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.
Yesterday–day one of teaching in the new semester–did not quite go as planned, and in the wake of a couple of surprises, I didn’t get around to posting like I intended to in recognition of the nth annual RB of September. After a few years such postings carry a some heavy, if solitarily imagined, burden of tradition. Thus, “theory blackmailed”:
Many (still unpublished) avant-garde texts are uncertain: how to judge, to classify them, how to predict their immediate or eventual future? Do they please? Do they bore? Their obvious quality is of an intentional order: they are concerned to serve theory. Yet this quality is a blackmail as well (theory blackmailed): love me, keep me, defend me, since I conform to the theory you call for; do I not do what Artaud, Cage, etc. have done? –But Artaud is not just “avant-garde”; he is a kind of writing as well; Cage has certain charm as well… –But those are precisely the attributes which are not recognized by theory, which are sometimes even execrated by theory. At least make your taste and your ideas match, etc. (The scene continues, endlessly.) (54)
Why blackmailed? Translator Richard Howard could have selected a different connotation of “la chantage,” e.g., bluff, or intimidation. When the avante-garde serves theory, theory in turn may be said to hobble invention, to wrap it in a splint, to contain it. I read in this Barthes passage a concern for theory’s disciplining of innovation. Unexpectedly, this clicks with concerns in the Introduction and first chapter of Muckelbauer’s The Future of Invention, a book I’ve just started. Related are questions about what becomes of “the attributes which are not recognized by theory,” put another, perhaps more helpful way, Can theory keep up with avante-garde performances? Must it?
Spectacle, for Debord, refers broadly to the convergence of representation,
media, the proliferation of image-objects, and visually gripping mass
circulations given to
commodity: "a monopoly of appearances" (12). Debord
spearheaded the Situationist International movement which was resolutely
actionist, performative, politically motivated, and theoretically sophisticated
(expansive of avant-garde, from Dada to surrealism). In
Society of the Spectacle, Debord issues a series of relatively short
vignettes–manifesto-like blurbs each attending to the effects of the spectacle,
from the separations of workers and their products to widespread isolationism. Debord was concerned with the implications of the massification of the image,
consumerist patterns, and the spread of disillusionment pushed by the complacent
and consenting bourgeois profiteers. Among the multiple definitional
turns, Debord writes, "spectacle is the opposite of dialogue" (18).