Snowdrops or Photo of Snowdrops

White snowdrop flowers
February’s Snowdrop

Upshot mid-February. Maybe Valentine’s Day or the day after, but before the 16th. Snowdrops or snowbells or crocus. Is the plural for crocus, crocuses? Doesn’t matter if they’re snowdrops. I’m sure they’re snowdrops. Well, almost sure. Surer is that Michigan’s regreening is mistimed this time. The snowdrops keep to themselves, don’t express a whole lot, or not anything I can hear where I stand when I pass by them front door in-going and out-going. But then this one photo jogs a memory about how last season’s tomatoes wilded into an unmanageable mess yielding more on vine rot than wedges of lightly salted gushes tomatoseed and sunshine. It’s something. Cannot say yet whether it’s the snowdrops or their photo or the tomatoes long since turned over in the side yard that share the quiet wisdrom, not quite lesson and not quite imperative, do better with gardening this year.

WIDE-EMU 2016

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We invite proposals for the 2016 WIDE-EMU Conference, a free, one-day event on October 15, in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Please help us circulate the call widely. The complete call and details about the conference are online at https://sites.google.com/site/wideemu16/.

Phase 1–Propose–has just begun and continues through August 31. We are asking for proposals that will respond to the conference’s framing question: What does writing want?

As you will see on the web site and proposal submission form, we’re asking for titles/ideas for three kinds of presentations:

  • Talk: much like a typical conference presentation, only short-form. Propose a brief paper, a roundtable discussion, a panel, etc. Individual talks should not exceed ten minutes.
  • Do: a demonstration or a workshop. Propose a session focused on the “how to” related to a software application or pedagogical approach.
  • Make: produce something (or the beginning of something). Propose a session in which participants will “make” a web site, a lesson plan, a manifesto, a syllabus, etc.

During Phase 2–Respond–we’ll be asking proposers to expand their proposed ideas with something online to share ahead of the face to face meeting on October 15. What exactly this “something online” looks like is highly flexible: a blog entry, a slidedeck, a podcast, a video, etc. You could also think of this as a teaser or a preview for your session and a few of its key provocations.

The face-to-face conference will be on October 15, 2016 at Eastern Michigan University. We will announce the featured plenary speaker/activity later this summer.

Please visit the site at https://sites.google.com/site/wideemu16/, submit a proposal, and plan to attend. If you have any questions about the proposal process or the conference itself, please reach out to Derek Mueller at derek.mueller@emich.edu. We hope to see many of you of this fall.

Snowtorso

Snowtorso

Walked the main loop in our subdivision, 300-degrees of the circle, anyway, before turning west for just more than a mile and outlining the next subdivision west of here where I ran into ghastly-happy Snowtorso. Sidewalks are clear enough, but the inter-subdivision trail network isn’t maintained in the winter, so although its surface has been traveled by dozens since last week’s snowfall, the surface is all icecrags and snowruts. Unpredictable. Sometimes slippery.

I listened to last week’s “Mapping” episode of This American Life. I think it was a re-run from several years ago with a snippet about Denis Wood’s new-ish book, Everything Sings, dubbed in. Could be wrong. The segment reminded me of what I find so interesting about Wood’s work, and it convinced me that I made the right decision to devote a week to Wood and Monmonier on my winter Visual Rhetoric syllabus, which remains a work-in-progress pending a few finishing touches.

The OOOist Writer and the Great Outdoors

I’m re-reading Chs. 4-5 of Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology to prepare for the second meeting of our summer reading group this afternoon. Ch. 4, Carpentry, sets in tension writing and the making of things; Ch. 5 proposes wonder as a way of doing OOO, as a means of grasping the ways objects orient (124). Last week’s meet-up attracted seven readers, and I’ve heard we’ll have several more joining today. I’m not leading the group with any particular goals in mind. It has very simply been an opportunity to engage with a book–and a philosophy–that a handful of our graduate students have wanted to talk more about since Eileen Joy, Tim Morton, and Jeffrey Cohen visited for last semester’s JNT Dialogue, “Nonhumans: Ecology, Ethics, Objects.”

To prepare for today’s conversation, I’ve been dusting back over a couple of recent blog entries here and here and here (as well as the comments, which begin to explore some lingering questions I have about OOO), and I also took a look again at Bogost’s entry from 2009, “What is Object-Oriented Ontology? A Definition for Ordinary Folk.” The point about OOO needing a “simple, short, comprehensible explanation” leaves me wondering to what extent the elevator pitch has been satisfactorily laid down and also whether a short-form version can adequately answer to its skeptics (e.g., those who, upon reading a bit about OOO lead with,”Yeah, but what about X?”). I suppose what I’m thinking around is whether OOO can really be boiled down to a 100-word account and whether, especially considering what looks to me like a surge of interest in units/objects/things/nonhumans, there could be a coherent statement that many of the main participants would stand behind. Yet another way, just how raging are OOO’s debates, now? And how much are new/cautious/fringe enquirers capable of exploring those debates?

Looking again at Chs. 4-5, I felt this time like writing, as counterpart to carpentry, isn’t given much of a chance. Writing is a foil–a thin backdrop against which a preferable set of practices are cast. The generating question follows: “[W]hy do you write instead of doing something else, like filmmaking or macrame or sumi-e or welding or papercraft or gardening?” In this context (and in this contrastive framing), writing is something of an attention or activity hog. It gets overplayed in the liberal arts; it gets over-valued in exceedingly strict economies for tenure and promotion. According to the chapter, these are cause for concern because 1) “academics aren’t even good writers” (89), and 2) writing, “because it is only one form of being” (90) is too monolithic a way of relating to the world. I generally agree with Bogost’s argument that scholarly activity should be (carefully!) opened up to include other kinds of making, but I’m less convinced that the widespread privileging of writing is the culprit here. It’s fine to say that academics aren’t good writers (though I’m reminded that we should never talk about writing as poor or problematic without looking at a specific text/unit in hand), but why would they be any better at “filmmaking or macrame or sumi-e or welding or papercraft or gardening” or coding APIs?

So while I’m interested in the call for an expansion of what can be considered scholarly activity, it remains unclear to me why writing should be at odds or brushed aside with that expansion. Instead of “Why do you write instead of doing something else?”, I would rather consider “How is your writing and making and doing entangled?”, whether gardening, drinking beer, or even welding (the second slide here suggests that writing and welding are compatible, though paper-based dossiers are already heavy enough; also weld-writing does not correspond to slideshow-encoding). It’s a relatively minor tweak of an otherwise compelling set of arguments about scholarship-in-computational-action, and yet with just a bit more nuance, rather than concluding that “When we spend all of our time reading and writing words–or plotting to do so–we miss opportunities to visit the great outdoors” (90), perhaps we don’t have to scrap composition to get beyond the limited and limiting definitions of writing still in circulation. And this may be one of the reasons an object-oriented rhetoric remains a promising complement to OOO.

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.

Weinberger’s Talk at Michigan

Earlier this month, I disregarded office-hour responsibilities (“Will return by 4:30 p.m -DM”) on a Monday afternoon and went over to Ann Arbor for David Weinberger’s talk, “”Too Big to Know: How the Internet Affects What and How We Know,” based on his soon-to-be-released book of a similar title.

It’s worth a look; the talk hits several important notes, particularly in light of the information studies slice of ENGL505, a rhetoric of science and technology class I’m teaching right now. In 505, we finished reading Brown and Duguid’s The Social Life of Information earlier this week, and although several aspects of the book are dated, that datedness is largely a function of print’s fixity. I know this isn’t big news, but because Weinberger’s talk works with a related set of issues, their pairing (for my thinking as much as for the class) has been worthwhile.

A couple of quick side notes:

  • Brown’s introduction of Weinberger is a nice illustration of differences between Information Studies and C&W or PTC. That “invent” is cast in the shadows of technological determinism is, well, curious. Or, it’s what happens when rhetoric has gone missing. I had to turn to an authoritative decision-maker to verify my sense that invent still has some mojo.
  • I like Weinberger’s account of the history of facts, and while I understand that facts are useful for argument, their solidity and their restfulness touch off other problems for argument.
  • I left Weinberger’s talk largely satisfied with his characterization of the moment we are in and the shifting epistemological sands digital circulation has stirred. But, if the paper paradigm has really met its match, why should Too Big To Know be printed at all? An obvious answer is that book will produce substantially more revenue than the blog where bits and pieces of the book draft surfaced. Yet, it seems like this cuts against the grain of the talk. I will, of course, withdraw this question if Kindle copies of TBTK outsell paper copies.

Open Source Ecology

This morning I came across this short video on efforts by the Open Source Ecology initiative to develop prototypes for easy cast, easily assembled, low cost farming and building technologies, what they’re calling the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS). It connected with some of the things I’ve been thinking about for ENGL505: Rhetoric of Science and Technology this fall.

Global Village Construction Set in 2 Minutes from Open Source Ecology on Vimeo.

How? First, we hear nowadays about everything “ecology.” And I have ideas about how “ecology” in many cases functions as a metonym for rhetorical action, which of course includes readily identifiable material qualities in the case of OSE. The video itself is not all that different from Marcin Jakubowski’s short TED Talk, and I haven’t spent much time going carefully over what’s posted at the site and wiki (wish there was an RSS feed or date stamps for their blog). But I can already see issues of modularity and scale foregrounded here, which, combined with the ideals of open source might be enough to return to this as a rich case for further consideration.

This is Kairos?

Australian reporter Harriet Alexander, in a January report titled “Quick! Before the Worm Turns,” looks into the practice of beach-worming–the harvesting of wormbait from sandy beaches using fingers or pliers. Use of fingers reduces the risk of breaking apart the long worms in the process, according to Col Buckley, the human subject of the story. Buckley suggests a linkage between the beach-trawled worms and the fish in the neighboring waters. He also prefers a conservative ethic:

Buckley can be found splashing around the watermark at low tide during summer, pulling up slimy invertebrates and stuffing them into a pouch. They sniff out decaying fish and seaweed and poke their heads up to feed, concealing the rest of their bodies, which can be up to 2½ metres long, beneath the sand. Bream, whiting and flathead all like to eat worms, although the portion of worm threaded on to the hook needs to be varied according to the size of the targeted fish species. Recreational fishermen can harvest up to 20 worms a day, although Buckley does not believe in taking more than are needed.

The question surfaces again. Worms turn, diverting away from a danger. This is not the same “worm turn” as the idiom induces, which implies revolution–a reversed power dynamic in which the worm, relative to the lion, ends up on top. The worm turns, in this second case, means the underdog ascends. But in the context of this Alexander’s report, these turns are more or less successful, whether we think of them as a body (the individual worm turns) or a species (the lot of worms are vanishing). In the bodily sense, they turn, sometimes caught and split apart at this or that segment. Other times they turn and by turning escape harm having dived underground again. Worming, Buckley explains, is not about speed and quickness; its success hinges on being “gentle and smooth.” The predatory kairos operating here finds opportunity improved not by timing but by manner. A severed worm, now part-safe in the ground and part-pierced on a fish hook, I imagine, experiences without “experiencing” a regenerative if bifurcated metanoia.

By the way, the story also mentions that the beach worms are wind-shy, which means they don’t surface as often on windy days. This, too, goes against the sand-grain of a winds-of-change thinking about revolutions and instead recognizes winds-of-change thinking as partly responsible for worms-returning to their safe havens.

I realize this is obtuse and playful stuff, folks; just using the blog to pluck away for a few minutes at the threads of a couple of ideas.

Rhetorical Radiants

Fourth reactor at Chernobyl exploded just before my twelfth birthday, late April, 1986–25 years ago yesterday. Is the math right? For me that’s almost a half-life ago.

Now, I’m no scholar of nuclear accidents, but I am interested in the emerging narratives about the Fukushima aftermath that position it in a family of catastrophes such as Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Certainly there has been a lot of speculative discussion since the Fukushima incident about leaking/leaching radiation, toxic mists, jet streams, ocean currents, impacts zones, and the various ecological slices that will be differently impacted by chemicals and hot metals. For example, there’s this Nancy Grace clip.

In the PBS clip above (above N. Grace), the portrait is grim–birds with smaller brains and strange tumors, etc.–and the discussion of sealed away clumps of radioactive material lapses into near absurdity, particularly at the idea of who will keep watch on the plutonium whose half-life is 24,000 years.

In “Is Chernobyl a Wild Kingdom or a Radioactive Den of Decay?” Adam Higginbotham of Wired.com provides a look from multiple sides at the unsettled questions about how animals have responded in the wake of nuclear meltdown. First dealing with optimists who can find examples of resilient wildlife, the article includes those who turn to other forms of evidence to leverage claims about the welfare of the post-Chernobyl ecosystem.

But a pair of scientists are now calling these claims into serious question. According to US-based evolutionary biologist Timothy Mousseau, there is scant evidence to back up the idea of Chernobyl as a radioactive Wild Kingdom. “People say these things–they’re simply anecdotes,” Mousseau says. “It’s totally irrational.” Nonetheless, last December, the Ministry of Emergencies–the Ukrainian agency responsible for overseeing the Exclusion Zone–announced that it would formally open the zone to mass tourism in 2011. In January, meanwhile, the country’s parliament approved a multibillion-dollar plan to build two new Russian-designed nuclear reactors in western Ukraine, some of the first to be started there since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I am gathering tiny collections like these in anticipation of ENGL505: Rhetoric of Science and Technology, a class I will be teaching in the fall semester. And by no means am I thinking of these preliminary tracings as complete or even all that thorough. In fact, that these are incomplete–that the very possibility of knowing radiation’s reach in space and time–is part of what allows us to witness how scientific debate operates (not only in scholarly or researcherly circles but in popular ones, as well). It’s almost as if we can trace consequentiality itself as a matter of concern, and what I find surprising (or at least interesting) about this is that the temporal frame is many multiples of human lifetimes long. What I mean is that it’s curious to me not only how we talk about immediate threats (absent visual confirmation…as is the case with mildly radioactive carrots, for example) but also how journalists and scientists grace such an uncertain horizon as the one many, many thousands of years from now when the plutonium at Chernobyl falls irradiant.

CCCC Atlanta Rewind, Part II

I don’t think there will be a part 3 in this series, but I wanted to post in a consolidated location the various pieces I brought to Atlanta last week. Steve offered a careful play-by-play of many of the meals and local excursions I was a part of. And he mentioned in the entry that we had a fairly small audience at the N.30 session. With that in mind, I figured I may as well render my talk into an overdubbed video and post it to YouTube where it will surely get a couple of more views in the year to come.

But first, Steve’s video, which initiated and enframed our roundtable:

Below is my contribution to the roundtable. To continue experimenting with YouTube’s closed captioning, I uploaded the full script of my talk as a text file. I’m impressed at how capably YouTube creates alignments between the video’s audio track and the text. Also, all of the oooh-aaah cloud photographs come from the recent New York Times installation, “Up in the Clouds.”

And finally, here’s the poster I tacked up in the Computer Connection room and that I’ve posted in a half dozen places already.

3.33 Ways: Tracing Rhetorical Style from Prose to New Media

The accompanying a/v playlist (linked from the QR codes) is available over here.