Towards a post-normative communication and media studies

Twitter has announced a call for research submissions that helps them “identify indicators of conversational health that are even more specific to Twitter and its impact.” I expressed my skepticism about this on Facebook and so I am writing up some notes here.

‘Conversations’ are one way to examine interactions on social media. We looked at conversations as the unit of analysis in our Turnbull paper due out in MIA I think in a few months (based on our ANZCA paper). A simple point to make is that the ‘public conversation’ is not the same thing as ‘conversations on Twitter’ or even ‘Twitter publics’. Sure, there are conversations that happen entirely on Twitter (say a Trump tweet and reaction and cross talk), but these are not very useful as the basis of assessing public conversations. How Twitter users produce openings on other spaces, so that the circulation of discourse is necessarily cross-platform. The philosophy behind Cortico’s general approach looks interesting, but Twitter and Cortico will need to partner with other platforms.

There are broadly two ways to map the circulation of discourse. The first is derived from Bourdieu and maps a ‘field’ based on the social interactions between actors and the analytical construction of what is valued in the field (doxa). I think this is inherently flawed because of the reliance on a notion of faith (as in good or bad faith). Bourdieu’s Manet lectures are clear on this. The second is derived from Foucault and maps the discursive regularities between statements and the analytical construction is regarding the conditions of possibility based on ‘authority’ and composition of power relations (dispositif). What Foucault broadly called ‘eventalization’ (only ever in interviews, so the method has to be reverse engineered across a range of works). Interestingly, network graphing techniques seem to be aligned with ‘eventalization’ until you realise that they mostly rely on the providence of digital objects and platform-based network relations between them. There have been few attempts to map networks of discourse in spite of the platforms as this multiplies the work exponentially.

Analysing discourse in terms of the ‘health’ of conversations assumes a normative dimension that I think smuggles in assumptions about the good faith of actors. There are two problems here. First, analytics are unlikely to indicate how a particular user is ‘blinkered’, and therefore has an extremely constrained degree of freedom (in the systems theory sense), what Guattari called a low co-efficient of transversality or Warner might talk about in terms of the character of reflexivity. They will instead show how such blinkered users belong to tribes, because of the discursive coherency and affective congruence of discourse. So what? Second, Twitter does not appear to want to operate upon the good or bad faith of actors, and therefore take obvious steps to reduce the weaponised use of the platform (such as reduced functionality for new accounts until thresholds of participation are passed, such as number of followers or interactions). Getting over the normative assumptions about the good faith of users is an important first step.

Myth of the Digital Native, Technologies of Convenience, and Scholarship

Do technologies of convenience shape activity?

I work with students to rethink the concept of the ‘filter bubble’ and locate it in a much broader context of how the subject position of user is created through affordances of technologies and services. At stake is whether or not there is a new kind of audience passivity, one that is necessarily co-constituted through user activity, rather than the older notions of a passive mass audience.

In Culture + Technology, Slack and Wise (2005: 33) suggest that to be a “fully functioning adult member of the culture”:

you are likely to have accepted as necessities various technologies and technological practices that are not biological, but are rather cultural necessities.

My current students are afflicted with the generational myth of the ‘digital native’. The character of the ‘digital native’ frames engagement with technology and the capabilities and affordances expected or assumed of an entire generation reconfigured as ‘users’. The idea that, like speakers in language, there are native and immigrant users of technology. Digital natives “surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age” (Prensky, 2001, p. 1). Bennet, Mason, and Karvin (2008) argue that the discourse around “digital natives .[..] rather than being empirically and theoretically informed, the debate can be likened to an academic form of a ‘moral panic.’” For Sadowski (2014) it is a rearticulation of technology discourses that boost ‘gadgets’ over people:

The larger issue is that, when we insist on generalizing people into a wide category based on birth year alone, we effectively erase the stark discrepancies between access and privilege, and between experience and preference. By glancing over these social differences, and just boosting new technologies instead, it becomes easy to prioritize gadgets over what actually benefits a diverse contingent of people.

The myth of the ‘digital native’ has been translated into an educational context with three assumptions (Kirschner and Merriënboer 2013). First, students really understood what they were doing; second, students were using technologies effectively and efficiently; and, third, it is good to design education where students can use digital technologies. What I notice with students is that they do not necessarily seek mastery over a given technology or set of skills or even competence with regards to the professional standards of proficiency, but ‘convenience’. This echoes findings from Kvavik (2005) that carried out a survey of 4374 students of the so-called ‘net generation’ to examine their relation to technology at university. Kvavik interrogated some of the assumptions that articulated a generational cohort with technological skill or capacity:

  • Do they ‘prefer technology’? Only moderate preference.
  • Is technology ‘increasingly important’? Most skilled students had mixed feelings.
  • Do they already possess ‘good IT skills in support of learning’? No, many skills had to be acquired. Skills acquired through requirements of curriculum.

Importantly, Kvavik found that ‘convenience’ was the most common unprompted open text response to good qualities of using technology at university. Relations of ‘convenience’ reintroduce new forms of passivity, where technology use is appreciated as ‘good’ if it is ‘convenient’. What happens in contexts where technology makes a given practice too convenient?

A Case for Practicing Inconvenient Scholarship?

Students are arguably disadvantaged by the technologies of scholarship that most academics and researchers take for granted, such as Google Scholar and the more general phenomena of digitized scholarship. ‘Research practice’ in the humanities and social sciences prior to web often began with a review of literature on a given topic or area of interest. This literature search was profoundly inconvenient, and shaped by limited access and a slow temporality when physical copies of texts were moved around from location of repository to the scholar. A similar moment in current ‘research practice’ in the humanities and social sciences is now characterised by digital searches of an excess of information and the immediacy of ‘answers’ to ‘questions’ just posed. The relative ‘openness’ of with regards to access to such scholarship is a boon, but only in those circumstances where the research questions are not developed in a digitally-enabled and networked context.

The challenge with contemporary research students in particular is the number of possible sources (infinite, literal rate of publishing in some areas is quicker than the maximum rate of engaged reading) and the duration of scholarship thus afforded for developing a critical appreciation. Undergraduate students face a greater challenge in that they will likely not engage with an area of scholarship long enough to develop an appreciation of the above problems.

Previous modes of scholarship would frame this as a problem of appreciating one’s disciplinary area. Come to terms with the main names in a field and you will know the field. This response relies on rearticulating normative hierarchies of scholarship that work to counteract the benefits of ‘open’ scholarship. What is the point of open scholarship if they same institutions have their work valorised over others? This reintroduces a different set of affordances that implicate users in a different (social) technology of convenience.

I think a better way to approach this initial period of scholarship in any given project is to approach the development of an appreciation of a given field as a process and the overarching relation between scholar and field in this process is one of discovery. We all become detectives investigating comparable research problems, rather than judges lording over privileged ways of doing scholarship.

Scraping Twitter using Outwit Hub

Students in my graduate unit Philosophies of Communication Technologies and Change (part of our Graduate Certificate in Social Media and Public Engagement) are producing simple lists of tweets.

Some students are using Outwit Hub to generate these lists as this is what I have used since 2012. I have created a guide “Scraping Twitter using Outwit Hub worksheet” for my students but others may also find it useful.

Scraping the results from a Twitter ‘advanced search’ allows you create an archive of tweets without the limitations of the API. It is only useful for relatively small sets that have less than 3,200 tweets per day as you can query Twitter for all tweets for a given hashtag per day.

The lists of tweets shall be used for the purpose of carrying out sophisticated analyses of the ‘circulation of discourse’:

Writing to a public helps to make a world, insofar as the object of address is brought into being partly by postulating and characterizing it. This performative ability depends, however, on that object’s being not entirely fictitious–not postulated merely, but recognized as a real path for the circulation of discourse. That path is then treated as a social entity. (Warner 2002: 64)

The character of this discourse will depend on the stakeholder publics they (or their organisations) wish to engage with and so on.


Economy of Culture

Boris Groys’ On the New would’ve productively informed my essay on the how the media event of True Detective could be understood as part of the revaluation of cultural values.  We are reading it as part of our aesthetics reading group. Groys wants to present an understanding of innovation and by ‘innovation’ he does not mean the Silicon Valley destructive innovation sense. Innovative theories or innovative art are not described and justified on the basis of signification to reality or truth but whether they are culturally valuable. He is drawing on Nietzsche’s conception of the revaluation of value. Page 12 of On the New:

The economy of culture is, accordingly, not a description of culture as a representation of certain extra-cultural economic constraints. Rather, it is an attempt to grasp the logic of cultural development itself as an economic logic of the revaluation of values.

I am enjoying Groys’ non-market ‘economic’ interpretation of Nietzschean truth.  He develops an economic  conception of Nietzsche’s non-moral version of value without turning to Marxist conceptions of value that would position cultural value as a consequence of the social relation between capital and labour power.

In my True Detective essay I develop a notion of ‘meta’ so as to grapple with the epistemological displacement that occurs in the midst of a revaluation of values. I call this a ‘liminal epistemology’, which has been commodified as ‘discovery’ in contemporary ‘apps’ that assist users access various kinds of cultural texts (music, written texts, phatic/social media texts, etc). The media event of True Detective (as compared to the televisual text) is interesting as it dramatises the ‘detective work’ of this liminal epistemology itself. From the introduction of my True Detective essay:

If nothing else, True Detective clearly triggers meta-detective work by the audience. The show, its inter-textual references, and non-diegetic exegetical explanations of these references produced new edges of surprise and a new sense of expectation. For example, there is a folding of the crime fiction genre into existentialist horror and a topological transformation wrought upon both. Both genres frame a passage of discovery by the characters and audience. “Discovery” has become a buzzword in user-centred design to describe the design of platforms that assist users discover appropriate content, and this refers to the way users willingly embrace the delegated agency of “smart” interfaces. The liminal epistemology of discovery in meta-stable media assemblages pose answers to questions that haven’t yet been asked. The question isn’t simply asked of the characters of the show, but of the entire event itself as it repeated different elements of genres in different ways; in effect, the audience carries out meta-detective work.

The reason why I am excited about Groys’ work is that he has already isolated a similar problematic with regards to the revaluation of values. His focus so far is not animated by the same concerns as I am, but there is a similar problematic. I make it very clear that what I found the most interesting about the True Detective media event is that it is part of a broader constellation of cultural texts that are all, in different ways, working through this revaluation of values. From the introduction of my essay:

In the final section I develop meta in terms of what Sianne Ngai (2012) calls a minor aesthetic category, and in this case what characterises meta as a minor aesthetic category is the way any text, object or event that dramatises the suspension of cultural values. In Simondon’s terms, meta is an aesthetic category that refers to works that in some way repotentialise values that serve as the “preindividual norms” of value in a state of meta-stability ready to be potentialised in a multiplicity of ways (Combes 2013: 64). As I shall explore in detail, True Detective dramatises a conflict between systems of belief and cultural value through the figures of the two main characters, Rust and Marty. In this way, “meta” signals a threshold of value (or what Nietzsche (1968) calls “transvaluation”) more often associated with nihilism.

I look forward to reading the rest of On the New.

Still Forgetting OOO

I am presenting a workshop on assemblages today primarily for the PhD students in one of our research centres. I have set two readings, one of which is Ian Buchanan’s chapter “The ‘Clutter’ Assemblage” (here is another version of the essay) in The Schizoanalysis of Art.

A brief passage in the essay reminded me of my Forget OOO post from almost 5 years ago encouraging graduate students to not get caught up in the internet hype of OOO. The 2006 post was triggered by Levi Bryant’s reading of ‘desiring machines’ in terms of OOO’s ‘objects’. Buchanan’s chapter addresses the use of schizoanalysis to understand how desire is productive in the context of artistic work. The passage extracted below explains better than I did why reading ‘desiring machines’ in terms of ‘objects’ as a move to some how escape from Kantianism is profoundly ill-advised. (Of course, there is another dimension to the below that Buchanan does not emphasise, which I indicate in my Forget OOO post pertaining to the ‘machinic’ or what I think is best described as the ‘milieu of singularities’):

Desiring-production is the process and means the psyche deploys in producing connections and links between thoughts, feelings, ideas, sensa- tions, memories and so on that we call desiring-machines (assemblages). It only becomes visible to us in and through the machines it forms. While both these terms were abandoned by Deleuze and Guattari in subsequent writing on schizoanalysis, the thinking behind them remains germane throughout. This is by no means straightforward because Deleuze and Guattari cast their discussion of desiring-production in language drawn from Marx, which has the effect of making it seem as though they are talking about the production of physical things, which simply is not and cannot be the case. The truth of this can be seen by asking the very simple question: if desire produces, then what does it produce?

The answer isn’t physical things. The correct answer is ‘objects’ – but ‘objects’ in the form of intuitions, to use Kant’s term for the mind’s initial attempts to grasp the world (both internal and external to the psyche). That is what desire produces, objects, not physical things. Kant, Deleuze and Guattari argue, was one of the first to conceive of desire as production, but he botched things by failing to recognize that the object produced by desire is fully real. Deleuze and Guattari reject the idea that superstitions, hallucinations and fantasies belong to the alternate realm of ‘psychic reality’ as Kant would have it (Deleuze and Guattari 1983: 25). The schizophrenic has no awareness that the reality they are experiencing is not reality itself. They may be aware that they do not share the same reality as everyone else, but they see this as a failing in others rather than a flaw in themselves. If they see their long dead mother in the room with them they do not question whether this is possible or not; they aren’t troubled by any such doubts. That is the essential difference between a delusion and a halluci- nation. What delusionals see is what is, quite literally. If this Kantian turn by Deleuze and Guattari seems surprising, it is never- theless confirmed by their critique of Lacan, who in their view makes essentially the same mistake as Kant in that he conceives desire as lacking a real object (for which fantasy acts as both compensation and substitute). Deleuze and Guattari describe Lacan’s work as ‘complex’, which seems to be their code word for useful but flawed (they say the same thing about Badiou). On the one hand, they credit him with discovering desiring-machines in the form of the objet petit a, but on the other hand they accuse him of smothering them under the weight of the Big O (Deleuze and Guattari 1983: 310). As Zizek is fond of saying, in the Lacanian universe fantasy supports reality. This is because reality, as Lacan conceives it, is fundamentally deficient; it perpetually lacks a real object. If desire is conceived this way, as a support for reality, then, they argue, ‘its very nature as a real entity depends upon an “essence of lack” that produces the fantasized object. Desire thus conceived of as production, though merely the production of fantasies, has been explained perfectly by psychoanalysis’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1983: 25). But that is not how desire works. If it was, it would mean that all desire does is produce imaginary doubles of reality, creating dreamed-of objects to complement real objects. This subordinates desire to the objects it supposedly lacks, or needs, thus reducing it to an essentially secondary role. This is precisely what Deleuze was arguing against when he said that the task of philosophy is to overturn Platonism. Nothing is changed by correlating desire with need as psychoanalysis tends to do. ‘Desire is not bolstered by needs, but rather the contrary; needs are derived from desire: they are counterproducts within the real that desire produces. Lack is a countereffect of desire; it is deposited, distributed, vacuolized within a real that is natural and social’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1983: 27).