RSA, Seattle, and a Video

Back from RSA, which I admit I didn't get to attend as much as I would have liked. On the grad student budget, I spent one day seeing Seattle (very cool city, reminds me of Harvard Square) and another doing the conference. I missed a few great panels, so I'll probably try to contact a few people with emails...

If you have a few minutes, Alisa Miller's recent TED talk is worth a view. This will be a great teaching tool. A few years back, a few friends and I came up with a Powerpoint to question the objectivity of empirical evidence. My portion focused on the various maps of red and blue america (some maps charting electoral votes, others calibrated to population density, etc). The various maps of the video remind us that, though a picture has a 1,000 words, it, still, doesn't tell the whole story.


Bit o' Levinas

From "The Thinking of Being and the Question of the Other" in Of God Who Comes to Mind:

We have asked whether the Other--who refuses identification, that is, thematization and hypostasis, but whom the philosophy of the tradition attempted to recover in the patience of the concept through the methodology of history as self-consciousness--must not be understood wholly as otherwise, in a putting in question of thought by the Infinite which thought could not contain; in the awakening. This is a putting in question and an awakening which are reversed into the ethics of responsibility for the other; an incessant putting in question of the quietude of the identity of the Same. It is a susception more passive than any passivity, yet an incessant awakening, a waking up in the midst of awakening that, without this, would become a "mood," a state of wakefulness, or wakefulness as a state. A thought more thoughtful than the thought of being, a sobering up that philosophy attempts to say; that is, which it attempts to communicate, and this, if only in a language that ceaselessly unsays itself, a language that insinuates.

The strong above is perhaps the most concise definition of postmodern metaphysics that I have encountered. I am currently working to equate the encounter with the screen as both an encounter with another(s) (other "sames" made other by their digital response-ability) and an encounter with the Face of the Other (Infinity). The screen can be passive in its presenting infinity, in its resistance to be said as any one identity. Of course, we also experience it as active: as comments, responses, mail, spam, as the presence of others (whose responses often question the primacy of my own thought).

This essay, "The Thinking of Being" is my favorite Levinas I have read. It is short (a mere ten pages), but outlines many of Levinas' key concerns. If you've always wanted to know why Derrida considers indeterminacy such a big deal, read this essay (specifically page 116!)


Sports Things that Bug Me

These things have been bugging me the past few weeks:

1. Kevin Garnett Shooting Jump Shots. Before I saw him play regularly, I used to think that Garnett was a better player than Tim Duncan. My argument went, if you surrounded Garnett with the talent Duncan worked with, he'd have just as many rings. Well, 12 playoff games later I'm ready to amend this thought. While Garnett is a much better defensive player, I think his lack of college experience hurt his offensive development. He just doesn't play like the physically imposing player he could be. When Duncan gets the ball in the post, he's going to the rim. Garnett is happy to settle for a fade away, or he'll pass it out of the post. Take the ball to the damn hoop. Seriously. Argh.

2. Complaints Regarding Manny's High Five. If I hear one more sports journalist / media personality complain about how all athletes are overpaid and greedy and then bash Ramirez for actually having fun and playing the game like a game I'm going to go something something. Manny enjoys baseball. I enjoy watching Manny play baseball. He among the three best righthanded hitters of his generation (Pujols, A-Rod), and the three of them likely comprise the three best righthanders ever playing together at one time. Is he a space cadet? Yeah, a little. But in an age of self-importance and self-promotion, many is a breathe of fresh air.

3. Obsessive Coverage of 'Spygate'. O.k., I'll probably be a bit of a homer here. But anyone who thinks the Patriots are the only team in professional football to utilize videotape beyond the written letter of the rules: you are crazy. I am not suggesting that every coach uses tape- I would bet 100$ that straight arrow Tony Dungy has never taped a TV program for fear he might be breaking copyright law. The reason Goddell and the NFL wants this to go away: they don't want the equivalent of a steroid controversy haunting their sport. Spying has been a part of football since the early 60's, when Hank Stram thought every team was sending agents to observe practices. Don't get me wrong: spying is against the rules, the Pats deserved to be punished. But please don't insinuate that the Pats are the only ones abusing the film room.

4. NCAA rules against playoff but adds two additional bowl games combined with OJ Mayo takes money. Maybe OJ didn't take money (innocent until proven guilty), but he should have. If the NCAA and USC are marketing Mayo to get more money, then he should be getting paid. Millions? No. But players should be able to accept up to 40,000 dollars (completely arbitrary number) from third parties every year. I am not suggesting teams or the NCAA pay athletes. But holding to the mantra of strict amateurism amounts to an unfair indentured service in an age when schools are using their athletic programs to build dorms, labs, and parking garages. Again: if the teams and league makes profit from the players, then the players should be able to make profit from the players. On a related point: wtf. wtf. wtf. Just give us one more bowl game. It will not diminish the ratings or prestige of the other bowls. Take the five top bowls- make one of them the "championship game." I realize that games are stretched out one a night to increase ratings. Fine. Start them a bit earlier, play two on one night, and you can have your championship game without adding an extra time to the schedule.


Bit of Levinas

"A Dominican father, for whom I have much admiration and who knows Hebrew admirably, said one day before me: what one takes for an infinite interpretation of the letter of Scripture is simply a reading that considers the entirety of the book as the context of the verse. It is not at all the two or three verses that precede or follow the verse on which one comments! For the absolute hermeneutic of a verse, the entirety of the book is necessary! Now, in the entirety of the book, there is always a priority of the other in relation to me." (Of God Who Comes to Mind 91).

The necessity of totality and its impossibility: these remain Levinas' preoccupations. How can I totalize that which remains in a formative relation to me? That which nourishes me? This is what undoes, silently, the "simply" of the dominican father, what maintains the infinity of interpretation. The Other (the experience of recognizing an infinite something beyond Being) which nourishes prioritizes another before me. I cannot help but interpret her, but such an interpretation must try to take account of everything (including that which cannot be accounted). Just as I cannot master the text, "only a vulnerable I can love his neighbor" (91). Levinas ethics proceed from a recognition of the limits of ontological knowledge, from a suspension of the need of the self in favor of Desire for the Other, from the impossibility of an absolute hermeneutic.


New Media Rhetoric and Wikipedia

I thought I would share my conference proposal for International Society for the History of Rhetoric conference. I have a feeling its probably a bit too contemporary (ie, it mentions computers) for this conference, but there's no harm in trying. The talk would be building off of what I'll be discussing at RSA later this month: though that talk focuses on the complex ways [non-Platonic/Aristotelian] in which Wikipedia establishes credibility. I'll post links to that material later. I guess my preoccupation with wikis extends from their complete "newness"- there's really nothing in history that compares to the magnitude to which they precipitate, harness, and purpose human interaction and thinking. Anywho, here's the proposal:

In We the Media, journalist turned new media proponent Dan Gillmor argues that digital technologies present us with an entirely new form of communication; in addition to “one-to-one” communication (which we can identify with dialectic) and “one-to-many” (rhetoric), digital technologies offer “many-to-many” communication (26). As Gillmor demonstrates through an examination of contemporary blogs, forums, wikis, and social aggregators, audiences are no longer exterior, static entities to be acted upon. They are now far more active agents in a far more dynamic communicative process.

I argue that this developing communicative medium will further push rhetoric to break away from its Platonic / Aristotelian preoccupation with objective truth and persuasion. As audiences gain more response ability, rhetors will have to work with audiences rather than upon them. The dynamism of digital communicative environments, in addition to their emphasis on collecting intelligence, will call for a rhetoric more concerned with fostering collaboration than producing terminal synthesis.

This does not mean that rhetoric should abandon all discussion of persuasion, only that its focus needs to expand to include non-synthetic negotiation of difference. I will offer as example of this dual need a presentation of Wikipedia. The “article” dimension of a Wikipedia entry reflects a traditional interest in truth and knowledge production. But every Wikipedia entry is more than just its “article”: it is a massive collection of pages, including a lively “discussion” section and a history of all changes made to a page. Every knowledge object becomes embedded in a web of social relations. These other, more social, dimensions to each entry symbolize the ways in which “many-to-many” communication is changing our information landscape and suggest how rhetoric needs to augment persuasion with an interest in cooperation.

I will conclude by arguing this transformation is anticipated in the work of Burkian rhetorical theorist Jim Corder. Throughout the mid-1980’s Corder argued that the work of rhetoric extended beyond persuasion to something more akin to “love.” Designed to deal with the intensified wrangle of the digital barnyard, a rhetoric of cooperation builds off of Corder and Burke by emphasizing that the ends of rhetoric aren’t always concerned with persuasion—sometimes they are concerned with keeping the conversation hospitable, active, and inviting.


New Media Rhetoric

The first paragraph of George Oates' recent A List Apart article "Community: From Little Things, Big Thigns Grow" reflects something I've been trying to articulate for a few years:

People don’t like being told what to do. We like to explore, change things around, and make a place our own. Hefty design challenges await the makers of websites where people feel free to engage; both with the system itself and with each other. Embrace the idea that people will warp and stretch your site in ways you can’t predict—they’ll surprise you with their creativity and make something wonderful with what you provide.

I've been writing the theoretical chapter of my dissertation, a chapter that focuses on Levinas' rejection of Cartesian consciousness, the primacy of ontology, and the fetish for Being. Along the way, I've come to recognize why Levinas (and myself) distrust Platonic / Aristotelian rhetoric: it presumes a rhetorician acting upon an audience. Audience members are framed at best as deliberating judges or at worst as passive receptacles.

But, by empowering audiences, equipping them with responsibility, new media technologies oppose this imposed passivity. For better or worse. Perhaps we will lose patience. Perhaps we won't listen long enough before we begin to speak. Or perhaps we will. I admit I only read the first few paragraphs of the article before I felt compelled to write a post, to respond, to create, to link, to contribute. And what we need is a rhetoric that focuses on these dynamics--group dynamics. A working with rather than a working on. In Oates' article we hear a call of what such a rhetoric might look like:

Any community—online or off—must start slowly, and be nurtured. You cannot “just add community.” It simply must happen gradually. It must be cared for, and hosted; it takes time and people with great communication skills to set the tone and tend the conversation.

When Flickr was born, Caterina Fake and I spent many hours greeting new members personally. We opened up chat windows with each new visitor to say “Hi! I work here, and I’d love to help you get started, if you have any questions.” We also provided public forums where staff were present and interactive. Those decisions proved crucial, because apart from creating points where we could inject a certain culture, it was all so personal.

If you want to stir your audience on a rapidly growing community site, take advantage of what we learned—hire a community manager. Or two. You’ll need a clever communicator with a lot of experience being online to help welcome people and provide ongoing support as your community grows. Show your personality and be available. Flickr’s tone is not necessarily suitable for every community, but the point is, the tone is evident everywhere you look.

I like that, in describing Flickr's origins, Oates states that they were looking to construct a culture. Rhetors can still have a purpose, they can still seek to act upon, to persuade (to use a word that I consider quite dirty). They retain a sense of agency. But "action" is framed as dialectical- or, and we don't have a word for this yet- plural-ectical. Multiple? Complex? Rhetoricians are clever communicators; clever [digital] communicators are those who generate discussion among persons; discussion, interaction, contact: the basis of a functional community.

For a few centuries, or millennia (?), intellectual activity has been primarily identified as an individual activity, even if the end result of this activity contributes to a society of scholars or Great Conversation. It would seem we are approaching a new era in which intellectual activity, while at times still very much a singular experience, is also at other times very much different from this tradition. Here's the idea I've been tripping over: might our new media come to represent a bridge between two long opposed intellectual traditions: rhetoric and dialectic? Is this the explication of Dan Gilmor's claim that the internet, for the first time, provides us with many to many conversation? Excuse the questions, but this is one of those ideas that I realize I should have put together awhile ago. Its one of those ideas that I've been teaching to long before I could articulate.

Tools such as del.icio.us and Google Docs are beginning to reshape our intellectual landscape. I am interested in the development of rhetoric (and composition) pedagogy that addresses these possibilities; and I believe we can turn to other disciplines, conversations, people (such as Oates) to see what kinds of preparation could benefit 21st century citizens.