Digital Humanities

A friend emailed me Feisal G. Mohamed's response to Fish's recent discussion of digital humanities. Here's my response.

I think there's two basic genealogies to digital humanities/technology studies. Reductive? Sure. But helpful.

The first traces back to Heidegger's "Question Concerning Technology." Heidegger argues that modern technologies can be traced all the way back to a Greek emphasis in "techne," doing, production. This has marked Western history, creating an overwhelming insistence upon using/consuming things. Often these scholars misread Heidegger's skepticism of techne-ology to be an absolute dismissal, a return to naturalism. I don't read Heidegger quite this way. His point is that we cannot get outside of "techne" and consumption, but can learn to dwell within it at least semi-consciously. Doing so allows us to open ourselves to other ways of Being in the world.

The second traces back to McLuhan. Que the optimism for a global village, connectivity, ethics, etc. We are how we consume. Blah, blah, blah. We all know this camp, because most of us in rhetoric and composition were reared in its wake.

Clearly, Mohamed's skepticism is rooted in a hardcore Heideggerian misread that believes the answer to our problems lies in a kind of Thoreau-ian naturalism far away from machines and their evil influence. The expectation that we "fully disarticulate" notions of innovation and progress is the give away--as if innovation and progress were really just ideological fantasies; note too that the author rigorously divides ethics and spirituality from materiality and digitality--as if the two were streams that could never be crossed. Boo. Of course, a lot of the writing I do is built upon the premise that new technologies make possible new ways of considering ethics and metaphysics, which I would argue melds, to some extent, the Heideggerian and McLuhan threads together. On the one hand, our dwelling within Being is always, already mediated by the technologies through which we experience and interact with beings; but, on the other hand, digital technologies have exponentially expanded our encounters with other beings and other ways of considering how to be (ethics).


Web writing, postpedagogy, social expressivism, and Grassi

Leahy and I have been writing an article on web writing. Here's one of my conclusions (I think I have 3 write now) for the theory section:

We began this explication of social expressivism by highlighting Socratic traces in Elbow’s expressivism and end by referencing Ernesto Grassi’s concept of ingenium and metaphysic of the public sphere. We hope this shows that the questions of web writing and (post)pedagogy aren’t new, even if they are emphasized by our explorations of new media. They are the fundamental questions of Greek history, handed down through centuries, via multiple and transforming institutions, in the shadows of which we continue to dwell, teach, and write.


King Moonraiser

"Unlike playthings a living creature cannot hide himself on an island."


Dreams of Your Life

An installation site Dreams of Your Life to share with my New Media class next semester.


Davis on Derrida; What Levinas Offers Latour

Via Blogora, a video lecture by D. Diane Davis on Derrida, deconstruction, gratitude, and debt:

Derrida and gratitude: thinking always has a debt. "The image of the trail blazing subject, self sufficient and completely independent is, of course, a metaphysical figure. But it is always a figure or for some traditions ideal" […] "But what Derrida marks constantly is that he does not stand on his own. He stands on a mountain of debt and conditions of possibility."

Davis resists labeling deconstruction as a simple textual methodology--but I think her discussion of close reading and the encounter with an aporia comes close to framing deconstruction as a method, albeit a "choratic" one (to use Hawk and Rickert's term). In other words, Davis' framing of deconstruction marks it as a fluid form of approach that cannot--and does not aim to--guarantee a certain result. Davis stresses: "Thinking is not knowing."

I tend to think of deconstruction in more spiritual terms--that it becomes a spirit for navigating the world (and not just reading texts). Like Davis, I am drawn to the notion of undecidability. In my grad class this week, I contrasted Augustine and Plato against Lanham's notion of "strong" rhetoric, McComiskey relativist, Consigny's anti-foundational, and Jarratt's materialist explications of sophistry. On the one side, Truth is derived through a certain methodology (biblical hermeneutics, dialectic) and then transformed by rhetoric (audience analysis, arrangement, style, delivery). On the other side, truth is something produced through what Lanham calls social dramas, it cannot be decided in advance and cannot be considered "certain" (although, Lanham stresses, this does not mean it is either arbitrary or trivial--human dramas set the bounds of existence).

To get to the second, "strong" rhetoric, one must operate within an uncertain, undecidable metaphysic. This is why I am particularly drawn to Levinas, since his metaphysic incorporates a relation to transcendence that neither eliminates the possibility of transcendence (as people like Lanham and, more recently, Latour have done) nor insists upon its certainty. God as enigma, perpetual, perpetuating question--Levinas's phenomenological ethics do not seek to produce a knowledge (or a method of knowledge) as much as what Aristotle might call a disposition (what Aristotle marks as the first part of a rhetorical performance that sets the mood): how does one act in the shadow of a perpetual, unanswerable question? Tentatively.

Of course, to those of an absolute foundationalist position, Levinas's appreciation for uncertainty might seem heretical. I do not think, in other words, that Levinas presents us with a solution to the problem of transcendence, faith and politics. But I do think, by acknowledging the transcendental as a question, he contributes to our understanding of the intellectual and political, philosophical/scientific and humanit(ies)(arian), right and might divides that Latour argues plagues our contemporary moment.


Internet Metaphor

I posted a link to this NYT article to Facebook, but I wanted to keep this paragraph someplace where I could find it:

Then again, the Internet is a new kind of barometer for keeping track of exactly how old you feel: how many things you don’t get, how many mini-Internet worlds you can’t find the door to; exactly how many crickets in the world you can no longer hear chirping. Unlike in generations past, when (I imagine) you just kept doing what you and your same-aged friends did, and aged into obscurity in comfort on a cloud of your own tastes and generational inclinations, until you died either thinking you all were still the coolest or not caring anymore about being cool, these days the Internet exists in part to introduce you to all these things you didn’t know about, but in part to remind you how much there is out there that you’ll never know about. The Internet is basically like being at a house party and trying to find the bathroom and opening up a door to a room where a bunch of kids are playing a game or doing a drug or having an orgy (metaphorically) or something and you get all flustered and say, “Oh, my God, I’m sorry!” and they all look at you like, “You pervert,” and you quickly slam the door shut. Everywhere you go on the Internet there are rooms you don’t understand, people playing games you don’t know the rules to, teenagers doing drugs you’ve never heard of and can’t even pronounce. And you just walk through the halls of this house party, aging in fast forward, until you open the one last door at the end of the hallway and it’s Death. Ha, ha.

The focus of the article is on the way that the Internet "ages" us. I think the scope can be changed however, to suggest how much the Internet potentially exposes.


Joe Paterno's Apology

I've seen a number of posts dealing with Paterno on Facebook today. I'll admit my knowledge of the subject is a bit sketchy--coming mostly from a few minutes of Dan Patrick's radio program the past few days. From what I understand, 10 years ago a member of the football program was caught fondling a young child in the Penn State locker room by a graduate assistant. The assistant in turn notified Joe Paterno, who notified administration. No one, to my knowledge, ever notified the police.

I have a very hard time processing that last sentence.

Given what I have heard on sports radio, so does most of America.

Today, Joe Paterno released a statement:

I am absolutely devastated by the developments in this case. I grieve for the children and their families, and I pray for their comfort and relief.

I have come to work every day for the last 61 years with one clear goal in mind: To serve the best interests of this university and the young men who have been entrusted to my care. I have the same goal today.

That’s why I have decided to announce my retirement effective at the end of this season. At this moment the Board of Trustees should not spend a single minute discussing my status. They have far more important matters to address. I want to make this as easy for them as I possibly can.

This is a tragedy. It is one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more.

My goals now are to keep my commitments to my players and staff and finish the season with dignity and determination. And then I will spend the rest of my life doing everything I can to help this University

What bothers me about this statement, the first public statement by Paterno in the aftermath of this story, is its political maneuverings. While an apology, it is also an attempt to bargain with Penn State's Board of Trustees, who themselves have scheduled a meeting on Friday to determine Paterno's future. Regardless of whether I believe Paterno should coach the remainder of the season, I do not think he should use an apologetic statement as a forum for implicitly pleading his case.

My RSA proposal this year centers around public apologies, specifically apologies by athletes. In short form: my argument is that many public apologies fail when the speaker attempts to implicitly argue their innocence rather than completely accept fault for their actions.

In Paterno's apology, as in the apology of so many athletes testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, there is an argument. Albeit an argument of a different level of stasis, but an argument all the same. In each case there is a self-centered exertion to control and limit judgement. I don't want an argument here. I want sincerity. I want submission. Say you are sorry, more than sorry, and leave it to the mob to decide your fate. My guess (and, my hope) is that, outside of the Penn State faithful, the majority of sports fans will dissect and dismiss this "apology." Though it is not nearly as inadequate to this situation as his "response" was to a horrific situation nearly a decade ago.


Happy Accidents

Donald Murray, "Writing Badly to Write Well," Expecting the Unexpected:

You do have to write badly to write well. Of course. Badly in the sense of neatness and completeness, for effective thinking isn't neat and complete. This word processor thinks neat and complete. It is dumb, everything is programmed. It follows orders, everything is a simple matter of yes or no. We think by leaps, by inference and intuition, by hunch, by guess and accident, especially accident. (46)


Silly Dad

Rowan: Is today a sleep over night with Mommy?

Me: I don't know.

Rowan: Well, Mommy doesn't have to go to work tomorrow. So she doesn't have to get up early. So she can sleep over.

Me: Yes, but I'm not sure. We probably have to wait to ask Mommy.

Rowan (tapping forehead): No Dad. We just have to think with our minds. Silly Dad.


Obligatory Post on "Occupy Wall St."

One of my graduate students, Adam Breckenridge, posted a link to Douglas Ruchkoff's CNN article "Think Occupy Wall St. is a phase?" to facebook this morning. The article deserves some quality attention. I was particularly inspired by this paragraph:

What upsets banking's defenders and politicians alike is the refusal of this movement to state its terms or set its goals in the traditional language of campaigns.

That's because, unlike a political campaign designed to get some person in office and then close up shop (as in the election of Obama), this is not a movement with a traditional narrative arc. As the product of the decentralized networked-era culture, it is less about victory than sustainability. It is not about one-pointedness, but inclusion and groping toward consensus. It is not like a book; it is like the Internet.

I've never read Douglas Rushkoff before, but now I will. Soon.

Sometime ago I wrote a post on the Tea Party that argued it was an emergent response to the rigidity of America's two party system, saturated in waves of cynicism, disaffection, and outrage. Of course, then the Tea Party was incorporated into the tradition media-political networks, and it lost its initial affective groping for something other than politics-as-usual. So here, again, I think we see the seeds of a desire for another politics.

Here, here.


Goodbye to Terry Francona

I've been meaning to find time to write this for a few days. Here goes in enthymematic form:

  • The collapse was historic.
  • A historic collapse requires blame.
  • Blaming is often not a rational process.
  • Terry Francona is willing to accept an irrational amount of blame for the Red Sox collapse.
  • Terry Francona is a great manager.

This team started the year 3 and 9. They ended the year 7 and 20. For the other 123 games, they played very well. It is easy to blame Francona for those other 39 games. Too easy. I am not too disappointed or shocked by the collapse. Again, this team started 3-9, and had they made the playoffs they would have set a record for overcoming the worst start to a season. To even get close is impressive. If you flipped the Sox record in September with their record in July, then Francona would be celebrated as a gritty manager who kept his team struggling through adversity.

This team couldn't pitch. After Buchholz went down in early August, they were left with two quality pitchers (Lester and Beckett). It September, even those two struggled. In the past I have questioned how long Francona rides his starters. But there is nothing he can do about Lackey's (understandably, given his personal situation) dismal season, Wakefield's increasing age, Dice-K's Dice-k-ness, etc. The manager says who will pitch, when they'll pitch, and sometimes where they should throw it. But he doesn't make the (repeatedly) bad throws.

Put simply, this team didn't have the talent it thought it had. I have written record regarding my skepticism toward this pitching staff and Carl Crawford from last spring (for all those who defended the Crawford signing--how's that remaining $130 million looking now?).

I am very sad to lose Terry Francona. Like Joe Torre, there are questions regarding Francona's "X's and O's" strategy. But what can't be questioned, I think, is his ability to handle the vicious Boston media and fan base. I think the character with which he ended his tenure in Boston speaks volumes. He will be missed. And he will be difficult to replace.

The soul of Boston might be reinvigorated this off-season. Let's face it, we were never accustomed to winning. We didn't always handle it well. And, while the $170 million dollar payroll prohibits us from becoming lovable losers ever again, at least Boston gets to be what it is comfortable being: pissed.


Facebook is Down

A quick post to let everyone know that my Facebook is down right now. I probably won't be back on until next week. So if you are sending me stuff, I'm not ignoring you. Feel free to email me at insignificantwrangler at gmail dot com.

Unless you are attempting to contact me about last night. You can keep those sentiments to yourself.


Addition not Subtraction


The critic is not the one who debunks, but the one who assembles. ("Why Critique Has Run Out of Steam" 246)


Latour and Risk

From Pandora's Hope::

Speech implies by definition the risk of misunderstanding across the huge gaps between different species. If scientists want to bridge the two-culture divide for good, they will have to get used to a lot of noise, and, yes, more then a little bit of nonsense. (17)

And, for a nice parallel, D. Diane Davis' opposition to philosophic logocentrism from Breaking Up [at] Totality:

An ethics of decision in a world that has lost its criteria for responsible action begins with straining to hear the excess that gets drowned out, sacrificed for the clarity of One voice, One call, One legitimate position. A post-humanist ethics ought not be about shutting down the flow but about opening it up, pulling back the stops. (19)

Risk and nonsense, nonsense and risk.


Walking Notes: Latour on Heidegger

I was thinking today about Latour's move to Heidegger in "Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam". He notes that it might strike many as odd, a hyper-realist turning to one among the most speculative of phenomenologists. But Heidegger's fourfold moves us away from matters of fact because it moves us away from a conception of the Real (of) Being in terms of abstraction.

Yesterday, in my new media class, I introduced Ulmer's anti-definition assignments via a discussion of tables. Aristotle, if chasing down the "reality" of the table, would seek to cut away anything peculiar to a particular table. These he would call accidental qualities. His aim would be to arrive at the elements common to every table (the essentials). Western philosophy spent the better part of 2000 years following Aristotle's lead.

But the 20th century saw a turn away from Aristotle's quest for the Ideal table. Slowly, an appreciation grew for the peculiarities of particular tables. A cut in the wood from the time your brother ran his tricycle into a table leg, for instance. Tables become permeated with memories. So, the question I pose to my students was this: "don't tell me what you think when I say table, spend sometime telling me how you feel when you hear that word. What is the first memory that pops in your head? This is what Ulmer might call the affective table." To which one student responded: "yes, but why are we talking about tables at all? Why does this matter?" Aristotle would be proud? This question I leave open to them.

Back to Latour: his interest in the fourfold lies in its opposition to chasing down the one Ideal, abstracted table, divorced from time and space. The fourfold represents for Latour a method for reconceptualizing our relation to the world (see Rivers here for an extremely smart explication of how "world" in Latourian discourse deconstructs the West's foundational nature/culture binary, 196-197). Method is actually too strong a word--what we are talking about here isn't even a heuristic--rather I would identify it with Ulmer's term heuretic. It is a way of opening a way of thinking about the world. As Hawk emphasizes, it is not a predetermined system but rather a kairotic sensibility to the possibilities a context makes possible (see Hawk 206). Its elusiveness, which Bay and Rickert explicate so wonderfully, is its very charm (which, to a positivist, will stink of magic, deception, and pastry-baking).


SF Zero

I'll be putting more up soon about SFZero. For now, I need to post the URL for Rowan and I's first mission.

Mission Completion.



I spent most of today writing up my Nussbaum/Sloterdijk/Ulmer/SF Zero article, turning handwritten rough draft into (sloppily) typed rough draft. A fun process. Essentially, I critique Nussbaum's connection between critical thinking and empathy, and argue instead for a post-pedagogical, non-critical, self-explorative thinking alongside a call for local action. More on this to come.

A colleague stepped in and returned a book he borrowed last year--Mark C. Taylor's Moment of Complexity. Flipping through the pages, I came to a passage that rifted nicely with my writing; Taylor:

Through his deconstructive analyses, Derrida attempts to disrupt digital technologies and the systems they produce by turning the digital divide into a rupture that can never be overcome. However, his critique is, in the final analysis, ineffective: deconstruction changes nothing. While exposing systems and structures as incomplete and perhaps repressive, deconstruction inevitably leaves them in place. This is not merely because deconstruction involves theoretical analyses instead of practical action but also because of the specific conclusions reached by the theoretical critique. Instead of showing how totalizing structures can actually be changed, deconstruction demonstrates that the tendency to totalize can never be overcome, and, thus, that repressive structures are inescapable. For Derrida and his followers, all we can do is to join in the Sisyphean struggle to undo what cannot be done. (65)

Essentially, I accuse Nussbaum of something similar to what Taylor accuses Derrida--of a kind of navel-gazing philosophy that does not adequately address the complications of real world change. I do think Taylor is intentionally under-reading (is that a thing?) Derrida here in order to set up his later articulation of complexity (one that draws quite heavily on this "useless" deconstruction). Deconstruction, I think, can suggest to us the necessity of approaching change on a local and concrete level--it is not necessarily inevitable that we leave structures in place.


Fall 2011 Reading Lists

I was doing so well posting here. I even got a comment from Dave Weinberger. And then last week happened.

I spent most of today finishing my syllabi for the fall and submitting my book orders. Here's how my two classes shape up:

Historical Rhetorics

  • Week One (summer reading, discussed week one): Gorgias, Republic VII
  • Week Two: Phaedrus, ???
  • Week Three – Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Book 1-2
  • Week Four – Aristotle's Rhetoric, Book 3, Isocrates' "Against the Sophists"
  • Week Five – Isocrates' Antidosis w/ Welch "An Isocratic Literary Theory" and Vitanza “Isocrates, the Padeia, and Imperialism”
  • Week Six - Paper Day #1
  • Week Seven - Gorgias / Protagoras, Dissoi Logoi, Plato's Timaeus (w/ Ulmer, Heuretics 61-78; Schiappa “Toward an Understanding…” 64-85)
  • Week Eight - Vitanza (chapters 1, Ex. 6) / Jarratt (all of Rereading the Sophists) / Poulakous “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric”
  • Week Nine - McComiskey (chapters 1 and 2) / Consigny (Chapters 4, 5, and 6)
  • Paper Day #2
  • Week Eleven – Cicero (De Oratore, Book 1 and 3)
  • Week Twelve – Quintilian (from books 1, 2, and 10) / Lanham, “The Q Question”
  • Week Thirteen - Augustine's On Christian Teaching
  • Week Fourteen - Ong's Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue
  • Week Fifteen - Grassi's Rhetoric and Philosophy (w/ Proctor on Petrarch)
  • Week Sixteen - Paper Day #3

Yup. That's a lot of reading.

Last time I taught the course, I concluded with Locke and Campbell, Whatley, and Blair, to give some frame of the Enlightenment's disparagement of rhetoric (and its later emphasis on rhetoric as style). But I think Ong's explication of Ramus does that sufficiently; this time I want to dig into the humanist rejection of Cicero's "civic obligation" as our concluding note.

New Media

My undergrad students will read four books next semester:

  • Kalman, Maria. And The Pursuit of Happiness 1594202672
  • Stolley, Karl. How to Design and Write Web Pages Today 0313380384
  • Weinberger, David. Everything is Miscellaneous 0805088113
  • Ulmer, Gregory L. Internet Invention 0321126920

I've already read everything here. This will be my first time teaching Weinberger, but I think it will compliment our New Media Wiki project nicely.

So that's what I am reading this fall--what are others looking forward to?


"Unschooling" and David Weinberger

Today a student shared a piece appearing over at the Washington post on education, focusing on debates over class sizes. The piece details two general approaches to education--the first teacher driven, the second student driven. This second approach the article refers to as "unschooling," since it emphasizes how learning has to involve developing independent initiative Coincidentally, I was reading through David Weinberger's Everything is Miscellaneous today (at student asked about the books I would be teaching in my New Media class this fall, I've decided to try Weinberger). Flipping through my Weinberger, I came to the following page contrasting what Weinberg identifies as social knowing to traditional, teacher-driven notions of knowledge and education:

Now poke your head into a classroom toward the end of the school year. In Massachusetts, where I live, you're statistically likely to see students with their heads bowed, using no. 2 pencils to fill in examinations mandated by the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System. Fulfilling the mandate of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, the MCAS measures how well schools are teaching the standardized curricula the state has formulated and whether students are qualified for high school degrees. Starting with the third grade, students' education is now geared toward those moments every year when the law requires that they sit by themselves and answer questions on a piece of paper. The implicit lesson is unmistakable: Knowing is something done by individuals. It is something that happens inside your brain. The mark of knowing is being able to fill in a paper with the right answers. Knowledge could not get any less social. In fact, in those circumstances when knowledge is social we call it cheating.

Nor could the disconnect get much wider between the official state view of education and how our children are learning. In most American households, the computer on which students do their homework is likely to be connected to the Net. Even if their teachers let them use only approved sources on the Web, changes are good that any particular student, including your son or daughter, has four or five instant-messaging sessions open as she does homework. They have friends with them as they learn. In between chitchat about the latest alliances and factions among their social set, they are comparing answers, asking for help on tough questions, and complaining. Our children are doing their homework socially, even though they're being graded and tested as if they are doing their work in isolation booths. But in the digital order, their approach is appropriate. Memorizing facts is often now a skill more relevant to quiz shows than to life.

One thing is for sure: When our kids become teachers, they're not going to be administering tests to students sitting in a neat grid of separated desks with the shades drawn.

At least, we hope they won't. Weinberger's book was written in 2007--and the changes to education I have seen in Florida since moving here makes me wonder if Weinberger's certainty is so certain.


Teaching a Philosophy of Life

Today's snippet comes from a student's paper defending the value of his liberal arts major. One of the questions I posed this semester, while reading Academically Adrift and Not For Profit was whether Universities' missions included teaching values, or whether teaching values was the province of other social/cultural institutions (family/church). For the most part, my students resisted discussing this question. But one student took up the question in his paper, and noted how research points to a decline among students in prioritizing values; he cites a 2000 study by Pace and Connolly ("Where are the Liberal Arts?"):

In 1966 the percent of students saying that ‘developing a meaningful philosophy of life’ was an essential or very important goal was 80%, but in 1996 it was down to 42%. The materialist goal of ‘being well off financially’ was regarded as essential or very important by 45% in 1966, but in 1996 it was up to 74%” (Pace 54)

I'm looking forward to reading the whole article because I am especially interested in the parameters of those numbers. Of course, the social demographics of college enrollment have transformed significantly since 1966, especially in light of Vietnam spikes in enrollment. And our economy has transformed as well, such that now there are fewer career options available to those without college education.


Rotten With Perfection

Burke fans will probably enjoy today's offerings from one of my favorite sites, Slaughterhouse 90210.

Ethical Learning, Responsibility, and Assessment

A long time ago, when I first became enamored with the possibilities of digital communication and deconstruction, I remember constructing a piece on spectrality and student work. I was proud when the piece won a Parlor Press award at Purdue for Best Multimedia Project, and a bit disappointed when it was rejected for publication at Kairos (though I can't blame them, the thing is a mess). Essentially, the piece emphasized how rhetorical practice involves more than a knowledge of and ability to enact Aristotelian tactics--that interacting with real, responsible (que Levinas) human beings requires a pathetic sensitivity and strength, and that the only way to gain that strength is engage in situations that leave us "weak," out of control, beholden to a spectral other/future over which we can have no mastery or assurance.

I remembered this piece today reading over a Chronicle piece on Assessment and Ethical Learning. One cannot materialize ghosts, nor can one accurately measure an individual's response to the affective rush of alterity, the traumatizing experience of facing an Other that calls a self into question, the infinity that interrupts totality (etc), outside of the radical encounter itself. Recreating that situation is (virtually?) impossible. I'd link to think--in the best cases--that the blogging pedagogy I've been working on approaches the problem; but I certainly wouldn't claim it solves it, or that it in anyway ensures ethical responses. Rather, it makes possible this kind of encounter, and aims to cultivate a responsible (que Levinas again, in this case a response that weighs the other to the neighbor while recognizing the inevitability that violence will occur) response. As the article intimates, there is an issue of kairos to ethical learning largely irrelevant to critical and epistemological pedagogies:

"It is really hard to measure ethical learning because it's not declarative or semantic knowledge, but, like any expertise, it is knowing the right thing to do in the right way at the right time," says Darcia F. Narváez, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Notre Dame. In her research, she has found that intuition plays such a big role in moral decisions that she argues it is a mistake to ignore its influence.

As the article further complicates, such attempts run into trouble once they begin to determine what/whose particular values are right. One reason I enjoy Levinas so much is that his work doesn't articulate a morality (hence, it does not belong to logos). Rather, it attempts to establish, via pathos, a mood from which we can hospitably approach those impossible, but necessary questions. Levinas' phenomenological account of subjectivity dis-posess us of any claim to a spontaneous, autonomous foundation, thus, I hope, generating an embodied dis-position from which we can ethically approach argumentation (remembering that we dispute with other people, rather than with mere ideas). Ethics, when I deploy the term, doesn't mean to signify a list of truths, or even an accepted collection of moral laws. Rather, it speaks to the cultivation of a spectral subjective attitude, a pre-condition to productive human encounters. Referring to yesterday's post on Tim Morton, it is the cultivation of a dis-position both open and weird. Irrational though it may be, argumentation is not a matter of simply deploying proper arguments or upholding the proper morality.

As I continue to work on my Nussbaum article, its articulation of post-pedagogy, and the emphasis of ethics over critique, I am caught up in contemporary will to assess. I am trying, hard, to avoid adopting an intellectual position anti-thetical to standardized assessments, especially after reading Academically Adrift such a move would feel reactionary and stupid. Thinking about the kinds of qualitative assignments in Academically Adrift, I am beginning to have new appreciation for the CLA test they endorse. I feel much more obligated to acknowledge and endorse such maneuvers; if we do not cultivate more sophisticated forms of assessment, then we could be burdened (in the post-Spellings Commission, hyper-attentive, economically-crisised-driven University) with something much worse. In my article I deal with recent "reforms," by the CollegeBoard, in Florida's primary and secondary schools--they are now driven by a scripted, day-to-day program accompanied by standardized tests leaving little room for kairos and invention on the part of teachers. To say that such rigid policing could not come to higher education is, I believe, a dangerous stance.

And, if you haven't read Academically Adrift yet, and you teach writing, then I cannot emphasize enough how important this book is. Sure, there are methodological issues with their study (I remember Pat Sullivan emphasizing how, when people want to reject a conclusion, they begin by attacking the methodology), but the picture they paint of learning on contemporary campuses warrants attention and response.


Very Large Finitude and Ecological Irony

Figure/Ground is featuring an interview with Timothy Morton, professor of ecology, theory, and literature. Morton was first brought to my attention last fall by a grad student in my Contemporary Rhetorics class. This snippet from the interview grabbed my attention, especially given my interest in Levinas' concept of (metaphysical) infinity and posthumanism (something fairly anti-thetical to Levinas' own thought).

No, what is ironic enough is ecological awareness. Why? Because we have a situation in which we have enormously increased knowledge of the nonhuman—global warming, evolution, extinction, on and on. Yet we are also overwhelmed by these nonhumans, and, to top it off, for precisely the same reasons. The ecological age is what I call the age of asymmetry. We have a huge amount of knowledge and there is a huge amount of objects, and those things are like giant asymmetrically related spheres. The more we know, the more we realize how embedded we are in radiation, pollution, the biosphere, risks of all kinds on huge inhuman time scales. Like the half-life of Plutonium is 24.1 thousand years. One hundred thousand years from now seven percent of global warming effects will still be happening as the carbon is slowly absorbed by igneous rocks. Infinity, inner space, Kantian stuff is so much easier on the ego than this, which I call very large finitude.

Ecological irony is realizing how caught in your reality you are. It’s like finding out that you’re frozen inside some gigantic Perspex paperweight. You can see everything—I can Google Earth the fish in my mum’s pond in London for heaven’s sake. Yet for this very reason, you just can’t peel yourself out of the Perspex.


Ecological irony doesn’t mean doing nothing. It means doing something and feeling something very intense, yet open and weird. “They were going to make me a major for this, and I wasn’t even in their army anymore” (Apocalypse Now).


Post-Pedagogy and Kairotic Techne

Today's post builds off yesterdays in connection with a conversation on Facebook. A friend tagged me in a query on teaching blogging, so I pointed her toward my blogging syllabus as an example of post-pedagogy. What marks that curriculum as post-pedagogical to me is that it requires students to make rhetorical decisions not only about their topic (what will I write about?), but also their audience (who will I write with?) and their methods (what kind of writing does this group employ? how should I write when writing to them?)

Byron Hawk ends his chapter on "Technology / Complexity / Methodology" by arguing that methods of invention sensitive to affective, vital, complex, network dynamics

[...] must start with the structure of particular constellations and the invention of techniques for and out of those specific occassions; it is thus more attuned to co-responsibility, kairos, emergence, and ambience. Composition theorists should be striving to develop methods for situating bodies within ecological contexts in ways that reveal the potential for invention, especially the invention of new techniques, that in turn reveal new models for action within those specific rhetorical ecologies. Method in this context is happening at two levels when approached pedagogically: the techniques or heuristics that teachers use to situate students in learning contexts, and the techniques the students produce in and through those specific contexts--some of which are conscious, some of which remain bodily and intuitive. (206)

The blogging class we've put together tries to speak to both of these levels--there is a negotiation between myself and the students while they generate topics. I have clear parameters for what constitutes an "A" project--these expectations are imposed top-down. But I also stress the wide variety of inventive approaches students have used within these parameters: blogs on bar hopping, shooting shit (the actual title), MMA training (title: "I lift things up and put them down"), Sun Tzu, representations of female fashion and bodies in Victorian literature, parenting, etc. And, beyond just the variety of topics, there is a variety of writing style and voice developed through the blogs--from intellectual to hipster to authoritarian to neighbor. The course, I believe, holds true to post-pedagogical aspirations by explicitly articulating its impositions while also making space for legitimate student invention.


Post-Pedagogy as Performing Empathy

Week two of trying to post something every day. I spent this morning working on an article responding to Martha Nussbaum's Not For Profit. Here's a snippet dealing with post-pedagogy.

In place of pedagogies of control insisting upon the traditional forms of cultural/Socratic critique, Rickert advocates a pedagogy of surprise in which

[...] we might advocate our own particular pedagogies with insight into education's general culpability [its will to control and ironic performance of compulsory liberation] to the extent that we grant students possibilities for a writing that would be their own Act. This asks us to acknowledge that we do not always know best how to rectify social problems for them, and this further necessitates a partial relinquishing of control and learning from students. (Acts of Enjoyment 165)

Rickert's qualifying hedge is important here, since he makes it clear that he is not merely echoing calls for a decentered classroom in which students and teachers share power (or where power relations are dissipated, etc). Rather, he calls for what he terms a remodification of power relations, such that teachers reflexively inhabit their authority and explicitly discuss that inhabiting with students. The egalitarian classroom is an ideal made impossible by the institutional demands placed upon us. Unless one is willing to give up grading (or convert all courses to pass/fail), then the teacher will always occupy a hierarchical position of authority--and virtually any attempt to subvert that power, no matter how noble the intention, is more likely to amplify the cynicism pervading 21st century life. Of course, the remodification for which Rickert calls requires an appreciation for risk that runs counter to the economic model of contemporary education--one that increasingly turns to standardization as a form of investment insurance. But this is the battleground for post-pedagogic education: a realization that empathic training concerns both what and more importantly how we teach; our institutional and disciplinary systems have to be comfortable with the surprising possibility of alterity if we hope to foster a citizenry appreciative of difference.


Yeah, We Already Knew That

Via the Blogora today, a piece in Newsweek on evolution and irrationality. It probably shouldn't irk me that the piece makes no mention of rhetoricians, but it does (its got philosophers and cognitive scientists, but no rhetoricians). Its clear the article wishes for a rational world (which, if I remember my Jonathan Swift, isn't necessarily utopian), but at least it concludes recognizing (somewhat) the priority of human emotion.

I wish, however, that the article lived up to its title and endorsed our "fallen" emotional flaws as a necessary component to social and cultural development. I was writing today about Burke and Alphonso Lingis--respectively the ideas that identification requires division and that the construction of a "universal rational community" requires the exclusion of the strange(r). In both cases, there is a recognition that the violence of exclusion is essential to any act of defining, and the hope that we can acknowledge such an act--live up to it, so to speak.


Blogging Pedagogy & Academically Adrift

Today is the final day of my summer Expository Writing class. I build all of my classes around themes; this semester was dedicated to blogging. Mxrk, Ryan P. Weber, and I will be putting together an article dedicated to the class in August (did you know that Ryan? Mrxk and I will bang out a draft and send it to you once he gets here). I constructed a pretty rigorous course site for the blogging class, with almost daily notes. One of my colleagues, Carl Herndl, will use my site and syllabus to teach Expository Writing later this summer; I think that will be a great test for the pedagogy since Carl is an admitted techno-novice and has never taught blogging before.

On a side note, I required us to read two books during the course: Nussbaum's Not For Profit and Arum and Roksa's Academically Adrift. I'm writing an article responding to Nussbaum, so I'll hold off commenting on that one here.

Arum and Roksa's book is a worthy read for anyone working in higher education. It is by and large and empirical study documenting just how little the majority (80%) of today's college students are learning. They use a comprehensive and (by my limited judgement) reliable qualitative test to measure students' gains in writing, complex reasoning, and critical thinking during their freshman and sophomore years. They acknowledge that many students might be learning other things, particularly things geared toward their majors. They openly acknowledge in several places that the importance of their study lies in the reader prioritizing writing, complex reasoning, and critical thinking as central to University learning (and they show that the professional sector is calling for increases in these abilities, so there's a rhetorical element to this prioritization).

One point: many of us working in rhetoric and literature would not identify what they call "critical thinking" as critical thinking. For instance, one of the qualitative assessment tests asks students to read ten documents dealing with a specific kind of plane and its likelihood of crashing and then write a memo to their boss arguing whether s/he should buy the plane.

Arum and Roksa spread blame for the lack of learning on students, faculty, and administration:

  • Students simply are not studying enough. The average student studies around 12 hours a week, with much of their remaining time going to socializing activities (data collected via self-reporting).
  • Faculty are too committed to research. Less than 60% of students at selective and less selective schools reported having to read more than 40 pages a week for a class, and less than 50% reported having to write more than 20 pages for a course over an entire semester (the numbers were 75% and 95% at highly selective institutions, respectively).
  • Faculty, however, aren't solely to blame for their focus on research and slighting of teaching. Arum and Roksa note that administrators--increasingly drawn from outside of academic ranks to focus on recruiting, branding, investment, and publicity--have increasingly edged tenure requirements toward publication and away from the classroom. I think a naive reading of Academically Adrift would frame it as an argument against tenure. I do not think this is the case. Rather, I believe they advocate for the transformation of tenure to place a greater emphasis on teaching. This argument deserves more time than I can give it this morning--but, recognizing how much of our research goes unnoticed or uncited (90% of Humanities scholarship),, I don't have a problem with such a move (I address this directly in my response essay on Levinas, metaphysics, and D. Diane Davis' Inessential Solidarity, currently in process with JAC, but there I argue for institutional recognition for inhabiting dialogical spaces rather than solely for individual publication). This is not to say that research and scholarship aren't important. But it is not the only important thing. Whether it is the most important thing is a question I am honestly not ready to answer today.

To reiterate, this is a book worth your time, and probably your students' time. I anticipated that my class would be a bit hostile to the book. But they weren't. And when I started to talk about how my blogging class stems from a recognition of many of the book's arguments, they were not only receptive but (dare I say) appreciative. There's always going to be the bottom 20% students who are unprepared, unmotivated, and unteachable. But, following Arum and Roksa's advice (the way to get students more invested is simply to raise expectations and assign more work), I think we can all acknowledge that we aren't teaching as much as we could (...should?), and we can do better.

P.S., my summer blogging course asks students to write 550 words a day (not counting in class writing) and a final 10 page paper. That's about 55 pages of writing in 6 weeks. So, while I'm always failing at something, at least I can tell myself I'm assigning a lot of writing. Now if only I could get a teaching assistant to grade it all...

Zakaria and Political Reality

I missed a post yesterday, so two posts today. First, a brief comment on Zakarias' article "How Conservatism Has Lost Touch with Reality. A friend has a rather scathing response to Zakarias over at his blog, arguing that Zakarias is practicing a kind of revisionist history, devoid of spirituality, and is hiding behind as ideological fantasy. I don't agree.

First, I think Zakarias' history shows something I've pointed to a number of times on this blog. Tax rates on the wealthy have never been lower than they are today. The current economic crisis is in large part connected to globalization of labor such that trickle-down profits, taxed less than any other point in industrial American history, are no longer fed into strictly an American system; as Casey notes--this makes labor a global rather than local issue, and makes any attempt to address inequality even harder. But that does not mean we should just throw are hands up and do nothing. Yes, the global median income is $9000, and the average American earns significantly more than that. Throwing contextualization issues aside (factors such as cost of living etc), this tells us that, even as we argue for increased taxation on the domestic scene, we keep remain open to global factors. We live in the meantime. One of my favorite aspects of sophistic rhetoric is that it is the art of the mean(ness) of time (and existence), addressing how we dwell with each other everyday, haunted by Idealism's search for absolute foundations, plagued by the problems that call us to be.

Second, spirituality is a complex matter. I think there is a rising "leftist" spirituality--the ecological turn I'll call it. It is a fundamental recognition that every entity on the planet comes into existence through infinite relations with other entities, nothing is born whole, autonomous, or ex nihilio. Of course, this dove tails with my work with Levinas. Such as metaphysical understanding of our Being does, I believe, generate ethical principles, even if the academic left has been slow to articulate them. But I don't think many of us are "postmodern" in the "classic" sense anymore. There's new problems and agendas. One of which, following Latour, is to move beyond critical thinking and critique (debunking, etc) and toward collecting problems (as Dr. Rivers puts it). As Gregory Ulmer puts it: "problems B us"; by articulating the problem, we kairotically emerge inhabiting the problem that infects/affects us. Any attempt to articulate a problem is always an act of self-fashioning. We are the people our problems make us. This, I believe is a thoroughly spiritual orientation, even if it suspends the issue of transcendence. One can be spiritual without a beyond. In fact, I would argue that assuring the presence of a beyond (whether it is God, Truth, Love, etc) reduces the infinity of the beyond to a known object. But that's a Levinasian argument, and a whole post itself.

Third, I think Zakarias is trying to collect such a problem, and the actants that form it. As I indicated in #1 above, I think Zakarias "collects a reality," Zakaria is referring to the increasingly cumulating statistics documenting 1) the rise of unemployment alongside increasing trickle-down economic and 2) the increasingly economic divide between classes. I don't think there is a "Utopian" vision underlying this problem--there is no suggestion that the solution to this problem lies in any kind of communist re-organization of capital. In fact, I think Zakarias' article implicitly calls for a moderate response to the problem he articulates: a better balancing of centralist infrastructure and free market investment and innovation similar to that operating during America's economic boom in the 1950's and 1960's.


A Troll Who Cares--Jonathon Paige & the Ethics of Blogging

Day two of my effort to put something here everyday.

Today I point to a very interesting post sent to me by mxrk, one that relates to our blogging class/project/article. An internet troll details how he created Jonathon Paige's twitter persona and corresponding SummerHoopScoop blog as an ethical experiment. Mxrk and I have our students do something similar in our blogging class, without the overtly critical and potentially unethical angle.

Near the end, the troll draws several morals to his story, and I think two of them lie at the core of my teaching and research:

  1. Only trust PROVEN sources that have a track record and accountability.
  2. Keep your ears open to bad news as well as good news. When you hear negative news about your school's chances with a recruit from a trusted source or all the facts don't add up in your favor, don't go in to denial about it. Just accept what you are seeing and hearing. A Scout.com analyst is not wrong just because he brings bad news. A random recruiting twitter account is not right just because it tells you what you want to hear. Be smart about what information you hear and where it comes from.

I'm thinking especially of the second bullet in connection with Rickert's Acts of Enjoyment. I've been using Rickert's final chapter (an expansion of his "Hand's Up, Your Free!" article) to point out a contradiction in Martha Nussbaum's Not For Profit, namely that critical thinking can foster empathy (I'm arguing that the Socratic critical disposition actually requires the suspension of empathy). But Rickert and Nussbaum share one assumption: that human beings are not fundamentally "fixable" creatures, that psychoanalysis begins with the assumption that we come with problems (Ulmer: "Problems B Us"), and that the "good" life (or the good pedagogy) begins by dwelling within this fallen condition (rather than seeking to remedy it once and for all, as if any such final solution was possible). Levinas also frames the individual as fundamentally flawed (in terms of his/her debt to alterity, a debt too great to ever be completely repaid)--and I think that overlap resonates with me.

I have a special place for trolls in my heart, since they occupied an important part of my dissertation; there I used Internet trolls to demonstrate that there isn't necessarily an essential "goodness" to digital connectivity. At the same time, I argued that digital trolls were the inheritors of the cultural studies/Socratic/counter-culture/American Transcendentalist/critical tradition. While I appreciate their intentions, I remain torn on the issue of their methods. But I like this piece for the way that it demonstrates the fluid nature of ethos in the digital age. What I take away: every individual needs to be savvy, attentive, and open.


Jameson's New Book

Blogora's sporting a link to Jameson's preview of his upcoming book today. I've never considered myself a Marxist nor a fan of Jameson, but I nod my head to this paragraph from the preview:

Now we can step back and assess the meaning and import of Capital as a whole. This is a book about unemployment: its conceptual climax is reached with this proposition that industrial capitalism generates an overwhelming mass of potentially uninvestible capital on one hand, and an ever-increasing mass of unemployed people on the other: a situation we see fully corroborated today in the current crisis of third-stage or finance capital.

I think Jameson's got his finger on the problem, but not necessarily the solution.

I'm working on an article skeptical of critique today. And while I am enthusiastic about investing energy in empathic pedagogies, I'm missing the ole ideological fantasy of liberation.


No Life Is Good

In The Philosopher's Magazine, David Benetar argues that "No Life is Good." A cynical (and, I hope, playful) argument against the mechanical life. His conclusion isn't to kill yourself, just to stop having babies (and thus bringing more people destined to suffer into the world). But doesn't misery love company?

From the comments:

If I take this article at its meaning, it’s not merely that human lives are simply devoid of the quantities of mere pleasure that would make them more worth living; I also take it that most human lives are devoid of real meaning, period. Consider how so few people really contribute anything in the way of a lasting legacy, a benefit to others that keeps on giving decades, centuries after they’ve passed on. On the contrary, most people accomplish nothing, and by the reckoning of others who perhaps have not known or befriended them, may as well have never lived at all, for they have made such waste of their lives! Note how most of us–too many of us–grind through a cyclic process of self-sustenance, eating, sleeping, waking, going to work, contributing nothing at work that will affect people’s lives in any meaningful way for any duration of time. The cycle continues unabated, through generations.

We're reading Nussbaum's Not For Profit in my summer class; the previous chapter dealt with learning to accept human frailty and oppose myths of perfection and grandeur. I think this short piece compliments Nussbaum nicely.


Insane Job Add

Blogora has a link to The Philosophy Smoker's discussion of a crazy philosophy job add. Two things:

  1. I can't wait until we all bow down before work with corporate sponsors.
  2. Are visiting associate positions even real?


Burke, Sophistry, and Ecological Rhetoric

I wrote this in response to a graduate students' project on Kenneth Burke. I didn't want to lose it, so I'll stick it here:

Burke shares quite a bit with the Sophists because they both believe that rhetoric is metaphysical, rather than representational. That is to say, language doesn’t simply report on an already existing reality; rather, language participates in bringing reality into being. This does not mean that all reality--for Burke or the Sophists-- is merely language (a critique often thrust upon poststructuralists); there is a material world out there. But we do not have direct access to that material world, we always engage it through our consciousness, through our culture, through words, ideas, preconceptions, expectations, moods, ideologies, identities, technologies, locales, dispositions, injuries, etc.


Its Crap

Today I learned that a friend from grad school--a dedicated high school teacher--lost his job yesterday, along with about 80 other teachers, when his town voted against a tax increase.

To echo David Harvey's conclusion to his RSAnimate talk, "its crap."

We cannot sit by and accept an economy and government that increasingly stratifies wealth. As I have written before, no one earns a billion dollars (or even a million dollars) in isolation. Please endorse the sharing of wealth as a fundamental human value. Every human being on this planet should deserve a chance at food, healthcare, and education more than particular individuals deserve the right to earn billions of dollars.


What is Rhetoric?

Our FYC program writes and publishes their own textbook every year. This year, they asked me to write a short introduction addressing what rhetoric is and why one might study it. Here's my answer (probably rife with errors, it could use some quality revising).

Why Study Rhetoric?

I have been tasked with the question “why study rhetoric?” Crafting a response to this question is in fact tricky, because “rhetoric” has referred to different things in different eras. In today’s popular parlance, the term is often analogous with “bullshit,” to grab the title of Harry G. Frankfurt’s recent sequel to his earlier book, On Truth. “That’s just empty rhetoric” the pundits say in response to the politician’s apology. But this perks me to ask: “is there full rhetoric?”

In what follows I will answer this question by briefly sketching the art of rhetoric’s complex history. My history is in no way comprehensive—I hope to give a long view of a very complicated, and conflicted, intellectual conversation about the purpose of education, people, and language.

Few people are aware that, until only about 200 years ago, rhetorical training comprised the first three years of higher education (and practically all of elementary and secondary education). But , even though it was the focus of education, “rhetoric” hasn’t been one stable thing for the last 2,500 years. In fact, what I hope to tease out in this brief historical overview is how rhetoric’s uses change in connection to an era’s dominant information-communication technologies.

What is Rhetoric?

I’ll claim that there are three different historic uses of rhetoric—each corresponding to a different era and communicative media (progressively: orality, literacy, and post-literacy or electracy). In the era of orality, before written language, rhetoric operated primarily in terms of persuasion. The job of the rhetorician involved captivating and purposing human attention, either to remember history, celebrate achievements, encourage change, or consider legal matters. In the era of literacy, rhetoric formally concerned itself with interpretation (what is called hermeneutics). The job of the rhetorician involved carefully reading texts and engagingly sharing the products of that reading. Religion, history, and law where no longer contained is stories and speeches—now they found their homes in letters and books. The rhetorician was tasked with writing, reading, and interpreting these new technologies. In the contemporary electrate era, rhetoric emphasizes the importance of ethics, focusing on responsibility and relations. Under this developing rhetoric, the task of the rhetorician is to analyze social systems and maximize opportunities for engagement, sharing, and diversity. These aims, I would argue, are affordances made possible by digital connectivity (through radios, telephones, televisions, computers, mobile phones and whatever comes next).

How Far We Going Back? Way Back…

Rhetoric’s first major appearance in the West was in ancient Greece. Ironically, our knowledge of this time period comes almost exclusively from books, since the Athens of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates, and Gorgias represents the moment when orality and literacy operated side by side. Most famous of the Greek thinkers on rhetoric was Aristotle. Aristotle’s teacher, Plato, had famously castigated rhetoric as manipulation and trickery, arguing that if philosophy is medicine for the mind, then rhetoric is merely baked goods—quite tasty, but ultimately unhealthy. Rhetoric, Plato asserted, kept people trapped in a cave, in which they could not differentiate between good and evil, truth and falsity.

Aristotle’s response to his teacher was a bit pragmatic: sure, in a perfect world, we could do without rhetoric. But in a real world, one composed of human necessities and desires, permeated with joys and fears, rhetoric is a necessary evil. Aristotle argues that philosophy focuses on discerning matters of absolute truth and falsity, while rhetoric explores “greyer” issues of probability and possibility. Contrary to Plato’s ideal, matters of politics are almost always “grey” matters; therefore, we need rhetoric to help navigate the inevitable ambiguities of complex, social problems. Furthermore rhetoric, for Aristotle, is inoculation against maliciousness and trickery. It forefronts the obligation of all citizens to protect themselves against corruption in order to maintain a healthy civic body.

Aristotle’s rhetoric attuned students to two major elements of public persuasion: the appeals and the topoi. Aristotle identified three primary appeals and attached each to a particular performance. Logos, an emphasis on logical argument, pertained mostly to deliberative, or what we might call political, matters. Ethos, the study of communal values and individual character, was the principal material for juridical rhetoric. Finally, pathos, the fostering of human emotion, most concerned epideictic, or ceremonial rhetoric. Topoi, which literally translates as “places,” refers to Aristotle’s system for finding common argumentative positions and propositions, and learning how to situate a set of circumstances within these inventive parameters. Aristotle’s topics might seem elementary today (generate a definition, make a comparison, highlight a contradiction, etc), but these elements were first explored in writing in Ancient Greece and revolutionized public discourse.

While, historically, Aristotle and Plato loom as the largest figures in classical rhetoric and philosophy, it is important to highlight that they were not the dominant intellectual figures in their own era. Sophistry, recent scholarship has shown, represented a far more robust intellectual movement than Plato’s representation. It is unknown how much of Aristotle’s rhetoric was in fact plagiarized from the (illiterate?) sophists who preceded him (unlike Plato and Aristotle, the sophists didn’t seem to believe in writing things down; it might be that, as dedicated oralists, they distrusted writing as cold and distant from human memory). For the sophists, rhetoric didn’t simply describe a real world existing independent of language; rather, rhetoric—by focusing human attention and energy—produced the world. Independent of language and human energy, the world does not exist. Humans, through their interactions with each other, with objects and technologies, with animals and plants and sunshine and coal and words and images and jellyfish, call worth the world in which they dwell. As such—contra Plato—there is no philosophical “Truth” to be found outside of the realm of human judgment and language, no Ideal realm opposed to this one, no outside to our “cave.”

Plato, Aristotle, and the sophists greatly influence the practice of rhetoric in the Roman Republic. In Cicero’s Rome, one might argue, rhetoric reached its high point, since the entire education system was designed around rhetorical training and performance, preparing students for the rigors of participating in the Roman Senate. Consider Quintilian’s response to Plato’s castigation of rhetoric:

Under such a mode of reasoning, neither will generals, nor magistrates, nor medicine, nor even wisdom itself, be of any utility; […] in the hands of physicians poisons have been found; and among those who abuse the name of philosophy have been occasionally detected of the most horrible crimes. We must reject food, for it has often given rise to ill health; we must never go under roofs, for they sometimes fall upon those who dwell beneath them; a sword must not be forged for a soldier, for a rubber may use the same weapon. Who does not know that fire and water, without which life cannot exist, and (that I may not confine myself to things of earth,) that the sun and moon, the chief of the celestial luminaries, sometimes produce hurtful effects? […] And so, although the weapons of eloquence are powerful for good or ill, it is unfair to count as evil something which it is possible to use for good” Institutes of Oratory II.xvi.9- 10).

Rather than thinking of rhetoric as even a necessary evil, Quintilian’s analogies suggest that it is a vital, necessary good (and, like many things that are good for us, it becomes poisonous if misused).

A more contemporary development for persuasive rhetorical theory is Kenneth Burke’s notion of identification. Nutshell: any act of persuasion requires a rhetor to create an identity that can be shared between speaker and audience. Very often, “I can’t agree with that idea” is a function of a deeper, subconscious “I can’t be that person.” Thus, 20th century rhetoric has dedicated significant attention to how rhetorical performances create habitable identities. Much of contemporary advertising, politics, art, and culture hinges upon crafting, connecting, challenging, and collecting our different identities.

From the Ear to the Eye

The second movement in rhetoric might be as old as the first—although I would want to properly mark its inauguration in the work of St. Augustine of Hippo. Unlike Aristotle’s Greece or Quintilian’s Rome, Augustine’s Holy Roman Empire was a feudal monarchy rather than a democracy or republic. There was little reason for the populace to learn rhetorical persuasion, since the day’s political and social organization offered few opportunities for deliberative engagement. But the rapid increase in literacy—particularly the increasing centrality of the Bible in legal, political, and social life—called for robust training in textual interpretation. It is quite difficult for anyone living in the 21st century to imagine a time when reading was considered a technology, but it was an unwieldy complex technology for the majority of people in the middle ages.

Augustine tackled these problems by formalizing methods for textual analysis. He took the tools for audience analysis developed by oral-persuasive rhetoric and applied them to reading texts. His focus was on resolving ambiguities and conflicting passages. This version of rhetoric would be called “hermeneutic” and is particularly invested in the development of literacy. The printed word calls for close interpretation in a way that orality does not (Ong)—allowing for critical reflection, abstraction, and intense precision. Augustine’s rhetorical system was not only designed to help priests deal with conflicts in biblical meaning but also drew on persuasive rhetoric to help priests engagingly deliver their interpretations to their parishioners. The Humanities reading strategies are all descendents of St. Augustine of Hippo’s early treatises on signs, language, and human feeling.

The emphasis on interpretation and reading developed by Augustine is amplified in the Enlightenment. While the development of the study of vernacular literatures (such as English, Italian, and French) call for robust interpretive tools, the scientific foundations of the Enlightenment call for a form of rigid argumentative reading and writing (to facilitate the sharing of new knowledge across universities, countries, and continents). Enlightenment rhetoric develops an emphasis on clarity of expression and structural procedures (such as the thesis) that remain fundamental expectations for scholarly writing to this day.

The emphasis of hermeneutic rhetorics transform significantly in the 20th century. Rather than searching for the one, ultimately True reading of a text, scholars began investing attention into multiple readings of a text, noting that all reading involves a degree of writing by the reader. Theorist Roland Barthes refers to this as wreading a text. This pluralist shift in interpretation is generally referred to as a facet of postmodernism, which can be hastily described as an increased distrust of objectivity, an interest in diversity, and an aversion to essentialist, binary systems of classification (i.e., right vs. wrong, man vs. woman, white vs. black). Ironically, rhetoric finds itself back in an Aristotelian/sophistic world of grey ambiguities.

From the I to the Alliance (and, hey, there is an I in alliance)

The third and final rhetorical movement I want to cover develops out of this subjective wreaderly approach to hermeneutics. It attempts to move beyond “human centric” activity—one that begins to pay attention to how ecologies produce humans as much as humans produce environments. In a sense, this introduction is a function of this third movement, since one of my presuppositions concerns the relation between the media we use and the ideas we explore (such that using writing generated an entirely new set of intellectual concerns, using computers and the Internet will generate new questions). It is factually accurate to say that, once upon a time, humans created television. From this third perspective, however, I would argue that it is equally accurate, today, to say that televisions create humans.

This third movement, still in its infancy, strictly concerns itself with neither persuasion or hermeneutics. Rather, it concerns maintaining ethics, in the sense that it seeks to ensure that humans learn to attune themselves to all the voices, objects, and forces that permeate decisions. Given the increase in complexity of political, economic, social, and educational institutional systems, we require new ways, and attitudes, of ensuring all voices receive representation. This third rhetoric, that which I am naming ethical rhetoric, a rhetoric of alterity, ensures that all entities are accounted, represented, and—most importantly (and what distinguishes this somewhat from hermeneutic activity) are offered the opportunity to respond. Others have called this rhetoric dispensation learning how to listen. In my remaining space below, I would like to focus on one theorist of this new rhetorical movement.

Sociologist Bruno Latour’s 21st century work addresses the growing disconnect between academic research and political problems. Latour sees this disconnect as a rhetorical problem attributable to the rise of the 19th century research University (itself created in the image of Plato’s metaphor of the Cave). The research University positioned itself outside of the realm of politics, as an institution seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake. This protected the research university and its faculty from religious or political persecution. However, it also distanced the university from political activity, since to be an academic meant to be something of a hermit, holed up in a library or laboratory and far from public forums.

Latour’s work advocates a resurgence in Greek and Roman notions of rhetoric to combat this disconnect. His emphasis is on the importance of fostering alliances between ideas, people, and things (since, for Latour, something is real only to the extent that other entities recognize its reality). Latour insists that Plato was wrong—there is no outside to the Cave, there is no such things as an abstract, Ideal truth beyond the realm of human decision making. For Latour, rhetorical training isn’t simply a matter of dragging the unenlightened to the Truth. Rather, it is a matter of collecting participants in one place to work out what will be accepted as true. The differences might sound subtle, but they have incredible impacts on how we view the relations between higher education, rhetorical training, and political activism.

Rhetorical scholarship in this third movement retains persuasion (how to foster partnerships) and hermeneutics (how to read social systems) and adds to it an emphasis on inclusion, participation, and responsiveness. It focuses less on the products of an individual I, and more on the possibilities contained within any collection of we’s. If orality focused on persuasion, and if literacy focused on interpretation, then it is the radio, television, and especially the Internet that has peaked rhetoricians interest in ethics, alliances, networks, and relations.

So, Why Study Rhetoric?

I’m still not sure there’s any single answer to this question. In closing, I would suggest that you might be interested in studying rhetoric if you want to influence social decision-making, improve your ability to read, analyze, and respond to arguments, and/or combat tyranny and social oppression. And that, I believe, is no meager “bullshit.”

St. Augustine of Hippo

Even in 400 AD people were in too much of a hurry:

Careful consideration of many other such things (which can be done by those who are not hard-pressed by the need to finish a book!) reveals that the basic principle of Christian healing is one of contrariety and similarity. (On Christian Teaching I.30)

I guess its not surprising that the father of hermeneutics would ask use to read less, and thereby learn more.


How I Pick My Battles

One of my friends asked a provocative question over facebook this morning. Those familiar with this blog's history will likely know its source. But it is a great question. My answer might be a little "blue," but I think it is pretty direct.

Here's the question (edited a bit):

I'm still sort of unclear about the process "Rhetoricians" (y'know, Sophists, etc.) practice *before* they get to arguing. That is, how do they decide which side of the debate they'll take?

Here's my response:

Somewhat in my Kairos piece, and explicitly in a few other things I am trying to finish, I argue that rhetoric _should_ take the side of the less empowered other. Rhetoric becomes a tool for identifying and combatting hegemony. Of course, we can't universally back the other, because sometimes the other is bat shit crazy. So part of the rhetorical process that I inherit from Levinas calls for us to compare the other and the neighbor. The basis of the comparison concerns which is more attentive to the other's respons-ability. Who acts in a gesture of welcome? Who seeks to totalize and control? An ethical rhetoric, I argue, always view control, disembodiment, Idealism, etc. skeptically.


Quintilian Responds to Plato

Addressing the idea that rhetoric be forbidden because it is capable of evil:

Under such a mode of reasoning, neither will generals, nor magistrates, nor medicine, nor even wisdom itself, be of any utility; […] in the hands of physicians poisons have been found; and among those who abuse the name of philosophy have been occasionally detected of the most horrible crimes. We must reject food, for it has often given rise to ill health; we must never go under roofs, for they sometimes fall upon those who dwell beneath them; a sword must not be forged for a soldier, for a rubber may use the same weapon. Who does not know that fire and water, without which life cannot exist, and (that I may not confine myself to things of earth,) that the sun and moon, the chief of the celestial luminaries, sometimes produce hurtful effects? […] And so, although the weapons of eloquence are powerful for good or ill, it is unfair to count as evil something which it is possible to use for good. (Institutes of Oratory II.xvi.9- 10)

And to think, he wrote that almost 2000 years before Heidegger or the Nazis.

Rowan on New Car Smell

Me: "This is the first time you'll ride in dad's new car"

Rowan: "Why does your new car smell like dog poop?"

Me: "That's called new car smell. A lot of people like it"

Rowan: "A lot of people like dog poop?"


Rowan: "Why are you laughing dad? Did I say something funny?"


Aaron Schwartz on education

Aaron Schwartz has a short piece today ("Individuals in a World of Science") on what I consider a rhetorical problem--finding an acceptable balance between individual (agency) and synthesized (agency). This seemed to be the driving question at a number of panels I attended last week. From Byron Hawk's discussion of the Texas, Arlington tradition (drawing from Randall Collins' work) to Nathaniel A. Rivers' discussion on American psychological disorders emerging in China, there was an emphasis on non-human forms of agency, the importance of our surroudings as something more agentic than mere backdrops for human action, and on the power of location. In our field, given the current movements, there's the question of how we recognize contextual contigency as something more than mere accidental background noise. In Aaron's post, the question is how--as (mass) science strips individual power, we find a way to balance individual agency against mass directives.

Aaron's post directly concerns another important topic at CCCC's this year: the increase in standardized forms of assessment. And I largely agree with his position; while we need a system that promotes accountability and identifies poor teachers, we also need to ensure that in constructing such a system we don't drain spontaneity, creativity, and joy out of learning. In Florida, administrators have failed to strike that balance. Our secondary education system is a Kaplan-ian dream of test after test, accompanied by a day-to-day scripted curriculum.

Here's Schwartz's final two paragraphs:

The other alternative is to put your trust in teachers, to assume they can tell the difference between a class that’s learning and a class that isn’t, and then give them a chance to do better. Take them to some of the best-run classes in the world and let them absorb the lessons for themselves. Have them meet regularly with their fellow teachers and discuss how they can make their teaching better. This is the humane response to those who want to reduce teaching to a rote question of merely reading off a script (no joke—this is literally what happens in the most test-driven schools…because, after all, science shows the script is best for test scores).

In both cases, I sympathize with the humane aims: I don’t want doctors to become shills for pharmaceutical companies, I don’t want poor kids to grow up unable to read. But I blanch at the inhumane means proposed to carry them out. As Seeing Like a State describes, the history of high modernist utopian projects has not been a pretty one. The quest for policy designers, then, is how to promote huge positive changes without crushing the individuals involved underfoot.

Of course, as those of us in education know, this alternative is quite expensive compared to rote drilling and testing. Like anything else requiring personal care, quality education is expensive. Increasingly, despite NCLB rhetoric, we see an aversion to education's expense. We need to construct better rhetorical talking points for the future of education--and we need to make sure that rhetoric directly confronts the "assessment driven" mantras--as if the link between quantifiable assessment and quality education holds absolute causality.


Here, Hear Ulmer (Or, U Might Learn Electracy, Really)

Today professor Ulmer visited University of South Florida to give a talk on electracy and have a discussion with our graduate students. I had the pleasure of introducing Professor Ulmer. Here's my introduction (I have some notes from the talk that I will post tomorrow).

Here Hear Ulmer, or U Might Learn Electracy, Really!

I consider it an honor and a pleasure to introduce Professor Gregory L. Ulmer.

Professor Ulmer visits us from the University of Florida, where he’s a professor of English and Media Studies and participates in a number of critical, aesthetic, and institutional projects concerning electracy, a term he coined to target the transformation of agency and the public sphere by television, hypertext, new media, and digital communicative technologies.

The explication of electracy and generation of inventive methods for electrate netizens are the central concerns of his two most recent projects— his 2005 Electronic Monuments and 2003 Internet Invention. He offers an anecdote early in Internet Invention I find particularly relevant to our own kairotic moment (as scholars and teachers in the humanities living during the political, economic, and social challenges in Wisconisn, Michigan, Ohio, and likely coming to a Florida near you).

In the opening to Internet Invention, Ulmer relates telling his pragmatic father (proud possessor of a degree in Civil Engineering) of his decision to change his major from Economics and Political Science to English. The decision was not well received. For his father, “real work added value to the world by taking something and making it useful to society,” something to which the poet had no claim. This personal scene provides a sense of the purpose that unites all of Professor Ulmer’s work—the line between art and instrumentalism, between exploring our values and creating objects we value. This search continues to inspire scholars and teachers in rhetoric and composition; Ulmer’s post-pedagogy and electracy influence recent projects by Thomas Rickert, Sarah Arroyo, Byron Hawk, Jeff Rice, Bradley Dilger and others. [Learning and discovery only begin when we stop teaching, when we allow students to write and stop telling them what’s right.]

Ulmer’s electrate methods explore the relation between the personal and the public: exemplified by the two genres central to his electrate EmerAgency: the MYstory and the MEmorial. His methods are reflective of feminist research methods elaborated by Sullivan and Porter; they work in hopes of a new discipline of H/human(ities) that, instead of aiming at the work of self-fashioning, invites a playful self-exploration (what I might call, channeling Levinas—self-de/Facing).

Aristotle's theory of argument (the topoi) is built around the idea that we inhabit common "places" of argument. And, of course, one thing that 20th century theory, philosophy, rhetoric, sociology highlights is that, peeling back the layers of our psycho-social onion, we are arguments “all the way down” (or, as professor Ulmer puts this, that “Problems B Us”). Ulmer's work in Internet Invention stresses this--the four components of the Mystory [career, home, entertainment, school] interrogate four different personal-cultural domains (to stick with the geographical discourse). Ulmer's mapping of the subject points to the places common to our childhood, our school, our entertainment, our neighborhoods. The question his work poses is: where else might I have gone? Where else might I go? Where else might I will-have-been?

The value of such a “geographic” approach is that it allows introspection without the immediacy of critique. There is no default command to criticize in Ulmer, and those with more traditional expectations of cultural studies often object to the work on these grounds. Here I would agree with Thomas Rickert, who emphasizes that the questions brought to Ulmer's work by those in Cultural Studies "demonstrates the extent to which Ulmer has achieved a real advance" (Acts 116).

His methods can be disorienting at times, involving complex networks of anagrams, acronyms, puns and neologisms. But disequilibrium is the goal—only by transgressing commonplace expecations (rhetoric’s insistence upon the Aristotelian topoi) that we can move to inhabiting new (dis)positions (vital possibilities of the Timaean chora). Get off the beaten path. Rhetoric makes spaces, for welcome, confrontation, creation, relation. Ulmer argues in Applied Grammatology, how Derridean deconstruction aims “to submit ‘reality’ to the extremes of human imagination” (27). Such a re-imagination “might have” Ulmer qualifies, “the power to guide transformation of the lived, social world” (Of Grammatology 27).


With a Little Help from My Friends

I have other things that need to get done. Deadlines that have passed. Deadlines that approach. But I'm going to take 30 minutes to write something. This has been brewing for awhile, but I have neither energy nor time to allow it to mature. I'm thinking this will be quick and painful.

The immediate exigence for this post is quite commonplace: another massive, sweeping educational cut. They are everywhere these days. One doesn't have to read the Chronicle to find them. They have become commonplace in the worst way. Today's comes from Las Vegas, where UNLV plans to cut 300+ total jobs, over 100 of them faculty positions. Additionally, they'll lose 77 graduate students. Entire departments will be eliminated in the process.

Yesterday I read an article on gambling in Las Vegas. Apparently, lawmakers there do not think casinos should be held responsible for gambling addictions.

Louisiana approves layoffs for faculty.

In Florida, we face an over 3 billion cut to our state education fund. Additionally, the state is voting to wipe out tenure at the primary and secondary levels--teacher retention will be tied directly to test scores. This is considered good for learning. No wonder why people don't want to be teachers anymore. And no wonder why, supposedly, students don't want to learn.

I'm not even going to touch Wisconsin. There's more going on in Wisconsin than my brain can handle. Friends pass me articles such as this one, by Ed Kilgore entitled "Republicans want Wisconsin to Become Just Like the South," and a piece of my soul dies. I want to vomit in my mouth. Or break something.

I'm not even planning on going pedagogical here; I wasn't planning on sending you to watch Sir Ken Robinson's excellent animated lecture on education in the 21st century. You probably should watch it. But that's not what this post is about, not today.

Today is more about showing a graph I found while collecting visualizations for my Visual Rhetoric class. This graph has been haunting me for quite some time, since I first saw it last week. I can't get away from it. I came across it through a friend's feed on Facebook--part of a series of 11 visualizations exposing income inequality in America over at Mother Jones. All 11 of the visualizations are telling, but one is specific stood out to me:

I never thought I'd say this: but lets go back to 1945. If you make more than a million dollars, then its time to pony up and pay to support the people around you. Sharing is fundamental to existence (seriously, metaphysically, it is--that's the kind of writing I'm supposed to be doing right now, a review of this book).

On a melodramatic note, I'm reminded of Pastor Martin Niemöller's famous statement:

First they came for the communists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,
and I didn't speak out because I wasn't a Jew.

Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

Maybe I am speaking of Wisconsin after all. Maybe they are speaking not just for teachers--but for Americans--men, women, and especially children everywhere who deserve a quality education, doctor, home, and dinner. More than anything, children deserve a chance. In terms of education, a chance requires attention.

I'm sick of hearing that we can't afford education. I'm sick of hearing we can't afford "Obama Care." We can't afford not to care. We need to care. And we need to stop putting greed ahead of sharing.


Help Save the National Writing Project

David Beard called attention to the killing of the Striving Readers and National Writing Project over on the Blogora today. I repost an email posted by David:

David Beard,

Federal legislation for Striving Readers and the National Writing Project passed in both the House and Senate and signed by the President zeros out funding for these two important programs. Unless legislators are convinced by an outpouring of outrage, these programs have little chance of being restored.

NCTE members need to call or write their Representative and Senators NOW to explain the importance of funding these programs in the final budget.

  • Striving Readers enables the currently established 44 state literacy teams to apply for federal funds; then each state's neediest districts can apply to the state for funding for local literacy projects in preschool, elementary, middle, or secondary schools.
  • The National Writing Project provides summer institutes in local communities that reach 65,000 students annually and other professional development activities for 130,000 educators who reach 1.4 million students each year.

Call or write immediately for the most impact. We need thousands of NCTE members to take action.
Restore funding for the Striving Readers Program.
Restore funding for the National Writing Project.

Millie Davis
Division Director, Communications and Affiliate Services
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE)
1111 W. Kenyon Rd.
Urbana, IL 61801
Phone: 800-369-6283, ext. 3634, or 217-278-3634
Fax: 217-278-3761
E-mail: advocacy@ncte.org
Web: http://www.ncte.org

Join NCTE in Celebrating Literacy Education Advocacy Month!

If you teach in an English department, then you likely know that these are crucial programs we cannot afford to lose.

Please take the time to write your senators and representatives in support of these programs.