D idn'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.
F inished fine-tuning my cloud-parallactic contribution to a roundtable at the CCCC in Atlanta later this week. We forecasters are predicting a sitting-room (i.e., entire row to yourself?) crowd for N.30 session, 12:30-1:45 p.m. on Saturday. As for the fine-tuning, I'm pleased enough with the changes, and I had to work especially hard to resist incorporating more than a cliche or two from Stealers Wheel, e.g., "Trying to make some science of it all, but I can see it makes no science at all." Yes, the paper is--it's hard to believe--better because I axed a half-dozen lines like this from it.
And in case you can't make it to N.30, maybe because you are at the Braves-Phillies game, the good news is that we can catch up on Thursday in the poster galleria, Room M301, Marquis Level, between 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., where I'll be standing quietly next to my first ever attempt at an academic poster. For the full poster experience, it's best if you pre-install a QR code-scanning app on your mobile device.
A lan Liu's MLA 2011 paper, "Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities?" arrived this morning in Google Reader. Basically, Liu introduces the 4Humanities advocacy initiative and then argues that a lack of cultural criticism in digital humanities may thwart the growth of this emerging field. Making data and making things out of data may not matter if, when deploying these things, digital humanists have not been able to demonstrate their value.
This inquiring into the status and location of specific, identifiable ingredients, e.g., "cultural criticism," does seem like a common enough quest when we are confronted with something new and in-becoming as is the case for digital humanities. Up for discussion, though, is whether "cultural criticism" ought to be one of the building blocks in this new domain and what, exactly, is at stake should digital humanists neglect critique. Liu positions as rivals "close reading" and "distant reading," and while I have questions about this matchup (i.e., equivalency) in the context of Moretti's work, Liu ends up suggesting an improved, harmonious, cultural-critical blend. Distant readings (e.g., abstractions, models, visualizations) need to be cycled back through a critical apparatus, or people will not find relevance in them. Liu puts it this way: "To be an equal partner--rather than, again, just a servant--at the table, digital humanists will need to find ways to show that thinking critically about metadata, for instance, scales into thinking critically about the power, finance, and other governance protocols of the world." A cynical reading of this argument finds the presumed nuturalness of critical thinking and hermeneutics in the humanities overstated, and, likewise, it appears to minimize (or altogether overlook) the heuretic-inventive edge of distant reading.
Still, for traditional-minded humanities scholars given to digital treatments of rare and special texts, this makes a certain sense. These methods and insights related to them should scale into other domains. But will their value go missing if that scaling--a scaling of "cultural criticism," at that--is not fully realized (a rhetorical challenge, indeed)? Keeping in reach the advocacy motives of 4Humanities, the talk also hearkens to broader concerns about the dwindling cultural status of the humanities in general. If humanists' digital expertise is not valued in other domains because those folks are capable of data-mining, coding, etc., then, in one scenario, what awaits is the continuation of a value-it-how-you-will interpretive enterprise. Much is at stake in how the digital humanities goes, in other words. We can expect its failures and successes to have residual bearing on the humanities more traditionally understood. This thinking is a degree removed from Liu's central assertion. I think it's as likely the case that digital humanities, for its investment in computation, is not as much at risk as the non-digital humanities. If the digital humanities are going to be preservation-minded, in other words, perhaps they should be as much concerned with the heuretic and inventive aspects of their work as they are with the critical and hermeneutic aspects.
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.