Briefly, I just want to post a few thoughts on Greg Urban’s chapter from
Metaculture, "The Once and Future Thing (PDF)."
As Urban tells us, the ways culture moves, flows and circulates "is the central
mystery of our time" (39). Urban frames the paradox of cultural
flow by characterizing its latent tension: the pull between sameness and difference. According to Urban, these two forces combine in a conglutination of
alpha (α) (which he derives into beta (β) or "new" culture) and their
inventive counterpart, omega (ω). Where beta is inertial
(replication and mundane derivation in New! culture), omega is accelerative
(inventive). Urban tells us that "The force behind such accelerative
culture is the interest it generates, which stems in part from its novelty"
(16). As I read it, this has bearing on our other considerations of the
ways memes achieve thriving conductivity (Aaron Lynch in Thought Contagion)
and restrictive factors in diffusion theory (Everett Rogers, Diffusion of
Innovations). And although I don’t want to be hasty in extending this to
questions about the ways ideas and innovations spread/cycle through a discipline
or field (like ours truly…um?), I will return in a brief second to one
Here’s the thing: Urban’s work invokes familiar sources, from Bakhtin–"Our
speech is filled to overflowing with other people’s words" (17)–to Benedict
Anderson (imagined communities, text privileged, print capitalism), Bourdieu (habitus
as "filter created by inertial culture for new expressions" (23)), and Gramsci
(hegemony), he draws on an impressive list of thinkers/writers often invoked in
rhet/comp. Yes? Without being explicit about what he regards as the
most formidable cultural objects involved in the replication of culture, Urban
does, in places, give us cause for supposing that we might be capable of
making–perhaps composing–the ω object.
"The process [of hegemonic struggle] must depend upon the production of new
expressions, and hence, on ω culture" (26).
"However, accelerative culture opens the possibility that a new object–an ω
object–can cut new pathways, can reshape social space by harnessing different
strands of extant inertial culture" (19).
I’m not making my point as succinctly as I’d hoped to, and it’s a rather
simple point: "Shared and circulating documents, it seems, have long provided
interesting social glue" (190). See there, it’s not even my point.
Here I’m drawing on a chapter I used with WRT205 students for this evening’s
session from Brown and Duguid’s The Social Life of Information (PDF).
Basically, the connection for me is that the busy vehicles shuttling memes,
enabling diffusion and so on are oftentimes documents–produced texts; written,
designed and rhetorical. Brown and Duguid tell us, "documents do not
merely carry information, they help make it, structure it, and validate it. More
intriguing, perhaps, documents also help structure society, enabling social
groups to form, develop, and maintain a sense of shared identity" (189).
I’m not trying to make a case that documents are the only thing; they’re merely
one thing. But that they’re the thing of interest to many rhet/comp folks
reminds me that we should come to terms with the relationship of writing to
Urban’s ω cultural object. It’s not a tidy match with Urban’s cultural
object-types, but Brown and Duguid differentiate documents into two groupings:
fixed and fluid. Particularly as we conceive of the bearing of texts on
network/cultural formation and organization, the distinction is incredibly
useful, I think. I’m trying to say that consideration of memes, diffusion and
variously same-different cultural vectors (from Urban) presents us with
productive correspondences to document production (text making…writing) and
the (dis)comforts manifest in our biases toward/against fixed or fluid texts.