Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Reading:: Speech Genres and Other Late Essays

Originally posted: Wed, 05 May 2004 19:19:42

Speech Genres and Other Late Essays

by M.M. Bakhtin

Bakhtin's often hard to read, and this book is harder than most. A mix of published essays, previously unpublished work, and notes found in schoolboy notebooks rotting in rat-infested storage rooms, the collection is rather uneven. At the same time, even at its most uneven, it's brilliant. We get to see Bakhtin debating with himself, going over themes that he's discussed many times only to rethink them once again in different ways. Whereas works such as The Dialogic Imagination and Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics provide us with a more or less finished (stabilized-for-now?) view of Bakhtin's work, this collection sometimes provides a sense of the working-out that was involved.

One of the arguments that Bakhtin has with himself, of course, is the nature of the novel. In "The Problem of Speech Genres," Bakhtin argues that "secondary (complex) speech genres -- novels, dramas, all kinds of scientific research, major genres of commentary, and so forth -- arise in more complex and comparatively highly developed and organized cultural communication (primarily written) that is artistic, scientific, sociopolitical, and so on" (p.62). Such secondary genres absorb or "digest" primary (oral) speech genres, bringing them into a heterogeneous mix. So heterogeneous, in fact, that Bakhtin is moved to remark in "From Notes Made in 1970-71" that "the novel, deprived of style and setting [i.e., removed from the predetermined settings that define primary genres], is essentially not a genre; it must imitate (rehearse) some extralinguistic genre: the everyday story, letters, diaries, and so forth" (p.132). Is it or isn't it a genre? This is the question with which Bakhtin wrestles, and the answer is so elusive precisely because the novel is relatively new, it is removed from recurrent settings, oriented toward writing rather than speaking, meant to travel widely and to furnish its own world to readers.

Personally I don't give a flip whether the novel is a genre or not. I'm much more interested in some of the other secondary genres Bakhtin lists: scientific research, commentary, etc., the results of highly organized written communication. The same question obtains. Are these genres? They incorporate rather heterogeneous primary genres, genres that have emerged in very different settings, activities, or spheres, using different styles, representing different world views. Primary genres have histories and logics of their own; do secondary genres, or do they become anachronistic as they bring these heterogeneous elements into dialogue?

Those of you who have been following my blog probably know where I'm going next. When we begin thinking of scientific research as a secondary genre, we are reminded of the very similar discussions going on in science and technology studies about actor-networks. Indeed, the early ANT work often involved examining scientific reports as networks in which references linked to other actants (both textual and other). Later ANT work drew on Deleuze and Guattari's work with rhizomes to explain how these actor-networks were able to splice together disparate, heterogeneous elements. A rhizome, Deleuze and Guattari tell us, is an anti-genealogy. And genres are nothing if not genealogical! So a secondary genre is restless, seething, trying to keep a lid on a boiling pot; it attempts to bring stability to a sometimes volatile mix of genres. (Stability is not D&G's forte, nor is it ANT's.) Secondary genres, I speculate, do have a line of development, but that line emerges from the dialogue of primary genres within them; the assembly work of the novel/report has a past and can be used again in the future. This notion of "digestion," as unpalatable as the metaphor is, provides the stability and developmental perspective that rhizomes lack.

"Digestion" involves dialogue. Dialogue, which is the major theme of this book, results from the juxtaposition of two (heterogeneous) speech works (p.118). But juxtaposition does not mean resolution or finalization -- quite the opposite, since resolution or finalization results in a monologue. It's instructive to look at Bakhtin's elusive pronouncements on dialectics.

"Dialogue and dialectics. Take a dialogue and remove the voices (the partitioning of voices), remove the intonations (emotional and individualizing ones), carve out abstract concepts and judgments from living words and responses, cram everything into one abstract consciousness--and that's how you get dialectics" (p.147). This somewhat enigmatic pronouncement is probably Bakhtin's most direct attack on dialectics. Elsewhere he's more moderate. In "Methodology for the Human Sciences," he says that "dialectics was born of dialogue so as to return again to dialogue on a higher level (a dialogue of personalities)." And a few paragraphs later, he constrasts dialogue with "a mechanical contact of 'oppositions'" on a merely formal level. "If we transform dialogue into one continuous text, that is, erase the divisions between voices (changes of speaking subjects), which is possible at the extreme (Hegel's monological dialectic), then the deep-seated (infinite) contextual meaning disappears (we hit the bottom, reach a standstill)" (p.162). Finally, in "The Problem of the Text," semantic relations among texts are parenthetically termed "dialectical" (p.106), while extralinguistic aspects are parenthetically termed "dialogic" (p.109). Even near the end of his life, after Stalin was dead, in his own notes, Bakhtin could not be any more direct about critiquing dialectics. But we can get a sense of what he disliked: dialectics insists on abstraction (or: returning to dialogue "at a higher level"), finalizability, the settling of a conversation. Dialogue does none of these; it insists that diverse voices be allowed to sound, being heard but not necessarily resolved. It's a more heterogeneous vision.

There are dozens of other insights in this book, but I won't be able to get to them all today. So let's cut this, er, monologue short.

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Sunday, May 02, 2004

Reading:: Complexities

Originally posted: Sun, 02 May 2004 02:52:24

Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices

by John Law (Editor), Annemarie Mol (Editor)

Here's another useful book full of studies of knowledge. Mol and Law, you will remember, are currently in a "post-actor-network-theory" stage. Suitably, most of the essays in this book draw only glancingly from ANT in a direct sense, but underneath, almost all are heavily in debt to it. Here you'll find elephants, roads, aircraft, atherosclerosis, and other phenomena talked about in really interesting ways that highlight the construction of knowledge among multiple heterogeneous stakeholders. Some of these are really interesting and inventive. For instance, Andrew Barry examines how the EU works hard to maintain and extend its networks despite its status of relative powerlessness; Laurent Thevenot examines how roads are not only constructed through arguments but become parts of those arguments; Charis Thompson discusses how elephants and their relation to the environment are variously constructed by different stakeholders.

Sadly, my copy has a printer's error, which means that the essays by Thompson and by Mol are present only as fragments, and Michel Callon's essay is entirely omitted. A shame. All of these looked interesting, but I don't have enough to evaluate Mol's or Callon's work. Hopefully Duke University will send me a replacement copy soon.

Nevertheless, the collection is worthwhile, though not life-changing or substantially revelatory.

Update: The good people at Duke University Press replaced my copy of Complexities with a new one. No printer's errors in this one. Which means that I was able to read Michel Callon's essay "Writing and (Re)writing Devices as Tools for Managing Complexity." This essay was easily the most relevant for me and perhaps the best one in the collection -- not just because it focuses on writing (my main concern) but also because it considers the question of how texts mediate activity in a different way. In this formulation, texts aren't merely scripts, narratives, or documentary reality (although all of these functions are performed at various points). Rather, the texts Callon studied -- the manuals, questionnaires, and collateral materials employed by a cruise line -- serve to weave relationships between individual actors and collectives. (It hardly needs to be said here that Callon means both human and nonhuman actors here.) They translate the actors in such a way as to define them and to facilitate smooth, predictable relations.For instance, the detailed questionnaires given to customers define those customers through series of trials, just as Latour alleges scientists define phenomena through series of trials. What is iron? It's an element with this tensile strength, that melting point, that many protons, etc. What is a customer of this cruise line? It's a person who belongs to this demographic, who likes to travel to these areas, who wants cleaner toilets but who thinks the buffet is quite nice as is. Callon further alleges that writing helps to manage complexity in increasingly complex markets through such definitions: the bewildering range of customers can be reduced to customer types served by niche cruises, the bewildering array of detailed procedures can be reduced to principles. Narratives make actions and their unity compatible; they manage the multiplicity that comes from splicing together actors in an assemblage. This splicing work, Callon says, always involves negotiations. There are, of course, direct implications for my current project.

Since I'm discussing Complexities again, I should mention another essay in this collection. Laurent Thevenot's "Which road to follow?" examines how artifacts can be said to participate in the moral world. In the case that Thevenot studies, the road doesn't just provide a setting, it embodies an argument -- that is, it results from protracted moral and political negotiations and it continues to participate in them. From a symmetrical perspective, it becomes an actor itself, an artifact that is just as much a moral artifact as the wills and expressions of the humans involved in the activity. I find this notion of artifacts as arguments intriguing, of course, extending as it does the role of rhetoric to design.

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Reading :: Activity-Centered Design

Originally posted: Sun, 02 May 2004 02:47:55

Activity-Centered Design : An Ecological Approach to Designing Smart Tools and Usable Systems

by Geri Gay, Helene Hembrooke

Full disclosure: Activity-Centered Design is the second book in the Acting with Technology series at MIT Press. Mine was the first. The series examines how human activity is mediated through tools and technologies, drawing on frameworks such as activity theory. Like Tracing Genres through Organizations, Activity-Centered Design combines activity theory with other perspectives in order to investigate and design information technologies.

The text is exactly 100 pages, making it short enough to read in one sitting. And Gay and Hembrooke's writing style makes it quite easy to read. Illustrated by a series of studies by the authors at Cornell's HCI Group, the book draws on CMC analysis and configural analysis, as well as insights from the Social Construction of Technology (SCOT), to develop and apply a theoretical framework. Through their studies of information technologies in museums and at Cornell, the authors demonstrate the framework. In so doing, they critique much user-centered design work as too focused on individuals and their tasks, not enough on organizational development. Particularly impressive here is their use of Engestrom's cycle of development.

I'll limit my critique to the issue that has been vexing me these many months. Gay and Hembrooke discuss activity systems as decomposable into a network of activity systems: "the original setting and increasingly broader contexts." They provide a cite that I'll have to look at. But I find this formulation to be suspicious. When they say "decomposable," I envision sort of a pinata that, once struck, yields its contents. But in practice, activities aren't contained but overlapping. Take the university classroom, in which the activity is mediated by many artifacts and practices -- books, chalkboards, chairs, lectures -- each of which is connected with other activities. Sometimes wildly different ones, as Gay and Hembrooke's studies demonstrate: students in computer classrooms found themselves using instant messaging and checking their websites in class, for instance. The activities are interlinked, the artifacts are polysemous, but not in ways that are decomposable or containable.

Along these lines, I should note that Gay and Hembrooke attempt to provide activity theory with something that it's long missed: a thoroughgoing account of stakeholders. AT grew up in the Soviet Union, where questioning the Soviet orthodoxy could land you in the gulag, so it understandably tended to focus on harmonious craft activities with little conflict or on overarching confrontations (contradictions) between Marxism and capitalism (see Leont'ev's books for examples of both). Gay and Hembrooke do a nice job of bringing in tools that help to conceptualize, explore, and develop stakeholder perspectives. But so much more needs to be done.