Mortensen/Kirsch, 1994, “Authority”

Peter and Gesa Kirsch. "On Authority in the Study of Writing.” On Writing Research: The Braddock Essays, 1975-1998.
Ed. Lisa Ede. New York: Bedford St. Martin’s, 1999. 321-335.

Big Idea
Clearly enough, Mortensen and Kirsch set out to complicate conceptions of
beyond the autonomous, paternalistic, heavy-handed sort long
understood to be the source of oppression, as in a hegemony of control and
order.  This essay emphasizes the role of ethics and care in
contextualized authority systems, where power is understood through community
assimilation and distrust of autonomous authoritative forces are out in the
open.  Mortensen and Kirsch urge a shift away from long-accepted connotations of authority
as the continuation of autonomous and paternalistic legacies. 
More complex variations of authority look at knowledge sources as contextual,
assumable, provisional, situated (or locally distributed), and ethical.  By
turning to feminist critique, the essay seeks to loosen and re-associate the
significance of authority in relationship to discourse, power, and
community, the buzzwords of the 90’s
in writing and rhetoric.

Wondering About
"On Authority in the Study of Writing" leads with a note about Barthes and
dead authors, followed by mention of modernity’s unraveling of authorship
resulting in language re-styling English Studies, followed by the
question, "How are we to account for the theoretical erasure of the authority
that constitutes the writers–the authors–we face every day in our composition
classrooms?".  Authors are dead; authority is dead.  Right?  That’s
the linch pin for Mortensen and Kirsch, since authority is alive and well. 
But where?  They’re certainly not faulting Barthes for his excise of
authors; in fact, his move gave us good cause to look at all of the other,
perhaps more complex manifestations of authority, various forms wrapped in
power, discourse, and community dynamics.  I’d say this essay does a
terrific job of sizing up those forms, pointing them out, and reminding me that
they aren’t all evil (which is often my suspicion).  In fact, M&K’s answer
to the question is that there are at least two predominant perspectives on
authority–assimilation and resistance–and we (with our students) ought to know
both of them as well as other, subtler forms.

I’m not ready to answer M&K’s question about "theoretical erasure" because
I’d prefer to ask it just a bit differently, replacing "erasure," I think, with
"complexity."  Of course this kind of critique can give way to endless
tinkering.  I won’t do that.  But just this one turn–complexity
rather than erasure–would allow the question to point out what I think this essay does. 
Old, autonomous authority isn’t dead; it’s just buried (read: nested, resting). 
And maybe we should be just as distrusting of new authority (contextual,
assumable, provisional, situated, ethical) because it’s more elusive, harder to
know, but potentially as controlling, power-wielding, and uncaring. 
Potentially.  And then "how are we to account for the theoretical [complexity]
of the authority that constitutes the writers–the authors–we face every day in
our composition classrooms?".  Rhetoric: running the range of persuasive,
effective, compelling postures in variously authority-laden situations. 

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Reason #153: Blogging is Safer than Grill Repair

First signs of spring include firing up the grill and contemplating an oil
change and point by point inspection of the lawn mower.  I did both today,
firing and contemplating.  The firing was inspired when D. returned from
the market with bratwurst; the contemplating was brought on by the incredibly
rapid growth of purple-flowered weed sprigs overtaking the lawn.  Creeping
bellflowers?  Hell, I don’t know what.  But they’re tall and pleading
to be cut soon.  

The Thermos Millennium gas grill is approaching its fifth birthday.  I
spend the better part of Easter Sunday, 1999, with my brother-in-law (well, he
wasn’t my bro-in-law then, but he is now) matching up sprockets, force-fitting
parts and having an altogether bad time of piecing it together.  It’s named
Millennium, but I don’t think it will last more than another year or two, and
certainly no more than three.  Just last week I replaced a couple of bolts
holding one of the gas-regulator dials on; today, it was the igniter dangling by
a wire beneath the grease-caked underbelly.  Tough to get at.  Tough
to fix.  The igniter end is basically a spark plug–a ceramic separator
creates a space for the friction-generated voltage to arc.  The arc lights
the propane.  Burnt meat.  With the igniter end dangling beneath the
grill, I wasn’t sure what to do.  So I found a spot that looked like it
might serve as a shelf to introduce the spark to the gas and propped it
there.  But I had doubts that the igniter was working, so I popped the
ignite button and absorbed one shock.  15 volts?  20?  It was
working; we were well on our way to the first brats of 2004.  Well on our

The shock absorption and my reporting of it to you via EWM warrants a bit of
explaining.  More than a few academic bloggers I read (more conveniently
with the assistance of Mozilla Firefox’s Aggreg8, which I’m learning to love)
have been questioning the vexed relationship between their weblogs and their
scholarship.  I consider myself to be more of an academic fringe-straddler,
one whose life is spread out in ways that conflate academic interests with a
less neatly intellectualized workaday life.  But I, too, wish for EWM to
serve more than a writing habit of convenience, to do more than chronicle day to
day ironies, the flush and flex of life.  I like the way the blog becomes a
storehouse for contingent issues and ideas; its utility is multifarious: writing
habit, public engagement, free-to-explore think space, platform, social forum,
experimental lab, diary-journal, unruly zone for discursive play.  All
of this will be worth returning to in the years ahead.  I’m sure of it.

You’re thinking it was more than 15 volts, eh?  Well, actually, the
shock is significant because I plied through 80 pages of Obedience to
today, and Stanley Milgram’s study was all about the willingness
of a subject to expose a learner to voltage-shocks,  escalating with each
incorrect answer and commanded by an authoritative experimenter. I don’t want to
leave behind the idea of agentic shift as a rhetorical event, especially as it
manifests through deference to technology in the guise of authority.  My
notes are still messy, and I’m just now chomping through the theoretically
tastiest one-third of Milgram’s book, but I am seeing connections, seeing needs
for differentiation and refinement in terms, seeing lots of ways agentic shift
can serve as a descriptive apparatus in composition and rhetoric. 
[situation is a locus of action, opposition to authority, agentic state, peer
rebellion, cybernetics, conscience and tensional system of the individual,
authority communicates itself, constancy of authority system, surveillance-panopticon
iterations *Bentham/Foucault*, Berlin’s noetic
]. I will flesh out those visions here, just as soon as I get my notes
in order.  That, too, is what the weblog does for me.  It’s
ever-present, bringing me to the edge of the reading chair, excited and
interested because my mind feels as if it is wrapped in one of those, "I’m
blogging this
" t-shirts.  The constancy of weblogging potential
while reading is invigorating.

This brings me to one other out there prospect for EWM.  In the
weeks ahead, I have slotted the return of Cross-Talk in Comp Theory and The
Braddock Essays
to my reading list (when does a list grow into something too
big to call a list?).  Brush-up reads to lubricate(!) the merge into a
doctoral program in the fall. So hold me to that; hold me to the promise of
bringing notes (even brief summative jottings) from those fine essays into this
space.  I know, lubricate sounds smartass, but it reminds me of my
big brother who is an adhesives chemist working and living in Detroit.  He
called today from his cell phone while driving to Toronto where he was heading
to troubleshoot something (likely) to do with robotic arms and glue
distribution.  J. and I have a terrific relationship; today he said he
called because he had spare weekend minutes.  And I want to come back to that, also–agency in the communicative act, deference to commodified time as it correlates to telephony and telegraphy.  But not now.  The Practice is on the tube.

E Pluribus Trivium

I wrapped up Scholes’ Rise
and Fall
on Monday morning while I was waiting in the auto shop. 
Since then, I’ve been reconsidering it from a distance–the full displacement
brought on by a hearty paper load, full-time work, and other important
stuff-o-life.  I keep coming back to a few basic ideas set up by Scholes in
chapter four, "A Flock of Cultures."  Throughout, Scholes uses a
split chapter system, so, for example, chapter four has a postlude called
"assignment four" in which he details–in practical terms–an
application of much of the theorizing he summons in the early portion of the
chapter.  Before the "assignment" section, he proposes a
design  for a general education curriculum parsed into grammar,
and rhetoric. Scholes introduces this threesome under the
heading, "A Trivial Proposal."  He’s having fun with the
connotations of "trivial,"
enlisting it as something of lesser consequence (than the Western Civilization
and Great Books canonical approaches) and also as a modern resurrection of the
medieval model for foundational education–the basis preceding advanced
scholarship in "arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music." He
explains the subtle differences between each of the course-types.  For grammar,
a course called "Language and Human Subjectivity" would comb over
pronoun usage and alienation in language structures.  A second grammar
course would concern "Representation and Objectivity." 
Anthropological perspective, ethnography, the objective discourses pervasive in
the observational sciences: these would be done up in this second grammar
course.  For rhetoric, he suggests a course on "Persuasion and
Mediation," which "would obviously include the traditional arts of
manipulation of audiences but would also point toward the capacities and limits
of the newer media, especially those that mix verbal and visual textuality to
generate effects of unprecedented power" (125).  To round this one
out–and because Scholes spends relatively little time on it–I would toss in technology

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Agentic Shift

*clicking persistently, feverishly because this stupid computer is so slow*

Not really. That was one example of Milgram’s
"agentic shift" from class yesterday. It was one of the more
interesting sessions we’ve had this semester. I referred students to
chunks of Postman’s chapter on "The Ideology of Machines: Computer
Technology." They collaborated to generate questions for their chunk,
which, after fifteen or so minutes, was passed into the hands of the next group
who took up the work of mustering a response. A rich discussion spun out
of this simple arrangement: "computer" as it referred to a
who computes (pre-1940), voice bots and sometimes-undetectable
artificial intelligence, the technopolist ideology that relishes human-as-machines
models of efficiency, generally subscribing to the view that we are at our best
when we are most functionally productive (no excess) and refined in our acts
(without waste or deviation).

I’m still trying to get a grip on the idea of "agentic
shift." I haven’t read Milgram’s Obedience to Authority: An
Experimental View (1974)
. So it’s only a best guess that agentic
is a rhetorical event. Is it more than displaced agency?
Shirked responsibility? Does it flourish in the technological high

I’m wondering about this especially as it seems to relate to video
gaming. I want to be careful what I say because I’m not up on the latest
buzz in video game studies–only know that they’re here. But if agentic
is, as Postman calls it (acknowledging Milgram), the name of the process
"whereby humans transfer responsibility for an outcome from themselves to a
more abstract agent," then video gaming, and maybe all encounters with
technical machinery, fit. So maybe it’s possible to have a group agentic
(a collective of transference?), in which the group *thinking social
software here* transfers responsibility to an abstract agent-authority: the
software. Is this too much of a reach from Milgram’s Yale experiments or does this simply affirm–in a modern context–what Milgram proved forty years ago?