Another List

Last time I ended by asking about Elbow’s believing/doubting-game, “Do absurdity and hyperbole gain traction in the predominance of a doubting manner?” I think what I meant was, Do absurdity and hyperbole function most powerfully when we hold a doubting mindset? If believing goes along with things, grants ideas a chance, then absurdity and hyperbole must lose some of their shock effect under those conditions. Believers wouldn’t find them unbelievable; believers would assent (temporarily) in these moments when critique is on hold.

Later in the article, there comes another list even more ramshackle seeming than the basketball-themed chunk I worked through the other day.

There are more personal emotional fears that reinforce the monopoly of the doubting game and which must therefore be explored here. I think we all fear, to a greater or lesser extent, being taken over, infected, or controlled by a bad or wrong idea. The believing game asks us, as it were, to sleep with any idea that comes down the road. To be promiscuous. We will turn into the girl who just can’t say no. A yes-man. A flunky. A slave. Someone who can be made to believe anything. A large opening that anything can be poured into. Force-fed. Raped. (185)

Reading the essay (again, reading to decide its fit in a class I will soon teach), I hovered on this paragraph slightly longer than most because I found it difficult to play the believing game with it. Promiscuity, slavery, rape: here as tropes these are excessively blunt for explaining the risks in preferring one intellectual manner over another.  Because Elbow’s list-work deals out these references in quick succession, I attempted to read it as a dare–a lure configured deliberately to remind readers that our believing has its limitations and that such limitations are often due for direct contemplation (e.g., attending to how hyperbole works on us). The paragraphs that follow confirm Elbow’s concern for believing as an inroads to dangerous ideas–dangerous ideas that the doubting game’s overeager critical impulse would shield from us: “What is needed is practice in learning to immerse the self gradually in the element perceived as dangerous–and it is just such a process that is constituted by the believing game” (186-187).  

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.