The summer now underway, it’s a good time to take stock of gains, setbacks, and lessons learned from the semester. This post simply reviews the three sets of work undertaken over the past few months, and then try to detail the priorities and next steps necessary to continue progress towards the dissertation. Between materials, structures, and approaches, more incommensurability than contiguity prevails – yet weak ties persist in imagination and in theory. Broadly speaking, both epistemological and methodological considerations justify holding all three in concert, as parts of the long-term and focused project. And yet this can only hint at a strategy, it seems, and my largest outstanding challenge will be to find the coherent framework that unifies or at least governs the relationship between each of these schools of thought. Continue reading
1. A signature of the CCT program is a multi- and inter-disciplinary approach to studying the intersection of Communication, Culture and Technology. To that end, students will engage some key problems and bring explicit disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives to those problems throughout the course.
a. (from final paper, “Looking at Photography”, pp. 10-11)
Excursus on the Representation of Memory
… what I have lost is not a Figure … but a being; and not a being, but a quality (a soul): not the indispensable, but the irreplaceable.
– Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida
Anonymous: untitled (snapshot of Herbert Levenberg)
Mike Peters: untitled (portrait of Helene Ershow)
In the past two months, two of my grandparents died. I saw each of their bodies one last time, in repose, before their respective funeral services. Since they are both now buried, I will not see them again. Their absences raise a hard question for me: how do my memories of them relate to my mementos of them? On one hand, these two pictures seem to mark only their absences, reminding me that they are gone – but in this way, the physical presence of the photographs stimulates my internal memories – in a way, the photographic object functions here like an index. On the other hand, the photographs represent each of them at an earlier moment (of course – but by this I mean “earlier than the last time I saw each of them,” or “while they were still alive”). In this way, the physical photograph functions like a container for visual memory, replacing as well as stimulating my internal memories. Aesthetically, these two photographs are perhaps unremarkable compared to the other images discussed in this essay, and this is to be expected. The formal details of each straightforward photograph – one posed and the other candid, one indoors and one outside, one formal and one casual – might be almost too trivial to note. They matter, however, precisely because these details give each photograph their personal meaning – in other words, the uses of these photographs are significant. We can say that in the case of these family photographs, as in much representational photography, the locations of meaning are present in these uses and effects of the material image, rather than the mechanical or electronic process of production of the image.
For the other photographs examined here, however, the process of production (or the trace thereof) is equally important to the production of the meaning of the image. Perhaps, then, we can begin to understand the tenuous connections between representation and epistemology, and when that connection is broken, on the basis of these photographs. These connections rest on the abstraction of photography away from the machinery of photography, of substance from substrate. Without a certain conflation between the image and its referent, representation could not be considered grounds for knowledge. In other words, in order to “know” that the image in a photograph is based on an object, and to begin to draw conclusions about that object “based on the photograph of it,” one must assume, first, that photography is fundamentally an agent of representation. Second, they must ignore that representation is a style among innumerable others. They must further collapse the whole process of making a photograph into a single, automatic, instantaneous action, one which is moreover absolutely faithful to the reality it claims to represent. These are conceptual leaps that are possible, engendered and encouraged, when viewing representational photography. However, when confronted by photographs like those we are examining here, in which something other than representation is emphasized in process and product, those assumptions are deeply challenged.
 For a fuller discussion of this concept, see both Olu Oguibe and Yves Michaud, who each make this point explicit, in contradistinction from the linguistic-semiotic arguments of Roland Barthes and others, who privilege process over product as the site of significance.
 Thus, when Barthes wrote in “Rhetoric of the Image” that “photography cannot intervene within the object,” we must protest. It is not only a case of “trick effects,” but a matter of reflexivity, indeed, of identity. Consider, for an example from representational photography, any given snapshot taken during a gathering of friends or family in your own personal (digital?) albums: Do people not pose for pictures, gather together, face the same direction, smile? I am sure that an exception here would prove the rule, for if there are any purely ‘candid’ pictures among the collection, it is certain that upon seeing those, the subject photographed would have some human reaction.
This is the other side of the “intervention,” the change in that which is photographed ex post facto – but this is the subject of a different essay. Even for the “Panzani” advertisements Barthes describes in that same essay, there was a subjective, human intervention in the juxtaposition of fruit with canned goods with table, and so on before the picture was taken, then the framing of the image by the photographer, the choice of lens, filter, angle, aperture, negative, and so on during the moment of photography and the process of development, and finally, the use and effect of the photograph as advertisement – what is this matter of making the objects into metonyms for Italy, ideal natural food, and so on, if not “intervention within the object”? Despite this small technical objection, I am indebted to M. Barthes for the succinct and penetrating question which, in a sense, founds this essay: “How does meaning get into the image?”
b. (From 505 midterm essay, pp 6-7)
What I found by immersing myself into the game space and trying to read the content and form of the space was this: the communications technologies set in place for GoCrossCampus by its designers constitute practically the entire game space.
In the first instance, the interface itself (which includes the source coding) lays out several communication structures that are designed for one-way transmission from the administrators of the site to its users. These include: the map, which represents game play and the individual users’ positions; the logo; the site-navigation links; and the rosters of players, showing who is logged in, who has energized, who is a commander, who is a spy, who is a new player, and player statistics like battle records. Players can only passively receive these transmissions, which only administrators or the site’s coding generate and can edit. The interface might include animation, graphics, and text, sometimes layered together. There are also sometimes short, often esoteric, war-themed quotations displayed at the bottom of various pages throughout the site, which change often.
With that said, users have a relatively high degree of control over the amount and type of communication they can undertake within this space. Though the name a user chooses upon signing up and logging in with an email address is permanent, they are able to edit their “nickname” at any time. With that name, users exert their first communicative presence inside the game space. Any subsequent communication is preceded by that name in some way. Those types of communication are the majority of the visible, interactive, in-situ tools of which users take advantage. They include the chat forums, which have several levels of privacy/publicity. Chats exist at the level of a team, a game, and the site as a whole. They are accessible to all users within those groups. Chats are a one-to-many form of “speaking”, a continual, linear feed of postings that can include any and all types of content, from strategy to current events to popular culture to arguments, debates, and “flaming”.
Contrast this medium with the team-only “battle plan”, a small wiki-style space on every team’s page, which is accessible only to the commanders of a team. The commanders can edit this space, and its content tends to focus on game-specific information like strategy, tactics, and morale messages. Speaking of commanders, another important communication tool in this space is the polling mechanism, for voting. This has two distinct functions: players on a team can vote affirmatively or negatively on any poll question, which fall into two categories: nomination of commanders, and accusation of spies. In each case, the users have the opportunity, over a limited amount of time, to cast a one-time, anonymous vote into pre-coded input fields. This is the only type of communication in the game space that does not visibly attach a user’s name to their message.
1) Interdisciplinary Problem Solving: A signature of the CCT program is a multi- and inter-disciplinary approach to studying the intersection of Communication, Culture and Technology. To that end, students will engage some key problems and bring explicit disciplinary and interdisciplinary perspectives to those problems throughout the course.
a. I’d like to dig into the problem of communicating across boundaries of technological and cultural significance. These could include language and conditions of power like race, gender and class, of course, but they could also include some more subtle distinctions, like political affiliation, artistic and communicative medium, or even the singular, material body. By thinking this problem through from several different angles, I hope to see facets I would never otherwise have recognized.
2) Conversations across the various clusters of CCT are an important function of this course, helping students to grow in appreciation for the multidisciplinary nature of the program. For this reason, students will consider course material from both social science and humanities perspectives and participate in heterogeneous discussion groups.
a. Though my background is reasonably strong in humanities’ jargon, I am often at a loss when dealing with the technicalities of “harder”, more numbers-based science. I hope that exposure to, and working together with, those of my classmates who think in this manner will help me attack the materials much more concretely.
3) A central difficulty for many students in the transition to graduate school is understanding the ways in which graduate programs are structured around the independence of the student and his or her own interests. For this reason, many students have trouble taking ownership of their program and understanding graduate school’s need for self-direction. Students’ engagement with multiple versions of the statement of purpose, the portfolios, and the reflective writing provide opportunities for students to articulate for themselves how CCT will fit into their educational and other career goals.
a. A professor of mine once remarked that at earlier levels of formal education, the classroom activity is almost all “discipline” and hardly any “control”, from the view of the teacher, at least, but that by the time one sits down in a graduate class, the conditions are neatly reversed. I know coming to terms with my indecision may take a while, but I am determined to narrow down and dig in deeply to one or two problems while I’m here. I do take some comfort in the syllabus laid out for this class, since it seems to account for that transition time from an undergraduate mentality to a more independent and purposeful one. I hope to gain the tools to define further questions and problems for research and study in Ph.D. programs.