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).

1 comment:

Casey said...

Ah, brilliant! I definitely felt all of this while composing my dissertation -- at one point saying to my major advisor, "At this point I feel strongly that I need to conclude my chapter on Melville with a parable." Advisor was not amused.

But in retrospect, I was right: and in the future--as in, starting now--the brightest among our serious "English" students will probably opt, not as we did, for theory and criticism, but for MFAs, because they will know even before leaving their undergraduate studies how limited and limiting the critical approach is.

Also, note: In my defense, the nature of human experience is tautological. I've hardly ever felt so validated as when you noted my tautological structure! Amen. Om. Shanti, shanti, shanti.