A New Addition to the Syllabus

Perhaps a little late to the party, I decided my syllabus needed a section on interface technologies. Why? 1) I’m a big fan of digital distribution of course materials where legal and appropriate. Yet many of my students who access course materials via the course management system do not give much thought to interface technologies and subsequently fail to really engage (read, study, AND annotate) the course readings. 2) I’m tried of hearing a flurry of typing and looking at only the tops of my students faces as they peer over the wall of laptops. Not conducive into in-class discussion. (Note: The following policy is fore a graduate-level theory seminar. It would be different for other pedagogical contexts.)



Obviously, there are a wide variety of interface technologies available for engaging course materials. While the instructor is mindful that individual student preferences for interface technologies are the result of a range of intersecting aesthetic, ergonomic, and economic exigencies, it is, nevertheless, essential that chosen technologies also support student learning and minimize in-class distractions. Therefore, the following are requirements for course material interface technologies:

  • Annotation support: Students must be able to write on course readings. Annotations must further be accessible in class. iAnnotate and PDFHighlighter are recommended options for tablet users.
  • Flat-profile design: Students must have access to course materials in class via a device with a flat-profile design or configuration. This means no laptops, unless that laptop is a tablet-laptop hybrid with rotating touch screen.
  • Sufficient size: In class interface technologies must have dimensions of at least 4×7 inches. Small tablets are OK. Large phones are not.


*Note: Ink-on-Paper (IOP) technology meets or exceeds all of these requirements. With the added benefits of off-line and low-power accessibility settings, IOP may, indeed, be the ideal technology for learning theory. Furthermore, recent advances in Three-Ring-Binder Storage Systems provide impressive organizational and portability support. With the added affordances of Dog-Ear and Color-Tab Apps, it’s hard to go wrong with IOP. And, finally, it is worth mentioning that IOP has been out of beta testing for nearly 2,000 years, thus demonstrating impressive reliability.

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Object-Oriented Quibbles #4: Time is Information and Why You Should Care

Welcome, one and all, to this edition of Object-Oriented Quibbles (OOQs). OOQs are my way of exploring the rich scholarship of Object-Oriented Ontologies (OOO), but with a slightly critical eye. My recurrent caveat: I love OOO—or at least parts of OOO and the broader new materialist scholarly tradition in which it participates. OOQs are my way of refining and improving my own developing OOO-esque theories. If this sort of thing appeals to you, you might enjoy my first three OOQs: 1) The Cult of the Z-Axis, 2) The Carpentry of Discourse, and 3) Wherein A Meta-Quibble Becomes a Quibble About Metaphysics.

But without further ado, today’s episode: Time is Information and Why You Should Care.

Today’s OOQ focuses on what is probably my favorite work to date in the OOO tradition: Levi Bryant’s The Democracy of Objects. Levi Bryant, as many of you know, is a professor of philosophy at Collin College. More importantly, however, he’s largely attributed with coining the term, “Object-Oriented Ontology,” which makes his work of special relevance to OOO broadly and my OOQs specifically. The Democracy of Objects is a theoretical tour de force, exploring the failed history of Western epistemology alongside the works of Graham Harmon, Aristotle, Lacan, Latour, and Deleuze, among others. The book offers a cogent and coherent elucidation of what Bryant dubs “flat ontology”—his version of OOO. “Flatness” here refers to a presupposed lack of reducibility. In Bryant’s OOO, no individual object and be reduced to or explained by any other object. This, of course, provides an obvious exodus from epistemology, in that epistemology requires an explanation by a subject (and often is enacted through a reduction of the object to that explanation). The more difficult (for postmodernist) corollary of flat ontology is the rejection of hegemonies. Bryant argues that it is equally inappropriate to reduce an object to preexisting socio-structural theories such as classisms, paternalisms, colonialisms, sexisms, etc. In short, the argument is that these constructs provide an a priori (and anthropocentric) answer to all inquiry and thus forecloses on many possible explanations.

While flat ontology and onticology provide a wide variety of directions for interrogation, this is a quibble, so I will turn now to my primary critique of The Democracy of Objects, and this begins with my argument that time is information.


What is Information?          

As Bryant describes it on page 166, Information,

is non-linear and system specific, existing only for the system in question and as a function of the organization or endo-structure of the object. In saying that information is non-linear, my point is that it is an effect of the endo-structure of the object as it relates to its environment and how the endo-structure resonates within the field of differential relations that define that structure. Information is not in the environment, but a product of the system perturbed by its environment. (Bryant, p. 166).

“Endo-structure” is Bryant’s term for the interior and essential features of an object, those features that would exist and be manifest regardless of any relations that object has with any other object. Thus under Bryant’s model, the recognition of information is an event wherein one object perturbs its environment and a second object with an appropriate endo-structure receives this annoying stimuli and due to the accidents of the second object’s endo-structure the perturbation is interpreted as information. To elucidate this more clearly, Bryant relates a cynical narrative of how he interacts with his cat, pointing out that where he interprets the cats nuzzles as affection; it’s very likely merely a desire for warmth. The cat has perturbed (nuzzled) Bryant and his human endo-structure has interpreted that as information (affection) in a way that has nothing to do with the cat.

For Bryant, information exists solely in the acquisition of a perturbation and the folding of that perturbation into the endo-structure of the object/system that is perturbed. As he further clarifies,

It follows that information is not something that pre-exists an autopoietic machine, waiting out there in the world to be found. To be sure, objects outside an autopoietic machine can perturb or irritate an autopoietic machine, but this perturbation or irritation does not, in and of itself, constitute information for the system being perturbed. Rather, any information value the perturbation takes on is constituted strictly by the distinctions belonging to the organization of the autopoietic machine itself. (Bryant 141)


Why is Time Information?

Before time, a quick detour in space: One of the four essential theses of Bryant’s flat ontology is his assertion that the world does not exist. Bryant’s elucidation of this thesis focuses on his argument that flat ontology is comprised of collectives and assemblages, not wholes and parts. Just because we humans have traditionally defined the world or the universe as a whole which subsumes the parts (objects) we investigate does not mean that would be an accurate or desirable mode of ontological gerrymandering. As Bryant elucidates,

If it is so vital for flat ontology to establish that the world does not exist, then this is because the world must not be treated as a milieu in which beings or objects are contained as parts to a whole. In short, if flat ontology is to truly be flat, then it is necessary to establish that the world is not a container within which beings are found. (Bryant p. 271)

One way to read Bryant’s rejection of the world might be to understand “the world” as information. That is, our human or societal endo-structure is built in such a way that we coalesce the manifold perturbations of our experience into a holistic narrative and map that narrative onto a presupposed super-object—the world. Indeed, the holistic super-object world is probably not one that exists in the information milieu of other autopoietic systems such as cats or birds or, probably, even chimpanzees. (Possible exception: space traveling chimps, the poor bastards.) Indeed, Bryant makes the same argument about the temporality of galaxies, climates, and ecosystems. Time—for these objects—transcends the human informational milieu, which is no doubt one reason we have so much trouble passing meaningful climate change legislation. (But that is an argument for another place.)

Indeed, Bryant specifically recognizes that human/social autopoietic systems construe perturbations within an information milieu that suffers from very particular (and likely idiosyncratic) notions of space-time. These constructs, he argues, we must overcome.

At the level of object-oriented and onticological mereology, ,we cannot work form the premise that location in time and space is sufficient to individuate an object, or that objects exist only at a particular scales such as the mid-range objects that tend to populate the world of our daily existence. Rather, entities exist at a range of different scales, form the unimaginably small to the unimaginably large, each characterized by their own duration and spatiality. Here a tremendous amount of work remains to be done in thinking these spatial and temporal structures. (Byrant, p. 241).

What makes the unimaginably small unimaginable? No doubt the fact that the perturbations they produce are unrecognized by our human/society information milieu. Although, Bryant does not explicitly cast this argument for novel approaches to space-time in terms of information, his use of the term “unimaginable” is suggestive.

Certainly, we have all had different experiences of time. The watched pot, here, is instructive. If we more actively perturb or information milieu (with some other activity), our experience of the time it take for a pot to boil is quite different than if we do nothing but watch for the impending perturbations of steam and squeal. And, again, what of non-humans? What is time for a dog or a rock? If our ontology is to be flat, it cannot be grounded in human conceptions of time.

Of course, this argument was long ago provided by Immanuel Kant in his articulation of the synthetic a priori. Indeed, Kant’s suggestion could be folded quite nicely into OOO if we assume that the synthetic a priori are human endo-structures. In this case, time would not be information any longer, but rather that essential part of human cognition which configures how we construe information as derived from perturbations. (Certainly, The Democracy of Objects addresses Kant’s a prioris at great length and does great work deconstructing substance, for example. However, this quality analysis did not extend to time.)


Why Should We Care?    

This is not just some esoteric point about the nature of time. OK. It is, indeed, a really, really esoteric point, but it’s not just an esoteric point. There are actual ramifications for OOO. Much of The Democracy of Objects articulates its theory based on references to time and the temporal experiences of objects. Chief among these is Byrant’s rejection of the Latour/Whitehead objects as instantaneous momentary articulations thesis.

Why, then, if objects must reproduce themselves from moment to moment, do I not follow Whitehead in arguing that being, at its most basic level, is composed of “actual occasions” and that objects are but “societies of the actual occasions”? Whitehead’s actual occasions are instantaneous events that cease to exit the very moment they come into existence…. However, to treat actual occasions or instantaneous time-slices as the atoms or true units of being is to confuse the being of objects with their parts. An object is not its parts, elements, or the events that take place within it—though all of these are indeed indispensable—but is rather an organization or structure that persists across time. (Bryant pp. 233-234)

While Bryant’s point about the whole/part issue is well taken, I must pause at his argument that an object is an “organization or structure that persists across time.” Whose time? I fail to see how this argument amounts to much more than, humans recognize a similarity between two actual occasions and thus by virtue of their temporal endo-structure construe a persistence between the two instantaneous time-slices. And for that matter, would not the perception of similarity itself be information? If an autopoietic system is constantly self-remaking, who is it that is recognizing the persistence/ similarity of the structure/organization?

I’m a theoretical pragmatist (both in the philosophical and colloquial sense of the term, but here I mean the colloquial). For me the utility of a theory is in many ways based on whether or not it offers a better/ more compelling account of the objects of study. Within new materialism, there are many options available. OOO is one of the primary among post-ANT/associology. However, I am a bit concerned regarding the comparative utility of OOO as long as it fails to overcome the problem of time as information. I’m still confident that OOO is a highly valuable tool, but some work may still need to be done.

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Object-Oriented Quibble #3: Wherein a Meta-Quibble Becomes a Quibble About Metaphysics

Note: If you haven’t been following along with these Object-Oriented Qubbles (OOQs) and don’t know what I’m doing here, then you might which to see OOQ #1 and/or OOQ #2.

OK, so the entire point of these OOQs was to provide me with an opportunity to further explore my understanding of Object-Oriented Ontologies (OOO) while improving my vision of OOO through friendly critical quibbling. Today’s post begins as something else. I’ll be quibbling about someone else’s quibble. That’s right I’m meta-quibbling. [For the love of god, make it stop! –screams the largely beaten down tech writer in me.] So without further ado, I turn my attention to Harold Morowitz’s recent “The Plural of ‘Ontology’ is ‘Confusion,’ published in Complexity 17.6. Although many of my readers can no doubt see where I’m going with this, it’s worth noting that Morowitz’s primary target is not OOO or multiple ontologies, but rather the use of the word ontologies in computer and information sciences. Quoting Tom Gruber, Morowitz’s presents this definition to which he objects:

An ontology is a description (like a formal specification of a program) of the concepts and relationships that can formally exist for an agent or community of agents. The definition is consistent with the use of ontology as a set of concept definitions, but more general. And it is a different sense of the word than its use in philosophy.’’ Thus, one can have ontologies of linguistics, genomics, cultural heritage, and almost any domain for which data bases exist. (pp. 5-6)

To this linguistic evolution, Morowitz’s offers the following historical/etymological/traditionalist/Max Plankian/Joseph Priestlian/Abraham Simpsonian critique:

The word ontology has an extended usage in Philosophy and in this context it is defined in ‘‘The Oxford English Dictionary’’ as ‘‘that branch of metaphysics concerned with the nature or essence of being or existence,’’ with references going back to 1663. Thus, when I was handed my diploma many years ago, under the teaching of Brand Blanshard I had accepted that definition with the further refinement from a 1903 article by F.C.S. Schiller (Humanism i.9) noting that ‘‘The effect of what Kant called the Copernican revolution in philosophy is that ontology, the theory of Reality, comes to be conditioned by epistemology, the theory of knowledge.’’ Thus, metaphysics was presented as a combination of ontology and epistemology, what we know? and how we know it? When I arrived at graduate school and the mentorship of physicist philosopher Henry Margenau these ideas were refined, ‘‘We hold with Kant that epistemology must precede ontology and that epistemology denotes the methodology of the cognitive process. The methodology of science involves deliverances of sense as well as rules of correspondence, constructs and principles regulating constructs’’ [1]. Note the recurring importance of Kant, who really first codified the epistemology of Newtonian physics (Kritik der reinen Vernunft [2]) in 1781. Later authors have formed a neo-Kantian tradition altering the a priori features of Kantian epistemology to fit the changing physics. That tradition still persists (p. 5)

While I don’t particularly have much of an opinion on the use of “ontology” or “ontologies” in information sciences, I do think it’s pretty damn ridiculous to presume that computer and/or information sciences give a crap about what philosophers think of their use of the terms. Furthermore, I always get irritated with some pedantic traditionalist purports to suggest despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary that words, their definitions, their use, or their spellings can or should be limited to what was taught while the aforementioned pedant was in grammar [graduate, in this case] school. That kind of normativity serves no purpose. I’m not going to rehearse the argument here. For two wonderfully engaging versions, try the Smithsonian’s recent “Most of What you Think You Know about Grammar is Wrong,” or Stephen Fry’s “Don’t Mind Your Language” set wonderfully in kinetic typography here.

Of course, given that this is an OOQ and not just a ranting about linguistic normativity, let’s get to the point. Despite my snarky mockery of Horowitz’s article, much in philosophy (including much of OOO) is beholden to something like the traditional sub-disciplinary gerrymandering wherein “metaphysics [is] presented as a combination of ontology and epistemology” (p. 5). Now, as anyone who’s read any OOO knows, the innovative move of OOO is to remove epistemology from the equation. Levi Bryant for example offers a wonderful excoriation of epistemology inquiry in his identification of the epistemic fallacy. As he describes it,

What the epistemic fallacy identifies is the fallacy of reducing ontological questions to epistemological questions, or conflating questions of how we know with questions of what beings are. In short, the epistemic fallacy occurs whenever being is reduced to our access to being. Thus, for example, wherever beings are reduced to out impressions or sensations of being, wherever being is reduced to our talk about being, wherever being is reduced to discourses about being, wherever being is reduced to signs through which being is manifest, the epistemic fallacy has been committed. (Bryant 60).

Graham Harmon, Andrew Pickering, Annmarie Mol, Ian Bogost, and many others all offer similar critiques of epistemology and in so doing argue (convincingly) that most of the history of Western philosophy has been plagued by an epistemological focus that reduces inquiry into reality questions about access to reality.

My quibble and key point: by maintaining a vision of ontology as subsidiary to metaphysics, OOO fails to escape the problem of access. Harman’s distinction between real and sensual objects, Bryant’s bifurcation between endo- and exo-qualities all presuppose (even when they claim not to presuppose) some sort of reference object (although a nonhuman reference object) on which sense impressions/ perturbations can land and be registered as qualities/information/sensual inputs. I would argue that these distinctions (endo/exo//real/sensual) are the manifestations of the traditional concern with metaphysics and its never-ending inquiry into essences and accidents. In subordinating ontology to metaphysics, ontology is always about the stuff of reality.

“But wait,” you say. “Isn’t that what ontology is,” you say. Well, it can be and it must be as a part of metaphysical inquiry. What I suggest instead is that we consider what it would mean for OOO to engaging in ontological inquiry stripped equally of epistemology and metaphysics. And, I’m in good company making this suggestion. From Bruno Latour’s Reassembling the Social,

To go form metaphysics to ontology is to raise again the question of what the real world is really like. As long as we remain in metaphysics, there is always the danger that deployment of the actors’ worlds will remain too easy because they could be taken as so many representations of what the world, in the singular is like. In which case we would have not have moved an inch and would be back at square one of social explanation—namely back to Kant’s idealism. (Latour 2005 p. 117)

So what would it mean to have an ontology without metaphsyics? A provisional answer, ironically, I locate etymologically: ontology from the Greek ὄντος, being. While much of ontological discourse, as traditionally subject to metaphysics, does focus on reality. There is a viable alternative in ontology as the study of being, or perhaps the preconditions of being. So the stuff of reality—metaphsyisics with all its endo-attributes and exo-accidents—comes later. While certainly this circumscribes the explanatory force of ontological inquiry to a much smaller arena, it saves OOO form the problems of access that still manifest in metaphysical inquiry. I would argue that this version of ontology resonances well with Mol’s multiple ontologies and Bogost’s tiny ontology. (Although, perhaps they would disagree.)

Under this model, OOO can investigate the preconditions for being (modes of association/articulation in the Latourian idiom, sites of practice in Mol-speak) and the emergent metaphysics of a particular instance of being (the articulations of that current exist for an object of study), and the subsequent epistemology (how the perturbations produced by that particular instance of being are processed by another particular instance of being as provisionally identified for the purposes of the current study). Of course, one wouldn’t need to go that far. Ontology could be enough.

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Object-Oriented Quibbles and the Carpentry of Discourse

Welcome, all, to my n part series on Object-Oriented Quibbles (OOQ). For a little more detail on this project and its exigencies, I refer you to the prelude to Part I. But if you’re not that interested here’s the TL;DR version: I love Object-Oriented Ontologies (OOO) and new materialisms. However, I also think the unbridled acceptance of all things OOO (among many) warrants a more careful approach to some of the ideas. For those fragments of thought I don’t quite feel like publishing, I put them here.

So without further ado, today’s episode of OOQ addresses the Carpentry of Discourse. Those familiar with the work of Ian Bogost will almost immediately recognize the reference and the conflict. For Bogost, carpentry and discourse are antonymous. However, those of you who are very familiar with Bogost or at least with his Alien Phenomenology will know that he provides a scathing preemptive counter-attack to just the kind of work I’m doing with this series on OOQ. It is with that preemptive assault I must begin.

To begin, I quote Alien Phenomenology (form the chapter on carpentry) page 91, almost in its entirety:

Among the consequences of the semiotics obsession is an overabundant fixation on argumentation, such that pedantry replaces curiosity. Richard Rorty adeptly explains this phenomenon in his 1996 American Philosophical Association Response to Marjorie Greene’s Philosophical Testament.

“For [many philosophers] “doing philosophy” is primarily a matter of spotting weaknesses in arguments, as opposed to hoping that the next book you read will contain an imaginative, illuminating description of how things hang together. Many of our colleagues think that one counts as doing philosophy if one finds a flaw in an argument put forward in a philosophical book or article, and that one is a good philosopher if one is quick to find such flaws and skillful at exhibiting them. “

There’s a fictional character in The Simpsons known as Comic Book Guy. Offering sarcastic quips about his favorite comics and television shows, he epitomizes the nerd-pedant who splits every last hair in his pop cultural fare. Besides serving as a send-up of the quintessential comic book/ Dungeons and Dragons geek, Comic Book Guy also lampoons the nitpickery of the Internet, where everyone critiques every detail of everything all the time. But beyond those obvious references, Comic Book Guy also serves as condemnation-by-proxy of most academics. We are insufferable pettifogs who listen or read first to find fault and only later to seek insight, if ever. “Discourse” is not a term for conversation but the brand-name for a device used to manufacture petty snipes—about the etymology of a word, or the truth value of a proposition, or the unexpected exclusion of a favorite theorist. It is perhaps no accident that among the general public, one finds behavior most similar to academic punctiliousness on the Internet, where all ideas, interchanges, and actions are strained through sieve of language. (Bogost p. 91)

Well shit. Even I’m forced to admit that this is a pretty apt description of OOQ. Hell, I’ve even put on a little weight and grown a pony tail in the last year, making me all the more Comic Book Guy-esque. Nevertheless, even though it’s perhaps not his preferred mode of engagement with the philosophical (more on that later), Bogost has entered into philosophical discourse. As such, I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea of him preemptively excluding himself from criticism. (I actually doubt that’s the primary goal here. This passage works to set up his argument of carpentry more than to insulate him from pedantic criticism.) Here’s what I’ll say: this OOQ series is admittedly and unabashedly nitpickery. I think there’s benefit in careful criticism. I think it hones greater creativity. See for example Danny Boyle’s recent rejection of his possible assumption of the James Bond Franchise Directorship. Boyle prefers to work within a more limited budget. He says that constraints foster creativity, and I agree. If the entire academic community just confined themselves to attempted creativity and offered no nitpickery, I’m not sure the creativity would continue. We write in anticipation of critique. That anticipation forces better work. I think most of us have read a book or seen a movie by an artist whose first popular effort was wonderful. But when final cut or complete editorial authority were granted based on prior success, subsequent endeavors failed to satisfy quite so much as the original. That said, I’ve obviously chosen to relegate my OOQs primarily to that bastion of all things sarcastic—the interwebs. My decision to pursue them in this “lesser” venue suggests that on some level, I agree with Bogost. It’s a complex issue. Regardless, I’m going to go on with my quibbles.

Alien Phenomenology is a pithy and engaging contribution to OOO. Picking up on the work of Graham Harman and Levi Bryant, Bogost pushes beyond an OOO of household objects (coffee cups) and animals for a more serious reengagement with the materiality of human-made machines. Given Bogost’s history as a video game theorist, this means computers, software, and gaming software in particular often receive the most sustained analysis. Nevertheless, Alien Phenomenology is a whirlwind tour de force of pop culture materiality. The shift in emphasis from the more inert rocks and coffee mugs of Harman/Bryant’s OOO provides an ontological foundation with a more active materiality. Yet despite that potential for greater activity, Bogost’s ontology is smaller and more stripped down. He offers the notion of “tiny ontology” as an addition to “flat ontology.” Tiny ontology is minimalist. We might even call it Ockham’s razor ontology. It’s just enough to get the job done. Ultimately, I think tiny ontology is a fantastic contribution and I’m going to write further about it in more formal settings. What concerns me here is Bogost’s suggestion for how to pursue tiny-flat ontology/ alien phenomenology—viz., carpentry.

Following up on his diatribe of Comic Book Guy, Bogost suggests, “There is another way. If a physician is someone who practices medicine, perhaps a metaphysician ought to be someone who practices ontology. Just as one would likely not trust a doctor who had only read and written journal articles about medicine to explain the particular curiosity of one’s body, so one ought not trust a metaphysician who had only read and written books about the nature of the universe.” (pp. 91-3).

In short, Bogost recommends doing and making over thinking and writing—thus, the term carpentry. As would be expected, as a researcher and teacher of rhetoric and communication, I’m a little put off by the suggestion that crafting communication does not rise to the same ontological/ intellectual/ aesthetic level of other makings. Although, Bogost’s argument is finally that writing is not enough by itself (doing must accompany writing), he regularly returns to this distinction between philosophical writing and carpentry:

  • [P]hilosophical works generally do not perpetrate their philosophical positions through their form as books. The carpenter, by contrast, must contend with the material resistance of his or her chosen form, making the object itself become philosophy. (p. 93)
  • Designers, engineers, artists, and other folks make things all the time. But philosophers don’t; they only make books like this one. (p. 99)

To this idea that making and writing are different, I offer three primary objections: 1) The distinction between writing and making replicates the two world problem OOO seeks to avoid, 2) In so doing, the distinction between carpentry and writing elides the materiality and craft of discourse, 3) Bogost’s recommended alternative (software) is ontologically identical.

1) The Two World Problem: The suggestion that writing is somehow different from other forms of material engagement seems to replicate the two world problem that OOO and alien phenomenology seek to avoid. The flatness of flat ontology presupposes a lack of distinction between the two (post-)modern worlds of nature and culture, language and reality. In separating out the practices of writing from other activities, Bogost replicates this distinction. The refrain that writing isn’t material enough is an act of ontological gerrymandering (to borrow Woolgar’s term).

2) The materiality and craft of discourse: Communication is a thoroughly material and typically embodied enterprise. Writing this post has been a thoroughly material encounter. Throughout this process I have been forced to engage (with great frustration) with the spine glue of Alien Phenomenology. Bogost’s book is a short one, clocking in at a mere 165 pages. The craft-workers at the University of Minnesota Press (or their subcontractors) have provided the book with a healthy slathering of book binding glue. Thus the rigidity of the spine and the light weight of having at most 82 pages of weight on a side mean I can’t keep the damn book flat. I’ve broken the spine several times to no avail. At the moment my desk lamp is smashing Alien Phenomenology open to the page 92-93 spread. What a beautiful lesson on the recalcitrance of matter and the articulation of objects in the pursuit of a program of action. Communications happen in situated, embodied, and material spaces—what Clay Spinuzzi calls writing ecologies. These spaces are no less complex and material that the spaces of the carpenter’s bench. I have tools: keyboards, screens, blogs, post-it notes, and the current surprise multi-tool that is the desk lamp. I have constraints: word processing software, hyperlinking, attention spans (which for internet readers I’m rapidly exhausting).  Plato’s Gorgias makes this same argument suggesting that doctoring is a techne (carpentry) and rhetoric is mere pandering (nitpickery). Here is a post hoc ethical judgment—the product of doctoring (health) is better than the product of rhetoric (dupery). Heidegger prefers das Ding (the thing) to das Geganstand (the object) because of his aesthetic sensibility which says a handmade jug is better than a coke can. Horkheimer and Adorno prefer original art to the mass produced for the same reason. Ultimately, the only difference I can see in each of these cases is a differential perspective (ethical or aesthetic) on the end product.

Secondly, I understand ontology to be the study of being or the preconditions for being. Subsequently, I’m not sure there is an activity that can be performed that doesn’t have the potential for ontological scrutiny. Living and doing is being and making. We are all already and always carpenters. I don’t think we all need to become cyberneticists making robotic turtles to be ontologists. But perhaps that’s just me.

3) Software vs Writing: Bogost’s preferred example of carpentry is making software. However when the preference for the end product is removed, I can’t see a different between making software and writing. Now straightaway, I’ll admit to knowing little about programming. Although I have some experience with scripting languages, I haven’t programmed anything since I had a TI-85. So if I’ve got the basics wrong, let me know. As I understand it, creating software involves the assemblage of signifiers (source code) that will instruct a compiler to render those instructions understandable to the computer so that it can execute the appropriate commands. Similarly writing involves the assemblage of signifiers (text) that will instruct a complier (visual cortex + Wernicke’s area) to render the source code understandable (as language) to the computer (prefrontal cortex). Good code is inscribed, tested, and revised to ensure that the appropriate instructions are performed. Good writing is inscribed, tested, and revised to help ensure that the appropriate education, persuasion or delight occurs. Certainly writing is messier. Squishy human brains don’t follow instructions quite so well as compilers and processors. Although, that might make writing an even better form of carpentry on which to base ontology.


A totally fair retort by Ian Bogost:

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Object Oriented-Quibbles and the Cult of the Z-Axis

This entry is what I hope will be the first in a series of Object-Oriented Quibbles (OOQ, for fun. I like the playfulness of the Q-tail. It’s a nice visual metaphor for this project—a cock-eyed reappraisal of OOO.) If you follow my work at all, you will know that I am a big fan of new materialisms (Coole and Frost’s term). Even before I knew very much about new materialisms, my work was heavily invested in questions of ontology (see here and here, for example). And, of course, more recently I (with Carl Herndl) have argued very strongly for a rhetorical embrace of the new material (here).

My goal in this (hopefully series of) post(s), is to slow down and give myself time to think carefully through the arguments of OOO and their ramifications for rhetorical theory. It’s also a way of for me to publically express some of the concerns that arise for me as I work through this new(er) theoretical agenda. I sincerely hope that my readers (and maybe even the authors of the works I address) will not hesitate to engage with my critique for the benefit of both parties. The last exigency for this series arises from the richness of OOO. There’s so much going on in the new materialist turn that I cannot possibly write about it all for publication. Thus these OOQs are in many respects just that, quibbles; musings and issues that don’t necessarily rise to the level of demanding a full scholarly retort. In any event, onto Q1: The Cult of the Z-Axis.

The Quadruple Object

My primary focus in this post comes from a few lines of Graham Harman’s The Quadruple Object (2009). In this book, Harman works to develop on ontological account of the object. In clarifying that this account is ontological, he rejects the traditional epistemological approach of philosophy (and about any other discipline) to the question of the object which reduces inquiry to the problem of epistemological access. In short, Harman argues (and I agree) that most of the history of philosophical inquiry into objects immediately recasts questions about the object and questions about the relationship between the (human) subject and the object. How do we know the object? Can we know the object? Etc. Etc.

My quibble has to do with “depth.” (Harman’s use thereof in a few paragraphs.) The notion of depth is a standard idiom in academic discourse. “My new awesome theory provides a deeper account of X than the old dusty theory.” Most of us are guilty of using this turn of phrase. I’m sure I have a time or six. So what’s the problem with depth? As anyone who slows down and takes a moment to think about the depth-idiom knows, depth is most often academic code for satisfaction. “I find that my proposed theory provides a more satisfying account of X” would often probably be a more honest way of putting it. This satisfaction might be a matter of aesthetics (the eloquence/elegance of the account), politics (corresponds with the author’s practical agenda), or any other kind of academic satisfaction.

My first argument then is that this idiomatic use of the word “depth” should the stricken from ontology. While generally speaking, in academic discourse, we are able to read the idiomatic use of depth, and it thus presents no substantive problem for our continued discourse, the notion of depth takes on a more central significance in ontological discourse. There may well be a there there that transcends academic satisfaction.

Indeed, in many cases, something much more serious is meant by depth. The notion of depth may mean very intentionally and specifically something that exists below or behind. Below or behind what? Well, I imagine if we were to trace the use of the word depth in academic jargon (that would be an interesting project!), we would find a consistent collocation of depth with the classical empirical model of scientific discovery as uncovering. If we were to find this to be the case, it would suggest very strongly that the academic notion of depth is a product of the very two-world hypothesis new materialisms reject. That is depth refers to an inner realty below or behind the perceptive surface of inquiring humans. That is, there is perception and reality and the truer true addresses the reality, the depth.

And indeed, this model of depth corresponds to Harman’s use of the term in his celebration of Heidegger’s tool-being,

But however popular it may currently be, the pragmatist reading of Heidegger misses the target. For the tool-analysis teaches us something much deeper than the emergence of conscious awareness from the prior unconscious use of things…. To oppose the arrogant pretentions of theory, the tool-analysis shows us that the being of an apple, hammer, dog, or star is not exhausted by its presence in consciousness. No sensual profile of these things will ever exhaust its full reality, which withdraws into the dusk of a shadowy underworld. (Harman p. 42, emphasis added)

Ultimately, I am concerned that this use of depth reenacts the two-worlds hypothesis that Harman works so hard to avoid. How can one possibly use the term depth as a euphemism for the reality which escapes sensual profile without begging the question of access? The very notion presupposes a sensual surface from which the true reality of the object can/must recede.

Fortunately, as the arguments unfold in The Quadruple Object, Harman distances himself from the model of depth articulated in Heidegger’s tool-being. In so doing, he (Harman) rejects the essentialization of the receding being of the zuhanden tool and recommends instead an ontological model of infinite regress.

But the problem remains that Heidegger allows for nothing deeper than the being of a thing. If we consider the hammer in its sequestered tool-being, we find it already at the bottom of the universe. We are thus left with nothing but a permanent play of light and shadow across a single gap between genuine being and derivative presence, and with human experience as the sole site of presence…. Hence it should now be clear that the hammer as a real tool-being is not located in the basement of the universe at all, since a layer of constituent pieces swarms beneath it, another layer beneath that one, and so forth. Instead of saying that this regress into constituent objects is indefinite, I would go so far as to call it infinite…. (Harman p. 112)

Beautiful! And I agree entirely. But then what of the notion of depth? If regression is infinite, does it make sense to talk about an ontological above and below. Certainly, then, all invocations of depth are relational and provisional. Object/Articulation A is only deeper in respect to Object/Articulation B insofar as B subsumes A. So one could indeed argue that an account of B is deeper than the account of A, but there can be no corresponding value judgment. Deeper is not better. In fact, in this model complexity may be better and as such a more “shallow” account that explores A’s interface with other objects at the same level may be…..more satisfying. Thus I’m not entirely sure what to do with Harman’s use of “deeper” in line one, above.

And, unfortunately, this notion of depth continues to make its appearance throughout The Quadruple Object. It can be found right up to the end in Harman’s ultimate account of reality.

An object is real when it forms an autonomous unit able to withstand certain changes in its pieces. This does not require additional relations with other entities, since we have seen that the real object lies deeper than such relations, and often enters them with no lasting effect to itself. (p. 123)

But again, if depth is relational and provisional, then I find this account of reality unsatisfying.

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I’m very excited to announce that we’re up and running and research is underway at UWM’s new Scientific and Medical Communications Laboratory (SAMComm). What’s SAMComm you ask? Well, I’m happy to tell you. Here’s the brief description from the website. (p.s. I’m also happy to announce the website is also up and running: samcomm.uwm.edu.)

SAMComm is devoted to cutting-edge research into effective and ethical uses of communication in a variety of scientific, technical, medical, and policy contexts. SAMComm has a commitment to mixed methodological research and its members draw on an array of disciplinary traditions from technical communication, health communication, and argumentation studies. At the heart of SAMComm research is a state-of-the-art qualitative data analysis server which allows members to engage in comprehensive investigations of large communications data sets.

The first few months of the lab’s life have been devoted to physical improvements. SAMComm’s first home was a disused storage area. (I say first home because we’re actively pursuing new funding streams and have our eyes set on new digs in one of UWM’s two recent campus expansion projects.) Despite the humble beginnings, I think we’ve managed to transform the aforementioned storage disaster into a respectable workspace. But, of course, I’ll let you be the judge. The picture below gives you a nice sense of the rehabilitation.

Lab Rehab

With rehab complete, we’ve transitioned into our first round of RA training. SAMComm currently hosts to research assistants whose time is primarily dedicated to initial data analysis on our first major project: a systematic analysis of pharmaceuticals policy decision-making in FDA drugs advisory committees. Information on additional projects can be found (you guessed it) on the website.

I should mention that SAMComm is currently seeking additional collaborators and community partners. If you’re working in an area where working together might be a good idea, please feel free to drop me a line.

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Opportunities for UWM Students

ATTN: UWM Students

Please note the Spring 2013 opportunities below. The images link to .pdf flyers.

English 431: Social, Political, and Ethical Issues in Scientific and Technical Communication (u/G)
Tuesdays 4:40, CRT 405

English 711: Educational and Advocacy Writing in Health and Medicine (U/G)
Thursdays 4:40, CRT 405

Graduate Research Assistantships Available
Scientific and Medical Communications Laboratory

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Ideology and Superheroes

As anyone who either owns a television or has driven past a movie theater will tell you, the Marvel Comics Universe is everywhere right now. In recent years we’ve seen major studio productions of two Iron Mans, two Incredible Hulks, Capitan American, Thor, and of course the combine-them-all-together tour de force that is the Avengers. (I may have missed one or two in there. I’ve not seen them all.) In any event, this seems like an ideal to time to share one of my favorite pedagogical moves: teaching ideology critique through nationalist superheroes. (Caveats: 1) I’m sure I’m not the first person to come up with this idea, but I don’t recall specifically stealing it. 2) I actually came up with it slightly before the latest superhero craze, but it’s OK if you don’t believe me.)

So there’s not much to say here, actually. It’s fairly obvious if you stop to think about it that the nationalist superhero of a given nation-state would be the perfect exemplar of its cultural ideology. This assignment has worked best with the wonderfully conflicted pairing that is the US’s Captain America and China’s Collective Man. (I used Captain Canuck and Major Mapleleaf when I was teaching at UBC. Although I think this assignment works better with American students who seem to have a closer relationship with superheros than their counterparts north of the border.) You hardly even need to get past the names to start seeing the wonderful cultural-ideological overtones. For a great list of nationalist superheros see: http://www.buzzfeed.com/awesomer/national-superheroes-from-other-countries. Makes for a fun day in class.


Collective Man: 5 identical twin brothers who combine into a single hero with the collective strength of the entire Chinese people

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Rhetorics of Science & Medicine Seminar

This post is a shameless plug for my rhetoric of science and medicine seminar at UWM in the fall. If you’re a UWM graduate student interested in rhetoric, technical communication, and/or science and technology studies, think about signing up. I’m happy to field any and all questions about the course. The description is below. You can also download recruitment flyer which includes fancy pictures of probable required readings.

English 855: Seminar in Theories of Business and Technical Writing: Rhetorics of Science & Medicine (3 units; G) Fall 2012 | Tuesdays 5:30pm
Science and medicine are each part of vastly complex cultural enterprises which include, but also extend far beyond what is done in the laboratory or what happens in scientific journal articles. Scientists, technologists, doctors, patients, regulators, policy makers, journalists, and the general public each interact with and participate in technical, scientific, and medical discourses in a wide variety of ways. English 855 will examine scientific, technical, and medical communication both in the contexts of research and dissemination and in terms of larger cultural and material concerns. The course will provide students with the foundation necessary to explore key problems in rhetorics of science and medicine and how those issues interface with rhetorical studies and technical communication more broadly. Students will read a wide range of scholarship including: 1) canonical articles in the rhetoric of science and medicine 2) related works in technical communication, and 3) cutting-edge texts in science and technology studies. Specific authors include: Annemarie Mol, Bruno Latour, Carl Herndl, Carolyn Miller, Charles Bazerman, Donna Haraway, Jane Bennett, Joseph Dumit, Judy Segal, Peter Galison, and Randy Allen Harris. Students will facilitate one class discussion, write several reading synthesis essays, and compose a final paper of article length.

Click here to download the flyer! (.pdf)

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Citation Coercion

While browsing my twitter stream today, I was struck by a particular headline courtesy of The Provence—a British Columbia daily newspaper:

Needless to say, as a publishing academic, I found this headline a bit disturbing. So I tracked down the original article on which the tweet and province article was based: Allen W. Wilhite and Eric A. Fong. (2012) Coercive Citation in Academic Publishing. Science 335: 542-3. Here’s the link. Be ready for the obligatory academic publishing pay wall.

Long story short, the authors surveyed 6672 scholars and 832 journals in economics, sociology, and various business disciplines. With regards to the surveyed scholars alone the study addresses 45,955 articles. Respondents were surveyed regarding whether or not they felt coerced to add more self-citations (that is, citations to the target journal). Let’s clarify that just a bit. The authors stipulate that coercive self-citation requests should be understood as follows:

Coercive self-citation refers to requests that (i) give no indication that the manuscript was lacking in attribution; (ii) make no suggestion as to specific articles, authors, or a body of work requiring review; and (iii) only guide authors to add citations from the editor’s journal. This quote from an editor as a condition for publication highlights the problem: “you cite Leukemia [once in 42 references]. Consequently, we kindly ask you to add references of articles published in Leukemia to your present article” ( 6). Wilhite and Fong p. 542.

According to Wilhite and Fong, 20% of respondents cited being coerced and 50% reported being aware of coercive practices on the part of journal editors. Also noteworthy is the fact that 86% of respondents identified “coercive self-citation” requests as inappropriate. These data are reported amidst explicitly referenced concern about the role of impact factors in the evaluation of scholarly journals. And the supposition is that journal editors request additional, non-specific, citations of their journal solely based on a desire to raise the journal’s impact factor.

Obviously, this possibility raises some serious concerns for the integrity of academic publishing. And if, if, journal editors are, indeed, asking authors to cite additional references to the target journal with a primary aim of raising the impact factor, then I’m with the 86%. However, I wonder if Wihite and Fong aren’t jumping the gun a bit in attributing this nefarious motivation. I’ve certainly been asked, on more than one occasion, to add self-citations to a potential publication. And, yes, it’s very, very annoying. But is it wrong? I can think of at least two issues which suggest it might not be.

Issue 1: Burke’s Parlor
Rhetoricians among my audience a imminently familiar with Burke’s parlor metaphor. For those who aren’t, in the Philosophy of Literary Form, Burke writes:

Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally’s assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress.

Scholars of rhetorical theory take this as the perfect metaphor for participation in a scholarly journal. A would-be author must participate in the on-going conversation. Now certainly that conversation transcends journal boundaries, but if there really isn’t much of anything worth citing in your target journal, perhaps you’ve targeted the wrong journal. Perhaps you should be participating in a different conversation. Wihite and Fong offer a different, perhaps a-rhetorical, edict for determine who to cite. They argue, “The American Psychological Association Publication Manual states, “Cite the work of those individuals whose ideas, theories, or research have directly influenced your work” (emphasis added) ( 8)” (p. 543). For me, however, this still raises the question of my first issue. If no article (or nearly no article) from your target journal has “directly influenced your work,” then isn’t that the time to ask if you’re pursuing the proper venue? Perhaps the unnamed author above receiving editorial comments from Leukemia did, indeed, need to work harder to explain to the audience the relevance of the contribution to the conversation of that journal.

Issue 2: Scholarly Flexibility
For this issue I return to point one of Wilhite and Fong coercive self-citation definition. According to their rubric requests for self-citation are not coercive if they identify specific articles, authors, or intellectual traditions that the article needs to cite. (Let’s leave aside the issue that it’s still perfectly coercive to say, “we won’t publish this article unless you cite Article X by Person Y.”) Is the lack of specificity really a problem? Or is it, maybe, the recognition that the author needs to participate in the on-going conversation coupled with the trust in said author to identify the scholarship already present in the target journal which is most germane to their own area of inquiry. I really do get annoyed when an editor tells me to cite more from my target journal. But, I’m pretty sure I’d be way more annoyed if the editor told me I had to cite x, y, and z specific articles in order to fit my manuscript to the journal.

Lest I stay even further into TL;DR territory…
I don’t have any answers here. I’m very deeply concerned by the idea that editors could be requesting citations just to pad their impact factor. But I’m also just as deeply concerned by the suppositions of Wihlte and Fong: 1) the attribution of nefarious motive, 2) the lack of recognition regarding “the scholarly conversation,” and 3) the idea that a lack of specific suggestion is somehow worse than a specific, yet still coerced, self-citation request. One thing I am sure about is that these are questions that all scholars need to start actively engaging. And, perhaps even more so, rhetoricians of science and other scholars who have devoted their research to the study of scientific articles and the contexts which surround those articles. Leave a comment. Talk to me. Tell me your thoughts on this issue.

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