Standing

Standing on the Shoulders of Networks Poster
Standing on the Shoulders of Networks Poster

Immersed in prepping this talk for much of the morning, noticing as closing in the constraints of time and purpose and what I’d supposed possible before really squaring with the script. Deck is drafted, talk is drafted, and still there isn’t quite enough explicit about this business of standing on shoulders–so much more I’d like to do with footing for newcomers, hospitality for initiates.

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.

Nightmare Network

A nightmare network of ganglia, charged and firing without my knowledge, cuts and splices what I do see, editing it for my brain. (21)

Annie Dillard, “Seeing,” Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (1974)

Question: Where in the conductive cuts and splices do the ganglia end, the brain begin, the seeables stand apart, quarantined in their viewspace?

Everything Inventive Is Good For You

Earlier this week I wrapped up Steven Johnson’s latest, The Invention of
Air
, a pop-sci biography of Joseph Priestley. The book was typical, enjoyable
Johnson: cleverly woven anecdotes, theoretical hints concerning networks and
ecologies of influence, and iterative trigger-phrases that pop just enough to
keep the narrative lively and fast-moving. I soared through the first 160
pages in-flight last Friday and then got back into the final chapters a couple
of days ago. And I liked the book very much, except that it slowed ever
so slightly near the end: the young, experimental Priestley was more provocative
than the aging, dislocated Priestley. The latter, it turns out, suffered late in
the religious and political aspects of his life because of the the same
"congenital openness" (190) (or "chronic intellectual openness" (142)) that
helped him become so influential on enlightenment scientific inquiry, and this
section of the book worked at a noticeably different pace than the one dealing
with Priestley’s tinkering with plants.

Johnson characterizes his own ecological approach to Priestley’s life with
the phrase "long zoom":

Ecosystem theory has changed our view of the planet in countless ways,
but as an intellectual model it has one defining characteristic: it is a
"long zoom" science, one that jumps from scale to scale, and from discipline
to discipline, to explain its object of study: from the microbiology of
bacteria, to the cross-species flux of nutrient cycling, to the global
patterns of weather systems, all the way out to the physics that explains
how solar energy collides with the Earth’s atmosphere. (45)

The "long zoom", thus, is both a description of Priestley’s intellectual
manner and also Johnson’s method of developing the biography. "Long zoom"
is an idea Johnson incubated in an NYU seminar he taught on Cultural Ecosystems
and through an invited talk he gave to the
Long Now Foundation
in 2007 (according to footnotes in TIoA). I
doubt that The Invention of Air does full justice to the concept as
Johnson thinks of it, but the project does, on the other hand, seem to enact the
"long zoom." In the passage above, the reference to scale-jumping exposes one of
the rough edges of the concept. The "zoom" also comes off as predominantly
vertical, along the lines of the orders of magnitude, more than horizontal or
some combination of the two (viz. networked); it is not, in other words, a "long
pan" or "long track" (here I’m thinking of the extended camera metaphors–pan,
track, zoom–adopted smartly by Rosenwasser and Stephen when they talk about
inquiry, research, and modes of engaging with an object of study). I mean that
Johnson’s "long zoom," even though he does not say so explicitly in The
Invention of Air
, seems to work both horizontally, vertically, and extra-dimensionally,
as suited to networked relations as to ordered magnitudes, and all the while
alert to the dangers in too recklessly skipping from one scale to another
(Latour).

Priestley comes to light as a "roving" intellectual (205), one whose "hot
hand" series of scientific breakthroughs culminated as consequence of a 30-year
"long hunch" he’d been following (70). The "long zoom"–a kind of
scale-shifting, one-thing-leads-to-another approach–allows Johnson to pin down
Priestley’s knowledge-making wanderluck. Yet, at another point,
Priestley’s success with hunches appears to be as much grounded in his "knack
for ‘socializing’ with his own ideas" (74) as a credit to his roving, generalist
sensibility. Where Johnson writes of Priestley’s affinity for socializing with
his own ideas, TIoA comes remarkably close to delivering a product
placement ad for DevonThink–almost to the point of making me thing I’d

read about it before
(re: Johnson, not Priestley).

There is much more to say about The Invention of Air, but I’m out of
time, viz. paradigms and anomalies (44), coffee and coffeehouses (54), hack vs.
theoretician (62), ecosystems view of the world (82).

Insinewating Ties

Election coverage this week has shifted from the blaze town hall draw to the
cascading economic slide (i.e., a crash dragged out for a few days) to the
McCain campaign’s great efforts to weave strong ties between Obama and
Bill
Ayers
. Am I riled up about any of this? Not really. I had the
debate on in the background as I did other work, I have watched the modest
paltry TIAA-CREF nest egg I micro-accumulated over seven years at Park U. suffer
disfigurations akin to Humpty Dumpty, and I don’t for a second accept that Obama
is terrorist-like for the company he kept with Ayers.

So what, then?

I have been interested in the way the campaigns try to establish ties and
linkages. Palin and other McCain surrogates have tried mightily to forge a
strong tie between Obama and Ayers. If they succeed, if they get people to
believe that such a tie is strong, that, in effect, Ayers of old and Obama of
late think alike, then they will have sprung from thin air a damaging blow:
probable guilt by the company one keeps. Yet, nodes perform ethos. Obama
can simply say, "No tie," or "weak tie," and the burden of establishing a
linkage falls on the accusers.

There are other interesting questions here about temporality and, perhaps,
about how the ties suggested by associative technologies (e.g., Facebook) will
function as evidence of strong ties in the future. Serving on a board
together, dinner at one’s house: these are time-constrained connections.
They do not live on in quite the same way as some more recent developments.
Maybe we’ll see more of it in the weeks ahead, but so far this election cycle
has seemed to me to dwell on whose network is more presidential, more executive
in its constitution: McCain’s? (a network of houses, a claim to be a Senate
boundary-spanner, a hand in the Keating Five heist) or Obama’s? (a recklessly
outspoken
pastor in Wright, a radical former colleague in Ayers, generous
friends in F. May and F. Mack). Campaign: another name for the high stakes
practice of network building at breakneck pace–a rhetorical production of ties and associations
that will trip one candidate into second place and vault the other into the
White House.

***

Somewhat related (via). Warning: Cover their ears or the innocents will pick up a cuss at the end:

Small-crowd Mentorship

Monday is our grad program’s “Community Day,” a day of pre-semester conversation to set up the collegial mood that will sustain us throughout the year. I am both happy and sad (not tearfully so): it will be fifth and final such gathering I attend at SU.

I’m slotted in the afternoon for an informal ten-minute spiel concerning “experiences finding and working with mentors and building relationships.” And I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit lately, especially about the options available given such a specious invitation. I’ve had experiences. I can identify several really terrific influences–a long list of folks, academics and non-, who have shepherded me in various ways through this program of study.

Best to list a few? Name names? Cut straight to anecdotes? I have considered this, thought about zeroing in on three off-site mentors who helped me to think differently about what I was setting out to do back in 2004 when coursework got underway. Maybe begin with John Lovas….

But the list is long, and I expect that there will be a lot of this sort of thing on Monday–naming of names, recounting how thus-and-such has been such a beacon, etc. It’s hard to avoid. We’re largely accustomed, it seems to me, to talking about mentoring relationships at the scale of person-to-person.

Fine, so I will probably do some of it, too. Only a little bit. Because I’m also interested in getting at a larger proposition–that my program of study, because of non-directed networked writing practices, has been shaped tacitly by a large number of people (viz., the blogroll and reciprocal Delicious network). Many of these encounters are fleeting, serendipitous, casual, and gift-like. An aggregated subscription to 20 or so Delicious users’ links, a pseudonymous comment posted to Yellow Dog, a syllabus for a course at Purdue, a blogged call for a conference. None of this is especially directed at me, and yet, at the very same time, much of it is and has been. Is this mentorship? Seems so. It’s a sort of opt-in presencing, a manner of dwelling, of doing stuff not because anyone said you should. And I am tempted to say that those passing characterizations of online narcissism, vanity, or self-aggrandizement (wherever they lurk, usually in “that’s not for me” conversations) tend to dodge, downplay, or under-value this point about tacit, small-crowd mentorship I am trying to develop. I can’t definitively put a finger on what sustains it. Desire? A blend of interests (self-interest among them)? Whatever it is–in terms of mentorship–it has left me with a sure sense that my program of study would have been drastically different without it.

Relation and Association

Aha! I catch myself being loose with these terms (and two or three
others). What is the difference between relation and association? Are they
equivalent? Synonymous?

These are connective devices, right? They indicate a tie that can be
expressed, though perhaps this is not always so for association. They do
not seem to me equal in this job they do of indicating ties. Relation, as in
relation-ship, is describable, identifiable, and perhaps even compulsory (cannot
opt out; the evidentiary ground is too firm). Association, as I think of
it, tends to be breezier and more speculative. Association meanders;
relation takes the shortest available route. Association nods in assent;
relation points its index finger. Association is spherical, maybe even
elliptical, curvy; relation linear by comparison. Association is possible
and sometimes roundabout; relation is direct and existent, meaning it plots a
different ontology. Relation is verifiable; association is a degree
removed, hazy and faint (not equally observable; therefore, refutable,
enigmatic). The two terms begin to have a pact something like connotation and
denotation.

Could all of this be flipped around? Reversed? Well, maybe (try it and
you will see whether anything happens). Yet association has become much more
theoretically important for me in the past year. With Latour’s Reassembling
it is the activation (and verbing) of the social that manifests in networks, and
so association gives off sparks, emits a different energy than it once did
(first in algebra, with the associative property). Every encounter with "social"
is interrupted with this: associative how? The "social turn" is, when
matched with network studies, an "associative turn," which, in effect, is an
expansive turn outward. What are "social networks" if we take association for
granted or treat it as a given?

This does not quite make the point I thought it might make when I first typed
"Relation and Association." The point: these two have diverged (I hedge,
hesitate; I am also asking). I should add that I have been thinking lately about
vocabulary, about "speaking the same language" in the sense that Raymond
Williams mentions it early in his introduction to Keywords:

"When we come to say ‘we just don’t speak the same language’ we mean
something more general: that we have different immediate values or different
kinds of valuation, or that we are aware, often intangibly, of different
formations and distributions of energy and interest" (11).