to The New Media Reader

I met with Sid the other day to chat about texts I’ve been reading and ideas I’ve been trying to flesh out.  The meeting went well (I had thought the meeting would go half an hour and we chatted for over an hour) and was discursive, as I expected it would be (and wanted it to be).  What I'd like to do is recap some points that I may return to in the future, hence the reason why I’ve written a post (I’ve noticed how I’ve treated this blog for the last several weeks: as a way to take notes and summarize texts, to articulate and clarify ideas, to communicate with Jake, to record interesting quotes that may be helpful for papers, to familiarize myself with this form of writing for me).

I expressed to Sid my interest with spatiality and writing, even briefly discussing ‘homogenous, empty time’ and Live Homogenous, Empty Real Time and how I’d like to begin thinking about Space replacing the Time in this concept.  He suggested that I check out more of Georges Perec (Sid references Perec’s theories on space in Postcomposition).  He also recommended that I consider ‘use value,’ as well as always ask myself: is something usable space?  He brought up the idea that if space isn’t usable, it ceases to be space.  This leaves us with the assumption that space is dependent upon place, upon occupation.  I also asked Sid to define writing, and first he gave the disclaimer that this definition is very general, then gave the following: writing is the act of making, the concepts of invention (which he also stated are always spatial).  I didn’t have a chance to ask him if mouse clicks would constitute writing (e.g. “share” or “like” on facebook.  I am specifically thinking about writing our identities/identity writing in digital spaces) because I articulated some ideas I’ve had lately about objects having consciousness and agency, and he argued that an object wouldn’t per se have consciousness but would have agency.  He suggested that I look into Rubbish theory, Object-oriented theory, and Thing theory, as these theories may offer some insights.  All of these theories I am unfamiliar with, but I’m excited about exploring them. He also recommended I check out a short read called I am a pencil.  These recommendations also guided our discussion into how to approach my work.  Sid contends that I (and we rhetoric and composition scholars in general) should have theory be the focus and then surround the theory with cultural artifacts and examples to illuminate how the theory functions.  This approach is much different than my previous work as I was educated to consider theory as application (and "not as a couch" as one of my past professors once remarked). Many of my past professors emphasized the object of study and then work with theories (deconstruction, political economy, semiotic analysis, discourse analysis, et al.) as methods (if you couldn’t already tell by more utterances in the previous parenthesis).   Sid believes that too many times we have the inversion: cultural artifact as the focus and theories working around it.  What I believe Sid was pushing me to do is to be the inventor of new theories (which would make sense if we compositionists and scholars want to bring something new to the conversation), something that Greg Ulmer also suggests in our pedagogy with writing courses. 

This new approach for me, theory rather than a cultural artifact as the foci, will be a challenge, which gives me mixed feelings of excitement, nervousness, and confusion.  The rest of this summer, fall and spring will be a roller coaster of insights and frustrations as I begin to develop my thesis . . . find MY THEORY voice.

I told Sid that I’m still interested in the connections between writing and activism (Writing Acts(ivism), Writing Activates Activism, Writing Acts), specifically thinking about writing as activism, and he suggested I check out The Revolution will not be Tweeted.  He also remarked that four Cs has a section or panel specifically on writing and activism, so I will need to research past conversations and arguments.

The New Media Reader  Edited by Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort

I decided to begin The New Media Reader, a 2003 book complied of excerpts from various scholars in numerous disciplines.  I chose this text to read next in order to familiarize myself with some of the theoretical, philosophical and practical approaches to the digital humanities. The first excerpt is Janet H. Murray’s “Inventing the Medium” as she introduces how various scholars, writers, engineers and scientists from the last sixty years have considered new media and its potential. After discussing briefly some of their ideas about what computers might do for society, specifically in their relationship to information, Murray identifies two general camps through which to see new media: humanists and engineers, historically the former seeing “the contradictions and limitations of the great systems of thought” which “causes them to question the very project of systemized thinking” and the latter emphasizing “a vision of a meta-book, a navigable collection of books that will carry us gracefully to the next level of information control and systematic thought” (4). These two camps are not a definitive dichotomy as many arguments have often crossed into each other's camps (as well as into many other “camps”). But, in the last fifty years, scholars from these two and other camps have offered insightful ways to think about new media, about ways that we engage and produce new meanings with machines, and about how we continue to (re)define communication and communities.  As “we are moving toward a world of ubiquitous computing,” Murray remarks, our relationship with knowledge will take on new definitions, new properties, new forms and “the promise is that we will not be crushed by our own knowledge, as the writers at the beginning of this period anticipated, because we will organize it together in a vast distributed and synchronized effort” (10-11).  Murray ends her introduction with summarizing Tim Berners-Lee’s work and development for the World Wide Web and suggests that Berners-Lee took the admirable route with his invention: choosing an open Web standard and not commercializing it.

Murray suggests that the “representational power of the computer derives from its four defining qualities: its procedural, participatory, encyclopedic, and spatial properties” (6).  She claims that the encyclopedic property is the most obvious for the functional power of the computer because of people's desire to compile all of human knowledge into one place.  But the properties I’m most interested in right now are the participatory and spatial.  Murray highlights that spatial properties enable us to navigate actual (as registers within the machines) and symbolic (as on a Web “site” or in a dungeon under a trap door within a fantasy environment) spaces and argues that “this spatializing quality is based upon the other two properties [procedural and participatory]” as participatory “allows it [to] receive input, to allow manipulation of its processes and data by the user” (6).

This will be a rant here as I flush out my nascent ideas: I guess what I’m interested in is how people participate (specifically write) in the symbolic spaces of activism, both real (and real in the sense of the physical world and the digital world) and imaginary to ensure a desired identity.  A very basic example (and since I have wanted to consider the rhetoric and circulation of this text): the Kony 2012 video, a social documentary released on March 5, 2012 by the non-profit group Invisible Children.  For the moment, I’m going to set aside the issues of the “white man’s burden” approach, as I do see this video working as a neo-colonialism for the digital cultural that tries to perpetuate the U.S. military industrial complex (we also see Kony as a representation of the Kurtz figure). I’m also going to set aside any kind of commentary on the video's rhetoric, specifically with the visual rhetoric and Jason Russell (the co-founder of Invisible Children and narrator of the social documentary) and his son Gavin, elements that I do think would be essential in a analysis. What I’d like to consider briefly is how this text was able to disseminate and circulate (the Wikipedia “Kony 2012” entry remarks, “As of 30 March 2012 (2012 -03-30)[update], the film had over 86 million views on video-sharing website YouTube, and over 16.6 million views on Vimeo”) so rapidly.  The video was posted first on YouTube, but nearly simultaneously was presented on facebook for the obvious network capacity to bring it to users’ news feeds.  Facebook users watch the video, are emotionally (and rationally) inspired to participate in arresting Kony and bringing him to justice. A simple facebook user click on “share” facilitates the video to connect to other news feeds and we quickly see the proliferation of the video in the digital world (slacktivism has never been so popular).  On the one hand, this digital space, not only the Web, YouTube and facebook spaces, but more specifically the facebook news feed space, which has limitations (although dependent upon how many “friends” one has and how those “friends” participate in facebook, for example posting links to articles or music or writing “what’s on their mind” or getting “tagged” in photos or sending messages, et al., which will all determine the speed of the news feed scroll) in how quickly posts are observed, provides opportunities for those with internet access and a facebook account to what I would call “community” information about social issues, people, injustices, policies enacted or rejected, etc.  The digital space, when occupied with texts and transformed into place, enables users to develop a different kind of consciousness (place structures consciousness, paradigms, mythologies, agency, meanings) and conscience.  We become aware of numerous atrocities, corruption, and unethical activities (both historically and currently, but typically the latter). But it isn’t just that we are aware; these issues instill a sense of responsibility (whether that responsibility should be present or not is another issue to be dealt with in its appropriate philosophical branch). And the facebook news feed could also encourage them to research more on an issue (and, depending on what they research and how interested they are in “doing something” about it, they could be active in other ways, rather than simply reading information, such as writing a letter to their state representative or participating in a protest march (I’m thinking of the May Day march in Chicago)).  So, we could argue that facebook could (or does) improve social conditions, an often technological glorification that fits within the Enlightenment meta-narrative of progress and science.

Of course, when I say “community” information, I’m implying what McLuhan suggested in 1967: “’Time’ has ceased, ‘space’ has vanished. We now live in a global village” (63).  But, more importantly, it is apparent that the “we” (as both McLuhan and I have remarked) and articulation of this “community” information and “global village” is political: certain classes, races, genders, and sexes are included and others excluded.  Which brings me to the other dimension of the facebook news feed space: it suppresses voices, as well as (which may be appear with any suppression) includes and excludes certain issues.  In this article, Riyaad Minty suggests that “their [Ugandan] voices were getting drowned out by other people mass sharing/commenting on Kony 2012.”  What we see here is (more) limitation of the possibilities in not only the news feed, but in the space of commenting (even those marginalized peoples who may even have access to the Internet may find their voice buried).  Forget the hyper information of people’s opinions and feelings or the idea that engineers had in the mid-twentieth century about a confluence of information into one system as more sustainable and progressive.  As much as voices can function to subvert hierarchies, they also dislocate and subvert voices (and possibly sustain hierarchies) and overload systems of information, although it may be specious to consider it an overload (or rather we should be careful about how we approach and value an overload). Of course, I know I’m talking about voices as information, but what else constitutes information? Information is ideas articulated from a voice.  Voices, which are a culturally bound subjectivity, write information. Can a singular unit, such as the Web, offer all information to be available?  It appears that place, after being created from homogenous, empty space, has the potential to implode on a system.  McLuhan’s claim that “space has vanished” should be better articulated as “places work us over politically.”  
Questions: where and how are these two ideas of digital space that I just "articulated" challenged?  Does the distribution of, circulation of, and reaction to Kony 2012 invent other spaces that hadn't been considered before?  Obviously, we have people writing about and participating in social issues in digital spaces, which I have thought is productive.  Dialogue is a prime way to work through political issues. But did the dialogue disintegrate?  Did the dialogue destroy an important aspect (Ugandans' voice) of the issue?  Should dialogue be regulated, and if so, what would that regulation look like?
Obviously, I need to do more research into what folks were writing in the comment space that drowned out Ugandan voices, as I’d also be interested in what the writing says about the participants’ subjectivities.
I know I’m not saying much here, but my goal was to just write some thoughts and questions. In a way, I’m not sure what exactly I was trying to articulate or why I felt the need to write and post in the public sphere.

McLuhan, Marshall and Quentin Fiore. The Medium is the Massage. Produced by Jerome Agel. Germany: Gingko Press, 1967. Print.

Murray, Janet H. “Inventing the Medium.” The New Media Reader. Ed. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2003. 3-11. Print.  

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