CCR 633: Archives, Scribes, and History

Doing readings that draw from history, particularly history connected to literacy, always makes me more reflective about my own practices and assumptions.

In Trithimius’ “In Praise of Scribes,” he comments that parchment lasts longer than paper (35), that copying is a form of manual labor (49), that one who cannot write should still read (85), that books should be protected (93), and that the copyist gets some level of longevity and fame beyond the author alone (97). Many of these are things that I don’t really think about as my current print/writing culture differs.

As a teacher and scholar, I often glibly talk about literacy, particularly drawing from the idea of multi-literacies from the New London Group: the role of circulating languages, shifting modalities, new genres and materials, etc. I often get stuck in a contemporary tunnel-vision and forget the socio-technical systems that underscore literacy.

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CCR 633: Memory and Platonic Print

One of the main things I get from reading Walter Ong’s “Writing is a Technology that Restructures Thought” is his primary thesis: that writing–particularly non-oral alphabetic discursive literacies–not only offer tools for communication but change how we think and communicate in fundamentally “noetic” way. As he writes, “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form” (24).

Ong’s point connects to the ongoing discussion of whether technology or artifacts have politics, though in this case, it focuses more on the way that technology affects our thinking.

One way writing changes us is through memory. As we noted from Rickert–who drew from Hayles–people have tended to build “smarter” technology to help with memory. This could include the early tokens of Mesopotamia, as Denise Schmandt-Besserat discussed, and their capacity to track goods. It could also include the various  reminder and calendar apps that populate smart phones and computers. All of these keep track of other things so we don’t have to.

On the one hand, this is positive. Answering a few Doodle polls this past week to schedule meetings, I’ve consulted the calendar on my smart phone. I also use a more low-tech near-daily inventory of general to-dos. All of these keep my working memory from getting too cluttered.

But Socrates, via Plato–whom Ong cites–criticizes these technologies, particularly the technology of writing. As Socrates says, in the apparent voice of King Thamus, “You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality.” The person who writes something down, he goes on, is relying on extrinsic things–an extrinsic system of signs, materials outside the body, etc.–and is only creating a later sign-post to return to an earlier thought. The writer is not actually holding onto and engaging with the thought. They can’t defend it either. The thought is orphaned, isolated, and silent.

This leads Socrates to characterize writing as something static, like a visual image. As he  says, “The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The this is true of written words. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever.” I find the turn to the visual to be an interesting shift, but it makes sense, as visuals are more static if we take an oral view of language.

This characterization made more sense as Ong took it up, connecting the static quality that Socrates ascribes to print to the static “being” of Platonic forms.  As Ong argues, “Platonic form was form conceived of by analogy precisely with visible form. Despite his touting of logos and speech, the Platonic ideas in effect modelled intelligence not so much on hearing as on seeing” (29). We see this with his discussion in the Protagorus, as they dissect a poem, which would be hard to do without a static referent.

Indeed, print is a visual medium, a series of squiggles carried through some medium–captured through handwriting, type-faces, or pixels. It is silent, like a fresco, and in a Platonic sense, it’s non-material. But this silent, non-material Being of writing, as Ong notes, “assures its endurance and its potential for being resurrected into limitless living contexts by a limitless number of living readers” (31). It gets “spoken” in our heads or through bodies and machines, but as the word-iself, it feels permanent.  Parmenides has triumphed over Heraclitus.

This non-material sense of writing brings me back to one of my teachers in Classical Philosophy who drew a triangle on the board. “What is this?” he asked. “A triangle,” we said. “No,” he replied, “it’s some chalk dust smudged a certain way.” He then wrote out the definition; we fell into the same trap. “No,” he replied, “it’s the definition of a triangle.” The triangle-in-itself is only mediated into existence, never actually existing as a material being.

With this Platonic view of writing, I think we are somewhat trapped in all the distancing that Ong ascribes to writing. It’s a somewhat long litany, but he often focuses on the growing divide between the “lifeworld” and the abstract, as writing makes our own thinking more abstracted from everyday life. We discuss more the idea of things than the things in themselves. Time and space also distance. We become more artificial in out being, though, as Ong paradoxically notes, it’s natural for humans to be artificial through technology. Technology, itself, is natural.

But I don’t think we need to be Platonic. As Heidegger argues–and Rickert–regarding the fourfold, dwelling assumes a lifeworld of both matter and meaning. “Hammer,” as word, is deeply stitched into the material of the hammer-object and the action of human-hammering, and in-turn, this layered ontology of the object, withdrawing and presencing as the situation changes, fits into the broader world of relations. So, to me, there is nothing Platonic about a hammer or the word hammer.

The same for visuals. I think here of Lauri Gries’ work. Following the Obama Hope image with a New Materialist underpinning, she highlights the “vital materiality” of the image. As she writes, “rhetoric transforms and transcends across genres, media, and forms as it circulates and intra-acts with other human and nonhuman entities. Rhetoric also moves in nonlinear, inconsistent, and often unpredictable ways within and across multiple networks of associations” (7).  Seeing the networked and networking threads and ripples of beings–both human and nonhuman, concrete and nonmaterial–something that feels “distant” or “dead” is very much alive.

CCR 633: Thinking through Things, Dwelling, and Fourfold

This past weekend, my parents and I attended a concert at a Anyela’s a winery just outside of Skaneateles. From our seats, we saw lanes of grapes, stretched out like topography along the hills. Behind the stage, the lake reflected back the setting sun in bleeding reds and oranges staining the the once-blue water.  The stage rose up like a wooden ark, seeming to sit becalmed amid the people, trees, lake, and grapevines. And the musicians–a motley collection of strings, brass, harpsichord, and players–played as the sky dimmed through stirred-up rainbows into muted black.

In time, crickets chirped amid bow-strokes and the temperature fell. Under-dressed for the cold, I buttoned up my cardigan and sipped at my Cabernet Franc–its living brethren growing on the hills nearby.  When the sky was a steady darkness, fireworks perched over the shoulder of a distant hill, occasionally sneaking a muted rumble into the music.

At one level, these noises and sites–combined with our distant seats–got “in the way” and impeded the “piece” of Vivaldi or Sufjan Stevens from reaching us, “the audience.” Vivaldi may have pulled out his (wig) hair imagining how fireworks, crickets, and someone tripping over a stair in the dark would fit is double cello concerto.

This is what my parent’s thought. But the whole time I kept thinking about Heidegger and Rickert’s ambient rhetoric, thinking how this particular concert was incredibly ambient, even down to the fourfold of Heidegger’s dwelling. How the crickets and the cold, the sloped earth and changing sky, fit together, indeed “spoke together.”

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CCR 711: Narrative and Rhetoricity

What struck me most from the readings in Disability and the Teaching of Writing by Cynthia Lewiecki-Wilson and Brenda Jo Brueggeman is the role of narrative.

For some, like Mark Mossman and John Hockenberry, stories are sites of vocalization. Indeed, Mossman stresses the political impact of stories, arguing, “telling stories. . . is doing something, making something happen, for telling stories, in the social context of disability, articulates the rhetoric of social change” (165). The “rhetoric of social change” arises from vocalizing a subjective experience that  normally lies hidden or marginalized.

And while Hockenberry evokes a less deliberate position, the power of his narrative traversing the subway, especially the way the white passengers consistently ignore him, in itself is a rhetorical assertion of being. Coming back to past readings, like Pendergast or Yergeau, this rhetoricity allows an existence of sorts that may otherwise get unacknowledged or ignored by those in power, much like Hockenberry himself.

Michael Berubé points out a similar need for recognition in the context of the possibility afforded by disability legislation for his son Jamie with Down Syndrome. He critiques the idea of “intrinsic human rights and human dignity” by pointing to a blunt reality: “what would it mean for Jamie to ‘possess’ rights that no one on earth recognized” (241)? Framed more in the context of narrative, what would one do if no one listened to the stories of Hockenberry, Yergeau, or Mossmann?

A similar silencing takes place in Audre Lorde’s reflections on prosthetic breasts. Rather than reflect on (and help make sense of) “the feeling and fact” (254) of her lost breast, Lorde gets encouraged to simply get a prosthetic one. In this case, Lorde’s attempt is not only ignored but encouraged into silence,  “glossed over” as “not looking on ‘the bright side of things'” (252). Instead, other narratives of womanhood, focused on outward normality, get reinforced. As a woman, one should look good (and normal) regardless of inward understanding.

Dominant narratives also get examined by David Mitchell, who describes how many texts use “narrative prosthesis,” grounding narrative in “a desire to compensate for a limitation or to reign in excessiveness” (187). In this way, disability has a ubiquitous presence, yet remains invisible and filtered out, explained away or dealt with in the story.

Tobin Siebers futher highlights the political importance of these aesthetic dimensions. Though less grounded on narrative, Siebers focuses on the larger symbolic web that informs attitudes toward bodies. Here, description is central: “Human communities come into being and maintain their coherence by imagining their ideal forms on the basis of other bodies. It is no accident, then, that descriptions in disarray summon images of the disabled body” (264). Bodily associations and significations  infuse practices and spaces, like architecture, excluding abnormal or undesirable bodies in aesthetic–we don’t wanna see it–and pragmatic–we don’t serve it–ways.

Thus, as Ben Okri writes, “It is easy to forget how mysterious and mighty stories are. They do their work in silence, invisibly. They work with all the internal materials of your mind and self. They become part of you while changing you. . . . subtly, at night, beneath the waters of consciousness, they are altering your world.” Evoking change or promoting silence, stories, especially in a disability context, have power. Often, just being heard–or being heard in discord to demeaning ideologies–does feel like an important step. A method and methodology for change.

But at the same time, I’m curious about the broader politics of listening. Like Bakhtin–and many others–have pointed out, the listener is also part of the communicative act. They are also part of rhetoric and sense-making. So is the broader ambience, to use Rickert’s approach, of “matter and meaning” that inform a latent affectability in the rhetorical ecology.

I think my guiding question this semester has been: what if that “listener” or the ambience of a situation is not open to the voice of people with disabilities. Silence occurs, subjectivities erased behind a static of terministic screens and world-weaving narratives, but this is not simply vocal silence. It is ontological. It’s the erasure from public life, politics, educational paradigms, paradigms of mind, rhetoricity. But at the same time, embodied subjectivity–bodies in and for themselves–“are,” like a palimpsest trying to get read.  But the etchings and rubrics of another are already trying to speak for them, be they laws, procedure, or ideologies, burying the deeper rhetoric that is already there.

Thus, the question is not simply speaking or listening, but getting others to listen, and getting those who need to be heard into positions above the “chatter,” to use Heidegger’s term, where their own rhetoricity resonates. It’s about creating a system where kairos takes place and things change.

CCR 711: Early Thinking on the Final Paper

think my larger question/interest is based around seeing the “institution” as a rhetorical agent. I’m still moving to more fully define what I mean by institution, but at this stage, I see it as an organization or custom that persists through time and helps care for, manage, or direct a particular issue–here, disability. I guess what drew me to this particular question is the sort of “banality of evil” that we discussed, the way that fairly good or neutral people end up perpetuating oppressive actions.

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CCR 611: Avoiding Neutrality

I found a lot of rich material from today’s readings, so I guess I’ll just pick a thread and run with it: neutrality.

As Horton notes, “Neutrality is just following the crowd. Neutrality is just being what the system wants us to be. Neutrality, in other words, is an immoral act” (102). In this context, neutrality is immoral because structures remain in place–be they of racism, classism, etc.–that thrive on the status quo. Thus, to remain neutral, one perpetuates the problematic momentum that already exists.

This resonates with Kynard’s observation on the rhetoric of student “need” that often gets invoked by teachers and administrators in the face of more radical critique. As she writes, “the trope of what students need is usually claimed as politically neutral territory for
a rather conservative mode of curriculum and instruction” (93). Such needs, argues Kynard, “are for the monolithic student, the monolithic kind of college writing requirement, the monolithic argumentative essay, and the monolithic college assignment” (93). In this way, doing nothing, one is siding with the status quo.

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CCR 611: Citizenship, Affect, and Literacy

As Amy Wan highlights, citizenship is a messy word, a word that comes up in many discussions about writing but rarely gets interrogated or defined. It exists as a “ambient” term.

At its most reductive, it’s a legal status, as Wan points out. But it also has a cultural element infused with literacy. As Wan notes, “it [citizenship] is not simply a conferred legal status, but cultivated through a number of civil political, and social rights and obligations” (27).  Literacy training allows one to “cultivate” these abilities, letting people who lack literacy–like the immigrants whom Wan discusses–enter as “productive” members of society.

Here, once again, literacy instruction is tied up with gate keeping. Instructors of writing, as part of the ambient cohort of literacy training, do citizen training. And the roles of this citizen, while having many contradictory forms, closely align with economics in Wan’s view: “Through an emphasis on productivity and economic survival in literacy training, immigrants were taught the importance of literacy as a habit of citizenship and as a marker of productivity” (41). And this productivity was further aligned with the habit-training of literacy. “Good” citizens are not only literate and productive, but honest and clean.

And above all, this citizenship bore the odd paradox of becoming part of something–the state, the market, the culture, etc.–but had whil being individual. One chose to be productive, good-natured, and American, says the narrative, by pursuing literacy.

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CCR 611: “In order to have a language remain fixed”

“[I]n order to have a language remain fixed, it is first necessary that those who speak it become dead.” –Thomas Lounsbury (qtd. in Harker 18)

“Reality is infinitely diverse, compared with even the subtlest conclusions of abstract thought, and does not allow of clear-cut and sweeping distinctions. Reality resists classification.” –Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

Both Crowley and Harker pick up the “gate-keeping” function of composition and its role in erecting a “great divide” between the educationally privileged and others left outside the gate, sifted into basic writing classes through exams or excluded altogether.

Harker takes a more historical approach centered around the assumptions of literacy, particularly the literacy myth. Crowley takes a more contemporary, labor-focused approach, examining the problems associated with the universal composition requirement and making the “modest proposal” to make it optional for students, though she  grounds this in historical issues.

Crowley’s modest proposal to end the requirement did not seem as far fetched as I initially thought it would. Combined with Harker’s historical look at literacy and role it played in similar proposals, I found myself more responsive to the proposal. I’m not sure it would do all of the things that Crowley lists–like the erasure of intake exams or the creation of more equitable curricula and labor–and as she notes, “if you work in a corrupt system, you have to face the fact that making things better for people working
in one part of the system may make things worse for people who work in another part of it.”

But I think the “universal” nature of this requirement is worth considering, but to do so, I want to step back from the readings, focusing on the notion of “death” evoked by Lounsbury and Dostoevsky’s title, a reference to the Czarist prison he served time in. For Dostoevsky, the people “die” through their exile from society. Although many of his characters will face literal death via execution, their exclusion results in a sort of death-in-life.

In Lounsbury’s quote, I see a potential link with “dead” languages. Latin and Greek may seem more fixed than contemporary English because the speakers are all “dead”–though I think this stability is somewhat simplistic and wrong. But also, the “death” here is a similar exclusion from the influence of language. The language is both “fixed” (repaired) and “fixed” (made stable) as one “fixes” (sterilizes) the speaking public in a given context. Heteroglossia and utterance give way to print’s perceived permanence and longevity.

Thus the question of who and what get excluded from composition becomes the more salient question. Phrased another way, perhaps the difficulties of this “universal requirement” aren’t in the required part, but the universal. Needing to fit a unified goal across an institution or a set of institutions feels both impossible and oppressive. And in particularly top-down universalizing curricula goals–like in states like Colorado–I wonder how assumptions get made about students, institutional goals, and literacy.

I argue that these assumptions lead to the exclusions that “fix” language student voice, creating the gate-keeping that Harker and Crowley critique. In an ideal world, composition could be about opening gates or complicating gates, drawing from the embodied, enworlded, and contextualized “reality” of students and instructors, which remain frustratingly unfixed and non-universal.

But ever resilient and reified, myths of literacy persist and perpetuate power structures. Thus, I think the step may begin more basically by challenging these myths. Perhaps this may involve repealing the requirement, but it may also involve something more basic: checked assumptions, nomadic sensitivities, and a careful assumption to listen closely to both labor and student–not just as abstracts, but as ever-changing bodies.

CCR 711: Hauntology/Ontology and the Structures of Exclusion

“Haunting these [education] policy discourses is the existence of an absent presence. There are no bodies recognized here. Just test statistics. Research-based outcomes. A cornucopia of lifeless data. In the stolid precision of statistical measurement and evidence-based research, the introduction of bodies to the discussion is a dangerous and messy act. Bodies have history. Bodies transform in context. Bodies are mobile. Bodies are unpredictable. Bodies are not always compliant”

–Nirmala Erevelles, Disability and Difference in Global Contexts

“124 was spiteful.”
Tony Morrison, Beloved

The notion that Erevelles draws from Patricia Williams of an “absent presence” that “haunts” these systems of bureaucratic procedure struck me in particular, connecting to some previous thinking on “The Specter of Disability” and the exclusionary practices that the withdrawing nature of “normal” bodies can create.

As she notes, these systems can create imperializing ghettos that create outcasts in a given system, like an internal colony. Those excluded from the norm get walled away, often literally, in a material segregation that exists, despite the legal restrictions against segregation.  In the case of disability, this can often have more paternal forms, like “special education.” But as Erevelles points out, the paternalistic framing and “good” intentions cannot suppress the sense of punishment that such interventions have.

Reflecting this, Erevelles writes, “Educational institutions  present themselves as agents of benevolence for the billions of students it purports to serve on a daily basis. However, these institutions. . . fail to educate ‘different’ students . . . because they have transformed themselves into institutions of social control  intent on following bureaucratic procedures” (118). Far from neutral, these procedures perpetuate the normal and exclude the ‘different’ through various logics. For example, as Erevelles notes in her later chapters, the logic of humanistic citizenship implicitly excludes those with severe disability, even in its more liberal, inclusive variants. Locked into these logics, educational policy becomes colonial and ableist.

I think Erevelles’ grounded historical-materialist approach to these issues presents a powerful bedrock. But reading, I also was considering the way these “hauntings” might fit into a more ontological outlook on world.

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CCR 711: Bodies and Webbed Worlds

Reading Kristen Lindgren’s “Bodies in Trouble,” I kept coming back to Heidegger’s distinction between “present-at-hand” and “ready-for-hand.” In Being and Time, Heidegger argues that people tend to encounter objects as ready-for-hand, meaning that we encounter them based on what they do or how we use them. He uses the example of the hammer. We encounter and look at hammers as a tool to “hammer,” not as an abstract object in itself.

Moreover, he argues, this object-defining function is grounded in a “world” of interrelations and definitions that help constitute “being-in-the-world.” For example, one couldn’t hammer without nails and boards, and one couldn’t build a house without the concept of “house,” and one may not need to make a house without nature’s capacity to storm. A world of relation webs out from this hammer, contextualizing its being.

But when ready-to-hand, the world of these interrelations and the hammer as an object recedes into the background and one sets to work.

This all changes once the hammer breaks. Suddenly it can no longer “hammer,” and it becomes an alien object in our hands, forcing us to reflect on what it “is.” This approaches Heidegger’s present-at-hand, when we look at an object in a more abstract, property-oriented way, like a scientist or theorist. In particular, Heidegger wants to critique the Cartesian tradition of looking at objects in abstract ways, outside of their more fundamental being as objects in the world, closely involved with our being.

But I’ve always been stuck on the breaking of the hammer.

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