Wednesday, June 13, 2007

How Far Can We Drift?

I've been re-reading Cynthia Haynes' "Writing Offshore: The Disappearing Coastline of Composition" over the past two days. I'd read it this spring, even referred to it in my CCCC paper and in my dissertation prospectus. But this time I wanted to work at it more slowly, soak in it.

This time around, I kept finding floating crumbs that made me think this is the 50-page scholarly article version of China Mieville's The Scar. I probably can't do justice to this in the time I have right now, but I will try. Considering that The Scar is an adventure on the high seas about a hybrid, hodge-podge floating city (Armada, as dappled and remade as composition studies) and the fetishistic Lovers who command the peculiar conglomeration, there are surprising tie-ins. [Spoiler alert.]

Haynes writes of her own sea-ward excursion, a whale-watching trip into the Artic Sea. This is the event that primes her call for writing offshore, for abstraction, drifting, and groundless solidarities that offset the anchor that is argumentation, the root of composition's "pedagogical juggernaut" (673). On abstraction and composition's containment of it, a "thunderous breach"!

Just there, beneath the seas of Eckhart's theological detachment and Heidegger's secular withdrawal, we witness the thunderous breach of our whale--abstraction. But unlike Melville's Ahab, we do not slaughter the abstraction and lash it to our vessel in order to preserve some divine balance between Kant's a priori and Locke's tabula rasa. We let it be abstract; we withdraw, move away, and tread in astonishment. Into its wake I would have us sail as awakened teachers of writing and rhetoric, inviting students to detach themselves from us, from the ground--and to think in the abstract, in writing. (677)

Leap from Melville's whale to Mieville's avanc, a too-deep-to-be-seen mythical underwater creature, harnessed by the Lovers in an attempt to tow the floating city and its castaways toward their destination, the mysterious scar. Preparations:

The frantic work continued, and below the water, the shape of the avanc's harness grew slowly more solid. It was ghosted, its outlines in girders and wooden supports, like an abstract for some implausible building. As the days went on it grew a little more substantial, its intricate spines and gears more like something real. It grew through extraordinary efforts of the crews. The city was on something like war footing, every iota of industry and effort commandeered. People understood that they were careening at breakneck speed into a new epoch. (345)

Back to Haynes who would have us steer "toward an abstract horizon" (671):

The diverse senses of converting argumentation pedagogy to teaching abstraction could also include teaching how to achieve distance, to detach from one's preconceptions, distill concepts, condense language, and translate meanings. Learning to abstract would involve learning the alluring nature of language, how it draws you away, how it seduces you. (715)

What are the limits of this seduction? I ask not because I'm doubtful of Haynes' push-off from the shore but because I find it reassuring, even encouraging, her discussion of abstraction. For the Armadans, including Tanner Sack, the underwater specialist given to morphing amphibious, and Bellis, the translator of many languages, containing the avanc took a turn:

The avanc is sick.
Trying to continue its mindless motion at the rockmilk engine's command, it slows and slows. It is--what? Bleeding, wounded? Fevered? Chafed sore by the alien reality around it? Too mute or stupid or obedient to feel or show its pain, the avanc's lesions are not healing. They are shedding their dead matter in suppurating clots that eddy free and drift up like oil, expanding as the crushing pressure lessens, enveloping and suffocating fish and weed, until what breaks the waves with a mucal slurp is a noisome coagulate of infection smothered sea-life.
Somewhere between two and three thousand miles into the Hidden Ocean, the avanc is sick. (491-492)

A groundless solidarity between the whale of abstraction and the harnessed avanc? Uncertain. But why not work at this in a course, say an unlikely graduate course, one piled high with ground/sea allegories for the discipline, for discourse, and so on.

A few of the readings:
Haynes, Cynthia. "Writing Offshore: The Disappearing Coastline of Composition Theory." JAC 23.4 (2003): 667-724.
Royster, Jacqueline Jones. "Academic Discourses or Small Boats on a Big Sea." ALT DIS: Alternative Discourses in the Academy. Christopher Schroeder, Helen Fox, and Patricia Bizzell, eds. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2002. 23-30.
McComiskey, Bruce. "Introduction." English Studies: An Introduction to the Discipline(s).
Neel, Jasper. "Reclaiming Our Theoretical Heritage: A Big Fish Tale." Olson 3-11.
Mieville, The Scar.
Deadliest Catch, season I.
Sid Perkins on "Flotsam Science." Week of April 28, 2007; Vol. 171, No. 17 , p. 267.

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