Particle, Wave, Field

I’ve returned to Virginia after nine days in Michigan for Is.’s high school graduation ceremony and party, and so I am settling in a tad road weary, searching for how to pick up where I left off last Tuesday: particle, wave, field; Wendell Berry’s poem, “IX;” and underlying conditions.

In graduate school, the long shadow of Richard Young, Alton Becker, and Kenneth Pike’s Rhetoric: Discovery and Change (1970) seemed to me to be in its twilight, its influence relaxing as social-epistemic approaches to teaching/leaning rhetoric and writing took greater hold. Given that Young, Becker, and Pike advocated for their tagmemic approach as inventive and heuristic, a careful and generative work with tagmemes as the smallest discernible “units in context” for composing, it isn’t quite right to say that they belonged to a different pedagogical model altogether. Rather, tagmemics were prone to use as a structuralist analytic, which, in turn, bordered on strict logical operations. Another way to frame this would be to pose different emphases for the phrase “units in context,” noting that, for some, the “units” carried far greater importance for many years, while context gradually ascended, boosted by the internet, globalization, pop culture, and technological accessories to multimodality.

I think I remember copies of Rhetoric: Discovery and Change (1970) lying around the graduate student offices I once shared in Cockefair Hall at UMKC and HB Crouse at Syracuse. At UMKC, so too were there stacks of Peter Elbow’s Writing Without Teachers (1973), so many in fact that I remember thinking that whatever it contained, it was a book few sought out, held onto, carried home, etc. In addition to the amplifiers of contextualism listed in the previous paragraph, so too was this moment as I experienced it–the late 1990s and early 2000s–punctuated with rhetorical genre studies, post-structuralism, cultural studies, and a blend of close reading, classics imitation, and high-brow critical essayism. As such, copies of Bizzell and Herzberg’s Negotiating Difference (1995) and Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading (3rd Ed., 1993). This is more retrospective than I planned to share in this post, and yet this backdrop returns me to the concern for what else stalled, or went dormant, when tagmemics lapsed. The fade-out of tagmemics might, for example, pair with Paul Butler’s account (2008) of how style dried up or with Susan Peck Macdonald’s article (2007) about the gradual decline of “language” in CCCC programs.

And this links up with a hypothesis, or what is perhaps lying lower than a hypothesis as a mere hunch I’d like to follow: with the fade-out of tagmemics, so too did the field leave behind the small. Or maybe it’s that the small fanned out, spilled in other ways to technical communicators tracking eye movements or keystrokes, archival researchers sifting and whiffing for dust, or narrative crumb-catchers revaluing experiential minutiae in anecdotes and vignettes. The discursive-small, tagmemics, faded, but other smalls held on for a few beats here and there and there, too. Extending from this, the smallest of the small may have slipped beneath notice, the rarer provenance of copy editors or technical stylists, linguist-compositionist hybrids, or old-headed grammarians quietly beholden to parts of speech-lit lanterns for writing by. And with contextualism, which is burdensome and slow when dwelling with the small, middle and larger-scale units spring up. Contextualism (done justice) itself carries with it details abundant to a new order of magnitude, and this is context’s double-edged quality: always too much, and never enough.

Young, Becker, and Pike’s wave, particle, and field constructed “field” as the biggest of the three tiny components responsible for materializing–in expressive motion–the utterance. But it’s not clear to me that this variation on field shares its cornerstones with the field conjured under the label of rhetoric and composition, much less as Wendell Berry observed fields during his 1979 visit to Peru. Though I really should be going back again and studying this more closely, I’ll go ahead with my clouded understanding to say that with wave and particle, field is more like a traversable plane, contingent, stable-for-now and knowable as such, with the potential for circulation. Field, for rhetoric and composition, instead names loosely assembled activities and infrastructure that endure in service of continuing inquiry and interconnection. They’re not quite synonymous, though by pairing them, their explanatory power enjoys a multiplier. Next, I’ll see if I can explore in tandem that poem I keep mentioning from Wendell Berry, “IX,” and the idea of underlying conditions.