Tuesday, April 5, 2005


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 connection.

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. 

Cross-posted to 711.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at April 5, 2005 11:19 PM to Networks

This may sound really bizarre, but I arrived at your page by way of waking up from a very strange dream. In it, I'm looking at the back of a novel. The author is smiling, his teeth are shaped like the sybol that heads your page. Recognizing it, but not being familiar with its meaning, I decided to do a search (I just woke up, in fact). How very, very odd to find your page almost directly corresponds to issues I've been thinking hard and fast over, of late. However, without having any sort of coherent framework for my own thought in issues of power, communication and culture. (I'm a graduate student in art history -- surrealism, specifically - hence my interest in the dream). At anyrate, I wanted to leave a note of appreciation for your article. Who knows where it will leave me? However, it is really uncanny how the content here intersects with my own questions in regards to similar issues in a completely Other context...Very strange indeed!

Posted by: Maureen at April 24, 2005 8:07 AM

Glad you found it interesting/useful. Since I read some of Urban's stuff in a network studies class earlier this semester, I've been continuing to find his distinctions between inertial and accelerative culture-making to be useful. When I have the time, I want to go back and spend more time with the rest of his book, _Metaculture_.

Posted by: Derek at April 25, 2005 10:37 AM