End of Semester Blues

Tomorrow night is my last night of Fall 2010--which has been my favorite semester thus far at University of South Florida. My Contemporary Rhetorics class was awesome; we enjoyed a guest interview with Thomas Rickert, read D. Diane Davis' new book Inessential Solidarity weeks after its release, and I experimented with open reading weeks in which the students could decide what they wanted to bring into the class. I got the opportunity to read several new(er) books I have been waiting to read, including Brooke's Rhetoric for New Media, Rickert's Acts of Enjoyment, and Harman's Prince of Networks. I've enjoyed the class so much that, despite the incredible amount of energy it requires, I'm sad to see it end (especially knowing that I am unlikely to get the opportunity to teach it again for several years).

My undergrad class in Visual Rhetoric was also, I think, successful--although I will be making changes for next semester, when I will be teaching undergrad sections of Visual Rhetoric and New Media. I've decided that I will only do (x)html and css in New Media--but that is the only technology we will work with for the entire semester. This semester in VR I tried too many things--Prezi, InDesign, Photoshop, Premier/iMovie, and (x)html and css. Next semester, Visual Rhetoric will focus on photo and print technologies (with a few presentations in either Prezi or Premier) while New Media will involve both avant-garde and service learning projects in (x)html and css.

Inspired by Nathaniel Rivers' snazzy (and informative) site, Karl Stolley's recent digtial facelift and plea, and the work of my Visual Rhetoric students on a new USF Rhetoric and Composition Program site (link coming soon), I spent the weekend updating my site for the first time in a few years. I'll probably put the new site up tomorrow. I've got a book review for TCQ to finish this week on Selber's new edited collection Rhetoric and Technologies. I've read the preface, introduction, and the first three essays by Marilyn Cooper, Johndan Johnson-Eilola, and Geoff Sirc--all three were excellent. That makes it easier to finish the collection! I've also got to finish an essay on Latour, Gorgias, and Levinas; the essay has been 95% complete since October, but I've been holding on to it until after I had the opportunity to read Davis and Harman.

Well, there's my near-to-end-of-semester update. Hope all is well on your end. I'll try to post again after the upcoming swarm of grading.

Update:I put up the new version of the site. It still needs polishing work, but if I waited until it was finished it would never see the light of day


Poor, Neglected Blog

Sorry I haven't been kinder to you. Right now I'm trying to finish two articles, complete revisions for an accepted piece, finish a book review, write a gaggle of letters of rec, teach my contemporary rhetorics grad class for the first time, teach my visual rhetoric class for the first time (including a service learning project), submit something for C&W, attend meetings, and maintain occupational sanity. I'll try and be nice to you sometime soon.


Berlin, Vitanza, and Self/Assessment

Last night my graduate course on Contemporary Rhetoric spent some time in 1996; we discussed two important treatments of postmodern theory in Rhetoric and Composition--Vitanza and Berlin. Below is the lecture I gave. Those who shared a former life with me will hear familiar notes.

In University in Ruins, Readings highlighted the growth of excellence following the deconstruction of traditional University meta-narratives. Left without an absolute(ly Good) transcendent rasion d’etre, the University has fashioned for itself (perhaps paro/a/logically?) a new meaning to inhabit (since, as Berlin summarizes, rhetoric and postmodern theory begin from the position that we all exist mediated through language and discourse). That the new meaning cannot itself be qualified or quantified, exhausted, limited, or even defined, makes it a particularly apt response to the postmodern dilemma (the lack of meta-narrative, the disappearance of the autonomous subject): in Ulmer's parlance, We B Excellence.

In Postmodern Condition, Lyotard predicted the rise of an administrative class within academia. We have already discussed the ramifications of this process—particularly, the emphasis on production and assessment. These two related ideas surface in Berlin, particularly in his discussion of Post-Fordist education. Lyotard’s administrative class is Berlin’s managerial student/teacher. There are differences—for Lyotard, the development of the administrative (dedicated to performativity and efficiency) is considered as a move in a language game, an almost Darwinian adaptation to survive according to the “new” rules laid out by the changing conditions of the game. It is a struggle for survival.

In Berlin, it is cast as a more overt and conscious exercise by those in power to regulate and control—rather than a kind of “naturalistic” evolution it is a political strategy (take, for instance, Berlin’s remarks on Foster, Butler, and Blitz and Hurlbert(48-49)). It is not surprising, in Berlin’s narration, to see corporate interests speak to the need for (and only for) “the ability to speak and to hear, to read and write the English Language fluently and with true comprehension and true ability to articulate ideas” (48). Those familiar with such discussions will see the code: English Language instruction as a dedication to clarity, to efficiency, to hegemony. Riffing on our past, to obedience more than to thinking. To teach “clear” expression is to teach/craft a Conservative (read: submissive) subject.

Post-Fordism calls for workers without any specialization. It destroys unions by declaring that any shmoe can do the job. Think of how today’s large corporations (McDonalds and Walmart come to mind) actively developed a strategy called “zero-skilled labor,” such that the corporations could easily negotiate the high turnover in the workforce. That most difficult resource, the human resource, ideally becomes little more than standing, breathing, welcoming, and thanking. Provided enough institutional scaffolding, the parts are completely and immediately replaceable. Not just burgers but students. I argue that there is a desire, a will, to automate teaching, too.

Berlin draws upon Harvey’s term “flexible accumulation” to describe this Post-Fordist reordering: In flexible accumulation, markets are as much created as they are identified and so “control over information flow and over the vehicles for propagation of public taste and culture have likewise become vital weapons in competitive struggle.” (Harvey 1989, 160). (46)

I will return to notions of weapons and struggle later. Here, I would stress that education operates as a market, that this is not news—that Heidegger, Lyotard, and Readings have already made this argument quite clear to us. There is always the question of whether postmodern theory is simply new grist for the mill, flexibly accumulated and regulated.

But the rise of assessment, as I have been referring to it, is an intensification of the principles of flexible accumulation (as struggle over information and subjects in-formation) in the arenas of education. By and large, this intensification largely reserves itself to primary and secondary levels, but we can also trace its presence in higher education as well. We are not too far from the Spellings Commission for Higher Education, and its gentle nudges for Universal Exit Exams (in the name of customer satisfaction…err…accountability to prospective students). Continuing national economic hardship will only intensify such desires. Account for everything, down to the minute, down to the sentence. Ensure student outcomes. Program Study. This phrase Program of Study takes on new meaning in the Excellently Assessed Performative University in Ruins. No longer a map drawn by the autonomous protagonist-student as they weave their way through the disciplinary landscape (narrating their own story), it now speaks to identity formation regulated within a discourse. Those of you who read Foucault can fill in the blank. Those of you hit by Foucault can too.

But let’s recast this regulation in a more sensitive light—let’s say that, instead of a last gasp to consolidate power and legitimize expenses (hey, we need money because we need teachers because we need to craft subjects over here), let’s say that it is a humanistic response to shifting conditions—one that challenges the Post-Fordist assumptions of interchangeability. Not anyone can be an engineer. In fact, it takes four years of micromanaged, I mean carefully planned, curricula to begin to produce one. It is, no doubt, a humanist response that I here describe—one that seeks to make the student, as a function of an Enlightened curricula, special and irreplaceable. Such aspirations do not necessarily have to be an mendacious or nefarious as Berlin suggests (see 47, and his discussion of Foucault 63). Perhaps Victor’s committee, composed to ensure writing doesn’t fly awayves, speaks here.

Berlin invests himself in critical citizenship and critical pedagogy. I commend him for not backing away from these terms. But we have to recognize the impact of such a commitment. Sure, critical could be deployed in some neutral way a so as to suggest an apolitical-way-of-seeing. Berlin rejects such a fallacy. Every way of seeing and of teaching is always already drenched in a political—curriculum and pedagogy. Its political down to where you put the desks.

And Berlin’s use of “critical” never comes without a politics. It’s a determined politics. For those of you who have never flipped through Freire, or even more so, spent some time with Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Bourdieu’s Distinction, Williams’ Culture and Society or Stuart Hall’s Representations, or any of the other seminal texts in the new/old tradition we would call Cultural Studies, critical means Liberal. Socialist. Progressive. Was anyone even a tiny bit surprised to see Berlin ground this theoretical recommendations for English Studies (notice: Cultural English Studies) on socialist economic theory? Or to see him deploy terms like superstructure, base, capital, corporate hegemony?

Berlin names his politics—his aspirations, his goals, his raison d’etre, his telos.

My sneaking suspicion in preparing this lecture (and we will see how this plays out tonight), is that most of you will choose Berlin over Vitanza. We shall see. Why? Because I suppose you will find solace in Berlin/West’s condemnation of Vitanza’s theoretical play/language—the repeated haunting charge of “bourgeious mysticism.” White, affluent, secure theorists play a highly Sophist.icated theoretical game because they are divorced from the pain and necessity of lived reality. Such games turn our energy and attention away from the real problem and from real solutions. Lacan once argued: the zero form of sexuality is masturbation. Theory cast as Vitanza (and Derrida, Lyotard, and anyone else who engages in that theory, that turn attention away from the weapons and the struggle) is masturbation par excellence; for each plays their own game, and each plays alone. Hence Berlin’s repeated effort to emphasize, in the face of postmodern deconstructions of the subject, the “shared” subject position (again and again he hammers this point). Berlin makes it clear that, to avoid paralysis by analysis, we need a metanarrative and a vision (67). His project is thoroughly Modern. I hope you all noticed this. Berlin conserves even if not a conservative. Why? To change things for the better, of course. And who would question such things? What kind of monster?

Vitanza. Who writes, as Cixious, as a beast. But I will return to this shortly.

First, back to Berlin (insert pun about fascism in service to a revolution with another pun on a revolution returning to the repressed and the re-pressed as students in molds /pun). What Berlin ignores is a principle of which he is very much aware—consubstantiality Burke would call it. It is the Derridean binary opposition, the idea that the signifier, more than reaching back to a signified, reaches out to other signifiers in the network of its circulation—particularly, Burke stresses, to those signifiers against which it emerges (simple: try to think of hot without cold, don’t think of an elephant). By conserving attention to Harvey’s weapons and struggles he does little more, in my opinion, than recirculating, reconstituting, replicating, extending the status quo. Berlin would use postmodern theory to provide new terms for the old war.

If read across Cornell West, then this is an admirable, human cause. Berlin:

Against the plea for the abandonment of comprehensive historical accounts and the denial of any significance in the myriad details of everyday life, I would propose the necessity for provisional, contingent metanarratives in attempting to account for the past and present. Here Vitanza and I totally part company. While history may be marked by no inherent plan or progression, it is the product of complex interactions of disparate groups, social institutions, ideologies, technological conditions, and modes of production. To abandon the attempt to make sense of these forces in the unfolding of history is to risk being viticimized by them. (73)

Clap. Fist pump. Go get 'em tiger.

But wait a minute. Defer a minute. There is an explicit teleological end to Berlin’s ideal—history is the future too (and if we listen to Derrida, history is the future first, the sight/cite/site of deferment, the judge, the present as the will-have-been (81); Berlin proposes to reveal to the student sites of conflict (sights, cites, sites oh my). Berlin doesn’t just(ice) reveal conflicts, he proposes to write/rite/right them. Does one not conclude that there is a precise determination of the Good every time Berlin deploys the term “democracy”? What if a student in his class used Glenn Beck’s Americanist mantras to attack Cornell West’s call for rhetorics forefronting the marginalized and the oppressed? Anyone want to venture how that would go? One need look no further than Berlin’s explication of differance and alterity: “we are asked to locate heretofore silenced voices” (71). Notice where agency lies—in the “we.” Always with Berlin, agency lies in the self and is never deferred to the other (precisely because Berlin’s goals are determined and not dialogic, narrated and not spontaneously emergent). And, many times, Berlin’s self is not only multiple but plural (such that students are a collection of selves-to-be) in a very singular way (see also 100).

Berlin’s utopia and certitude do frighten me. It is a call to arms, and a pedagogy that marches. To war. For all its pretensions to multiplicity, it threatens to cleanse.

Nevermind the fact that, based on my personal experience, social epistemic rhetoric doesn’t work. It leads to performativity and resentment. Students delivering what the teacher wants. Many have written on this point, most notably Marshal Alcorn (Changing the Subject in English Class, see also Sloterdjyk's Critique of Cynical Reason). Alcorn stresses Berlin’s reliance on an autonomous subject, one who will make the write/right/rite choices once the path has been opened. Berlin, according to Alcorn, fails to appreciate the depths of ideology. It is not a mere software that can be reprogrammed. Ideology permeates the very Being of the machine. This paragraph could be much longer, and much better.

Vitanza, building from Lyotard (and my Heidegger, but not his), would chose to play a differant game than Berlin, to invent new practices, engagements, styles. Yes, seen from Berlin’s perspective, Vitanza’s language is elitist rather than egalitarian. But we might also stress that Vitanza’s language is sophistic in the sense that it is developed for a very particular audience—it makes no aspirations to a Universal human movement, it idealizes a conception of language in which each person takes ownership of words and invents—meanings, histories, hysteries. Notice how Vitanza opens agency and defers determination to something other than humans. If not as a Human, then as animal. (This is base, but not the base of Berlin’s discourse, not the base binarily determined through superstructure).

More than anything else, what I hope you take away from your encounter with Vitanza is the line “we would no.” We would kNOw the other, and hence negate her:

The negative—or negative dialectic—is a kind of pharmakon, and in overdoses, it is extremely dangerous. (E.g., a little girl is a little man without a penis! Or an Aryan is not a Jew! And hence, they do not or should not—because in error—exist) The warning on the label—beware of overdoses—is not enough; for we, as KB says, are rotten with perfection. We would No. That is, say No to females, Jews, gypsies, queers, hermaphrodites, all others. By saying No, we would purchase our identity. Know ourselves. By purifying the world, we would exclude that which, in our different opinions threatens our identity. (12-13)

We would locate (know) the other’s silenced voices and speak for them. Or, we could resist knowing. We could recognize the desire that builds behind our kNOwing. This is Vitanza’s complex response to Berlin’s question “what do you want?” He wants Berlin to confront his desires, to learn to listen to what students desire in a way that doesn’t pre-judge or determine. Of course-one cannot rigorously assess desire! One can, however, assess writing (but not desire as expressed in W-R-I-T-I-N-G). Berlin would reprogram what we study. Vitanza would study our need to Program. In his “Three Counter-Theses” essay, Vitanza identifies three primary drives for R/C that he would oppose: the will to systematize language, the will to be language’s authority, the will to teach systematized, authorized language to students. I hope, looking back at this week’s readings, you can see how he implicitly indicts Berlin for continuing all three.

Yes, I think Vitanza would accept the charge that he masturbates. Probably without guilt. And in public. In, of all places, a per-versity. I’m pretty sure he enjoys it (perhaps, Levinas would argue, too much—and without the goal of fecundity--but that question comes from my own ghosts).

We could develop rites that write it (desire) more than right it (kNOwing). Perhaps. Maybe. In a future. In a future that resists the call to assess and secure, measure and validate. Always in a future in which “we are only just beginning to write” (Nancy, qtd in Vitanza).


Burke, Purpose, Rubric

Taking a break from work I have to finish, I grabbed Burke's Grammar of Motives off the shelf. I found this great paragraph from the chapter "Agency and Purpose" challenging notions of neutral instrumentalism (that our instruments measure without purpose or perspective, that they measure substance rather than create it). My next major project concerns increasing assessment and standardization, and I think I'll use this passage juxtaposed against the call for rubrics:

Though our laboratory instruments may transcend human purpose, they exist only as the result of human purpose. And we might even say that they perform satisfactorily without purpose only because they have purpose imbedded in their structure and design. An instrument like a thermometer has its purpose so thoroughly built into its very nature, that it can do its work without purpose, merely by continuing to be itself. (281)

Exerting purpose simply by being there, such that purpose (power, force) becomes invisible.


Deconstruction, Responsibility, and Greek-Europeans

Thanks Casey--I have a sneaking suspicion that when it comes to books, we have divergent tastes. When it comes to teaching, we share quite a lot. Like my last post, this started as a comment and grew into a long one.

The early/late Derrida question is quite the question--whether his entire opus is oriented toward ethics or whether this marks a significant turn in the later works. Personally, I think he was always concerned with ethics--but early in this career he was more interested in destruction (because that high tower had grown so high and presented itself as impervious to critique) and later in his career much more interested in construction (since he had pretty much succeeded with objective #1). Its also important to remember that the anthologized stuff in America primarily deals with literature and language, and tends to pass over elements of the early work invested in metaphysics. To simplify, Derrida's career can be read as a tension between Heidegger's poetics and Levinas's ethics--he starts closer to the former and ends closer to the latter.

In Learning to Live Finally, his last interview before his death, Derrida shares a very candid and lucid (wait, Derrida, lucid--yes!) depiction of deconstruction. Its pretty long, but here we go:

Deconstruction in general is an undertaking that many have considered, and rightly so, to be a gesture of suspicion with regard to all Eurocentrism. When more recently I have had occasion to say "we Europeans" is is something quite different and is always related to a particular set of circumstances: everything that can be deconstructed in the European tradition does not negate the possibility--and precisely because of what has happened in Europe, because of the Enlightenment, because of the shrinking of this little continent and the enormous guilt that pervades its culture (totalitarianism, Nazism, fascism, genocides, Shoah, colonization and decolonization, etc.)--that today, in the geopolitical situation in which we find ourselves, Europe, an other Europe but with the same memory might (this is in any case my wish) band together against both the politics of American hegemony (in the configuration of Wolfowitz, Cheney, Rumsfield and so on) and an Arab-Islamic theocratism without Enlightenment and without political future (though let's not minimize contradictions, the processes underway, and the heterogeneities within these two groups, and let us join forces with those who resist from within these two blocs). Europe finds itself under the injunction to assume a new responsibility. (40-41)

Derrida locates this new responsibility in Kant's original "hesitant" Enlightenment--this is something one of my graduate students, Adam Breckenridge, pointed out in my Contemporary Rhetorics seminar--that Kant's original work was suspicious of meta-narratives much more than many postmodern theorists have been (and thus, postmodern theory, very much against some wills, transformed into its own monolith resistant to critique through its presumed attention to foundations... have I heard this line before? It is possible to be a bad anti-foundationalist--bad in this sense would not only indicate a sole commitment to destruciton, but also a lack of self-reflexivity).

Speaking toward a Kantian inspired geo-cosmopolitanism (one dedicated to the planet and not the nation as polis), Derrida writes:

What I call "deconstruction," even when it is directed toward something from Europe, is European; it is a product of Europe, a relation of Europe to itself as an experience of radical alterity. Since the time of the Enlightenment, Europe has undertaken a perpetual self-critique, and in this perfectible heritage there is a chance for a future. At least I would like to hope so, and that is what feeds my indignation when I hear people definitively condemning Europe as if it were but the scene of its crimes. (44-45)

There is a small strain of optimism here that recalls for me Kant's conclusion to "What is Enlightenment?": "If only they refrain from inventing artifices to keep themselves in it, men will gradually raise themselves from barbarism." Notice Kant doesn't say "reach Enlightenment." He's aiming low. Given humanity's track record, that's probably high enough.

Finally, I should address all this talk of Europe--I hear it ring with an echo of "Greece"; we are all still European (to what extent is debatable) just as we are still Greek, still Roman. Not all of us, for sure. And we are more than just Greek, just Roman. But these are the times (more than even places) from which our values were drawn, the heart of our cultural, political, and legal landscape. Those veins still pump. There resonances heard in the walls of our institutions.

But I am especially rooted in Europe (never mind that I was born in bred in Plymouth, MA--the self-proclaimed birthplace of America proud to have help kill the Red Coats). I have mentioned, from time to time, that the Holocaust remains the single event that motivated my entry into scholarship. Everything I have written lies in its shadow. It haunts me with questions: why, how, when? It is this last question in particular that haunts me--when might it return. We know that genocide has surfaced in other places in the 20th century. I find it impossible to think such hatred. It is the face of the other for me-I cannot totalize it, understand it, come to terms with it. I quake thinking about it. And so I do the only thing I know how to do. I read. I think. I write. I question. I teach. I wait. I listen.


Practicing Deconstruction Responsibly

I think deconstruction, when practiced well, is both destruction and construction. Derrida's later work provides numerous examples of such positive practice. But this would just get us into a tired, commonplace exchange.

In terms of changing the University, I am quite concerned about the increase of standardization, particularly in terms of assessment. I told my class Tuesday night that assessment is becoming the new "excellence" (in Bill Readings' very particular conception of the term). This might not be the case for you, since you work at a small, private school.

But Florida is a bureaucratic nightmare (I've been trying to get a course approved for two years! Its on committee 3 of 6. That is not an exaggeration). Additionally, the administration is calling for rubrics to assess all classes and levels of instruction; they want us to demonstrate "inter-relator reliability" for dissertations. We try to explain that this is near impossible: on the last round of PhD exams, for instance, I am the only person really qualified to assess the quality of a classical response; the other people on the committee specialized in composition theory. And I had to spend a week reading up on the student's list so I could evaluate the quality of the responses.

No matter how hard we try to explain the narrowness of our specializations, they just frown at the deviations in our numbers. No matter how much we argue that our work is aesthetic and indeterminate, they expect evaluation to operate according to definitive measures. It gets frustrating.

But that's how I am practicing deconstruction here, by identifying the presupposition that grounds "assessment as excellence." Those grounds are that aesthetic disciplines can be quantitatively measured. Elements of these disciplines can be--but ultimately I believe we teach processes of engagement more than we teach products of knowledge. I might be in the minority on such a position, but I don't think so. Note--there's nothing wrong with assessment, nor could a University likely operate without it, but there's assessment as operation and then assessment as meta-narrative. There is no absolute, determinate line between the former and the latter. To honor such indeterminacy, we need to keep attending to where that line might be (keep it in language so that it keeps moving in the fore ground, so that we are aware of its stake as a grund).

Such deconstruction (as challenge) does risk defacing my commitment to Levinas's ethics--but I challenge the other in this case out of defense for an other other (a neighbor), my students. My primary commitment is in providing them the best education possible, and I believe the best education is one that responds (holds itself responsible) to the students--providing them the most paths, the most freedom to develop. I don't think the emphasis on standardized outcomes does this. In fact, I think it is a violent reduction of pedagogical possibilities. That's why, as I concluded in my previous post, I am willing to fight. But I also try to keep my argument as open to the other as possible--recognizing the legitimacy of their mission, recognizing that it might be quite applicable for others, recognizing that I cannot with assurance dismiss their claims. I am willing to discuss. As I describe Levinas--I am trying to create a mood, a disposition, out of which a positive exchange could take place.

On another note, I'm looking forward to picking up Nussbaum's book, Not-for-Profit as the reviews I've read (from a variety of perspectives) seem to be quite positive. I think they will support my preference for skills based conception of the humanities. I quibbled with Nussbaum's conception of "world citizens" as a grad student, since it seems to replicate a homogenizing cosmopolitanism and re-centers the human in first position (I would prefer instead "citizens of the world," which holds out for the possibility that the world is larger than the people on it). Regardless, I believe Nussbaum's Socratic/deconstructive interrogation of the Humanities early 21st century travails will attract attention. And these days, attention is everything, right?


Institutional Responsibility

The other day a colleague and I were discussing what to teach in this post-postmodern age, generally agreeing that rehashing the theory-science wars was counterproductive, and that teaching deconstructive critique (as a purely epistemological exercise) was out of steam. See Latour. But I did urge that practicing deconstruction be considered as a still important element of our being instituted, being in institutions, instituted beings. Such play is obnoxious. But I think it important to remember, across Burke's "way of seeing is a way of not seeing" that the institution continues to enforce barriers and boundaries instituted in the late 19th century. For all the talk of postmodernity, the University changed little, if at all, in its expectations and operations.

In preparing for my graduate class tonight on Contemporary Rhetorics, I chose to read Derrida's "University in the Eyes of its Pupils" (in a move toward post-pedagogy, each student was asked to read three different essays related to postmodern theory, their choice). I first read this piece in Thomas Rickert's Institutional Rhetoric course, and I must say it remains my favorite Derrida essay. At one point, Derrida makes an argument that I think succinctly expresses Heidegger/Lyotard/Reading's critique sof an increased technological/efficient/excellent university and Foucualt's arguments for how the increased discursive-institutional dispersion of power complicates resistance. Derrida:

A State power or the forces that it represents no longer need to prohibit research or to censor discourse, especially in the West. It is enough that they can limit the means, can regulate support for the production, transmission, and diffusion. The machinery for this new "censorship" in the broad sense is much more complex and omnipresent than in Kant's day, for example, when the entire problematics and the entire topology of the university were organized around the exercise of royal censorship. Today, in the Western democracies, that form of censorship has almost entirely disappeared. The prohibiting limitations function through multiple channels that are decentralized, difficult to bring together into a system. The unacceptability of a discourse, the noncertification of a research project, the illegitimacy of a course offering are declared by evaluative actions: studying such evaluations is, it seems to me, one of the tasks most indispensable to the exercise of academic responsibility, most urgent for the maintenance of its dignity.

A few posts ago, I made mention to Richard Miller's open ended slow reading, something I would equate with the arguments for post-pedagogy advocated by Byron Hawk and Thomas Rickert. But we have to be ready to fight for such possibilities, because I fear the increasing drive for "excellence" (scare-quoted to summon the specter of Readings) in assessment will not be open to the open-ended and student-directed. It wants teleological ends and directed students. In an atmosphere of accountability and expediency, teachers teach and students learn from teachers--how can students learn and teachers learn from students? I don't think the Power that is will legitimate the impetus of such a question.

But I increasingly feel the call to fight for it.


The Multitude Speaks

Today, before heading out of the office, I wanted to check Facebook. And, oh my, I got a big DNS error page. Surprised, I turned to almighty Google with the search "Facebook DNS failure." Lo and behold, Google's top response was a twitter feed displaying dozens of people tweeting the DNS failure (including a witty "not a good omen for The Social Network's opening weekend). There's truth, multitude style--even if it isn't necessary True. (Que Casey's rejection of everything).

Steven Johnson and Creativity

Meg sent me this short YouTube promotion for Steven Johnson's upcoming book on creativity. Its worth the time. My one-line response: one book's distraction is one browser's connection.

I like this talk because I've been thinking of Richard Miller's recent discussion of "slow reading" (which I discovered browsing through Facebook, and then browsing over at the Blogora). From what I gather, Miller developed the idea out of Roland Barthes' Pleasure of the Text (in my quick searching, I couldn't find anything by Miller on this subject, but I did find a recent ADE Bulletin article by Jonathan Culler on Close Reading). From what I gather from reading about it, Miller's idea is for students to read one book over the course of the semester (about 15 pages a week). There's no pre-planned syllabus, student assignments develop from the reading on an idiosyncratic basis, negotiated by teacher and student. As a commenter on Facebook gestured, I have a fun time thinking about how USF's recently minted "Office of Assessment" would respond to such an idea (but I dwell in a completely enframed, technological, bureaucratic UNIverse). Such an idea, however, seems connected to the premise of Johnson's upcoming book--that great ideas are a result of careful contemplation and chaotic encounter.

Thankfully, today, our libraries provide opportunity for both.


Visual Rhetoric InDesign Project

I'm teaching an undergraduate course in Visual Rhetoric for the first time at USF this semester. Our first few projects involved analysis and manipulation in photoshop. Our fourth project requires students to work in groups of 4 to design a cover and typography for a work in public domain using InDesign. We're going to watch an episode from Bravo's Work of Art this summer in class today as a way of introducing the project.

My guess is that others out there have tried a similar project--I'd appreciate any commentary you might be able to provide. I use this project to introduce concepts of visual research, teamwork, and to get them to play with a new technology. Here's the assignment sheet:

Assignment 4: InDesign Project

Dr. Marc C. Santos | ENC 3310 | Fall 2010

Our 4th major project is our first team project. You will be placed in teams of 3 to complete this project. The project has two major stages: pitch presentation and delivered product.

The final group deliverable will be an InDesign file (.indd); individuals will submit a Project 4 Postmortem. Each group will be responsible for selecting a work from the Gutenberg Top 100 downloads (all works in public domain) and giving it a modern re-design fit for print publication.

What Needs to Be Done for Monday, September 30th

Next Monday your project has to give an 8 to 10 minute presentation on your text that includes at least 3 design possibilities for the final project. The presentation should also cover whatever genre research you have compiled for your project (I am expecting 8 to 10 different images). Research should also speak to genre trends—think about size, color, font selections. In the presentation, you might want to have some kind of chronology that speaks to recent republications. Someone might want to look into font sizes typical for print publications. Start looking at books like a good chef eats.

All group members should speak for at least a portion of the presentation (although speaking time does not have to be evenly distributed). Following your presentation, the class (emulating a corporate board) will vote for which of the mock-ups they would like to see continued to completion.

The visual portion of the research presentation should be collected into some kind of media that can be “turned in” for evaluation (be it a website, a powerpoint, a prezi, a flash presentation, etc). Additionally, each group should design a handout for the presentation (note: too much text can make a handout difficult to read, too little can make it useless). Grading for the visual presentation will be based on: 1) the sophistication of the visual used in class, 2) the depth/quality of research grounding design decisions, 3) the quality of the mock-up selected by the class for additional development, 4) the professionalism and preparation of the group’s presenters.

What Needs to Be Done for Monday, October 4th

The group will email me one InDesign File (.indd) containing their project. A finished project will include a front and back cover design (fit for paperback printing), formatting for the book’s first 100 pages (if you are doing a book, this should be a minimum of 2 chapters). In addition to the cover, the book should include page numbers. If you are working with a book longer than 100 pages, there is no need to format all of the text.

The group project email should also include any research files or working files used to complete the project. InDesign is by and large a “finishing” technology. Groups will likely have to use other technologies (Photoshop for image editing, Word for rtf formatting) to create their projects.

Additionally, every person will turn in a Project 4 Postmortem sheet that documents their time spent on the project and speaks to group dynamics. This form will be distributed on Monday, September 30th.

How to Turn it in

As usual, a completed project should be sent to me on Sunday, October 3rd, at 11:59 pm. Please include your team name in the subject line. Postmortems should be sent in at the same time and include the team name in the subject line.


That's Not O.K. Purdue Exponent

So I am a fan of Lanham's theory of Attention Economy (link to interview) and I tend to enjoy a raunchy joke. As other's have noted, Purdue's student newspaper, the Exponent recently tried their hand at both. In a perverse way, they succeeded at both.

To the former, they have attracted at lot of eyeballs. I am contributing to that exposure. Controversy has gravitational pull.

There might be a context in which the cartoon (and I link back to Mxrk, since I can't find a copy online), might be a critical commentary on an atmosphere of hyper-masculine conquest generated by contemporary youth culture. Maybe. But this ad, as many others on Facebook note, seems pretty happy with itself. There doesn't seem to be a trace of irony to be found.

Hence the latter perversity. Its all too cliche for me to even spell it out here. In fact, it is so over the top, that it almost seems biblical to me (see how sex has become so impersonal, see how we have embraced debauchery, etc). It commands such a conservative heteronormative response that it performs something reminiscent of the sentiment of the "church" from this "if God were on Facebook" snippet:

As my wife pointed out, if you search "cartoon" on the Exponent site it becomes readily apparent that they don't like women. Even without the cartoon in question, there's plenty of other evidence. I think it enough for me to say: "that's not o.k."


Assessment from a Poetic Perspective

My wife today sent me a link to Heather K. Phillips MFA thesis project. Heather is a recent graduate of RISD; her project speaks to the legitimation of critique and the ubiquity of assessment at all levels of education. Here's a great paragraph from her abstract:

In my work, I co-opt the vocabulary of critique, cloaked in niceties and reinforced by repetition, to demonstrate its limitations. Using a hyperbolic approach, I identify and mirror the language back to expose the veneer of objectivity and test the limits of subjectivity. I replay feedback in exaggerated form, to challenge the perception that critique is an infallible process.

Last night my Contemporary Rhetorics course focused on Lyotard's Postmodern Condition. One of the student presentations highlighted an interview with Lyotard in a 1996 issue of JAC in which Lyotard declares PMC an abysmal failure and expresses extreme regret for every having written it. In a response to the interview, one of my colleagues, Deborah Jacobs, argued that Lyotard's regret stems from his aversion to definition and "theory" (as Lyotard defines the term) in favor of philosophy and questions. She also notes that Lyotard's dismissal of his writing "unsays" what was "said"--calls it into question, challenges its being. PMC, after all, is a book that attempts to define a particular movement, catalogue a series of transformations, and offer a possible (paralogical) response. It all sounds quite positivist. But it is also a slippery book that defies promises and undermines a few of its own pretensions (last night we discussed whether paralogy can exist as its own meta-narrative, or whether it is a parasitic operation, orientation, or attunement brought to an existing narrative-game). Lyotard jests in his introduction:

It remains to be said that the author of the report is a philosopher, not an expert. The latter knows what he knows and what he does not know: the former does not. One concludes, the other questions--two very different latter games. I combine them here with the result that neither quite succeeds. (xxv)

The passage reminds me of a saying of one of my more sardonic friends from graduate school: "you are always failing at something." Phillips' project speaks to this lingering postmodern challenge to the ideals of human autonomy and truth, particularly her "Stamps of Disapproval." I'm pretty sure I gave Casey one of these stamps not so long ago (but in my defense, his argument was entirely tautological).


Let Me Tell You a Story

Me (reading Lyotard's Postmodern Condition)

Rowan: "What are you doing daddy?"

Me: "I'm reading a book about why people go to school."

Rowan: "Oh."

Me: "Why do you go to school?"

Rowan: "I go to school to BE QUIET!"

Casey's got a recent post up about how "Emerging Adults" are having difficulty making decisions. Perhaps because no one has ever helped them encounter a question, only fed them answers?


Jonathan Swift

Working with Ulmer's Internet Invention this summer, I've had a number of projects exploring students' crises of faith. Responding to these projects got me thinking of Swift's later poem "Day of Judgment," written near the end of a career as a Protestant minister in Catholic Ireland. Enjoy.

With a whirl of thought oppressed,
I sunk from reverie to rest.
A horrid vision seized my head,
I saw the graves give up their dead!
Jove1, armed with terrors, bursts the skies,
And thunder roars and lightning flies!
Amazed, confused, its fate unknown,
The world stands trembling at his throne!
While each pale sinner hangs his head,
Jove, nodding, shook the heavens, and said:
'Offending race of human kind,
By nature, reason, learning, blind;
You who, through frailty, stepped aside;
And you who never fell—through pride:
You who in different sects have shammed,
And come to see each other damned;
(So some folks told you, but they knew
No more of Jove's designs than you)
The world's mad business now is o'er,
And I resent these pranks no more.
I to such blockheads set my wit!
I damn such fools!—Go, go, you're bit'


Every Once in Awhile...

I read something and hear in my brain a voice:

That can't be fucking true. No way.

It is usually triggered by an internet news story with dubious sources. I heard the voice this morning while scrolling through my slash.dot feed. A nice little post:

"The Pacific Ocean trash dump is twice the size of Texas, or the size of Spain combined with France. The Pacific Vortex as it is sometimes called, is made up of four million tons of Plastic. Now there's a proposal to turn this dump into 'Recycled Island'. The Netherlands Architecture Fund has provided the grant money for the project, and the WHIM architecture firm is conducting the research and design of Recycled Island. One of the three major aims of the project is to clean up the floating trash by recycling it on site. Two, the project would create new land for sustainable habitation complete with its own food sources and energy sources. Lastly, Recycled Island is to be a sea worthy island. While at the moment the project is still more or less a pipe dream, it's great that someone is trying to work out what to do with one of humanity's most bizarre environmental slip ups."

I admit that I don't really keep a close eye on the news. Its just not my thing. But I'm surprised I haven't heard about a trash island larger than France and Spain combined before today.

That can't be fucking true. No way.

But the links in the post seem legit.

And so do all these other links to Mother Nature Network, CNN World (although its a story by an independent news group VICE buried on the site), and The Times Online.

Wikipedia already has a scientific name for this phenomenon "The Pacific Ocean Vortex," which sounds much nicer than its original moniker: "The Pacific Ocean Garbage Patch." George Carlin just let out a chuckle from the grave. (See about 57 seconds in on the distancing ourselves from reality. I'm becoming increasingly interested in this as I think of the legacy of modernity and postmodernity as we move into the era of posthumanism, globalization, and actor-network theory/ecologies). For those that haven't read/heard/seen Carlin's bit on war and shell-shock, its worth a few moments.

And so, if any of you care, I will be in a delirious fit of rage for the rest of the morning. Rest assured I'll feel powerless and apathetic by tomorrow.




Some Good Web Comics

The web comic "Stuff No One Told Me" has become my daily little moment of Zen. He's on vacation for awhile, but that doesn't mean you can't take a stroll through the archives.

And there's always a quick visit to "My Milk Toof" if you need a heart-warming pick me up.

If you are into comics, or new media, you should check out balak01's "About Digital Comics" and the sequel (which doesn't rip off Twilight) "About About Digital Comics." They're both really worth your time. I found them via workspace.


Ulmer Riff: Recipe

My class is progressing with our mystories. In an effort to help them grasp Ulmer's approach to relay and imitation, I crafted what I call the recipe assignment. Its inspired by a visit from poet Robert Pinsky this past Spring; in response to a question on how a young poet can improve her skills, Pinksy advised: "learn to read like a good cook eats." Its not just about savoring the flavor, but about tasting the technique. Beyond understanding what something is, its about tracing how something becomes.

Ulmer uses a number of examples in his chapters, what he calls relays. Along the lines of classical and neo-classical imitation, these relays provide models for approaching the larger assignments. I've asked my students to break into groups. Each group is required to take one of Ulmer's extended quotations and re-mix it into a recipe, distinguishing ingredients, equipment, time, and step-by-step directions.

Judging by the temperature of the room, it seems to be going well.


Ulmer Exercise: Term Extensions

Today in class we are working on two exercises from Ulmer's Internet Invention; the first of which is his Term Extensions exercise.

Using the history of the term "culture" as a model, select a different craft (other than agriculture) and develop its figurative possibilities as a new extension of the meaning of the term culture


If human development of learning can be like agriculture, what else might it be like? Or, if human development in general may be tended in the manner of a crop or herd, what about your particular specialized area of work? What sort of craft makes a good metaphor for developing knowledge in your career field? (35)

For my term, I picked "assembly." Here I admit I didn't pick a "good" term, but rather an unfortunate one. This keeps with the logic of my career site since I am examining the Scantron machine as my disciplinary invention. The assembly line, in connection with Fordist industrialization, appears as a trope for contemporary education in a number of places, particularly Aronowitz's book The Knowledge Factory. It is also the underlying trope driving Asimov's short story "Profession."

To help with this assignment, I used the Oxford English Dictionary.

Without getting too much into specifics, there's essentially two historic meanings for assembly. The first, whose origins date back to around 1333-1436 and is still in use today, speaks to bringing some things together. It can refer to assembling an army, a governmental body, or a flock of birds singing in a tree ("The byrdes..syttynge in assemble vpon an hye tre").

The second meaning refers more to the industrial process and emphasizes putting something together. Unlike with the first meaning, the parts here constitute little if taken separately. It is only in the right combination, guided by the proper process, that the parts gain utility or significance. This meaning begins to develop around 1914. From a 1914 Engineering Magazine article: "The boards travel..down the line, growing in completeness as they move, each ‘team’ working simultaneously on opposite sides of the board, adding some step to the assembly."

As with Ulmer's definition of culture, we have two different intonations here. If we consider education in terms of the first, then we think of students as individual entities whole before they arrive in the classroom (be it to fight, deliberate, or sing). If we follow the second, then students are incomplete entities before they arrive on our doorstep. Students lack. Teachers provide.

There are, of course, distinct overlaps to the definitions of culture Ulmer highlights--Arnold's and Taylor's. Recall that Arnold's specifies a particular and higher culture as the aim of education/enculturation. Arnold's students lack. Taylor, however, sees culture as something central to all humanity everywhere, he isn't interested in articulating a particularly proper culture as much as he is in identifying those things that all cultures do (even if they do them differently).

My objections to Scantron were routed in its homogenization of education, its dedication (and glorification) of efficiency and singularity. It makes sure students are getting what they lack. 


Rosenbaum on the New Agnosticism

Ron Rosenbaum has an article up on Slate.com that speaks to the possibility of a New Agnosticism (as a response to the New Atheism). Pretty much speaks to how I read Levinas, and why I was interested in his metaphysics. A highlight:

Humility in the face of mystery has been a recurrent theme of mine. I wrote most recently about the problem of consciousness and found myself allied with the agnostic group of philosophers known as the Mysterians, who argue that we are epistemically, flat-out unable to know the nature of consciousness while being within consciousness. I'm reluctant to call agnostics Mysterians, much as I like the proto-punk ballad "96 Tears" by ? and the Mysterians. But I do like that agnosticism, which in fact can be more combative than its image, does have a sort of punk, disruptive, troublemaker side.

Penny Arcade, Technology, and My Life

The following appeared on Penny Arcade today. Yup.

It is always dangerous to make assumptions about people's basic philosophies, and those assumptions tend to (quite conveniently) track with the way you, yourself see the world, so maybe I should limit the scope to myself purely for safety. I tend to think of technology as a force. It's not so much a physical object as it is a manifested capability. Having serviced technology, and having loved it for years beyond that, and now utterly dependent on it for both my livelihood and leisure, my relationship with it has an (ironically) pre-industrial quality. When I actually think about it, of all the ways it intersects with my being, I wouldn't know what else to call it but worship. I'm not trying to be a poet. I believe that statement to be accurate.

Of note: the same post also mentioned a "deck of many things." You get to add an extra pin to your dork vest if you can describe that one (hint: my vest has no more room for any more pins).


Levinas, Ethics and Infinity

I'm currently reading through Levinas's Ethics and Infinity, one of my summer reading books. I've still got a few chapters to go, but so far I appreciate Levinas's concision. I like this book for the same reason that I like Walter Ong's late essay "Writing is a Technology That Restructures Thought": its rare that a great thinker gives a survey of their entire career in a digestible (if reductive) form. This post focuses on Cohen's introduction and his attempt to define ethics and yet avoid essentialism. I'll put up a post Monday on how Cohen, Nemo, and Levinas each discuss the saying and the said (the transitive and substantive dimensions of being).

Cohen's translator's preface to the work is noteworthy, particularly this attempt at defining what isn't:

Ethics, in Levinas's view, occurs "prior" to essence and being, conditioning them. Not, however, because the good is installed in a Heaven above or an identity behind identities, for this would just take the ontological move one step back, would again fall into onto-theo-logy, once more confusing ethics with ontology, as if what "ought to be" somehow "is." What ethics is does not survive the end of metaphysics--but only because ethics never was anything. Ethics does not have an essence, its "essence," so to speak, is precisely not to have an essence, to unsettle essences. Its "identity" is precisely not to have an identity, to undo identities. Its "being" is not to be but to be better than being. Ethics is precisely ethics by disturbing the complacency of being (or of non-being, being's correlate). "To be or not to be," Levinas insists, is not the question. (9-10)

How does one designate what resists designation? Is it possible? Those familiar with Levinas know that these are the questions that haunt his first major work, Totality and Infinity. I really appreciate Cohen's grace and concision here. I think the framing of ethics as a disturbing shows up in many places in Totality and Infinity--particularly in the lines that I think best summarize the entire book: "we name this calling into the question of my spontaneity by the presence of the Other ethics" (T&I 43) and "the presence of the Other is equivalent to this calling into question of my joyous possession of the world" (T&I 75-76). The joyous possession here is in terms of essentialism, to reduce the world to substantive rather than transitive being--noun rather than verb--and to synthesize the alterity of the other into a similitude with the same. Being is/as to settle things. Ethics unsettles (note: Levinas's rejection of the later Heidegger can be reduced to the simple statement: it takes more than one to ask a question).

I also feel that Cohen risks under-reading (is that a thing?) Levinas's rejection of Hamlet. The question is not "to be or not to be" because we have no choice but to be. Being is the price all manifestation demands. And we cannot simply choose to abandon being or become otherwise or whatever wish we would will to the potential terror of the Il y a. There is not only no easy answer, or even no carefully concealed essential answer, there's no answer at all. Being, all the way down.


An Insignificant MyStory (Part 3)

In between posts with Casey today, I did manage to get some work done. Particularly, I'm working on prepping for my summer course. I will be teaching a 6 week upper-division expository writing course. Usually, I teach expository writing as digital citizenship (essentially a course in feminist research, digital ethics and social construction). This semester I am trying something new--Gregory Ulmer's Internet Invention: From Literacy to Electracy. As the title intimates, Ulmer's pedagogy is not caught up in traditional interests with the thesis and the paragraph. Rather, it is a creative attempt to translate these kind of structural units into digital practice (they are respectively replaces by the assemblage and the image). It is very hard for me to summarize Ulmer's project with an justice to its philosophical ambitions and pedagogic invigorations in a sentence or two. So instead, a display. Although I am a bit suspicious of this work (across Levinasian lines, Ulmer is drawing on Heidegger and Derrida, and while Levinas and Heidegger-Derrida share an interest in interrupting hegemonic epistemologies, they also differ on the role of the other and the obligations of the self), I admire it.

The book's assignments all aim at designing what Ulmer dedicates a wide image, a kind of psycho-social cognitive map that helps a student recognize multiple (and likely hidden) elements of their identity. There's four primary lens through which students image-ine their identity (referred to as the Popcycle of the Mystory). These categories have resonance to literary modes articulated by Frederick Jameson. They are:

  • Literal = School "This history represetns the memory of the collectivity"
  • Allegory = Entertainment "The discourse learned is that of cultural mythology encountered in popular genres" [Ulmer notes in several places that this could be religion for some people. It is meant to target the locus of cultural identification--what teaches you who you are supposed to be?]
  • Moral = Family "The individual is considered in terms of his/her family upbringing, with the language being the one learned in the home (English, Spanish, Creole) and the discursive regime being the habits and customs specific to that family"
  • Anagogy = Career [Disciplinary knowledge] "The collective meaning of history is determined in mystory ... by the world view embodied wihtin the specialized knowledge that one acquires as an expert in some given career field... This knowledge is the means by which one earns one's livelihood (work), but the knowledge of an avocation may be used instead. (81-82)

In preparation for teaching the mystory, I have been creating one. Its quite fun--and exhilarating. My initial experiences emphasize that Ulmer has discovered an exteremly effective methodology for encouraging creativity.

Today I spent time on the third assingment:

Make a website documenting the details of a movie of TV narrative some part of which you still remember from your childhood years. (127)

Ulmer notes that books can be used in place of cinema and television. He also explains:

the first purpose of the documentation is to record the part of the story that you remember. Once you have inventoried the remains of the work in your memory, view it again and record what you notice in this fresh viewing. The memory is the site of a sting, in Barthes's sense [...] When reviewing the work, note especially the problem or conflict organizing the drama, and the way it is resolved. Memory tends to form around problems, whether the problems are large or small. All narratives are structured by conflict (the protagonist confronts a problem).

In preparing for my summer course, I work on my Mystory for an hour at a time. I also tend to break up my work into categories a bit as I go (I think this kind of genre/structure might be beneficial to undergrads). Here's what I produced in my first hour focus on Assignment 3. (Sorry, I lost the links in the cut and paste, Google Site's HTML function is hopelessly bloated).

What I remember

For my story, I choose an old cross-over series of Marvel comics: the mutant massacre. This story line crossed over several interrelated titles: X-Men, X-Factor and The New Mutants. I rarely read comics these days, although I'll pick through a few issues or a graphic novel every year. But I read quite a few comics during my youth--and whenever I think about all those comics, sitting in the bottom of my guest bedroom closet, this is the series that comes to mind.

In the story, many mutants have taken to living in the tunnels under New York City. Rejected by society-at-large, on account of their difference, they chose to withdraw themselves. While I forget the particularities of their motives, a group of mercenary mutants is contracted out to massacre the mutants living under the city.

The X-men work alongside other mutant heroes (X-Factor, The New Mutants) to stop the genocide. I remember particularly that Wolverine kills his nemesis Sabertooth in a very anti-climactic way. Unfortunately, there's very few other specific details I remember.

Why I Am Selecting It

For as long as I can remember, I have been haunted by genocide. It motivates my scholarship. It is what directed me to academic study. How could a group of people murder another group of people? How could they desire the extermination of an entire people? Such questions are amplified by the Nazi Holocaust. For here, it is not a simple matter of greed (at least, I don't think it is). It is not competition for resources or longstanding political conflict (such as what I understand of Riwanda). This is not to diminish the horror of other atrocities, which I realize it might. Rather, this is to amplify the cold, technical precision of Nazi death camps--more factories than camps. Places that manufacture death.

As an eleven year old, I was drawn to this story line. This was not Spider-Man beating an enemy set on world domination or on acquiring wealth. Those are simple human motives, motives, I speculate, that any eleven-year-old could understand. But hate at this intensity, hate as a motive, that is something that didn't show up in Spider-Man, Scooby-Doo, the Incredible Hulk or any of the other stories that I recall from my youth. Yet one of the pivotal moments of the 20th century was nothing but pure hate.

As I write this, I can think of other places where pure hate shows up in 20th century aesthetics. Tolkien's Sauron, for instance. Wikipedia offers up an interesting tidbit from Tolkien:

Tolkien noted that "it had been his virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall ...) that he loved order and coordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction." Thus "it was the apparent will and power of Melkor to effect his designs quickly and masterfully that had first attracted Sauron to him."

Order and coordination. Industrialized death. Efficiency. For as long as I can remember being alive, I have been suspicious of these terms. IBM and the Holocaust does nothing to sway me otherwise. Here, quite literally, accountability and efficiency are the servant of industrialized murder, all in the name of world order.

I will never forget the line by Wiesel in Night, reflecting on eating soup after watching the dreadfully prolonged hanging of an adolescent. "That night, the soup tasted of corpses." The taste lingers.

Further Research / Loose Notes

Wikipedia has a page dedicated to the storyline. I am going to hold off on reading it until after I have re-read the stories (mainly to avoid spoilers).

Unanticipated: Intentional vs. Functionalist perspectives on the Holocaust (found in Wikipedia while searching for Order as a theme of Mein Kampf). There is a separate page dedicated to the debate. The intentionalist argument, I would guess, is more well-known: that Hitler's intentions for killing the Jews traced back to his earlier writings/thoughts. Put simply, he always envisioned the genocide. This is referred to as the straight line to Auschwitz. The functionalist argument, which I had never heard before today, seems a bit more probable to me (it is also a more rhetorically-ecologically complex argument, which I find appealing). This argument is based off of evidence that Hitler originally envisioned a deportation of all Jews to Madagascar. Once the war on the Eastern front disrupted transportation, the "storage" of Jews began to pose a serious problem. Detainment facilities were short-term (ewww...) solutions. For functionalists, the idea for genocide developed after a few, localized massacres at these camps.

The final solution wasn't an initial plan, but rather an unfortunate, unanticipated, accident. This is referred to as the "twisted path" or the "crooked path" to genocide. This is also, unfortunately, an electrate model of creativity. Ulmer's work approaches composing in terms of linkage (assemblage, maintaining disorder) rather than linear Order (synthesis). But, in the word's of Shakespeare's Prince, "all are punish'd." Thinking tastes like corpses.


Harman on Latour, Socrates, and Sophistry

The first of my summer reading books have arrived from Amazon. Last night I read the first few chapters to Brooke's Lingua Fracta and the Pandora's Hope chapter of Harman's Bruno Latour: Prince of Networks. Both are really good, although Harman's book agitated me (and, yes, it was an affective response--quivering hands, underlining margins, restlessness). I slept on it, then re-read/drafted a response to Harman for my "Callicles, Latour, and Levinas" article. Here's the rough stuff.

What appear below is my initial reactions/notes to Harman's chapter. Many grammatical fragments and oddities likely follow. Please proceed with tolerance.

Harman, Graham. Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics. re.press: Melbourne, AU: 2009.

Latour's commitment to democracy is not a form of pandering to the spirit of our age, but is an intimate part of his metaphysical position. The universe is nothing but countless actors, who gain in reality through complex negotiations and associations with one another: not as one against a crowd but as one in the shape of a crowd of allies. We cannot appeal to some authority (geometry, power) lying outside the shifting alliance of networks. (88).


"For Latour all reality is political, not because human power inexorably shapes the truth, but because truth and reality are assembled through chains of actors in the same way that bills go through Congress: slightly transformed and translated at each step, and failing as often as they succeed. All reality is political, but not all politics is human" (89).

It might be difficult to appreciate how Latour's third position differs from that of the second--Plato's morally and intellectually bankrupt Callicles. I would offer this distinction: it is a matter of where we locate agency. Agency cannot be isolated in the rhetor, who through skillful manipulation, lies, and pandering molds the crowd. Rather, agency is located in the crowd, who through yea or nay determine a course of action (think of Consigny's robust definition of agonism, a game in which all participants agree to honor the contest's determination). In Harman's language, power cannot be located solely in the hands of the sophist who acts upon the crowd, but is dispersed throughout all the actors (rhetor, opponent, audience, scene, time, podium, screen, temperature, etc) composing the rhetorical ecology.

Harman citing Latour: "A politics that does not rely on experts citing impersonal law 'requires a disseminated knowledge as multifarious as the multitude itself. The knowledge of the whole needs the whole, not the few. But that would be a scandal for Callicles and Socrates, a scandal whose name has been the same at all periods:democracy" (89, Pandora's Hope 229).

Harman's rehabilitation of Socrates, particularly in light of Latour, is to stress "Socrates' contempt [not] for the mob, but to his contempt for power" (90). Thus wisdom for Socrates: "only wisdom governs these virtures in such a way that they always reach for the sake of which they act; and in the end only a god is wise, no human experts" (92). He concludes:

The power of a tyrant or rhetorician is insufficient, because these are merely superficial efforts at the mercy of a reality that only wisdom can probe, not power. The guiding insight of Socrates is the notion that reality is more than its current status, its current impact in the world here and now, its attributes, its relations, its alliances with other things. And here we find a more genuine point of opposition between Socrates and Latour. (93)

Here Harman does not seem to ask the obvious (sophistic) question--isn't wisdom itself an expression of power? Despite these conceptual differences, Socrates' transcendental non-humanism leads Harman to conclude that "the similarities between Latour and Socrates are much greater than those between Latour and the Sophists" (95). Quarreling with Harman's depiction of sophistry is not my primary aim. Quarreling with his depiction of sophistry is; unlike Latour, Harman fails to pull back the Platonic theatrical veil and question Plato's depiction of sophistry as mere, pandering, power-grubbing foolery. (My initial affective annoyance stems from the fact that I really appreciate the complexity and nuance of Harman's work--I wish he paid some attention to some contemporary rhetorical theory, particularly a 25+ year rehabilitation of sophistry, rather than simply echoing Plato's dismissal).


Joseph Pew and Latour's Third Position

Dave Weinberger has a live blog up today from Google's Chief Technology Advocate Michael T. Jones. Jones quotes Joseph Pew (1946): “Tell the truth and trust the people.” A quick search for the quote led me to the Pew history page, where it is accompanied by another quote by another member of the Pew family:

“No subversive forces can ever conquer a nation that has not first been conquered by ‘subversive inactivity’ on the part of the citizenry, who have failed in their civic duty and in service to their country.”

Another interesting point reported by Weinberger- "The [Pew] site shows that since 1980, the viewership of the evening news in the US has halved. Broadcasters ask where the audience went and how to get them back, which is the wrong question, he says; they went away by choice and you can’t force them back."

Rather than attempts to force them back (such as Rupert Murdoch's pay-for-access approach), Weinberger notes Jones's bullets:

How to solve the great problems of the publishing industry? 1. Please users. 2. Please customers. (Advertisers are the customers.) 3. Ask the right questions. 4. Accept change. 5. Embrace failure. 6. See the essence. Be sure you’re solving the right problem.

In some ways, I'll always remember Mxrk's take on this--just make it easier for people to pay. I'd add to that, only make us pay when we want to. If its good enough, then enough of us will want to. But, for that, you need to trust the people.

Plato's Laches

In an effort to put more up on this blog, I'm going to start publishing my reading notes from Evernote. Today, I came across a reference to the Laches dialogue in Brad McAdon's 2004 article "Plato's Denunciation of Rhetoric in the Phaedrus." I was interested in this dialogue precisely because its central concern is courage--a quality I think central to Plato's distrust of sophistry, Latour's socialization of science, and Levinas's intersubjective ethics. In brief: Plato misunderstands sophistic notions of courage as either 1) denigration of the masses or 2) propensity toward power. Latour and Levinas (and recent depictions of the historic Gorgias by people such as Bruce McComiskey and Scott Consigny) offer us a third option: courage as the willingness to approach the many from a position of weakness rather than [epistemological, rational, etc.] strength.

What appear below is my initial reactions/notes to the dialogue. Many are grammatical fragments. Please proceed with tolerance.

The dialogue opens with Lysimachus querying two Athenian generals, Nicias and Laches, as to whether his sons should learn to fight in armor. Nicias says "yes" (for the sophistic reasons). Laches says no (can't fake it to real soldiers, looks foolish). Lysimachus calls for a vote, who should teach his sons courage, he asks Socrates to join the discussion.

Nicias--all men should learn to fight in armor (182e). Long passage suggests learning to fight in the terms that the sophists argue for learning to speak--preparation for combat, self-defense against the accusations, err, attacks of the one and the many. Nicias identifies combat among the

...forms of exercise especially suited to a free citizen. For in the contest in which we are the contestants and in the matters on which our struggle depends, only those are practiced who know how to use the instruments of war. And again, there is a certain advantage in this form of instruction even in an actual battle, whenever one has to fight in line with a number of others. But the greatest advantage of it comes when the ranks are broken and it then becomes necessary for a man to fight in single combat, either in pursuit when he has to attack a man who is defending himself, or in flight, when he has to defend himself against another person who is attacking him. A man who has this skill would suffer no harm at the hands of a single opponent, nor even perhaps at the hands of a larger number, but he would have the advantage in every way. [...] And we shall add to this an advantage which is not at all negligible, that this knowledge will make every man much bolder and braver in war than he was before. And let us not omit to mention, even if to some it might seem a point not worth making, that this art will give a man a finer-looking appearance at the very moment when he needs to have it, and when he will appear more frightening to the enemy because of the way he looks. (182-a-d).

How closely does this echo the defense of sophistry found in the Gorgias? Couldn't 'this skill' be logon techne? As the dialogue progresses, it becomes clear that Nicias is meant to stand for sophistry (particularly his association to Damon and Prodicus).

Socrates's response to Lysimachus's call for a vote: "So I think it is by knowledge that one ought to make decisions, if one is to make them well, and not by majority rule" (184e). As in the Gorgias (specifically Polus), a rejection of majority. And, of course, a rejection of the sophistic aspiration that the "better" course consists of the one that can be more persuasively presented to the masses. Better is trans(cendentally) human here.

Interesting note by Socrates' own education: "...concerning myself, that I have had no teacher in this subject. And yet I have longed after it from my youth up. But I did not have any money to give the sophists, who were the only ones who professed to be able to make a cultivated man of me, and I myself, on the other hand, am unable to discover the art even now" (186c).

Translator Rosamond Kent Sprague notes the overlaps between Socrates's rejection of learning in Laches and in the Gorgias (in both instances, a reference to pottery--learn how to craft small items before moving on to the larger one's. In this case, explore how to teach minor things before teaching the student?). More evidence for my interpretation that this dialogue, ostensibly on military training, is more about education and sophistry.

Nicias--who represents the sophist position, on dealing with Socrates: will question and question on something that seems quite removed from the original subject. To engage Socrates is to

...keep on being led about by the man's arguments until he [Socrates's interlocutor] submits to answering questions about himself concerning both his present manner of life and the life he has lived hitherto. And when he does submit to this questioning, you don't realize that Socrates will not let him go before he has well and truly tested every last detail. I personally am accustomed to the man and know that one has to put up with this kind of treatment from him, and further, I know perfectly well that I myself will have to submit to it. I take pleasure in the man's company, Lysimachus, and don't regard it as at all a bad thing to have ti brought to our attention that we have done or are doing wrong. Rather I think that a man who does not run away from such treatment but is willing, according to the saying of Solon, to value learning as long as he lives, not supposing that old age brings wisdom of itself, will necessarily pay more attention to the rest of his life." (188a-b).

What I notice here is that the Sophist (like Gorgias in Plato's dialogue), submits to Socrates. Honors his response. Invites the alterity that Socrates brings. And does so without running away, with courage, faces.

To note, Laches is interested in speeches that sound harmonious. He will not do well, I fear.

Socrates--let's investigate an element of virtue, particularly "ought we to take the one to which the technique of fighting in armor appears to lead? I suppose everyone would think it leads to courage, wouldn't they?" O.k., so Nicias has already warned us how the show works. This will lead to anything but courage. (190d)

Laches: courage is a willingness to "remain at his post and to defend himself against the enemy without running away" (190e).

Socrates: looking for a more abstract definition for courage, one that could count the man in the assembly as well as the solider at his post. (191d).

Laches's response (take 2): "an endurance of the soul" (192c).

Socrates rebuts: "it would be wise endurance which would be courage" (192d). Here I am already thinking that wide endurance is something, from a sophistic perspective, that amounts to obstinance. Think: Apology.

Socrates's aim is to show, almost ironically to my reading, that holding out in the face of defeat (that which Lache's originally identified as courage) is not wise but foolish. (193b).

Laches, unused to dialectic deliberation (oh, the drug of the soul): "But an absolute desire for victory has seized me with respect to our conversation, and I am really getting annoyed at being unable to express what I think in this fashion. (194b).

Nicias: courage is wisdom (but not in particularly musical arts--flute playing or lyre playing, Platonic-Socratic metaphors for Gorgias's style). As with Gorgias in the Gorgias, sophistry is reduced to a kind of mystical performance that, stripped down to notation, carries no force.

Laches expresses confusion/outrage at Nicias's assertion that wisdom and courage are the same thing.

Nicias's "wisdom" is equated to something mystical--to the "magical" gift of the seer. Think: idiotic things Plato's Gorgias says vs. the things that Gorgias's actual texts indicate he would probably say.

Laches responds that Nicias is simply twisting words to avoid defeat. Such a demented practice is only suitable for a court of law.

Nicias: "My view is that very few have a share of courage and foresight, but that a great many, men and women and children and wild animals, partake in boldness and audacity and rashness and lack of foresight." (197b) [Like Callicles, sophistry as a denigration of the common in favor of the superior, a typical Platonic representation of sophistry].

Socrates positions Nicias within a tradition of sophists (Damon, Prodicus). Laches: "well, Socrates, it is certainly more fitting for a sophist to make such clever distinctions than for a man the city thinks worthy to be its leader" (197d).

It is unlikely that a sophist would agree to Socrates's distinction that fear is only a product of future evils, not present ones. (198b). Fear is also a product of the present, part of the mood of the scene, the kairotic moment. Fear is not simply a state of mind, but a mode of being.

Also, Socrates tricks Nicias. The logical conclusion would be that fear and hopelessness also have a past and a present, and that wisdom of courage is an understanding of what made us fearful, why we are fearful, and what we might come to fear. Instead, Socrates limits fear and hope to the future, searching for completely different qualities (dimensions) of courage in the present and past. (See 199d-e)

The funniest part of the dialogue might be that Socrates wins the argument (and the endorsement as the teacher of Lysimachius's sons without himself offering even a definition of courage!). But, of course, he has offered a demonstration of armored combat, adorned by the sparse speculations of dialectic rather than the lavish shine of sophistry.

There is also, at the conclusion of the dialogue, what I think can be read as a clear swipe at Isocrates's complaints of Socrates as an old-school boy: "What I don't advise is that we remain as we are. And if anyone laughs at us because we think it worthwhile to spend our time in school at our age, then I think we should confront him with the saying of Homer, "Modesty is not a good mate for a needy man. And, not paying any attention to what anyone may say, let us join together in looking after both our own interests and those of the boys." (210b)

I appreciate Socrates's sentiment--particularly that first line: "what I don't advise is that we remain as we are," Anyone in rhetoric, I assume, forefronts the propensity toward change. As the sophist-monster often points out--the difficult part of social discourse isn't the argumentation, but the inclination. How do you get someone to care? And, once they care, how do you get them to listen? And, once they listen, how do you get them to contemplate (rather than antagonize?). We cannot be so silly as to take the disposition toward change for granted, as something that merely precedes the real work of rhetorical theory.

At the same time, however, is Socrates really an emblem for change? When in the course of a single Socratic dialogue did Socrates ever change his thinking on anything? Socrates is a master antagonist, but he targets the other and insulates the self. That line should really read: "what I don't advise is that you remain different from my transcendental ideal."


Lessig Quotes Huxley

Lawrence Lessig quotes Huxley (1927) in his OpenVideoAlliance webside chat:

"In the days before machinery men and women who wanted to amuse themselves were compelled, in their humble way, to be artists. Now they sit still and permit professionals to entertain them by the aid of machinery. It is difficult to believe that general artistic culture can flourish in this atmosphere of passivity."

In brief, if you want a populace that speaks, then you need to provide them with the tools, permissions, and incentives to speak. Copyright is responsible for creating a read-only culture rather than a read-write culture.

The pre-supposition here is that being creative (in-the-world) establishes a positive relation with others (sharing, expressive, empathic) and makes us more satisfied and fulfilled than mere consumption.

Particularly as an educator in the humanities, I feel I have a responsibility to promote a read-write culture by "all available means." Beyond the technological, this also means promoting theory that speaks to our "being-in-the-world" and intersubjective existence as a metaphysical defense for fair-use.

My RSA presentation this year focused on Latour's reading of Callicles in Plato's Gorgias. Latour's reading shares an extremely interesting overlap with Lessig's vision for 21st century political practice. Lessig cites two principles: first, we need an increase in the ability to see the dependencies between political agents and corporate/private profits. Second, we need the courage to act upon such visions. Seeing and courage, philosophy and sophistry, are for Latour the oppositions Plato lays out in the Gorgias (philosophy has insight, but not the courage to face the crowd. Sophistry might lack insight, but courageously faces and works with the multitude). What we need, then, is a commitment to the integration of what Latour identifies as the philosophic and the sophistic.

A few other interesting Lessig pieces I dug up in my travels today:


Derek Fisher

A few people commented on Facebook that Derek Fisher's daughter has the same disease as Rowan. Unlike Rowan's case, they were able to use a radical procedure (injecting chemo drugs directly into the eye) to save his daughter's eye. Even if our doctor used such a method (and I don't believe he does), Rowan wouldn't have benefited from this--her tumor's location would have pretty much eradicated any chance to see out of the eye again.

Derek Fisher contacted us during Rowan's illness to make sure that we were satisfied with our medical care and to inquire into whether we financially needed assistance for her treatment. We responded that we were happy with our care and that we fortunately did have insurance.

Still, his kindness pretty much necessitates that I root for one Laker this postseason. But only one.


Post Conferences Post

I just got back from RSA and Computers and Writing--two great weekends that left me both socially and professionally refreshed. I'm working today towards advancing both papers (one on social media, ethics, and Rowan's cancer, the other on Latour, sophistry, and Levinas) toward publication. With that in mind, here's my summer reading list:

  • Lingis, Alphonso. The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. I read this one on my plane rides, but lost it. Argh. Given how much I write in my books, this was a painful loss.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel. Ethics and Infinity. Conversations with Philippe Nemo. I love Levinas's candor in interviews, so I am looking forward to this collection.
  • Levinas, Emmanuel. Humanism and the Other. I read this one for my diss, but want to return to it as I prepare to transform the diss into a book proposal. So much of the great work I saw this weekend at RSA uses Heidegger, Latour, and Harman to advance a rhetoric of the non-human. I want to revisit Levinas's challenge to the Human more intimately--because I feel the Heidegger-Latour-Harman work risks repeating what Levinas's ethics so desperately opposed--liquidating humans in our search for The [non]Human. (and, yeah, that line will probably appear in an article soon...)
  • Levinas, Emmanuel. Entre-Nous. Why stop at two Levinas?
  • Harman, Graham. Prince of Networks: Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (Anamnesis). As I said above, Harman was a significant node in my RSA network this year. This book explicitly picks up an argument for a metaphysical rhetoric. Harman's other books look great too, but I have to start somewhere, and I don't have time to read all three (I would also like to read Tool-Being and Guerilla Metaphysics, but those two will have to wait).
  • Brooke, Collin Gifford. Lingua Fracta: Toward a Rhetoric of New Media.. Collin won the C&W best book award, and I think I am going to teach it in my Contemporary Rhetoircs course this fall (I want to read it first to see how much it draws upon postmodern theory--my hope is that it draws upon and advances us beyond pomo while formulating praxis for digital environments).
  • Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. Two talented graduate students included this one in their independent studies with me (one on rhetoric's relation to post-coloniality, the other on a rhetoric of abjection). I recommended the book without having read it. Time to read it.

In addition to these seven, I'll be teaching Gregory Ulmer's Internet Invention for the first time. I'm reading through it now, and beginning to construct my first MyStory. I contacted Ulmer about the work (looking for some examples, which he readily supplied!), and he strongly advised that I construct a MyStory before I begin trying to teach them. I had already planned to do this, hopefully I can post an update regarding my progress soon.

Happy summer reading all!


Galloway and Thacker on Video Games

Skeptical of any "democratic" or "liberatory" elements to networks, Galloway and Thacker write:

In this sense, forms of informatic play should be interrogated not as a liberation from the rigid constraints of systems of exchange and production but as the very pillars that prop those systems up. The more video games appear on the surface to emancipate the player, raising his or her status as an active participant in the aesthetic moment, the more they enfold the player into codified and routinized models of behavior. [...] Just as the school, in Foucault, was merely preschool for the learned behavior necessary for a laboring life of the factory floor, so games from State of Emergency to Dope Wars are training tools for life inside the protocological network, where flexibility, systemic problem solving, quick reflexes, and indeed play itself are as highly valued and commodified as sitting still and hushin up were for the disciplinary societies of modernity. (The Exploit 115)

I'm down with the critique of school--John Taylor Gatto's Against School is one of my favorite essays to teach. And, thanks to Foucault, we know that discursive disciplinary practices produce their own counter-discursive practices.

But here's my question here--and this is authentic--what is wrong with "flexibility, systemic problem solving, quick reflexes, and play"? This is in many ways my one sentence rebuttal to Gallaway and Thacker, whose insights into the underlying hierarchical nature of networks is a lively and interesting read. What are you looking for? Is there any form of social organization that you wouldn't critique? And perhaps their honest answer would be no--that the very purpose of critique is to always push for something better, or to cast attention on the unattended. But I'm with Jim Gee on this one: unlike the silent conformity demanded by "school," video games teach skills and ethics valuable for social life. Perhaps they define flexibility differently than I (they do at one point argue that "we are tired of being flexible" (98).

There's more I'd like to write about this short but interesting book (particularly their sensitive reading and misapplication of Levinas's concept of the Face), but I've got two conference papers to write and a pile of papers to grade.

Hope everyone else's semester is ending well.


Made My Day

A student wrote me this note while submitting his final paper for my upper-division expository class:

This was by far the hardest paper I had to write in my collegiate career. I'm not complaining, I really enjoyed writing it but the difficult part was stopping. I felt that I could explain my story in book form. I felt like I needed to commit more time to it because it needed so much thought and proccesing which made it hard. Your class has been my favorite since I started college and I thank you.

That made my day. "The difficult part was the stopping." Thank you, too.