I’ve taken lately to thinking about the thinspreaden feeling of dissertating
like this: the writing moves in a forward direction, advancing ideas and
discussions, attempting claims, suggesting reasons for limiting the discussion
to these few pages. The reading, on the other hand, moves in a backward
direction, filing through influences before influences before
influences–something like tracking the (non-)origin of the Missouri River.
Writing and reading in this way at once leads to the thinspreaden feeling–it is
For example, I was, for a while (~15 pp.), writing about abstraction.
The very concept of abstraction. From Cynthia Haynes to Berthoff.
Berthoff’s work with abstraction draws from I. A. Richards and Susanne Langer.
I trailed off, reading some of Langer’s work in Philosophy in a New Key
and Philosophical Sketches. I also have a copy of Feeling and
Form on my night stand. I’ve read zero pages of it. Every time I
leaf it through, I feel this dreadful drain of energy until…lights out.
I can see the tiny threads of influence running from Langer to Berthoff, but I
still can’t decide how much I need to write about them or how explicit those
familiarities should be in the chapter itself. Langer and Berthoff have in
common that they attempt to recover abstraction from the General Semantics
movements and their strict verticalization of the Ladder of Abstraction.
They tug abstraction over to the side of connotation, to the side of the
"rustle" of language, away from scientistic referentiality. Were they
successful? I don’t know.
But what they were attempting accords with what I am trying to emphasize,
following Moretti, in the discussion of visual models as abstract. Why
call them abstract? The data they present are concrete enough (he calls
the "consequences" concrete)? I mean that the data are replicable; any
other researcher would come up with the same citation counts for articles
published in CCC over the past 20 years, no? Berthoff reworked
abstraction in her ’86 essay "Abstraction as a Speculative Instrument."
"Speculative Instruments" matches up with the title of I. A. Richards’ book from
1955. It’s a collection of "pieces [that] were composed at different times
and for very different occasions and audiences" (ix). One six-page "piece"
stands out: "The Resourcefulness of Words" which comes "[f]rom a Bergen Lecture
given at Yale in 1940." It goes at matters of comprehension and
interpretation: language is ambiguous, meanings are multiple. There is a certain
"wandering" quality to the resourcefulness of words, Richards explains, trying
to finesse systematic misunderstandings in language and this wandering quality.
A few pages of this were reprinted in Enos and Brown’s Professing the New
Rhetorics. Richards also mentions that this short piece developed into
his book, How To Read A Page. That stretch I mentioned earlier, it is
sometimes a yawn (or a yowl of exasperation).
Another opportunity in this for digression (or call it redirection): Will I
connect How To Read A Page with distant reading and the abstract visual
models produced by these methods? Maybe. But not yet. I like
the riff that goes for distant reading as How To Read An Epitome (of
Composition)–something along the lines of layering metadata onto relatively
stable forms (i.e., models), shoring up disciplinary data-sets, and so on.
What else can I say about Richards’ Speculative Instruments?
What a shame that the title–a title I like–was used up on this grab bag of
"pieces." With this in mind, Berthoff’s "Abstraction as a Speculative
Instrument" comes back into the spotlight. For the chunk of this diss on
the concept of abstraction, Berthoff’s piece will have to do the leg work.
But it shouldn’t have to do all of the heavy lifting. Sure, there’s
Langer, but that’s not the direction I want to go in. Berthoff’s
recuperation of abstraction–a recuperation Haynes says failed and must
be broached once again–sticks with abstraction as forming. Berthoff
entangles concept formation and writing as knowing: "[Abstraction] can show us
how to think of forming concepts as a matter of composing" (236).
Continuing, she goes at issues of writing across the curriculum (the relevance
of language to all disciplines) and also to "abstraction as a speculative
instrument [that] can help us re-think the nature of the relationship of ‘the
contingent and the particular’ to ‘the general orders" (237). I can’t
decide whether this last part has more to do with compositionists being "great
minds" or whether it is an allusion to scalability constrained by the General
Semanticist’s Ladder analogy (referentiality, from particular to obtuse).
Berthoff’s is a discussion of abstraction I find to be slotted with a space for
what, of late, is more commonly discussed in terms of networks, traces, and
formative, inventive association–abstraction as forming (with or without
reference to "speculative instruments" and the "wandering resourcefulness" of
words) gives way not to a Ladder of Abstraction, which Berthoff firmly and
persuasively argues against, but to networks, impermanent paths of activation,
instigating clicks of fascination and intensity, and various other evocative,
uncanny encounters. It’s on this point that the pre-digital foundation of
Berthoff’s work on abstraction seems most conspicuous.