Jagoda’s “Network Ambivalence” #optorg

Between EMU and WSU, several graduate students have set out to rebegin a reading group. The first meet-up of the summer is later today, and they’ve selected Patrick Jagoda’s “Network Ambivalence” as the reading. In the spirit of keeping with the group’s goals of teasing out a few notes before we meet, here goes nothing. Er, something. A few thoughts, reactions, ambivalences.

  • One leading premise here–an organizing question from Jagoda–is What is not a network? Jagoda suggests that networks have flourished into an encompassing mythology, engulfing a too-muchness in their applicability to all systemic phenomena. He details something akin to network normativity, fairly regular and predictable representations of networks as link-node or edge-node schematics. And these webs, according to Jagoda, with their ubiquity, coalesce into a “network imaginary-and a claim that reality itself is structured as a network” (p. 109).Two reactions: Mark Taylor contrasted networks and grids, and I find this distinction durably compelling (perhaps one of only a few ideas from Moment of Complexity that were sticky enough to hold on, for me at least, for a decade). Grids are not networks, exactly, and neither are networks grids. They operate according to slightly different structuring principles. Grids are more topoi-like, exacting predictable metrics of separation and juncture; networks are more choric, allowing a structural flexibility that neither abandons structure altogether nor regulates it into a rigid and ongoing pattern. Second, how we imagine networks has much to do with our vocabulary for deepening the concept. For instance, all networks are not equal, of course, depending upon whether we think of them as articulations of open systems or closed, or fluid structures or momentary snapshots/slices/cross-sections. That is, their durativity, encompassing thickness or thinness, volatility, and flows of resources, power, attention, and activity/energy have the potential of being anything but normative, regular, or degraded into a stagnant mythos. That is, relative to grids, networks are oftentimes decidedly queer. So, sure, at a glancing pass, networks might seem like they are normative, but that level of generality is not especially helpful for the work of involving networks in the description of complex systems.
  • Networks bear out a descriptive adequacy. They are limited in what they can account for, as are all attempts to engage depth-complexity, heterogeneity, relationships conducted irregularly amidst any messy, frayed ecology (usually my own interested in ecology or complex systems keys on material and discursive dimensions, though recent work that inflects such systems with traceable intensities or which attempts to visualize pulsatile and affective dimensions is fascinating, promising, though notably also not the only uses to which networks can be put). Oftentimes networks generate perspective on infrastructure, or on infrastructural activity. I mention this because networks could be considered infrastructuralism’s mouthpiece. Networks, however contingent we imagine them to be, speak for infrastructuralism, though sometimes only in a hushed whisper or using a language whose decipherablity is enigmatic.
  • It’s not an especially halting point of contention, but there is a baseline for networks here that suggests them as open, expansive, boundless (p. 111, bottom). Sure, we can imagine them that way, but why not counter this with iterations of networks that suppose them to be simplifying models, temporarily useful for peeking into non-obvious structural-relational systems, and whose outsides only matters but so much for now?
  • The second half of this short article entertains network much more as a verb and suggests ambivalence (in a special flavor) as a means of coping with networked ways of being. This reminds me of Jim Corder’s discussions of living with paradoxes, or buying into two seeming at cross-currents philosophies or worldviews. Jagoda frames this drawing on Berlant, as an “uncertainty, which does not require an evacuation of one’s passions and convictions, requires being present to an unsatisfying present” (p. 114). To extend this, Jagoda explains, “Ambivalence…is a process of slowing down and learning to inhabit a compromised environment with the discomfort, contradiction, and misalignment it entails” (p. 114). This is in some ways a call for reflection and noticing, but I am not quite satisfied with the relationship of agency and articulation to this means of coping. That is, what does being ambivalent look like? How does it speak or write? What are its rhetorical activations that are externalized–not merely as means of coping with a dissatisfying condition but as participates in change at whatever rates and whatever scales? I wonder this upon reading, though I don’t think it’s necessarily Jagoda’s aim to address it in this excerpt from his book, Network Aesthetics.
  • The final sections of the selection trail off somewhat, insofar as there is as an example of ambivalence reference to a video game called Speculation. Maybe it’s just me, but references to video games I have never played before, where they appear in academic writing, leave much to be desired. My experience is too limited here to follow along wholly convinced that Speculation performs this network ambivalence pedagogically, in the way Jagoda contends. So while I don’t want to seem dismissive of the example, neither is there any crispness to the frame for application. And to be fair, this is exactly one such moment where an article setting up and calling attention to a forthcoming book deliberately hints at the something more that, once we pick up Network Aesthetics, readers very well may find carried out more completely there.

Woolgar and Cooper, “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence?”

I stumbled across Steve Woolgar and Geoff Cooper’s article, “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence? Moses’ Bridges, Winner’s Bridges, and Other Urban Legends in ST&S” (Social Studies of Science, 29.3, June 1999), a few weeks ago as I prepared for a session of ENGL516:Computers and Writing: Theory and Practice in which we were taking up, among other things, Winner’s chapter from The Whale and the Reactor, “Do Artefacts Have Politics?” Reading the chapter yet again, I thought I would try to learn more about these well-known bridges. I’d never seen one of them, after all.

Woolgar and Cooper’s article is one of those I wish I’d read years ago. It opens with an unexpected event: Jane, a student in a grad seminar, challenges the premise of Winner’s artefact-politics example. In effect, she says the clearance-challenged bridges are passable, that they don’t actually prevent buses from traveling the parkways on Long Island, that Winner’s claim is a “crock of shit.”

Woolgar and Cooper turn next to Bernward Joerges’ investigation of Winner’s bridges, their history, and the legitimacy in Winner’s attribution of politics to these artefacts. Rather than accepting Joerges’ position that Winner’s example crumbles because the actual bridges allow buses to pass, however, Woolgar and Cooper suggest the bridges-articulated wield a certain “argumentative adequacy” that is not necessarily eclipsed by the bridges-actual (434). In fact, they say that proof of Winner’s error is difficult to come by, despite the bus timetable they ultimately obtained, despite Jane and another student’s efforts to corroborate the effect of these bridges on bus traffic.

The important recurrent feature in all this narrative [about efforts to corroborate the effects of the bridges] is that the definitive resolution of the story, the (supposedly) crucial piece of information, is always just tantalizingly out of reach…. For purposes of shorthand, in our weariness, in the face of the daunting costs of amassing yet more detail, or just because we’re lazy, we tend to ignore the fact that aspects of the story are always (and will always be) essentially out of reach. Instead we tell ourselves that ‘we’ve got the story right.’ (438)

Following a discussion of urban legends and technology, Woolgar and Cooper conclude with several smart points about the contradictory aspects of technology, that it “is good and bad; it is enabling and it is oppressive; it works and it does not; and, as just part of all this, it does and does not have politics” (443). They continue, “The very richness of this phenomenon suggests that it is insufficient to resolve the tensions by recourse to a quest for a definitive account of the actual character of a technology” (443). And, of course, once we can relax in efforts to trap a-ha! an “actual character,” we might return an unavoidably rhetorical interplay among texts and things, between discourses and artefacts. Winner, too, has built bridges, “constructed with the intention of not letting certain arguments past” (444). Periodically inspecting both bridges-actual and bridges-articulated is also concerned with mapping or with accounting for the competing discourses, the interests served by them, and so on: “Instead of trying to resolve these tensions, our analytic preference is to retain and address them, to use them as a lever for discerning the relationship between the different parties involved” (443). And, importantly, this is a lever that produces a different kind of clearance, “under which far more traffic might flow” (444).

Note: There’s much more to this, including Joerges’ response here (PDF), which I have not read yet, but I nevertheless find the broader debate fascinating, relevant to conversations about OOO we’re having on our campus in preparation for Timothy Morton and Jeff Cohen’s visit next month, and–even if I have arrived late–a series of volleys I need to revisit if and when I return to Winner’s example in the future.