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Interview with Alex Reid

For Currents’ 2012 issue on “Memories, Technologies, and Rhetorics,” DWRL Assistant Director Scott Nelson conducted an interview with Alex Reid, University at Buffalo Associate Professor of English, Director of Composition and Teaching Fellows, and author of The Two Virtuals. In the following interview, Reid discusses memory and rhetorical composition, the effects of copyright practices on contemporary composition like remixing, and the notion of the remix as an interplay of internal and external forms of memory. Reid posits that cognition takes place with and alongside technology, not preceding or negating it; digital technology rescues rhetorical delivery as well as memory. Reid also discusses procedural and episodic memory, the embodied nature of memory, and their relationship with memory as communal effort. Finally, Reid raises questions about how memory and composition intersect with the emerging field of object-oriented ontology, the philosophy of objects rather than processes. You can read the interview below or listen to highlights from Currents’ interviews with Reid, Josh Gunn, and Barbara Biesecker here.

Scott Nelson: You indicate in The Two Virtuals that memory, at least in the context of composition classrooms, is considered a type of non-proprietary source. Do you see recent copyright concerns affecting access to cultural memory?

Alex Reid: Absolutely, and here I would align myself with someone like Lawrence Lessig in a book like Remix. He very cogently argues that we rely upon our ability to draw on various cultural artifacts in order to innovate and create into the future. When those things are restricted, it does restrict our ability to compose and to organize our culture. Unfortunately, so much of what is important to us socially these days is not only copyrighted—because everything is copyrighted—but the things that are most important to us are very protectively copyrighted. So, not having access to them makes a significant impact upon what we can do.

Nelson: Do you see that in any of your classes or when you’re mentoring some of your AIs?

Reid: I do see it. Early on when we started using iTunes University when I was at Cortland, I had a class where students were making podcasts. One of the students used some kind of music. I think it was actually Queen’s “Under Pressure.” I got an email from someone at the library who was overseeing the iTunes, and they were concerned about the fact that this was going to be a copyright violation even though it wasn’t a publicly available directory or anything like that. So, that was kind of strange that the school was protecting against the kinds of activities that my students were going be able to do in the classroom because they were afraid of the copyright implications.

Nelson: So, you see this as having a silencing effect on some future composition.

Reid: Absolutely. Because why shouldn’t we be able to draw upon and think through our experiences with these important pieces of media in our lives? I mean, that’s what we do in English departments. We read literature, and read it closely, and cite it, and now we can’t do that. We can’t take up these technologies in the way we once did. So, yeah, I think it is significant.

Nelson: Speaking again to remix, what is the role of memory in remix?

Reid: Well, there are two ways that we can think about it, and this has to do centrally with how we define memory. We can think about memory as the thing that happens in between our ears, and then we can think about memory as anything that might be stored or processed in terms of information outside of our bodies in technologies or whatnot.

When we think about the first kind, the kind between our ears, if we think about remix generically as composition we draw on procedural memory. If we’re writing or typing, we’re drawing on procedural memory. We’re drawing on semantic memory if we’re putting words together. We’re drawing on episodic, experiential kind of memories, whether I’m trying to recall something I read last week or when we think about scholarly writing, our arguments and so forth, but in any other kind of composition we might be drawing upon more personal experiences. So memory in that sense is absolutely integral. It’s what we’re remixing, in a sense.

If it’s outside of the body, that’s even more clear. We don’t necessarily think about our expressions always as memorials, as explicitly designed to preserve memory, but they do. They are kind of artifacts of our experiences, of our compositional experiences anyways. If we think about it that way, everything that we’re remixing is a memory of somebody’s.

Nelson: So, as you say in your book The Two Virtuals, “we think with technology, not before, after, against, or despite it” (183). Do newer technologies shape the way we think about and discuss memory?

Reid: I think that’s always been the case. I mean, that was the case for Plato. We always want to think about memory and any kind of cognitive act in relation to different kinds of technologies. Again, if we’re going to make this kind of divide between memory inside the brain and memory outside of the body, if we think about mobile technologies, for example, they’ve changed the ways that we expect to access information, when we get it, and what kinds of information we may want. I’m walking down the street, I’m in Austin for the first time, and I want to know where the good restaurants are that are near my hotel. So, I go to Urbanspoon, and I’m looking around to see what is good. You know, I never would have accessed that kind of memory, other peoples’ memories, in that way before. Then, of course, we have this ongoing thing about new technologies affecting our ability to remember stuff. That is always reborn with each new technological innovation.

Nelson: So, with the whole Nicholas Carr, Google-making-us-stupid argument, where would you fall on that one?

Reid: I think that Carr is recognizing a commonly shared experience that we all at least feel like new technologies are having this impact upon us. I don’t know necessarily how true it is. You know, to what extent are we really not able to remember as much as we once did? Everyone listening to this I’m sure is familiar with someone like Ong and the difference between an oral culture and a print culture and the ways that they draw upon memory. There probably is something happening to the way that we access information, but in my mind it’s more of a question of practice and ethics. How do we want to use these technologies? What do these technologies enable us to do that we might be able to move forward in a different kind of way, and to try to not ignore the kinds of warnings that someone like Carr wants to put forward, but also not take them as this final judgment on technology.

Nelson: How is the rhetorical canon of memory transformed or “rescued” by the prevalence of digital media? What effects might this change have on the discipline at large?

Reid: Well, I think it’s had a significant impact. The emergence of digital technology has rescued not only memory but also delivery—probably delivery first, but also more recently memory—as the two largely overlooked canons of the last 500 years. With memory the larger pragmatic questions have to do with archiving. How are we going to preserve information? How are we going to make it accessible—open access—all these kinds of issues which are not, of course, limited to our discipline. They’re broad questions. They’re probably more important in the sciences than they are in the humanities, but they’re relevant for all of us. For rhetoricians, though, there’s a lot of scholarly opportunity because these are questions that we can have a unique and productive perspective upon. You do see certainly conference presentations and articles and grants out there that are dealing with those kinds of questions of memory. On that level, those things are available.

Now, if we think in a different way about composition as a larger field, I always think of the tens of thousands of people teaching freshman composition in America, and I’m not sure on that level what this impact has because things trickle down very slowly in my experience. I do think that we could see in the future, in terms of assessment, some kind of large-scale collection of texts that are read in a distant way and analyzed. I haven’t seen that, but that kind of thing could impact undergraduate writing. It would be useful, certainly, in undergraduate writing to talk about questions of preservation and distribution. Generally, we mostly just give warnings about what you upload to Facebook. That’s about as far as we address the question of memory, I would say. But we could think about it in more positive terms as well, and it might have a useful impact on the way that we teach.

Nelson: In your current research you’re thinking of communal relations in terms of gaming theory. And you say, “memory is a necessary component of communal relations.” So, how does agency depend upon memory?

Reid: Our agency is deeply intertwined with memory. One of the things that I’ve discussed is Manuel DeLanda‘s recent book Philosophy and Simulation. He talks about these models of neural nets and modeling interactions using various kinds of gaming theory to see how cultures or communities develop. One of the things he looks at is how if you change the rules so that interactions between two players are remembered not only by the players but by other members of the community, that affects the way that the community develops. So, cheaters are not only recognized by the cheated person but by other people. We all know you’re a liar. That affects the way that we act. The ability to draw upon those communal memories is important. Don’t go to that part of the jungle—that’s where the predators are. We rely very heavily in those terms upon communal memory and figuring out what we’re going to do next.

Nelson: You see that as integral to the idea of minimal rhetoric, these initial conditions?

Reid: Absolutely. One of the ways I try to think about minimal rhetoric is trying to imagine a hundred and fifty thousand years ago or however far back we want to go, to say, prior to the symbolic behavior, symbolic action, yet we still have humans and we still have trade. How do these people trade with one another? How do they look each other in the eye without language, without symbolic action, and try to figure out whether that person is cheating them or not?

Nelson: How would you couch the similarities and differences between so-called human memory versus technological memory, and how has this distinction become problematized or deconstructed?

Reid: Again, I think the grey area has to do with language. If we think about language as a technology—which, I will say that some people are very reluctant to imagine that language is a technology, and yet I find it difficult to think of it as not a technology. These sort of nature/culture, nature/technology divides are difficult to parse, but we’re not born with language. So we acquire language, it snakes its way into our minds, and it’s very difficult to get out. We obviously have memories that are not linguistic, like procedural memories that are only really available to the motor functions that use them, and we have ineffable experiences that we can remember. But for the most part, our memories are tied up with language. In that respect it’s very difficult to discern between a human memory and one that is mediated in some way.

Beyond that, we can distinguish among different kinds of technological memory. Whether it’s writing or video or anything that we can ostensibly put down, even if it’s the supplement that we take every morning to remember stuff, we can put that down. These are all things that impact our minds in different ways. We can look at those kinds of assemblages and try and figure out what kinds of communities they shape, how they shape our compositions and our thinking and so on, but ultimately you get to this point where you start thinking about language and you get more of a continuum than a very clearly demarcated space of what’s inside and what’s not.

Nelson: You’ve used the phrase a couple times now “procedural memories.” Could you explain a little bit of that?

Reid: Procedural memory is basically like learning to ride a bike. Obviously I’m not a cognitive scientist, but my understanding is that the brain has places where it recalls procedural memories that your body is able to draw upon so you can perform those actions repeatedly. The activity of learning to type and having the procedural memory of touch-typing is not something that can be drawn upon for other purposes. You could have other kinds of memories of typing that you might be able to draw upon to do other things, but my understanding is that procedural memories are some of the things that are only really accessible to that particular kind of function.

Nelson: So, where does memory fit into the flow of embodied experience?

Reid: When you think about any kind of proprioceptive activity, like finding your way around your house in the dark or driving to work without really thinking about where you’re going, those kinds of things rely upon not only procedural memory but also a kind of episodic memory that’s deeply ingrained. Any notion of space, of the spaces that we’re in, relies upon memories, even if it’s just the memory of five seconds ago. Like, “where did I put the glass down so I can pick it up?” I think those kinds of things are necessary, although at the same time you could think about memories as serving a kind of interrupting, check stop on embodied experience to say “remember the last time we did this?” or something along those lines. It’s bringing you back to thinking about “where is this behavior leading?” or “this isn’t me, I don’t do this” or something along those lines. It can have that kind of territorializing activity as well.

Nelson: Do you see any difference between collaborative memories experienced and produced in physical space, like football games, and those in digital spaces, like an MMO raid, for example? Do you see a fundamental difference between them?

Reid: There are always differences, right? So, how do we characterize the differences? I would say, right now, that the “real-world” experiences—I’m using scare quotes that you can’t hear—the real-world experience has a broader range of sensory inputs. If you’re playing an actual football game, you’re going to walk away with perhaps a level of soreness that you will not walk away from an MMO raid with, Maybe you’d have sore thumbs, bad body posture, and neck pain or something, but generally speaking those things are different. If we move to less active examples like a party versus, say, a Google hangout, there’s just a whole range of embodied experiences that would make significant differences in the kinds of memories you would have and the way that you would weight different events. If you’re in a more virtual environment, you might be more attuned to the literal things that people are saying as opposed to gestural things or other contexts that are informing the way that you interpret what’s going on and what you remember.

Nelson: As we move to the more digital, it seems like this recall would be a lot different from, say, the embodied experience of driving to work, the sort of flow experience that you just sublimate in some way to your frontal lobe, but if you’re bringing all these other experiences in that are more digital and limited in that sense of your embodied experience…

Reid: I imagine that if you play a game enough times, you would develop a kind of sense memory of connecting with it or something along those lines. You probably could set up that kind of activity, but it would rely upon a less intense level of activity. It’s the eyes and the thumbs, or something like this, rather than a larger portion of the body being involved. Now, who’s to say down the road that we won’t have more sensory, immersive, Kinect-like experiences with World of Warcraft or whatever. Now, I’m going to be actually swinging my arms around and running in place playing World of Warcraft, which maybe would be a good thing, I don’t know. 

Nelson: Turning to your recent scholarship, you’ve been looking into object-oriented ontology. Where do you see memory fitting in this emerging field, and how does memory help us understand the relations among objects?

Reid: I think that there is a growing interest in memory in object-oriented ontology. If you look at Levi Bryant’s blog, he’s written several times about memory. His book The Democracy of Objects addresses memory to a certain extent, primarily in thinking about autopoesis and the way that he takes up Luhman’s systems theories and things along those lines. With object-oriented ontology, the main move is away from an emphasis on process, at least as someone like Graham Harman has put it. He sees the twentieth century as focused on process philosophy and Deleuze and Guattari as process philosophers, for example. Moving away from process and moving towards thinking about objects instead. Memory asks us to think about the sustaining of objects over time and the role that memory might play in sustaining an object as the object itself. One of the things that comes up as soon as you start talking about objects and memory is the question of panpsychism—how far are you willing to extend the capacity for thought? Beyond humans, beyond animals, to other kinds of objects? Harman, in his earlier work, say Guerrilla Metaphysics, is largely suspect of panpsychism but more recently has been more open to the idea of it in something like the Prince of Networks where he talks about Latour, but it’s an open question of what we mean by thinking when we extend it beyond ourselves. Is memory a kind of minimal psychic capacity? I think that those questions are very much a part of how object-oriented ontology will move forward, especially in relation to thinking about rhetoric. 

Nelson: You are an avid blogger. Has blogging changed your scholarly work with regard to public input or criticism? Does this immediate exchange of ideas alter the traditional scholar’s role?

Reid: For me, the question of change is a little bit strange because I’ve been blogging for eight years, so speaking of memory I can’t really remember scholarly work prior to blogging all that well. Certainly, for every person who comes up to me and says, I read your book or this article or something like that, twenty people come up to me and say I saw something on your blog. Easily. To give an example, the other day I got an email from an undergraduate journalism student at the University of South Carolina, and he said, I read what you said in Forbes and I wanted to interview you about it and ask some more questions. I said sure, and then I thought, well what did I say in Forbes? Because I had no idea I’d said anything in Forbes, but apparently someone on some Forbes blog site had cited something from one of my blogs, You would imagine that that author could have found a more official form of scholarship or anything to cite rather than my blog, but that’s the way that one is able to connect—or that I am able to connect—with any kind of public that is out there. For my own work with object-oriented ontology, for example, I imagine I would be doing the same kind of work as I am now, but my ability to connect with Levi Bryant or Ian Bogost or Timothy Morton or Graham Harman or whatever—they are all avid bloggers, and my ability to understand what they’re doing is largely a result of being part of that kind of community. So, it’s integral, absolutely, to the kind of work that I do.

Nelson: Given that example that you gave about the Forbes article, do you find yourself being more careful with blog posts?

Reid: You would think. I’m in this collection about debates in the digital humanities. It just came out, and I saw that someone had quoted something from one of my blogs. There was a misspelling in there. I wish that person had contacted me and told me that I’d misspelled this word because I could have gone back and fixed it, and then they could have quoted me with a correct spelling. So, you wonder, maybe I should at least proofread this. But I think if you start doing that then you wouldn’t be able to do it. And I couldn’t put that level of concern into the work that I’m doing. Instead, I think everybody else has to change. There is a movement to think about what’s called middle-state publishing or grey literature—however you want to think about, however you want to term it—this kind of activity and what role it ought to play in our scholarly work. Those kinds of things are out there for us to consider, and we need to go more in that direction than in trying to necessarily shut down. Besides, my experience is that on the internet people can only hear you if you scream, so to say something that’s very scholarly and measured is to say something that people won’t necessarily pay attention to. It’s not that I deliberately try to sensationalize things, but at the same time, my experience is that you get the most attention for trying to say something in the most direct way possible. A strongly worded argument is what people want to hear.

Nelson: It seems like an interesting sort of interplay. If we use the frame of the canons here, a blog seems more of an inventive sort of strategy—you stick to a schedule, you know you’re going to blog something, but it also creates this public, permanent memory out there that people can draw upon and use to say this.

Reid: Again, it is a matter of really rethinking how we’re going to evaluate the work that is available to us in a collective memory. You know, eventually we’re going to have a president who has a Facebook picture doing a keg stand or something. These are things that we’re just going to have to learn to live with. You hear all the time cautionary tales about blogging in our profession. I’m glad that I didn’t listen to those cautionary tales because I think it has made a big, positive difference for my work.

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