Thursday, September 23, 2010

Good Ideas

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.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at September 23, 2010 9:15 AM to Invention

I'm with you on all of this, Derek.

I too enjoy Johnson's work, and I've been eagerly anticipating this next book simply because of its potential to foster meaningful discussion around rhetorical invention and contemporary writing work (even if these concepts are tacit in his popular audience book).

When he published a blog post prefiguring some of the book earlier this year, I sent him a quick email. I had, at that time, recently placed a journal article (still "in press") that examined the historical practice of writing in commonplace books with our current aggregation and juxtaposition of ideas in web-based applications like Twitter, FriendFeed, and Google Reader.

We traded a few emails, and he ultimately asked for the manuscript, which draws heavily on concepts in rhetorical invention. I'm really looking forward to seeing the finished product, and it seems to me that he's open to work from folks in our field.

Posted by: Brian McNely at September 24, 2010 8:37 AM