Thrash Old Concepts

Didn’t have time enough in Indianapolis to attend any of the sessions about threshold concepts, but I did hear about them in hallway and dinner conversations. I’d encountered the phrase before in this article, but at #4c14, it seemed like an awful lot was coming up threshold concepts, seemed like there’s a growing gusto for this sort of thing. Threshold concepts as their own sort of threshold. The oncoming threshold concept turn.

Home-ish now from the convention, tonight I was reading to Is. before bed, near the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, a book we’ve been chipping away at for, I don’t know, a month or more, every other bedtime. Harry and Hermione are advancing “Through the Trapdoor” (the 16th chapter’s title), in front of them a dead troll:

“I’m glad we didn’t have to fight that one,” Harry whispered as they stepped carefully over one of its massive legs. “Come on, I can’t breathe.”

He pulled open the next door, both of them hardly daring to look at what came next–but there was nothing very frightening in here, just a table with seven differently shaped bottles standing on it in a line.

“Snape’s,” said Harry. “What do we have to do?”

They stepped over the threshold, and immediately a fire sprang up behind them in the doorway. It wasn’t ordinary fire either; it was purple. At the same instant, black flames shot up in the doorway leading onward. They were trapped. (285)

Is. interrupted here to ask, “What’s a threshold?” And, attempting with a weak shrug to reach across connotations both referring to door trim and limits, I said, “It’s something like an edge, a boundary.”

That thresholds trap, enclose, bound, constrain, pen up, etc. and that they simultaneously, by doing so, protect, focus, and intensify a domain is at least part of their paradox. And I should be clear that I look forward to learning more about this idea emerging in service of disciplinary bona fides. But I’m also wondering where the idea (toward common disciplinary articulations) maps onto or butts up against rhetoric, which seems especially with invention and memory to by constituted by a kind of thresholding–if we can verb TC for a second–the re-articulations that themselves ignite and also extinguish flamewalls like the ones sandwiching poor Harry and Hermione in Rowling’s narrative telos.

Just wondering now which narrative telos “our” threshold concepts will flamewall in and flamewall out. Wondering how (im)permeable and how burning-hot the flamewalls will become and how much will char in their proximity.

Woolgar and Cooper, “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence?”

I stumbled across Steve Woolgar and Geoff Cooper’s article, “Do Artefacts Have Ambivalence? Moses’ Bridges, Winner’s Bridges, and Other Urban Legends in ST&S” (Social Studies of Science, 29.3, June 1999), a few weeks ago as I prepared for a session of ENGL516:Computers and Writing: Theory and Practice in which we were taking up, among other things, Winner’s chapter from The Whale and the Reactor, “Do Artefacts Have Politics?” Reading the chapter yet again, I thought I would try to learn more about these well-known bridges. I’d never seen one of them, after all.

Woolgar and Cooper’s article is one of those I wish I’d read years ago. It opens with an unexpected event: Jane, a student in a grad seminar, challenges the premise of Winner’s artefact-politics example. In effect, she says the clearance-challenged bridges are passable, that they don’t actually prevent buses from traveling the parkways on Long Island, that Winner’s claim is a “crock of shit.”

Woolgar and Cooper turn next to Bernward Joerges’ investigation of Winner’s bridges, their history, and the legitimacy in Winner’s attribution of politics to these artefacts. Rather than accepting Joerges’ position that Winner’s example crumbles because the actual bridges allow buses to pass, however, Woolgar and Cooper suggest the bridges-articulated wield a certain “argumentative adequacy” that is not necessarily eclipsed by the bridges-actual (434). In fact, they say that proof of Winner’s error is difficult to come by, despite the bus timetable they ultimately obtained, despite Jane and another student’s efforts to corroborate the effect of these bridges on bus traffic.

The important recurrent feature in all this narrative [about efforts to corroborate the effects of the bridges] is that the definitive resolution of the story, the (supposedly) crucial piece of information, is always just tantalizingly out of reach…. For purposes of shorthand, in our weariness, in the face of the daunting costs of amassing yet more detail, or just because we’re lazy, we tend to ignore the fact that aspects of the story are always (and will always be) essentially out of reach. Instead we tell ourselves that ‘we’ve got the story right.’ (438)

Following a discussion of urban legends and technology, Woolgar and Cooper conclude with several smart points about the contradictory aspects of technology, that it “is good and bad; it is enabling and it is oppressive; it works and it does not; and, as just part of all this, it does and does not have politics” (443). They continue, “The very richness of this phenomenon suggests that it is insufficient to resolve the tensions by recourse to a quest for a definitive account of the actual character of a technology” (443). And, of course, once we can relax in efforts to trap a-ha! an “actual character,” we might return an unavoidably rhetorical interplay among texts and things, between discourses and artefacts. Winner, too, has built bridges, “constructed with the intention of not letting certain arguments past” (444). Periodically inspecting both bridges-actual and bridges-articulated is also concerned with mapping or with accounting for the competing discourses, the interests served by them, and so on: “Instead of trying to resolve these tensions, our analytic preference is to retain and address them, to use them as a lever for discerning the relationship between the different parties involved” (443). And, importantly, this is a lever that produces a different kind of clearance, “under which far more traffic might flow” (444).

Note: There’s much more to this, including Joerges’ response here (PDF), which I have not read yet, but I nevertheless find the broader debate fascinating, relevant to conversations about OOO we’re having on our campus in preparation for Timothy Morton and Jeff Cohen’s visit next month, and–even if I have arrived late–a series of volleys I need to revisit if and when I return to Winner’s example in the future.

“You Don’t Change Your Narrative”

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Are You Ready for Some Midterms? – MSNBC’s Political Narrative
Daily Show Full Episodes Political Humor Tea Party

What if remix culture (and concomitant sampling practices) are to blame credit for the willfully negligent truncations of context? Whether such truncations are on the rise, it is difficult to say, but they do seem to be more frequently in the news: 1) absurd fixations on narrative preservation/continuation, and 2) a bandying among television networks over how adequately a clip represents, synecdochically, the situation within which it arose. Samplers all, we cannot avoid the negation of context, can we?, so perhaps the best we can hope for is some rhetorico-ethical insight into why (and how) this happens, and, after that, some relief in laughter.

When The Last Database

My CCCC talk from last Thursday:

When The Last Database You Search Is Not Your Own from Derek Mueller on Vimeo.

Our panel, D.24, was relatively well attended. I printed 30 handouts, and we probably had an audience with that many people or a few more. Bradley has posted his presentation already. Alex may well do the same soon. We talked on Wednesday afternoon over a late lunch about whether or not we would put them online, and we easily agreed that web traffic for presentations like these generates far more exposure to the ideas than the conference venue alone. Feels like a case of pointing out the nose-on-face obvious (will this video get 30 views?), but there are a couple of different discussions this week on WPA-L, a rhetoric and composition listserv/variety hour, about problems fairly typical at national conventions: crowded, over-attended sessions and their opposite, the one-member-audience (a generous friend or colleague, no doubt). Whether the fire marshal was turning late-comers away at the door or whether the carpet mites were the only audience on hand to listen and ask questions, why not post the talk?

A couple of other points: We remixed our talks, delivering them in turn, three by three. The Q&A was terrific; we took several questions and enjoyed thoughtful conversation for the last 30 minutes of the session. Finally, all questions, ideas, suggestions, and insights are welcome in the comments or via email.

Narrative, Database

Today I read Ed Folsom’s PMLA article, “Database as Genre: The Epic Transformation of Archives,” and the better part of the five responses to the piece and even Folsom’s response to the responses. I won’t attempt a full summary in this entry, but I wanted to note a few initial impressions and lingering questions.

The lead article discusses Folsom’s efforts to develop The Walt Whitman Archive, a growing digital collection of Whitman’s works–works not easily or summarily identifiable as narrative or as poetry. Folsom characterizes Whitman as a forerunner, noting that “[f]or him, the works was a kind of preelectronic database, and his notebooks and notes are full of lists of particulars–sights and sounds and names and activities–that he dutifully enters into the record” (1574). The identification of Whitman as an “early practitioner…of the database genre” (1575) doesn’t, as far as I can tell, explain why his work should be any more appropriate for digitization and databased setup than any other, but it does give us the background on Folsom’s insights into database as genre.

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