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?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

I don't think we're in Ireland anymore

Got back to Columbia this evening: we spent the holiday with my family in Texas and then celebrated the 50th birthdays of my sister and her husband on Saturday.

For your viewing pleasure, two shots of the Flint Hills in eastern Kansas, which in May struck me as looking like Ireland. As you can see, they aren't looking much like Ireland right now.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Thank goodness for the break

Now that classes are out for the week, I can finally clean my house. That's all I'll say. Won't go into details. And tomorrow morning, as a little autumnal reward, I'm baking up some pumpkin bread. Mmmm. Pumpkin. I love pumpkin. I've been making pumpkin pancakes like crazy for the past several weeks. With Thanksgiving coming up, I can justify something a little more decadent: pumpkin bread laced with chocolate chips. Dark chocolate of course. What with the beta carotene and the heart-healthy dark chocolate, it's hardly even decadent.

Not that decadence is a bad thing. Anyway, tastes really good. Here's the recipe.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Fear of the quoted

So I get a call this morning from a reporter from my local university-sponsored newspaper. She's doing a piece on the popularity of blogging: it seems that a study has recently come out saying that 40% of teenagers have a blog. I've been tapped as a source because I'm teaching a course next semester on blogging. Why am I teaching it? What are the benefits of blogging? What about the use of slang in blogs: might that not be a bad thing?

So I talk, talking up blogging, of course. Blah blah blogging.

And afterwards I cringe at the thought of seeing my quotes in print.

Clancy recently asked whether her readers think of themselves as better speakers or writers. For me, it's definitely writing. Seeing my spoken words in printed form tends to make me uncomfortable. They're so raw. Unedited. Not very intelligent-sounding.

Maybe I was just traumatized by the first time I was quoted in a newspaper. At IU one summer, I was interviewed by a student reporter who was writing an article about the (drum-roll, please!) upcoming lunar eclipse. What did I think about it? Was I going to stay up to see it. I'm a graduate student, I tell her. I don't know what's going on. So should I say that you weren't aware of it, she asks. Just say I didn't know about it. And that's what she writes. At the very end of the article, on the front page of the paper, I was quoted thus: "I didn't know about it." End of article.

Ever since then, I've been worried about not only the words that are selected, but where they appear. So I feel some trepidation. The reporter emailed me this afternoon to check the accuracy of the quotes she'll be using. They seemed fine, and I told her so, but I had to overcome a deep desire to doctor my own quotes. To make them sound eloquent.

But that would be violating a basic tenant of blogging, wouldn't it? So I didn't. And we'll see, won't we, how it all turns out.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


I'm much into the clash between the sometime slog of what passes itself off as academic inquiry and the desire for something otherwise, as my last entry suggests. So perhaps that's why I like assigning Massumi at the end of the semester. His prose and affirmative theories cheer me up:

I have tried to take seriously the idea that writing in the humanities can be affirmative or inventive. Invention requires experimentation. (17)

Prolonging the thought-path of movement, as suggested here, requires that techniques of negative critique be used sparingly. The balance has to shift to affirmative methods: techniques which embrace their own inventiveness and are not afraid to own up to the fact that they add (if so meagerly) to reality. . . . If you don’t enjoy concepts and writing and don’t feel that when you write you are adding something to the world, if only the enjoyment itself, and that by adding that ounce of positive experience to the world you are affirming it, celebrating its potential, tending its growth, in however small a way, however really abstractly—well, just hang it up. (12-13)

The writing tries not only to accept the risk of sprouting deviant, but also to invite it. Take joy in your digressions. Because that is where the unexpected arises. (18)

But he's difficult, too. And his call for enjoyment of writing may seem to be so much wishful thinking and even hypocrisy to my students when I'm simultaneously asking them to revise their final paper proposals, to make them more "professional."

Sigh. Always contradictions. Or maybe it should be: Joy! Always contradictions.

Yes. More like that last one.

For now, though, I'm off to a department meeting.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Moments of invention or long slouching into purpose?

Though I shouldn't (and won't) go into details, certain experiences lately have been bringing home to me the boredom that often passes itself off as composition pedagogy.*

The willingness to ask students to read boring prose.

The active pursuit of tedium in the writing process.

The relentless belief in "effective" but not "affective" writing.

The sober dedication to "what students need."

Says Jeff:
The moment as invention is not popularized in any textbooks I know of.

Indeed. What is popularized: goals and purpose. Audience and needs.

Which isn't to say that when I'm writing certain documents (a job application letter, say) I'm not thinking of goals and audience and such. But it is to say: where's the inspiration in that? Where's the delight? Where's the agony, for that matter?

Why is there a conviction that the way to get good writing from students is to disengage from affect? To focus on task rather than the moment that makes us want to write?

*I should hasten to add, for the benefit of certain potential readers, that these experiences do *not* include class observations that I have been doing of late. In fact, these have rather given me a degree of hope that "boredom" need not be the dominant affect or absence of affect in the composition classroom.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Emergence: Writing, information, administration

Reading Captain Henry Metcalfe's The Cost of Manufactures and the Administration of Workshops (from 1885) (and, hey, shouldn't you?), I found a glimpse of the emergence of the information economy alongside the emergence of management science. Not that this simultaneity is surprising (it's anything but): it's just kinda interesting to see in black and white. And don't forget that 1885 is the same year that Harvard moved the required course in composition from the second year to the first, thus inaugurating Freshman Comp.

Metcalfe talks about the need for a science of administration in much the same way that Aristotle justifies a treatise on rhetoric:

Sure, some people just naturally know how to order work (or discourse), but not everyone does, so let's see try to systematize what works for successful administrators:

It may be stated as a general principle that while Art seeks to produce certain
effects, Science is principally concerned with investigating the causes of these effects.
Thus, independently of the intrinsic importance of the art selected for illustration, there always seems room for a corresponding science, collecting and classifying records of the past so that the future operations of the art may be more effective.

The administration of arsenals and other workshops is in great measure an art, and depends upon the application to a great variety of cases of certain principles, which, taken together, make up what may be called the science of administration. (15)

Above all, says Metcalfe, workshops must get in the habit of keeping efficient records so that the knowledge of capable administrators--which is a kind of capital--doesn't leave with them:

Some men have the gift of so arranging their experience that it is always ready with an answer to whatever question new conditions may propose. But such men are rare and are seldom found in subordinate positions. In any case their knowledge goes with them when they depart, instead of remaining, as it should, and in great measure might do, as one of the most valuable earnings of the business in which it was acquired. (15)

Later, he remarks that the keeping of records makes the ability to write (admittedly, the meaning of "writing" here is not "composing") a handy thing, even if the "illiteracy of employees" has yet to cause trouble, as far as he was aware.

So, what do we have: the rise of administrative science, the valuing of information as capital, the need for writing. Our conditions of emergence.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Blogging vs. email discussion lists

I suppose you might say it's the introversion factor. I like to process things internally and then hear conversation rather than to process everything externally via conversation. So maybe that's why I prefer blogging to discussion lists.

Or maybe an analogy can be made with telemarketing: after you get so many of them, you just get tired and stop answering the phone altogether. If a discussion list gets too full of stuff you just don't want to wade through, even with the delete key, you stop looking at it altogether.

Blogging seems so much more polite than discussion lists. You blog. People can read or not. You aren't clogging up anyone's inbox. You're just putting it out there. Read it or not. You don't even have to make a decision about deleting. You go there or you don't.

And because a blog actually has to sort of appeal to readers in a way that writers on discussion lists don't (at least just to appear in your inbox and take a portion of your attention), the blogger might be prompted to actually write something worth reading. Or just write and not care, but that not caring doesn't really impinge on anyone's time or attention. (See above.)

Just thinking after having deleted a whole slew of email messages from a certain discussion list and thinking about how much I'd rather read one entry from my fellow bloggers than all that stuff and stuff and stuff.

It's sort of odd, though, because I tend to think conversation is a good thing. Blogging, on the face of it, looks more like monologue. But it isn't. Even this message is embedded with past conversations, past topics on other blogs I frequent, and looks forward to future conversation, even if not in response to this particular entry.