digital humanities digital rhetoric

metanoia: progress and regret #hastac2013


Metanoia: Speculating on Progress and Regret


Kairos is the watchword, the patron demi-god, of higher education and information technology today. Kairos, the Greek god of opportunity, both feeds and haunts the academy as our disciplines and institutions alternately leap to grasp at a new technology or hold back. Kairos has always been depicted as young and swift; he can only be caught by grasping the hair hanging over his face. Once he passes you by, it is too late. Even in ancient Greece, opportunity was fleeting. Found in the wake of Kairos’ passing was Metanoia, the personification of regret, of missed opportunity. Literally, metanoia means to change one’s mind. In Christian theology, kairos becomes the time in which God acts and metanoia becomes a central principle of Christian practice, repentance. The words take on slightly different meanings in classical rhetoric where kairos becomes matching a rhetorical act with its appropriate time and metanoia a strategy for correcting or modifying a statement. In this talk I will take a more holistic view of metanoia and explore its usefulness in establishing a productive stance toward progress.


While discussions of emerging technologies focus on opportunity, this conference is thematically organized around an image of metanoia, Benjamin’s meditation on Klee’s Angelus Novus. The angel is hardly an optimistic image, helplessly flung forward by the horrors of the past and unable to see the future, in a passage that was among the last things Benjamin wrote before committing suicide. For 70 years now, the angel has operated as an ambivalent symbol of a Marxian historical materialism. As Henry Giroux recently wrote, Benjamin’s

Angel of History is caught up in a storm that paralyzed human agency while putting the myth of the inevitability of progress to rest. But storms pass, and hope as a condition for conceptualizing a future of sustainable progress can offer space and time for reflection, for developing modes of individual critique and collective agency capable of addressing and dismantling those sites of agony and wretchedness made visible in the after glow of historical consciousness.(591)

Benjamin likely held out similar hopes, skeptical of the notion of modernity’s progress and yet hopeful of some future redemption powered by historical materialism. I don’t want to spend our time today on the long discussion of Benjamin’s angel and his messianic concepts of time. However, this messianic time is not unlike Christian kairos. It is a time out of history, separate from the conventional time of chronos, a time of opportunity, perhaps, but an opportunity powered by repentance, by metanoia. Almost certainly, Benjamin’s vision was quite different from the values behind HASTAC. Think, for example, of Benjamin’s observation that “Nothing has corrupted the German working class so much as the notion that it was moving with the current. It regarded technological developments as the fall of the stream with which it thought it was moving” (258). Benjamin’s take on history and progress is more resonant with a performance of a Marxian historical-materialist critique of technological progress.


But this is what we see, particularly in the humanities, in regards to technology, the clash of a progressive, techno-libertarian ideology that ranges from the Electronic Freedom Foundation and Wired magazine to the corporate cultures of Blackboard, Google, and Apple with a humanistic, historical-materialist ideology fueled by a hermeneutics of suspicion and a congenital distrust of technology that hails back to Matthew Arnold. Moving forward will require a very different option.


It is in this light that I am interested in a different invocation of Benjamin’s angel, one that has brought together this panel. In his essay, “An attempt at a compositionist manifesto,” Bruno Latour sees the angel as an incarnation of the moderns themselves: “contrary to Benjamin’s interpretation, the Modern who, like the angel, is flying backward is actually not seeing the destruction; He is generating it in his flight since it occurs behind His back! It is only recently, by a sudden conversion, a metanoia of sorts, that He has suddenly realized how much catastrophe His development has left behind him” (486). In place of the modernist future, Latour offers the more modest notion of prospects. These prospects are more provisional and tentative than bold and shiny. They can be fragile and must be carefully composed with eyes on the task rather than looking backward. Yet, as he continues, “just at the time when people are despairing at realizing that they might, in the end, have “no future,” we suddenly have many prospects. Yet they are so utterly different from what we imagined while fleeing ahead looking backwards that we might cast them only as so many fragile illusions. Or find them even more terrifying than what we were trying to escape from” (486). Latour’s compositionist manifesto specifically addresses the concerns of ecological crisis, but I believe his view of progress and prospects can illuminate our own task, which is not only to build or participate in a particular vision of the future for higher education but to understand futurity itself, especially as that concept is composed in relation to technological innovation.


The crisis in higher education, and in the humanities in particular, and the role that digital media is now playing in response is typically understood as a human, social dilemma. Both the techno-libertarian and the historical-materialist would view it in those terms. Traditional views in both rhetoric and the humanities share a faith in a human exceptionalism that must of necessity posit every new technology as a potential threat to the already existing human with his independent and self-contained capacities for thought, agency, and expression. A more contemporary postmodern view may be less certain about human agency but continues to view technology as a threat to whatever agency humans might have. However Latour does not make the distinctions that allowed the moderns to separate the social from the natural or the technological. When we understand the academy or online education as a social creation that exists “for us,” we misrecognize what is going on. Latour would instead encourage us to examine the networks on human and nonhuman actors that participate in these systems. This is a different kind of metanoia, not regret or repentance, but more generally changing one’s mind, to see things anew.


As Latour points out, the modern world allows one to speak of natural, scientific knowledge or socio-cultural knowledge, but not of both simultaneously. As Latour writes, “In the eyes of our critics the ozone hole above our heads, the moral law in our hearts, the autonomous text, may each be of interest, but only separately. That a delicate shuttle should have woven together the heavens, industry, texts, souls and moral law -this remains uncanny, unthinkable, unseemly” (Latour, 5).  One of the effects of modernism has been to construct these different worlds: a natural world that is clearly not human and a social world that while also beyond us is closer to us, produced by us, and thus might be understood differently as operating by a different set of laws. For Latour, rhetoric and discourse form a third space in the modern formulation where it is possible to speak of a system of signs or the text itself. This results in a postmodern condition composed of  “a nature and a technology that are absolutely sleek; a society made up solely of false consciousness, simulacra and illusions; a discourse consisting only in meaning effects detached from everything; and this whole world of appearances keeps afloat other disconnected elements of networks that can be combined haphazardly by collage from all places and all times” (Latour, 64-5). A Latourian speculative rhetoric then takes up the challenge of investigating a hybridized space that technology, nature, society, culture, and discourse commonly share.


In my own Latourian-inspired perspective, the prospective view of the future is neither about technologies solving our problems or a messianic moment of justice but rather the composition of a new set of conditions, not ones that attempt to leave the past behind as we see with modernity but ones that understand the past very differently. Here I am reminded of Gregory Ulmer’s conception of the electracy that replaces literacy when he writes, “I assume that the ethical dilemma of self/other will not be solved in an electronic apparatus, but simply that it will become irrelevant, just as “appeasing’ the gods, which was the problem addressed by ritual, became irrelevant in literacy” (114). Perhaps we stopped appeasing the gods, but not because we no longer required a good crop. The problem mutated and became productive of a new set of prospects, a new future.


When Latour writes elsewhere that critique has run out of steam, it is not because the problems critique set out to address have been resolved. Instead, he asks


What would critique do if it could be associated with more, not with less, with multiplication, not subtraction…. That is, generating more ideas than we have received, inheriting from a prestigious critical tradition but not letting it die away, or “dropping into quiescence” like a piano no longer struck. This would require that all entities, including computers, cease to be objects defined simply by their inputs and outputs and become again things (248)

In shifting from objects to things, Latour is suggesting that we must treat nonhumans as active participants in the networks we share with them rather than as mute servants of human will or some amorphous and spectral ideology. In doing so, he offers an answer to his own question about making critique additive. When nonhumans become actors in our networks, the critical view that can make that recognition multiplies the prospects for activity rather than reducing them to a bi-polar future of liberation or domination. How might that work? Playfully, I’ll suggest a literalized digital prospecting. Of course we are all familiar with Minecraft. How does critique become like Minecraft where what gets taken apart becomes the basis for what gets put together. Minecraft is a simple world, yes, and yet complex things can be built from it, as with the case of the kid who built a graphing calculator out of those giant pixelated blocks. What we can say about Minecraft is that everything must be constructed, should we not be able to say the same about our world?


Unfortunately such stories might swing us in the opposite direction from critique toward a liberatory technocratic worldview. Why does it seem that we are always pinned between two poles? We are either the hapless angel, pushed forward by the storm of progress, or clever technicians carving a future from the natural world. Latour has been accused of being on both ends, perhaps because he rejects this bi-polar ontology.  In his hybridized world, humans are neither automatons nor demi-gods. We are, in Latour’s words, made to do. So we are made to eat, drink, sleep, breathe, walk, talk, think and so on. We do these things in relation to food, water, beds, air, the ground, language, and so on. Agency is not inside, but in relation. This perspective offers a different way to understand our relations with technology where the question is not whether a device enhances, obstructs, or dominates some innate agency but rather how the networks in which we participate produce agency.


So my question then becomes how might a Minecraft-inspired view of digital prospecting inspire a different metanoia, a changing of one’s mind, about the missed opportunities of a digital academy? What might we be made to do differently? Think for example of Anil Dash’s recent thoughts on “The Web We Lost,” specifically the way that a once open and public web has become increasingly a privately-owned public space as we see on Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so on. We might further connect these walled gardens with the trends toward tablets and other technologies that favor consumption over production. To bring this closer to our academic concerns, we might think of Blackboard’s domination of the educational technology market and the rise of other privately owned public learning spaces like Coursera.


As the corporate interests of privately-owned public spaces grasp at the kairotic moment of MOOCs, we might lament the missed opportunity of some alternate online learning or wax nostalgic for a brick and mortar education that will never be the same. It is easy to feel as though one is being blasted backwards into the future.  In this context, critique is, at best, a half-measure. When academics and journalists from the Chronicle to the NY Times observe that for whatever good a MOOC may serve, it can never replace the value of face-to-face learning, one wonders if they are remembering clearly the experience of sitting in a lecture hall with several hundred peers.


Metanoia might be better than nostalgia as a way of thinking about this. As Dash observes, the web is shifting from pages to streams. This tension is quite visible in a MOOC where one moves from the static content of recorded lectures to the deluge of participant discussion forums to say nothing of ancillary channels in Twitter, Google Plus, and elsewhere. These are clearly two different kinds of prospecting: mining pages and panning the streams. And both are quite different from the literacy practices of the print era, the literacy practices that still inform much of our pedagogy an  d research, particularly in the humanities. Information has always been temporal and fluid; the only thing that has changed is the relative speed and volume of the flow. From banning books to banning laptops in classrooms, institutions have often responded to changes in information flow with censorship. Censorship is perhaps just a form of nostalgia.


At this point I believe we do not understand well what we are doing, let alone why we are doing it, when it comes to the social web, especially in terms of learning through the social web. As researchers our job might be in part to study the emerging practices of social media. However, it is also our job to develop disciplinary practices for ourselves in relation to emerging technologies, just as we invented journal articles, monographs, and academic conferences a century or so ago. Equally important is our role as architects of learning experiences. How can we shed ourselves of nostalgia, of the trade protectionism of censorship, and make critique additive? Of course there are no easy answers to those questions. However it certainly begins with offering our students something better than Facebook, Twitter, or Google Plus, not a replacement for these services but an open, public space of fields and streams, a media ecosystem that will not only facilitate learning in their chosen disciplines but build the rhetorical and literacy practices necessary for a networked civic and professional life.document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.visibility=”hidden”;document.getElementById(“plaa”).style.display=”none”;

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