Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Managerial epidemics

My grad seminar wrapped up our last discussion of Massumi's Parables for the Virtual Monday afternoon. On this rereading, I was really into his distinction (in the chapter on Stelarc) between instrumental and operative reason:

Call a form of thought that is materially self-referential as opposed to reflective; that absorbs possibility without extensively thinking it out, or extrapolating from where it is; . . . that poses an unpredictable futurity rather than anticipating outcomes--call that kind of thought operative reason, as opposed to instrumental reason.(110)

As is often the case, I was drawn in by one word: outcomes. Yes. Outcomes. If you're in rhet/comp (or even in education more broadly), that word might resonate for you, too. Isn't a certain "outcomes" document one of the most highly regarded and often mentioned accomplishments of a certain professional organization? Outcome-based education. Assessment as buzzword.

To offer an oft-repeated gesture from Massumi: it's "not a question of right and wrong--nothing important ever is" (13). It's not that talk about outcomes is "wrong." But, like critique, "if applied in a blanket manner, adopted as a general operating principle, it is counterproductive" (13)

Outcomes-centric education is counterproductive insofar as it doesn't primarily ask students to produce. It asks them to be appropriate. To be appropriated. To find themselves appropriately positioned at the end of first-year composition.

I guess we all have to be appropriated sometime. So, again, it's not about throwing all that out the window. Because we can't. It's the rhetorical/pedagogical situation we find ourselves in.

But we can tweak it, yes? Massumi says that operative reason
doesn’t master a situation with exhaustive knowledge of alternative outcomes. It "tweaks" it. Rather than probing the situation to bring it under maximum control, it prods it, recognizing it to be finally indomitable and respecting its autonomy. Operative reason is concerned with effects--specifically countereffects--more than causes. (112)
Could we say that the teaching of writing has primarily been enacted as the teaching of causes? Do this because of that. Instead of asking what happens if you do this. Does it always happen. What else might happen. Enscription as potential rather than means to end.

And could we say that an attachment to outcomes spreads through the bodies of rhet/comp practioners as an affective epidemic? A managerial epidemic. Or epidemics. That are re-invigorated by "crisis" moments like the new SAT or any number of instances when "they" don't understand what "we" are doing. (Which means we need to get our news out, of course. Gotta change the way people think about what we do.)

Affective attachment to misunderstandings. They get under our skins. They move us to control.

What would it mean to use this instrumental epidemic, to alchemize the instrumental, as Massumi claims Stelarc does? To tweak it into something other than itself?

No comments: