Good Ideas

I like much of Steven Johnson’s stuff, and undoubtedly I will pick up a copy of his latest book project, Where Good Ideas Come From, though probably not until next summer. As I watched this TEDtalk, though, I’m dissatisfied with how little work on rhetorical invention surfaces here. Johnson’s “liquid network” is an intriguing metaphor, indeed: drink together, think together…eureka! Or, sometimes, “I’ve got nothing. May I have another?” But I wonder whether this “natural history of innovation” will do much more to advance thinking about how good ideas happen than did Karen Burke LeFevre’s Invention as a Social Act (1987), a book whose premises have by now become a given for contemporary rhetorical thinking. This “noodling around” and “hacking” is fascinating stuff, especially when such innovative acts are paired with vivid, thoughtful anecdotes, a storytelling strategy Johnson deploys with distinction. Since Johnson is great at making theoretical concepts accessible, maybe this new project will be a good fit with existing work on invention. On the other hand, absent some acknowledgment of a larger family of ideas related to invention, e.g., “systematic serendipity” (via Merton via Halavais, a concept we discussed yesterday in ENGL326) or contingency (an alternative to managerial rhetoric Muckelbauer develops smartly in The Future of Invention), the originary “where” from which good ideas come will remain partial, incomplete, problematically runny.

Allowing that I haven’t picked up the book (!), I look forward to reading it with these few provisional concerns in mind. In that sense, I guess this amounts to some sort of TED-motivated pre-review. Furthermore, I wrote it while sitting all alone in my campus dorm-office, which probably means good ideas here are few, far between.

G.O.F.

Reading this evening about the 19231 beginnings of the Great Outdoor Fight in Bakersfield, Calif.:

Figuring that where there was noise, there must surely be money, [Ken]
Crandall decided to make the G.O.F. an annual event and become wealthy by
selling sandwiches  to the crowds who came to compete. He cleared an acre
of his land, put up a high chainlink fence around it, and distributed hastily
printed fliers throughout central California. An excited public quickly phoned,
mailed, or telegrammed the information not only throughout the nation, but
throughout the world. Newspapers in Italy ran sensational articles about the
"Festival of Beasts," while papers in China advertised trips to California so
that one might "Defeat Over Long-Time Dudes." (7)

Onstad, Chris. The Great Outdoor Fight. Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse,
2008.

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
resonate
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
Discipline
) 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
neighborhood.

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]

Writing Feverlets*

Curious about her critique of Derrida’s Archive Fever, I picked up a
copy of Carolyn Steedman’s Dust: The Archive and Cultural History from
Bird Library, recalling it from another patron who had checked it out (v. sorry
about that). I deal briefly with AF in Chapter Three. Steedman
makes the point that AF is less about archives than about Derrida’s
concern for the slippage of origins (a theme in his other work) and the
inseparability of psychoanalysis from Freud (and also Judaism). She
writes, "The Foreword [to AF] carried the main argument, about Freud’s
Jewish-ness, and the contribution of Jewish thought to the idea of the archive,
via psycho-analysis" (7). Basically, Steedman is suspicious of Derrida’s
characterization of the fever (as a frenzied pursuit of origins which do not
properly exist). She complains that the concept of the fever is degraded in
translation from Mal d’Archive, and then she enthusiastically claims the
sickness Derrida mocks: "Archive fever, indeed? I can tell you all about
Archive Fever!" (17). Dust undertakes this "all about-ness" at fever’s pitch;
Steedman, all the while, works to correct (or tune, at the very least) Derrida’s
glancing consideration of the archive left behind in his treatment of other
concerns (psychoanalysis, Freud, and so on).

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