[iDC] The Social Machine of Events

john sobol john at johnsobol.com
Tue Feb 7 11:49:45 EST 2006

On 6-Feb-06, at 10:09 PM, Danny Butt wrote:

>  I've become so used to formal "openness" being a cover for 
> substantive epistemological and cultural homogeneity.
> how do we really know that more interaction is better?

>  I guess a comparative ethnography of event structures would be a good 
> resource.
> Danny

I've taken the liberty of selecting just a few of the many highly 
relevant and insightful statements from your post, Danny. I'd like to 
elaborate briefly on them...

I've been advancing the argument that 'the social machine of events', 
while incidentally dependent on formal event structures, is 
fundamentally dependent on hegemonic cultural orientations that 
determine the range of acceptable and desirable social interactions 
within a given community. Furthermore, I've argued that the familiar 
epistemological conventions to which so many events default – and which 
many of us have questioned both in theory and in practice – are the 
result of the cultural hegemony of literacy. I have tried to show that 
the traditional form of the knowledge events that we are discussing 
reflect the dynamics of reading (i.e. silence, stillness, solitude) 
rather than speaking (i.e. noise, motion, community). In short I am 
arguing that 'paperism' produces 'panelism', and that if we wish to 
transcend the limitations of conventional (literate) event structures 
we would do well to study the event structures of oral cultures, for 
there the centrality of the spoken word yields a different 
epistemology, a different set of cultural expectations and very 
different event structures.

In the most practical terms, I'm talking about the influence of say, a 
printed program, on the unfolding of an event. With a printed program, 
we know who's supposed to be where, when, and why. And we are expecting 
to stick to the schedule. This can of course be an excellent thing. But 
is is very different from say, a reggae concert with several bands on 
the bill. In that setting, where there is no printed program, 
everything is far more volatile, unpredictable and fluid. Now I'm not 
saying one is better, I'm just saying they are very different, and that 
a big part of the difference is the lack of a printed timetable to 
which people expect to adhere.

In this context I'd like to address the ideas snipped above...

>  I've become so used to formal "openness" being a cover for 
> substantive epistemological and cultural homogeneity.

That an 'openness' based on the rejection of convention may yield an 
un-self-critical cliqueishness is not surprising. We've seen this many 
times before. In the absence of deep roots in an alternate epistemology 
the simple rejection of an oppressive hegemony will produce ambivalent 
results. In the case of conferences and festivals, the desire to escape 
tired formal limitations (i.e. keynotes, panels, paper-reading, etc.) 
has impelled many (valid and admirable) formal experiments. But how 
successful have we been at transforming our epistemological 
expectations and values rather than merely the social structures that 
emerge from them?

For example,

> how do we really know that more interaction is better?

this is a very interesting statement. Among other things, it highlights 
the false binary that results from mere rejection of convention.

>  I guess a comparative ethnography of event structures would be a good 
> resource.

I wish to point out here that in oral cultures 'more interaction' is 
not necessarily the goal of a given knowledge event. More interaction 
does not equate more knowledge. On the contrary, in an oral culture, 
often when someone is speaking the degree of horizontal interaction 
between listeners is inversely proportional to the power and skills of 
the speaker. In other words, when someone is telling a great story or 
giving a great speech, people DO NOT talk to one another, they do not 
even look at one another, they are completely absorbed in a one-to-one 
relationship with the speaker. There is more or less zero interaction. 
It's when the speaker is poor that horizontal interaction begins to 
occur. People begin to mutter to each other, or talk out loud, or 
heckle, or even 'bum the rush the show', replacing the speaker 

What is important here, I think, is to recognize that 'more 
interaction' is not the aim in this performative context, but it is 
always a very real option. Not an option that needs to be designed or 
forced, but rather the inherent cultural orientation of a community 
whose values are rooted in orality. As I said in an earlier post, 
literates do not default to 'more interaction' when speakers wank at 
our epistemological events, but rather to less. Thus while it is 
valuable and likely necessary to design responses that increase 
interaction at events, it's also necessary to understand the hegemonic 
parameters of literate social dynamics in order to get at the deeper 
obstacles preventing a more progressive and heterogeneous platform for 


bluesology • printopolis • digitopia

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