Theoroses 🍎

Photo by Nazarizal Mohammad on Unsplash

In what will be the fourth new grad class prep for me in two years, in seven more Mondays, I will begin teaching ENGL6524: Theories of Written Communication. 6524 is one of four required core courses in VT’s rhetoric and writing PhD program. The course description, which I would carbon date back to the program’s launch in 2007, reads, “Studies in theories applied to written communication. May be repeated twice for credit for a total of 9 hours when the topic varies.” Two sentences. The first sounds quite a bit like tautology, or maybe even doublespeak because the repetition isn’t varied enough: theories of written communication is a class that promises studies in theories applied to written communication. Notable here is that this graduate program also features an MA-level (5xxx-numbered) class called “Composition Theory,” and by implied design, I guess this means that theories of written communication and composition theory are demarcated well enough that these are two classes but not one and the same. The second sentence from the course description suggests that the class could be repeated not once, but twice, for a total of nine graduate credits. Trouble is, the class is only offered once every other year, or one time in each two-year cycle of coursework. So it hardly seems possible to repeat it even once, much less twice.

As I’m prone to doing with most classes I teach, I have been mulling over possibilities for several weeks albeit in a low-key, backburner sort of way. I notified the bookstore on Tuesday that I will not be ordering any books for the class. Instead we will sift then trace theoretical antecedents from shorter units of scholarship: 1) published articles, 2) book introductions, and 3) dissertation introductions (or first chapters). In practice, several weeks (~9) of the semester will entail reading the article or chapter along with the theoretical referent and, as such, learning to alternate similar to the way theater-goers might, between actors and props, and a cyclorama, or backdrop. Finding and following theory’s antecedent traces should, if things go well, reward us with a repertoire for theory-finding and, in turn, for theorizing. The approach is similar to the one taken in Cultural Conversations: The Presence of the Past, a textbook that I happen to be familiar with not only because I taught with it a few times but also because a professor and mentor in my MA program at UMKC, Stephen Dilks, was the book’s co-author and co-editor. Cultural Conversations laid out a two-step archeology: a historical-archival text, a contemporary uptake, and then contextualizing pieces that drew connections and filled in gaps. Our upcoming fall semester is fifteen weeks long, but some of the weeks will focus on short-form presentations, or pitches, conferences, workshopping one another’s work, and so on. The class will include weekly writing and a larger project designed in the spirit of anthologics, or assembling and introducing an album of theoretical favorites, influential and inspirational beacons for scholarly offerings students one day hope to create, whether with their own dissertations, with articles or chapters, with teaching materials, with all of it, and so on etcetera.

I want to begin the class with some consideration, together, of our experiences with theory, especially if there are any adverse reactions to theory. I am thinking here both of fear and loathing. Under what conditions, if any, has theory been scary? Are there theories that you loathe? That elicit worry? Why? Like distasteful foods, how many times would you suggest trying a theory before disqualifying it, ruling it out, casting it aside, or dismissing it altogether? This opening segment, then, points to the title of this entry. With theoroses, or something like theory’s neuroses, we might begin to parse why and to what extent theory designated as such may be offputting, difficult, time-consuming, perhaps even abruptive, steep, hazardous-seeming, or even upsetting, dare say violent. Part of this line of inquiry is meant to open up a greater awareness of our dispositions toward (or against) theory and what has formed that disposition. And part of this line of inquiry is meant to reset theory with a light-admitting aperture of possibility. If there is a third part to this line of inquiry, it rests in a few questions I don’t know the answers to yet: Must theories be named to be useful? Must theory be communicable to be useful? Can scholarship proceed with unnamed theories, and might there be any advantages in (or rationale for) shedding antecedents? Can scholarship in rhetoric and writing be theoryless?

Paired with the theoroses check-in, I want us to read Eve Tuck and C. Ree’s “A Glossary of Haunting.” The glossary is a list of keywords, and these keywords are followed by vignettes, images, and microhistories/microanalyses. The set is referential, naming other texts, but it is also personal, heeding gravity in the co-authors’ standpoints, which intersect in their collaboration but also outwardly to their respective and sometimes overlapping ways of being, knowing, and acting. So I am imagining this as an imitable text; each project (theory microanthology) will include a custom glossary of haunting and an introduction to the contents, including some engagement with the question-led threads above: fear? loathing? named? unnamed? possibilities opened? foreclosed?

Some of what I’m sorting out includes, Where to start with theory? And, How well-formed a grounding case, or object of analysis, will serve us well in coming to terms with any theory? There is of course the French critical deck with cards featuring major figures from the 1960s and 1970s. There is, alternatively, a cluster of more contemporary theorists who have given language to deleterious and destructive -isms, late Capitalism, the Anthropocene, climate collapse, globalization, and colonization and its aftermath. And, too, there are earlier models, like Stephen Pepper’s World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence , which looks into root metaphors for formism, mechanism, organicism, and contextualism, notably nodding toward but then leaving out animism and mysticism. In yet another deck, we could have theories that direct us to consider phenomena differently still, such as with CRT, standpoint theory, intersectionality, and misogynoir, though this might also include Polanyi’s The Tacit Dimension (1966). Whichever thread I begin to work with, it pulls the others, and eventually what surfaces returns to the other part of the course title, written communication.

I would like our step-back antecendent throughlines to follow a narrowed few specific choices. Early maybes are from Alt Dis, such as Royster’s “Academic Discourses or Small Boats on a Big Sea,” stepped back to Deborah Brandt’s Literacy as Involvements (1990) or Beverly Moss’s Literacy Across Communities (1994), or Malea Powell’s “Listening to Ghosts,” stepped back to de Certau’s The Practice of Everyday Life (1984) or Harjo’s The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (1994). Another possibility is Jenny Rice’s CE article, “Para-Expertise, Tacit Knowledge, and Writing Problems” (2015) stepped back to Polanyi or to Stewart’s Ordinary Affects (2007). Another is Cynthia Haynes’ JAC article (later updated in The Homesick Phone Book (2016)), “Writing Offshore” (2003) stepped back to Worsham, “Writing Against Writing” (1991), Graff, “Hidden Intellectualism” (2001), or De Landa, “Extensive Borderlines and Intensive Borderlines” (1998). Another is Paul Prior and Jody Shipka’s “Chronotopic Lamination” (2003) stepped back to Bakhtin’s The dialogic imagination (1981) or Engeström for a check-in on CHAT. And for the book introduction step-backs, I am thinking in particular of the winner, runners-up, and perhaps a few other nominees for the RSA Book Award this year: Hsu’s Constellating Home (2022), Hawhee’s A Sense of Urgency (2023), Smilges’ Queer Silence (2022), LeMesurier’s Inscrutable Eating (2023), Detweiler’s Responsible Pedagogy (2022). And this leaves as yet-to-be gathered a small set of dissertations whose introductions and/or first chapters we’ll read similarly.

I’ll pause here, this entry vining long enough and several other to-dos lingering. But I hope to return to this, to say more about the short-form weekly writing, the intervals of pitches and workshopping, the build-ups to the larger project, which I hope will find synchrony with lead-ins to our exams process at VT. I would also like to work back to first principles, to say a bit about what I understand theory to be and do in the context of research, scholarship, teaching, and writing, both within and beyond the academy, and also to revisit the commonplace in rhetoric and composition that theorein requires practice, or application, that theory without practice is baseless, harmful, chaotic-evil, etc.

What’s the Word? ?

For a few years, maybe more, I have at times in my teaching practice opened a class session with a round of “What’s the Word.” “What’s the Word” is a segment from ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption, a sports talk show featuring broadcast journalists Michael Wilbon, Tony Kornheiser, and, when one of the two of them is traveling or vacationing or otherwise unavailable, a substitute counterpart who balances the exchange and the screenspace. For 30 minutes in the 5 o’clock hour out east, the show is led along with a ticker-tape and marked by time intervals; clock-keeping governs the otherwise spirited dialogue. This clip will give you an idea:

It’s a toss-up whether students in classes I teach know the show or have any frame of reference for the premise. We watch the video, and proceed thereafter, usually with some solo word-whatsing, which then gets transferred to a marker board or Google Slide, and after this, we read them, and we talk about our neologisms, puns, and coinages. It’s not as if streamers and confetti fly from overhead, but it’s usually fun to play with words.

“What’s the Word” can with brevity open and span worlds1Similar to Thich Nhat Hanh on mantras, which are magical (or rhetorical) for how they can instantly transform reality., querying how the week is going, how a project (or some dimension of it) is unfolding, or how a reading resonates or fails to resonate, what instigates a click or a eureka. It sits in a single class meeting, so it’s not quite ENGL1999: Writing One Word, which I have (only half) jokingly pitched as a prototype for self-set minimalisms with labor and workload. “What’s the Word” fits into the discursive-unitroscope, which runs from the small to the large, and these measures include the Four Word Funk Review (variation on Four Word Film Review from back-back in the day), Fives, or lists of five what’ve-you-gots that then play into ranking and re-ranking, sharing out, writing rationales, and so on, and Nineties, which are a micro-genre adapted from Berlant & Stewart’s The Hundreds, and which amount to 90-word clips, give or take five words, that can, if they must, jump to the next multiple of 90. In other wordcounts, 85-95 is permissible, but above 95 the writer has to take it to 175-185, and below 85, it’s not a ninety because that’s where the cork edge of the dart board ends and you’ve dinged the drywall. I’m two years along in fairly routinely layering nineties into my teaching practice, and the results have been positive enough to continue, sometimes prompted, sometimes unprompted. I have yet to incorporate the indexing moves that elevate The Hundreds from distinctive and memorable to a book I consider truly one of a kind. Could be that’s what the future is for.

I’m thinking about “What’s The Word” this afternoon because we’re reading the first 28 pages of Han’s Non-Things for Monday evening, a book, which, in itself and in translation blooms a terminological cornucopia. We’ll have just an hour on Zoom for discussing the opening section, before we switch to open review of in-progress blog carnival entries. “What’s the Word” seems to me right-sized for the hour, for sorting out de-fleeification, or digitombed rhetorics, or smart-phoniness, or like-iod addiction.

Notes

  • 1
    Similar to Thich Nhat Hanh on mantras, which are magical (or rhetorical) for how they can instantly transform reality.

Isegoria and Parrēsia ?️

Democracy and the new nihilism do not go together. Democracy presupposes truthful speaking. In his last lecture, delivered shortly before his death, Michel Foucault, as if he had senses the coming crisis of truth in which we are losing the will to truth, addressed the ‘courage of the truth’ (parrēsia). With reference to the Greek historian Polybius, Foucault points out that ‘true democracy’ is guided by two principles, isegoria and parrēsia. Isegoria is every citizen’s right to free expression. Parrēsia, speaking the truth, presupposes isegoria but goes further than the constitutional right to speak up. It enables certain individuals to address themselves to others, ‘to tell them what they think, what they think is true, what they truly think is true’. Thus, parrēsia requires individuals who act politically to tell the truth, to care for the community by making ‘use of discourse, but of rational discourse, the discourse of Truth’. Someone who speaks up courageously, despite the risks it entails, practices parrēsia. Parrēsia founds community. It is essential to democracy. Speaking the truth is a genuinely political act. As long as parrēsia is practiced, democracy is alive:

I think…that this parrēsia…is first of all profoundly linked to democracy…we can say that there is a sort of circular relation between democracy and parrēsia…In order for there to be democracy there must be parrēsia. But conversely…parrēsia is one of the characteristic features of democracy. It is one of the internal dimensions of democracy.

Parrēsia, the courage of the truth, of the ‘courageous parrhesiast’, is the political act par excellence. True democracy therefore contains something heroic. It needs those people who dare to speak the truth despite all the risks involved. So-called freedom of expression, by contrast, concerns only isegoria. Only with the freedom of truth does real democracy emerge. Without this freedom, democracy approaches infocracy. (54-56)

—Byung-Chul Han, Infocracy (2022)

I am, I guess, going to leave in place that XXL block quote (which itself contains a blockquote) despite the reigning wisdom that readers don’t read block quotes any more. A blog entry combined with a telescoping passage has doubly little (the halfmuch) going for it. Elsewhere (TDOR, 2020) Han writes that we no longer read poetry, and this assertion too is valid enough to glide by untroubled, block quotes coupled with blog entries coupled with poetry, and I’m sure poetry won’t be the end of things readers quit, style tameness being all the plain language rage.

Even so, I’m struck by so much in this long snippet from Infocracy, struck in part because at no other point have I encountered the diagnostic insight that, as Han provides, moves from the mismatchedness of discourse and information to the interdependence of free expression (isegoria) and the courage free expression requires when enacted (parrēsia). As I read this, I had this dawning of oh yeah, of course, and even uh, duh (the way Joe C. Meriweather always said)—a private and low voltage bolt sent by Captain Obvious. I began to understand that I’d missed something because popularly circulating, even commonplace free speech arguments (and reminders about the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, which is frequently, if casually, brought up in such arguments) spotlights only free expression (isegoria), implicitly downplaying the courage to express truths (parrēsia). It’s right there in the passage: Han citing Foucault in “The Courage of Truth” keys on the element of risk enveloping a kind of heroism, and that courage-heroism to express is a precondition for democracy.

Yet another strike: where does this other kind of heroism intersect with academia, rooting heartily in shared governance, or else, rotting fallow in pseudo-shared pseudo-governance? Sure, it’s a case by case, situation by situation, sort of question, and one all the more worthy of asking and re-asking at each new gig and each new leadership rotation. How are you at sharing governance, really? And can this sort of question be asked without also leaving impressions of peacocking or chest-puffing; can it be asked earnestly, routinely, matter-of-factly as every faculty member, AAUP member or not, should ask? But this strike is the shorter of the detours I’d been mulling over because while I think I understand how a courageous parrhesiast navigates higher ed with some successes and some setbacks. The CP might earn a reputation as a thoughtful and caring citizen at times, and then, for raising comparable issues!, might be disinvited from meetings for bearing the label ‘troublemaker’ at other times.

One more albeit fainter strike (static-think wool socks on shag carpet in winter months…so not nothing) in this long Infocracy passage is in the splits inflecting the other kinds of heroism. In particular, I’m thinking of mediational and temporal splits. Discourse, for Han, opens call to response. Its rhythms yield to that anticipation, expecting engagement, deliberation, and, if things go well, a response. This takes time, but not too much time and not too little. When this goes well, when discourse works, it also takes material circulation and findability. Old media’s circulatory rhythms may have (I’m hedging…but I think mostly yes) achieved synchrony with common-ish human biorhythms (e.g., contemplative cycles, dailinesses, but also the bigger hum of orbits and rotations). There’s something to this kind of heroism that, without being overly idealistic or naive, is heroic for good faith volleying, entering into a mutually paced temporal attention structure that allows discursive formation its time, that does not quite whir off impatiently nor lapse into indifference. I’m not certain that information, speed, and immediacy are always bad for democracy; but they are, as Han aptly (and smartly) sets up with this outline of infocracy, introducing haywire conditions for discursive deliberation and, by proxy, many of the non-nimble, public-serving institutions associated with functional democracy (investigative presses, schools, courts, and congresses).

For now, for strikes-pondering, that’s it…and enough. ⚡️⚡️⚡️

The Dataists ?

Later in Infocracy, Han writes,

To the dataist ear, this passionate commitment to freedom and democracy will sound like a ghostly voice from an already bygone era. From the dataist perspective, the idea of the human being as defined by individual autonomy and freedom, by the ‘will to will’, will eventually appear as merely a short historical interlude. Dataists would agree with Foucault when he invokes the death of the human being in The Order of Things: ‘As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end….then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.’ The sea whose waves are erasing the face in the sand is today a boundless sea of data, in which the human being dissolves into an insignificant data set. (43)

—Byung-Chul Han, Infocracy (2022)

No outdoor walk this evening because SE Michigan, including Ypsilanti, is observing an Air Quality Alert, which I understand to be a small time toxic airborne event—serious enough to stay indoors and take a pass on the daggered-eyeballs effect, but also just a sign of the dry, dusty, particulate-breezed moment. Ah, springtime. So instead I read another chapter of Infocracy, “Data Rationality,” which according to Han counterposes a discourse-driven “communicative rationality,” where argumentation, claims backed with evidence, and compromise toward consensus-ish assent puts gusto in democracy’s sails. In an era of data rationality, information outstrips deliberative discourse; people no matter how mightily they strive to pay attention and process events are left in the dust, overwhelmed and scattered in the haze of information overload. Bleak1Bleak is my characterization of a mood, which, like all moods, fluctuates. but discerning, Han takes this idea on a brief tour with stops at Habermas, public-sphere hopeful, then dataists Rousseau and Alex Pentland of MIT.

I suppose, based on this, that rhetoricians are now and shall remain as outsiders to rising programs in data science (e.g., Data and Decisions); the data is extra-sensically vast, and the decisions are wrought in human-machine ratios more mechanistic than neuronal, more computational than synaptic, more algorithmic than fleshly. What a grand (and routinely fuckered) time we had while the beach drawing lasted, now-insignificant data set! So, what’re you gonna do now, democracy? What are the suitable responses, and do those responses have any chance of reaching anyone who can listen, engage in dialogue, make any difference? Get it together?! I don’t mean make a difference in an Army Corps of Engineers “protect the beach face” sort of way. Reading this chapter, I’m left puzzling generatively with a sense of no really, what becomes of this? If any juice remained in the democratizing efforts of writing programs, or critical literacies, or rhetorical education, are there variations on beach-drawn faces farther up or down the disappearing coastline? Or are the dataist-guided paths reduced to two: homo economicus (good capitalist progeny go for jobs ?) or homo inanis (bear witness to giddyup speed obsolescence ?).

Notes

  • 1
    Bleak is my characterization of a mood, which, like all moods, fluctuates.

Try This

Figure 1. Try This: Research Methods for Writers book cover.

Quick entry—it’s late and kale sweet potato soup is bubbling. And I’m still in the late stages of moving, turning in keys and parking passes at the old place this afternoon, scooping expired field mice from the attic of the new place, fetching groceries, hooking up laundry machines, chopping onions, and so on. But a project several years in the works dropped yesterday at https://wac.colostate.edu/books/practice/try/: Try This: Research Methods for Writers, a textbook we hope sees uptake in rhetoric and writing classes. I could say A LOT about this book’s development. Once it was in the hands of Mike Palmquist and the editorial team at WAC Clearinghouse, its shape and timing were never clearer or crisper. I didn’t realize it, but I read today that this book is the 150th free, open access publication of the nearly 25 years WAC Clearinghouse has been operating. So it’s an honor and a wonder and a credit to so many that this book is circulating now, as it is. [N.b., not a ninety, but hope to get back to a few more of those soon, like tomorrowsoon, or the nextdaysoon.]

Gorgoylean Methods

Appealing are the sense-making motives in the Berlant-Stewart exchanges, with a nod echoic to Jenny Rice’s variation—gorgoylean methods—in Awful Archives where the generative tenets follow, 1) What is going on? and 2) What accumulates as being rhetorical figuration? and 3) How does it (fail to) add up? Not anchored entirely in story nor narrative, in description, in data nor database/collection, the gorgoylean approach hearkens maybe to positional disruption: What is for me phenomenological is for you empirical is for Earl not even worthy of inquiry.

Snowdrops or Photo of Snowdrops

White snowdrop flowers
February’s Snowdrop

Upshot mid-February. Maybe Valentine’s Day or the day after, but before the 16th. Snowdrops or snowbells or crocus. Is the plural for crocus, crocuses? Doesn’t matter if they’re snowdrops. I’m sure they’re snowdrops. Well, almost sure. Surer is that Michigan’s regreening is mistimed this time. The snowdrops keep to themselves, don’t express a whole lot, or not anything I can hear where I stand when I pass by them front door in-going and out-going. But then this one photo jogs a memory about how last season’s tomatoes wilded into an unmanageable mess yielding more on vine rot than wedges of lightly salted gushes tomatoseed and sunshine. It’s something. Cannot say yet whether it’s the snowdrops or their photo or the tomatoes long since turned over in the side yard that share the quiet wisdrom, not quite lesson and not quite imperative, do better with gardening this year.

WIDE-EMU 2016

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We invite proposals for the 2016 WIDE-EMU Conference, a free, one-day event on October 15, in Ypsilanti, Michigan. Please help us circulate the call widely. The complete call and details about the conference are online at https://sites.google.com/site/wideemu16/.

Phase 1–Propose–has just begun and continues through August 31. We are asking for proposals that will respond to the conference’s framing question: What does writing want?

As you will see on the web site and proposal submission form, we’re asking for titles/ideas for three kinds of presentations:

  • Talk: much like a typical conference presentation, only short-form. Propose a brief paper, a roundtable discussion, a panel, etc. Individual talks should not exceed ten minutes.
  • Do: a demonstration or a workshop. Propose a session focused on the “how to” related to a software application or pedagogical approach.
  • Make: produce something (or the beginning of something). Propose a session in which participants will “make” a web site, a lesson plan, a manifesto, a syllabus, etc.

During Phase 2–Respond–we’ll be asking proposers to expand their proposed ideas with something online to share ahead of the face to face meeting on October 15. What exactly this “something online” looks like is highly flexible: a blog entry, a slidedeck, a podcast, a video, etc. You could also think of this as a teaser or a preview for your session and a few of its key provocations.

The face-to-face conference will be on October 15, 2016 at Eastern Michigan University. We will announce the featured plenary speaker/activity later this summer.

Please visit the site at https://sites.google.com/site/wideemu16/, submit a proposal, and plan to attend. If you have any questions about the proposal process or the conference itself, please reach out to Derek Mueller at derek.mueller@emich.edu. We hope to see many of you of this fall.

Snowtorso

Snowtorso

Walked the main loop in our subdivision, 300-degrees of the circle, anyway, before turning west for just more than a mile and outlining the next subdivision west of here where I ran into ghastly-happy Snowtorso. Sidewalks are clear enough, but the inter-subdivision trail network isn’t maintained in the winter, so although its surface has been traveled by dozens since last week’s snowfall, the surface is all icecrags and snowruts. Unpredictable. Sometimes slippery.

I listened to last week’s “Mapping” episode of This American Life. I think it was a re-run from several years ago with a snippet about Denis Wood’s new-ish book, Everything Sings, dubbed in. Could be wrong. The segment reminded me of what I find so interesting about Wood’s work, and it convinced me that I made the right decision to devote a week to Wood and Monmonier on my winter Visual Rhetoric syllabus, which remains a work-in-progress pending a few finishing touches.