Affordance and Manipulanda

What does a network afford?

I’m setting out with hopes that I can wrap together a few thought-strands
running through other coursework this week. It tracks through Weinberger, as
well, so the application here isn’t out of the blue.  In his chapter on
Space in Small Pieces Loosely Joined Weinberger says, "Our space is full
of opportunities, obstacles and dangers, or what the psychologist James Gibson
called affordances (e.g., the chair affords us the possibility of sitting) and
the philosopher Martin Heidegger called the ready-to-hand" (32).  I can’t
remember if I’d learned about affordances before this semester; seems
like a basketball coach once hollered something about the affordances of the
game:  playing through potentials and opportunism constantly responsive to
in-game context, or something.  But maybe not.

Whatever the case, affordances came up in other reading this week.
This succinct bit comes from a 1974 essay from Bransford and McCarrell called
"A Sketch of a Cognitive Approach to Comprehension," and it matched up nicely, I
think, with another term–manipulanda–and, as well, some of our conversation
last week about characterizing network literacy (whatever you call it):

The notion of a nonarbitrary relation between what something looks like and
what it means is related to J.J. Gibson’s (1966) notion of affordances. 
Certain objects and their properties provide visual information for the
activities and interactions they afford.  So, for example, sharp objects
afford piercing, certain extensions (e.g., handles) afford grasping, hardness
affords pounding, and roundness affords rolling.  Even surfaces afford
activities since they are ‘walk-onable,’ ‘climbable,’ and the like. 
Tolman (1958) presented similar notions in his essay on ‘sign-gestalts.’ These
are not simply information about ‘the larger wholes in which the perceived
configuration will itself be embedded as one term in a larger means-end
proposition [p. 79]." Tolman further introduced the term "manipulanda" which
he defines as:

properties of objects which support (or make possible) motor
manipulations of the species…One and the same environmental object will
afford quite different manipulanda to an animal which possesses hands from
what it can and will to an animal which possesses only a mouth, or only a
bill, on only claws…grasp-ableness, pick-up-ableness, throw-ableness,
heaviness (heave-ableness) and the like–these are manipulanda [p. 82].

Basically, I’d like to propose the inclusion of these terms in the network(ed)
rhetorics glossary (wanna second it?).  I’m finding these terms/concepts
helpful for understanding many of the paradoxes Weinberger works through and
many of the tensions surrounding the assignment of genres to weblogs (or weblogs
to genres).  It’s as if we have available to us an abundance of digital
–affordance-ness with the network and with our related

What does a web(log) afford?  A link?  A network?

Cross-posted to

Network(ed) Rhetorics


  1. Y’know, I didn’t read your post closely enough to understand it, but I just adore the word “manipulanda.” I would name my child that. Or, at least, a cat.

  2. I like the term “afford” — and I like how your applying it to the network. Maybe I’m conflating it, but I’m again thinking about the authorship issue Jen raised in class and how I read it as a matter of opportunity.

    Does the network provide “opportunities”? Absolutely. Can those opportunities be enumerated? I don’t know. It seems like Weinberger would, on one had, have think that the network affords us limitless, boundless “things”. On the other hand, he seems raises the question about the non-physical dimension of the network. So maybe a good place to start is thinking about what the network can’t afford. What ever is left could arguably be considered “affordable”(?).

  3. Glad to offer up potential cat names, Susan!

    And Mike, I think I follow your logic here. I’m not sure what we gain from enumerating the affordances. I suppose we ought to take stock (of some sort), inventory whatever the net enables or makes possible (maybe invites is another way to put it). It’s interesting, too, to question what the web doesn’t afford (defordance? de-affordance?), but I think that’s the kind of approach that too often gets invoked to shut down wonder about what more/else it might do (I know you’ve heard: “But look at all that it *can’t* do.”). Plus, it’ll change again bc some folks are confronting limitations with a more exploratory method, thereby transforming the web–its shifts and turns–endlessly.

Comments are closed.