digital rhetoric Mobile Technology Rhetoric/Composition

actualized virtualities in Latour: the case of the tweckled lecturer

A couple posts ago I was exploring the concept of the virtual in Latour. I've been thinking more about these two particular passages from Reassembling the Social. In the first, Latour writes "To maximize the fabulous power of their etymology, objects have now become things again: the disputed topic of a virtual assembly." In the second, in a footnote he largely equates ANT's concatenations of mediators with Deleuze's "actualized virtualities." Second point first: so what is an actualized virtuality?

I haven't seen Brian Massumi cited very often in the conversations I've been following around the web, but I find his take on the Deleuzian virtual worthwhile. In Parables for the Virtual he writes:

Something that happens too quickly to have happened, actually, is virtual. The body is as immediately virtual as it is actual. The virtual, the pressing crowd of incipiences and tendencies, is a realm of potential. In potential is where futurity combines, unmediated, with pastness, where outsides are infolded and sadness is happy (happy because the press to action and expression is life). The virtual is a lived paradox where what are normally opposites coexist, coalesce, and connect; where what cannot be experienced cannot but be felt–albeit reduced and contained. (30)

The actual occurs at the point of intersection of the possible, the potential, and the virtual: three modes of thought. The actual is the effect of their momentous meeting, mixing, and re-separation. The meeting and mixing is sensation. Sensation stretches on a continuum from the absolute immanence of virtual center to the far end of potential, where it just extends into possibility. No actuality can be fully imaged, since it emerges from, projects into, and recedes into inactuality. Bodies and objects, their forms and contents, do not account for all of it. They do not catch the momentum. To look only at bodies and objects is to miss the movement. (136)

The concepts of nature and culture need serious reworking, in a way that expresses the irreducible alterity of the nonhuman in and through its active connection to the human and vice versa. Let matter be matter, brains be brains, jellyfish be jellyfish, and culture be nature, in irreducible alterity and infinite connection. (39)

[side note: I realize that last quote doesn't directly address the "virtual," but it directly pertains to my work in relation to the field of rhetoric and composition. 30 years ago, rhet/comp had a strong interested in cognitive science, but that work was largely pushed aside by a focus on discourse and ideology along postmodern, cultural studies lines, Foucault in particular. No doubt there were legitimate critiques of the use of cognitive science in rhet/comp and the turn toward discourse has been productive in shifting us away from thinking of writing as a purely internal, individual activity. However my work has been about these connections with the nonhuman (and starting with networked media because that's the nonhuman elephant in the room).]

But back to the virtual and the actual… the virtual is the space/plane from which actualized objects arise. The actual is one aspect of an object, apprehended at a particular moment. Part of this is the semantic problem of the object itself which reintroduces concerns of essentialism as well as language/text problems. What defines an object? Where does one object end and another begin? Objects all the way down?  What about the vacuum in space between subatomic particles? Is that also an object/objects?  These are the kinds of questions the virtual seeks to address without resorting to the essentialism that pervades our conventional cultural thinking about the world. So as I understand it, for Deleuze, the virtual is always there/not there. It can be felt but not grasped. What we grasp is actualized but is only ever part of an object, which also always retains virtual potentials. 

If we take Latour's invitation and think of concatenations of mediators as actualized virtualities, then I think we would also have to see those Latourian actors as having virtual dimensions. What is the implication of that for ANT? Alternately, if one attempts to extricate the virtual (for whatever reason) from ANT, what is left? Is it the virtual that differentiates ANT from the conventional sociological theories from which Latour is dissociating himself?

I'll leave those questions hanging. I certainly don't have a definitive answer. But I can investigate some of these issues within my own areas of concern.

Generally speaking, as a rhetorician one can look at communication in a two ways: what does happen and what should happen. The former could be a philosophical form of investigation, a philosophy of communication. Mostly these days I'd say it's more of a social-scientific investigation. That said, primarily rhet/comp is focused on the "should." After all, that's what we are on about in undergraduate composition courses: teaching students to write as they "should," instead of the bad, bad, bad, bad ways they actually write (or don't write). Now typically this "should" is tempered. We don't have to say that a student's existing writing practice is "bad," only that it is not "effective" or "appropriate" for various academic, professional, and/or civic discourse communities into which they "should" (again) want to enter or into which they must write as future professionals, etc. 

So how might we investigate this "should"? We might leap to the background of a generalized ideology or "academic discourse," but that is precisely what Latour warns us against. Instead we might begin with an event: the students and instructor in a classroom, the student reading the composition textbook, the instructor commenting on a paper, etc. Then we might trace the mediators/the actualized virtualities as they converge.

Of course I have painted "should" negatively there, I fear, and it need not be. In my own work, I find it productive to ask questions such as "how should humanities scholars make use of networked media?" or "how should English restructure first-year composition or other aspects of its curriculum to teach emerging technologies?" Here the "should" can mean many things. It could be an ethical argument. It could be a pragmatic or politically-motivated argument. It could be a philosophical or intellectual argument, i.e. one that is based upon research/scholarship. Or all of the above. As we consider possible actions, a theory of the virtual not only informs strategies or tactics, it also reshapes ethics as it provides a different accounting of relations.

But I have promised a "case of the tweckled lecturer," and this post is already getting long! So tweckling is the practice of criticizing or heckling a lecturer or presenter via Twitter while the presentation is taking place. I want to take some license with this definition and expand it to include the (potential) distraction of a presenter by tweets (regardless of the tweets content). There have been recent articles in the Chronicle about these matters.

Again the question of what should we do arises?

The immediate reaction has been to suggest that we should "shut off" such devices and/or discourage such behaviors. That tweeting during a presentation is distracting for everyone (including the multi-tasker with the thumbs). And that asking a presenter to interact with tweets during a presentation is unfair, potentially disastrous, and, at the very least, disrupts the flow of hir presentation.

The equal and opposite reaction is to suggest that shutting off these devices is impractical/impossible and that they engender many potential positive contributions, provided we develop a few techniques.

As I noted a couple posts ago, wireless access and mobile tech have altered the material contexts in which lectures/presentations (whether in a classroom or at a conference) take place. Our conventional way of thinking might identify these mobile media networks as add-ons. That is, the room is already "complete" with its speaker, hir paper, the audience, chairs, lectern, etc. Perhaps the add-on is unwanted, to be ignored or driven out. Or perhaps the add-on is invited in, but only as a supplement to the already complete scene, purpose, and activity of the presentation.

However, ANT already suggests that the traditional scene is more than it appears, that we must consider networks of mediators acting on that location. Those mediators have virtual dimensions, but they have been actualized as they are by the semi-stable relations among them that have resulted in thousands of English Studies conference papers over decades being delivered in much the same way in hotels around the world. The development of mobile media networks is analogous to turning up the stove under a pot of water. There is a shift in intensification. The whole network begins to roil. All of the mediators shift. None can behave precisely as they did before. 

Who is to say what will happen. Perhaps the whole situation will diffuse and return to a state largely similar to what we've conventionally had. But if not, then the entire premise of standing up and reading sentences printed on letter-sized paper sheets for 15-20 minutes will not persist. In short, the question of how should (or shouldn't) we accomodate mobile media networks to the conventions of the conference presentation or faculty lecture is probably misguided. Instead the question should be how will we carry out our academic work in these shifting techno-material contexts?

I don't think it is so hard to imagine a future where conference sessions are conversations based on previously distributed material rather than formal presentations. After all, as is the English Studies tradition, if you are just going to read a text to me, why not put it up on a conference website instead. Then I can skim it and those of a dozen other concurrent panels and decide which conversation I wi

sh to attend. Meanwhile, perhaps I can follow along with other conversations online. I can also attend a conference at a distance (perhaps paying a limited registration fee to gain access to conference materials). I might comment on a presentation or participate in a session discussion via a live feed.

We might expect "everything" to change under such conditions. Certainly there would be new roles, new behaviors for "presenters" and "audience." Perhaps we arrange the chairs in a different way. Maybe the sessions are of different lengths. Maybe we arrange those mobile partitions in hotel conference rooms in new ways. Maybe the whole conference is longer or shorter. Bigger or smaller.

In my mind, the virtual is a way of thinking through these mutations.