speculative rhetoric and the mooc

These are my two areas of interest. Well, “mooc” is really a stand-in for the more nebulous issues of digital literacy, pedagogy, and scholarship (a constellation of issues some might want to call “digital humanities”); moocs are the main way we want to talk about such things these days. Speculative rhetoric is the term I have currently settled upon, as opposed to object-oriented rhetoric. Though there may be some who articulate object-oriented ontology in broad terms, as Levi Bryant does in a recent post, to me it remains a more narrowly defined school of thought (one which I find very interesting but not one I fully agree with).  On the other hand, speculative rhetoric, like the speculative realism to which it refers, points to a broader field of inquiry.

Do these areas seem distant and unrelated? One a matter of technology, politics, market forces, and higher education found in newspapers, state legislatures, and university board rooms; the other an esoteric and philosophical matter for graduate seminars and specialized journals or conferences. So what is their connection? The short answer is that a speculative rhetoric provides a method for investigating the operation of digital technologies that is quite different from our legacy methods in the humanities and  in rhetoric in particular. The long answer then goes about explaining those differences and the insights a speculative-rhetorical method might offer about our digital situation. I suppose you could say that long answer is the subject of my current book project, so here is a slightly more detailed answer (some matters I take up in my book’s introduction).

One answer is to consider how these topics have been received in the humanities. Digital pedagogy, digital humanities, and speculative realism have each been targets of the same mechanisms of critique though really the objections run the gamut of possibilities as sexist, racist, hegemonic, capitalist, etc. Oddly though, there is a second, contradictory brand of complaints that insist the DH and SR overlook the contributions of critical theorists to their fields. What the two moves share is some hostility to the perception that DH and SR operate outside the existing paradigms of humanistic work. To this one must either respond that being outside means being anti-intellectual or that the claim to be outside is false. At least within the DH realm I think there is a complementary move, insisting that DH is part of the project of critique, though I think that really begs the question of whether the concepts of critique can be neatly translated from one medium to the next.

However it is not just this putative position outside of critique that links speculative realism with the digital. There is a historical link as well. Graham Harman points to 2002 as a watershed moment in realist ontology with the publication of his Tool Being and DeLanda’s Intensive Science and Virtual Philosophy. This is also around the time that the term digital humanities was coined. And it is also around the time that social media started to take off. And yes, all of these things have longer histories than that, but it is also permissible to point to shifts within a timeline. In fact, we can put this in terms of a Kuhnian paradigm shift if that is helpful. Many of these paradigm shifts are partly driven by technology (e.g. the telescope allows us to see the night sky differently; the microscope allows us to see a previously unseen world). As is noted in The Speculative Turn, speculative realism is a methodological shift in the face of technological change: “In the face of the ecological crisis, the forward march of neuroscience, the increasingly splintered interpretations of basic physics, and the ongoing breach of the divide between human and machine, there is a growing sense that previous philosophies are incapable of confronting these events.” Just as I think it is fair to say that our legacy practices responded to similar shifts in 19th and 20th century industrialization, science, and politics. The digital humanities (broadly conceived) is even more obviously a response to these shifts as it investigates the uses of new technologies in addressing humanistic research and uses humanistic approaches to study digital technologies and cultures. And it is in that final turn that the linkage of speculative realism with the digital humanities becomes most clear: DH, at least in part, wants to examine the rhetorical, aesthetic, ethical, political, social effects of digital media, and speculative realism wants to develop new theories of addressing these questions. SR has other projects, just as DH does, but here, in my work, they overlap.

So, for example, one could look at Ian Bogost’s recent take on MOOCs:

I am not particularly interested in whether MOOCs are “good” or “bad” educational apparatuses, nor whether individual “positive” examples of the uses of MOOCs can be found to disprove wholesale rejections for the form. Rather, I’m interested in what MOOCs generally speaking do to the educational, technological, cultural, social, and economic landscape: in how they function at large. Individual examples of MOOCs illuminate a part of that picture, but not the whole of it. That whole picture is complex; MOOCs may function on many registers all at once, with interdependencies in-between. But, overall, MOOCs seem to function first and most powerfully as new instruments of fiscal and labor policy, rather than as educational technologies. It’s perhaps time we stopped talking about their value as instruments of learning, and started talking more about what choices they are making on our behalf while we are arguing on the internet about their educational potential.

Here I think “MOOCs” means specifically the xMOOCs of Coursera, EdX, and Udacity. Though Bogost is not explicitly wearing his SR/OOO hat here, I think there is a gesture here to address MOOCs as “matters of concern,” to use Latour’s phrase. As Bogost suggests at the end of this passage, MOOCs participate as actors in the development of higher education. They are not simply instrumental. What’s important to add is that if MOOCs are more than instruments then we are other than instrument-users. Those, unlike Bogost, who are interested in making “good” or “bad” judgments, tend to look at human learning as a kind of unchanging activity: either claiming that MOOCs are good because they can produce the same results as giant lecture halls or MOOCs are bad because they cannot provide the conditions under which good learning takes place (i.e. small classes, the attention of faculty, etc.). If MOOCs are instruments of fiscal and labor policy, then it is because education has always been part of these policies as well, which of course it has. Indeed, it is entirely fair (in my mind) to say that MOOCs are a response (good or bad) to shifting fiscal, labor, and technological conditions, just as land grant colleges were in the 19th century.

Here is where a speculative rhetoric steps in. It begins with the speculative realist move that argues there are real objects that exist beyond our ability to perceive or understand them. Furthermore it recognizes that humans are a part of this real world rather than some exceptional entity. A speculative rhetoric extends this specifically to set aside the claim that humans are made exceptional by a unique claim to rhetoric. Not only are nonhumans capable of rhetorical activity, but rhetorical actions are themselves relational and networked. That is, humans cannot be rhetorical in a vacuum (actually there’s very little humans can do in a vacuum except die). So humans and nonhumans participate in rhetorical activity (the most obvious of nonhuman participants being language). The various technologies and practices under the umbrella of digital media would be included here. This is a shift from our legacy rhetorical theories that might want to view rhetoric as an exceptional human trait that is affected by technologies. Maybe this doesn’t seem like a giant shift; maybe you’ll have to read the book (someday, I hope) to get that. But when I look at MOOCs, I see one instantiation of a far larger shift in what rhetorical behaviors are and the role that humans play in networks of rhetorical activity. The notion that humans are not the center of rhetoric is very disturbing to our legacy practices. The idea that thinking, feeling, and communicating could be very different might even be vertiginous. I don’t think we have a good grip on what we are becoming, and I don’t think our “previous philosophies” (to return to The Speculative Turn) are prepared to address this challenge.

For me, jumping into a challenge like MOOCs is not about these technologies; it certainly isn’t about the xMOOC platforms. It’s about the other side of that. Similarly, while I understand skepticism and resistance to xMOOC (because they are mediocre products with questionable motives), this has to be followed by some other move that continues to address these digital shifts.