Research

Previous Research

Previous research projects include:  Hidden in the Backwaters:  The Rhetorical Significance of the Lyrics and Performances of Blueswomen, a thesis I submitted for my Master of Arts in English at the University of Oklahoma.

Current Projects

Leaked:  A Grammar of Information in Surveillance Cultures, a dissertation written for the successful completion of my PhD at the Pennsylvania State University in December 2013.  The project was successfully defended on August 2, 2013, and the final copy has been submitted to the graduate school for review.

Committee Chair:  Dr. Richard Doyle

Committee Members:  Dr. Debra Hawhee, Dr, Jeffrey Nealon, Dr. Lynette Kvasny.

Abstract

Leaked evaluates the evolution of surveillance technologies and their inevitable “leaks.”  These phenomena induce widespread fear and fascination with uncertainty, which defines living in an Information Age.  This dissertation connects major technological and cultural developments through conceptual transformations of “information leaks.”  From telegraph to Internet, rhetorical objects and practices—including memoirs, interviews, news articles, novels, and whistleblowing—represent competing data management systems as a significant source of human conflict. These texts contain a plethora of ‘leak language,’ or discourses, genres, and narratives about leaks that illustrate the growing power of ‘National Security.’ This euphemism for cultural suppression clashes with globalized human connectivity.  WikiLeaks responds to Watergate’s symbolic capital by leveraging web 2.0 technologies to expose the vulnerability of centralized systems.  A case study of WikiLeaks demonstrates the growing visibility of hacktivism as a recognizable social and political movement.  However, the principle of hacking is also embedded in non-computing contexts. For example, hacker principles such as novelty and the exploitation of possibility are embodied in some contemporary African-American novels such as Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo.  These works exemplify print hacktivism because they exploit the limitations of Western cultural attitudes towards information as (controllable) property. By characterizing Information as contagion, Bambara and Reed draw their reader’s attention towards the epistemological effects of leak literacy.  Despite hundreds of years of state-sponsored cultural suppression, indigenous healing practices persist because the good ‘jes grew’ whenever humans needed to survive.  The project suggests that we pay attention to this “grammar” of leaks to observe systems capable of conceptualizing novelty and change.  Grammar instruction, when framed as generative code, not prescriptive rules, offers some productive strategies for teaching, learning, and communicating with digital technologies.

Excerpt from Chapter 1:  In The Beginning there was The Leak:  Liquid Logos

We, archival creatures, face an insurmountable task in the digital age.  From stone to silicon, our surveillance capacities evolved alongside territorial wars over bodies of information.  Like liquid, information brims, drips, gushes, pours, fills, and flows.  Yet, we only refer to one type of information as both a noun and verb:  leak.  These special bodies seep and ooze through cracks in crevices invisible to the naked eye.  Leaks are information in the nude, seducing elites to capture their slippery flesh and obliterate them from others’ gazes.  Before the electronic revolution, many publics had limited access to the preservation and circulation of these bodies.  To conceive of them at all may have enabled others to consider such persons “conspiracy theorists,” or some other unsavory characters.  Yet, in a post-Nixon society, such suspicion hardly seems alarming. This project investigates major instances in which a powerful elite aggressively attempts to contain/expose information, or engage in a war on leaks.

Excerpt from Chapter 2:  Troubled Waters:  Leak Warfare and Live Wires

Media representations juxtaposed against facts presented during trials resulted in confusion. With so much symbolic potential, Watergate becomes a life force breathing outside the courtroom. In short, it becomes what writer William S. Burroughs dubbed a “word virus”.   Equipped with tape recorders, as well as a notepad and pencil, the journalists experienced the ways in which surveillance capacity enables insights into architectures of power.  Their seminal work may be interpreted as part of a story about surveillance’s role in a democracy.  All the Presidents’ Men may seem like a brave tale about two rookie reporters risking their reputations and lives during their investigations of Nixon’s top men.   However, Bernstein and Woodward’s experiences are about a sense of duty to break the story of Watergate, a story carried by the word virus, a tension readers feel throughout their texts.

In accord with Burroughs’s notion of a word virus, Woodward and Bernstein exhibit all the symptoms. All The President’s Men reads like a hectic journalists’ office.  Information moves quickly and erratically; revisions of previous findings seem jerky like pacing back and forth between large unorganized stacks of papers.  Paragraphs of descriptions pile up in simulations of a cluttered desk.  Characters exit and enter throughout dozens of greetings and goodbyes on constantly ringing phones.  Pens scribble furiously, typewriters chatter, requests are made frequently, but occasionally granted.  The text demands the reader to play the role of an amateur investigator sleuthing with the young, bold reporters while the word virus spreads.

Within this context, details are absorbed in the journalists’ lengthy explanations about their sources.  Bernstein and Woodward faced a novel conflict–their sources belonged to Nixon’s loyalist culture.  Needless to say, the people running the Committee to Re-Elect the President (CREEP) initially refused to talk about the money or shift blame to higher-up’s until disclosure is the price they pay for reduced fines and sentences.  However, their narrative seems so familiar to us because the American success story conveniently ignores its internal contradiction.  Most Americans seem driven by a dualistic fascination about distributions of power–avoidance and complacency on one hand, aggressive attempts to seize control via (il)legal means on the other.  Watergate revealed this incongruous psyche throughout its drama.

Excerpt from Chapter 3:  Torrential Rage:  Hacktivists’ War on Secrecy

Due to the explicitly technological nature of the site, as well as its global scope, WikiLeaks is a very complex rhetorical object.  Similar to Watergate, this organization’s engagement with the politics of truth and information enabled WikiLeaks to cash in on Watergate’s figurative language capital.  When we see Julian Assange taking a seat next to Daniel Ellsberg during interviews and events about whistleblowers, WikiLeaks seamlessly joined the ‘leak’ tradition, whose core argument is that transparency and ‘freedom of speech’ are the cornerstones of democracy.  America’s collective memory about Watergate is strengthened by WikiLeaks because both W-words conjure up dark memories about corruption as the heart and pulse of American (and arguably, global) politics and government.  The site’s emergence hardly surprises us because “counter-corruption/culture” traditions respond to abuses of power during bleak times.  Examples of these traditions include investigative reporting, muckracking, hacking, and libertarianism.

Of course, Julian Assange frequently borrows from Watergate discourses, as well as American enlightenment rhetoric, to legitimate the objectives of his organization.  Overall, WikiLeaks shifts conversations about civic engagement/responsibility towards the “operating system” of human thought and expression–access to information.  By considering what “free press” should be in the 21st century, as well as place pressure on global citizens to consider their country’s ‘leak policy,’ Julian Assange successfully sustained and increased an on-going movement about the radical potential of new media and the importance of “hacker literacy.”

Excerpt from Chapter 4:  Leaks Jes Grew:  The Spread of Leak Literacy

The realist (illist) rappers’ make a point to explain the value of the hack, or their sense of empowerment when they realize their interaction with the audience makes for the possibility of producing something new. As 14K argues, “In front of this mic, I control the world I’m living in. (…) I’m trying to touch bases that writers often leave alone, I’m letting my words fall on these papers when I write these songs.”  Eminem does this when he uses polysyllabic rhyming to differentiate himself from the others to increase his credibility with mixed race audiences, which is a crucial move for the first solo Caucasian mainstream rapper.  He remarks about his signature style with a comparison to other great composers: “Soon as my flow starts, I compose art like the ghost of Mozart.  Even though they all say that they’re real I know that most aren’t.” (Stay Wide Awake, Relapse).  The best rappers rap about and demonstrate form.  As usual, Eminem hacks rap with exemplary flow.  When he seamlessly connects opposing musical traditions—classical music/rap—would seem unpersuasive without the fluidity of o’s and ar’s.  The lyric’s internal tension appears to be poetry, but it is also rap, which converts the listening experience into both a familiar and unique literary excellence.

A brief comparison of rappers to hackers relates directly to this chapter’s focus on novelists. Similar to the programmer’s dexterity with code, the rapper’s deft linguistic range, the novelist tampers with a leaky form marked with the composer’s style.  The novel’s genre embodies its purpose, which is to express something new.  Quite literally, a novel allows for spatio-temporal permutations within alphabetic codes assembled into many pages of prose.  Susan Sontag highlights this important characteristic of the novel.  She argues that, “The novel is an ideal vehicle both of space and of time.  The novel shows us time:  that is, everything doesn’t happen at once.  (It is a sequence, it is a line.)  It shows us space:  that is, what happens doesn’t happen to one person only” (215).  Combinations of characters, events, agencies, purposes, and scenes represent numerous interpretations of any aspect of the happening. According to A Hacker Manifesto, “While [hackers] create these new worlds, we do not possess them.  That which we create is mortgaged to others, and to the interests of others, to states and corporations who monopolize the means for making worlds we alone discover.  We do not own what we produce–it owns us” (Abstraction 004, Wark McKenzie).  We make new things out of language when we use the art of rhetoric, or the active visualization of the manifestation of possibility via communication codes (e.g. speech, writing, photography, websites, and so on).

The artist chooses the novel as the ideal conduit capable of instructing about possibility.  The text needs to deliver arrangements that will enable an audience to invent ideas related to those illustrated in the text.  Recalling these ideas is easier when the authors use a particular style because when we trust the author’s linguistic competency and we are engaged, we will be more likely to remember the text.   Authors play with the art of rhetoric at the grammatical level via novels.  Novelists must be able to arrange texts in ways that readers engage with the codes, quickly forging bonds between the parallel interactive processes of thought development.  They form ideas as their eyes move across a page, associating the textual with visualizations of action.

Excerpt from Chapter 5:  Leakology:  Towards a Grammar of Information

We cannot outsource our subjective experience of relationships.  The standardization of grammar intensifies linguistic disruption.  However, grammar may be able to play a significant role in being capable of communicating across cultural divides if it empowers.  This chapter’s thought experiment with grammar sought to illustrate the incredible potential rhetoric and composition classes possess in ‘today’s society.’  We are uniquely positioned to hack language, but we must realize our own leaky traditions.  If we lose control over the ability to teach the codes of writing, we will not be capable of communication–especially complex language practices such as dialectical exchange and deliberation.

Mutual understanding depends on sharing code, and letting its community of users decide which arrangements of words and sentences embody the ‘flow’ of the times.  During the 1980s and 1990s, the professionalization of Composition Studies and growing prestige of Rhetoric Studies seemed to not only bifurcate these two foci, but the quest for disciplinary recognition pushed ‘mere matters’ like style and grammar further and further in the background.  The metaphor of the leak aptly relates to the continuous cover-up and revealing of grammar instruction in the history of writing instruction.  The attempt to contain grammar instruction in certain scholarly circles further marginalizes the lived experiences of writing teachers who see grammar proficiency as a problem.

Each semester, I inform students, “If writing were as simple as a how-to guide, step-by-step grammar rules, or basic skills, none of you would be here.”  Instead, writing is a challenging intellectual activity demanding both artistic and technical performance.  Similar to computer programmers, writers must be capable of reproducing conventional structural arrangements before they are able to modify the code (e.g. make new meanings).  Posing grammar as the problem and solution rather than a mental weakness to be overcome would drive home the meaning of the art of rhetoric, as well as the role of emergence and feedback in the conceptualization of possibility.

Possibility is all we have in the face of uncertainty.  The colliding worlds of ‘big data’ and ‘big brother’ carries dual potential for the capacity to be empowered with the crowd or lost in the swarm.  In the infoquake, many instructors wonder how they will teach deliberation, or civic engagement in a democracy, when students cannot compose a paragraph, let alone a summary.  Many teachers tasked with teaching the digital generation recognize the importance of discussing grammar, but we are also struggling to find arrangements that capture the meaning of now.  When our student’s literacy narratives are dominated by standardized testing, ubiquitous surveillance, and helicopter parenting we have a chance to ask them to look towards their grammar use to inquire about their sense of “Self” and ‘becoming.’  When we reflect on grammar’s relationship to epistemology, we may find freedom falling into the deep well of collective intelligence.

Works Cited 

Publications

“The Role of Computational Literacy in Computers and Writing.”  Enculturation 2012 Special Issue. (Collaborated with Elizabeth Losh, David Rieder, Mark Sample, Karl Stolley, and Annette Vee).  Article is accessible via:  http://www.enculturation.net/node/5270

“Sexualizing Oppression?:  Portrayals of African American Women in 21st Century Interracial Pornography.”  McNair Scholarly Review Spring 2006.

Conferences

“I am Not a Computer Programmer.” Computers and Writing 2012, Invited Townhall Speaker.

“Digital Citizenship and WikiLeaks: Rhetoric and Social Ethics in a Surveillance Society.”  Atlanta CCCC (2011)

 “Hidden in the Backwaters:  An Exploration of the Rhetorical Significance of the Lyrics and Performances of Blues Women.”

  • Louisville CCCC (2010)
  • South Atlantic Modern Language Association Conference (2009)

 “Identi-Kits:  Visualizing Cultural Assumptions and Writer Agency in the Classroom.”  New Orleans CCCCC (2008)

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