This week we are engaging directly with Michel Foucault’s writing, specifically as regards his object of choice: discourse. Foucault’s project is fundamentally epistemological, taking from Nietzsche the idea that all truth is the constructed effect of knowledge. Throughout his different projects, Foucault seeks to destabilize the major concept-formations associated with truth by exposing them as knowledge-effects. He does so by appealing to historical contingencies (accidental or incidental moments) as important “thresholds” wherein major discourse-formations overlapped and interacted. This is also why Foucault is frequently associated with the phrase “there is no outside to discourse.” All possible action and reaction is already coded within the basic framework of linguistic rules -- like those of “representation” -- that have developed into increasingly complex modes of knowledge-making.
Rhetoric and discourse are not one and the same. From the point of view offered by The Order of Things, “rhetoric” is a considerably less expansive concept than “discourse.” Rhetoric is a mode of knowledge production that is confined to an ancient episteme, and at the time of The Order of Things publication, the discipline of ‘rhetoric’ was not understood as a revival of the obscure system of signification developed by the Greeks. Discourse, by contrast, spans epistemes. It is a fundamental unit of historical analysis, and abides by a specific set of rules.
What is an episteme? It is an expanse of time defined in terms of dominant modes of knowledge and knowledge-making. In his concluding remarks to the “The Prose of the World”, Foucault describes the 16th century episteme as almost unrecoverable: “There is nothing now, either in our knowledge or in our reflection that still recalls even the memory of that being” (OT, 43). The episteme seeks to define a common currency of thought: a taken-for-granted parlance, as well as the rules of knowing that "limit and guarantee" what can be known. Athar Hussein and Mark Cousins write that The Order of Things elaborates "the conditions of thought under which what was written could be written. We could think of these conditions as unconscious to the text, or as its unstated, because invisible, a priori" (MF 30). Like psychoanalysis, which argues that “the unconscious is structured like a language,” Foucault similarly argues that the episteme is structured like a system of signification. Foucault writes: What I would like to do, however, is to reveal a positive unconscious of knowledge, a level that eludes the consciousness of the scientist and yet is part of scientific discourse, instead of disputing its validity and seeking to diminish its scientific nature (OT, xi). In the selections from The Order of Things we read for today, Foucault attempts a description of the ‘positive unconscious’ of knowledge in the 16th and 17th centuries, as well as the epistemic break that takes place in transition.
The other selections for this week build from the thesis that systems of discourse lead to a naturalized production of knowledge. In the “Media and Technology” readings, we can see how the concept of discourse as a signifying system is employed to describe medical and broadcast technologies -- and sometimes both of these. In “The Discursive Body” we consider Foucault as a potential theorist of the body, which is similarly defined by specific modes of knowledge-production contemporaneous to it.
Part 1: Discursive Objects
Presentation by Natalie Warren
Michel Foucault, The Order of Things
I have woven together the Foucault and Hussain and Cousins readings into one summary for greater cohesive communication about their similar themes as a whole. The Cousins and Hussain reading for this week dives deeper into Foucault’s work on discourses, including The Order of Things but going further to include Foucault’s Archeology of Knowledge. The two Foucault chapters for this week, The Prose of the World and Representing, are from his book The Order of Things. This book is an archaeology of knowledge and was written before Foucault transitioned to genealogy and analysis centered around power. Cousins and Hussain point out the irony of the book title in their introduction, since the book is “directed to undoing any unequivocal sense which may be accorded to the relation of words to things” (C&H, 15). In reality, it is an archeology of how things have been pulled apart into infinity. It helped me to think of the book as an archeology of why it is so difficult to agree on anything anymore, providing context to those moments in our lives where we stop and think, how is it possible for someone to understand an issue so differently than I do?
Foucault brings to light two main epistemes of knowledge, the classical era and the Renaissance era, and traces how knowledge has become so centered around Man and language that our current epistemology resides in an infinite space that is no longer connected to the natural world. Knowledge is made from discourse, which is made from earlier discourse; we are stuck in a cycle, always moving toward a utopia of complete understanding that we can never reach. The readings for this week help us to understand the complicated web of discourse in the modern episteme, woven thick with identities, judgements, desires, human experiences, and histories that complicate knowledge today.
In The Prose of the World, Foucault explores the role of resemblances in the Classical episteme. He identifies four main similitudes (resemblances)--analogy, metaphor, emulation, and convenience--in which knowledge was acquired and communicated in direct relation to the natural world, like a mirror to the heavens. Foucault provides the example of “the human animal given to the earth it inhabits…his bones are rocks, his veins great rivers, his bladder is the sea, and his seven principal organs are the metals hidden in the shafts of mines” (22). In this episteme, knowledge is a series of resemblances, correlations between the spiritual and natural world that interact with each other in a cycle of knowledge creation. To gain knowledge, one must unearth the seemingly endless number of resemblances waiting to be discovered. Foucault introduces the idea of signification here: “These buried similitudes must be indicated on the surface of things; there must be visible marks for the invisible analogies.” (26). For example, walnuts are shaped like brains, signifying that they will make us smarter. Carrots, when cut open, resemble eyes, signifying that they will improve our vision. Knowledge is discovered by deciphering visible marks in the natural world.
In the classical episteme, signs were organized by three elements: (1) the thing in the world, (2) the sign, the visible mark on the thing in the world, and (3) and what made it possible to see the sign, which is the resemblance (64). Foucault positions humans as a “great fulcrum of proportions – the centre upon which relations are concentrated and from which they are once again reflected” (23). This centering of humans has consequences when language is introduced. At first, language was placed in the world like everything else and was not seen as a separate system of signs (H & C, 32). Foucault begins the transition to the next episteme through the evolution of language from one to many, arguing that as languages separated, they no longer resembled the things that they named (36). The organization of signs thus transitions into a binary system in which resemblance, the direct reflection of the natural and spiritual world, disappears. The two elements remaining are the sign and the signifier.
Hussain and Cousins dive deeper into the consequences of language with a focus on grammar: the art of speaking. This shows how representation is an effect of the invention of grammar. They provide a closer look into the outward spiral of language away from the natural world by looking at how words are placed in relation to each other and the interplay of subjects and objects. “For if one beats, one beats someone; if one loves, one loves something” C&H, 18). In this space, verbs, conceptions, reasoning, and judgements turn language into discourse that represents thoughts (27). Further, adverbs abbreviate discourse, and language expands farther away from mirrors of thought (C&H, 18). We do not simply conceive of objects but judge and affirm them within our own moods and inflections.
By representing things and naming things, language spirals out of control, further and further away from the natural world into its own cycle of knowledge that marks the modern episteme. Representations represent representations, discourses spur more discourses, on and on into infinite space. Foucault writes, “Words wander off on their own, without content, without resemblance to fill their emptiness, they are no longer the marks of things” (48). In this new episteme, knowledge is not in the relation of words to the world but in the representative power of language; “words have swallowed up their own nature as signs.” (48). While resemblances still exist, Foucault suggests they are situated on the outer edge of culture for poets and madmen to sustain, often thought of as “charms of a knowledge that had not yet attained the age of reason” (51).
Foucault expands on the transition from resemblance to representation by emphasizing the gap created between those who think in resemblances (poets) and the Western World. This transition is marked by the importance given to identities and differences; the order we give things based on their discontinuities (50). He discusses the discontinuities in history, posing questions about when and how we mark the beginning or end of a period or era:
Discontinuity--the fact that within the space of a few years a culture sometimes ceases to think as it had been thinking up till then and begins to think other things in a new way—probably begins with an erosion from outside, from that space which is, for through, on the other side, but in which it has never ceased to think from the very beginning. (50)
It is worth noting that in the classical episteme knowledge was based on resemblances--things that are similar. In the new episteme, knowledge is grounded in how things are different, which contributes to the fragmentation of an already overwhelming cycle of knowledge. Further, in the new episteme we begin to measure and order things in isolation from the whole. We break things into units, establish elements of a greater whole, and compare them with each other to obtain knowledge (52). This causes a greater rift in knowledge creation. Two people can use their acquired knowledge to analyze the same thing and come out with varied results, depending on their scope and approach. Differences and discontinuities in which things are measured, ordered, and compared become inferences dependent on ready-made concepts and the scientific order (54). Foucault argues that this ‘rationalism’ causes history and science to split; language and written word are no longer considered forms of natural truth and nature becomes mechanical and calculable. However, there remain those who study the contrary forces at play beneath rationalism who refuse to let nature and life be “reduced either to algebra or dynamics” (56). This is largely where the field of human and social sciences is situated, where the “general domain of representations has been broken up” (H&C, 49).
In this new episteme, the sign is no longer around us waiting to be discovered. Rather, “...it is within knowledge itself that the sign is to perform its signifying function” (59). Removed from the natural world, signs live in the realm of knowledge and rely on the probability of impressions and relations of a sign to the thing signified – the idea of one thing and the idea of another (60). Once a sign is identified it can be reconstructed and applied to further impressions into infinity, spreading out into open space. In this space, signs are not bound by nature or laws outside of those who govern their contents and give them meaning. Foucault describes signs in this episteme as “lodged henceforth within the confines of representation, in the interstices of ideas, in that narrow space in which they interact with themselves in a perpetual state of decomposition and recomposition” (67).
Hussain and Cousins delve into how knowledge split into regions--life, labor, and language--that sparked “changes in the conceptual order of grammar, natural history and the analysis of wealth” (41). Philosophy transitioned from merely commenting on representations to analyzing the knowledge that was created by those representations (C&H, 49). Grammar was not only increasingly concerned with inflection, but changes in inflections over time, which provided endless space for new discourse. From here we can see how disciplines unraveled from their original silos in knowledge production to what they are today, and how they will continue to adapt to political and social needs in the future. This endless expansion of ways of knowing reflects how humans come to understand the world around them in increasingly diverse ways (which can lead to greater controversy). Humans transitioned from the space in which relations were concentrated and reflected in the classical episteme to the space of knowledge itself and the “set of relations between knowledges,” in the modern episteme (H&C, 49). Consciousness of our position puts us in a permanently unstable spot on the map. In human sciences, we make claims but then ask, “how can that be known?” (H&C, 61). Hussain and Cousins also point out that the unstable ground where the human sciences reside allows us to make “hilarious couplings” in which we fold discourses over on themselves, for example, the “capacity to explain the Reformation in terms of Luther’s anal retentiveness” (H&C, 64).
Hussain and Cousins continue beyond The Order of Things to provide an overview of Foucault’s attempts to analyze knowledges through the concept of discursive formations in The Archeology of Knowledge. For Foucault, discourse “may be thought of as an attempt to avoid treating knowledge in terms of ideas” (H&C, 78). This is because ideas are tissues of other ideas, productions of thought by human subjects, and have their existence in language (H & C, 78). He argues that these ideas lead to ‘meaningful sentences’ produced by subjects that form categories and genres of ideas. By assigning discourses to histories of science or literature does not allow space for subjectivity--”they are too important to be reduced to the undifferentiated category of tradition” (H&C, 79). Foucault argues that if we analyze discourse through history we strive to put objects in relation with each other in continuity. However, this often results in discontinuity, which can seem like we failed to put things into relation with one another. Foucault argues that these discontinuities in history are “not a problem to be smoothed away; it becomes an object and indeed a means of research” (H&C, 81).
Hussain and Cousins state that evidence and arguments used in discourse are subjective to the researcher and the question posed, how things are ordered, taken apart or put back together for analysis. If this is the case, how are we to approach analyzing discourse? According to Foucault, the objects of analysis should be effective statements and discursive events (84). Identifying discursive objects and their surfaces of emergence allows the researcher to find a relation between objects that seem to have little coherence but are nonetheless contingent (87). Essentially, he is making the case for archeology over history to analyze discourse. His method stems away from broad generalizations to focus on specific relations between statements and events.
The readings from Foucault and Hussain and Cousins shed light on the complex map of our current episteme. The interplay of knowledge in silos (disciplines), human experiences, judgements and perceptions, and our ability to create knowledge from knowledge, provides context as to why discourse today is so complicated; why there is no way to bring us back to a unified text. We produce more knowledge to get back to a core natural truth, to identify something as right or wrong, but because our discourses are products of previous discourses, we can never reach utopia/justice/unity. We are stuck in a cycle of continuously fracturing knowledge to make possible what is not currently apparent. However, Foucault argues that humans are not invulnerable to change and are capable of thinking otherwise to escape the cycle.
Robyn Weigman, Object Lessons
Robyn Weigman is a professor of Literature and Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies at Duke University. Her chapter Doing Justice with Objects in Object Lessons traces the change from Women’s Studies to Gender Studies and highlights the ways in which words (objects) can do justice. She also discusses a contradiction in her field to be increasingly inclusive and critical, to the point where she argues no word will fully encompass the justice we are seeking to represent.
Weigman argues that ‘gender’ has been given the politically progressive value of achieving representational inclusion where ‘women’ has not (40). This movement from one object to the next was to decrease the distance between “social movements and the institutionalized domains of study that seek to politically nurture them” (37). Weigman quotes Shirley Lee about the potential downfalls of this transition: ‘gender’ instead of ‘women’ could take “hard-won visibility” away from away from both “scholars of color and scholarship on women of color” (44). She argues that the change from women to gender takes the power away from women. Auslander reiterates this claim, positing Gender Studies as white. But the change brought hope for a more inclusive discipline and a comprehensive interdisciplinary.
Weigman provides a history of the words women and gender, and argues that gender used to be synonymous with women. She poses the question, “How did gender accumulate this kind of capital, and what effect did its accumulation have on the various objects and analytics that it came to collectively represent?” (45). Weigman traces how ‘women’ failed to capture all of the women in the field and failed to represent the greater public political crisis of inclusivity, (amongst other things). Thus, ‘gender’ was a necessary savior to ‘women’. It encompassed what women could not. It “emerged to claim oversight and priority, the hope it carried with it, and the worry its progress raised along the way” (45).
Here we can see the direct correlation between the Foucault (subsequently, the Hussain and Cousins, rooted in Foucault) readings and Weigman’s piece. Weigman’s discourse about the movement of objects to better represent other objects is not just a discourse on the movement itself, but the implications of the movement, how the objects stick and transcend, and what that implies for the future. This is a great example of knowledge production in the modern episteme, how discourses can spur off into infinite space. In that space, ‘gender’ can represent a multitude of things from hope, concern, power and injustice. Weigman states:
How does one assert gender’s ability to travel more coherently and inclusively into the political, institutional, and intellectual terrain where women has failed while also acknowledging that gender might reach its own critical and institutional limit by muting, in its representational power, the field’s commitment to long-standing feminist social issues; to race as a crucial axis for the interpretation of culture, identity, and power; and to the possibility of disciplinary crossings with the natural and physical sciences? (49)
When an object fails, then, we can expand and transcend to other objects into the seemingly autonomous and abundant future. Weigman poses the danger of this progress narrative, stating that it is a “regeneration or the political desire that founds the field” (53). This cycle reflects Foucault’s description of continuous knowledge that strives to make possible what is not currently apparent. It moves toward a telos--justice, unity, truth--but the discourse can never arrive in that space because it is situated in a complicated web of the modern episteme surrounded by human-made knowledge that cannot get back to the fantastical ‘original text’.
Acknowledging this disciplinary imperative to move on, Weigman questions, “but don’t the critiques from women of color and lesbian women fit into the foundation of Women’s Studies?” The discontinuities between women contributed to the downfall of Women’s Studies. This aligns with Foucault’s argument that discontinuities are not failures to put things in relation with one another but rather new means of research. Hussain and Cousins state that we have been “subject to catastrophes, irruptions into the world during the past. These revolutions have destroyed living beings, separated them, and interwoven them” (36). Thus, there is no continuity to be found, yet we are constantly searching for it. Our world is too messy and thick for one object to represent all we want it to. But Weigman suggests it is possible to break the cycle of the progress narrative, just as Foucault argues it is possible to get out of our current cycle of knowledge.
Rhetoric can be identified in different spaces throughout the readings for this week. Weigman analyzes rhetorical objects (‘women’ and ‘gender’) and how they gain power and new meaning; how they are recycled and reused. However, this reading is largely focused on discourse and she does not mention rhetoric throughout the chapter. The commonality is that an object transcends from one knowledge production to the next, just like the transcendence of things from one episteme to the next. For Foucault, rhetoric was fundamental as a spatial orientation in the classical episteme, like the relation between the earth and the heavens. The four similitudes--Emulation, Convenience, Analogy, and Metaphor--are the master tropes in which resemblance occurred. When we move from resemblance to representation, we lose rhetoric as the primary mode of knowledge-making. Knowledge transitions from a relation of the similitudes to a subset of grammar. Foucault writes in the Order of Things, “...grammar presupposes languages, even the most primitive and spontaneous ones, to be rhetorical in nature. (84) With this shift, rhetoric is no longer central to the history of knowledge.
For a thing to have existence, it needs to be named (there needs to be a thing called 'rhetoric') and it must be crucial for the way that knowledge is produced. This is similar to Foucault’s table of the possible differences and identities of signs--when we see them, we can name them. It's not until modernity that rhetoric makes its 'return' as a more general mode of interpreting the world. This looks different from the rhetorical tropes in the classical episteme because we no longer think in resemblances, rather, we view knowledge production in terms of correlations. In our episteme, language represents things disconnected from nature--what we know is tied to a complex web of how we learned it, our experiences with it, and previous discourses about it (and those previous discourses are the layering of early ‘resemblance’ rules with later ‘representational’ rules).
- How does archeology differ from historiography?
- What consequences emerged from our attempt to make the world measurable?
- Where are social/human sciences situated as a result of this measurement?
- Our knowledge production is fragmented and our discourses dense with histories, events, and discontinuities. Aware of the cycle of knowledge production that we are in, how can we best approach analyzing discourse? Further, how can we engage in discourse knowing its seemingly unresolvable tension/conflict?
Mark Cousins and Athar Hussein, “Knowledge and Discourse” in Michel Foucault (Traditions in Social Theory), 14-99.
Michel Foucault, “The prose of the world” and “Representing” in The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences, 17-76.
Richard Harland, “Foucault as archaeologist” in Superstructuralism, 101-120.
Robyn Weigman, “Doing Justice with Objects” in Object Lessons, 36-90.
McHoul, A. W., & Grace, W. (2002). A Foucault Primer : Discourse, Power And The Subject. London: Routledge.
John Protevi, Order of Things I, Summary of Foucault
Atilla Hallsby (2011), The Order of Things: Chapters 1, 2, & 3. Prepared for “Critical Theories of Discourse: Foucault”
John Bender and David E. Wellbery, “Rhetoricality: On the Modernist Return of Rhetoric,” in The Ends of Rhetoric: History, Theory, Practice, 3-39.
Part 2: Media Discourse
Presentation by Eduardo Nevarez
This week’s thematic focus was on media and technology discourse. Each of the readings had some component of how media technologies have allowed the expansion of communication. While each essay speaks towards their own particular media technology, they all fit in the bigger scheme of rhetoric. The ability to transmit communication has always been of interest to scholars and practitioners. The effects of media technologies within discourse allows us to ask bigger questions of the technologies that are used to mediate discourses. Questions of power and change are of primary interest since the idealization of the technologies as unificatory can lead to lack of understanding of those technologies. However, it is important to research such systems to identify new forms, genres, and styles of communication.
Lisa Gitelman, Paper Knowledge
The introduction to the book investigates the particular moments of production of documents of the last 150 years as a vernacular genre. It traces several instances in history and investigates how documents are inherently epistemic by the ability to document information and use that to inform audiences - or what Gitelman refers to as the know-show dynamic of learning and knowledge in the act of showing. To some, written communication can seem somewhat of a substandard form of communication as it derives from a rhetorical and oral tradition of discourse. But the outline of this book makes a strong argument of how the document, in its several genres, has had an impact in the everyday life of people by the way it is constructed, by whom, mediums, and the context surrounding the document. And more generally, it looks at the history of print culture one that produces and reproduces discourse for wide dissemination. Embedded in this culture, however, is the institutional hegemonic disparity that equates document within a hierarchical power structure.
In order to understand what a document is, it is only right to first define it. While there is no definitive definition that can encapsulate the meaning of a document since a document is not a stand alone object, Gitelman defines it by the properties of how a document becomes a document. It is described as any object that is framed as or entered into evidence does it become a document (p. 3). These frames are usually derived from institutional or contextual settings that make the document more than just a static object. Which make frames an important component in understanding what a document is.
Frames as part of a written tradition of communication makes document particularly interesting in how the socio-historical contexts embedded in the frames affect future interpretations. Gitelman considers documents an important feature of modernity in the ways they mobilize inscriptions. And historically, documents have long existed even before books, novels or any other types of mediums used to disseminate information. This means that documents have an integral part of human society as we depend on them in several ways. One example provided is that of the bible as an accumulation of documents bounded and mass reproduced from a frame unknown to the modern reader but mediated by cultural and traditional norms that can be associated within a type of genre.
Definitions about genre has long been of interest in the rhetorical scholarship with Jamieson, Miller, Bazerman, and others trying to identify what a genre is. Miller sees it as a social action not constrained by form or substance and to an extent, Gitelman sees it the same way as a mode of recognition instantiated in discourse (p. 2). The genre function in the document is essential in relating the document to a form of structure that we are familiar with in the know-show idea. Because genres are not static and they are dependent on an infinite number of things from the perspective of what people recognize, it is important how the mediums from which the document is shown affects the perspective of how it is received. One question posed in an edited collection by Giltrow and Stein (2009), Genres in the Internet, is whether the medium automatically make for a new genre? The same can be asked of documents since documentation can take up noun and verb properties.
Differentiating from text and work might be difficult since the text is mostly associated by its recognition through a genre and the work is associated by the action it produces. However, they are not particular and are closely associated. An example might be the transnational discourses formed by the literacies of documents. Viera (2011) provides a clear example how a document, such as a visa, green card, or social security card, have its own literacy associated with it. It creates limits among people who hold each particular document which changes their practices. Those without documents have their own literacy practices that informed by the space and place in which the document takes form as more than just a documentation and action but a literacy practice. Similarly, we see the importance of document and its historical trajectory. Not only to understand its forms but to identify the hegemonic disparities that exist embedded in documents.
Mara Mills, “When Mobile Communication Technologies Were New”
A main theme of this paper is the ability to encapsulate sound as a form of communication. In this essay, the author traces the concept of noise in the initial stages of telephone communication to modern forms of redefining and expanding the categories of what sound represents in communication between people and machine. The main focus relies in understanding the medium of the telephone as a way to “extend speech across space which would ideally reduce speech by eliminating its imperceptible or inessential components” (p. 121). However, in this portrayal of their vision of a telephone system the dismissal of a large population being represented by the League of the Hard of Hearing is understood to be a tumultuous time in the active engineering of sound when large segments of the population have a hearing impairment.
The concept of deafness is one that is touched in the article. Mills provides a conceptual understanding of the issues regarding the engineering of a telephone system and a population that would be ignored in their own endeavors. This lead to a comprehensive study of speech and hearing to understand population differences in hearing. The idea to measure mankind by analyzing speech and hearing came to be advantageous in the development of better instruments that could capture the essence of noise and structure it in speech form (p. 120). Since the new medium of the telephone was designed to extend speech across space, it would be ideal to reduce speech by eliminating its imperceptible or inessential components” (p. 121).
The goal of controlling speech can be construed beyond the boundaries of the telephone system since information theory has provided an understanding of sound to be unwanted speech or a disruption of speech communication. It interferes with the audition of the message and distorts the message. Natural speech sounds was idealized in the construction of an instrument meant to contain the sounds of speech and control the unwanted sounds associated with the movement of sound across time and space. Methods of measurement were developed to detect language “defect” of sound. These methods would determine the defects of transmission, production and reception (p.124)
Ways of measuring sound were systematically created to understand the relationship between sound and distances to designate partial hearing for particular hearings. Pushing the limit of aural ability, the idea behind measurement was to identify the intensities from which sound can be recognized and at what others could it be rationalized into speech and not affect individual hearing. In media history, quantifying the senses has become a way to simulate the communication relation between machines and people. In the absence of the material text, the ability to engage with audiences relied in the abilities to equate communication through bodily experiences. These were measured through units of audiograms and later with the decibel and hertz which were essentially sensation units from which sound was transmitted. These units were the beginnings of a research endeavor of trying to identify hearing and sound which led to the standardization of the test among young populations.
Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter
This introduction of the book Gramophone, Film, Typewriter by Kittler opens up the historical trajectory of media evolution in their communication endeavors. While the book does not mention the rhetorical oral tradition and instead focuses on the writing technologies that evolved from the oral tradition, we can see the encapsulation of other texts described in this lecture within this one introduction. Writing as a technology is suggested by the author to have a lot of power. We now know of this because the historical documentation that exists is thoroughly framed by the arbitrators of the time. The author emphasizes this historical point where writing and history intersect moving linearly across time to describe what has become the current media. Using theories of post-structuralist, mostly associated with Lacan, the author introduces the ways in which communication evolved from the body, text, and soul of writing, to the opportunities that visual, aural, and sensory that media technologies allowed.
In our current digitization period, we see similar aspirations of trying to connect the world through the defragmentation and optimization of communication. Reducing communication to bits and binary systems mediated by what we know now as an interface facilitates and transposes all sensations usually involved in the communication act. It is the greatest achievement of communication since writing became a technology with similar characteristics as the optical fiber networks that overwhelmingly make the world move along.
In her book, Writing Technologies: Studies on the materiality of literacy, Haas investigates how the tools we use to write, change the writers, forms, and functions of writing. While simplistically described here, this same idea is described by Kittler in the description of Foucault as the last historian and first archaeologist of language as discourse analysis became simply too disconnected to the mediums, or to describe it another way, the mediums became too embedded in the discourse to dismiss. Adding to this symbolic representation of writing, Kittler describes writing as storing other writing. This is done by the ability to store fragments of histories framed to tell a story, but not a complete one. In doing this, we see writing as being more than just the ability to document for know-show perspective and instead we see it through the technologies that derive from writing.
The introduction of mass distribution of typewriters changed the perspective of who could write. While a lot was lost from the pen and paper bodily experience, noted by Kittler. the rise of technologies equally became surrogates of communication. Objects like, film, typewriters, phonographs, and gramophones became the idealized form of media communication. These objects are then analyzed l distinctions which differentiates between symbolic, real, and imaginary. The symbolic is described by Kittler as the letters and ciphers from a finite set without taking into account philosophical dreams of infinity” (p. 15). The imaginary is seen as implementing optical illusions of mirror image of the body that comes to be. Lastly, the real is “the physiological accidents and stochastic disorder of the bodies” (p. 16). With this theoretical lens, supplemented by others, Kittler provides a historical analysis of the technologies that were to replace writing and the ones that currently exist in relation to how we communicate.
Connections and Centering Rhetoric
It should not be difficult to see the relation between rhetoric and today’s literature since although the rhetorical concepts studied in class were not explicitly mentioned, they’re implicitly called upon in the description of the objects of study. For example, in Gitelman’s essay we saw how the act of documenting words and ideas into paper became a power act but also the materiality of the discourse shaping knowledge by the know-show function. Adding to this body of literature, I included a piece by Viera in which she identifies that literacy practices elicited by documents transnationally. So it is not only what the document is and shows in terms of knowledge, it is what it does in terms of practices and literacy outside the walls of academic institutions. The second paper by Mills has a resounding (no pun intended) similarity to ideas of speech, sign, and persona and the ideas of feeling and sensing, given the aural focus. The last reading was interesting because it contained both of the readings previously noted analyzed through a post-structural lens looking at many technological artifacts and understanding their function in discourse.
Another reading that I included was Haas’ book on the materiality of writing. It is important to note that the transition to mediating technologies of communication has increased the ways we explore discourses. Documentation of discourse is in itself a mediating technology since ideas and knowledge are transmitted through the medium of the paper. While the material object of the paper may seem like a stand alone epistemic object, it is understood to have a contextual and situational setting from which the document can have the intended effect. However, its effect transcend those boundaries set forth by context at times and its effect can become ecological in terms of how a document, like NAFTA, not intended to be for a population outside the bureaucratic and political audiences, has affected general populations because ofto the neoliberal ideologies embedded within. This brings rhetoric as an important lens to which to look at those documents since what they mean and what they do may not be synonymous, but the existence of bigger consequences of documents beyond the know-show function does happen.
How that applies to sound and hearing is the space and distance that speech reaches through the telephone systems and its bodily sensations. Writing is an act of the body, as noted by Gitelman, its transformation to mass replication by copying and printing is similar to the goals set forth by the engineering sound. By controlling sound to minimize its erratic and disruption for the transmission through a medium across time and space, we are able to replicate and mass produce sound that is not just disrupting but communicative. That itself is rhetorical since it takes up the idea of sensations produced by the words spoken in the sound and audiences receive that sound.
Kittler provides the historical changes of communication mediums. While not explicitly focusing on sound, it does focus on two sensations: visual and aural. It mirrors certain ideas from Gitelman about document, but further expands on breaking down effects of technologies. Communication has changed since documents became a medium that changed communication. Not only has the ability to transmit voices and information through optic cables changed the interconnectedness of the world. It has also changed the ways communication has been decreased to bits and binaries and fragmented and unfragmented for our display. It has become the now current ways of communication and information transmission which puts people in connection to the world and each other. Isolated towns with no fiber optic infrastructure have been unexplored in terms of how communication is occuring in those spaces and the effects from the lack of infrastructure. Recently, Minnesota rural towns have called for the expansion of fiber optic and mirrored that infrastructure to the electrical line boom that powered world. Also recently, the New York Times have documented and mapped the fiber optic that runs across oceans into other countries as an important factor of the continuing growth of communication mediums. While we know its importance and it's also important to know what this means rhetorically for communication.
- While not explicitly mentioned in all essays, do you think that new mediums of technology create new genres to which we should look at communication or is it all the same existing genres in different mediums? (i.e twitter, blogs, websites)
- How do you see writing and documents as important in the act of communication?
- What can conclude from the post-structural lens from which Kittler sees new mediums of communication?
- Haas, C. (2013). Writing technology: Studies on the materiality of literacy. Routledge.
- Vieira, K. (2011). Undocumented in a Documentary Society Textual Borders and Transnational Religious Literacies. Written Communication, 28, 436-461.