Saturday, February 18, 2006

So I talked about blogging

After my two colleagues talked about traditional literary texts and the future of interpretation. It was ok. I took copies of a screen grab of my class blog to illustrate what a blog is (since the room we were in has only an overhead projector and I was pretty sure some members of my audience wouldn't know).

But, you know, it's a challenge to try to talk about the excitement of blogging to non-bloggers. I feel this intense connection to blogging, but how to make that intensity present? Honestly, it seems like an almost impossible rhetorical challenge. Not that I was trying to do blogvangelizing. I was trying to talk about the future of English studies. And part of that future is attending to these texts circulating outside of the bounds of cardboard and paper.

But I had, fortuituously, picked up a bottle of Ethos water before my presentation. So maybe that enhanced my persuasive powers.



John said...

I'm wondering, for the typical lit scholar or compositionist whose approach to texts is still deeply rooted in Arnoldian practices (from the perspective of composition studies, Sirc locates this problem with the moderns, with Leavis and Eliot, but they're really just Arnoldian's themselves no matter how strongly Leavis claimed he wasn't), don't we first need to make the argument that there's more to English Studies than these bounds of cardboard and paper, even that many of these texts which circulated in these bounds of cardboard and paper -- the novel for instance -- were regarded with skepticism and horror by those who saw it their job to study texts?

I'm just coming from the Computers and Writing Online Keynote discussion. What we're fighting here is a difference in worldviews. The worldview of traditionalists in English Studies, both in lit and in rhet-comp, is largely still that of the worldview created to serve the needs of the British Empire on the one hand and the Romantic myth of composition on the other (I include here most people engaging in poststructuralist theory too). That worldview is often suspicious of, even hostile to, the idea of texts being produced by just anybody and to the idea that technology is always already part of the human lifeworld.

Just thinking outloud.

But you've said it and its there in the back of their minds. And maybe (likely?) someday one of them will make a connection, will come to an understanding, that they wouldn't have made or had if you had stuck to a "traditional" topic.

Donna said...

Yeah, I think you're right, John, that I was leaping several steps ahead of where most of my audience was. Or not. Really, it's hard to know where they are. I do think I had assumed that most people had already made the leap to valuing texts other than the canonical ones, but maybe that's (indeed, I think it was) a faulty assumption.

I'm curious to know what you mean when you say that you would include people doing poststructuralist theory in the colonialist/Romantic myth camp. I guess insofar as its pretty easy to "do theory" and to be uncritical of elitist versions of English studies, I would agree.

John said...

Not the colonialist tradition itself, but the Arnold-Leavis tradition (which has some of its roots in the colonialist tradition). And this is something I'm still struggling with articulating well. It's more of a gut feeling at the moment.

But, with the Romantics, we have a cultural shift regarding what is literary and what isn't literary (the idea that non-fictional prose can be "literary" goes into decline during the Romantic period and remains with us today), we have a shift between the author/poet and the writer, and we even get a shift in which poetics stops referring to poetry and prose and becomes more associated with poetry rather than prose. This aren’t hard and fast rules, but cultural shifts that I think are still with us today.

Add to this the sense, even among many literary scholars who practice poststructuralist theory, that the purpose of literary study is, ultimately, on some level, to prove the literariness of "literary" texts. Even people who engage in some form of cultural studies, when they're working with a "minor" or "unknown" text, they'll often say things like "Well, it's not [fill in name of some recognized literary author/poet/text], but it's important." This is, ultimately, about aesthetic value. No matter how open the canon is, the underlying purpose is to study literature to appreciate (or argue for or against) its literary value.

While the concern over aesthetic value did not originate with the British colonialism, the Anglo-American tradition of the use and study of literature is deeply rooted in this tradition. What I’m suggesting is that the dominant theories and practices of poststructuralist literary study and theory is deeply rooted in the modernist tradition of Leavis and Elliot, and the modernists are deeply rooted in the Arnoldian tradition, which is deeply rooted in earlier traditions.

In other words, the typical poststructuralist literary scholar shares with Leavis and Arnold some basic assumptions about aesthetics value = literary value. Poststructuralists differ from the modernists, I think in that they are open to other kinds of value (social, cultural, historical, political, economic, material). Nevertheless, there’s an underlying concern regarding aesthetic value at play.

Both new critics and poststructuralists, and even many in cultural studies, aren't sure what to do with the work of Franco Moretti, who's doing quantitative literary studies. Both new critics and poststructuralists alike regularly eschew philology or textual bibliography as real literary study. At best, those are often considered necessary activities that will allow others to engage in interpretation of texts. Likewise, while proverbs, folktales, folk songs, and other oral histories and traditions might be regarded as important and interesting, they’re not “literature” in the way Woolf or Bradstreet or Joyce or Wordsworth are.

Tied up into all of this, I want to suggest, is the idea that composition studies and literary studies, that rhetoric and poetic, are distinct. Our current understanding of these are, by and large, Romantic and post-Romantic rather than pre-Romantic.

What I'm trying to work out in a way I can articulate clearly is the same kind of thing Sirc does in English Composition as a Happening. I too want to "retrace the road not taken" and I want to "re-read the elision, in order to remember what was missed and to salvage what can still be recovered," to write "a negative-space history" that "reverses the conventional figure-ground relations to find the most fruitful avenues of inquiry to be those untouched or abandoned by the disciplinary mainstream" (12). Ultimately, I’d like to take us back to that pre-Romantic cultural shift, back to when rhetoric and poetic were on the same side of a coin, so that we can think about the possibilities we left behind as we took that paths we did.

My focus, right now, is on the rhetoric, practices, and theories of memory and the role it played and currently plays in composition (not composition studies, but compositional practices, the practices of a Xhosa praise-poet, the Beowulf poet, Chaucer, a 20th Century Scottish story-teller, Augustine, Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Mark Twain, John Locke, the Sex Pistols, Anne Wysocki, you, me, and the students in our classes.

While there are good disciplinary and practical reasons for making distinctions between "literature" and "writing," between literary studies and composition studies, or, for that matter, between composing a speech, an academic article, a symphony, and a painting, there's also something arbitrary and false about them. We need look no farther than Sirc's book and Anne Wysocki's work, to name but two examples, to see where distinctions such as these work to hinder us. Our disciplinary histories and the histories of our disciplines, insisted that these distinctions were true, and then reads that “truth” backwards on to periods which didn’t make such distinctions. Likewise, our disciplinary histories and the histories of our disciplines insisted that memory served no important rhetorical or compositional role once we shifted from an emphasis on oral discourse to an emphasis on written discourse has been read backwards so that Ed Corbett can write just one year before Yates returns memory to us:

"Of all the five parts of rhetoric, memoria was the one that received the least amount of attention in the rhetoric books. The reasons for the neglect of this aspect of rhetoric is probably that not much can be said, in a theoretical way, about the process of memorizing; and after rhetoric came to be concerned mainly with written discourse, there was no further need to deal with memorizing"(38).

Memoria, as Yates, Carruthers, Small, Coleman, and so many other (rhetorial/literary/cultural) historians have show us, was never just about memorization.

But now I'm ranting. :)

John said...

Sorry, I forgot to note that I'm not anti-theory or opposed to considerations of literary value. I just think that literary studies unnecessarily limits itself when it defines itself by these considerations, just as I think composition studies unnecessarily limits itself when it forgets that literature (from proverbs to Nobokov) consists of composed artifacts written for specific rhetorical purposes, and much of it not written to be some verbal icon to be hung on some metaphorical wall (in other words, composition studies can turn to literature for other purposes than exemplars of artful writing or as the subject for essays on literary interpretation).

Donna said...

Thanks for the responses, John. I didn't take you to be anti-theory at all. And you're probably quite right that proving literary value is still important to literary scholars. I just find that hard to remember sometimes. I come out of a PhD program where distinctions between high and low seemed often quite well-effaced, and so it sometimes surprises me to find myself in more traditional settings where those distinctions still matter (matter rather a lot). But maintaining the distinctions is probably more of the rule than the other option. It would be useful to my own psyche if I could remember that, even as I, like you, want to operate differently.