Unplanned Meanderings

Steven Johnson’s “The Glass Box And The Commonplace Book” renews questions about what happens when e-readers unexpectedly suffocate text behind no-copy/no-paste barriers. Safe-guarding text against circulation is not new, of course, but Johnson offers a timely reminder of the ways this glass box logic is noxious, lying dormant, going unnoticed until it is revived in this or that text-walling application. There’s much to think through in his entry (which is a transcript of a talk Johnson offered at Columbia University), much in the way of commonplace books, motivated filtering, and how it is homophily bias takes hold differently online than in “real-world civic space.”

§ § §

Each rereading of the commonplace book becomes a new kind of revelation. You see the evolutionary paths of all your past hunches: the ones that turned out to be red herrings; the ones that turned out to be too obvious to write; even the ones that turned into entire books. But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession. The beauty of Locke’s scheme was that it provided just enough order to find snippets when you were looking for them, but at the same time it allowed the main body of the commonplace book to have its own unruly, unplanned meanderings. (para. 5)

“But each encounter holds the promise that some long-forgotten hunch will connect in a new way with some emerging obsession.” Here is a line that succinctly captures for me how blogging has always functioned a little bit differently than the kind of “being digital” I experience in Facebook or Twitter. Long-forgotten hunches and emerging obsessions are not so much a function of friendship, sociality, or phatic affirmation as they are a distributed, often faint, read-write memory–a recollection of being (or having been) on the verge of something mind-changing.

New Echo, New Narcissus

Kopelson writes,

Yet, as composition studies is distinct in its penchant for ‘borrowing,’
we are also, in my opinion, unrivaled in our proclivity for
self-examination. I am not arguing that this is an unimportant
activity, but only that the costs are indeed high when self-scrutiny comes
at the expense of taking up other critical concerns and of making other,
more innovative and far-reaching forms of knowledge (775).

This appears in the final section of the essay, the part titled "Conclusion:
Banishing Echo and Narcissus." Here, Kopelson takes exception with the
field’s self-reflexivity, the growing heap of self-interested and self-absorbed
assessments of where we are or where we are heading. There is an
unidentified villain here, and I wondered as I read whether Kopelson has any
favorite ‘misses’, accounts that get it terribly wrong or that are built up on
marsh-lands of mushy data.

Reading this section and the quotation above in particular, I had the
sense that Kopelson wasn’t as interested in "banishing" Echo and Narcissus
as in giving them overhauls, in renewing them, even in teaching them how to
and reflect less recklessly. In other words, what is
wrong with many self-reflexive disciplinary accounts (or "discipliniographies"
to lift and bend a term Maureen Daly Goggin introduces in Authoring a
) is that they succumb to a localist impulse. That
is, they un-self-conciously extrapolate from local experience and anecdotal
evidence onto the field at large, projecting some local knowledge onto the
expansive abstraction that is the discipline (however we imagine it to be).
The localist impulse can take many different shapes; often it is akin to reading
patterns through the course of an individual career (i.e., "in my thirty years
at Whatsittoyou U.") or by cherry-picking from an exceedingly thin selection of
data (titles of conference presentations or tables of contents for teacher
training manuals). We all do this to some extent–making sense of the field at
large through our local, immediate experiences, but it is dangerous to arrive at
conclusions about the field (or world) at-large solely by examining one’s own

What I’m getting at is that I don’t have any beef with the disciplinary
practice of self-examination. Perhaps there are more than a handful of
fields in the academy that would benefit from more of it. I hold history (the calling of others who’ve navigated this canyon) and
reflection in high regard (perhaps not to the ill-fated extremes of Echo and
Narcissus). Resonanceresonanceresonance and reflection are valuable, especially for newcomers,
for the "new converts" Kopelson mentions. But they will not be successful–or
very useful–until they get beyond that localist impulse, until they involve
earnest field-wide data collections and collaboratively built databases. I
don’t know how well this matches with Kopelson’s "innovative and far-reaching
forms of knowledge," but it is increasingly where my own interests lie.
If those far-reaching forms of knowledge included disciplinary data (even simple
stuff, like how many programs offer undergraduate writing majors), they could
generate insights about disciplinarity. In the meantime those full-view
insights will continue to elude us as long as we leap from local knowledge to
widespread pattern, without addressing sufficiently the intermediary scales.

Kopelson, Karen. “Sp(l)itting
Images; or, Back to the Future of (Rhetoric and?) Composition.” CCC 59.4
(2008): 750-780. [Carnival]