Category Archives: Reading Notes

You Spin(uzzi) me Round, Round, Baby, right round …

The featured image reflects another way of “monitoring traffic.” Just as Spinuzzi’s research subjects were analysts who monitored, queried, reported, and took action regarding traffic  and various accidents on the Iowa state highways, a router “monitors traffic” on a network. It can be configured to record and report all traffic on the network, as well as what actions were taken by the router.  The router truly is a genre as well as a node, and performs the function of Spinuzzi’s ALAS system but with information packets on the interweb superhighways rather than vehicles on physical roads. In both cases, an analyst interpreter is needed to make meaning of the information denoted and collected.

 New Jersey public employees created user improvisations that led to “BridgeGate”. This “subversive interaction” threw Jersey traffic on the GWB into an irrevocable snare and several of these employees under the bus. How would Spinuzzi map this dynamism between nodes? How would “The Boss” sing about being stuck in the Gov. Chris Christie Fort Lee Traffic Jam? (Hint: “it’s killing the working man”). The scandal and the song remind us that discrete actions taken by individuals in an activity system have positivistic discourse with (and physical effects on) actors beyond the boundaries of the original system. The artists here, speak for the users of the bridge, who had already enacted their own modifications while navigating the traffic problems. Springsteen and Fallon don’t necessarily see themselves as “designer-as-hero” and those caught in the traffic jam and political machinations as “user-as-victim” but they do use the reach of their medium, broadcast television, and the currency of their fame to bring greater attention to the issue. Springsteen is connected to being a “voice of the people” in the Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie tradition, so his music is an expected and encoded genre for protest against organizational and political interests creating problems for the workers.

I’d like to comment on this course objective related to Spinuzzi:
#2: “Understand the value of visualizations for conceptualization processes.”

20-sided die

20-sided die resembling a 3-D representation of Spinuzzi’s Activity System

Spinuzzi is certainly a “visualizer”  with his D&D dice-looking diagram showing movement in various directions (His activity system diagram introduced on p. 37 and continued throughout, pp. 90-91 for example). He also uses many charts and screenshots and figures with different symbols (pp. 141-143) to denote different actions taken and be able to visualize the way that they are “lumping together” around certain frequencies. He has created interesting artifacts that make tangible the actions over time of the study participants and allow for comparisons between employees. I am blown away by the methodology that is developed here: developing a way to encode actions and “see” the activity system, which, as Spinuzzi notes, can be “investigated by triangulating the graphs with field notes, videotapes, and interviews” (140). This will allow for a reconstruction of a moment in time, a kind of detective work that  investigators use to solve crimes by piecing together testimony, surveillance footage, cell phone use, credit card transactions, etc. What Spinuzzi does in this work is not only apply several theoretical lenses to develop his own theory (a feat worthy of publication itself and an explanation for why his work became so quickly renown) but he also articulates a methodology for the kind of synthesis he advocates. He moves it from theory into practice, at both the methodological and methods level. While I use visualizations to help me explain things to myself and to my students, in reading Spinuzzi and looking at how he uses visualization not merely as another or different way to explain what has been articulated in language and can be read in the text, but as an integral and integrated sign system.

Spinuzzi’s work is a hybrid genre itself where “separate historical layers and perspectives meet and interact” (Hasu and Engeström, qtd. in Spinuzzi, p. 161). Spinuzzi is importing his study, a mixed-methods, experiential field study, into the genre of a printed scholarly book, and must “make it fit the logic and connotations of the genre with which it mingles” (p. 161). The visualizations help him to cross from one contextualized and historicized rhetorical situation into another, they help him to capture ephemera that would have been lost, and they help him bridge the theoretical models he is integrating.

Spinuzzi says,

“a design approach based on genre tracing would … be decentralized; would invite workers to be true codesigners rather than clients or informants; would break down official-unofficial distinction by providing workers with the means to develop, promulgate, reflect on, and collectively stabilize their own genres; and would encourage workers to develop stable communities and civic structures along with the genres used to support their activities” (pp. 222-223).

 I am struck by how these words, written a little more than a decade ago, now describe the process of Open Educational Resources or Open Online Publication. Wikipedia is one such collective of volunteers who find meaningful work in codesigning the site, and they have developed a stable genre and self-policing community while staying true to the original open and collaborative vision. It also describes Writing Commons, the free, peer-reviewed, open source composition textbook. What Spinuzzi does not say in his book, though, is that design approaches based on genre tracing are inherently disruptive to the Forms (especially in the Bakhtinian sense of being “congealed”) and systems already in place, ones that many powerful entities are heavily invested in maintaining. Hierarchical structures and presumed superiority over “worker bees” is an inherent part of the business structure in the United States, and even American society in general, as it is so based on capitalist, consumerist principles. Decentralized open-access,  open-content, open-designed systems are hard to turn into profitable business models, and they threaten those monetized models with their actual existence and their ideological underpinnings. A Corporate model is, by its nature, Structuralist and Formalist, rationalist, determinist, and centrally controlled (p. 7) with just enough agency for branch offices or workers to provide the illusion of autonomy. The US Business Consulting model is based on the idea of “designer/consultant-as-hero” and “worker/user-as victim.”  The business model IS one of efficiency, replication, and standardization, so analysis of productivity or design will always have to locate a “crux” or a “problem” — something to be able to implement that will “fix” or “optimize” the identified issue. If a consultant does not identify such a problem to be fixed, then s/he isn’t worth the cost of bringing them in. Furthermore, Spinuzzi challenges the outsider position of a designer vs. a user, reasoning that users’ will bring valuable co-creative methods and information to a collaborative model. Again, the business model values the outsider position, which calls for a consultant or designer. They “see with fresh eyes”, they are not “wearing the blinders” of the worker, who is seen as a “doer” not a thinker. A consultant/outside designer *must* be seen in the position of expert, or else they are not worth the money spent on them. Their value lies in this rhetorical positioning. Spinuzzi can point that out, but outside-intervention is a core business value not likely to change any time soon. I’d like to see Spinuzzi’s theories applied by someone who knows and understands the business culture. Perhaps Genre Tracing becomes the methodology of the new 21st century post-Spinuzzi consultant, who uses it to provide value to the organization in terms of seeing how users’ produce the work of the organization. I can see it being particularly valuable with governmental organizations, who are interested in how their public interacts with their official documents and genres, at least they are if they are trying to create public engagement with the civil discourse and political process.

Radar O'Reilly pic

Radar O’Reilly, as played by Gary Burghoff, attempting to understand how his paper pushing is a scholarly object of study.

That said, I leave with Radar O’Reilly and his astonished face. Every time Spinuzzi said Ottumwa, I couldn’t help but envision Radar. Grab a Grape Nehi and think about how genres, such as those omnipresent military forms always on Radar’s clipboard for Col. Blake or Col. Potter to sign is the courier and currency of the organization itself, embodying “traditions of producing, using, and interpreting artifacts” that “represent the development and stabilization of worldviews” (p. 41). Surely Radar’s forms would offer an interesting trace of the US involvement in Korea, demonstrating the “values, ethics, and other humanistic concerns” of that specific rhetorical situation (p. 41).


Works Cited

Fallon, J. (2014, January 14). Bruce Springsteen & Jimmy Fallon: “Gov. Christie Traffic Jam” (“Born To Run” Parody) – YouTube. Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. Retrieved from

Spinuzzi, C. (2003). Tracing genres through organizations: a sociocultural approach to information design. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Feature Image from:

Die image from:

Radar O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff) image from:

” Toward a Rhetorically Sensitive Assessment Model for New Media Composition” – Crystal Van Kooten Annotated Bibliography Entry

VanKooten, Crystal. “Toward a Rhetorically Sensitive Assessment Model for New Media Composition.” Digital Writing Assessment and Evaluation. Eds. Heidi A McKee and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss. Computers and Composition Digital Press, 2013. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.

Situating herself inside three established assessment models — Paul Allison (2009), Eve Bearne (2009), and Michael Neal (2011)– Van Kooten creates a new model meant to assess new media composition. This adaptable model takes into account both process and product, functional and rhetorical literacies, and requires student self-assessment and reflection . Van Kooten details the theory and framework for the model, then demonstrates — using student voices — the implementation and assessment of it.  The chapter functions as a true multi-modal text, replete with 7 short videos (with accompanying transcripts) to demonstrate the kinds of “multifaceted logic” and “layers of media” that are employed using a variety of rhetorical and technical features to accomplish a specific purpose for a particular audience.

Van Kooten narrates the difficulty in creating a new media assessment model and her journey toward the model she unveils here. She notes that the first attempts she made, along with her students who collaboratively created the rubric for their own work, were outgrowths of the print media rubrics, and that they quickly revealed their shortcomings, due to the affordances of various media that could be incorporated. For example, arguments are presented differently using sound and visuals, and what constitutes evidence and organization varies by media.  Michael Neal (2011) proposed that the proliferation of multi-modal texts has created what he calls a “kairotic juncture” — an opportunity for a new model, which Van Kooten responds to, however cautiously, noting that “there is currently no agreed-upon language or vocabulary for discussing new media texts” nor any stability in new media genres.  She hopes the model she proposes opens the conversation about new media assessment and the opportunity for further evolutions that remain grounded in “a solid theory of writing assessment itself.”

Van Kooten offers three criteria for assessment:

  1. fulfillment of purpose and direction to audience;
  2. the use of a multifaceted logic through consideration of layers of media; and
  3. the use of rhetorical and technical features for effect.
Crystal Van Kooten's model of New Media assessment of multi-modal compositions.

Van Kooten’s model for assessment of New Media Composition includes both functional and rhetorical literacies.

She also offers two worksheets to help students set both functional and rhetorical goals for their work, involving them in the assessment process and requiring metacognition and reflection — ways of assessing both process and product.

It is my opinion that Van Kooten has created a plausible model, grounded in both (print) writing assessment theory and multi-modal composition theory, that will become an oft-cited text as this conversation continues. This article is a useful source for a go-to model that can be adapted for classroom use.

As mentioned, there are seven accompanying videos that demonstrate new media compositions and turn the chapter itself into a multi-modal piece. Here is a metacognitive piece where one of Van Kooten’s students overdubs his piece with his own narration of the process. This itself is a viable product, as we have director’s cuts with commentary on the special editions of movies and TV episodes, where the audience is privileged to have a window into the mind of the director or actor.

(I am unable to upload and embed the video as it exceeds the maximum allowable file size for WordPress).



Implications Beyond Those Noted — Digital Writing Assessment

I enjoyed reading the Foreword, Preface and Afterword of the Digital Writing Assessment and Evaluation book. I was forced to read on screen, which I am getting better at, although I prefer paper and being able to us an actual pencil to annotate. These were not too “heady” texts, so I didn’t feel stylus withdrawal. The compulsion to mark up and the feeling of loss wasn’t so strong as it is when I try to read something more difficult, that requires more processing and connections.

As a Community College English faculty member, I feel compelled to enter this conversation, perhaps in some of the gaps identified by McKee and DeVoss in their foreword. Interestingly, they did not identify the dearth of scholarship about writing at the community college, let alone digital writing and digital assessment, as one of these gaps. I checked, and not one of the chapters in this volume deals with community colleges as its object of study, nor is it written by or in collaboration with a community college faculty member. This is a HUGE gap, given that nearly half of all undergraduates in the United States are enrolled at two-year schools, and because of their open-access nature, they are one of the biggest users of Automated Essay Scoring (AES). In addition, they are less likely to have a coordinated writing program, although they are under the same pressures from accrediting bodies as the four-year schools to demonstrate student learning of course and program outcomes.

I was especially struck by the lack of regard for the implications when I read the footnote on the Foreword:“1. Interestingly, a form of credit is an option available for $190 in Coursera’s (Duke’s MOOC provider) “Signature Track.” Yet, as Steve Krause (2013) astutely noted, because Duke itself will not recognize that credit but offers it to other institutions, “it seems a little shady to me that places like Duke are perfectly happy to offer their MOOC courses for credit at other institutions but not at Duke.

Where’s the “Duh” Hammer? Hello????? Duke, and other universities may well find themselves with students who earned their credit from a MOOC, despite their posturing that they do not accept it. Accepting (and OFFERING) credit for the Comp MOOC creates a slippery slope for Duke because of articulation agreements with colleges –such as community colleges — who may allow credit for the MOOC. Two-year schools are under increasing pressure to award credit for prior learning, in a rush by politicians to decrease the amount of time to a degree (a barrier, they note, to completion of a credential). Thus, the number of ways to be awarded credit for courses (CREDIT, mind you, not placement) increases. Examples include: CLEP, DANTES, IB, Cambridge, AP).  So, if you earn an associate’s degree from a two-year school who awarded you credit for a MOOC, then you are eligible for guaranteed transfer to some pretty elite institutions, including Duke.  As stipulated in the agreement:

Transfer students will be considered to have satisfied the UNC Minimum Course Requirements (MCR) in effect at the time of their graduation from high school if they have:

  1. received the associate in arts, the associate in science, the associate in fine arts, the baccalaureate or any higher degree, or
  2. completed the 44-hour general education core, or
  3. completed at least six (6) semester hours in degree-credit in each of the following subjects: English, mathematics, the natural sciences, and social/behavioral sciences, and (for students who graduate from high school in 2003-04 and beyond) a second language.

These four-year institutions not only would not go back to see how the credits comprising the degree were derived at the associate-degree granting institution, but it also appears to be prohibited by the articulation agreement. While no community college currently awards credit for a MOOC, the door has been opened by a 2013 Florida law, which allows MOOC credit in certain cases and requires K-12 and colleges to create rules and procedures to accept credit for these courses. Between the pressure to award more credit for Prior Learning, to the inroads MOOCs have made with politicians who see them as a cost-savings measure (though not so much with students who want to use them for college credit on the cheap), more discussion about this topic is sure to follow, and community colleges cannot be left out of these conversations.

Three quotes from Edward White in the Afterword that I would like to address:

“This pencil [meaning the computer] has gotten out of hand and has entered our bloodstream.”

“But what is not discussed is what I consider the elephant in the room, which from my perspective is distinctly oppressive: assessment by computer and by various instructional platforms. While we talk pleasantly about the brave new world of writing that computers have ushered in, a darker side of technology has been making important inroads into the very center of writing itself.”


“Students will write to machines, a natural enough move for generations brought up challenging machines on computer games, rather than writing for their peers or their teachers. Students will write to machines just as surely as they now write their SAT or AP essays to the armies of dulled readers” (Afterword)

Again, leaving community colleges out of this equation is at the peril of compositionists. Virginia’s Community Colleges, for example, have partnered with McCann and Associates, a division of Vantage Learning, to use their IntelliMetrics to develop the Virginia Placement Tests, which all students entering the college must take in Mathematics and English Reading and Writing. The results of this test determine whether you require placement in Developmental Coursework, or are “ready for college-level work.”  The writing test can be gamed by playing to structure. Repeat key terms, use a clear thesis and conclusion, use markers and transition words (first, next, then), and you’ll score well, regardless of substance. The program counts number of words per sentence and per paragraph, expected clauses and distance from punctuation, and looks for common errors entered into its database.  You might suspect that it doesn’t do well with ESL students or students for whom Standard Academic Discourse is an L2.  Furthermore, students have the choice between two prompts, which point to two kinds of essays: one more expository, the other more analytical. Some of my colleagues at Northern Virginia Community College analyzed some data from the tests, which was very difficult to obtain, as the company keeps results close to the vest — the student and instructors only see the resulting placement, not an actual score, let alone an explanation for how the score was derived. They found that students who self-selected the harder prompt tended to score lower on the essay portion, but substantially higher on the multiple-choice portion. However, since the two scores are combined for a placement (using an unknown algorithm), students with very high scores on the reading and sentence correction portion, who also challenged themselves with the more rhetorically difficult essay, were being placed in developmental English, while other students who took the easier prompt (which could be answered SOL-style) and performed poorly on the closed-response questions testing reading comprehension and textual analysis, could be placed into the credit courses. After uncovering this inherent testing bias at the Developmental Education Peer Group conference in Fall 2013, the VCCS requested that the prompts be changed, and has promised that they are “more aligned.” I have some grave concerns about outsourcing the scoring of essays to a for-profit company who refuses to share metrics or results with faculty.

As White notes, our students are already well-versed in writing to the SAT and AP readers, and using stringent rubrics to grade writing for in-common assessments across course sections invites further standardization. Students inherently understand the rhetorical nature of audience — they spend a great deal of time figuring out what the teacher wants to hear. If they are writing for a computer program for a grade, they will quickly figure out the triggers to obtain a good one, despite actually saying anything factual, accurate, or coherent. As I tell my students, you can check off everything on a rubric as being complete, but that does not determine if you have actually communicated to your audience. Writing is more than the sum of its parts, which, at this point, cannot be effectively measured by an emotionless algorithm that cannot decode symbolic representations.

Works Cited

Bernstein, Kenneth. “Warnings from the Trenches.” Academe. American Association of University Professors. January-February 2013. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.
Fain, Paul. “College Credit Without College.” Inside Higher Ed.  7 May 2012. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

Independent Comprehensive Articulation Agreement Between Signatory Institutions of the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities and the North Carolina Community College System.” Presidents of the Signatory Institutions of the North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities and the

State Board of the North Carolina Community College System.  2007, revised 2010. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.
Kolowich, Steve. “A University’s Offer of Credit for a MOOC Gets No Takers.” Chronicle of Higher Education. 8 July 2013. Web. 2 February 2014.
Lunsford, Andrea. “Foreword” Digital Writing Assessment and Evaluation. Ed. Heidi A McKee and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss. Computers and Composition Digital Press, 2013. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.
“Transfer Agreements with Independent Colleges.” Sandhills Community College. n.d. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.
“SAT Reasoning Test – Essay Scoring Guide.” CollegeBoard. n. p., 2012. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.

“‘Watered Down’ MOOC Bill Becomes Law In Florida” Inside Higher Ed. 1 July 2013. Web. 2 Feb. 2014.

White, Edward M. “Afterword: Not Just a Better Pencil.” Digital Writing Assessment and Evaluation. Ed. Heidi A McKee and Dànielle Nicole DeVoss. Computers and Composition Digital Press, 2013. Web. 3 Feb. 2014.
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Foucault part deux — a new thought

So, I started thinking about the definition of Discourse that Foucault is using, and it isn’t the same definition of discourse that many of us would use today. Foucault’s definition of Discourse, and way of looking at language is fundamentally the linguistic one, and he is responding to Chomsky and other structuralists. The linguistics definition from the OED  is closest :

Discourse: 8.Linguistics. A connected series of utterances by which meaning is communicated, esp. one forming a unit for analysis; spoken or written communication regarded as consisting of such utterances.

discourse analysis n. Linguistics a method of analysing the structure of texts or utterances longer than one sentence, taking into account both their linguistic content and their sociolinguistic context; analysis performed using this method.

discourse marker n.Linguistics a word or phrase whose function is to organize discourse into segments and situate a clause, sentence, etc., within a larger context.

So, it seems to me that he was putting forth ANOTHER theory about structure, that structure isn’t a static source of meaning, but a set of variables, units, and actionable items that can constantly be recombined to produce varying meanings, depending on context, and then returned to their individual units. Where Chomsky put the emphasis (if I’m remembering correctly) on phonemic units that combine to make sounds, then words, then clauses, sentences, paragraphs to create a cohesive and coherent system of language and meaning, Foucault seems to put the emphasis on a “statement” a unit where an action is taken.  Statements can be shorthand, like bits of programming, that are combined in a dynamic system, which is not coherent and comprehensive, but contains infinite (or nearly so) possibilities for illimitable meanings. It’s still about structure, but it’s structure in the sense of lack of structure, in the awareness of and comfortability with building the wheel anew every time, although with the knowledge of how wheels have been built before.

So I have a big box of Legos, and I can build many different things, even though I may have received instructions for a certain planned project. And when I’m finished, I take them apart again for recombination later. A new structure may contain the same component parts, but it can (and generally will) look different. Language isn’t a puzzle to solve (like a Rubik’s Cube, where there is a correct way to use it, a single cohesive solution). Language is a dynamic system of interrelated parts that signify by their placement in conversation ( a more comprehensive use of the word discourse) with each other. And “uttering” now has new and varied meanings.

Foucault’s definition of discourse really is a computer science definition, where a “program” is a series of “statements”, each of which carries out an action and together brings a result.  A statement is executable. A definition is a marker, a pointer, to something specific. What travels on the network then, are executables — statements that require something to be done — which are sent to nodes, specific and discernible and addressable actors who process the statement and take action. Thus, discourse, as a connected series of these statements, mitigates and creates action, which is what Bitzer said the purpose of discourse is to begin with. Foucault says that there is no authorial intent or raison d’etre, but who writes the programming? Both the statements, and how the statements are to be interpreted at the nodes? This process HAPPENS dynamically, based on exigencies, but it is predictable because of the series of it/then statements. Disruptions along the network are not tolerated; they are seen as aberrations. This seems to get back at Foucault’s other theories, about authority and discipline. You must do what the statement requires you to do. If you do not, you will be punished or assimilated or removed from the system.

Meanings are still constructed — indeed only are constructs. But unless the nodes are self-aware, all they are doing is following orders of authoritative programmers situated elsewhere and directing action through executable statements assembled for specific purposes. The USER of the statements may still be unaware, and even the WRITER of the statements may be unconscious of all meanings and intents that may result.

Humans are not logarithms, and may return the system to a pre-discursive state (chaos) by introducing or using another mode — an executable that is outside of the discourse. A disruptor — which is where innovation happens.

Ceci n’est pas un rhetorical situation

Here is a soundtrack for your reading of this blog post:

Bob Dylan sings about the human tendency to search for comfort, answers, stability, love, in an embodied and unified entity — a person, a lover — and announces that he cannot be that: “it ain’t me, babe, that you’re looking for.” Foucault would argue that not only is it not Bob, it’s not anyone, for that idea of document, something concrete, something embodied with a distinctive meaning, a representation that has a meaning or a role is one that doesn’t fully exist, or at least exist over time. It isn’t about the artist. It isn’t about the meaning s/he intended or the meaning you ascribe. In other words,

Magritte's Pipe

It’s not a pipe. It’s not even a picture of a pipe. It’s not an oeuvre. It’s not Henri Magritte. It’s not a representation of Henri Magritte’s mind. It doesn’t mean “pipe” or “painting” or “art” or “webpage.” It is a set of rules and protocols that we use to call it so. The rules create the event, which creates the thing, which creates the meaning. It’s a monument — a visible marker of a moment in time, a form and manifestation of a concept demarcated in the chaos by discourse.

“Behind the visible facade of the system [the systematic ordering created by language], one posits the rich uncertainty of disorder; and beneath the thin surface of discourse, the whole mass of a largely silent development (devenir): a ‘presystematic’ that is not of the order of the system; a ‘prediscursive’ that belongs to an essential silence. Discourse and system produce each other –” (76).

In this quote, Foucault seems to be saying that discourse does not equal a symbolic system to encapsulate and systematize thought, nor a representation of some purity of thought or original meaning or essence . Discourse, rather, is a set of rules that creates (or attempts to create) a sense of order from a state of “devenir”  or  the potentialities — the possibilities of becoming, of what something might develop into, become or mean. The WORD gives rise to the situation; the discourse creates, becomes, and perpetuates the system that evokes it. So, to Foucault, a “rhetorical situation” seems to happen because someone speaks and the language creates it.  Before, all the parts were there, but the situation is constituted (the parts gathered together) through the act of using language.

He continues this thread with: “Archaeology … does not treat discourse as document, as a sign of something else, as an element that ought to be transparent, but whose unfortunate opacity must often be pierced if one is to reach at last the depth of the essential in the place in which it is held in reserve; it is concerned with discourse in its own volume, as a monument. ” (138-139). This process of archaeology that Foucault narrates is not for the purpose of discovering the meaning behind or the truth within; a document does not signify something else. It is. It exists. It is a monument — a marker that something has happened, been created, left its mark.

And, “archaeology does not try to restore what has been thought, wished, aimed at, experienced, desired by mean in the very moment at which they expressed it in discourse; it does not set out to recapture that elusive nucleus in which the author and the oeuvre exchange identities; in which thought still remains nearest to onself, in the as yet unaltered form of the same, and in which language (langage) has not yet been deployed in the spatial successive dispersion of discourse” (139).  And “The authority of the creative subject, as the raison d’etre of an oeuvre and the principle of its unity, is quite alien to it [archaeology]” (139).  Alors, the premise that language bastardizes or corrupts otherwise pure thought or truth is bogus to Foucault, as is the idea of original intent and authorial purpose.  Rather, a text is  the result of a “network of causalities” (139) that bring it into being (and as quickly tear it apart).

It reminds me of my favorite passage from Jack Kerouac’s The Scripture of the Golden Eternity: ““Everything’s alright, form is emptiness and emptiness is form, and we’re here forever, in one form or another, which is empty. Everything’s alright, we’re not here, there, or anywhere. Everything’s alright, cats sleep.” 

Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge seems to be him narrating (often in dialogue with himself, as his own co-creative discursive partner) a process for reading the world. In it, he advocates deconstructing a situation, identifying its constituent variables, isolating them, and then manipulating them into various iterations, each time searching for new ways of seeing and knowing (sight and insight). The original and temporal unity is reconstituted again and again, into new temporary unities, not looking for an original truth or a primal Truth, but for variance and relationships among the constituent parts. He suggests a sort of iterative regression analysis being performed on various combinations of enunciative formations, which I see as delimited strings of meaning, much like an algorithm breaks text into strings or an image into pixels, and each further into a series of zeroes and ones which are then reassembled. This iterative exploration of potentialities and probabilities is  now infinitely more doable with Big Data and powerful computing. We have the capability to break something into smaller and smaller components, and to combine every more variables, and to manipulate in more ways. Our ability to see is technologically enhanced — no longer is this discourse between human and language, but with the mitigation by and enhancement from technology. We see with cyborgian eyes.

Foucault’s notions relate to my Object of Study because live-action role-playing exists in this sort of realm of delimited concepts and enunciative formations. A gamemaster sets up a situation and characters are created. Meaning is derived through the play and interplay in the game. Meaning is constituted temporally and contingently, depending on the discursive practices (and all the relationships, constructs, prior knowledge, etc.) of the characters. It is constructed relationally, not individually. And then it is over, and if one looks to the documents left behind (character sheets, rules, scenarios) one can never recreate or even understand the discourse that was the game. It is a true “you had to be there” situation.  An outcome is an outcome, and that is not to be judged as “good” or “bad” or “real” or “unreal.” It is what it is. It is a set of contingencies enacted.

I leave you with an excerpt form Act 2, Scene 2 of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Hamlet gets Foucault. Foucault gets Hamlet. The two share an idea, but have given it new form:

HAMLET: Denmark’s a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ: Then is the world one.

HAMLET: A goodly one; in which there are many confines,
wards and dungeons, Denmark being one o’ the worst.

ROSENCRANTZ: We think not so, my lord.

HAMLET: Why, then, ’tis none to you; for there is nothing
either good or bad, but thinking makes it so: to me
it is a prison.

ROSENCRANTZ: Why then, your ambition makes it one; ’tis too
narrow for your mind.

HAMLET: O God, I could be bounded in a nut shell and count
myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I
have bad dreams.

GUILDENSTERN: Which dreams indeed are ambition, for the very
substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.

HAMLET: A dream itself is but a shadow.

ROSENCRANTZ: Truly, and I hold ambition of so airy and light a
quality that it is but a shadow’s shadow.

HAMLET: Then are our beggars bodies, and our monarchs and
outstretched heroes the beggars’ shadows. Shall we
to the court? for, by my fay, I cannot reason.

And neither, any more, can I.*

*Though there is a whole other entry on savoir and connaitre that I must write. Those words must attempt to form from chaos on another day.


Dylan, Bob and the Hawks. “It Ain’t Me Babe.” Live at the Hollywood Bowl. 1965. Video. Posted by colonslappy, YouTube User. 27 January 2014.

Foucault, Michel, Alan Sheridan, and Michel Foucault. The Archaeology of Knowledge ; and the Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982. Print.
Kerouac, Jack. The Scripture of the Golden Eternity: Pocket Poets Number 51. Vol. 51. City Lights Books, 1960. Google Scholar. Web. 28 Jan. 2014.

Magritte, Henri. “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” 1948. Web. 27 January 2014.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. Web. 27 January 2014.

Intersum ergo sum — What the Foucault?

Foucault meme -- all your base are belong to us referenceFoucault meme demonstrates the concept that all texts are nodes in a network.

I love me some Foucault. But he’s like a fine French truffle, rich with complex flavors. You have to take small bites and savour. Unfortunately, we are on the American “turn the table” restaurant mentality, rather than the French “it’s yours for the evening” way of dining. I’ve eaten my way through the first part of Archaeology of Knowledge, but I’ve got the post-American Buffet bloat and indigestion from eating too much too fast. Still, I’m going to try to interrogate the “dubious unities” and put together some discursive formations that make meaning. You’ll only be able to discern the meaning by reading my blog in conversation with other students’ blogs, though. If you’re trying to determine “the intention of [this] author, the form of [my] mind, the rigour of [my] thought, the themes that obsess [me] or the project that traverses [my] existence and gives it meaning” (28-29), you’ll have to look elsewhere, for Foucault and I do not broke any of that humanist, psychological nonsense that relies on presuppositions of origin, unity, tradition, text, or oeuvre. What appears here, in this entry, is the product of choices I made, governed by the rules given for this blog assignment, which caused these statements to be made, and not others (27). What is unsaid here is as important as what is said; I am only able to make this particular discursive irruption at this moment in time, given what knowledge I currently have, the constraints of my time, vocabulary, and capacity for understanding, and in the context of the other discursive irruptions that influence my thought and language choices — most recently, those of Bitzer, Vatz, and Biesecker, who each examined the cause and purpose of discourse.

As I was reading the first couple of chapters, I was struck by multiple places where Foucault seems to predict Big Data and algorithmic decision-making facilitated now by our online mouse-droppings and consumption of cookies. Foucault says that “controlled decisions” can constitute “discursive groups that are not arbitrary, and yet remain invisible” (29). Certainly controlled decisions that define conditions are what creates membership in affinity groups, visible online via social networks, but what is invisible is what is economically valuable. The ability to dynamically create discursive groups that are logically and logarithmically constituted based on the interplay of online choices — that potential to subdivide and reintegrate people into groups and analyze them to make predictions about them, about what they will do or say or not do or say — is the basis of Google’s and Facebook’s stock price.

These discursive groups remain invisible, but they are called into being via a query made by someone with a rhetorical purpose.

The situation is created, the entity is constituted into a unity temporally and temporarily via a system of rules and conditions which remain completely invisible — and un-thought-of — by most people interacting with the system. These rules or protocols, such as Google’s algorithms, must be scrutinized, Foucault says, to determine their legitimacy, and never accepted as self-evident (25-26). Much of the worldwide web functions in this semblance of a unity; many web pages do not exist beyond the time that they are served up in response to a query from a user. The page utters its discursive forms, but we do not often question, “how is it that one particular statement appeared rather than another?” (27). How does Google decide which results are at the top, or which word to offer as a translation? And do we stop to consider what is not said, and whether the meaning we seek is in what we did not see, hear, or read, or were even given the opportunity to see, hear, or read?

This same question of how one thing was said instead of another has a huge connection to my object of study and intended research. My friend and I call it the George R.R. Martin question: in a world of fantasy, where one can imagine anything at all, why does one continue to imagine institutionalized and fetishized objectification of and violence against women? Foucault’s “description of the events of discourse” rather than a language analysis can get at the decisions that are made and to look at the connections and situatedness of the discourse to determine how it became so. In my object of study, Live-Action Role Playing Games (LARPs), there are many examples of the George R.R. Martin question, where imaginative games continue to reinforce gender stereotypes, heteronormativity, patriarchal constructs, and other constructs brought into the game world by the designers, players, or both. Foucault states that a language (langue) is “a system for possible statements, a finte body of rules that authorizes an infinite number of performances” (27). Unlike a computer game or a table-top game where choices are forced by the spaces on the game board or the software, in a LARP game mechanics and a character are only a set of protocols. The game itself is a discursive irruption and the live, autonomous players can perform an infinite number of copies or instances using the same protocols and rules and, each will be different and distinct, and unable to be replicated. Foucault’s concept of “points of diffraction of discourse” (65) also seems to bear fruit in looking at a LARP, since it deals with simultaneities of enunciation and “points of equivalence.” A LARP’s mechanics attempt to regulate and mitigate such incompatibilities and potential conflicts which exist within this particular “discursive constellation”, which Foucault recognizes is in conversation withe other discourses. Analyzing the system that surrounds a LARP and what is in place to allow or disallow such reconstituted representations seems to be fruitful.

Foucault is talking about doctors in chapter 4, but this description of how they are situated as subjects in their institution could very well describe the position of a player in a LARP. A player is “also defined by the situation that it is possible for him to occupy in relation to the various domains or groups of objects [other player-characters, non-playing characters, props,  the physical space, his own body within the space]: according to a certain grid of explicit or implicit interrogations [his character sheet, character goals, abilities, status], he is the questioning subject [seeking information] and, according to a certain programme of information, he is a listening subject [in conversation with other information-seekers]; according to a table of characteristics [physical and character abilities] he is the seeing subject, and, … the observing subject; … he uses instrumental intermediaries [questions, actions, gestures, objects, character traits and abilities] to modify the scale of the information” (52). A gamer does this to interact with others, learn the exigence of the scene, further his own in-game (and perhaps, out-of-game) goals, and in order to experience pleasure. His boundaries are circumscribed some by the system (the game protocols), the materiality/physicality (his own and the physical space) and the constraints given him by the Game Master (GM) or the exigence of the scene, or the actions of others. This unfolds dynamically, discursively and ultimately narratively between and among the interactions of the other subjects, who occupy this same theoretical and discursive space, and who, collectively or individually, can derail this game by making choices about what is said and done that are possible, but not necessarily probable, given the situation. When an unexpected discursive act occurs, it is no longer the same game, the unity is broken, and a new unity must be co-created, instantaneously.

My favorite Foucault quote though is that a book is merely a “node within a network” (23), perhaps because it is short, but also perhaps because it brings to mind that a text is only an instance of an idea. It takes me back to my librarian days, when we were discussing the shift from one type of cataloging system (AACR) to the new one, adopted in 2010, Resource Description and Analysis (RDA). It completely upends how a library describes objects in its collection, and is made for the digital age. Items are now clustered under the work, which can appear in a variety of formats. For example, the entry would be Hamlet, by William Shakespeare, and clustered under it would be all the instances that refer to that intellectual work. It could be a print copy of the play, or a DVD, or another DVD of another performance, or an online resource, or a prose translation, a children’s story, a YouTube video, a parody, etc. ALL are instances or expressions or nodes that are part of  the network that is Hamlet. Format doesn’t mean it’s a different thing, only part of a greater whole that all, individually and together, constitute the meaning itself. The relationship and interplay between all nodes/formats can now be visualized with RDA, whereas with AACR, we could only see “a population of dispersed events” (22). Now, these nodes can talk to each other, and those wishing to enter the discourse have a modality that enables them to join.

 Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge ; and the Discourse on Language. New York: Pantheon Books, 1982. Print.
Herman, Alison. “The ‘Game of Thrones’ Universe Is Violent and Sexist — And That’s Not a Bad Thing.” Flavorwire. Web. 21 Jan. 2014.
“Resource Description & Access.” Joint Steering Committee for  Development of RDA. Web. 21 Jan. 2014.