Academic Cypher

In hip hop culture, the cypher is a circle of MCs, B-boys/B-girls, beatboxers, etc who freestyle and/or battle one after the other without interruption, exchanging rhymes and flows back and forth or around. The cypher is where training takes place and skills are tested, where people collaborate, and where people create "off the top" or written/choreographed, tapping into the place where thought and action come together to share energy and advance the craft...the Academy should aim to do the same.

Tag: Case Study

Scaffolding Synthesis: The Cypher as Network

Scaffolding Synthesis: The Cypher as Network

Rhetorical Situation Theory, Genre Theory, and CHAT


Which 2 – 4 theories are you choosing and why?

For the Synthesis project, my object of study is the hip hop cypher. This project will address the question “Why is studying my OoS useful to English Studies?” To do this, I plan to synthesize theories that focus on rhetoric and activity. I think these areas are useful in addressing ways in which the cypher can be used within rhetoric and composition in regards to pedagogy, argumentation, literacy, and cultural studies. The theories I have chosen to utilize for this project are:

Rhetorical Situation Theory–This theory will allow me to address the cypher’s role and hip hop and hip hop’s history as a social and political movement. Although it is currently mainstream, hip hop’s history is rooted in resistance, subculture, and revolution movements. This theory will allow an examination of the social context in which hip hop, and thus the cypher, was born. In addition, difference (Biesecker) and exigence (Bitzer) provide a space to discuss the interactive nature of hip hop and hip hop’s history of responding to social issues, respectively. These theories could also illuminate the role of audience in the cypher. The connections between the exigence, rhetorician, audience, and the rhetoric can parallel the connections between the participants in hip hop culture, the social problems/issues, and the discourse created within the culture to maintain positions within the community and push against the oppression from outside the community.

CHAT–Cultural Historical Activity theory will allow me to extend the work of rhetorical situation theory by providing a wider and more nuanced look at the activity within the cypher. Through CHAT the improvisation, spontaneity, and style expressed within the cypher can be addressed. The socialization aspect of the theory is useful to examine performance on the local level (role in the neighborhood/community) and cultural level (role in hip hop culture). The goal of the cypher is to provide a space for training, knowledge construction, entertainment, self expression, community building, and competition. The layers of literate activity work well for examining the various elements of the cypher.

Genre Theory (specifically, Bazerman’s Speech Acts)–Hip Hop and cyphers have been examined as social, cultural, and political movements. However, there has been little done to examine genre in Hip Hop. Hip Hop is made of four elements (rapping, djing, emceeing, and graffiting). If the cypher is thought of as a genre, each performance created in the cypher could be seen as a speech acts. This perspective, similar to CHAT, is useful for examining the cypher as a genre system within the larger activity system of hip hop. Bazerman’s focus on the “use [of ] texts to create new realities of meaning, relation, and knowledge” provides a way to address the cyphers role in organizing and creating community, disseminating information, and constructing knowledge. There is a hierarchical nature to cypher, which is not often illuminated; however, Bazerman’s human activity allows for an examination of hierarchy within the layers of the cypher.

How are they similar enough that you can justify getting them to work together?

As mentioned in the short introduction, these theories provide a focus on rhetoric and activity that I feel are important for examining the benefits of the cypher in regards to English Studies. Rhetorical Situation Theory, Genre Theory, and CHAT all provide a way to discuss rhetoric and the production and movement of information. This is important for English studies as we move toward a more networked classrooms and teach students whose lives are digitally mediated. They will need the ability to think critically about the production and movement of information. The theories all focus on activity; literate activity in CHAT and human activity in Bazerman. Also, rhetorical situation theory addresses activity in the sense that rhetorical discourse starts in response to a problem in order to cause action on the part of the audience. These three theories work together in providing a way to look at the creation, movement, and impact of activity within the cypher.

How do they fill each other’s gaps?

Rhetorical situation theory and genre theory deal with the origin or production of actions. CHAT provides a focus on literate activity and social context, which rhetorical situation allows, but genre theory does not. Moreover, CHAT allows for a discussion of all the elements of the cypher, while the other two theories do not allow for such an examination. Whereas, rhetorical situation theory can allow for a discussion of the meaning and audience, CHAT allows for a discussion of the activity within a larger context in regards to the literate activities role in functional systems, such as institutions and communities.

My Position as a Scholar

How do these theories align with how you position yourself as a scholar?

In regards to scholarship, my goal is to bridge my two worlds together. I am a member of the hip hop community and the academic community. The structure, organization, and belief system of these two groups are wildly different, if not polar opposite. However, I think that the link between the two spaces is dialogue. Both groups emphasize the generation of knowledge and the advancement of the community through conversation. The academy has the concept of the Burkean Parlor. Hip Hop has the cypher. It is my aim to use these two conceptual spaces and ideas as a bridge to move scholarship between the two communities. I believe that scholarship should move from within the academy to outside of the academy. What I mean by this is that there should be practical application, action, or activism.  One part of this that is important to me is making scholarship accessible to an audience beyond academics. I think this is important if the people/groups/communities, especially those historically  marginalized, oppressed, and disenfranchised, should be able to participate in the conversations. Scholarship that is not accessible outside of the academic community is in a sense preaching to the choir. This does help to advance thought within the academic community, but it should also help to advance thought and enlighten the communities being studied and examined. The goal is to spark debate, raise awareness, encourage critical thinking. Each of the chosen theories, I feel, can be easily adapted for an audience outside of the academy. In addition, their focus on action in regards to production and movement of information parallels my focus on the movement of scholarship. I feel that an understanding of how and why things are produced, how and where they move, and in what context are important when working towards scholarships that works within the boundaries of two disparate groups. These questions and their answers can provide insight into hip hop culture, especially the cypher, which is a little known aspect of hip hop culture. These insights can further hip hop scholarship in the area of hip hop education, which is a growing area of education in urban schools and non-profit organizations that serve low-income and/or minority areas. Genre theory focuses on agreed upon patterns that enable action. Rhetorical Situation theory focuses on the acts of the rhetor and/or the audience to make meaning and effect change/persuade. Finally, CHAT is about rhetorical activity. These theories align with my belief that the movement and exchange of information is key to knowledge construction. They also align with my personal goal of bridging seemingly opposite communities.

How do these theories align with your own biases and background (the reason you came to this project in the first place)?

I came to this project because my previous object of study did not stand up well as a network. Most of my research has always fallen within hip hop, cultural studies, or both. So, it made sense for my next object of study to fall somewhere within those two areas. Much of my other work in hip hop scholarship deals with bridging rhetoric and hip hop and exploring questions of authenticity, gender, sexuality, and black identity in hip hop culture. I have also explored African diaspora and pedagogy in connection with hip hop. From this perspective, my bias is that I feel that hip hop is significant to the academy. I think it is culturally significant and honestly, more relevant than many of the other subjects we are required to study. Using rhetoric, through Bitzer, Vatz, Biesecker, and Prior et al’s use of CHAT, allows me to connect hip hop with something that is already recognized by the academy as legitimate.

Another bias, I have is that I privilege the “real” world over the academy. What I mean by this is that I think theory is valuable in all aspects of life. In reality theory is philosophy, something we all have. However, I feel that scholarship is only significant if it moves from mental practice and showcase to action or activism. These theories align with my bias by being accessible or easy decoded. Though the term rhetoric may be unfamiliar to some, the general idea or concept of rhetoric and persuasion is not. The term genre in the sense that it is use by Miller and Bazerman may seem foreign and first, but everyone is familiar with genres of music and movies. That can serve as the stepping stone by which to introduce genre theory to an unfamiliar audience. My scholarship, particularly hip hop scholarship, has to go beyond the academy. If it doesn’t, I, as a member of the hip hop community, will be selling out. I’m not “keeping it real” if I hit it big (PhD) and then go mainstream (only producing for outsiders). These theories, with their accessibility and focus on action/activity, allow me to be apart of the mainstream (the academy) while staying connected to my roots.


Bazerman Charles, “Speech Acts, Genres, and Activity Systems: How Texts Organize Activity and People.” Eds. Charles Bazerman and Paul A. Prior. What Writing Does and How it Does It: An Introduction to Analyzing Texts and Textual Practices. New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2004. Print.

Biesecker, Barbara A. “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from with the Thematic of ‘Differance’.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 22.2 (1989): 110-130. Print.

Bitzer, Lloyd F. “The Rhetorical Situation”  Philosophy & Rhetoric. Special ed. Selections from Volume 1. 25.1 (1992): 1-14. Print.

Miller, Carolyn R. “Genre as Social Action.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 70 (1984): 151-167. Print.

Prior, Paul, et. al. “Re-situating and Re-mediating the Canons: A Cultural-Historical Remapping of Rhetorical Activity: A Collaborative Core Text. Kairos, 11.3 (Summer 2007). Web. 31 March 2014. Web.

Vatz, Richard E. “The Myth of the Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric. 6.3 (1973): 154-161. Print.

Case Study #3: Snapchat and Theory of Affordances


Snapchat’s impact on social media networks has been a hot topic for several months now.  It and other ephemeral data applications are being championed as the next wave in communication. The application’s creators have positioned Snapchat in opposition to traditional social media applications, such as MySpace and Facebook, which focus on creating a profile and archiving experiences. This rhetoric and Snapchat’s increased popularity have led many to argue that the days of traditional social media network are coming to an end. Often overlooked in these conversations are short message service (SMS) and multimedia messaging service (MMS), which are Snapchats forerunners. When examining Snapchat’s potential as a revenue generating application and effective communication tool, it is important to understand its technological origins. In the last two case studies, I examined the users’ communication via Snapchat as well as technology’s role in that communication. This case study will move away from Snapchat users and technology, focusing instead on the design of the application itself. Since Snapchat is supposed to be an advance in digital communication and social media networks, it seems key to use Gibson’s theory of affordances to examine the actions users are able to perform within the Snapchat network.

Network and Affordances

The theory of affordances, as laid out by by J.J. Gibson in Chapter 8 of The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, defines affordances as what the environment “offers that animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill” (127). Simply put, the environment or object allows certain actions for the animal or users. The emphasis here in regards to networks is that there is connection between the environment (object), what is allows the user (action), and the animal (user).  Affordance theory is connected to ecology, hence the reference to environment and animal, so there is a sense of looking at what a specific environment or space allows animals in that space. The is a interdependence or connectedness between the environment and the animal. Gibson presents, “The organism depends on its environment for its life, but the environment does not depend on the organism for its existence.” (129). However, he goes on to say that the organism does have impact on and the ability to share said environment.The allowable action or affordance impacts both the parts of the network in that “an affordance points both ways, to the environment and to the observer” (129). When an environment offers a set of affordances it is a niche. Gibson argues that “a niche is a set of affordances[…]The niche implies a kind of animal and the animal implies a kind of niche. Note the complementarity of the two” (128). Beyond the connection environment and the animal, is the idea of perception. The animal or user has to perceive the use before the environment or object can be utilized. Perception adds another dimension to the network of affordances because affordances can exist that animals/users cannot perceive. Gibson explains stating, “The affordance of something does not change as the need for the observer change. The observer may or may not perceive or attend to the affordance, according to his needs, but the affordance, being invariant, is always there to be perceived” (139). Affordances exist as a part of the network whether they are recognized or not by the user. So, as a network, the theory of affordances includes the environment in which action takes place, the objects themselves, the allowable actions, and the animal/user.

Connection to Snapchat/Literature Review

The theory of affordances allows for the inclusion of the camera phone and multimedia  messaging (MMS) into the Snapchat network. Camera phones and photo messaging are essential parts needed for Snapchat to function. What is the significance of camera phones and photo messaging in regards to mobile communication? One scholar will provide work on which to build an analysis of Snapchat and it’s affordances. As mentioned in previous studies, there is little to no literature on Snapchat besides discussions of ephemerality and sexting. In this study, Snapchat is a photo messaging application designed for mobile phones (smartphones, specifically) framed as a network. In the previous case study, the hardware (data storage) and software were considered parts of the network. Moving forward, this case study will aim to incorporate the hardware in regards to the camera phone and photo messaging software that make Snapchat possible.

In “Visual chitchat: The use of camera phones in visual interpersonal communication,” Mikko Villi argues that photo sharing is a significant part of mobile phone communication, which was enahnced by the camera phone. The camera phone is not a ubiquitous part of moblie phones. Villi’s study aimed to see how mobile phone communication practices connected to photo sharing. Through the lens of James W. Cary’s theory of ritual view of communication, Villi concluded, “ritual communication is evidence in how camera phone photographs are captured and communicated in order to maintain social cohesion among a group or among individuals”(39).    Villi’s work presents that photographs have moved from being the subject to the medium of communication. Due to the camera phone, visual interpersonal communication has increased. According to Villi, “A photo message offers both interpersonal, shared experience, and mutual view of the same world through the photograph” (42-43).  Thus, the camera phone allows “new forms of mobile interaction by adding a visual element to the communication process” (50). A significant thing that Villi notes, which relates to Snapchat, is: “A further outcome of the convergence of photography and mobile communication is that photographs can be increasingly directed towards communicating the present. These communications, Villi argues are ritual communications that are used to maintain connections between individuals and/or groups.  The convergence and utilization of these technologies allow users to visually connect with one another to “show the recipient that s/he is in the sender’s thoughts” rather than to directly communicate a specific message (49). This is significant in that  Snapchat is all about capturing and sharing a specific, fleeting moment. The rhetoric of Snapchat’s creators emphasizes connectedness through shared moments and memories that must be paid attention to and absorbed by the individuals involved versus being archived and shared with everyone.

How does the theory define your object of study (as a whole, broken into pieces)?

The theory of affordances would define Snapchat as an object within the environment of the smartphone. The smartphone serves as the environment because Gibson defines the environment as “the surfaces that separate substances form the medium in which the animals live” (127). The smartphone would be the surface that allows the network of Snapchat to function within it. The smartphone’s functioning and ability would greatly impact the network within. For example, if the phone loses power or cannot connect to the cell tower, the user will have limited to no access to Snapchat.

What and/or who is a network node?

The network would include the environment, the object, the user, and the affordances. Through the lens of the affordance theory as network, the environment of the smartphone provides the space for the object of the camera to allow the functioning of the object Snapchat by the user. The environment (smartphone) would be the surface in which the nodes of the objects (camera phone and Snapchat) afford the animal (Snapchat user) action. The snaps, themselves, would also be objects that are moving within the environment of the smartphone and between the objects of the camera phone and Snapchat. These different nodes all impact and connect with one another. All are influenced by the larger environment of the smartphone. The affordances are also apart of the network. The camera phone affords taking pictures and videos. The application of Snapchat affords connecting to the camera phone to take pictures/videos, connecting to other users, and sending/recieving pictures/videos. Upon first glance, the application does not afford saving of images. However, this is circumvented by saving the picture/video on another device or utilizing another affordance of the smartphone and camera: screen capture.

How are different types of nodes situated within a network?

The nodes within the network are not necessarily hierarchical. In the previous case study, I discussed the significance of the hardware and software. This is also the case via the lens of affordance theory.  The objects, actors, and affordances are all connected and interdependent. There is no hierarchy. However, if the environment is considered a part of the network (it has agency). It would be situated as the primary node. This is important in regards to Snapchat because the environment of the smartphone and the object of the camera play a significant role in the functioning of the application. There is much more dependence of Snapchat upon the connection to the network and the functioning of the smartphone and camera than the other way around.

The theory of affordances aimed to allow the examination of the connection between environment and animals/objects in an interdependent and connected ecology rather than a subject-object divide. This moves in favor of the network being flattened. However, Gibson states, “The possibilities of the environment and the way of life of the animal go together inseparably. The environment constrains what the animal can do[…]”  (141). Although there is interconnectedness, the environment constrains the actions within the network.

What types of agency are articulated for various types of nodes?

In the Snapchat network, if the environment is viewed as only a surface, the actors have the most agency. Although there is a still a certain level of dependence on the functioning of the camera phone, the users still decide when and if to use the network. All the parts of the network and environment would still exist, but they would be static if not for the users. The users must perceive the affordance and then act in order for the network to be active. Moreover, within Snapchat the actors create objects that are added to the network. The taking and sending of a snap adds the snap to the network (even if for a short period of time).

What are the types and directions of relationships between nodes?

In regards to types of relationships, the nodes within the Snapchat network are interdependent. Gibson presents the idea of niche. A niche is defined as  a set of affordances” (128). He presents that the nice has more to do with how than where an animal lives. In this regards, the niche would focus on how the user functioned within the environment of the smartphone and utilized the affordances of the camera phone and Snapchat. The user needs all of these pieces. If any of the pieces are missing, nothing can move within the network. I am aware that this can contradict the previous section in which I stated the actors/users had the most agency. I justify this by thinking of a dysfunctional network as being more significant than a network that is not being used at all. What i mean by that is if parts of this network malfunction, the user is still attempting to access and make use of the network. If the user is not attempting to use the network, whether it is functional or dysfunctional, it will be static.  The objects of the network are limited to the network, except for those that are user generated. Objects, such as snaps, added to the network have the ability to leave the network if another user violates the terms of snapchat and saves/stores and disseminates the snap. A snap removed from the network would have its own set of affordances that would go beyond the affordance of sharing a private moment/experience between connected users within the Snapchat network .

What is moving within the network?

As mentioned above, the only thing that moves within the network are the user created objects (snaps). These move from user to user and only exist for up to 10 seconds. At this point, the object, theoretically, disappears. It is hidden from the user via the camera phone and smartphone, itself. It is also, supposedly, hidden or blocked in the larger environment of the service provider network. Nothing else within the network moves.

What happens to content or meaning as it travels through a network?

Through the theory of affordances meaning is complex. Gibson argues, “The meaning is observed before the substance and surface, the color and form, are seen as such.” As mentioned before perception is a significant part of affordance theory. Affordances can exist that are not perceived. Meaning is tied to the perception of affordances. Therefore, it is up to the user to assign meaning based on perceived affordance of the object (snap). However, since affordances exist whether not they are perceived, the meaning can be there and not be perceived. As Gibson states, “The affordance of something does not change as the need of the observer changes. the observer may or may not perceive or attend to the affordance, according to his needs, but the affordance, being invariant, is always there to be perceived” (139). So, theoretically, meaning would travel through the network and reside in the network until the snap disappeared. The snaps afford interpretation and internalization of meaning. If the user does not perceive this affordance, the meaning still exists but it is not perceived.

How do networks emerge, grow, and/or dissolve?

The emergence, growth, and dissolution of the environment would be impacted by niche ecology and constraints. Gibson argues, “ “The possibilities of the environment and the way of life of the animal go together inseparably. The environment constrains what the animal can do, and the concept of a niche ecology reflects that fact.” The niche, as previously defined, is a set of affordances.  Just as there were aspects of the environment that had to be invariant for animals to evolve. The environment of the smartphone has to have invariant elements for the network of Snapchat to develop. The camera phone had to become a ubiquitous part of mobile phones, and  photo messaging had to become a regular part of mobile communication. Gibson discusses constraints in regards to what the environment affords the animal/user. Another aspect is cultural constraint. Normal defines cultural constraints as “learned conventions that are shared by a cultural group.” In regards to Snapchat, the network emerged and grew due to the cultural constraints. Over time camera phones, photo messaging, and applications have become a regular part of culture that users have accepted overtime as natural part of mobile phone communication. This harkens back to Villi’s discussion of ritual communication. The ritual of communication through these methods allowed for this network to emerge and grow in this environment. The same can be said for the dissolution. The cultural constraints could provide advancements, which cause the network to grow, move toward another form of mobile communication, or the end this form of mobile communication all together.


The theory of affordances, for me, emphasized connection, action, and perception. The parts of the network were illuminated for what they do and how they do it in connection with the other elements. In the other case studies, I barely looked at the technology that makes Snapchat possible. This has to be apart of the equation if the entire system is taken into consideration. Through the theory of affordances (and what it brings from ecology), I was able to focus in on where Snapchat exists within a somewhat larger position, rather than focusing just on Snapchat and the users. There is much less on the users and the possible content of the snaps. The users will always be an essential element in this because Snapchat needs users to send snaps in order for the network to remain active and relevant. If everyone is a receiver on Snapchat the network will not be as effective. More importantly, the network will no longer align with the rhetoric that the creators have crafted. Each case study has allowed for a closer look at a different aspect of Snapchat. Bring the pieces together could allow for the big picture of Snapchat as a network within much larger networks. I am thinking of this in regards to the network of mobile phones and service providers. In addition to its position as the next big thing in social media networks.

Works Cited

Gibson, James. “The Theory of Affordances” The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 1986. Print.

Norman, Donald A.. “Affordances and Design.” Don Norman: Designing for People. 2004. Web. 15 Mar. 2014.

Villi, Mikko. “Visual chitchat: The use of camera phones in visual interpersonal communication.” Interactions: Studies in Communication & Culture, 3.1 (2012): 39-54. Print.

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