details remembered/forgotten four

this has been a week I have depended on the rhythms and tempos of others to give me activity/physicality. if i hadn’t encountered others being, i think i could have convinced myself i was an android dreaming or in the limbo of cryogenics.

walking to campus i had the memory of a family trip to chicago in 2004. one evening my mom and brother were ready to retire to the hotel room after dinner while my dad and i wandered. we tried getting into a jazz club but were turned away for our casual dress and my obvious 17 year old appearance. we went instead to virgin records, wherein my local rock of ages could have fit one hundred times over. this was my first experience with shopping for music–looking at album art, getting to listen to tracks in store with headphones that made my own discman pair seem so juvenile. i picked up the postal service’s “give up” because i heard my indie friends talk about the band. my dad and i listened. it was bright, earnest, melancholic. it felt like the bittersweet existence of me. my dad described it “noisy, but hopeful”. we continued to walk the city streets a few more hours, now with the CD in a bag he carried.

i just looked for the CD but could not find it. i listened to that album so much that i like to think it is settled, fossilizing under the seat of my old dodge neon. waiting for someone to excavate bittersweet feelings and dreaming of.

noisy, but hopeful was what i needed to feel this week. i have played “natural anthem” no less than 20 times while moving. thinking of my dad, of discovery, of smiling up at the sky or at the horizon because hope leaks in.

playing the experience of cancer

I don’t know where to begin in writing about this, but this won’t be all of it. Radiolab’s “The Cathedral” (a condensed telling of a story done by Reply All of the same title) introduces Ryan and Amy Green, parents to a young child, Joel, with terminal brain cancer. Ryan and Amy are creating a video game as a way of processing their experience of Joel’s cancer. Ryan, a computer programmer, recalls the moment the idea came to him: the worst night of Joel’s illness, sick with a stomach bug, Joel wouldn’t stop crying. He was in pain, dehydrated, and throwing up; Ryan could do nothing to help ease his discomfort. Ryan felt helpless; Joel’s crying got more and more frantic, he hit his head against his crib’s walls. In that moment, Ryan prayed and Joel stopped crying. Ryan described a moment of grace in what was otherwise overwhelming helplessness.

And beyond just sheer relief, Ryan had this other thought. Frankly, a weird thought. This whole ordeal reminded him of a video game. Like, you have to get the baby to stop crying, so you keep trying things: give him juice, bounce him, talk to him…But the weird thing is, in this awful game, none of those things actually work. They’re all like, fake choices. Ryan thought, what if I could make a game like this? Where you, the player, you don’t really have control? Can I bring you to that place, the place that I’m in right now?

There’s a lot of coverage/exploration of this game and the family and experiences that created it to spend more time reading/watching/listening/playing (with my next paycheck I’ll download and play the game myself), including a documentary Thank You for Playing.

But for now I am so deeply hung up on this idea of playing the experience of cancer—that a video game is the medium of not just telling a narrative, but experiencing. I can tell the events of that last night/morning:

We finally realized that the painful fits/episodes my mother was having were not her body on the verge of passing, but violent seizures that had gone on days. Fits of calm breathing shallow near ceasing and sudden gulp inhalations that made you jump out of your skin to hear. The sound of her teeth cracking. The yellow lightbulb of the lamp that stayed on all night near her bed, tucked in the corner of the living room and the christmas lights strung on the wall opposite (we had Christmas in July). My grandmother’s crying as she restlessly slept on the couch next to her bed. My father’s sunken eyes. With the coming of the hospice nurse to deliver anti-seizure meds, we turned off the home movies running in the background. The nurse closed the IV fluids and took off the oxygen tube. We closed the blinds and turned off the lights. For hours my grandmother and father held her hands and sang to her as whispers, as I tried to recall any artist or album ever to play. In the few moments my grandmother went to make coffee and my father stepped away to use the restroom, she as she then left. It was only me crying on her stomach that she was not her body.

Like this event/moment(s), I can tell others. But I can’t tell my experience. Even if I was a more gifted writer, not even with photos or video captured, or if I could physically show the volume of my tears. These are not the mediums, but I wonder how video games are. And what it means to play mourning/loss/grief. And how we can experience and understand affect through simulation. And what experiential/emotional games with no win condition, no lesson, and little to no control can make understandable.

post/past threading an echo: affect theory presentation

I’ve wanted to share the paper I delivered at the Affect Theory Conference in October for some time now. I had the idea to record audio for the entirety of the paper; something doesn’t seem quite right that it’s disembodied from voice and body and delivery…but that would be a long recording. I don’t know if it was the death of David Bowie this week, or finishing Roland Barthes’ Mourning Diary and being hellbent on this idea of mourning writing or writing mourning, or if it’s because it’s the year anniversary of finding out about my mother’s diagnosis, or that in wearing this old denim shirt of hers with the sleeves rolled up that the backs of my hands look a lot like her hands before she started working in the factory [warehouse]. Whatever the reason, today feels like the day.

[end of audio]

instruments of intensity

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Hello. My name is Jana Rosinski and I’m a doctoral student at Syracuse University in the Composition & Cultural Rhetoric Program. This project is part of a larger constellation of work that takes interest in developing practices of reading for affective patterning and representing data as sensory shimmers made accessible and affectable by dynamic visualizations. I want to explore how quantitative instruments help rhetoricians understand something as complex as affect of a text by capturing/constructing attention.

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This is a shimmer, a capturing of my attention as I tried/try to work in between data of an individual body, that of my mother’s with cancer, and the broader experience of ovarian cancer in the bodies, discourses, and environments it exists within. It is labor to make representable two sets of data: that collected from differentiated reading methods, particularly sentiment analysis, and that gathered and annotated as experiential. Outside from my own experience, but not without it, I am working toward a techne of affective reading that is both conventionally quantitative and qualitative—not one or the other.

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Techne cannot be reduced to any kind of action or practical performance that results in a product; it is knowledge that provides an opening through which the being of a work can come into appearance in a world. My field of rhetoric and composition is embracing computer assisted differentiated reading methods and data visualization as possibilities to transform the study of textuality and writing, but I am interested in the development of not just a perhaps a modeling of but a modeling for. In ​S/Z​, Roland Barthes describes a textuality where

the networks are many and interact, without any one of them being able to surpass the rest; this text is a galaxy of signifiers, not a structure of signifieds; it has no beginning; it is reversible; we gain access to it by several entrances, none of which can be authoritatively declared to be the main one… (5)

There is no exterior to the text but that the text itself doesn’t form a whole. The text is not an object that we approach (or produce) from the outside; it is already a part of our ecology, and our engagement emerges regardless of any conscious action on our part. Our texts are extra-textual; ecological, emergent, affective. But often our depictions of them through visualization cannot grasp the “thicket[s] of connections between vague yet forceful and affecting elements”. What would it mean to see knowledge/scholarship as shimmers? Not as subject or object but as event? From Brian Massumi, the dynamic form of the event is perceptually felt, not so much “ in ”vision as with vision or through vision: but as a vision-effect. It is a lived abstraction: a virtual vision of the shape of the event, including in its arc the unseen dimensions of its immediate past and immediate future. The lived abstraction of the event is an amodal perception—a space that enfolds both qualitative and quantitative ways of knowing.

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In Graphesis, a work by Johanna Drucker that works to articulate the creation of visualizations of data in humanities research, Drucker explains that how we know what we know about any given concept, is based on our models of knowing—our models, our visuals, “mediate our experience by providing conceptual schema or processing experience into form” (15). I think this is a provocative and durable statement to hold on to because it both captures the essence of intrigue in the work—the desire to look at something differently to look for things we have not yet seen—as well as the relationship between how we represent data as visual constructions of patterns that exist within the texts we care for and research from.

Drucker compares data versus capta explaining that capta is “taken” actively while data is assumed to be a “given” that is able to be recorded and observed. The difference Drucker sees arising is that humanistic inquiry acknowledges that its knowledge is “situated, partial, and constitutive”—this is the recognition of knowledge as a construction, “not simply given as a natural representation of pre-existing fact” (“Humanities Approaches to Graphical Display”). Drucker calls for a rethinking of data as capta that better expresses its ambiguity over certainty—which gets at what she describes as interpretative complexity. Drucker calls for data that shimmers.

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In the introduction to The Affect Theory Reader— An Inventory of Shimmers”— Gregory J. Seigworth (Seag-worth) and Melissa Gregg explain that there is no “originary state” for affect; instead it arises “in-between-ness” in the capacities to act and to be acted upon in a perpetual “becoming”. Affect theory is a matter of composing as unfolding; or as Seigworth and Gregg describe it, an inventory of shimmers.


A shimmer can be seen, but how can affect be made seen? How can affect be captured?

data visualization constructed not as representation (data: given) but as capta—a partial look, a shimmer experience of acting on and being acted on

What is the affective residue of a text? I draw from the forms and intensities of others to construct a means of seeing affect. As a technique, Byron Hawk’s post-techne allows for the seeing through constellations of relations, often as inventio fitting specific occasions. It’s affectively attuned to kairos, ambience, and emergence to compose in the perpetual becoming. Shimmers like flashes remind me Roland Barthes’ punctum from Camera Lucida; his exploration of a new science for every object, a mathesis singularis. Barthes explained that part of what he was after was a way to articulate something beyond language, a project that embodied his “desperate resistance to any reductive system” (8). Barthes questioned how to work in the space between two languages—one critical and the other expressive— ultimately agreeing to compromise with a power—affect; saying “affect was what I didn’t want to reduce; being irreducible, it was thereby what I wanted, what I ought to reduce the Photograph to; but could I retain an affective intentionality, a view of the object which was immediately steeped in desire, repulsion, nostalgia, euphoria?” A necessary but difficult implication of textuality, for Barthes, was that there is no exterior to the text but that the text itself doesn’t form a whole. I tried applying Barthes’ affect—an in-between-ness of critical and expressive language—as practice for reading texts affectively.

In January this year, I found myself in between critical and expressive language as I struggled to read and write about ovarian cancer.

visualizations of disease: data embodied // January 26, 2015

As someone interested in visualizations of information and composing image texts, I have been thinking about what I would create to illustrate (make visible) the cancer that consumed/s the women in my family. It seems morbid, or at least uncomfortable, to want to depict the disease without emphasizing narratives of overcoming or resilience, that letting it be seen as it is disembodies the bodies that have nurtured it. I have watched videos of surgeries on women that exist only as torsos or of cartoon monster cells sneaking throughout the body, and images that are illustrations of tumors forcing tissue into distorted asymmetries and photographs that look like alien fruit. I can see my own diagnosis as typeface and an exercise of balance and white space on the page, as calendar tickmarks taking inventory of days and anomalies in patterns of pain, and as Rorschach bloodblots that I am too fearful to interpret. I could show my family tree with attention drawn to deep bark carved, extending back, to the bough my mother and I share. I could show each type of cancer with its corresponding woman/body: breast ___________, ovarian _____________, uterine ______________, cervical _________________. Not to forget the nodal tissues connected to these networks of disease as they thrived and spread: pectoralis major, kidney, colon, liver, fallopian tubes—trace the intra-actions. I could create charts that depict the age of diagnosis, comparisons of treatment undergone, or the duration of the disease. Or perhaps an archive of the women (of which I am living materiality), or poems and paintings of the affective dimensions of the rhetorics of silence and pain and disembodiment. Of strength and resilience. Or faces of women I love.

That was a blog post I wrote a few weeks after finding out my mother had stage four ovarian cancer. I’m not sure there’s a method to researching living with a loved one living with this disease, but over the spring and summer I collected hundreds of pages of data about ovarian cancer in sites and materials found and spaces and materials lived. There were first hand accounts and observations; images and writings from myself and my father and mother; scraps from texts from the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition, World Ovarian Cancer Day, Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month, Susan Gubar’s Living With Cancer New York Times blog, and from the wellness interface my parents used to manage my mother’s information at the University of Michigan Hospital where she was treated. I tried to match my feelings of dis/embodiment with close and distant methods of reading ovarian cancer: through situating myself within sensory ethnography from Sarah Pink and unfolding texts through sentiment analysis. Through enfolding quantitative and qualitative data to express cancer.

My understanding of cancer was constructed culturally through stories of overcoming: triumphant, brilliant, radiant. There aren’t those kinds of stories for ovarian cancer; seventy percent of women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer are already at stage three or four. Beyond early detection in the first stage, there is no #SURVIVOR for the disease. Stage four ovarian cancer in my mother was visiting my childhood bedroom now a supply closet of every bandage, gauze, sterile glove, and size of cotton swab. The harsh contrast between the 50s peach bathroom tile and the hospital grade shower/bath stool protruding out of the tub. A three-tiered metal cart in the living room littered with near fifty prescription bottles where the coffee table used to be. Cancer in my mother was embodied, it was becoming in her body unfolded.

In The Power at the End of the Economy, Brian Massumi provides an understanding of body and bodying that is able to unfold between critical and expressive language. From Spinoza, Massumi describes a body as what it can do as it goes along, constantly changing as it affects and is affected. The body is one with its transitions—there is no body, but continuous bodying that presents itself as intensities. What I worked to capture were moments that captured me.

trying to communicate through sensory ethnography

In Sarah Pink’s Doing Sensory Ethnography, Pink outlines a process of sensory ethnography (rethinking ethnography through the senses, sensory ethnography in practice, interpreting and representing sensory knowing) that accounts for how multisensory experience, perception, knowing, and practice are integral to the lives of people who participate in research and how ethnography is practiced (1). While reading this book, I was struck by the beauty of the method Pink espoused. She explains:

Ethnographic places are the places that we make when communicating about our research to others. Whatever medium is involved, ethnographic representation involves the combining, connecting and interweaving of theory, experience, reflection, discourse memory and imagination. It has a material and sensorial presence…it can never be understood without accounting for how its meanings are constituted in relation to readers and audiences through their participation (42)

She sets up a sensory subjectivity and inter-subjectivity (53-56) that requires a researcher to reflect on their role in the production of ethnographic knowledge (sensitive to the contingency of identity in relation to environment). If identity is continually negotiated through intersubjective relations with material and sensory environments, it is too negotiated through sensory relationships with and between participants. The method/ology is multisensorality in its interconnectedness of the senses and their relationship to perception; is work of imagination or collective practice for collective memory carried out in social and material relations; and is self-reflexive in that it is ethnography that is also autoethnography.

Sensory ethnography allows for emplacement, Pink’s combination of space and place, that extends beyond limits of body-mind relationship (from embodiment) to attune to the sensuous relationship between mind-body-environment. I wanted to know how I there at home and I here at school was present and removed, coping and supporting, understanding and refusing. I took inventory of shimmers: texts about what my mother was able to eat; lists of medication times; photos of the hospital room mise en scene; maps that tracked my meditative afternoon walks like unraveled yarn knotted.

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I collected food tray items and object markers on slow walks, group message threads, and litanies: tropical atrium, leukocyte count, box of chocolate, Müllerian adenocarcinoma, “mom sends a big kiss”, epithelial tissue, “her spirit is high”, subcutaneous drain. At the same time I gathered narratives of diagnosis, clinical texts of symptoms and treatments, and tweets from World Ovarian Cancer Day and Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month from bodies not my mothers, but enfolded in cancer.

measuring sensory, measuring sentiment 

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Here are two (one read as negative and the other of the most re-tweeted tweets from the World Ovarian Cancer Day account:

  • negative: @OvarianCancerDY: How many voices does it take to raise awareness about ovarian cancer on #WorldOvarianCancerDay? Just one. Yours.
  • positive: @OvarianCancerDY: Submit your #unbreakblebond pictures with the women you love

The designation of positive and negative comes from a sentiment analysis program.

In the positive tweet, the use of the word love signifies “positive” feeling, even though many of the photos tweeted with the hashtag #unbreakable bond are of women who have died from the disease. I puzzle over the negative wondering what signifies a “negative” feeling. None of the negative tweet results explain what semantic features indicate the tweet as negative like they do for the positive tweet. Something like World Ovarian Cancer Day uses many negative terms, like “disease”, but as I skimmed the tweets, I wondered how the program read positive affirmations that use question marks; the frequent use of “NOT” as an affirmative declaration (as in “here’s an easy way to make sure ovarian cancer is NOT the most overlooked cancer”), and just the word cancer itself; and how might be able to better parse through personal narrative accounts from organization informative statements.

The program cannot parse through the semantic elements differently though. The tweets cannot be taken as given sentiment of positive or negative accounts of ovarian cancer. Nor can my personal account/archive. But both are sets of data, each with the capacity to capture experience and the captivation and addition of other people, spaces, purposes. They oscillate between cancer discourse of critical and expressive accounts; and of the cultural stadium and the personally wounding punctum. They provide space in their in-between-ness for the interpretation as performative, bringing objects/bodies into view through reading or other acts of intervention/intra-action, foreclosing the possibility that autonomous objects or phenomena exist within the horizon of human experience. Phenomena of human experience are constituted as interpretative acts. Our representation and access to data has to match in intensity in its collection, annotation, and representation.

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home: worn void

I procrastinate leaving that doesn’t feel like going home

to come back won’t bring being and there might not even be imprint of her there

vacant looking at the ceiling, squint my eyes to see as she then, crying to know her thoughts her body

I try to hug myself as she, find her memory in soft spaces that are only indents impressed

packing with hands I wonder if are hers, home my body of her making



body entropy

I am sitting at my desk. This seems worth noting, momentous, because it means I’m sitting still. Stillness is anything but—it brings a too strong sense of body of which every nerve feels. In stillness I am covered in delicate cilia responsive to every vibration wave particle. The realization of stillness ruptures. I try to spend each day in a blur of non-consciousness, refusing to be still. Sleep is still. Quiet is still. Alone is still. Work is still. The realization of stillness brings panic.

I can inventory the last month in miles put on my car, hairs fallen from head, coffee cup rings, and the learned topography of packages in the twenty four hour grocery. But I can’t account.

Perpetual motion takes its toll. Raw nerves, eyes that water, a body that aches, a mysterious rash in the shape of a Christmas tree, electric migraines, blackouts. An inventory of body that refuses the account of embodiment.

I am sitting at my desk, but my leg shakes and my fingernails dig their way into my palms and my jaw cracks.

calling (up) my mother

Tomorrow is the start of the third year in my doctoral program. Typically, I am raw nerves mixed with a hollow stomach, pacing practicing introductions to the class I teach, and excited anxious energy resolute. Today I feel numb. It’s been a month since my mother passed. These days have gone without my noticing. They feel like stagnation. Like separation. They marked the thirtieth wedding anniversary of my parents and my return to Syracuse (after my mother has died). But a return suggests some sort of routine, a coming back into. These days (that feel as if only a blink and like the nonplace and nontime sitting beside her bed for) have drained me as I try to reimmerse myself. And I find myself questioning displacement: if I feel more empty, I will continue buoyant, listless, surface. I can’t bury myself in work if I don’t exist embodied on ground. (How can I submerge if I can’t come down?)

I just stopped myself from calling my mother’s phone to talk to her about school tomorrow. I can’t hear her, so I listen to her over and over in this short video my dad recorded of her at home. I don’t know the origins of this saying. Except that it is her. She said this to my brother and I every time we stepped out the front door, at the end of every phone conversation, and by text every morning. “Be good. If you can’t be good, be rotten and tell me about it.” I can’t think of a better capture of her: her smile, her playful nature, her absolute and open love and support.

This is the first part of my life that I can’t call for her support. But I call it up.

eye see: five diagrams of Graphis for Rhetsy

Recently, Collin circulated an invitation through Rhetsy (“A handcrafted gift basket of rhetorical miscellany, delivered promptly to your inbox on a weekly basis”) to share lists of fives—what people have been reading, hearing, watching, playing, waiting for, etc. in anticipation/dread of the new school year. Naturally, I’ve thought about trying to construct a unique list to the point of overthinking: total deconstruction. Lists I had started: five items I habitually buy that inadvertently lead to only eating tacos; five of my favorite objects from Tender Buttons; my five favorite female electronic music composersand five songs from Brian Eno’s Small Craft on a Milk Sea that make the perfect score/narrative to an rpg.

But for me, the start of the school year makes me think about how I think. The materiality of my thinking is still something I’m learning about and working to accept. Throughout my schooling, I have gotten feedback on being “spacey”, slow witted, and difficult to follow in the manifestations of my work/thinking and of my body/gestures [I have vivid memory of a professor making me speak while my hands were clasped underneath the table, looking directly in their stooped face, as they repeated “you’re giving us nothing to follow // you’re not making sense”]. I rely heavily on media/material juxtaposition and invocation; the use of referent, the act of movement. I think in exploded diagrams and in between associations. I can’t make eye contact when talking because I need to see to follow. It’s only recently that I realized it’s okay that I process in layers and associations and traces through diagrams. Each time I visit my dad I learn more about myself through him by way of looking at his hand drawn maps for directions; his diagrams of the placement of parts in cars he’s working on; and his illustrations of concepts like how joints in woodworking are fitted. From him, I realize I shouldn’t be surprised that I want to wallpaper my apartment in butcher paper and that I love visualizations.

One of my favorite collections of visualizations is a 1974 book titled Graphis Diagrams. Founded in 1944 to celebrate/promote communication design, this collection is the165th (special) issue of Graphis, edited by founder Walter Herdeg, The Artist in the Service of Science (almost as good a title to possess as Professor of Nonhumanities). In his foreword, Herdeg explains that the purpose of the book is

to show the designer how abstract facts or functions which cannot be simply depicted like natural objects may be given visual expression by suitable graphic transformation. It also reviews the means of visualizing physical and technical processes which are not perceptible to the eye.

The introduction, written by co-founder, senior vice president and creative director of Corporate Annual Reports, Inc. Leslie A. Segal, provides an interesting conversation about the synthesis of art and science in diagrams on the points of elegance, sincerity, complexity, and morality. My favorite pieces of the introduction:

In art as in science, a deceptively elegant statement may have value as a technical exercise; but as communication it is worse than no statement at all.


A bar chart is nothing but the skeleton of a story until the designer decides that it’s a message that should be shouted or whispered, or giggled, or just admitted.

Of the 177 diagram filled pages, it is difficult to choose only five, but here are the five diagrams that always give me pause when flipping through:

front cover

front cover

the graphic visualization of abstract data


experimental digital map of Africa, layer one

experimental digital map of Africa, layer one

experimental digital map of Africa, layer two

experimental digital map of Africa, layer two

Experimental digital map of Africa. It consists of four transparent sheets…and one basic outline map of the continent. Taking as the centre the basic latitude and longitude, mesh patterns were spread out in all directions at intervals of 150 km, and the data which were previously prepared were indicated at the intersections of the meshes. This made it possible to discover constantly what changes were undergone by each of the sheets at the same point under the same conditions.


perceptibility of color

perceptibility of color

Diagram from an article on colour perception…The dots represent the degree of perceptibility of certain colours on a given background colour.


development of a thunderstorm

development of a thunderstorm

Three stages in the development of a thunderstorm: 1. Thermal imbalance in a thunderhead. 2. Build-up of electrical tension. 3. Equilibrium restored.


the particle belt of Jupiter

the particle belt of Jupiter

Diagram of a cut-out view into the invisible belt of charged particles that embrace the planet Jupiter. The planet itself is sectioned to show that Jupiter’s temperature rises towards the centre (indicated by colour) and also to show that it may have no detectable solid surface inside its atmosphere. The difference between the axis of rotation and the magnetic axis is also indicated.


the human circulatory system

the human circulatory system

Pictorial flow diagram explaining the functions of the human circulatory system.

These are a few of many visualizations that make me curious to see. That make me embrace what I used to understand of myself as “scatterbrain”. That make me think of my dad’s Post-It schematics and what my grandfather would design from the daily statistics he collects from newspapers if he had his own computer. That make me question vision, sensation, and how I know.

vibrancy to violence

I want to remember her laugh and not the sound of her teeth cracking.

(I readied myself for her passing but not for her dying.)


The law of the conservation of mass requires that during any reaction in a closed system, the total mass of the reactants or starting materials must be equal to the mass of the products. The vibrancy of her living had to be equal to the violence of her dying.

(I told myself as she slipped in and out of seizures (seven). As I tried to keep her molars from cracking. As I tried to remove dried blood from her lip.)


In the moment, I was the only one in the living room. The hospice nurse had come early after a fitful sleepless night (three). Limbs bent back at angles acute lay soft. Breathing of her own volition calm shallow rhythms.

The law of conservation of mass implies that mass can neither be created nor destroyed, although it may be rearranged in space, or the entities associated with it may be changed in form. I told her she is not her body. That she would be redistributed equal to her serenity.

(I told myself as she ceased in this form with soft breath.  As I felt the air around me move.)

sorting the entanglement of assemblages and networks

I was fortunate enough to participate in the RSA Summer Institute, taking the New Materialisms workshop with Thomas Rickert and Byron Hawk. The company and conversation were extremely generative, both for my own developing project(s) and bringing new perspective to theory in the readings. We read/discussed the following readings under the concept headings of new materialism, agencies, things, networks, movement, and politics:

  • Introduction of New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics // eds. Diana Coole and Samantha Frost
  • “The Agency of Assemblages” // Jane Bennett
  • “The Thing” // Martin Heidegger
  • “Object Lessons” // John Law and Vicky Singleton
  • “Against Space” of Being Alive // Tim Ingold
  • “On Touching—The Inhuman That Therefore I Am” // Karen Barad
  • “Ontological politics. A word and some questions” // Annemarie Mol
  • Interview with Karen Barad // eds. Rick Dolphijn and Iris van der Tuin’s New Materialism: Interviews & Cartographies

While I furiously tried to scribble/transcribe everything that was said, a note that I did make was beginning to hear a difference between network and assemblage (ecology and entanglement for another day/another post)—and when I say hear a difference, I mean I heard it in the language that was being used to talk about them (they themselves working as sort of conceptual metaphors that animate). While I know the concepts are different, I have not been able to really note what makes them differently able in their descriptive power (I’m resisting saying the difference is affect, but there’s some thing there—an opening on / in to…). I’m drawing primarily from the conversation we had about Jane Bennett’s “The Agency of Assemblages”. This is a mess(h).

While I am trying to sort out two concepts/terms, I begin with want of more explanation the descriptive difference in material as compared to object. I’m not sure what impact the distinction would have fit within the larger categories of human and nonhuman (and inhuman), but I wonder how something like Levi Bryant’s quasi-objects, which are neither quite natural nor quite social (see his post on Of Quasi-Objects and the Construction of Collectives) but draw people together into relations with other humans, as well as nonhumans. I think my fixation on these terms at the time being is to understand if use of material or object influences whether one concept is invoked over another—network, assemblage, ecology, entanglement…

Comparing, or rather trying to untangle, networks and assemblages, isn’t as simple as looking across/between two definitions. Both assemblages and networks introduce the concept of actants as entities and forces to move away from anthropomorphic constructs of agency (and Bennett specifically invokes Bruno Latour to frame her use of actant). Jane Bennett advances agency of actants alone to the capacities agency has in groupings, or assemblages “of somatic, technological, cultural, and atmospheric elements” (447). Bennett draws from Deleuze and Guattari to construct assemblage, describing the force field of the assemblage as “a milieu”, “‘Thus the living thing…has an exterior milieu of materials, an interior milieu of composing elements and composed substance, an intermediary milieu of membranes and limits, and an annexed milieu of energy sources and actions-perceptions'” (461). She aligns assemblages with a materialist ontology, which she describes as a kind of vitalism or enchanted materialism.

Within this materialism, the world is figured as neither mechanistic nor teleological but rather as alive with movement and with a certain power of expression; by power of expression I mean the ability of bodies to become otherwise than they are, to press out of their current configuration and enter into new compositions of self as well as new alliances and rivalries. (447)

Bennett explains that the active power of assemblages is “concealed under the rubric of (social) structures, (cultural) contexts, (religious) settings, (economic) climates, or (environmental) conditions” (455). Bennett’s work in “The Agency of Assemblages” is to detach ethics from human constructed moralism in order to produce guides to action appropriate to a world of vital, crosscutting forces (464). With a nod to the Nicene Creed (“We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of all things visible and invisible.”) Bennett states “I believe in one Nature, vibrant and Overflowing, material and energetic, maker of all that is, seen and unseen. I believe that this ‘pluriverse’ is continually doing things, things that bear upon us…as forces upon material beings. I believe that this ‘generative mobility’ resists full translation and exceeds our comprehensive grasp. I believe that to experience materiality as vital and animated is to enrich the quality of human life” (448). She explains that “there was never a time when human agency was anything other than an interfolding network of humanity and nonhumanity” (463).

An assemblage is an interfolding network?

The way Bennett uses the concepts of pluriverse and vital materialism, I think of constant actant activity affecting and being affected and I question how the assemblage is noted/boundaried if it is an interfolding of exterior, interior, intermediary, and annexed milieu. How do assemblages come into being? I find myself thinking about it as a poesis (from Kathleen Stewart) from fog (what does affect look like? fields? layers? static?), but again, I think this is coloured in part by Bennett’s writing, which I think is beautifully constructed. For networks, or at least actor networks, there is no pre-existing activity system either; it is established through thick description in media res, as Latour explains. And even though I know networks aren’t static in structure, it is hard to disassociate from the structural history of network as lines of connectivity. In Reassembling the Social, Latour sets out to reconstruct social because:

  • problems arise when “social” begins to mean a type of material (wooden, economical, biological, organizational)—trying to stand for two different things: a material from other materials and a movement during a process of assembling
  • Latour wants to show why “social” cannot be construed as a material or domain and to dispute providing a social explanation to a state of affairs
  • “social” is not a homogeneous thing (5) but a trail of heterogeneous associations between elements (5)

Latour’s networks describe relating to a group as an ongoing process of fragile, controversial, and ever shifting ties (28) that starts with the controversy, not the group interested (because he’s working from a sociology of science studies frame); this allows for groupings based not on social aggregate but elements (human and nonhuman actants) present in controversies (31). Latour’s networks are not fixed, nor are they singular, but I find myself wanting a similar description of vital materialism in Latour’s ontology—is Latour’s ontology a pluriverse too? I wonder if this has something to do with the association of networks with systems/systematically and symmetrical relationships, or the need of the human to establish/do the work of articulating through description. Latour provides a gloss of the social:

  • the question of the social emerges when the ties in which one is entangled begin to unravel
  • the social is further detected through the surprising movements from one association to another
  • those movements can be suspended or resumed
  • when they are suspended, the social is bound together with already accepted participants (social actors who are members of a society)
  • when the movement is resumed, it traces social as associations through non-social entities which might later participate
  • if pursued systemically, the tracing may end up in a shared definition of the common world (collective)
  • but if there are not procedures to render it common, it may fail to be assembled
  • sociology is best defined as a discipline where participants explicitly engage in the reassembling of the collective

Like Bennett, Latour’s project is a political one (even though his work is often described as lacking politics, and I think, unfairly). Reassembling the Social ends with a conclusion that is a question that opens onto itself (and interfolding?): “From Society to Collective—Can the Social be Reassembled?” as a search for political relevance. Latour states “Once the task of exploring the multiplicity of agencies is completed, another question can be raised: What are the assemblies of those assemblages?” (260) And follows/ends with this statement:

In a time of so many crises in what it means to belong, the task of cohabitation should no longer be simplified too much. So many other entities are now knocking on the door of our collectives. Is it absurd to want to retool our disciplines to become sensitive again to the noise they make and to try to find a place for them? (262)

Which I find resonance with in Bennett’s closing paragraph:

These claims need more flesh and even then remain contestable. Other actants, enmeshed in other assemblages, will surely offer different diagnoses of the political and its problems. It is ultimately a matter of political judgment what is more needed today: should we acknowledge the distributive quality of agency in order to address the power of human-nonhuman assemblages and to resist a politics of blame? Or should we persist with a strategic understatement of material agency in the hope of enhancing the accountability of specific humans? (464)

I’m still a mess(h) over trying to delineate these concepts. What is the difference between a collective (Latour) and collectivity (Bennett)? What is the difference between cohabitating with nonhumans as humans (Latour) and existing in a living grouping (ad hoc, circumstantial) whose coherence coexists with energies and countercultures that exceed and confound it (Bennett)?


[cut clutter] //


[and I can’t make you understand why it is that I can look at my hands for hours and not lose a moment]


[I watched them fall asleep on the couch, my mother’s legs across my father’s lap (hyperreal). Such distant intimacy felt as though I was looking at a hologram depicting mundane life of the past (a work of daily art). My museum shrine home.]


[Friday my shower timed with the mounting afternoon thunderstorm. I tilted the angle of my head until the sound of water cascading had the same sound as rain hitting the roof as I lie in bed listening at the ceiling.]


[I met my parents in a Love’s truck stop parking lot outside of Toledo on my drive from Madison to Syracuse. As my dad transferred my cats from their truck to my car, I talked to my mom. It was the first time I saw her wearing a headscarf. A few days earlier she sent a photo my grandmother took in the hallway—the juxtaposition of her small frame with the doorframe, her smile with surfacing sickness. I stood in front of her thinking of that photo. She was smiling. She hugged me; as she stepped back the wind caught her scarf, blowing it off her head and across the parking lot. She started to cry covering the top of her head. The distant back lighting of fluorescent bulbs in the dark and the tight shot of her face made by my proximity made the moment feel cinematic.]