January 30, 2007

Revisiting "The Footnote, in Theory" (x-post)

It's been too long since I tended to Rhetworks, but one of the first essays I took note of (and took notes on) when I started the site was Anne Stevens' and Jay Williams' "The Footnote, in Theory." My notes on the essay are hardly complete, but I do cite the essay with some approval and interest. At a time when I was exploring the disciplinary implications and applications of Franco Moretti's "distant reading," FIT was for me a nice example of what could be accomplished by aggregating what is a fairly occluded feature of academic prose, the footnote.

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August 24, 2006

On Networks

Okay, let's get it on. This is an entry I may return to a few times, as I hone the ideas. But I want to lay out a few ground rules as they occur to me right now. First, it may change as I get into the project, but the idea that I'm beginning with as the Question is this:

What happens when we consider rhetoric, discourse, and/or language in terms of network studies?

Sounds like a very basic question, but there are a lot of directions that I'll be taking it. My first clarification is one that I've been making for the past 2 years or so, usually in person to various audiences. I think it is a misnomer to speak of "network theory," at least in the context of "theory" as it has been deployed in our field. I'm much fonder of "network studies," which captures for me the sense that all those who work on networks are looking for observable behaviors and patterns that might be located across disparate phenomena. To me, theory suggests an abstraction that I don't find present in this work.

My take on "theory" is that it involves adopting a coordinate position outside of a phenomenon, one that may very well shed light on the phenomenon in question, but which is not necessarily intrinsic to it. If anyone remembers Robert Scholes's Textual Power, he distinguishes among reading, interpretation, and criticism as three modes of textual approach. While the word "theory" probably has etymological roots closer to interpretation, it's been appropriated on behalf of criticism. There are a lot smarter people than I who can tell you about the rise, fall, virtue, and/or vice of theory, particularly as it's played out in this country, so I'll stop there. Except to say that Scholes characterizes criticism as the generation of "text against text" (as opposed to the "within" of reading, or the "upon" of interpretation).

Network theory, then, to me, would imply that there's some sort of imposition of network-ness being made upon language, discourse, a text, etc., that it's a perspective that can be brought to bear on my objects of study. And this doesn't feel quite right to me. I don't feel like this is controversial, but it may bear some proof at some point, and that's that while the value of network studies may come from the de- and re-familiarization that it involves, from its epistemological impact, the fundamental claim that it makes is an ontological one. For example,

  • A language is a network of words and rules.
  • A text is a smaller network of words, rules, and codes.
  • A discipline is both a social and a textual network.
  • A bibliography is a network of texts and influences.
  • A scholar is a network of texts and influences.

I don't think that any of those statements are particularly challenging, or difficult to demonstrate for that matter. The question, though, is whether any of those statements, when the implications of network studies build off of them, can offer us compelling accounts (or competing accounts) of discourse, disciplinarity, knowledge-making, etc. I think the answer's yes, yes, yes. But I'm also prepared for the answer in some cases to be no. There are situations where the observation of network behaviors results in curiosities, but nothing that I'd describe as having lasting practical value.

One more observation, and then I'll stop for the moment. One of the terms that I'm going to take up in the near future is collection. I've been coming across it in a range of places, and it's beginning to drift towards the center of my mental network. I bring it up here because it figures prominently in the definition of network that I'm going to work with, at least initially. This is from Duncan Watts's Six Degrees (a book that I'll probably need to review chapter by chapter):

Stripped to its bare bones, a network is nothing more than a collection of objects connected to each other in some fashion (27).

When I first came across this definition, two obvious questions suggested themselves to me. Objects: what are they? some fashion: how does this work? But lately, I've come to think of collection as a third, equally important part of that equation. There are some distinctions between collection and connection worth retaining, I think. And I'll talk about that in another entry, I think.