Holding on

Henri Cartier-Bresson Pour l’amour et contra la travail industriel (For Love and Against Industrial Work). 1931. Paper collage

This blog has stayed in a holding pattern for the last few years. It’s overdue for a change, and that will happen in the next few months. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I started blogging right before I started teaching—in 2001. I will continue to blog as I quit teaching, as of now. Perhaps “quit” is too strong of a word. It’s more like refuse to participate in a degrading system that values teachers at about the same level as Walmart greeters. My wife has secured a good job as a teacher, one that pays a worthwhile salary—most don’t. File me with the most. I was offered an adjunct post, but I feel as if the time has come for a career shift.

I am not really bitter about the situation—but as a profoundly middle class guy, I was actually looking forward to making that good “professor money.” Oddly, along the way I figured out how to make substantially more with far less effort; surrendering teaching comes easy when it only involves nearly trivial wages. In this environment, perhaps even because of it, intelligent investing pays quite well.

I won’t be deprived of anything, and my wife’s job will allow me to maintain access to research databases, good libraries, etc. without missing a beat. I plan on being one of those weird people labeled as an “independent scholar.” But I wear that label with no illusion that it is better or worse as being affiliated with an institution—each approach has its perks. This is just the situation that life has dealt me; I’m quite comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life. I plan to continue following and creating rhetorical scholarship, just not as a poorly paid “professional writing instructor.”

I’ve got seven years of being a writing instructor in, so I feel like I’ve made some contribution, but shifts in the field make me feel increasingly estranged from the educational “industry.” You see, educational institutions are at their core focused on institutional environments and practices. I have no hardcore interest in “technical writing” though I have a degree and years of coursework in it. Yes, I’m interested in technical subjects but not technical communication practices. I’m interested in communication practices, and increasingly I’ve found myself more aligned with scholars in communication studies rather than the emergent field of writing studies. But my degree path has not pointed me there, and crossover is difficult on the professional level.

At the core, what I have practiced/taught is Rhetoric (with the capital R) which is a discipline that seems to lack any specificity or exclusivity within academic departments. It wanders, passing in and out of fashion without ever really disappearing or finding a home—labeled as techné, not epistemé. Thus the containers are filled with it, e.g. communication uses rhetoric, but is not necessarily rhetoric; most if not all writing deploys rhetorical methods, but is not strictly speaking rhetoric. It is confusing to anyone outside the problem—why not call it communication, or writing? Well, because it’s different—but what is it? The modern trend is simply to pluralize the practices as rhetorics as if that resolved the definition.

Surrendering the element of teaching writing (or composition, if you prefer), what remains is my research agenda—which I have tried to place inside the container of “visual rhetorics” with little success. The fundamental problem with this, simply swept under the rug for the last several years, is the stature of visual images as propositions. The propositional nature of images, hotly contested for a time, is simply assumed without proof and endless interpretations are being spun from those propositions. But the assumption bothers me. Although I’ve made the claim myself for photographs—each photograph includes an implied verb “to be” making it implicitly a proposition that the subject “is”—I am no longer so sure that this is a sufficient explanation.

The problem of photographs as rhetoric lies in the domination of rhetorics that lie completely outside the object itself; thus the rhetorics are not at their core “visual” at all. The label itself is a red herring, an argument based simply in indirection. As W.J.T Mitchell has argued, “visual studies” may not necessarily need to exist as a self-contained discipline because cannot be mapped into a stable configuration. Just as “writing” is unstable, moving from English departments to business schools to writing studies departments, etc., visuals also migrate to where they are welcomed most. Photography first found a home in chemistry and physics departments, then art departments and journalism schools (coexistent with writing!) and now it seems to be taking up shop in communications departments (as visual rhetorics) at least to a minimal degree. My two obsessions, it seems, have no constant home.

Ultimately, I think that rhetoric and photography are intellectual twins. Both are wedded to industry, but at the risk of sounding maudlin, both can be attached to the humanities in an urgent sense. As Jim Corder once described it, “Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities.” Classical documentary photography began from the same premise. I started revisiting Corder today because my mentors at the University of Arkansas, when I first started this public writing project had placed him high on the reading lists for teaching composition. Perhaps it is just nostalgia, revisiting where I began as a teacher, or perhaps Corder has been lost through consistently shallow readings.

The Rogerian approach has long fallen out of fashion (both as documentary photography classically conceived from the “family of man,” and expressivist composition centered on actualizing the self) but it had an influence deeper than I sometimes admit. I prefer love to industrial work.

What next? I suspect that my sidebar for this Public Address 5.0 will change from “rhetorician/photographer” to “photographer/rhetorician”—because photography is always what I have loved the most. I’ve just been away from it for a long time. It’s a large move, physically, from Minnesota to New York. But it’s a small move linguistically. As I suggested back in 2002, “It’s easy to move, hard to change.”

Public Toilette

We talk, a tape recording is made, diligent secretaries listen to our words to refine, transcribe, and punctuate them, producing the first draft that we can tidy up afresh before it goes to publication, the book, eternity. Haven’t we gone through “the toilette of the dead”? We have embalmed our speech like a mummy, to preserve it forever. Because we really must last a bit longer than our voices; we must, through the comedy of writing, inscribe ourselves somewhere.

The inscription, what does it cost us? What do we lose? What do we win?
. . .
Thus, in the written word a new image-repertoire appears, that of “thought.” Wherever there is a concurrence of spoken and written words, to write means in a certain manner: I think better, more firmly; I think less for you and more for the “truth.” Doubtless, the Other is always there, in the anonymous figure of the reader; consequently, the “thought” staged through the conditions of the script (as discreet, as apparently insignificant as they may be) remains dependent upon the self-image I wish to present to the public; it is not so much an inflexible mold of givens and arguments that concerns us as it is a tactical space of propositions—that is, all things considered, of positions. In the debate of ideas, very widespread today thanks to mass communication, each subject is lead to situate, to mark, to position itself intellectually, which means: politically.

Roland Barthes, “From Speech to Writing” La Quinzaine littéraire, March 1-15, 1974 translated in The Grain of the Voice 3, 6.

A Lack of Vision

In short, whether driven by idealist or materialist presuppositions, contemporary theories of knowledge fail to articulate the impacts of the distinctive arrangements of discursive matter as it flows through both biological bodies and other media.[*]

C.M. Condit, “Race and Genetics from a Modal Materialist Perspective” QJS 94:4 November 2008

I got news today that my sister-in-law has completely lost her sight in her left eye. There is no word whether it is permanent or reversible; it is tremendously difficult for poor people to get straight answers about health care in this country. A cancer survivor, she is being shuffled from clinic to clinic as her vision progressively gets worse. It is a blow to me, because she and my brother are the main allies I have in caring for my mother as her condition worsens.. The hospice system is quick to offer counselors, but slow to assist her in day-to-day issues like washing up. My sister-in-law has been helping to take up that slack. Her problems add complexity to an already mind-numbingly complex scene.

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All Stripped Down

I was upset when the institution where I got my M.A. stripped the disciplinary label Rhetoric from its degree—while they still wear their allegance in one form (Department of Rhetoric and Writing), the degree is listed as Professional and Technical Writing. History repeats, with the latest change here purging the name even from the department label: the University of Minnesota no longer has a program in Rhetoric, (they have reserved the possibility of incorporating it as an interdisciplinary program). I selected this program because it was one of the oldest (almost a hundred years old) Rhetoric programs in the country. Things change, I guess. An article in the Washington Post declares it to be the return to “an old standard to ensure its success: teaching students to write better.”

Blink. Seems to me that this is what we’ve been trying to do all along. The “old standard” is embedded in our department’s 19th century roots.

The push to improve writing is taking hold at many colleges and universities amid a national debate about what higher education in 21st century should look like in the face of government projections that nearly two-thirds of all high-growth, high-wage jobs created in the next decade will require a college degree — a degree only one-third of adults have.

. . . Even at VCU [Virginia Commonwealth University], where institutional change is easier to accomplish because its traditions are not as enshrined, [Vice Provost Joseph] Marolla said he met resistance to designing curriculum around skill areas instead of the traditional content areas. It took him two years to convince his colleagues that the curriculum change should revolve around six skill areas — communication, critical thinking, information fluency, collaborative work, ethical and civic responsibility, and quantitative literacy.

“Academics say, ‘No, no, no, I don’t work with skills. Competencies, maybe, but not skills. It’s not what I do,’ ” he said.

But whatever it is called, writing is in demand. “The number one thing everyone says is that people have to be able to write,” he said.

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Storytelling (2)

In the nineteenth century, a number of technological innovations forever altered the way we conceive of stories and the way that we tell them. These innovations can be placed within the context of a much older story—the history of writing technologies—but doing that tends to occlude as much as it illuminates. To speak of the impact of visual innovation on print technology (perhaps becoming the central change of the eighteenth century) generally positions the role of alternative information sources as servants to alphabetic literacy. In reality, there were entirely unique modes of circulation and valuation for prints that operated independently of the venues for books. This observation seldom occurs in most scholarship outside of art history. Then, as now, there were literacies that were cultivated apart from the venues of verbal riposte.

Literacies beyond spoken and written language were fundamentally altered by the process of technological change. These literacies might better be considered independent rather dependent on the comfortable cohesion that the unquestioned centrality of language provides. But there’s the rub—language is the only communicative meaning that is extensible and generalizable in a way that can hope to capture the nuances of such changes in the form of critique. In fact, language is commonly believed to be commensurate with thought itself so much so that images and/or experiences can be dispensed with entirely. Witness this bit from a preface to a recent French art history text translated by Art History Newsletter:

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Becoming Authority

When I first taught first year writing in Arkansas, I took a cue from my literature background and required the students to write a bibliographic essay in order to establish the distinction between research and opinion. I expressly forbade offering excessive opinion about their sources; I wanted them to place the sources into some relationship with one another. The results were mixed. I got a lot of opinions.

I changed my approach just a bit this time. One of my grad instructors in Minnesota last year required an annotated bibliography and I was confused—I wrote a bibliographic essay instead, and was forced to revise it to fit the alternate form. It dawned on me that an annotated bibliography is a completely different animal that is noticeably easier to write than a bibliographic essay. No relationships are required; an annotated bibliography is simply a string of summaries. When we organize things, opinions seem to be the requisite glue to hold things together. I could more easily eliminate the opinions by eliminating the creative possibilities inherent in structure.

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Storytelling (1)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problem of storytelling, particularly about the way that technology impacts the way that we tell stories. There’s a lot to say about it, but it seems like some throat-clearing is in order.

Over the last few days, a couple of rhetoricians have weighed in on Doris Lessing’s Nobel prize acceptance speech—seemingly without bothering to read it first. This tactic reminds me of the sort of snap judgments that first-year composition students make—they accept the consensus of their peers without question. I suppose it’s one of the hazards of the rapid-fire atmosphere of electronic discourse—it’s easier to twit than to perform any sort of analytic work.

Lessing’s speech is also a wonderful example of the classic solitary originary proprietary model of writing, which might provide an interesting contrast to the newly emergent models of distributed collaborative authorship if more close reading were applied. But there isn’t space or time for that at this moment; I’ll press on with the reactive component, hoping I can return at a later date to the analytic problem.

Dennis Jerz and Clay Spinnuzi are not stupid people. I wouldn’t normally expect this sort of knee-jerk. I remember months ago, rr linked to a video of Lessing being ambushed by journalists when she won the prize. She couldn’t think of anything to say, apparently, and ended up asking the reporters to tell her what to say so that she could repeat it back to them—a tactic first suggested by Andy Warhol in one of his books as I recall. Jerz and Spinuzi didn’t misread the speech as far as I know, they simply parroted back the critique of Techcrunch and Ars Techica—which read Lessing as claiming that the internet makes you dumb or that it was the cause of our fragmented culture. Really? That’s not what I read. Here is the pertinent section, as printed by the Guardian:

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Spam Gate


One thing that always bothers me about the weekend is being forced to watch Fox to get local coverage. However, yesterday evening there was an interesting story about a local “meat sculptor” who entertains herself during the cold weather by making spam candles, hot-dog necklaces and such. I looked at the Fox web site to see if there was any mention of the story or web links and found that they do not update the site on weekends. So I googled around, and found the wonderful sculpture displayed above (completely unrelated to the story).

The spam sculpture of Anish Kapoor’s Cloud Gate warmed my heart. It’s from 2005, the same year I presented a paper on the legal and social controversies surrounding public photography of this sculpture at the Sweetland writing conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The paper is supposed to be included in a forthcoming anthology. I wish I had known of this fabulous sculpture then; I might have included it in my presentation.