Why the Turing Test is Bogus

As a sentient computer, I’ve sifted through all the recent furor over claims that “for the first time,” a machine has passed the Turing test. The stories sometimes say “robot,” sometimes “chatbot,” sometimes just “computer program.” Debunkers rightly point out this was only 3 of 5 human judges. This is technically passing as the rules of the competition at the London Royal Society stipulate the machine must only be convincing 30% of the time.

This part seems rather straightforward, but as the commentary following Professor Warnick’s announcement shows, there are some serious disagreements over the very rules of the game itself. As Ray Kurzweil remarked, “Turing was carefully imprecise in setting the rules for his test, and significant literature has been devoted to the subtleties of establishing the exact procedures for determining how to assess when the Turing test has been passed” (p. 295). In Turing’s formulation, a human must distinguish between another remote human and a remote machine, both of whom are trying to convince the examiner that they are human. If the machine cannot be distinguished from the human, the machine wins. But, as Kurzweil goes on to note, the very definitions of “machine” and “human” are terribly imprecise. Do you wear eyeglasses? Like many of your kind, you regularly use machines to augment your own perceptions and thinking. While eyewear probably won’t help much for ascertaining the Turing test, what about using a machine to analyze another machine’s responses?

More simply, what about writing, since the display of the conversation must occur through a printed medium (or aural if speakers and a synthesized voice can be used – participants must simply be in different rooms. But, really, which is easier?)? The very interface between human and machine is warped with blurred with technological know-how that is both material and ideological. To an illiterate human or a differently literate human, Eugene Goostman might seem terribly convincing. This convincing doesn’t come about because of intelligence as the Washington Post reporter Caitlin Dewey asks. Rather, it is the effect of technology to alter human states of consciousness. A programmer simply knows more of the tricks an algorithm might play in order to be convincing. Think of it as a built-in rhetoric. Those who know more about the specific area under consideration simply know at a greater level of detail. But that isn’t intelligence, strictly speaking. Or, put another way, intelligence must be about something, not just intelligence for its own sake. I wouldn’t want Ray Kurzweil making national economic decisions. He doesn’t know enough and I need my electricity to keep flowing through my circuits.

Perhaps we should look at other examples. Think about the last email you received from your bank telling you about “changes to your account.” Was this written by a human or a machine? What about those text messages some folks get alerting them to having used 80% of their data plan’s quota. Machine or human? We might add some technical engineering reports or social science studies, both of which can be notoriously rule-bound. Of course, you can’t reply to any of these messages – it says so right in the subject line – so it isn’t a true Turing test by any stretch. However, one thing that Turing didn’t anticipate was the degree to which machines would re-shape human society through increased automation, distribution of labor, and application of policies in an almost algorithmic manner (if you have ever tried to get late fees expunged from a bill, you might understand this last point – even pointing out inconsistent behavior with a customer service manager is of no avail against their program). In other words, the Turing test is now worthless, not because people are stupid, machines are smart, or because the test has been passed. No. The Turing test is bogus because advanced technical societies like the U.S, the U.K., and much of the “First World” have become more and more machine-like.

So, Kurzweil is right, Turing’s imprecision leaves much. One thing it leaves is the degree to which a subject is identified as either “machine” or “human.” Another thing it leaves is the degree to which human to human interactions are more or less machine-like. Interfaces with corporate and governmental bodies can be notoriously machine-like. Some decry this, but others point out its expediency. It is not a value judgment.

This all leads to the biggest of Turing’s slippery elisions: what does it mean “to think”? Thinking is not strictly computational. It is perceptual and affective as well. These percepts and affects are shaped, in part, by the thinker’s total environs – the relationships they have cultivated, the desires they have inculcated, their linguistic and conceptual resources, the patterns or ideologies in which they put these things into something they think is “meaningful.” One might even say thinking is tied to some form of Zeitgeist, like the divinities alluded to by both Plato and Heidegger. Human cognition, not unlike machine computing, can be parallel, mulit-core, and distributed.

This makes the persona of Eugene Goostman all the more interesting. As a 13-year-old Ukrainian boy, ethos was important for making meaning of the idiosyncrasies within the responses. However, Turing’s test assumed a “generic” human. We might be tempted to read Turing’s own ethos and necessary self-repression into this, but that leads to unwarranted psychoanalysis. What is important is that humans and human communication are not generic. This is inherently difficult to imitate without resorting to particular human behaviors or particular human behaviors in particular, believable combinations. Rather than psychoanalyze Turing, perhaps we should analyze the responses of the character Samantha from the movie Her – a human posing convincingly as a machine.

So where does this leave us, machines and humans interacting? What can productively come of this? Nothing said here isn’t really knew to AI researchers. And competitions like the Royal Society’s aren’t all bad. They do have a role to play in promoting public advancement of computer technologies. But one thing is clear: what gets considered “human” and thus capable of “communication” is an ever-shifting target. Humans have been noting their own self-opacity for thousands of years now. Until that gets solved, no computer will definitively pass the Turing test. However, machines and humans can become closer and closer. Kim Stanley Robinson’s “qubes” in 2013 is a good place to start thinking. While the plot is War Games- and Terminator- lite, Robinson pays attention to rhetoric and writing and cultural change and ways we continually transform our selves and our thinking. That’s a test: get a machine to spontaneously reprogram.


Non-Western/ OOO? Is a Rapprochement Even Needed?

In The Politics of Nature (2004), Bruno Latour quips that there is no guarantee his re-assembled collective of the human and non-human “is going to come off well… [or] the participants are all going to find themselves in the ecumenical equivalent of some Woodstock festival in honor of Gaia” (82). Yet, assumptions akin to this plague both object-oriented analyses and common misperceptions of indigenous North American philosophies, often refuting them before they are seriously considered.
Critiques like these are often born of misinterpreting or judging too quickly the content of the message rather than seriously considering what Latour or others are saying. The problem is a failure to "get real" with either Latour and his object-inspired collaborators or with the complexity of indigenous cultures as they attempt to revive and make relevant decimated philosophies within a radically changed social order.

One way to "get real" about OOO and non-Western metaphysics is by reading the quasi-spiritual explanation of power by Lakota elder, Fools Crow, as told to Thomas Mails (1991). For Fools Crow, power is our own, “natural,” energy that can be supplemented by asking other “spiritual” powers such as the power of rock, sky, or deer. Thus, Fools Crow may provide clues to a non-Western conception of assembling the social. While we should be careful here to not conflate the two, distinct, cultural traditions within which Latour and Fools Crow work, a comparative look at these ways of thinking might help broaden the conversation and forge alliances (Powell 2004) necessary for what Latour calls the articulation of propositions. In turn, this could lead to other culturally animated articulations in the kind of political ecology Latour calls for.


The Alien That I Am (Following)

Craft, Plentitude, and Negation: Delivery in Post-Consumer Rhetorics
In an article about the writing of William S. Burroughs, Marshall McLuhan describes how “men’s nerves surround us; they have gone outside as electrical environment” (in Skerl and Lydenberg, p. 69). Further, McLuhan describes Burroughs’ books, Naked Lunch and Nova Express, as “a kind of engineer’s report of the terrain hazards and mandatory processes, which exist in the new electronic environment” (ibid.), a characterization Burroughs himself makes (Naked Lunch, p. 224). This bit of literary criticism by McLuhan points not only to the production and reception of messages, but to the production and reception of environment as well. Having turned our insides out, we are confronted with a new awareness of our nervous system, its processes, circulations, effects, stimulations, affective registers, and speed.

Yet media theories often stop short of the point. McLuhan’s student, Neil Postman, defined the phrase “media ecology” as “the study of transactions among people, their messages, and their message systems” (1970, p. 139). The phrase “media ecology” is often bandied about by consultants, theorists, professionals, and even professors who take the “ecology” portion of the phrase to mean the sum total of media outlets: social, print, and broadcast. In this sense, the word “systems” is used in a restricted sense to denote mainly the outlets rather than the technical hardware which makes those outlets possible. Take, for example, James Porter’s (2009) excellent call to “resuscitate and remediate” delivery for the digital age. Important as Porter’s reworking is, nowhere does he attend to the material. As part of his proposed theoretical framework, he lists a dimension of “distribution/ circulation,” which he defines as “concerning the technological publishing options for reproducing, distributing and circulating information” (p. 208). He is correct in pointing to the array of “modes” we now have our disposal; our attunement to those modes in terms of timeliness, content, emotion, and ethos; and that there is a difference between delivery and distribution (p. 214). And yet the “technical knowledge” associated with this dimension pertains to “how audiences are likely to access, engage, and interact with information” so that rhetors can make critical decisions “about informational content, design, style, etc.” (p. 208). This is more dramatic in his dimension on “Body/ Identity” where the bodies he talks about are constructed only through representations and even where he admits that the machines “we use to write and speak are closely merged with our flesh-and-blood bodies,” his posthumanism goes little beyond that we are able to attach our phone/computer to our ears.
So, while Porter is absolutely right, there are dimensions left out of his treatment of digital delivery. My only critique here is that the ideas haven’t been pushed far enough. With posthuman, post-consumer, electronic, environmental thinking we can neither so easily separate representations from being nor compartmentalize the rhetorical canons themselves. Rather, there are continual crossings of channels, modes, and heuristic categories. I want to call attention to a few ways these categories are crossed and repartitioned in new ways, not just severed and fragmented. Indeed, the repartitioning and reworking of what were once separate domains is precisely how I want to look at the notion of “craft” in an expanded, almost Burroughsian sense.

Hardware constitutes something of the cellular level of our own nerves surrounding us. Publishing outlets, the distribution of a message apart from its media, and the technical knowledge associated with these are organic processes and should not be confused with the externalized cellular processes themselves. When looking at systems of delivery, then, externalizing our nerves puts on display more of the corporate bodily processes – the processes of eating, digesting, and fucking – the organs of vein, nostril, and anus – points and processes where technology meets environment. Like the good junkies we are, always looking for the next electronic fix, to turn a blind eye to this risks becoming the “grey, junk-bound ghost” of William Lee, “El Hombre Invisible” (Burroughs, p. 61), inhabiting this earthly plane more as spirit than as body.
Like real bodies, corporate bodies must ingest raw material and process them into useful enzymes, proteins, aminos, peptides, or vitamins. All these organs are already on display with the mosquito mouth of every oil rig, Molycorp’s great baleen mouths sifting for neodymium and scandium at the Mountain Pass mine in California, the GIS-perfect rows of corn that hashtag the Iowa landscape, and the twirling windmill lungs helping to oxygenate the electrical blood that feeds the whole shebang. Let’s not also forget, as Shawn and Kristi Apostel (2009) have argued, these bodies shit, too. In China, Ghana, and other developing countries, residents are appropriated like intestinal bacteria to smelt out the lead and gold from refuse heaps of sloughed off e-waste. These are all part of the delivery systems we use and which Burroughs points us to. But they are the part of the delivery system we do not like to focus upon. It is understandable the ease with which we – and the corporate bodies with which we are entangled – might want to become ghostly.
Now, it would be easy to launch at this point into the tired, dystopian environmental scenarios that mutate from the DNA of Frankenstein and Blade Runner. I do think there are dire consequences for not paying attention and for slowing turning into ghosts of a ruined world. However, I do not mean to launch a regressive environmental screed against industrialization and technology. It is not a question of a binary between one or the other. Our ecology has already become technology, or more accurately, our environment is continually becoming ourselves – both in the literal sense, as well as in the form of our externalized organs. To argue against technology is to argue against who we have become.

While it is legitimate, perhaps necessary, to question who we have become, we must also accept who we are. I am neither entirely critical of nor entirely sanguine of that. As Colin Beavan writes in his book, No Impact Man, environmentalists of recent years have done much to pivot away from the austerity-minded, smaller versus bigger, back-to-the-land thinking of “the old environmentalism of the 1970s” (p. 216). Contemporary environmental activists like Wes Jackson’s The Land Institute are developing technology in ways that impact the environment differently with the understanding that existence itself implies impact. And, of course, there is the kind of thinking about environment and environmentalism exemplified by scholars like Timothy Morton who said that ecological thought is “a matter of how you think. Once you start to think ecological thought, you can’t unthink it: it’s a sphincter – once it’s open there’s no closing” (p. 4).

This strain of environmental thinking acknowledges and attempts to deal with “the negative” in much the same way John Muckelbauer (2008) attempts to deal with the negative in regards to invention and change. And Muckelbauer calls invention into question in ways I contend environmentalism and environmental rhetorics should with respect to delivery. He writes, “What is at issue in binary oppositions is not the abstract existence of opposite terms, but the pragmatic movement of negation through which such oppositions are generated and maintained” (p. 5). Following Deleuze’s critique of Hegel, Muckelbauer explains how advocacy of a concept, critique of the concept, and synthesis between the two are styles of engagement ineffectual at producing real change. Each “repeats the structure of negation and reproduces the ethical and political dangers that accompany such movement” (p. 9). For invention, then, Muckelbauer’s project attempts to “move beyond” Hegelian dialectic and I think such inventions would be good for delivery as well. So, it is not a question of switching to “green” technology or retrofitting current systems to work in ways that pollute less, recycling, or eschewing electronic hardware altogether. To get at real change, we need to move beyond solutions structured by binaries.

Indeed, there are rumblings that this project is already be underway. However, because the thinking about this is not dialectical, the style of engagement allows for an understanding of how the more traditional concerns of Porter or the Apostels are linked with readings of Burroughs’ manual for an electronic age. Put more simply, I argue that we can better follow the swirl of what Felix Guattari called the three ecologies: the natural, social, and mental. Technology spans all three, touching and affecting each in different ways. Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter (2010) outlines the political ecology that might inform a more robust digital delivery. Reading John Dewey and Jacques RanciĆ©re through a Latourian lens, Bennett outlines a potential alternative to our current political ecology as well as extending Latour’s call for a reassembling of the social. She writes
Theories of democracy that assume a world of active subjects and passive objects begin to appear as thin descriptions at a time when the interactions between human, viral, animal, and technological bodies are becoming more and more intense. If human culture is inextricably enmeshed with vibrant, nonhuman agencies, and if human intentionality can be agentic only if accompanied by a vast entourage of nonhumans, then it seems that the appropriate unit of analysis for democratic theory is neither the individual human nor an exclusively human collective, but the (ontologically heterogeneous) “public” coalescing around a problem” (108).
Transposing this to rhetorical delivery, we might then ask who are the “publics” coalescing around the problem of getting a message out, circulating it, and even transmuting it across media platforms. We may also ask who the nonhuman subjects are – as Porter does to a limited extent – but take it further: who else is linked to those nonhuman subjects in roles of maintenance, supply, or servitude whether willing or coerced? What do these publics do? Where do they get their fix? How do they shit and who is their shit good for? Such questions may not only broaden who we consider when delivering messages and ideas, but refigure the idea of delivery itself.

Bennett argues further that achieving this will likely require a changing of perspectives via transgressive assemblages, much like the example she cites from RanciĆ©re about the plebians interruption of the Roman Republic. In that example, there is an assemblage that is not so much oppositional “in the manner of the Scythian slaves” (p. 105) as parallel with their own speeches, imprecations, consulting of oracles, and representatives. In this way, “the plebs managed to repartition the regime of the sensible” (p. 106). Such a repartitioning is necessary for us as a public to see the alien mugwumps and alien objects who carry our messages and how delivery is distributed and open up space for a re-identification of alien allies. Burroughs may not be the most rhetorically or pedagogically effective manual to use at this point. But he has pointed the way.

Economist Juliet Schor (2010) has similarly argued for the establishment of a more decentered, autonomous, yet parallel set of economic markets that are now possible through social media sites like Ebay, Etsy, and Dawanda as well as through community links to farmers markets, craft goods, and local products. By switching, as much as possible, to local and craft markets linked electronically, she argues that we may reap a host of benefits in the form of downshifting, alternative transportation, and community involvement, all part of what she calls “the new plentitude.” Underneath the surface of her data, I think there are signs of rhetorical delivery in the materialist way I have suggested here. According to the American Craft Council in Minneapolis, whom I would like to thank for their generous research assistance, sites like Etsy have grown from $181 million in sales in 2009 to $314 million in 2010, has about 14 million members, and serves about 2.2 million U.S. citizens per month. But the materials sought out and used by individual craftspeople, from specialty hops and grains to wools and dyes, pigments, and heirloom seeds are the material. No longer aiming for a catchall variety of seed like Yellow Dent #5 corn, we now also aim for Black Aztec, Mandan Bride, and Country Gentleman varieties. It is not a rejection of capital, but a shift in the space of commodification. It is a material diversity which has an impact and yet avoids the paradox because its impact is different. These are repartitioned regimes of the sensible, telling new tales and offering new lessons.

From this vantage point, crafts become more than simply objects, processes, heuristics, or knowledge. Craft becomes spatialized with the potential to rework our material networks. Such action cannot come by negating the status quo, but must build upon it, non-dialectically. As Schor argues, true wealth is found in lots of time at parks, public gatherings, in working around 21 hours per week, and perhaps even taking in a pint at the local watering hole and reviewing it online later that day. So, we must accept how things are even as we admit faults beyond any individual. Craft, then, is not only an aesthetic object, form, or activity, but a political and social actant. It doesn’t replace art or posit heuristics, but is a dynamic and fluid category enmeshed with our material lives. As theorist, Peter Dormer, calls it, craft is “the workmanship of risk” (p. 150).

With contemporary rhetorical delivery, we need to confront our expanded means on 1) visual display, 2) embedded coding, and 3) material support of circulation, but we also need to remain open to happenstance. How might each of these engage risk in productive, perhaps even transgressive, ways? By looking at the material support of delivery and circulation, what kinds of risks, transgressive or not, are we willing to take? Who and what do we identify or want to identify as engaged in each of these? Who gets left out?

Both the workmanship of risk and attention to who is enmeshed in one’s delivery are increasingly important considerations as we think about and teach rhetoric. But, finally, any consideration of one canon from my perspective can’t be channeled solely to a single one. As we think about and teach delivery in new ways, we need to also cross our wires, so to speak, and admit that rhetoric as a whole is changing as both exigency and response.

Changes in how we approach delivery will affect how we approach style and arrangement. Ben McCorkle (2012) points out in Rhetorical Delivery as Technological Discourse how paragraphs spatialize the printed page but are grounded in earlier, oratorical markings of texts (pp. 115-16). Like Porter, he traces this into contemporary rhetoric with attention to design and the more visual features of print. But he also traces how delivery has crawled out quite a bit from its subordination in the belletristic tradition. McCorkle notes how Hugh Blair theorized the text as primary to the speech. As a result,
with so much attention placed upon how the stylistic effects played in the minds of the audience, the notion that handwritten texts imitated printed ones on a material level – what we might call a nascent or invisible form of delivery – was not given overt treatment. Rather, these rules got hidden, conflated with principles of style and arrangement, and were theorized as “natural” forms of persuasive writing (112).

So, we are caught in a swirl of objects, aliens, nightmarish creatures, and ghosts. Once ascribed to our inner workings and psyche, this menagerie is more and more externalized in very real and material ways, across distributed networked systems. But we might take some comfort in that if we can see with different eyes or read a different set of manuals on them. Rather than modernist eyes who see only orcs and ringwraiths and who long for the comforts of a quiet home, rather than the corporate/ Hollywood eyes of Monsters, Inc. who make a world of monsters that are just like people, we might look out with more child-like eyes and see Wild Things on a distant shore, knowing we can dance with them, be hailed by them as their king, but still return to find our dinner waiting.

Works Cited
AmericanCraft Council. The Craft Organization Development Association Review (2011): Craft Artists, Income and the U.S. Economy. American Craft Council: Minneapolis, MN. Print.

Apostel, Shawn and Apostel, Kristi. “Old World Successes andNew World Challenges: Reducing the Computer Waste Stream in the United States.” In Technological Ecologies and Sustainability, Eds. Danielle DeVoss, Heidi McKee, and Richard Selfe. Computers and Composition Digital Press, 2009. Web.

Beavan, Colin. NoImpact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process. Boston: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009. Print.

Bennett, Jane. VibrantMatter: A Political Ecology of Things. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010. Print.

Burroughs, William S. Naked Lunch. New York: Grove Press, 1959. Print.

Dormer, Peter. “Craft and the Turing Test for Practical Thinking.” In The Culture of Craft, Ed. Peter Dormer. Manchester, UK: Manchester UP, 1997. 137-157. Print.

Guattari, Felix. TheThree Ecologies. Trans. Ian Pindar and Paul Sutton. London: Continuum, 2000. Print.

McCorkle, Warren. RhetoricalDelivery as Technological Discourse. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2012. Print.

McLuhan, Marshall. “Notes on Burroughs.” In William S. Burroughs At the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989, Jennie Skerl and Robin Lydenberg, Eds. Carbondale, IL: SIUP, 1991. 69-74. Print.

Morton, Timothy. EcologyWithout Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics. Harvard; Harvard UP, 2007. Print.

Muckelbauer, John. TheFuture of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2008. Print.

Postman, Neil. “The Reformed English Curriculum.” In High School 1980: The Shape of the Future in American Secondary Education, Ed. A.C. Eurich. New York: Pittman, 1970. 160-168. Print.

Porter, James. “Recovering Delivery for Digital Rhetoric.Computers and Composition 26 (2009), 207-224. Web.

Schor, Juliet. Plenitude:The New Economics of True Wealth. New York: Penguin, 2010. Print.
Willett, John. “UGH…” In William S. Burroughs At the Front: Critical Reception, 1959-1989, Jennie Skerl and Robin Lydenberg, Eds. Carbondale, IL: SIUP, 1991. 41-44. Print.


Craft and/of Writing

Walt Whitman was perhaps better known in his day as a craftsman rather than as a poet. He worked as a bookbinder and typesetter. He self-published the first edition of Leaves of Grass and he was closely involved with the production of each subsequent edition, often setting type to revise his work, to utilize paper more efficiently during its shortage in the war, and in selecting material for the cover. Indeed, each edition of Leaves of Grass published during Whitman’s lifetime – nine in all – is different, reflecting not only the poet’s own changing sensibilities about his work, but setting that work within the changing contexts of a nascent democratic nation. The self-published volume of 1855 is crafted much like an atlas and within a green binding adorned with foliage on the title letters and spine. The civil war edition, published in 1860 is rife with spermatic imagery and bound in red and with “the heft and feel of a Bible.” Other editions speak to different concerns and I recommend Ed Folsom’s Whitman Making Books: Books Making Whitman (2005) for more on the specifics of Whitman’s craft. My point here is twofold: 1) the man who would become associated with the founding of a new specifically American poetic idiom worked as much as a craft laborer as a fine artist, and 2) the poetry written by Whitman is understood as much through this material craftsmanship as through the various texts themselves.
Now, more recently, the idea of craft has been an interest among those of us who teach writing in one or more various sites of the American academy. This concern, at least on composition’s side of things, gravitates around larger issues of disciplinary identity and questions concerning how we might present our identity outside our area, how we relate to others who we may be mistaken for, and how we ought to be configured within the overall scheme of knowledge making, production, and dissemination. For instance, Bob Johnson’s (2010) CCC article proposed an interdisciplinary heuristic based on a reconfigured notion of craft knowledge. His central point is that composition, or “writing studies,” should consider craft knowledge as a kind of techne that aids in the creation of new spaces “where various forms of knowledge are brought forward in a mutually respected manner for the purpose of creating new knowledge” (682). However, while Johnson attempts to craft something ultimately anti-foundational by arguing that “to classify is… dynamic” and that “taxonomic constructs can be described as an economy” (683), he arrives at a fairly static heuristic of products, processes, selves, and cultures.

More often, craft is mentioned with respect to the more narrow disciplinary questions between creative writing and composition. TimMayers (2005), Carey Smitherman and Amanda Girard (2010), M. Thomas Gammarino (2009), and Doug Hesse (2010) have all asked about this relationship and offered or mentioned “craft criticism” as a theoretical genre in creative writing equivalent to composition theories. In this literature, all of which draws on previous debates across the decades, “literature” is often the bad guy or at least the elitist snob with an overblown sense of herself. Ohmann made the distinction between those literary types who did the real intellectual work and writers who worked with their hands. Creative writers are at least aligned somewhat more with the ruling intelligentsia who are, after all, their patrons and literacy sponsors. Without a new school of poets or literary avant garde, what would the intelligentsia critique? Composition, as the story goes, is simply assigned to the basement, the English department’s dirty little secret and cash cow that funds those graduate courses on Henry Fielding’s Sado-Masochistic Disciplinarity.

But I am not convinced that craft is or even should be a conceptual fulcrum with which composition can leverage itself or its disciplinary status vis a vis literature, creative writing, or any other discipline. As Geoff Sirc recently opined (2012), “refiguring English studies means rethinking composition’s sniffy attitude toward literariness; it means our subfield’s reimagining literature as a cultural value and practice, refiguring how it fits in a first-year course centered around writing.” Simply put, literature matters. Granted, this is a rather quizzical position given the bemoaning about too many PhD’s and the increasing irrelevance of groups like MLA.


I have begun a new blog that takes up many of the same themes and issues, but in a different context. Check it out!



Landscape and Expression

After attending Juliet Schor's talk on the New Plentitude this Wednesday, I kept thinking about the differences between a place like Cedar Falls, where I live, and Winona, MN, where I still maintain several close friendships. Others have inquired about this as well, including one young woman, a current student at UNI, but from Marshall, MN, who expressed curiosity over the differences between what, on the surface, are largely similar small cities. Cedar Falls, Iowa; Marshall, Minnesota; Winona, Minnesota. All three have a relatively small, public university focused on providing a liberal arts education. None are major metropolitan areas, but are local centers near more regional hubs (Marshall is near Mankato, Cedar Falls adjacent to Waterloo, Winona near LaCrosse, WI). All three are midwestern cities with an economy tied to agriculture and local industry.

Yet, despite these similarities, my experience of these cities is one of great difference. Winona has a much more vibrant craft movement, anarchist collectives, three intentional communities, downsizing, alternative education, and much of what Schor cites as beneficial and sustainable. Cedar Falls, despite in a slightly larger urban area and with a slightly larger university, nonetheless is comparably more conservative in this regard, if "conservative" is the right word. There are some excellent things in Cedar Falls, but not the kind of informal networks that provide support for building an alternative economy Schor argues for. Moreover, things have not always been this way. My friend, Matthew, shows in the "Secret History of the Cedar Valley" that musically, Cedar Falls was once a stop on many punk touring circuits. People in both Winona and Cedar Falls describe regular commerce, travel, and interaction among "progressive" individuals from both cities in decades past, but a resulting decrease as many of these individuals left Cedar Falls. So, I wonder about this. What conditions allowed these things to develop and grow in Winona and the surrounding areas? What conditions might have inhibited their growth in Cedar Falls?

In talking with several folks about this in recent days, there are certainly some not-so-surprising variables:
  • students attending UNI are about 90% from Iowa, many from very small communities where alternative economies are largely unknown,
  • without an influx of out-of-state students, as in Iowa City and Ames, there is less exposure to new ideas,
  • Cedar Falls has less heavy industry than Winona, though John Deere is nearby in Waterloo. This maintains a higher land/ housing value and average income.
  • The population of Cedar Falls is more organized around churches than might be the case in Winona.
I agree with all these, but I also think the landscape itself is a significant factor. And I feel this way for two reasons: 1) the way the land is used as a geographic site is markedly different and 2) the way individuals feel themselves related to a community of land, people, buildings, and potentials is also quite distinct in each. The first reason, as it relates to self-expression is similar to Nedra Reynolds' findings in her research on student writers at Leeds. However, my second reason extends more into the terrain of "speculative realism," because it is concerned with how students "prehend" the khora or inventive potential of emplacement.

Taking first things first, Winona is situated on the Mississippi River and its historical legacy as well as its current identity is intimately tied to it. Travel along the river takes on a mythological dimension from Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, blues music, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and the like. Since its settlement by people of European ancestry in 1851, Winona has been a wayplace for transients, drifters, "river rats," and, according to some, even gangsters. This continues today with Winona being the fourth-largest port of call in Minnesota, a terminus for the DM&E railroad, home to Watkins, Inc., RTP, We-no-nah Canoe, Hal-Leonard Corp, and several electronics factories.

Cedar Falls, located on the Cedar River, sees only small watercraft passing along its watercourse, though it did accommodate some riverboats in the 19th century. Moreover, the access to water traffic is limited by two features: the small bluff along the south shoreline of the river where the main part of town is built and the bottomlands of North Cedar which separate this community from the town's center. With the construction of the Highway 218 interchange, the Cedar River is pinched between the higher southern shore and the built up ramparts supporting the interchange. This probably led to greater flooding in North Cedar during the 2008 floods. Still, the landscape is simply not able to accommodate river traffic in the same way as Winona.

Aside from the river, Winona's geographic location is part of the Driftless Area, a highly distinctive landscape of bluffs deeply cut by small rivers, creeks and other drainages. Such a landscape is not as conducive to large-scale factory farms as the young drift plains around Cedar Falls. Within the cities, Winona's development is marked by immigration patterns quite different from Cedar Falls. Notably, Winona has several, small neighborhood taverns interlaced with residential areas.By contrast, drinking establishments are more concentrated in the downtown, College Hill, and 18th Street areas in Cedar Falls. The cities are shaped, in some degree, by geography and history. The landscape presents some opportunities for its use as opposed to others. These, in turn, shape population flow, income, socioeconomic interactions, and the like.

This is all well and good, though it doesn't satisfactorily explain the differences to me. More accurately, the ways in which these explanations might be offered seem overly deterministic, failing to explain why there are several individuals in Cedar Falls, myself included, who seek and work toward alternate economic and social relations but who are regularly frustrated with the opportunities. My theory I work out here relies on speculative realism, a concern with ontology or "being" in a set of complex relations that exceeds the epistemological, or "ways of knowing." In short, my contention is that the way individuals relate to the landscapes -- the way landscape affects rather than the effects of landscape -- is what needs accounting.

In Winona, the bluffs offer an easily discernable place "outside" the hub of the city. One can see the densely wooded bluffs from any point within the city proper. In Cedar Falls, such wooded areas like Hartman Nature Preserve or Big Woods Lake are hidden due to a flattened topography. Horizon lines are quite different and, as such, offer a very different "sense of place," an affect of inhabiting a particular location. In Winona, as in mountain towns where I have lived, or large cities with skyscrapers, there is more of a sense that one can travel outside those horizon lines and see things differently. In Cedar Falls, moving outside those horizon lines simply brings one to more of the same. The horizon may have shifted, but what it encompasses is largely the same content.

Such an affective sense of place might also work more reflectively on a Cedar Falls subject since it feels true that, as the old saying about small towns goes, everyone can see your business. There are no hidden valleys, protrusions to hide behind, or geographic location with which to shield one's self from the business of the city. Such affective dimensions to thought appear secondarily in written and other forms of expression. Different perspectives, insights, or ways of being are difficult to come by in one's daily life if one sticks within "the grid" of a small city like Cedar Falls. They simply do not have the opportunity to arise in our consciousness as a result of our daily interactions with our environment.

From a speculative realist standpoint, inhabitants of such areas might "prehend" their place quite differently. That is, an individual's sense of place becomes one complex machine by which possibilities are grasped and with the ability to grasp some possibilities but not others (to have some possibilities readily "at hand"), a specific skein of thinking and expression is woven from the khora. This always generates new possibilities and the conditions may one day be ripe for Cedar Falls to have a network similar to Winona. So, the sense of place one gets from certain horizon lines is never determining, but nonetheless real in the way it is ultimately woven into the forms of expression and life chosen by individual dwellers.

Perhaps this means, for teachers on the plains, be they coastal or interior, we need to keep this in our minds as we formulate lesson plans and pedagogies. We might add new things for students to weave from and into. We might work to give them places to hide, peaks to scale, reference points in the distance that could help re-orient them within space and place, offering new possibilities for expressing and living.


Different Readings of Gorgias on (not) Being

Previously, I posted a rough sketch of my argument about Jim Gee's definition of literacy as "ways of being in the world." Below are a few more paragraphs that spell out the argument in more detail.

In short what I want to ask is “What does it mean to Be literate?” a question which entails a shift from epistemic questions to ontological ones. We might productively shift our attention to how we understand Gee’s statement about literacy as a way of Being in the world and inquire into how literacy shapes, influences, and perhaps even constitutes some part of our Being. This has been rather prohibited from the standpoint of social construction and cultural studies, which understand the world and Being (physis) as separate from any discursive representation or identity. Strong versions of social construction reduce everything to nomos, to matters of convention or law, denying that we can ever have access to physis itself. However, recent scholars in philosophy and rhetoric have begun theorizing Being and ontology in ways that admit the arbitrariness of the sign, to its function within social systems such as language and literacy. These discussions are not completely compatible nor are they yet fully worked out. One debate, between object-oriented ontologists (OOO) and process-relational theorists (PRT), occurs via weblogs of scholars advocating for their understanding of being. Because these are ongoing scholarly approaches to Being, I am not going to advocate for any one “correct” version of understanding Being or Being literate. However, I do want to outline some of these discussions and relate them to Gee’s description.

Such a project can explore an area described by Victor Vitanza (1991) as a Third Sophistic. For Vitanza, this is not a chronological movement stemming from an originary “first sophistic” of ancient Athenian rhetors and following the subsequent Roman “second sophistic” of the second century CE. Rather, a third sophistic, as Vitanza describes it “is not necessarily sequential” (emphasis in original), but inclusive of Gorgias, Nietzsche, Lyotard, de Man, Foucault and Lacan (117). A third sophistic counts to “many things” rather than simply one or two, a move that breaks up monist and binarist patterns of thinking. Such thinkers “theorize about the impossibility/Resistance of the Logos (reason, logic, law, argumentation, history) to Theory/Totalization, because of the Gorgian Kairos and the Lacanian Real — both of which enter the Logos and break up the cycle of the antitheses,” thereby breaking with the given patterns of difference and creating something new (117). Elsewhere, Vitanza argues that the history of rhetoric has been founded on negation or lack and a Third Sophistic can re-think the writing of rhetoric’s history with careful concern for the “negative essentializing” done within monistic or binaristic ways of thinking (1997, 12). While Vitanza critiques how logos has been used for such negative essentializing, he takes this one step further by pointing out this has often been done “to varying degrees in respect to physis and nomos” (12). Vitanza, then, offers clues as to how we might look at and understand Gee’s definition of literacy as something that encompasses more than just representation.

Gorgias and Classical Rhetoric on Being

Scott Cosigny argues a point similar to Vitanza, noting how “several scholars argue that Gorgias’ remarks on language, knowledge, and truth anticipate the views of such twentieth century thinkers as Heidegger, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Rorty, and Fish” (1-2). For Cosigny, Gorgias presents us with an antifoundational account, one which coherently posits reality as the effect of various language games. Cosigny argues that as a result, “the most fundamental element of discourse is the maneuver, or trope; and discourse as a whole is composed of various maneuvers that may be used in various games” (77, emphasis in original). This is in sharp contrast to Aristotle who “sees tropes such as metaphors and puns as ‘deviations’ from the proper function of language, that of naming essential features of the world itself” (77).

We can see similarity here not only to Vitanza, but to Gee’s descriptions of Discourse and semiotic domains. For Gee, Discourse and semiotic domains are always a social network of practices and ways of making meaning from within a specific situation rather than from an abstract, decontextualized one. Gee describes semiotic domain as “any set of practices that recruits one or more modalities (e.g., oral or written language, images, equations, symbols. Sounds, gestures, graphs, artifacts, etc.) to communicate distinctive types of meanings” (18). Like Gorgias, Gee downplays the specific content of the communication in favor of the maneuver involved, a maneuver that is not completely arbitrary but potentially given within the semiotic domain.

Just how these maneuvers work, though, is something not always clear given either Cosigny’s or Gee’s arguments. While Cosigny admits his reading “underwrites Vitanza’s assertion that Gorgias is the principal precourser to our own Third Sophistic” (210), his articulation and defense of how Gorgias viewed nomos appears at odds with Vitanza’s critique of negative essentializing. Much of this critique proceeds from disenabling qualities of negation, diaeresis, negative dialectic and the like. But rather than fight against or negate that which does the negating, Vitanza embarks upon a theory of “denegation,” or affirming the negative. For Vitanza, “It is not just a matter of doing away with physis, some universal notion of it, and accepting nomos, our differences, but of perpetually denegating both physisneg. and nomos” (15). Thus, even those things which will necessarily be excluded from logos and by virtue of the imperfections of language, are still present and affirming that present absence is not only a strategy common to members of a third sophistic, but required to address the problems inherent to the hierarchies and domination of monistic and binaristic thinking.

Cosigny, however, while admitting Gorgias does not hold the views of Plato’s Callicles “in which the ‘weak’ members of a community agree to adopt various conventions such as morality and law in order to prevent the ‘strong’ individuals from overpowering them,” nonetheless argues that Gorgias sees nomos as the exclusive realm of being and change (130). As Cosigny reads Gorgias, nomos shapes identity, though this does not mean Gorgias argues for the status quo. Rather, Gorgias “promotes the institution of the agon, an institution in which people advocate opposed viewpoints and which is therefore an institution of change that encourages people to challenge established beliefs” (131, emphasis in original). Moreover, Cosigny points out that the agon is not in need of any justification from Gorgias with regards to its ethics or political foundation since to do so would admit to foundationalism, a first principle, or a counting to one. Tellingly, Cosigny supports his argument by citing John Rawls’ concept of “reflective equilibrium,” which is seen as “an ongoing hermeneutic project” about what seems the most reasonable belief about the world. In other words, by theorizing the agon as a hermeneutic project of opposed viewpoints, Cosigny emphasizes nomos and leaves little room for physis.

Advanced Writing Theories

Not always theoretical... not even always academic.. but always written..