Every so often some never-before-heard-of idea comes along, claims you as its host. Claims me as its host for a while. Right now that idea is eucatastrophe, or “good” catastrophe, a sudden, unexpected, magical reversal of fortune, a rebound, turnaround, do a little kick. Eucatastrophe comes up in J.R. Tolkien’s work as a kind of happy ending. Something terrible, catastrophic is going down and then, suddenly, everything is okay. Storm clears. Protagonist is spared. But I didn’t find this idea by reading Tolkien, nor by reading second-hand stuff about Tolkien. It was mentioned in an undergraduate stylistic analysis essay draft I read and commented over winter break in late February. Eucatastrophe. There it was, a parasite slaking on my brainbody ever since, like these back-to-back late-winter colds I’ve been sniffling through. There it was, gently, persistently.
I don’t need this idea for anything. I suppose I will name my NCAA tournament bracket Eucatastrophe, since I usually pick too many upsets in the first two rounds and then have a shot, if I am lucky, as late as the Final Four. Bracket by some miracle is spared. Or else it is catastrophic.
But this idea has forked as it settled in, associating for me with two loosely related ideas. The first has to do with wicked problems, inquiry, and research. The second with the pop adage about jumping the shark (I guess it’s not quite an adage, something like that).
In the first sense, eucatastrophe is for the quicksanded, lost-in-the-mess researcher, the sudden reversal of fortune by which everything turns out okay. What was a problem is, by declaring it a non-problem, doubled back. One of my committee members at SU spoke of a similar idea that had surfaced in some lost-reference 1970s scholarship: Lance jumped out of the pit. The anecdote goes that in Lance’s dire predicament (no, really: extremely fucking dire), everything seeming like it was headed for ruin, Lance (could be anyone?) simply jumped out of the pit. And everything was fine again. Eucatastrophe meet Lance; Lance meet eucatastrophe. It’s the same idea, no? Close enough.
In the second sense, though, the now well-known reference to the fifth season of Happy Days, in which Arthur Fonzarelli took to waterskis, some dare or bet or something, and jumped over a shark. One misstep (misski) and he’d have been in the shark’s jaws, chewed to death, eaten alive, or worse! But he jumped the shark successfully. Nowadays, this phrase, “jumped the shark,” to indicate something that has gone too far–an overstated, exaggerated, even hyperbolic eucatastrophe, a kind of farcical, horseshit turnaround that makes everything after it seem absurd, ridiculous. Jumping the shark takes eucatastrophe too far; the suspense is so far eclipsed that the ongoing premise (i.e., everything back to business as usual) is overshadowed, lingering with the toxicity of the hyperbole.
And yet, in the case of Happy Days, as Ron Howard explains in the interview below, the series went on to many years of success, despite so-called “jumping the shark.” The shark jumping episode was not as much of a catastrophe of taking things too far as its contemporary corrective, “you’ve jumped the shark,” suggests. In fact, the episode aired for the first time in 1977, when I was three years old–long before I ever watched Happy Days. And yet it’s a show I could say I grew up watching, frequently as re-runs, well into in the mid-1980s. Shark-jumping was a curious turn in the series, but it was more eucatastrophic for the Fonz’s character than catastrophic for the series.
Obviously I am interested Kopelson’s revisitation of ages old and still going
tensions for the field of rhetoric and composition. The margins of my copy
bear out busy strings of alternating yesses and questions; I suppose I’ll focus
this entry on a couple of the questions.
Any time I come across suggestions of the field’s dissolution, I want to go
as directly as I can to the evidence. What are the forms of evidence
supporting this or that impression that the field is gradually changing toward
some state of (presumably undesirable, even disastrous) dissolution? Also:
What idyllic disciplinary model is lurking as the milk and honey benchmark
against which judgments of dissolution are alleged? I mean that the
suggestion of a trend toward dissolution conjures up an idealized state of the
discipline. From when? Where? And just how abstract is it? (I have
monkeyed with this idea in the diss, but also in some of the material on the
side that won’t make it into the diss, like the stuff on the Golden Age).
Kopelson puts it like this in one spot:
But whatever your particular vision of the divide [between theory and
practice], and wherever you lay blame (or praise) for it–with the elitist,
ponderous, past-dwelling rhetoricians, or the professionalizing, pragmatic,
present-dwelling compositionists–there is evidence that the seeds of
dissolution are indeed being sown. (770)
About the evidence: In this article, it amounts to (x? number) of
survey responses from graduate students at two institutions–programs in the Consortium, I would
guess, and a sampling of sources that have dealt more or less directly in
reflections upon or critiques of disciplinarity: Dobrin, Spellmeyer, North,
Swearingen, Mulderig, among others. Perhaps this is adequate for establishing
dissolution, perhaps not. This is not to cast doubts on Kopelson’s
evidence (it is, after all, reflective of pocketed perceptions of dissolution),
as much as it is to say that the change is more of situated (daresay anecdotal?)
degree than of field-wide kind. And so I wonder how new this perceived sowing of
"the seeds of dissolution" is, and just what does it put at risk? Following this
evidence–surveys and selected sources, the next line carries the claim further:
"the field of rhetoric and composition is, in the most extreme cases, gradually
evacuating itself of its first term (if not explicitly in name, then implicitly
in institutional practice) or, in other cases, is undergoing an interesting
inversion of its titular terms" (770). The possibility of evacuation and
inversion calls to mind the necessary ratios between theory and practice. Is the
target ratio 50:50? Might be, depending on whether we are talking topical focus
(i.e., research motivated by theory or practice) or activity itself (i.e., time
spent theorizing versus time spent teaching). For graduate students, of
course, these ratios vary, too. In our program, we have fellowships
designed to relieve students of their teaching appointment so that they might
devote greater time and energy to reading and writing (if executed well, the
ratio becomes 100:0). But there are also program-level constraints on these
ratios, right? Some places prefer a 70:30 split. Others, 80:20.
We do not always determine them independently, nor are they constant over the
arc of an appointment (through a graduate program of study or otherwise).
Kopelson, Karen. “Sp(l)itting
Images; or, Back to the Future of (Rhetoric and?) Composition.” CCC 59.4
(2008): 750-780. [Carnival]
In some ways, it’s like the Blockbuster video ad campaign from a year
ago–The End of Late Fees; The Start of More. The title of David Smit’s The
End of Composition Studies invokes an endism that one might take to suggest
to the demise of the discipline of writing studies. In Advanced Philosophy
and Theory of Composition, we’re looking at the first half of Smit’s book for
tomorrow afternoon (also looking at two chapters from Cosgrove and Barta-Smith’s In Search of Eloquence, which, fingers crossed, will arrive in the mail
later this afternoon). Smit’s forthright early on about playing double
entendre with "end," both as a variation of "teleology" or "aim" and also as
"termination" or "cessation." I’ve been reading with a stronger sense of
the first connotation (teleology/aim) because 1.) people still write and 2.)
writing is sufficiently complex to warrant the continuation of its study,
define it however you will. And actually, that’s one of Smit’s chief
complaints. He finds that those who would self-identify with the field of
rhetcomp have yet to agree on what writing even is, much less how to best to
teach it given the institutional constraints of fifteen weeks (more or less in
some places, but the bugbear of layering writing rhythms with institutional
timeframes is what I’m thinking about) and wildly divergent positions on what
ought to constitute writing practices and curriculum in the first place.