Technology and Culture

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Possible Preliminary Exam Questions

Today I've been poring over pages and pages of past preliminary exam questions and devising my own to send to my committee for consideration. Most of the questions are derived from the old exams, slightly tweaked to accommodate my interests. I wrote a few of them myself. Any suggestions? [Edited to add links to the reading lists: rhetorical theory and tech comm theory and research. Gender and CMC list is coming.]


Rhetorical Theory

  1. Consider Cicero's De Oratore as a response to Plato's critique in the Gorgias.
  2. What does Cicero mean by “eloquence”? Does the concept have implications for the understanding and teaching of rhetoric today?
  3. Select two canonical works by classical male theorists, e.g. Gorgias's “Encomium of Helen,” Plato's Gorgias or Phaedrus, Aristotle's Rhetoric, Cicero's De Oratore, and indicate how you would teach them from a feminist perspective. In each case, indicate why you are doing what you do.
  4. Select two canonical works by modern theorists, e.g. Burke's Rhetoric of Motives, Habermas' “What Is Universal Pragmatics?”, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca's The New Rhetoric, Bakhtin's “The Problem of Speech Genres,” and indicate how you would teach them from a feminist perspective. In each case, indicate why you are doing what you do.
  5. Burke directly addresses technology as a social commentator, a philosopher, and a rhetorical theorist. Discuss his approach to technology in each of these roles and comment on its importance to rhetoric as practiced by bloggers.
  6. What theoretical concepts within the rhetorical tradition are most important to the creation of an adequate rhetorical theory of blogging practices? What, if any, traditional concepts does this new technology render obsolete? (More detailed treatment of fewer concepts is preferred to less detail and more concepts.)
  7. Assume that nothing of the Aristotelian corpus survived except the Rhetoric and that we knew nothing of Aristotle's political views. Agree or disagree with this statement: “It is difficult to imagine a theory of rhetoric less congruent with modern feminism(s) than that set forth in the Rhetoric.” Defend your view by making specific reference to Aristotle's text.

Random Musings

I had a strange dream the other night, which I describe at Jenny's since she posted about a dream too.

Started knitting a hat last night for a friend. It's dark blue merino chunky wool yarn, in seed stitch. I can't send it to him until September, but I think he'll like it when he gets it. I put a little piece of the yarn in my most recent letter to him.

I wonder how much money it's costing the University of Minnesota to run UThink on Movable Type. With UThink, every student at the university is able to have as many blogs as he or she likes--one for each class he or she is taking, and a few personal ones too. There are nearly 50,000 students on the Twin Cities campus, and I wasn't able to find an exact number for the faculty. That's a lot of blogs...

Update: I meant to say in this post that I can't wait for Ginmar to get back home. I want to have a big party for her. Well, at least a "let's see how big a party I can have in a 464-square-foot studio" party. :)

Alienating Potential Allies

I'll admit, I was at first taken aback by Mike's implicit characterization of my opinions on open source and free culture as mere duckspeak, but then I saw Cindy's comment. The last thing I wanted to do was alienate anyone, to bifurcate the issue, or to attack anyone's credibility, but obviously I have contributed to doing all three, and for that I apologize. Mike is pointing out these rhetorical problems because he cares about open source, just as Charlie and I and many others do. So I'll try this again: my opinion, offered sincerely. I realize that I agree with a certain contingent of people, but these are my thoughts too.



Yes, I think that generally, people should use open source software and should allow derivative works of their content if possible, but not because someone's a poseur if he or she doesn't do those things, or that it's an all-or-nothing matter. Of course, there are circumstances under which other choices are more practical. I support open source software and open content because they help to free information--code and content, which I see as overlapping, as I've said elsewhere--and allow everyone (who has the hardware, that is) the opportunity to participate in building upon that information. It enables people who couldn't afford the software otherwise to use it. I know it sounds florid, but I support open content and open source because it's a beautiful, altruistic collaborative vision, a gift economy, people's helping each other by improving the software and content because they can, and want to. I genuinely believe that open content/open source can have a positive effect on knowledge-making on a global scale. [Update: Open source software and open content aren't the things that will be the undoing of global capitalism and make it so that we can live on love and tater pie in a glorious utopia; I don't mean to come across as that enthusiastic. Open source/open content can't, for example, solve the environmental and public health crisis in some developing countries that has been the result of discarded computer hardware.] I'd still argue that this goal is best attained by engaging all three layers of the internet:

The primary strategies for building the core common infrastructure are:

  • An open physical layer should be built through the introduction of open wireless networks, or a spectrum commons.
  • An open logical layer should be facilitated through a systematic policy preference for open over close protocols and standards, and support for free software platforms that no person or firm can unilaterally control. More important are the reversal or refusal to adopt coercive measures that prefer proprietary to open systems. These include patents on software platforms, and the emerging cluster of paracopyright mechanisms like the United States’ Digital Millennium Copyright Act2 , intended to preserve the industrial business models of Hollywood and the recording industries by closing the logical layer of the Internet.
  • An open content layer. Not all content must be open, but intellectual property rights have gone wildly out of control in the past decade, expanding in scope and force like never before. There is a pressing need to roll back some of the rules that are intended to support the twentieth century business models. These laws were passed in response to heavy lobbying by incumbents, and ignored the enormous potential for non market production and decentralized individual production to become central, rather than peripheral, components of our information environment.

    See also Frank Field's notes on the stakes in this debate.

    Defining "Copyfighter"

    I've been thinking more about the copyfight/weblog software debate after seeing the subsequent posts from Charlie, Jeff, and Krista. Krista in particular, although she may not realize it, has really prodded me to think about my thoroughly unexamined use of the term "copyfighter." She definitely thinks it's important to contribute to the commons, as evidenced by the fact that she doesn't do "All Rights Reserved" on her weblog, but she doesn't self-identify as a copyfighter. What is a copyfighter, exactly?

    I define it rather broadly: To me, a copyfighter is someone who engages in conversations on authorship and intellectual property, even if the approach is oblique, as I'd consider Mike's to be. Moreover, copyfighters look at our current copyright model--automatic copyright, life + 70 years as soon as the content is put into a fixed medium--and express some kind of qualm about it; they think it should change in some way. To be more specific, I don't think one necessarily has to want to do away with copyright, advocate copyleft, or even support Creative Commons to be a copyfighter. I'd consider someone a copyfighter who thinks we should go back to the Founder's Copyright or, as Lessig has said in The Future of Ideas, the copyright laws we had in the Nixon administration.

    I hope this clarifies my prior post. To clarify further, I didn't mean to misrepresent Krista's research in any way, and I'm glad she set me straight on her views. Finally, I don't mean to come across as an open source zealot here. I do think the software overlaps with knowledge-making and content, and I find Benkler's and Lessig's arguments to that effect persuasive, but I'll be the first to point out that I use Windows 98 and will soon be using OS X, both proprietary. In fact, most of the software applications I use are proprietary and, truth be told, I would probably still be using Blogger if it weren't for Charlie, who installed Drupal for me and has given me a lot of tech support.

    Taking Copyfighters to Task

    Charlie is pointing out that there are many copyfighters who aren't using open source software for their weblogs. His point is well-taken; it makes me think of Yochai Benkler's contention that if the internet is really going to be free, it needs to be free at the physical layer, the logical layer, and the content layer. I noticed that there are more copyfighters who don't (yet) use open source software:

    Rad Geek and Mike are still with MT too, but I think they'll be switching soon.

    I am certainly not trying to pick on anyone here, and I know Charlie isn't either, but this is a kairotic moment for conversations about proprietary and open source software. To paraphrase Matt Barton's hyperbolic words playfully, let's remove our lips from the poisoned suckbottle of proprietary software and switch to the wholesome breast of open source. :)

    Update: See subsequent posts here and here.

    Moving to the Public: Weblogs in the Writing Classroom

    Charlie has posted the paper he and Terra Williams co-authored, "Moving to the Public: Weblogs in the Writing Classroom." In it, they offer a useful and long overdue critique of Blackboard and WebCT:

    Blackboard and WebCT, with their emphasis on content delivery and teacher administration functions, are classroom-only gated communities. Institution-maintained course management sites may have WWW addresses and contain links to other Internet sites, but as they move through the password-protected virtual hallways, students easily realize such online class spaces are not the information superhighway. Instead, they are only one way streets that pull content without contributing to the larger discourse which is the Web. Within password-protected classroom spaces, these student writers are safely sequestered from the discourse community of the Internet.

    They argue persuasively that students engage with their peers more in weblog writing and that they take writing for their peers an audience beyond the classroom more seriously than writing only for the instructor.

    Interview with Lisa Nakamura

    Via Art McGee, an interview with Lisa Nakamura on race and cyberspace.

    "Push-Button Publishing for the People": The Blogosphere and the Public Sphere

    The following is a conference-paper-length essay I wrote for my rhetorical theory class with the intention to build upon the work of Trish Roberts-Miller and Andrew Ó Baoill, who have done excellent analyses of Habermas and blogging. Note: I wrote the essay for a non-techie audience and didn't assume prior knowledge of weblogs.

    Edited to add links to Roberts-Miller's essay, Parody Blogging and the Call of the Real, and Ó Baoill's essay, Weblogs and the Public Sphere.

    -----------------------------------------------

    Conditions for Habermas' notion of the public sphere include the gathering of unsupervised private individuals to discuss matters of public interest in order to reach a rational-critical consensus of what is in the best interest of the public or, rather, what constitutes public opinion, which Habermas defines as “the tasks of criticism and control which a public body of citizens informally—and, in periodic elections, formally as well—practices vis-a-vis the ruling structure in the form of a state” (1989, p. 136). Any issue may be discussed, but Habermas does not include issues dealing with the family or the economy in the category of public. The public sphere takes as a given the existence of a reasoning public who can engage in rational-critical discourse in service of the goal of a democratic political structure. Under advanced capitalism, Habermas argues that the public sphere as a concept has been compromised by, first, the proliferation of advertisements in the news media and the accompanying slant toward commercial interests in the news content, and second, the rise of the social welfare state, in which private interests merge with state control (1989, p. 139-142). With the rise of the internet has come a tendency to analogize conversations that take place on the Web to the public sphere, and in recent years, weblogs in particular have been been regarded as a site for possible creation of a renewed sense of the public sphere. In this essay, I analyze the ways in which weblogs do and do not meet the criteria of the public sphere, but first, I shall define weblogs and explain what discussion on weblogs looks like.

    In 1997, Jorn Barger started using the term weblog to refer to his online journal, Robot Wisdom, and other maintainers of sites similar to his followed suit. Weblogs, also called blogs, are frequently updated Web sites on which writers post links to and commentary on articles, other Web sites, and other weblogs. Many weblog writers, called bloggers, link to op-ed pieces on major news sites and write responses to the arguments, sometimes detailed, point-by-point rebuttals. This practice is called “fisking,” after journalist Robert Fisk, whose columns have often been the object of such critiques. Weblogs can be devoted to only one topic, or they can reflect what the blogger is interested in at any given time. They can have one author, or they can be community weblogs with several contributors.

    One of the distinguishing features of a weblog is that all posts are time-stamped with the most recent post at the top, making their structure not that of one single coherent, logical argument, but a reverse chronological series of posts, each of which may or may not be a thorough argument. Bloggers write about their jobs, ideas, political views, research interests, childhood memories, and dreams. They post reviews of movies they’ve seen, books they’ve read, and albums they’ve heard. They read other weblogs and freely copy and paste others' content onto their own weblogs, usually with a link back to the original post, often responding and building upon the original post. Often, a blogger will write an essay, post it to his or her weblog, and solicit feedback. Readers post comments underneath the essay (or link to the essay and write response pieces on their own weblogs), and the blogger who wrote the essay may revise it, or simply let the comment discussion stand on its own as a conclusion to the essay. Most weblogs have on the right or left side of the screen a list of links to other weblogs they read regularly; these are called blogrolls, after the political term “logrolling.”

    Avid readers of Habermas will have already noted that there are significant problems with weblogs' being associated with the public sphere. First, there is the problem of access; second, the problem of rational-critical consensus; third, ideology and special-interest groups. I will deal with each of these in turn.

    In the public sphere, Habermas claims, “[a]ccess is guaranteed to all citizens” (1989, p. 136). Foss, Foss, and Trapp (2002) explain that for Habermas, access is guaranteed “by virtue of the abstract right of humanness” (p. 239). This claim has been criticized as being utopian, but, as McCarthy (1984) points out, Habermas' public sphere is an ideal, and is only meant to be an ideal; in practice, discussions among citizens on matters of public interest are almost always, if not always, exclusive to some degree. Even if there is no explicit basis for exclusion (e.g. women only), not everyone has unfettered access to the discussion. Such is the case with weblogs. In 1999, at least two free-of-charge blogging tools were released: Pitas and Blogger, whose slogan is “push-button publishing for the people.” These tools, which are easy to use for those who know how to send and receive email and navigate Web pages, enabled millions of users to create their own weblogs, but, as Andrew Ó Baoill (2004) has pointed out, several barriers to access exist, including the technological literacy required, the access to computers and the internet, and, perhaps most important, the leisure time. It could be argued that one wouldn't have to own a computer with an internet connection in order to keep a weblog; anyone with a public library card can potentially maintain one. However, participating in a conversation with other bloggers, especially a conversation centered on current political issues, requires a significant time commitment. Bloggers must read many news stories and op-ed pieces, read the other weblogs they usually read and perhaps some they do not usually read, comment on the other bloggers' posts, and write their own responses on their weblogs.

    Even if everyone could keep weblogs, not everyone would have an opportunity to be heard, which becomes problematic if one attempts to compare discussions on weblogs to argumentation resulting in rational-critical consensus, which is the goal of discourse in the public sphere. As McCarthy (1984) has claimed, in order for a genuine consensus to be reached, the exchange must meet the conditions of what Habermas calls the “ideal speech situation” (p. 306). That is, the resulting agreement must be “such that any rational, competent judge would come to the same conclusion” because the strongest argument would prevail (McCarthy, 1984, p. 307). In order to reach such an agreement, everyone in the discussion must have an equal opportunity to speak and express themselves, and to use any speech act, including constatives (validity claims about reality such as “That is an oak tree”), regulatives (claims relating to social norms such as “Your comment was condescending”), and avowals (claims regarding the speaker's subjective view such as “You make me laugh”); in addition, everyone must have equal power in the discussion (Foss, Foss, & Trapp, 2002, p. 246-248). In the realm of weblog discourse, also called the “blogosphere,” everyone in the discussion has an equal opportunity to speak, but not everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard or to have equal power over the exchange. This is evident in what has been called the “A-List” phenomenon in blogging: The more people link to a particular weblog, the higher it rises in search engines and in ranking programs such as Technorati and the Ecosystem. Thus, when the weblog gets more exposure, more people have an opportunity to find the weblog and link to it themselves. Bloggers who are just starting weblogs have an especially difficult time being read amidst the large pool of texts. Clay Shirky (2003) writes: “It's not impossible to launch a good new blog and become widely read, but it's harder than it was last year, and it will be harder still next year.” This is because new weblogs are being started every day, and as long as the most widely-read bloggers keep writing posts that are consistent with the quality and perspective their readers expect and enjoy, they will probably continue to have the most readers.

    To be sure, having many readers is not necessarily desirable in the public sphere. Blogger A.K.M. Adam (2004) observes that “the more a site attracts attention, the more nearly it resembles broadcasting rather than conversation.” Trish Roberts-Miller (2004) notes a paradox “between inclusion and argumentation. The more people included in any public (or counterpublic) sphere, the less the discourse can be rational-critical.” Weblogs, especially widely-read ones, have been called “one-to-many” communication, without the kind of sustained deliberation one should find in the public sphere. Ó Baoill (2004) points out that the reverse-chronological order and brief, rapid-fire comments create a privileging of novelty over critical, careful, well-thought-out reflection:

    The importance placed by many weblogs on breaking news not only leads to greater risks of faulty information being published but, given the layout of weblogs, can foreshorten debates. The use of separate comment threads on each individual weblog post means that each particular thread can be quite short, being supplanted by the newest news item.

    This is not to say that all discourse on weblogs follows such a pattern; on the contrary, many bloggers post longer pieces less often (about one 2000-word essay a week) and sustain rich debates in which the stronger arguments do prevail.

    Another problem in comparing the blogosphere to the public sphere is the proliferation of special-interest weblogs. It is rare to find a weblog that is not more or less topic-driven; some bloggers only write about intellectual property issues, others about reproductive rights, and others about the war in Iraq. Still others write explicitly from their social locations as, for example, genderqueers or as mothers. In other words, it is common to encounter a weblog on intellectual property issues which only links to news stories or other weblogs having to do with intellectual property. While there are certainly plenty of exceptions, for example, Alas, a Blog, a left-leaning political weblog, has a list of links with the heading “To Alas' Right,” and another with the heading “Even Further Right,” to indicate that the contributors to Alas, a Blog read the texts of people with whom they don't agree, most bloggers link to like-minded bloggers.

    Insofar as these communities of bloggers are marginalized from hegemonic society, they could be considered subaltern counterpublics, to use Nancy Fraser's (1993) term. Fraser claims that “the proliferation of subaltern counterpublics means a widening of discursive contestation, and that is a good thing in stratified societies” (1993, p. 124). Fraser is quick to point out, though, that such counterpublics are often not democratic but are better described as enclaves, that one sees in them the charge to conform to rigid group norms, a criticism commonly made of identity politics in general. Roberts-Miller (2004) sees like-minded weblog clusters as enclaves rather than counterpublics; she had anticipated “a more open and public public sphere of participatory argumentation rather than simply expression,” but “was instead dismayed to see a realm, not of counterpublics, but of enclaves, and of a system that, at its worst, facilitated the hardening of ideology, and, at its best, allowed for an expressive public sphere.” To be fair, Roberts-Miller does not fault bloggers as hindering a would-be public sphere; she cites the general problem that Americans “argue badly” and too often lack goodwill when engaging in argumentation.

    Still, I would join Habermas' critics and ask the following question: Is rational-critical consensus possible in a late-capitalist, pluralistic society? Assuming that it is, are all weblog communities enclaves? Perhaps they are, to the extent that they attract only certain readers. For example, blackfeminism.org will probably not attract many dissenters, at least not those who are sincere in their desire to reach a rational-critical consensus. However, I claim that it is possible to have an exchange without thought-policing, providing the interlocutors are sincere and have equal opportunity to use regulatives. The guidelines for posting comments* at blackfeminism.org are replete with regulatives (emphasis in original):

    This is a site for respectful discussion of topics relating to gender and race, both on a personal level and on a collective level. While we value differing opinions and insightful debates, we will not tolerate any of the following:

    • Use of racial, ethnic or religious slurs.
    • Use of gender slurs
    • Use of sexual-orientation slurs
    • Use of language that is exceedingly abusive. We understand things get typed in the heat of a discussion, but please make your point without resorting to childish taunts.
    • Use of language that is sexually explicit. Again, we recognize that some of our topics will include sensitive topics, but please discuss them with taste and discretion.
    • Use of threatening language.

    Violating the rules is grounds for having your account deleted. What constitutes a violation will be determined at the sole discretion of the administrator.
    Also, be aware that this server keeps logs that include your IP address. We will track you down and/or block your address if necessary.

    Admittedly, the administrator of the site has the power to delete comments and to ban posters who violate the rules of the exchange, but that doesn't mean he or she will do so capriciously.

    The public sphere and the ideal speech situation, as I have stated earlier in this essay, are ideals, much like the concepts of justice and freedom. Although such ideals are “incapable of complete realization,” they are “no less effective in shaping social life” (McCarthy, 1984, p. 310). Although the blogosphere falls short of the ideal in several significant ways, it can, like many other exchanges that are not corporate or advertising-driven, in which one can potentially interact with people who disagree with him or her to discuss matters of public interest (however one defines it), embody the ideal of the public sphere in some cases.

    * See also the posting policies at Invisible Adjunct, which include similar regulatives.

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