Cannablizing the Wreckage of the Self: Process/Product|Embodied/Verbal



I have been a true #flailer all week on the Make Cycle about hacks and hacking. I have purposely stayed away from the what the experts say about hacks and hacking. Why? Just as I wouldn’t join any club who would have me as a member, I stay away from folks for whom the word “manifest” is an improvement upon ‘appears’ or ‘happens’ or ‘is’.

But, in a collegial spirit, let’s play with the word for a bit, just as my (h)academic colleagues do.

There is a reason why the word ‘hack’ is suspiciously violent. For instance: “Don’t get your hackles up.”  “Hacking our way through the jungle. “She’s such an academic hack.” “Hackers hacked my Twitter account.”

Hacking has a violent legacy embodied in it. According to the OED its earliest use was to describe a type of tool- a pick, or what we call in my neck of Kentucky,  a grubbing hoe or mattock. One of the entries from 1851 called it a “heavy and obtuse-pointed pick”. You might argue that the word was the embodiment of heavy labor.

Note the clam hack/trident in the nun on the right.  Violent, yes?
Note the clam hack/trident in the nun on the right. Violent, yes?

The word gradually morphs into a more specialized tool for cutting channels into wood. It jumps over at some point to refer to the wound caused by these tools in wood and then more generally to human wounds. But wait, there’s more.

It is used to describe a hesitation in speech, a short cough like smoker’s might get, an exploratory blow at something, to be angered with someone, to tolerate, to gain unauthorized use of. It is a multi-tool word always with the whiff of action and anger about it.

hacking a tree
The channels are cut into the tree with a hack.

That brings us to this week of ‘hacking’, especially hacking our own writing. There are not many traces of this etymological legacy in the use of this word on this week. If anything, ‘hack’ has been reduced to the role of synonym for revise.  This fork in the word from its emotional roots reminds of Descartes’ dissection of the head from the heart–to the detriment of both.

To explain this better, I refer to Michael Gee and a video of his I have been returning to all week. In it Gee asserts that learning is best done through the body first, if possible, then through words only after. He points out that if you are reading a manual for an unfamiliar video game (insert any manual here) it will likely not make a great deal of sense. If you will just go ahead and embrace the game and play it without fretting about the manual, you will likely screw up a lot at first. You will fail a lot much like you do when you learn to ride a bike (only without the skinned knees and the dangers of trucks killing you). If you return to the manual after some of this ’embodied learning’, then the verbal stuff there will magically make more sense. Why? Because you have situated the learning first where it is done best–in the body.

I think this applies to the kinds of hacks we have been exhorted to do this week. I feel that the idea of a hack must already be felt in the body before it is understood (and realized) on the page or in any medium. And there must be some ‘violence’ felt to the self, some subversion of that identity, for us to hack our own writing.

For me that means taking something already done and refeeling it, re-embodying it. This is extremely difficult to do to my own writing, but am able to do that with others’ writing.  For example, I trust that I am doing this when I go through the process of creating ‘zeegas’. Zeega is a remix tool that allows you to take animated gifs, photos, text, text effects, and sound (music or environment) to express something, anything. The translations I make are as true to their originals as I can make them even though they tend to be hotter emotionally. I don’t view them as hacks. They are more like a train running on a parallel track to the original. But there IS a hack going on when I make a zeega.

This hack is the process I go through to get to the product. And there certainly is some new energy (violence?) in that process. The zeega process asks that we come to terms with how new media work together and separately. The music I pick oftentimes has no lyrical connections to the text I am translating. So I have needed to embody a new sensibility,  constantly comparing the feel of the music to the feel of the words I am translating. The same applies to the animated gifs and the text effects and the fonts and all the other pieces that go into the process of making that whole.

What I am embodying, what I am hacking is a new way of looking at the constraints, affordances, and adjacencies of this new tool. It feels like I am hacking with this tool just like miners must have used their hacks to dig and delve and do. Crude, but necessarily so and effective in getting the work toward being done.

Hack or No?

I think that most writing hacks don’t add much to the energy in the original and hence aren’t really hacked products. And I am not making a quality judgment here.  Hacked stuff isn’t better on its face than unhacked stuff.  Hacking is just another way in, perhaps a forced entry even.  For example, when Kevin Hodgson asked us to hack his comic, I don’t think the results were hacks. There were ‘rules’ already established as to filling in the comic’s speech bubbles. It was a great idea and got lots of uptake. I can see lots of uses for the game in the classroom and the training setting. It isn’t a hack and playing it by the rules isn’t a hack. What I did WAS a hack. I put the original idea next to Zeega and commenced to do some serious violence to the original. In some ways the product is the same as what everybody else did, but the way I got there, was by hacking of the original directions. That,to me, is a hack. And that hacking requires a significant portion of re-embodying the original idea much like James Carse talks about in his definition of the infinite game.

Another example is from Susan Watson’s exemplary post on her struggles with the word “hack”. It’s exemplary because there is no air of presumption about her work. There is only a need to clear the air and explore the processes and products of hacks.  She is definitely laboring in the vineyards for us all. You need to read her post and watch the two video examples and comment. She has made herself very vulnerable, she has asked the essential questions, and she has come to terms with the word hack. We should reciprocate. My comment went like so:

I like how you trust your audience more in the second video. Although they are both videos the first one is really a pretty straightforward narrative line carried by the 3X5 cards as chorus. The second one has ‘wormholes’ in it that carry us back a forth across the narrative timeline. That sentence is pretty much academic BS, I fear, but it really comes down to a couple of ‘things’ for me. 1. Does if feel subversive? 2. Is it the process that is being hacked or the product? In the first case you are the sole judge and you should ignore the comments. In the second case I feel you took the video making process and used it to subvert the story in version …. Your questing, uncertain, whistling in the dark movement back and forth is authentic. It is what Dante spoke of in the first Canto of The Inferno as living in the dark wood of error. If you know what you are doing every step of the way, it ain’t hacking. If you know why you are doing it and that reason puts you at odds with yourself and others, that is hacking. So that leaves the question yet to be answered. Which are you wearing a black hat or a white one? Or is it gray? Or patchy? Or yin/yang?

Are we creating a hack of Babel-ical proportions?

I could go, but this post is already well past the tl;dr barrier. If you have gotten this far, you know how I feel and how limited my thinking is on this already. Suffice to say, I am trying to hack my own writing, a poem. And I am not pushing it through someone else’s ‘transform’ to be extruded into another vaguely familiar form. It is not a revision, but I am trying to re-feel the sources of the poem as provisional again. I am trying to re-embody the verbiage so that I can feel it again. Perhaps that is the ultimate hack, cannabalizing the wreckage of our selves through our writing into new identity. If you want to have a crack at cannabalizing it, here it is.


    1. // Reply

      An appropriate response that shows you know about my love of gifs and the message is right as a square. Thanks.

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      I love your view. I am trying to hack your prezi. For some strange reason, it is very difficult.

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    As always, insightful and thoughtful, and I appreciate all the roads you bring us down. Thinking of the comic adventure … I think you are correct — I established rules, which confined the participants, but hoped someone would go further. You did, of course, and I loved the dance party. I wonder what stops us from taking that step forward — fear of messing with someone’s work? lack of experience with tools? worry about being judged? Pushing forward into remixing is interesting and insightful, but takes a bit of courage.

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      Kevin, as teacher I remember moments when students pushed past my preconceived predictions of what they would produce. Example – We made games in our final unit this year, and a couple of kids went in directions that I initially felt uncomfortable with (they weren’t “inappropriate,” just way outside the box I had been thinking in), but then I realized it was exactly what I wanted – they were thinking beyond what I could have come up with, and I had better get comfortable with it. Once I had that epiphany, I felt free to let them loose. And what they did was far more amazing than what I predicted they would do.

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    i’m feeling this. or rather, i felt this moment when i was attempting to hack my poem via Piktochart. i kept having these moments of tension with the fact that i was still leaving some words on the page, that it wasn’t hacking the poem enough, leaving them there. but without them, would there be any sense of rhythm? but with them, is this truly hacked, or is it a half-hack? round and round went my brain. the takeaway of my hack turned out to be the questions that popped to mind about poetic structure and process, and the product was the least important thing. so there’s another interesting question – what’s more important in a hack? the product or the process?

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      I am with you on the idea of process as primary definition of a hack. Words are so slippery aren’t they? Eel slippery.

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    Courage, yes, but even more it is the trust from your friends that makes any risk possible. I am very lucky to have friends like you and Sheri and many in #CLMOOC who trust and tolerate. I think that if we have communities like this in our workplaces then maybe we can risk even more for our learners.

    I think you did exactly right in the comix mix. You established the initial conditions for learning to occur. Beyond that…well, that isn’t really manageable. We want the richness on the edge, but we can’t really scaffold to get it. We just have to nourish the garden and hope lots of stuff will fruit. Permaculture has a lot to teach us in this regard. Of course, as a farmer I would say that.

    Thanks for the comments. Much better than a like or a plus or a fav. All of you are so generous. You have given even in the face of uncertainty.

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      Ahhhh…having the culture in the workplace where trust exists as the fertile ground for risk-taking. That is the ultimate goal and quite a lofty one. But if we want to be true professionals, isn’t that exactly what we need? I am fortunte to now work at a place where risk-taking is encouraged, but in the past this has not always been the case. In schools where it is squelched, we find creativity dying before it can even reach the kids. I just have to have the viewpoint that I do all I can in my school, and hope the seeds are planted as students and staff move on through time and space. And Terry, I agree that there needs to be a level of tolerance, in order for people to really feel comfortable reaching and not just dipping in toe.

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        You all prove to me that ‘tolerance’ is a verb and that it is concrete as practiced in this shared thread. Thanks.

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    Hey bro, you made it quite clear in the initial reflection you gave us about formulaic writing on Kim’s “Burr in Your Sock” post that freedom is key. I’m working on an essay that grew out of these threads on how Genre Theory Is Our Salvation! One of the ways it is, is in democratizing the important questions and helping us to listen to each voice with respect on its own terms. I’m planning to print up some bumper stickers that say, “Cannibalize the Wreckage” …

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      Fabulous. I want to buy the first sticker.

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    Loved this, Terry! It is 4:30am but this was such an enjoyable, thought-provoking read. Will follow up on links soon, thanks!

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