Monday, January 21, 2008

Hypertext and the Crisis of Modernism

If I remember my reading from a comp theory class I took as an M.A., I recall a description of student-run classes in the 60s that began with utopian ideals (in the vein of hippyish, touchy-feely 60s thinking) but quickly proved to be complete disasters. There was no direction; the classes were anarchic; nobody learned anything. Likewise, the so-called "student-centered" online class discussions often prove to be just as messy and directionless, as Faigley and Cooper illustrate. Sometimes that's good, but sometimes it's just a mess. I appreciated Faigley's article for pointing out the positive and negative possibilities of online discussions. I appreciated Cooper even more for providing a solution (or at least citing Ira Shor's solution) to the problems of postmodern discussion, a role for teachers that involves neither repressing our students nor completely relinquishing power: the "problem-poser who leads a critical dialogue in class… Teachers pose problems or presente generative themes – they bring the complexities of everyday life into focus – and listen to student responses" (158). Barbara Monroe said this another way the other day in our Teaching Lit class: we need to construct our classes around questions whose answers are really up for grabs.

I think about what those questions might be in my current class, 402.

  • What are the rhetorical problems you face in your field?
  • What are the ethical problems you face in your field?
  • What's the best way to convey this technical information about X to audience Y?
  • How does technology affect communication in your group for this project?


Most of my thinking as I read Cooper revolved around her claim near the beginning that "What has been called the postmodern condition is a messy and partial transition that we are still in the midst of from old modernist ways of thinking and acting to postmodern ways" (142). Victor is fond of saying something like this: that we're not really in postmodernism yet; we're in the crisis of modernism. And thus, we're in the midst of a maelstrom of notions about how the world works. It's nice to hear this idea again from time to time, because it explains a lot of the confusion I feel about my own identity, knowledge, power, responsibility, etc. It also helps me understand what happens in WoW.

Cooper's essay explained the "transition in assumptions" about "knowledge, language, and the self," "power," and "responsibility" clearly enough so that I could simultaneously read her essay and mentally apply it to what I've seen in WoW. Obviously, people experiment with decentered selves when role-playing, through their (often multiple) avatars. That one was old news. Responsibility I had already thought and read about a bit too, in terms of the ways that some players obviously feel free in the context of their avatar identities to break social boundaries in their interactions and discussions in the game. What this usually means, of course, is that they feel free to act like assholes. (I find it more interesting, in some ways, though, that I (and I would wager, most players) feel a certain responsibility for my avatar's online ethos, if for no other reason than because I'm always inhabiting one avatar, and he takes a long time to level up, and so I don't want to make a lot of people hate him/me. There's an investment involved that's too great to blow on some flame war.)

The stuff that really interested me, and that I haven't figured out very well yet, is the discussion of power. Cooper writes,

"The modernist assumption that still structures most of our language about power is that power is a possession, that some people have it and can give it to others or share it with them or help them gain it. In contrast, Foucault argues that power functions not as a possession but as a relation, and that it attempts to stabilize power relationships that are favorable to one party that result in power appearing to be a possession." (145)


I have a hard time wrapping my head around this one, because I think I'm still usually using that modernist assumption. I think a lot of people do. My thinking about power in WoW usually involves players vs. Blizzard: Blizzard has all the power, and players have to abide or risk punishment/banishment from the game. We sign EULAs when we install the game that basically give Blizzard the right to do whatever they want to our characters. When one player does or says something another player doesn't like, the offended party can (and often does) tell on the offender to Blizzard, and hope for punishment. There are many more details that I won't go into now. The important thing is that I usually see power here as something possessed by Blizzard (and very much in contrast, I realize, to the ways that power worked in the LambdaMOO featured in Julian Dibbel's famous essay). But is it a relation? I'm not even sure what that means.

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