digital humanities digital rhetoric object-oriented rhetoric Rhetoric/Composition

computer writing humans: thoughts on computers & writing #cwcon

I’ve got an hour before boarding in Detroit, so I am going to take the chance to get down some thoughts about Computers and Writing. I’ll have to post this later in the day though (or the next day as it turns out), as I’m not going to pay for web access. 

Anyway, Computers and Writing is one of my favorite conferences that I regularly attend. The audience is always generous and yet certainly engaged, asking good questions, making useful observations and so on. I find it an intense conference as well. It’s rare that there’s a session time that I can’t find something useful to attend and then that’s compounded with the keynote presentations offered through most of the meals. Of course, as always, it’s the evening conversations that ultimately bring the whole thing together.

I will probably divide this review into a couple of posts, but as a preview, here are the panels I attended. 


  • Town Hall 1
  • B02 Networked Publics: Jim Brown, Byron Hawk, Geoff Carter, and Cortney Smethurst
  • Keynote 1 Tim Wu
  • C07 Dynamic Assessment Practices: Dickie Selfe, Tim Jensen, Kathryn Corner, Scott DeWitt, Chris Manion
  • D03 Writing on the Fly: Cynthia Haynes, Jan Holmevik, Victor Vitanza
  • Keynote 2 Gail Hawisher
  • E13 Is Blogging Dead? Yes, No, Other: Steve Krause, Bradley Dilger, Virginia Kuhn, Liz Losh, Brian McNelty, Andre Peltier, Brendan Riley, Carrie Lamanna
  • F02 Unbooks, Ebooks: Tim Laquintano, Catherine Prendergast, Joyce Walkter
  • Town Hall 2: Are you a digital humanist?
  • Keynote 3 Kate Hayles
  • G01 Futures of the Digital Scholarly Press: Tom Dwyer, Doug Eyman, Michael Spooner, Dave Blakesley, Charlie Lowe, Gail Hawisher
  • H10 Gaming the Classroom: Alex Reid(!), Richard Parent, Anastasia Salter

So my presentation was the last one I attended, though I also was a participant in the digital humanis town hall, as I’ve mentioned here recently.

My intention is to offer general observations, referencing these presentations as I go, rather than attempt synopses of each. One of the great things, in my view, about this conference is that it runs independent of any organization: one need not join something in order to participate. I don’t feel super happy about being a member of MLA and NCTE. I don’t think those organizations represent me. I don’t have a desire for them to represent me. I would just rather not have the association. Computers and Writing isn’t about association. It is about affinity. No doubt some see this as a bug rather than a feature and would prefer a more disciplinary future and seek to construct discipline-building histories. I doubt there is a disciplinary belonging that I would prefer over the experience of affinity.

One of the themes I encountered, no doubt by following my own path of affinity, interrogated the role of the human(ist) in computers and writing.

Computers writing humans. Computer human writing. Humans writing computers. Human computer writing. Writing human computers. Writing computer humans. 

I don’t know. What do you think?

Victor discussed web 3.0. Holmevik and Haynes both considered the subjective and affective dimensions of the MOO. Byron looked at identities generated through social media network affiliations. Jim Brown discussed poetry generating code. Hayles’ keynote focused on the role technology plays in shaping brains. The theme gets less distinct from there but remains an undercurrent in the topics of academic blogging and digital scholarly presses.

As you might guess, I start with the following: while humans certainly can play a role with computers and writing, we are not necessary for such rhetorical relations. The whole semantic web thing makes that obvious: machines happily writing to other machines. Are such relations “rhetorical”? Do they create agency/thought? I’ll leave that question open, but I think yes. Our meagre digital compositions piggy back on this great swath of machine-machine communication. We take up this alien other language. And, of course, it has always been such with our great alien fellow traveler: language. 

Recognizing that we are not the source of language and that language is not for us is a crucial observation for computers and writing. While only a few of us may be interested, as I am, in exploring minimal rhetorical relations among non-human objects, for the majority who are more conventionally invested in humans–as students; as citizens; as professionals; in terms of access, equity, justice; and so on–this recognition addresses the underpinnings of the misguided (I would argue) modernist desires we have for language. When we see language is not our own then we can easily see why it does not conform to us, why instead it often confronts us, why we feel used by it even as we use it. As I have long argued, any theory of rhetorical composition must begin with a more general theory of composition, of ontology. Switching your ontology doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning your politics, but it does require you do see the world differently, to understand the problem you are addressing differently. 

I would argue this ontological shift is more generally called for in the humanities as we recognize our received notions are no longer effective or interesting. But again, that’s no surprise to regular readers of this blog. 

In Hayles’ keynote, which I enjoyed, I thought the key point was her identification of a rupture or gap that exists between neuroscientific accounting of the brain and any explanation of consciousness.  It seems neuroscience can map brain activity. Scientists can run experiments on the effects of various technologies and such on how people act. And they argue, fundamentally, that the brain is more plastic and adaptable than we may have realized, even later in life (so much for the old dog can’t learn new tricks thing). Ian Bogost, chiming in through twitter, raised his skepticism for this neural turn. No doubt, that’s a good point. We are in the midst of an explosion of data about the brain, thanks to new imaging technology. Science has a familiar will to be a master discourse, to be the great explainer, even though scientists can be among the most reticent to make grand claims. After all, science doesn’t lead to explanations; it leads to more science, as any Portal gameplayer knows. Still, I think we ought to address science in some productive way (productive for both us and scientists hopefully). And I am interested in this rupture/gap, which I would term the “aporia of rhetoric.”

As I’ve been discussing an object-oriented rhetoric here, I think it is easy to see it as aporetic. Two objects withdraw from one another and yet, however unlikely, manage some relation, are exposed to one another. In that exposure, agency/thought emerges. It does not belong to one or the other object. Is it an event? an object in its own right? Are such distinctions useful? I’m not sure. But it is an intractable problem, an aporia. It’s not a problem to be resolved by scientific investigation. Perhaps as we see indeterminacy at the quantum level we can imagine it in other ontological spaces as well. Thought and agency are indeterminable to a degree but that does not mean that we do not enter into that space. In fact that’s why we do.

In any case, I’ll get back to some of the other interesting issues, especially around authorship and publishing a little later.


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