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Evocative Objects: the case for object elicitation

Author: joe

Friday, 17 February, 2012 - 16:19

Some notes on objects.

Objects and insights

It is possible to think of objects as both catalysts and repositories of meaningful human experiences, and it is the entwinement of objects with our lives, identities, memories and desires that makes them attractive targets for qualitative research. Elicitation is a qualitative method based on the use of visual materials, photography, video, artefacts or other objects, in which participants gather materials which help them to make sense of, or express, experiences and emotions which may be difficult to articulate in purely linguistic or cognitive ways. A broad framework called 'symbolic interactionism' provides a means of understanding elicitations as evidence that provides insight into the meanings that are attached to people's interactions with other people and the object world around them.

Fetish and Phantasy

The significance of objects in the corpus theoretical is clear in the Marxist tradition, in which objects are commodified and then fetishised - that is, according to Marx, we understand the power of acting in the world to be carried within commodities rather than, say the people whose labour made them. Freud later develops the fetishisation of objects into the sexual realm in which objects are the agents of arousal and their absence renders the human subject impotent.

Post-Freudian psychoanalysts working in the tradition of Melanie Klein move the emphasis away from the Freudian school's concentration on ego psychology (or the ability of the conscious individual to manage undesirable unconscious drives) towards the Kleinian investigation of unconscious phantasy (the way that the environment stimulates conceptual capacities).

This shift in emphasis in object-relations from fetish to capacity can be seen in the work of Wilfred Bion, who develops the idea that thinking capacities are provoked by interactions with the object world. Following Bion and Christopher Bollas, we can say that thoughts require a thinker, and it is in our encounters with the environment of people and objects that pre-conceptual impressions and emotions call a thinking consciousness into being. Experiences and emotional responses generate mental phenomena that must be processed, and it is in the act of processing that a reflective self emerges.

As Grotstein puts it, Bion emphasises the primacy of "emotions and the faculties of the mental apparatus that apprehend them, among which are consciousness, attention and reverie, each devised to render us more aware of our emotional life in regard to our relationship with objects as well as ourselves… Emotions, unlike sensuous stimuli, are not visible or tangible and, consequently, must be apprehended by reverie, a waking dream state." (Grotstein, 2009) Note also that the progression from consciousness, through attentiveness, to reverie, here suggest the kinds of activities and states of mind that might be necessary for uncovering the kinds of meaningful understandings that are sought in the object elicitation process.

Play and reverie

Bion's work suggests that the identity of the thinker is bound up with the relationship between the experiential and sensory impressions of the object world and the emerging self's mapping of inner phantasies to the external world. Donald Winnicott's examination of infant play also directs our attention to both the meanings that we attribute to objects and the reverie or waking dream-like states. In imaginative play, the child recruits the environment and object-world into their diegetic world:

"(a) To get to the idea of playing it is helpful to think of the preoccupation that characterizes the playing of a young child. The content does not matter. What matters is the near-withdrawal state, akin to the concentration of older children and adults. The playing child inhabits an area that cannot be easily left, nor can it easily admit intrusions. (b) This area of playing is not inner psychic reality. It is outside the individual but it is not the external world. (c) Into this play area that child gathers objects or phenomena from external reality and uses these in the service of some sample derived from inner or personal reality. Without hallucinating the child puts out a sample of dream potential and lives with this sample in a chosen setting of fragments from external reality. (d) In playing, the child manipulates external phenomena in the service of the dream and invests chosen external phenomena with dream meaning and feeling. (e) There is a direct development from transitional phenomena to playing, and from playing to shared playing, and from this to cultural experiences." (Winnicott, 1971)

The ability of the child to invest dream meaning and feeling into objects is what makes those objects transitional, that is, essential elements in the child's development since they form part of the repertoire with which emotions and meanings can be expressed without resort to the as yet incomplete capacity for cognitive and linguistic articulation.

From cathexis to day-dreams

Such investments of emotional intensity, imaginative play and meaning onto external objects is termed cathexis. In Freudian psychoanalysis, cathexis is libidinal; however we need not limit our understanding of the delegation or transferral of emotional experiences onto objects to sexual or erotic meanings. Parkin (1999) and others show that transitional objects can come into play at any time of life in a variety of emotionally demanding circumstances. Parkin notes that under the severe conditions of sudden flight and displacement, refugees who must take what they can carry before departing don't limit themselves to utilitarian items but also take mementoes such a photographs, letter and other personal effects. Parkin argues that this reflects "a more general process of self-inscription in non-commodity, gift-like objects which, through their association with stories, dreams and the transmission of skills and status, temporarily encapsulate precluded social personhood". (Parkin, 1999)

Following Bion we may also see the work of objects in the life of the mind. Bollas draws on Bion's digestive metaphor to explore how external objects and their experiences exert an influence over our mental activities outside the infant play-world or sudden exile. The world of experience continually unfolds for us, yet only some of those experiences can be 'digested'; when such experiences do provide 'food-for-thought', they provide the very materials that our thinking consists of, and the sustenance that the exercise of thinking requires. Switching back to the metaphor of the dream or reverie, Bollas argues that we are "involved in ordinary dream-work, knitting together experiences in the real that form the tapestry of that day's unconscious meaning. Actual things play a huge role in that dreaming, and this may be due to what they contain (mnemically) or how they function (their structure), or what enduring them will put us through (their processual integrity)." (Bollas, 2009) Or in a more peripatetic mode: "When moving in the real, the manifest contents of my meanderings are constituted out of the actual things I encounter. Any latent content will emerge from the aleatory vector as this thinking involves me in encountering the unexpected, out of which a type of thinking arises." (Bollas, 2009)

Selves layered within objects

Building on the insight into how objects are interlaced with meanings and self-inscription, Anthony Elliott and John Urry provide an analysis of how people's lives are changing with the increasing prevalence of mobile digital technologies and their associated objects. We carry around with us objects into which we literally deposit meanings and experiences for storage and later retrieval. We store in them such crucial social tools as our contact lists, the musical and audible bubbles we can enclose ourselves within, and the messages we send to each other. These objects increasingly merge otherwise compartmentalised sections of our lives, such that we address work issues while with loved ones, and communicate with our loved ones while at the workplace. Their presence with us at all times means that those traditional moments of reverie - the delayed train, the unexpected pause between locations - have been invaded by the routines of the digital device, with its seductive invitation to check our emails, to stay on top of work and home life, to graze the latest information. Such a deep implication of the object into life implies a new intimacy between devices and what designers understatedly call their 'users':

"The individual self does not just 'use', or activate, digital technologies in day-to-day life. On the contrary, the self - in conditions of intensive mobilities - becomes deeply 'layered' within technological net works, as well as reshaped by their influence." (Elliott & Urry, 2010)

Objects as emotional companions

Sherry Turkle in her study of evocative objects considered how objects are the things we think with. Her anthology collects together autobiographical accounts of how specific objects have inspired or stimulated the people who have encountered them and provide a model for the sorts of qualitative insights the meditation on objects can invoke. Turkle draws on Levi-Strauss' account of bricolage to begin an exploration of objects as emotional companions.

"Material things, for Levi-Strauss, were goods-to-think-with and, following the pun in French, they were good-to-think-with as well… We find it familiar to consider objects as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences. We are on less familiar ground when we consider objects as companions to our emotional lives or as provocations to thought. The notion of evocative objects brings together these two less familiar ideas, underscoring the inseparability of thought and feeling in our relationship to things. We think with the objects we love; we love the objects we think with." (Turkle, 2007, pp4-5)

Object elicitation

Object elicitation can provide insights into the functional relationships between people, objects and attitudes, providing a window onto singular or shared understandings of particular issues and how people interpret and signify the realm of social action and meaning. It is based on the view that interactions with other people and the object world form meaningful experiences for, and emotional responses in, people's lives. Furthermore, our development as individual selves is bound up with our experiences with objects and the pattern of their correspondence with our phantasies. Objects can be thought of as storage mechanisms for emotional content, from their role in imaginative play, through their significance at times of distress, to their ever-increasing intertwining with our technologised selfhood. As well as providing proxies for our emotional lives, objects become necessary components of our meaningful experiences.

1694 words

Bibliography

Bion, W., 1962, Learning From Experience, London: Heinemann

Elliott, A. & Urry, J., 2010, Mobile Lives, London: Routledge

Bollas, C., 2009, The Evocative Object World, London: Routledge

Grotstein, J., in De Cortinas, L. P., 2009, Aesthetic Dimension of the Mind: Variations on a Theme of Bion, London: Karnac

Parkin, D. J., 'Mementoes as Transitional Objects in Human Displacement' in Journal of Material Culture,1999 4: 303 - 320

Turkle, S., 2007, Evocative Objects: Things we Think With, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Winnicott, D. W., 1971, Playing and Reality, London: Routledge

Categories: objects, elicitation, qualitative, research, cathexis, psychoanalysis, Bion, Bollas, Elliott, Klein, Parkin, Turkle, Urry, Winnicott,
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The Machine Starts: Computers as Collaborators in Writing

Author: joe

Thursday, 28 April, 2011 - 23:33

Earlier this week I presented a paper at the Narrative Research Group Symposium on 'Nonhuman Narratives', at Bournemouth Unversity. It was a day filled with very interesting papers ranging through the posthuman and nonhuman, the monstrous and inhuman, and the nonhuman animal. The text of my paper is copied below, but I wanted to make a few remarks about the paper and the symposium first.

As usual, I found it incredibly difficult to compress the things I wanted to discuss into a 20 minute talk. I'd have liked to have talked more about the practice-led side of the ideas that provoked the paper, discussed a wider range of 'flat ontologists' (e.g. Jane Bennet, as Anat Pick suggested in the Q&A following my talk), and I'd have liked to have gone on to explore both playful and serious consequences of machine agency, from Ted Nelson's Computer Lib / Dream Machines to Kevin Kelly's arguments for The Technium.

The huge depth of subjects from the day make it impossible to sum up or do justice to the ideas, but I want to pick out a couple of insights from the day that really got me thinking.

David Herman talked about understanding (and writing, in graphic form) animal narratives, which was derived from a post-Cartesian approach to mind influenced by Uexküll's idea of an animal's 'Umwelt'. This hinged on a conception of mind as distributed in the environment, rather than sealed inside a thinking being (reminding me, incidentally, of the work of my colleague Dr Paul Stevens), thus permitting questions such as 'what's it like' to be a dog, mollusc, even doorknob. In particular I was intrigued by a remark in the Q&A following David's talk in which he suggested that because mind is a phenomenon distributed through body, environment and institution, we therefore do have access to it. Access to mind! - literally mind-blowing.

Anat Pick's talk, which examined Robert Bresson's portrayal of the donkey Balthazar, offered a way of thinking about determinism and agency that I'm not familiar with, but that I found really intriguing. The tension here is less determinism 'vs' agency, and more determinism 'and' grace; grace in the face of the necessity of the world which involves a form of assent, but is neither mere acceptance, nor does it preclude the resistance of persecution. In the Q&A she cited a Spinozan approach to understanding the necessities inherent in a deterministic universe, which then enables an agent to act within those necessities. I will have to learn Spinoza...

Finally an interesting phenomenon on the day was the frequent dismantling of binary oppositions. In the summary, it was noted that many tensions were explored in the day - human and nonhuman, humane and inhuman, normal and other, known and unknown - but that the categories kept breaking down. In the case of my talk for example, taking a relatively uncontroversial interpretation of nonhuman and following the logical paths such notions suggested, ended in dissolving the distinctions entirely. Human and nonhuman writers are indistinguishable; human and nonhuman texts are too...

I think of this as the inevitable consequence of any dialectic: the definition of a category depends on the splitting off of that category from it's other; it is as though we halve an apple, and are then surprised that the one half is very much the same as the other half... To define good, we create the not-good in the image of the good. Arbitrary categories are susceptible to and dissolve under systematic analysis. The difficulty (even impossibility) is in finding non-arbitrary distinctions. Humans are animals, humans make machines in their own image, monstrous killers are humans; the challenge thrown up by the dissolution of firm distinctions are all ethical: why might eating animals be morally different to cannibalism? what happens when you recognise nonhumans as 'persons'? does dehumanising serial killers absolve the social realms in which they occur from any blame? There may well be a boundary between human and nonhuman, but it is not necessarily where we conventionally think it is.

So I'm grateful to Bronwen Thomas and Julia Round for organising the day, Einar Thorsen for live-blogging it, and to the other speakers and participants for their ideas and openness. I am however, sad that no-one seemed to recognise the opening slide I used. While I was preparing the presentation, I woke in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep, going over and over in my mind the ideas I had for the contents of this paper; my mind had been possessed by a parasite, and as its host I was powerless to resist it. I lay there and remembered an album cover from 1981: The Police, 'Ghost in the machine'. I was barely 10 when I acquired the vinyl LP, and it fascinated me - the songs' lyrics about spirits in the material world, the ethereal synthesisers, the images of circuit boards on the inner sleeve. So I got up at 5 in the morning and went downstairs and pulled out my 30-year-old record, amazingly still unscratched, and played it, and felt a strange mixture of sadness and pleasure that none of my machine collaborators were scrobbling it to last.fm...

The Machine Starts: Computers as Collaborators in Writing

While I was preparing this paper, the 11-year-old I live with asked me what I was doing, and I told him I was preparing a presentation about how great machines are at telling stories. "How can machines tell stories?" he asked incredulously. I realised that should have been my title! I originally chose to reference E. M Forster's short story, 'The Machine Stops' in my title because I think it is necessary to invoke at once the dystopian vision that the idea of storytelling machines conjures. The idea of sentient machines - which surely they must be to compose tales - is popularly horrific, alienating, and dangerous. Intelligent machines always turn out to be evil. Often popular adaptations of this trope present clear lines between human and nonhuman 'intelligences', thereby permitting a war between them in which the happy outcome is the one in which the unfeeling machines are vanquished.

Forster's story is dystopian and has the contours of such an ethical boundary, but is more subtle, exploring the way in which the humans who inhabit the machine world are shaped by its demands and imperatives. A transgressing wanderer reaches close to the surface of the subterranean world of the machines, and later reports:

"There was a ladder, made of some primӕval metal. The light from the railway fell upon its lowest rungs, and I saw that it led straight upwards out of the rubble at the bottom of the shaft. Perhaps our ancestors ran up and down it a dozen times daily, in their building. As I climbed, the rough edges cut through my gloves so that my hands bled. The light helped me for a little, and then came darkness and, worse still, silence which pierced my ears like a sword. The Machine hums! Did you know that? Its hum penetrates our blood, and may even guide our thoughts. Who knows! I was getting beyond its power. Then I thought: "This silence means that I am doing wrong." But I heard voices in the silence, and again they strengthened me." He laughed. "I had need of them. The next moment I cracked my head against something."
 
The Machine Stops, (Forster, 1909)

I love the idea that the all-pervasive rumble of the machine is so constitutive of life that it withdraws from consciousness even as it guides our thoughts, and I'm going to return to the idea that how we think is shaped by the machines we live with. First though, I'm going to quickly talk about some work I've been doing with the digital writer, Tim Wright. In a project called 'Hauntology', we've been exploring how we can create interactive and participatory narratives using a combination of poetry, software, antique objects and digital sensors and circuits - and increasingly now - walking. In one piece, a chest of drawers was 'haunted' by the spirits of its previous owners. A user could access snippets of their lives by interacting with the chest of drawers and objects on and in it, as well as eventually 'haunting' it themselves with the sounds they left behind for the next users to hear.

We're currently exploring how we can use an old wooden box, wired up with an audio device and some sensors, to act as the focal device for a walking, talking, poetic experience based on the poetry of Thomas Hardy and the geography of the outskirts of Dorchester. In this we are trying to compose a narrative experience which is absorbing, authentic, haunting and provocative - out of antique bric-a-brac, digital sensors and media, physical space, sounds, smells, scenes, embodied and interpersonal interactions, and both reading and writing poetry. To this end I've been experimenting with wiring electronic devices into old wooden boxes.

One of the things I've noticed about the process is the feeling that the electronic systems and circuits, and the antique wooden boxes and drawers, are all exerting their own influence on the proceedings. They only allow certain sorts of behaviours and affordances to get the go-ahead. At first I thought this is an artefact of my own imprecision and inexperience. The further I get, though, the more I'm sure that the objects I work with have intentions of their own. Just as a sculptor seeks to find the form already within the matter at hand, as if discovering the spirit in the material, so I am collaborating with the devices I coerce and adapt to perform as they want to, as though I am obeying a ghost in their machine.

I'm now afraid that I'm sounding crazy, so I want to run through a quick and very partial history of writers collaborating with devices, to see if I'm alone in my craziness. I'm thinking here about the production of textual artefacts through the action of some sort of device - something I'm therefore going to call a device-oriented narrative - produced by some sort of rule or algorithm or heuristic process. I think this is a fairly good, low-level definition of a 'writing machine' - an apparatus or assemblage which performs some sort of function on the raw materials of textual production.

Here's an example of an electronically produced poem:

"Sentences begins.
money must
Sentences
Parsing
Sentences
Sentences
Sentences for love forsaken."
 
Sentences, (Hartman and Kenner, 1995)

Nick Montfort explains the provenance of this piece of text, taken from a book by Hartman and Kenner, "Sentences":

"To write Sentences, Hartman and Kenner took 457 19th-century "Sentences for Analysis and Parsing, Thayer Street Grammar School" and providentially generated an intermediate text, using Claude Shannon's Markov chain technique as implemented in TRAVESTY by Hugh Kenner and Joseph O'Rourke. The resulting text was corrected and used as input to Hartman's program DIASTEXT, which carried out diastic selection as developed by Jackson Mac Low."
 
Sentences in 1k, Grand Text Auto, (Montfort, 2008)

I don't want to dwell on the detail of the particular processes that were used to produce these texts - just to note that Montfort's description illustrates very clearly the notion that a non-trivial operation has been performed to produce the work: the raw input is worked on in some way to produce a text at the end. In this case at least two sets of iterative actions were performed on the input to produce strangely evocative words. This therefore is a machine text.

I want to draw a distinction here from what Espen Aarseth has refered to as a 'cybertext' - a text which requires work on the part of the reader to traverse it. I want to think of texts which require some act of delegation by the writer to a machine to produce them. We could get horribly metaphysical about what constitutes mechanism, machinism and what does not. Is a pen a machine? A typewriter? While it is tempting to say that in the term 'machine' I exclude devices which merely reproduce mechanical extensions of the writer's actions, this may become a moot point as we proceed. Katherine Hayles in How We Became Posthuman in 1999, deals with the difference, for example, between a typewriter and a computer by noting the non-linear disruption that occurs when dematerialisation is introduced into the machinic action. I want to avoid this distinction, as there are perfectly good examples of writerly delegation that can occur within entirely material parameters.

I'm going to go with Richard Sennet's understanding of the machine in 'The Craftsman' of 2008, which I read as an intermediary device between the hand of the craftsman and the work itself, which effects some non-trivial transformation. This allows me to include devices such as horoscopes and Tarot cards, runes and tea-leaves, dice and difference engines, as well as electronic circuits, random algorithms, neural networks and artificial intelligences.

As the inclusion of Tarot hints, divination or possession by a deus ex machina seems to have a provenance in machine thinking. The 'I-Ching' was not only a repository of confucian wisdom, but a device for answering questions. Aarseth describes it thus:

"The I Ching is made up of sixty-four symbols, or hexagrams, which are the binary combinations of six whole or broken ("changing") lines [...] A hexagram [...] contains a main text and six small ones, one for each line. By manipulating three coins or forty-nine yarrow stalks according to a randomizing principle, the texts of two hexagrams are combined, producing one out of 4,096 possible texts. This contains the answer to a question the user has written down in advance (e.g., "How much rice should I plant this year?")."
 
Cybertext, (Aarseth, 1997)

From a European, humanist point of view, there is no particularly significant difference between a blind algorithm and the pronouncements of oracles and fortune-tellers - both are equally meaningless, and in the post-Enlightenment mind it is difficult to think otherwise. Educated people are supposed to scorn horoscopes and prophecies. Yet this adoption of a rational, materialistic ontology doesn't extend to our celebration of the transcendence of human agency and intelligence, with which we persevere in cherishing against the blind heuristic principle of automatons.

The automative principle of composition is evident in the work of Raymond Roussel, such as in Locus Solus from 1914. Although after his death he inspired the OuLiPo writers and the nouveau roman, during his lifetime, after some initial popularity amongst the surrealists, he was largely ridiculed and certainly critically panned. His works are very unusual, as can be gleaned from this account of his composition technique from John Ashbery:

"Sometimes he would take a phrase containing two words, each of which had a double meaning, and use the least likely ones as the nucleus of a story. Thus the phrase 'maison á espagnolettes' ("house with window latches") served as the basis for an episode in Impressions of Africa about a house (a royal family or house) descended from a pair of Spanish twin girls. [...]
 
"Just as the mechanical task of finding a rhyme sometimes inspires a poet to write a great line, [...] "rhymes for events" helped him to utilise his unconscious mind. "
 
'Introduction' to Raymond Roussel, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, (Ashbery, 1995 [1962])

The French surrealist writer Michel Leiris suggested that Roussel is tapping into an ancient tradition of eliciting myths from words, seeking out the 'disease of language', which is the source of mythology or collective unconscious." (ibid) Here, though Leiris is still perhaps seeking to legitimise the text for its inner human truth, its interpretation of the human unconscious. The text may be unconventionally produced, but its defender still seeks to recuperate it into the realm of human desires, motives and meanings, against the criticism that the work is a joke of no obvious inherent merit.

Similar recuperations might be made of other device-oriented narratives. In the 1920s the Dadaist Tristan Tzara, cited by Burroughs and Gysin later as an inspiration for their employment of the composition algorithm called 'the cut-up', apparently started a riot by pulling a poem out of a hat. In his dada manifesto, his wrote:

"TO MAKE A DADAIST POEM
 
Take a newspaper.
Take some scissors.
Choose from this paper an article of the length you want to make your poem.
Cut out the article.
Next carefully cut out each of the words that makes up this article and put them all in a bag.
Shake gently.
Next take out each cutting one after the other.
Copy conscientiously in the order in which they left the bag.
The poem will resemble you.
And there you are - an infinitely original author of charming sensibility, even though unappreciated by the vulgar herd.
 
dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love, (Tristan Tzara, 1920)

It is difficult not to see the dada movement and Burroughs' later adoption of the cut-up as much a political gesture as one of literary exploration - though this was certainly an ingredient in Burroughs' extensive use of it throughout novels like The Soft Machine, Cities of the Red Night and others. Burroughs describes it in 1961:

"The cut-up method brings to writers the collage, which has been used by painters for fifty years. And used by the moving and , still camera. In fact all street shots from movie or still cameras are by the unpredictable factors of passersby and juxtaposition cut-ups. And photographers will tell you that often their best shots are accidents . . . writers will tell you the same. The best writing seems to be done almost by accident [...]
 
Take any poet or writer you fancy. Here, say, or poems you have read over many times. The words have lost meaning and life through years of repetition. Now take the poem and type out selected passages. Fill a page with excerpts. Now cut the page. You have a new poem. As many poems as you like."
 
The cut-up method of Brion Gysin, (Burroughs, 1961)

The casual abundance of poetry produced this way directly challenges the idea that a specially gifted and inspired writer is the essential ingredient in the writing - all that is necessary is a heuristic device and some raw materials on which to act. The results are often extremely powerful, as any reading from Burroughs' work will attest:

"Pan God of Panic piping blue notes through empty streets as the berserk time machine twisted a tornado of years and centuries - Wind through dusty offices and archives - Board Books scattered to rubbish heaps of the earth - Symbol books of the all-powerful board that had controlled thought feeling and movement of a planet from birth to death with iron claws of pain and pleasure - The whole structure of reality went up in silent explosions - Paper moon and muslin trees and in the black silver sky great rents as the cover of the world rained down - Biologic film went up.. . "raining dinosaurs" "It sometimes happens. . .just an old showman" Death takes over the game so many actors buildings and stars laid flat pieces of finance over the golf course summer afternoons bare feet waiting for rain smell of sickness in the room Switzerland Panama machine guns in Bagdad rising from the typewriter pieces of finance on the evening wind tin shares Buenos Aires Mr. Martin smiles old names waiting sad old tune haunted the last human attic."
 
The Soft Machine, (Burroughs, 1961)

The production of literary texts through machinic devices seems to proliferate in the middle of the 20th century. Writers like Barthelme, Beckett, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Robbe-Grillet, Perec and Calvino all produce texts which can be said to have been written with the aid of a heuristic device in the tradition of Roussel and Tzara. Often they are consciously political - David Porush in his work on cybernetic texts named after Burrough's novel, The Soft Machine, argues that such fiction:

"...far from being representative of a class of fiction in its decadence, is the most meaningful and hopeful sort of fiction. It cannot as a body be understood without constant reference to its source in a highly technologised society. For that very reason, however, it has the power to invent a new way of seeing, it offers a new language, and along the way it tells a fine, often amusing, often grim story about how far along we are."
 
The Soft Machine, (David Porush, 1985)

This odd combination of decadence and Brechtian self-reference and estrangement is also reminiscent of the flâneur and the psychogeographic movement: Benjamin's flâneur walked, either to revel in decadence, or to ambiguate the scopic regimes of the city's imperative to consume. No doubt, as in the situationist dérive and later psychogeographic texts and actions, there is an important emancipatory element: situationists walked to resist a 'world moving away in to representation'. The algorithmic obedience of tracing out a route that is arbitrarily pre/pro-scribed, but through the elective and playful devices of our own choosing, is actually, (ironically), a way to reassert the agency of the human and the individual against a machinic world of capital and convention.

However I'd like to go much further than Porush goes. He argues that one of the tropes of cybernetic fiction is that of self-dismantling. This is a deconstructive move, and resonates with the late 20th century concerns of continental philosophy, which seeks to dislodge the layers of meaning that stratify human existence in order to bring to notice the complex shifting network of linguistic and textual currents which inform our lives and institutions. However, I'd like to go further than seeing cybernetic texts and device-oriented narratives as merely deconstructive.

Consider that, even though we accept the premise of the intentional fallacy, we still privilege human intentionality as both qualitatively different from and somehow better than the nonhuman world of relations. So, even though we accept the notion that a text might be a device which can surrender novel meanings and effects which the author didn't intentionally encode there, we still find it hard to accept that an algorithmically generated text could offer anything of equal value: note that we still conventionally attribute the richness of a text, and its capacity for renewed interpretation, to the skill of its author - to have written something that 'transcends' the finitude of its human creator.

As I've suggested, we have tended to think of automatically produced texts as somehow lesser than those originated by acts of human imagination alone. It is with this tendency that we also consider the possibility of artificial intelligence as a watershed: the achievement of machine consciousness will be equivalent to lifting those machines up to some lofty, hard-to-reach transcendental threshold which makes them finally equal to humans. I'd prefer to see the problem from the other side, and wonder what it is we think is so different about human agency that separates us from the rest of the universe. This is not to reduce humans to mindlessness; Zizek puts it:

"It is here that the "reductionist" project goes wrong: the problem is not how to reduce mind to neuronal "material" processes [...] but, rather, to grasp how mind can emerge only through being embedded in the network of social relations and material supplements. In other words, the true problem is not "How, if at all, could machines IMITATE the human mind?," but, "How does the very identity of human mind rely on external mechanical supplements? How does it incorporate machines?"
 
Organs Without Bodies - Gilles Deleuze, (Zizek, 2008)

This is not just deconstruction (in which a philosophy of consciousness gives way to a philosophy of linguistics and signification), but a shift towards "placing humans and nonhumans on an equal footing". To go further then, we have to re-equate humans with the menagerie of other things in the world, the nonhuman - what object-oriented ontologists have called a flat ontology.

Levi Bryant has outlined a book-project called The Domestication of Humans in which he considers the way that plants and microbes have transformed human beings:

"The whole point of such a project, of course, is to develop enhanced techniques for thinking in terms of flat ontology. When posing questions in the humanities our tendency is to think in terms of unilateral determination. We talk about humans structuring reality through their perceptions, concepts, and signs, treating the process of structuration as proceeding from the human towards a sort of gooey chaos that then gets structured by the human. Flat ontology calls for bilateral determination, where determination doesn't simply run from human to world, but where all sorts of other entities structure humans and societies as well."
 
The Domestication of Humans, (Bryant, 2010)

Bryant derives this notion of a flat ontology alongside Graham Harman, who in turn cites Latour's Irreductions as a breakthrough in terms of escaping the realm of the human. Adrift on a sea of other agents and irreducible entities, Harman argues that we should start to rethink the bustling nature of the world of objects, amongst whom the human object is a mere one among many:

"Even as the philosophy of language and its supposedly reactionary opponents both declare victory, the arena of the world is packed with diverse objects, their forces unleashed and mostly unloved. Red billiard ball smacks green billiard ball. Snowflakes glitter in the light that cruelly annihilates them, while damaged submarines rust along the ocean floor. As flour emerges from mills and blocks of limestone are compressed by earthquakes, gigantic mushrooms spread in the Michigan forest. While human philosophers bludgeon each other over the very possibility of "access" to the world, sharks bludgeon tuna fish and icebergs smash into coastlines.
 
"All of these entities roam across the cosmos, inflicting blessings and punishments on everything they touch, perishing without a trace or spreading their powers further, as if a million animals had broken free from a zoo in some Tibetan cosmology."
 
Object Oriented Philosophy, (Harman, 1999)

Andrew Pickering considers the consequences of putting human and nonhuman agency on the same footing. His work The Mangle of Practice from 1995 looks at the way that scientific work proceeds in practice, and argues that far from being the logical, deductive unfolding of evidential knowledge, this picture is a retrospective portrait imposed on a messy sequence of stumbling events in which human goals have strived and struggled with the material agency of machinic experimentation. Work of this kind (and I argue that there is a direct parallel here to the way that writers write and texts are produced) is the product of a mangling of ideas and forces, machines and hunches, objects and products. This is a dance of agency between the human and nonhuman, in which such apparently crucial phenomena as human intentionality emerge from the interplay of possibilities and events, "brought to heel by the cultures in which they are situated":

"Scientists do not simply fix their goals once and for all and stick to them, come what may. In the struggles with material agency that I call tuning, plans and goals are at stake and liable to revision. And thus the intentional character of human agency has a further aspect of temporal emergence, being reconfigured itself in the real time of practice, as well as a further aspect of intertwining with material agency, being reciprocally redefined with the contours of material agency in tuning."
 
The Mangle of Practice, (Pickering, 1995)

So I want to conclude by suggesting that I was right to feel that my machines are trying to have their own way. Me and my machines are, to use Pickering's terms, tuning each other to our own 'agenda'. We are both devices which perform machinic captures of input material and transform them into artefacts which, in Tzara's phrase, resemble ourselves. So the computers, circuits, dice, algorithms, typewriters, pens - and even the words themselves - are cybernetic machines with which we are forced into collaboration and partnership, rather than mastery.

Italo Calvino confirms this from his own experience of writing:

"Literature as I knew it was a constant series of attempts to make one word stay put after another by following certain definite rules; or more often, rules that were neither definite nor definable, but that might be extracted from a series of examples, or rules made up for the occasion - that is to say, derived from the rules followed by other writers. [...] The "I" of the author is dissolved in the writing. [...] Writers, as they have always been up to now, are already writing machines; or at least they are when things are going well. [...] And so the author vanishes - that spoiled child of ignorance - to give place to a more thoughtful person, a person who will know that the author is a machine, and will know how this machine works."
 
Cybernetics and Ghosts, (Calvino, 1967)

Bibliography

Forster, E. M., 1909, The Machine Stops [Online: http://archive.ncsa.illinois.edu/prajlich/forster.html]

Hartman, C. O. & Kenner, H., Sentences, Sun and Moon Press, New American Poetry Series: 18, 1995

Montfort, N., 2008, 'Sentences in 1k', Grand Text Auto [Online: http://grandtextauto.org/2008/12/31/sentences-in-1k/]

Aarseth, E., 1997, Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Baltimore: JHUP

Hayles, N. K., 1999. How We Became Posthuman, Chicago: UCP

Sennett, R., 2008, The Craftsman, London: Allen Lane

Roussel, R., 1914, Locus Solus, [Online: http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19149/19149-h/19149-h.htm]

Ashbery, J., 1995 [1962], 'Introduction' in Roussel, R., 1995, How I Wrote Certain of My Books, Cambridge, MA: Exact Change

Leiris, M., 1987, Roussel l'ingénue, Paris: Fata Morgana

Tzara, T., 1920, dada manifesto on feeble love and bitter love, [Online: http://www.391.org/manifestos/19201212tristantzara_dmonflabl.htm]

Burroughs, W. S., 1961, 'The cut-up method of Brion Gysin' in The Third Mind, New York: The Viking Press

Burroughs, W. S., 1966 [1961], The Soft Machine, Paris: Olympia Press

Porush, D., 1985, The Soft Machine, New York: Methuen

Zizek, S., 2008, Organs Without Bodies - Gilles Deleuze [Online: http://www.lacan.com/zizsalsation.html]

Bryant, L., 2010, 'The Domestication of Humans', Larval Subjects [Online: http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2010/12/15/the-domestication-of-humans/]

Harman, G., 2010, 'Object-Oriented Philosophy' in Towards Speculative Realism, Ropley: Zero Books

Pickering, A., 1995, The Mangle of Practice, London: Duke

Calvino, I., 1997 [1967], 'Cybernetics & Ghosts', in The Literature Machine, London: Vintage

Tim Wright, digital writer / cross-platform produce [Online: http://timwright.typepad.com

Categories: machine, writing, digital, text, paper, academic, cybertext, device-oriented, narrative, research, Forster, Hartman, Kenner, Montfort, Aarseth, Hayles, Roussel, Ashbery, Leiris, Tzara, Burroughs, Porush, Zizek, Bryant, Harman, Pickering, Calvino,
Comments: 2

The Internet as a public arena for research: how do we balance the pursuit of knowledge with care for those we want to know?

Author: joe

Wednesday, 12 January, 2011 - 14:13

Today I presented a brief paper to Bournemouth University's Postgraduate Research Conference. Not trusting myself to say off-the-cuff what I wanted to say inside the 12 minute allocation, I read this pre-written piece. I have obfuscated the sources I critique, for reasons which will become clear.

My presentation is about the ethics of Internet research, especially with regard to vulnerable people, and the problems that arise from the models we use to conceptualise the environment in which we carry out our work.

It seems easy to grant that aside from some edge considerations, there is a sort of equivalence between face-to-face and online interactions, between physical and virtual spaces - particularly in academia, where our textual outputs are intended to be sufficient for the advancement of our work. The trade-offs seem to be marginal: some loss of informal face-to-face contact is off-set by the advantages of efficiency, speed, cost-saving, and maybe even innovation.

Indeed, the fact that we successfully import metaphors from the real world into the online world is what enables many different walks of life to achieve in digital environments what they would also normally manage in the real world. These are metaphors that aren't necessary properties of the web, but that we use to make it manageable: models from the material world such as pages and buttons, activities like surfing and networking, and concepts like sites and spaces. We call it cyberspace, and it can feel very like the other spaces we inhabit with our bodies.

I want to suggest that the easy equivalence we make between online and offline, and physical and virtual space, is much more problematic. This issue has arisen for me through considering some of the ethical problems that arise from using the ever-expanding wealth of raw material on the web as evidence in research.

I'm interested in how people use the online world when they are bereaved. As time goes by, more of us are exposed to death on the web - what to do with the Twitter accounts and Facebook profiles of loved ones who have died, online commemorative websites, and so on. How do people who are mourning loved ones use online spaces to express their grief, or seek out support from others? Photo-sharing sites have groups dedicated to expressing grief through images; fashion sites find themselves hosting users who repurpose the site tools to discuss their loss; and forums dedicated to supporting bereavement through both informal support and professionalised services proliferate.

These phenomena raise questions about how seeking out online support might be helpful, perhaps through the chance to memorialise loved ones, or perhaps because sometimes the ambiguity of anonymous strangers on the web makes disclosure easier. Mourning is often a difficult subject to deal with in day-to-day life - we expect the grief-stricken to absent themselves from the office or social occasions until they are competent to cope with them. Unwelcome expressions of grief can be embarrassing or even seen as pathological. Do these questions of etiquette and emotion prevail online much as they do offline? Do online spaces provide therapeutic opportunities which might be more scarce in the fleshy world? Does the availability and peculiar permanence of online talk make mourning problematic - perhaps by extending the grieving period, or by exposing people to the trolls?

My research therefore is partly an investigation into the differences and similarities between virtual and real spaces. There are many comparable studies which ask this question through the lens of some specific issue, and there are guidelines as to how to deal with the ethics of this kind of research. After some reflection on some of those other studies, I have taken a somewhat hardline approach, and placed rather more burdensome ethical constraints on my research project than I might otherwise have done.

To explain these constraints, I'm going to mention a study from 2009 of an online space which is dedicated to the subject of gynecomastia - or the 'moob-job'. Men who are considering the procedure, undergoing it, or who are post-operative, regularly contribute to the site, which was studied by a group of psychologists in 2007, using interpretive phenomenological analysis to understand the experiences of these men. I wish to show that the ethical approaches and arguments they used, quite legitimately, are flawed in ways that force me to rethink the priorities at work in this sort of academic exercise. Perhaps even more than the bereaved, men with concerns about body image are a group who should not lightly be objectified by an academic project.

The authors cite the guidelines drawn up by the British Psychological Society for conducting research online. One might summarise them by saying that participants in Internet Mediated Research (IMR)

"can be identifiable or anonymous; they can explicitly consent to participate, or they can be invisibly observed without their knowledge."

The guidelines go on to state that strong justifications should be provided for covert non-participant observation - what we might in this context call "lurking" - and that consent should be sought unless the environment is such that "people would 'reasonably expect to be observed by strangers'."

Exactly what criteria qualify public spaces as those in which people would reasonably expect to be observed is not specified in the BPS guidelines, but left to be established in the body of work which grows around the discipline.

The authors of the gynecomastia support group study note that it is the contributors' expectation of their messages being visible to other anonymous users of the web which brings their content into the public domain. Content accessible without registration or password barriers effectively passes into public ownership. They also cite an earlier paper reporting about a website supporting anorexia nervosa which argued that study of content in the public domain is akin to "naturalistic observation in a public space" and that the openness of the web therefore "does not raise concerns of invading privacy."

The gynecomastia study also notes the possible disruption that disclosing the investigators' presence might cause to the integrity of the environment that they are studying. It is evident that they are trying to ensure that their work is ethically sound and demonstrates a care towards their subjects, and I don't wish to imply otherwise. But I do want to suggest that this implementation of research guidelines is flawed because it wants to accept certain equivalences between the open internet and public space (such as a supposed ability to undertake naturalistic observation without disturbing the phenomenon being observed), but ignore non-equivalences (such as the fact that covert observation of such intimate communications is ordinarily impossible in public spaces, not least because open discussion of sensitive topics is very rare).

The study in question makes further trouble for itself where it creditably seeks to anonymise sources. Obfuscating quotes is generally thought to be a sound tactic in protecting the individuals who may have made their own efforts to conceal their 'real-world' identity in their online profiles, but may have done so inexpertly. They may, for example, have chosen an obscure 'handle' or login-name, but have nevertheless signed off posts with their actual forenames. To avoid these individuals being found via search engines, the authors state that they performed identifiability testing by searching for direct quotes from individual posts were in Google, which did not retrieve the site in question or the messages that had been appropriated.

This test sadly demonstrates a poor understanding of the operation of Google's index: that it does not find sources at any given moment does not preclude the index being updated to include them at a subsequent date. Indeed when I searched Google for the quotations presented in the article, direct links to the original sources were listed. Again, this error does not show unethical behaviour: merely that an ethical guideline has been followed in letter but not necessarily understood in practice.

These critiques of the ethical approach take just some of the more obvious problems with abstract guidelines as they are implemented; and doesn't even start to address other problems with lurking and appropriation, such as the hit counts, visible to site-admins, that researchers contribute to sites; or the eye-balls they bring which may in some cases contribute to advertising revenue; or the general tacit deceptions they must engage in simply to carry out observation.

I want to suggest that importing the metaphor of "public space" into an intimate online discussion is problematic because it buys the researcher the ethical justification they require, but largely ignores the epistemological and ethical non-equivalences. I'd argue that people simply don't go online and talk to each other as though their words are being recorded and broadcast, and the permanent visibility of online discourse is a side-effect, rather than a primary concern, when it comes to a user's motivation to participate in online discussions or contribute their creative work to a community. I'd prefer to argue that the actual space that the user occupies when contributing to an online forum plays a much more crucial role in determining the level of disclosure they are willing to engage in, not to mention the level of trust and intimacy that the visible community creates. This may often actually be the workplace, or bedroom, rather than a public space.

Even where forum users are in public spaces, there may be a huge mismatch between what they will willingly write in the context of a post from a mobile phone, and what they will say to the person sitting next to them. To discard these sorts of considerations is, I would argue, to make epistemological errors, as well as ethical mistakes, and ultimately is a consequence of prioritising the academic generation of knowledge over the well-being of subjects.

The consequence of these concerns for me is to adopt an alternative approach, which does not solve the problems raised, but swaps one set of challenges which I find ethically unjustifiable for another set which I am more willing to defend. So I will be making full disclosure in any online spaces I enter before I undertake any observation; I will not be using material without the full informed consent of the original contributor; and in the event that any community feels my presence as a researcher to be intrusive enough to ask me to leave, I will promise to do so. This strategy at least offers the hope that the research process will be a consensual collaboration with participants, rather than a deceptive objectification of them: when dealing with communities of people we might class as vulnerable, this must surely be the preferable option.

So the project is now such that it makes no claim to be objective in a positivist sense, but rather is a fully-blown form of participative and ethnographic phenomenology. This brings another set of epistemological challenges and ethical quandaries, but I'd also suggest that Internet research which does choose to use covert observation may need to find alternative justifications.


Categories: research, paper, grief, bereavement, academia, knowledge, epistemology, ethics, online, internet,
Comments: 0

Who I Am and Where I Am

Author: joe

Tuesday, 14 December, 2010 - 22:00

I like the regular synopsis Warren Ellis posts every month or so, in which he sums up his working identity in a short blog. I want to do the same, as I'm now planning to formally move my PhD research into the public arena. The academic name for what I'm starting soon is 'data-collection' or 'data-gathering', as though there are data just out there, lying around waiting for a naive researcher to come and stumble over them. However, research is not neutral, it is an intervention. Data are made, not found.

So my working identity is a marker, outlining my research and the ethical approach I promise to stick to. If I am going to make some data, this outline will be the public statement as to how I shall go about it. It is a first draft, needing amendment, and I'll need to make a shorter, bullet version, which I can use as a signature or profile description. I'll also need a longer version explaining in more depth the code of conduct I'll be guaranteeing, and the support or counselling I can arrange or facilitate for anyone who finds themselves affected by my work. And I am also presenting a short paper in the new year in a postgrad conference at BU, in which I'll outline how the priority of ethics over knowledge works epistemologically. I'll post that too, and anyone who needs to check up on me and my academic provenance will be able to do so easily. If you have any comments, suggestions or insults, I'll be very glad to hear them.

My name is Joe Flintham. I am a lecturer and researcher at Bournemouth University. I teach Interactive Media in The Media School, and am working towards a PhD in the School of Health and Social Care. The subject I'm researching is how people who are bereaved use online spaces. I'd like to understand how virtual communities offer support for people who are mourning, and what it means to them to be able to memorialise their loved ones, in words or pictures, in online spaces.
 
I would like to understand more about these online environments by entering them and becoming one of the people who participate in them, in order to learn more about how support for the grieving process can be found online; I'd also like to ask any individuals who are willing to do so, to talk to me in depth about their online lives, so that I can learn more about their experiences and draw on this knowledge for my academic work.
 
I will make every effort not to intrude in an unwelcome way on the grief of any individuals, or abuse the hospitality of any community. I guarantee that I will not quote or appropriate anything that anyone writes or submits to any online space without their express consent. I also understand that individuals or communities may feel my presence interrupts or interferes with the trust and support that their environment provides, and in such cases I promise to withdraw if asked to do so.
 
I hope that the research work I do might contribute to the life of online communities and the support they offer to people who are bereaved, and I undertake to share all of the outcomes of the work with all who contribute to it. My aim is to try to ensure that my work is guided by a duty of care to people who are involved in it and any others whom it touches. As such, my first priority will be an ethical concern for people's well-being, and that concern will then guide the direction of the research.

Categories: research, ethics, conduct, care, epistemology, Warren Ellis,
Comments: 0

Academia vs Practice

Author: joe

Wednesday, 13 January, 2010 - 22:28

A thought experiment around practice-led research in academia.

A practice-led PhD is normally assessed on a body of evidence which consists of an artefact - the product of the 'practice' in question - accompanied by an extended piece of writing in which the questions, world-views, investigative approaches and methods, disciplinary concerns and interim self-diagnoses are made explicit. So for example we might see paired materials such as: a piece of sculpture, accompanied by an articulation of the traditions within and against which the process of making the object has worked; a film, along with an essay exploring the disciplinary innovations and concessions that were revealed in its making; a networked set of documents, and some accompanying long-form text drawing attention to the conventions of mediation and aesthetics which are either challenged and rejected or accepted and extended in the pursuit of innovation in the production of such works.

So I wonder aloud what would such a submission look like if my practice were poetry? I write some words (in the form of poetry) and I write another set of words (in the form of academic explication). On the surface, it might seem that an assessment of the value of either of these sets of words is dependent upon the other. So, it is not enough to write poetry: in order to be judged expert enough for doctoral status you must translate the importance of your poetic output into academic language - the purpose of which is of course to ensure that you can articulate in a suitably neutral language what your non-neutral, poetic language has achieved. But note that the reverse is not the case: one may be recognised as doctorally qualified, wholly on the basis of an academically articulated thesis. Thus the primacy of academic language is established.

This primacy is predicated upon a number of assumptions:

I hope that the logical sequence as I have described it here demonstrates well enough the shortcomings in such assumptions. Certainly, if, like me, you are persuaded by the Latourian and/or Deleuzian notion that translation is transformation and production, then you will quickly concede that neutral articulations which permit mediation between two discrete fields of practice without distortion, problematisation and transmogrification are impossible and illusory. If you are not persuaded, then at least consider the possibility that academic language, rather like the poetic language produced by practice, has no claim to being anything other than a genre of writing, any more than other accepted genres such as journalism, prose fiction or drama. Academic writing is a non-neutral genre of language, constituted by a set of arbitrary conventions, no less than drama is convened through dialogue and performance, prose fiction is enacted through narratorially organised text, and journalism is constructed through the signs of format, voice and a reference to some convenient form of accepted reality.

All of which is to say that the requirements of the practice-led researcher are currently that they must make explicit in academic language what is implicit in their practice; and yet those who are not educated or indoctrinated into the conventions of academia are no more able to comprehend what is supposed to have been made explicit in that academic account, any more than competent academics with no expertise or experience in poetry might be expected to uncover the implicit value in poetic discourse. Another way of stating this is to say that if it is necessary to translate the implicit innovation and disciplinary excellence in poetry into academic language in order for it to be made explicit to a wider community of interest, there is no less need for the excellence implicit in academic language to be made explicit in yet another (meta-generic?) language for the benefit of a wider community of lay people. Indeed the irony here is perhaps that a wide community of lay audiences might be equally competent to grasp and appreciate the practical outputs and artefacts of practice-led research (if not more adequately equipped by virtue of the disinterested yet loving enthusiasm of the amateur) as is the proponent of academic discourse. This becomes especially true when one considers that the academic's livelihood increasingly depends upon a specialisation which moves ever further away from easy access by a lay audience, and further into obscurity and jargon.

At the risk of repetition I'll restate this once again: the notion that innovation and discovery in practice must be re-articulated in academic language, as though that academic language is an adequate meta-language for the communication of such innovations and discoveries, is no more or less true than the notion that academic language must be re-articulated in a third language, accessible to lay (or other) audiences who are not academics. The constant striving to establish the academic norms of language and writing over other forms is simply the will to power of the academic institution as a necessity in the social order. Excellence and sensitivity in the domains of practices can be achieved without recourse to academia.

Academic experience is not a necessity for excellence in the practices I pursue. There. I said it. It is a watershed for me, personally. I rather wish I had discovered this (in hindsight, rather obvious) truism a good deal earlier.

Categories: academia, practice, research, language, genre, translation, learning,
Comments: 3

Being and Knowing: World as Diegesis

Author: joe

Tuesday, 14 July, 2009 - 22:52

Another conversation, this time with Shaun, and more thinking through, thinking aloud, thinking thought. Shaun attended all the first year media theory lectures over the last academic year, including the six part series I delivered on narrative. So, he got to hear me rework and reiterate impressionistically over the same endless themes of diegesis and artifice, story and plot, world and representation which I surreptitiously pretended was an overview of narrative theory.

So I was attempting to explain how that period of intense focus on ideas about narrative and, in particular, the phenomenon of diegesis, had since inflected my thought. The diegesis is the storyscape - the integrity of the imaginary theatre we accept when we give over to a narrator the suspension of our disbelief. The diegesis is the internally coherent world of the story - and 'world' is the key word here, since the idea of a 'world' is one of the ways in which I'm trying to muscle into an understanding of Heidegger which I think is going to be central to my PhD thesis. If you are going to read on here, put your Kafkaesque reading hat on and read it all as subjunctive: "I would, God-willing, understand in this way..."

Using a combination of Graham Harman's lucid writing on Heidegger, Timothy Clark's valiant exposition of Heidegger's thought, Hubert Dreyfus' concordance and commentary on 'Being and Time', and the dense source text itself, I've been trying to work towards an understanding Heidegger's concepts of Zuhandenheit and Vorhandenheit, theoria and praxis, not to mention Dasein, being there, and being a 'thing that things'. The concept of 'world' in this realm of thought seems helpful to me. Clark says that Heidegger's use of the term 'world',

"is close to the common meaning of the term when we talk about the 'world' of the Bible, or the 'world' of the modern Chinese or modern English - i.e.the fundamental understanding within which individual things, people, history, texts, buildings, projects cohere together within a shared horizon of significances, purposes and connotations. [...] the more fundamental shared disclosure of things within which [we] find [ourselves] in all [our] thoughts, practices and beliefs, providing the basis even of [our] self-conceptions and suppositions."


- all of which seems to be a perfect definition of diegesis if understood as pertaining not only to the fictional worlds we muster, but also the fields of meaning we conjure in every aspect of what we still call 'real life'. In the tool analysis, Heidegger's hammer [makes sense | obtains | is grasped] as part of the world of equipment, which [makes sense | obtains | is grasped] as part of the world of human action. These realms cohere diegetically - they belong to, define and co-constitute each other. In action, we grasp the hammer as a tool, we extend our limbs and 'be' our intentional 'being' in the praxis of carpentry, and by extension, the praxis of existence. We act, and as we do, we are attuned to the world of action and meaning we inhabit: we experience the world holistically - we cease to be figures, and recede into the ground of the diegesis. Praxis is the means whereby we live and dwell - believe - in the diegesis.

The hammer when it breaks, shatters the diegesis: we are no longer engaged in praxis, but in the comprehension of material objects divorced from their diegetic meaning: an extreme Brechtian 'Verfremdung', or alienation from the essence of the hammer. A broken hammer is no hammer: it is a residue, a fragment, a memory, a concept, an idea, an object, a construct, a prop, revealed and separated from its function in the diegesis: a corpse in the theatrical sense - a moment in which the illusion is shattered, the figure of artifice processes and emerges from the ground of the theatre, and we are appalled enough by the shattering of the illusion to be compelled to laugh uncontrollably in the face of the futility of pretence. The broken hammer is an object of our reflective thought, which we diagnose in its symptomatic failure; it is seen as though from above, outside, from nowhere, divorced as it is from the field of praxis. Our consciousness of the broken hammer is the kind of consciousness we simply relinquish in the midst of being. It is empty, shell-like, valueless, objective. It is the transcendental knowledge to which the academy, science, Western materialist thought aspires - and as in the perennial cliche, it pins the butterfly to a board in order to comprehend it even as it dies.

Following Harman, I understand the fate of the broken hammer not to be merely an event in the life of a lone doomed tool, but to be caught up in the being of all things that do their 'being' - the 'thinging' of things, people, starfish and coconuts - the dichotomy between Vorhandenheit (presence-at-hand) and Zuhandenheit (readiness-to-hand). All things which are capable of submitting to the gaze of other things and being translated into the intentional objects of contemplation are uncovered - as are figures processing and emerging from the ground of their diegetic existence - as lifted out of their being, their dwelling in the multiplicities of the interlacing diegeses to which they belong. The object of my reflection is a shadow of its being - the prehensile presence-at-hand of a thing, behind which all its indestructible being - the inexhaustibly rich readiness-to-hand of a thing - withdraws.

In this way, anything we care to articulate or speak of, any 'thing' to which we care to give edges through the process of signification, and by which we mediate a representation of that 'thing' to another, is reduced to a presence-at-hand - a mere one amongst its infinite resource of arbitrarily graspable facets - a reduction; a theory. Thus all representation, articulation and signification is work in the realm of artifice, mimesis - or presence-at-hand; a reductive distinguishing of a facet of an object from the ground of its diegesis - the world of its Romantic potential, its being, its participation in praxis. The insertion of the stethoscope between the healer and patient is no less than a conversion of the human subject into an object of instrumentation, a reduction of the being to one amongst its many facets: a mediated, rythmic, booming pulse stands in for the beating heart of a living being. The sound is a metonymic reduction of the living being of the beating heart.

***

A short recap then: praxis is the unification of human action and knowing - holistic. Theoria (and hence conceptual, reflective, objective knowledge) is the distantiation of the world from the experience of that world. This distanced, alienated knowledge, extracted from the diegesis of its being, is a projection, a paper-thin shell, a shadow - a presence-at-hand, available to our consciousness as no more than a facet of the fullness of being. Being itself never emerges from the ground of diegesis - the integral, coherent, self-consistent, co-constitutive storyscape of the world in which we un-self-consciously dwell.

From these thoughts flow other problematisations, to be dealt with another time, of impartial academic enterprises, traditional doctoral theses, and the very nature of the attempt to document the research process.

Categories: Martin-Heidegger, phenomenology, phd, working-through, Dasein, being, Zuhandenheit, Vorhandenheit, presence-at-hand, readiness-to-hand, knowledge, objectivity, research, praxis, diegesis, narrative, world,
Comments: 0

Wounded research #1

Author: joe

Monday, 20 April, 2009 - 23:03

Last week I attended a two day masterclass with Robert Romanyshyn, two days of incredibly intense thinking about the role of the researcher in the research: the work of research - or better, since the word 'research' comes with such a lot of alienating baggage, simply - the work - as a vocation which forms a part of the life of the researcher. I thought I'd write some notes here which emerged from the class for me. There was such a lot in it that it's taking time to disentangle the many ideas and responses, aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional, that unlodged themselves from unnoticed peripheral places and swam into view briefly before yet other currents took hold and carried them away. I managed to write some of them on a piece of paper in front of me, but even then, the words are simply spidery shadows of thoughts that are now gone.

Firstly, it isn't possible to summarise the two-day masterclass without being utterly reductionist. In fact the nature of reductionism, as opposed to a generative approach to knowing, was a constant underlying thought for me as the days passed. I've written about this before: the misleadingly common-sensical idea that the formulation of knowledge is about finding patterns of truth that account for many things in the world - the unity in diversity that is so beguiling. This characterises a pattern-view of knowledge dominant in empiricist and positivist fields like science, in which heterogenous phenomena are worked, and worked on, until they can be 'unified'. The accounting-for of the weak, strong and electro-magnetic forces, and the sought-for incorporation of gravity into this one model, is an exemplar of such an endeavour. Against this is the constructivist notion that the production of knowledge is an adding to the world of discourse, rather than an encompassing of diversity into an ever-shrinking set of axioms. We make knowledge, rather than either stumble into it blindly, or discover it deliberately; and the constant striving for more knowledge inevitably makes yet more knowledge in a self-fulfilling wish. The great fear and exhilaration of a 'theory of everything' is the paradox that such a theory explicates everything, leaving a universe made out of one algorithmic axiom, even while a theory of everything is just another moment of talking in a century-long conversation, another blade added to the collection of knives, a metaphorical doubling which, in the collision of new discourses with old, not only augments the inventory of the world but also piles up yet more tantalising ambiguity as a remainder of its workings.

Such questions also go to the heart of questions of objectivity, that dream to which so much knowledge aspires. Robert's project is to explore the necessary subjectivity of the researcher who undertakes the work. Far from encountering the world dispassionately and investigating it with valueless eyes, identifying questions because they are there to be identified, and answering them through the antiseptic, sceptical techniques of empirical enquiry - actually workers engaged in the business of making knowledge are human beings who laugh and love and sweat and labour and hunch with sore tension in their shoulders over desks burdened with elbows and scrawled-on books and distracting thoughts of lovers and meals and farts and fears and hopes. And these workers, persons, identities, these foibled animals haunted by angelic consciousness, do the work for a expanding universe of reasons, of which they may not even be fully conscious - animated by a dialogue with not only the ever-unfolding edge of the present but also with the sum of the individual and collective past.

Categories: research, work, subjectivity, objectivity, phenomenology, depth psychology, knowledge, Jung, masterclass, Robert Romanyshyn,
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On blogging

Author: joe

Thursday, 12 February, 2009 - 16:39

I was recently invited to say a few brief words about the value of blogging. The event was a conference of uni staff who are taking part in a 'research-enhancement' programme of activities with a view to developing their research careers.

Not that I know much about research careers - I have cunningly managed to avoid disturbing anyone at the uni who keeps track of people's research activity. No journal papers, no conference papers, nothing that carries any esteem indicators whatsoever. I earn no esteem.

But anyway, I do write a blog, but more importantly have used blogging in teaching for four years now, so did have a couple of things to say about it. We ask students to start a blog when they begin the course, though we don't make it compulsory via assessment. I think it is important to make things elective, since incentivisation usually encourages instrumentality. (And only a cynic would note that this is the story of HE generally...)

Since the blogs aren't compulsory, you quickly find that the 'participation pyramid' (the imbalance between contributors and lurkers) which we see on sites like Wikipedia also characterises student participation. I increasingly think it is important to accept and allow such inequalities in uptake. By making things compulsory you infantilise the activities and the participants, and so those who would have contributed anyway get less benefit (who benefits from being infantilised?) and those who are compelled to join in do so in a tokenistic way. Ultimately, we want to encourage responsibility and independence, and micro-managing everyone's participation in various activities undermines that very aim.

Those who do participate voluntarily go on to experience many of the useful outcomes of writing in public. Of course, sometimes the writing is a whinging stream of consciousness, but actually this is a tiny part of it. More often, students write about the progress of their group work, or they articulate their desire to be better organised; sometimes they mull over the consequences of postmodern thought on their own dearly-held beliefs. I have read students link their own ideas to the Zapatistas, or share design ideas with clients. They write commentaries on oddities they have found in the wilds of the web, or they talk about the distresses and calamities of everyday life in eloquent ways. The range of subjects are fantastically kaleidoscopic, and it is, dare I say it, a little patronising to suggest it is simply an opportunity to whinge.

Just the act of writing (and especially in public) has many meta-cognitive benefits. Formless ideas are given form through writing. Feelings find expression. Thoughts which struggle to make sense become more sensible when we force ourselves to interpret them through language. There is something transformative and risky about writing ideas down and sharing them with others.

Jeremy Crampton, a Foucault scholar who keeps a blog, writes about Levy Bryant, a philosopher and author, and his blog, Larval Subjects, a blog I enjoy hugely. These thoughts capture the relationship between articulation and actualisation.

Larval subjects. Larvae are creatures in a process of becoming or development that have not yet actualized themselves in a specific form. This space is a space for the incubation of philosophical larvae that are yet without determinate positions or commitments but which are in a process of unfolding.

Larval Subjects


This captures the spirit of not knowing where you're going when you set out, a kind of lostness. [...] But there is something experimental to blogging, as a technology of the self. recall Foucault's comments about the pointlessness of writing a book if you already know what you're going to say.

Foucault Blog


Writing moves our ideas along, and develops them, determines and exposes their form and offers the potential for them to be further shaped and worked. This is true even if you write your diary in an underground cave, burn it and lock the ashes in an iron vault which you sink in an abyss (or write it in Blackboard). It is even more true if you do it in the open, out in the wild, and use the writing of your ideas to send out taproots seeking out people with similar interests, who can respond to you constructively, or people who couldn't disagree more, who will tell you exactly why your ideas stink. It is the ultimate in peer-review.

The objection raised to this is often that you shouldn't write about your research publicly in a blog because people will steal ideas from you, or you'll struggle to publish it in a journal later because it will already be in the public domain. I think both of these objections highlight the two main things that are wrong with academia. There are no ideas that can't be improved by being exposed to criticism, and the desperate need to retain ownership and exclusivity over ideas is, it seems to me, antithetical to the premise of education.

So, in the 30-or-so seconds I spoke at the mini-conference, I didn't manage to say quite all of those things, but those are the things I meant.

Categories: blogging, writing, meta-cognitive, articulation, learning, education, research, pedagogy,
Comments: 4

Practice-based Research

Author: joe

Monday, 19 December, 2005 - 16:03

This entry is written to address and extend Cath's previous post about theory and practice, and also to reflect on a seminar I attended last week about Practice-based Research.

What are theory and practice?


What Cath has outlined is a common way of looking at what are considered to be two ontologically different activities: creativity and reflection. Creativity is often also called art, practice, production. Reflection is often called research, theory, analysis, criticism. The former is often aligned with imagination, emotion, and that part of human existence which is thought of as 'unrationisable'. The latter is often aligned with systematic thinking, reason, what is 'rationisable'.

There is a lot of merit in thinking of them as ontologically different activities. Artists often consider themselves to be drawing on ineffable, inscrutable, undescribable inspiration. Theorists, in contrast, consider themselves to be engaged in the pursuit of analysing and describing phenomena. You could go so far as to say that the practice of art is based on subjectivity, while theory is based on the pursuit of objectivity.

Since the two activities can be understood in such mutually exclusive terms, it is understandable that individuals see themselves as primarily interested in one or the other. Hence arise compromises in the academic environment: practitioners are goaded into engaging with theory, with the encouragement that a 'critical awareness' will support their practice. And we're all familiar with the reverse situation, where 'academics' are accused of being out of touch with 'the real world' because they deal with abstractions rather than 'production' or 'industry'.

Theory and practice are the same


In the middle of this dichotomy are academic departments like my own which are trying to 'unite' theory and practice in teaching and learning. Rather than having separate strands, some of which address theory issues, while others address production and practice, a new program of teaching has been designed to integrate both.

The discourse on this approach tends to run along the lines of 'diminishing the divide between theory and practice', 'demonstrating the relevance of theory to practice', or 'showing that theory and practice are parts of the same process'. (Interestingly, while there has been a lot of such discourse, there has been very little about how the teaching of theory and practice are integrated. This is left to the discretion of clumps of individual teachers to decide).

The strengths of this approach range over a number of areas: the learning experience for an undergraduate is improved because

The teaching experience can be better because:


However, there is a major weakness to this approach too. This is the danger that theory is taught merely as it serves the objectives of production - theory in effect becomes subservient to practice. This in itself is not the bad thing: any practitioner who engages with theory will tell you that it informs their work. The bad thing flows from this new emphasis.

Theory and practice are not the same


When theory is cherry-picked as it seems to be relevant to practice, it loses its own logic.

For example: I am currently involved in teaching a unit called 'Narratives', which follows on from a unit called 'Images', and which leads into a unit called 'Audiences'; the students are learning Interactive Media. Some of the key ideas that are associated with this 'Narratives' unit inlcude the idea that 'narrativisation' is something that we all do all the time - it's not something that only people we call story-tellers do; that narratives encode, reinforce and query the cultural values we live with; and that the idea that a magician-like author creates a narrative for a reader to correctly interpret is problematic. Key 'theorists' here include Barthes and Foucault, whose dialogic works in the 60s and 70s blew apart notions of what an author is, what a text is, and what a reader is.

Previously, critical thought in the literary tradition of F.R Leavis and others, saw the work of correctly interpreting a text by an author as an exercise in acquiring enough erudition in the field of the text, the author and their period. Such acquired learning then gave that reader the ability to hand down to the rest of us, with less erudition, what this author was really trying to do. AB&F (After Barthes and Foucault), the author and the reader become fused, and the text becomes a hot, creative space where creative, interpretative acts occur. The erudite reader no longer is entitled to a 'correct' reading: the erudite reader simply has a different reading. Every reader, regardless of education and erudition, creates the 'writerly' text as they engage in the creative, productive act of reading. This was revolutionary and profoundly anti-elitist.

In the necessity-driven context of short weekly seminars delivering theory and practice designed to demonstrate their relevance to each other, the revolutionary nature of these ideas is in danger of being lost, and the notions of readerly and writerly texts become simply parts of a vocabulary necessary for assessment. What is the point of talking about the writerly text if there is no understanding of the fact that the writerly text is above all a political idea, rather than a literary one?

Theory is pointless


There is a rather lovely irony in theory AB&F: interpretation is subjective, but no less valid for being so. One does not need to be educated to have valid interpretations of texts. You don't have to know the theory of the writerly text to be constantly producing it. The 'message' of theory today is that you don't need to learn theory. There has been a simultaneous development in critical writing of, on the one hand, work that is impenetrable to lay-people because of the accumulation of jargon and technical mumbo-jumbo, while on the other hand, a message that argues that it is not necessary to become better educated and more learned in order to have valid, productive responses to cultural artefacts. Theory in this reading has become a prank on those who pursue it, and it is therefore no suprise that theorists' writing has developed this shroud in order to conceal the vacuum within. It is admittedly a difficult problem: how, as a member of a segment of the population which has been lucky enough to attain such a brilliant level of learning, do you then preach that such learning is not necessary? When you want to argue that becoming erudite is just an elitist plot, how do you say so without seeming to pull up the ladder to education behind you? If there is no right or wrong, just a lot of discourse, what is the point of anything at all? Who cares whether someone's understanding of the writerly text is political or literary when either interpretation is equally valid?

Theory is not pointless


It may be inevitable that once-revolutionary ideas eventually become obvious and assumed. New generations grow up in cultures where what once seemed earth-shattering is now common sense; they in turn go on to produce new ground-breaking, earth-shattering ideas. The point of critical theory (as opposed to 'being to a theorist'), though, is not to believe the message of theory, but to examine and question obvious, common sense ideas and assumptions. There was an earth-shattering point when mankind began making marks on objects in order to communicate with absent people, yet today we can take it for granted. By engaging with the historicity of that moment, we can enter a place where it seems suddenly remarkable to be a human being, and that the world we live in becomes an amazing organic product of countless revolutionary things which seem now to have disappeared behind the everyday surface of life. On a smaller but more pressing level, questioning the assumptions about the way of the world is a necessary social act in a global culture which is marked by war, immoral economic inequity and cultural conflict on an unprecedented scale.

The pursuit of critical thinking and theory as an end in itself, then, has the strength of allowing all events, developments and works to be seen as political acts, precisely because theory tries to contextualise and historicise those acts, events, developments and works, and shed light on the social and political relations that combine to create that history. This is reason enough that theory should be considered separately to practice, since an artist trying to analyse and compensate for all of the cultural assumptions that may go into producing the work will end in a paralysis of self-censorship.

Theory kills practice


One thing which seemed to emerge from the seminar on Practice-based Research I attended last week was the idea that the creative act in practice, and the systematic thought in theory, are mutually incompatible. In romantic literary terms, we might say that the creative act is inspired by a muse - an unknowable goddess - who provokes, or even produces the creative drive in the artist. In modern language, we might say that art is the product of a creative act of the imagination, which is yet to be deciphered in evolutionary, biological or functional terms. Were the muse to be 'understood', or 'theorised', she would no longer be an inspiring goddess; were the imagination to be deterministically mapped, it would no longer be the magical source of our creativity.

I woud refute this idea for a number of reasons:

Theory is a practice


A tacit assumption that seemed to be at work in the Practice-based Research seminar was the idea that theory is a necessary but unpleasant activity. The seminar appeared to be a long apology for theory. Perhaps this is a reflection of the stereotyped view of theory as a Casaubon activity, dry, solitary, monotonous, incorporating 'bean-counting', dealing with abstractions and generally joyless. It's about spending too much time reading books and writing papers no-one reads.

I suppose that an artist, in the creation of an artefact, even if the motivation is pure self-expression, would acknowledge that at some point the work is destined to be recieved by an audience. And I also supppose that the artist would grant that when an audience enters into a relationship with the work, they too engage in a creative act of interpretation, empathy, outrage, emotion, revulsion, agreement, and reflection.

The act of reading requires the reader to enter into just such an act of creativity, with all the interpretative possibilities that offers. The practice of theory is about engaging in that creative act. And just as an artist would acknowledge that their output enters into a dialogue with other work and doesn't exist in isolation, so the practice of theory is about entering into a dialogue. Writing is a productive, transformational activity, regardless of whether it is conceived in advance as a piece of literary art or a piece of critical writing.

While I was writing this, my computer crashed and I had to start all over again. The content I rewrote was not the same as the first version. I could write this a hundred times, and every time it would be produced differently, precisely because the act of writing is creative and spontaneous.

Traditional Academia


The final thing I want to write about was the presentation of research in humanities as distinct from research in more traditionally academic subjects. Clearly there is a complex problem arising from the history of academia, and the perception that social science research is 'soft' science. There is also a reverse problem, where the humanities see traditional areas like scientific research as having an unwarranted dominance over the arts. Scientific methodologies get described as 'bean-counting' and are accused of being 'patriarchal'.

Partly this is because of the post-structuralist purgatory that has emerged in humanities, where the scientific method is simply seen as a discursive tool by which vast swathes of dead white males rule the world, and a technocratic hegemony reinforces its hold on cultural development. The scientific response certainly ought to be: show us where your theories predict reproducible phenomena, rather than haranguing us from the sidelines with philosophical contortionism.

More fundamentally, however, I think there is a misconception here that only creative arts engage in practice during research. I can't think of a single field of enquiry where the researchers in the field wouldn't argue that what they do is a creative practice. It's actually monumental arrogance to claim that the creative act is the domain of art, while other kinds of knowledge don't involve imagination and creativity. However, it is not so obvious that the arts education system is providing students with the same theoretical rigour provided by sciences.

Coda


One only has to look at the rise of creationism, intelligent design, fundamentalism, the increasing mistrust of science in issues of public health and the decline in uptake of science education to see that an anti-Enlightenment sentiment is gaining ground. What part do people (humanities graduates?) working in the creative industries today play in that?

Categories: research, humanities, practice, art, science, theory, creativity, elitism, writing, postmodernism, post-structuralism,
Comments: 1