This semester I’m teaching CMN 3109: Advanced Theories in Communication. I’ve taught the class before, both at the University of Ottawa and at the University of North Dakota.

This semester I am trying something a bit new. At first glance, theory seems like an impractical exercise in abstraction, the type of thing parents would discourage their children from pursuing, ‘cuz how’s that gonna get you a job? But I think, on the contrary, that theory is practical. It’s an effort to explain how we experience the world, and it helps us maneuver through the world more effectively. Theory helps us understand problems and solve them.

That’s the idea I want to put into practice this semester. I’m going to use my blog (read by a total of four people, perhaps? two? just me?) to think through the pedagogical side of that idea. What exercises can I lead my students through to help them see for themselves how the abstractions of theory help us understand our everyday experience?

I’ve put together three axioms to help clarify that process. They are:

  • Axiom 1: Theory is an attempt to explain our experience of the world.
  • Axiom 2: If the explanation theory offers doesn’t match our experience, it’s bad theory.
  • (Axiom 2a: In the end, it’s all bad theory.)
  • Axiom 3: We must refine our explanation to replace bad theory with good theory.

In addition, on Tuesday I’ll be leading a presentation on “How to Succeed at University.” It’s for first year students, and I want to make it valuable, despite its atrocious title. I offer four pieces of advice:

  • Show up.
  • Take notes.
  • Get lost.
  • Find your way back again.

It’s the final two that are the most interesting. They’re about “productive negativity,” or the value of confusion. We can get lost in a lot of ways — we can lose ourselves in a book, we can follow a map wrong, we can be confused. They are all important (I follow maps wrong all the time!), but I want to emphasize the value of confusion: when we find ourselves in a place we don’t understand, we’ve been given two gifts. First, we are not beholden to the rules that would normally govern that place because we don’t know them and haven’t internalized them. Without them, we have the potential for a dizzyingly free range of movement. Such freedom is scary, but it is also liberating.

Second, if we can figure out why we’re confused, we can identify a starting point for finding our own way back to places that are familiar. We get confused when there are two possible answers to a question, but only one can be right. We don’t know which because we haven’t acquired the tools to discern between them (or because our teacher has not given us the tools). But that’s our starting point — we can identify and evaluate the two possible answers.

But when we find our way back, we see our familiar places differently. It’s something like a parallax effect: it’s the same world, but our angle on it has changed.

So my goal this semester is to find ways to translate these abstractions into concrete experiences for my students. I’ll keep my notes here — if I do luck into finding a reader, I’d love to hear what you think.

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I want to write, finally, about a thought experiment. I’ve been going on and on about figs. Now’s the time to do some work. How do we get to the point I describe here:

That’s what I want my students to do — figure out how to “cook” with new technologies. If they’ve got some sort of machine in front of them, but no “recipe,” can they make it work? How can I get them to the point where they have strategies to generate the questions they need to ask, and then answer them?

I’m not sure how this thought experiment will turn out, and I expect to refine it. But what if we 1. choose an object in the world, and 2. “look” at it through the filters of different mediating technologies? We can perform the phenomenological reduction I described in previous posts, but when we take our “naive look around,” it’s not the effect of our senses we’re concerned with, but the effect of the technologies, which come to act like senses. If we turn our attention to those effects, can we build mental catalogs that allow us to “cook” in the way I’ve described above?

Think back to the meal you had at Thanksgiving (which I’m presuming was turkey — if it wasn’t, humor me!).
1. What did it taste like? Look? Smell? Sound? Feel?
2. How do you know? That is, how does your memory of the meal differ from the meal itself? Why do you feel you can trust your memory?
3. What do these clips (here and here) reveal about the experience of Thanksgiving dinner? How do they suggest experience that they are technologically incapable of conveying? (You can’t taste YouTube. How does YouTube suggest taste?)
4. What does the gap between our mediated experience and our knowledge of a turkey dinner reveal about the types of mediation each technology performs?
4a. Questions 1 to 3 went step by step, and question 4 jumped a few steps, but I’m not yet sure which. What do you think?

(Some time, I’ll write about Marshall McLuhan, who described the media as “extensions of man.” Those who know me know I find McLuhan’s work frustrating because he makes proclamations or even declamations without ever saying how he got to them. I think if he had named his method, it would have looked like what I’m proposing here.)

If we want to ask how different technologies mediate our experience of the objects they present to us, what do we actually do?

We’ve already taken the first step. In my last entry, I quoted from Sam Rocha’s book on folk phenomenology, where he describes how a fig becomes “figly” through the culinary process of reduction. That description was a way to work through the first step in the mode of inquiry I’m encouraging — it should bring about a certain disposition toward figs (or other objects) by bracketing them off so we can pay attention to how we experience them. By “bracketing off,” I mean setting the object aside for the moment to focus on our senses as the way we come to know the object. (For what it’s worth, Edmund Husserl, in The Crisis of European Sciences calls this break the “epoche.”)

I describe the second step below. The first step is necessary so the second doesn’t become routinized. If our inquiry is to mean anything, we must be responsible to the object and our experience of it. We experience different objects differently, and we can’t simply go through the motions of inquiry — the second step — without being responsive to the object. If we perform these steps by rote, we risk missing what makes one object different from another. This disposition makes us responsive to the object and our experience of it.

In section 45 of The Crisis, Husserl talks about what we do after we’ve bracketed off the object. He writes:

[L]et us now take a first, naïve look around; our aim shall be, not to examine the world’s being and being-such, but to consider whatever has been valid and continues to be valid for us as being and being-such in respect to how it is subjectively valid, how it looks, etc.

For example, there are various individual things of experience at any given time; I focus on one of them. To perceive it, even if it is perceived as remaining completely unchanged, is something very complex: it is to see it, to touch it, to smell it, to hear it, etc.; and in each case I have something different. What is seen in seeing is in and for itself other than what is touched in touching. But in spite of this I say: it is the same thing; it is only the manners of its sensible exhibition, of course, that are different. If I remain purely within the realm of seeing, I find new differences, arising in very manifold form in the course of any normal seeing, which, after all, is a continuous process; each phase is itself a seeing, but actually what is seen in each one is something different. I express this somewhat in the following way: the pure thing seen, what is visible “of” the thing, is first of all a surface, and in the changing course of seeing I see it now from this “side,” now from that, continuously perceiving it from ever differing sides. But in them the surface exhibits itself to me in a continuous synthesis; each side is for consciousness a manner of exhibition of it. This implies that, while the surface is immediately given, I mean more than it offers. Indeed, I have ontic certainty of this thing [as that] to which all the sides at once belong, and in the mode in which I see it “best.” Each side gives me something of the seen thing. In the continuous alteration of seeing, the side just seen ceases being actually still seen, but it is “retained” and “taken” together with those retained from before; and thus I “get to know” the thing. […]

Even if I stop at perception, I still have the full consciousness of the thing, just as I already have it at the first glance when I see it as this thing. In seeing I always “mean” it will all the sides which are in no way given to me, not even in the form of intuitive, anticipatory presentifications. Thus every perception has, “for consciousness,” a horizon belonging to its object.

What is he saying? Let’s break it down step-by-step. First, we take take “a naïve look around.” We pretend we don’t know what we’ve got — that’s what makes our look around naïve. I pick up the fig (I have an actual dried California mission fig in front of me), feel its weight in my hand, observe its black, wrinkled skin, taste its sticky sweetness. I put each of these sensations together — it’s not like I think each sensation comes from a different fig. So when I’m looking at it, I can imagine tasting it. Even if the sensations are not all present simultaneously, I put the fig together an object whose different qualities are continuous with each other.

As a result, even when it’s not there, I can conjure it up. I just ate the fig I was holding, but I can still see it in my mind, if I choose. Husserl describes this as “meaning” or “intention.” I intend it by directing my attention toward it, in a way that anticipates what I will find. That anticipation results from my many experiences of figs. They have a regular set of qualities I have come to expect. My expectations constitute the “horizon” Husserl refers to.

But the qualities I anticipate might be different than those someone else expects. We hold each other in check — if I say a fig is this, and you say it’s that, it makes us examine it again. Our experiences are individual, but they’re also shared. Otherwise, we’d live in closed-off, solipsistic worlds, where we couldn’t understand another person’s experience. But we talk to people every day, and we negotiate an ongoing compromise about the world and what it means.

And the qualities might change. We can have new experiences. Maybe someone opens our eyes to some aspect we hadn’t seen before. (When I write “opens our eyes,” I’m speaking figuratively, but we should take the metaphor seriously. How are our senses heightened?) Or maybe we just eat a rotten fig.

The point, at least for now, is to recognize experience as stable, but only relatively so. It can be interrupted or reshaped. To get back to my original question — that of understanding media technologies’ effect on our perception of the world — will require a third step, which will be the subject of my next post.

There is a contradiction in what I want to do in this project — that is, find a way to teach people about things that do not yet exist. I envision these blog entries (and the book that may or may not come from them) as things that might guide a class of, say, capable third-year undergraduates, people who are invested in learning, but not necessarily the technical apparatus of continental philosophy. For many, their ultimate purpose — one I applaud — is to find a job and be a productive member of society. My job is to give them those tools (and push them on the second part, which isn’t always necessarily forefront in their minds).

Doing phenomenology without the technical language does not mean abandoning rigor, but that is one risk I run. The tendency within the social sciences is to use method to demonstrate rigor, but an over-reliance on method reduces inquiry to a series of motions to work through. If we “do method” by rote, we turn the object we study into a static thing. (Worse yet, if we “do method” to study people, we reduce them to mere objects to be known.) I don’t want the techniques I teach to devolve into method in this sense, a somnambulist’s habit. We must attune ourselves to technologies, and each attunement is a singular, unrepeatable act.

But already I’m falling into a different trap: I’m writing in the flowery language that comes all too naturally after so many years of reading hard books. So, to talk about how we do what we’re about to do, I want to offer a metaphor, one that I’m borrowing from my friend Sam Rocha, from a book on “folk phenomenology” he’s publishing in 2015 with Atropos Press.

As you read his description of fig sauce, the result of a culinary reduction, pay attention to how it causes you to think differently about figs. How does it sharpen the experience you imagine? How does it draw your attention to aspects of taste and smell that you might not have paid attention to before?

We can understand the meaning of phenomenological “reduction” in a preliminary way by considering a culinary reduction. Taking its literal work as a way to seek, sense, and see things, we can understand what a “phenomenological reduction” does. A culinary reduction is the process where a liquid of some sort (usually a stock, sauce, or gravy) is simmered. This simmering allows certain parts of the liquid to evaporate which has the effect of rendering a more intensely flavorful and rich substance, like a fig reduction. There is no doubt to the palate of anyone eating a fig that the reduction tastes “figly,” although the flavor always exceeds our capacity to experience it completely, it saturates our sense of taste. The most radical reduction imaginable would simply disappear. In the very same way, phenomenological reduction is how we go about knowing phenomena or things as best we can by taking them as they are and moving inward through a gentle caress (like evaporation) of the imagination to intensify them and render them more radically saturated as they are.

As chance would have it, I was eating a fig when I first read this passage. (No, really — I keep dried fruit in my office, and figs are my favorite.) Imagine my surprise when I arrived at this passage, the way the word “figly” focused my attention on the fruit, which I had been eating rather mindlessly.

That act of refocusing — of turning one’s attention to the experience itself — is the phenomenological reduction.

One more example. I’m a beer snob. When I went to Wisconsin for graduate school, I wasn’t, but I hung out with beer snobs, and I’m not one to turn down hospitality. So we ended up exploring beers together, and I developed a vocabulary for what I was tasting. When someone pointed out the banana-like flavor you find in a high-alcohol Belgian beer, it sharpened my enjoyment, because I began to pay attention to the sensual experience of beer. I didn’t think of it then, but that was an experiment in phenomenology, an instance of the reduction I will describe in more technical terms in my next post.

In my last post, I wrote that what’s necessary for a class about learning technologies that don’t yet exist is a shift in thinking, away from ontology (“What are these technologies?”) to phenomenology (“How do we encounter and experience technology, and what does awareness of that encounter teach us about the processes of mediation?”).

But there are two problems with the terms “ontology” and “phenomenology.” First, although in the philosopher’s toolbox they’re valuable for their precision, in the classroom, they’re an obstacle. Their Greek roots might be transparent to philosophers, but they’re opaque to students. This doesn’t mean that students can’t ask the questions philosophers ask, or that we must sacrifice thoughtful inquiry at the altar of student evaluations. On the contrary — students want to ask these questions, once they’ve grasped the categories that make them possible. (They don’t normally think about their experience of a technology, but once I draw their attention to the question of experience, they are often eager to bracket off the question of the technology as an object.)

Second, these words carry baggage in philosophy. If you’re a phenomenologist, it matters whether you’ve read Gadamer, and Heidegger before him, and Husserl before him, all the way back to Hegel (to name only one potential pathway back through time). It matters whether you can see how Hegel’s approach differs from Heidegger’s, and why Heidegger made the choices he did. But we can do philosophical work without that baggage. The exercise of bracketing off — which I will describe in my next post — has value in the classroom, even if we do not pursue it with the same type of rigor as a serious philosopher.

In fact, in the classroom, it has value precisely because we can pursue it differently. Husserl’s goal in The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology (to pick a book I know reasonably well) was to lay out a system of thought that got over the distractions and distortions of ontology and could be reproduced by other philosophers. My goal in teaching technology is different. My goal is to equip my students with strategies to discover how to make a technology they’ve never encountered useful. My students produce work that a serious philosopher might find sloppy, but if they successfully negotiate a new technology without a user’s manual — if they find a way into the structuring logic of that technology — such “sloppiness” doesn’t matter. In fact, such “sloppiness” is really a reflection of an inventive type of play, which has a value I will explore in later posts.

So, then, what exactly is my goal for students? I’ll explain with a metaphor. I learned to cook from my father. (My mother taught me to bake, which is a different metaphor altogether!) He didn’t use cookbooks much, if ever. When I was young, he was known for “Dad’s surprise,” which consisted of whatever he could find that looked interesting combined in unexpected ways. He really liked to push the boundaries — once he made “sushi” (for lack of a better word) using fruit leather wrapped around rice and peaches and mangoes, if I remember right.

The way to make this type of cooking work is to play around with ingredients and see what they do. My father liked to talk not about “how to make chicken” but “the philosophy of chicken.” What he meant was it was important to know how ingredients behaved — what you could expect when you put chicken in the oven, or in a pan, or in the microwave, or on the grill, or over the engine of a 1974 half-ton GMC pickup you’re driving to a campsite. (Note: don’t try the pickup experiment — it didn’t work.)

Paying attention to how ingredients behave is what made me the cook I am today. I’m not a gourmet chef, but I have an even more useful skill — when I get home in the evening, and everyone is hungry and tired, I can pull together five ingredients from the pantry and get something on the table pretty quickly. Often, it’s even something good! But it’s because I can anticipate how long each one will take, and how it will combine with the others, that I am able to cook without a recipe in front of me.

That’s what I want my students to do — figure out how to “cook” with new technologies. If they’ve got some sort of machine in front of them, but no “recipe,” can they make it work? How can I get them to the point where they have strategies to generate the questions they need to ask, and then answer them?

I’m going to make a bold declaration about what I teach.

But first, I want to begin with a common misperception you encounter when you teach communication. People think that what you teach can be reduced to technical skills. I’ve taught, say, non-linear video editing. I give people cameras, and I tell them how to focus the lens or adjust the white balance, and I show them how to upload video and edit it and make — I hope — a decent-looking video. Technical skills matter.

But they don’t matter the way people think they do, or at least, their value is not limited to what’s immediately at hand. Knowing how to edit video might get a student a job, and if it does, I’m happy to have played a role in someone else’s success. But technologies change. A new version of a video-editing software suite comes out, and it looks nothing like what it’s replaced. (Final Cut Pro X, anyone?) If all I’ve taught is how to use version 1.0, and my student is flummoxed by version 2.0, I’ve failed.

This happens all the time. Planned obsolescence is a great business strategy. In fact, whatever technology I’m teaching at any given moment is probably already obsolete. (Budgets are tight at universities, and they’re outpaced by the rate of change. Who’s going to buy the new update when the old one still works?)

So here’s my declaration: I can teach technologies that are so new they haven’t been invented yet. I can equip students with the skills they need before we even know what those tools look like.

What we have to do — what I began to do in my last post, and in my manifesto — is rethink the value of technical skills. They are not merely instrumental. (Nor is education itself, in case my broader point isn’t clear.) If we pay attention to the ways technologies mediate our encounter with the world outside of ourselves, we can speculate about what other, newer technologies might do. The real value of technical skills lies not in their ability to get someone a job but in the awareness they bring to the logics of mediation.

In the language of philosophy, what I’m suggesting is that we move away from ontology — the inquiry into the nature of existence, where we ask, “What is this technology and how do we use it?” — to phenomenology — the inquiry into the nature of experience, where we ask, “How do we encounter this technology, and how does it mediate our experience of the world?” These are meaty questions, ones I want to bring into the classroom. But first we’ll need to find a way to ask them without the intimidating apparatus of philosophy itself. If words like “ontology” and “phenomenology” get in the way of the work they’re meant to do, we should abandon them, at least in the undergraduate communication classroom.

How we do that will be the subject of my next post.

A year ago, two of my colleagues approached me to ask if I would write something short for a special issue of the North Dakota Quarterly they were editing on digital art. But there was a catch — I’d have about three weeks before it was due. I agreed — I was frustrated by the growing corporate logic of the university (according to which the point of education is mere skill-acquisition) and the recalcitrance of some of my students when it came to engaging with thorny questions. I wrote “Pedagogy and Digital Aesthetics: A Manifesto.” It’s not the most polished thing I’ve written (I had only three weeks, and it was the end of the semester), but it’s held my fascination since then. In it, I ask how the liberal arts in the digital age can help us prepare students with technical skills (an important goal, even if it coincides with the corporate logic I dislike) by thinking about the nature of technology itself.

A week ago, a student approached me to ask if I had research he could help with as part of the TRIO program. He had already shown himself to be engaged and, more the the point, genuinely interesting. Even better, he liked questions of speculative philosophy, he spoke multiple languages, and he wanted to talk about pedagogy.

In my manifesto (I’m pretentious enough to really like the phrase “my manifesto”), I argue that teaching is as much a form of inquiry as research. I also link questions of translation to questions of media and technology. So I asked my student whether he’d be interested in a speculative form of research — an effort to turn my hastily written manifesto into, say, a syllabus, something to engage with someday in an actual classroom with actual students. He agreed.

My plan is to chronicle our work here. I have other projects, but none have captured my fascination quite the way this one has, in part because it’s still so open-ended — it’s a project that exists in the form of pure potential.

We’ll see how it goes.