Geisler, Cheryl. “Textual Objects: Accounting for the Role of Texts in the Everyday Life of Complex Organizations.” Written Communication 18 (2001): 296-325. Print.
- In this article Geisler argues that “texts function as both means and motive for human activity in the same way that other technological objects function: They move from private mediational means to public motive as part of the shifting consciousness that sustains the everyday life of complex organizations” (296). In this article G. looks at “ITexts” or texts produced and used for PDAs to demonstrate how texts move from the workplace to the home.
- G. begins by providing a quick summation of the movement of “sociohistorical inquiry” or activity theory from Soviets like Vygotsky and Leont’ev through Scandinavians like Engestrom to Writing Studies through the work of Bazerman, Berkenkotter & Huckin, Blakeslee, and Russell). In WS AT is usually taken up in the context of genre theory.
- Mediational means: “external artifacts used during the course of an activity” (297). This is often how texts are considered in AT systems. This gets at both Russel and Miller’s definition of genre as typified tool-mediated responses(Russell)/rhetorical actions (Miller) responding to recurring situations.
Russell’s activity triangle:
- While most AT theorists have argued that the text is simply a mediational means, G. claims that texts might actually be the motives that drive desirable outcomes through their organization of the work process. This means that the text would move from A to B in Russell’s triangle (297-8). G. claims her goal is not to show that this is always the case; rather, it is to show that it sometimes might be the case so that the text is the “socially valued outcome” not simply mediational means.
- G. notes that texts: 1) sometimes move away from private mediational means toward public motive; 2) when performing this move they act a lot more like “objects” than mere mediations; and 3) when texts are conceived of as objects they can be understood as part of the “shifting consciousness” that drive life in complex organizations (298). G. makes all of these moves to satisfy a call by Witte to study “what it means to be able to write and use texts in contemporary culture” (298).
- G. highlights how some texts coordinate activity and act as “objects” when they circulate in public spaces. Citing Winsor (Writing Like an Engineer?), G. notes how individuals in lower levels of power structured the activities of higher-ups by making public texts that called for different forms of responsibility. The fact that these texts are public calls for compliance and accountability with their directives (299-300). This certainly looks a lot like “B” rather than “A” in the Russell’s triangle. In Winsor’s study “A” was actually represented by a series of private mediational texts – namely drafts, doodles, emails, etc. – that predated the public texts but were instrumental to their composition.
- G. claims that the failure of a text to make the jump from private to public is analogous to the way that “objects act in everyday life” (302). G. claims that the “semi-private, virtual, mutable” objects that are virtualized in the design process (a design in it’s always-changing, virtual form before made real in production) don’t show up in the objects that are produced. She goes on to highlight that “texts” – as the outcome of design activity – that aren’t “complete representations” of the object are the only result of the activity. In other words, “the distinction between virtual and real objects does not, upon inspection, appear to be that hard and fast” (304). Because something is made into material being doesn’t mean that it is real – it needs social sanction to operate.
- G. does all this work to draw attention to a central tenant of technology studies: “an object is a combination of both material and social arrangements, things plus use” (305). This is a very similar articulation to Latour’s conception of an object: objects are the outcomes of technologies through which humans translate or delegate work from human to nonhuman – all objects are anthropomorphic in 3 senses: 1) they are made by human action; 2) they substitute for human action; and 3) they shape human action (306). Text and object are very similar in that they embody these three anthropomorphisms, inscribing “upstream” human activity while also prescribing “downstream” human activity.
- Turning next to the “how” of textual movement from private mediator to public object G. claims that this movement occurs when the text becomes the answer to “Why – Why are you doing this?” (307). Beyond an individual use of an object (individual “why”), the text as object in public serves to distribute knowledge about coordination across an organization; thereby insuring the survival of itself and the organization (308-9). If this is the case, G. asks, “Why is one text private, accepted as being tied to local conditions, part of the mediational means, and not expected to be interpretable outside of those conditions? Why is another text seen as public, more universally understandable, something that is produced and shipped out of its local context and used, as a kind of black box, in other contexts for other purposes? (309).
- To provide the data for her analysis, G. collected a 97 minute screen-capture movie of her own work on a computer. She broke the capture down into 272 workable segments that captured her work on reading web texts, editing a letter of recommendation, talking to her daughter, and taking a break to get dressed. Takeaways:
o Texts in digital spaces are ubiquitous.
o Texts that were private (spreadsheet application and PDA device) occupied a far smaller amount of time than texts that were public (recommendation letter).
o The recurrence of the private texts – especially the PDA calendar – provided an interesting question: who do “layered” minor private texts like the PDA caldendar exhibit the characteristics of the public texts that operate as objects that coordinate activity? Answer: G. claims that the work-home boundary that remained fairly rigid in the past is increasingly dissolved (in the current distributed work context). As such, the private is increasingly becoming the public, approached with a Taylorist managerialism that seeks to chunk family time into increasingly smaller, scheduled portions. In other words, the sociotechnical system wherein G. is using her PDA necessitates the boundary-blurring between private texts and public texts-as-objects.
- In the end G. provides some nice guiding questions for future research: 1) when a text is private, unacknowledged, we need to ask: What is being gained here by having this work invisible? When a text is public, valorized, we need to ask: What is being coordinated here by having this work so accountable?; 2) When a text that has traditionally been private takes on features of objectification, we need to ask: What is being accomplished by shifting the border between public and private work (322).