Note to readers

This is a blog that I'm required to keep that's full of unedited, near stream-of-consciousness reactions to similarly required and related readings in a graduate course in N.C. State University's Communication, Rhetoric, and Digital Media program. The way these posts are written help me interrogate and understand what's going on in our readings. I'm identifying what's troublesome so that I can give it more thought, but the posts aren't written in a style that's productive for audiences outside of our class to read. That's by design. I start with contestation, then spend heavens only knows how long researching, recutting, and reevaluating so that I can try and see what potentially productive readings I can extract from these source for use in my own work's contributions back to the field. Comments encouraged, but please, you'll likely need a thick skin if your work is quoted here.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Sircular, Out of the Box Reasoning

First, a quick aside. I didn't see a good post to add this to as a comment, but below is a sample database schema, and not even a particularly complicated one (click to enlarge).

Leaves me wondering if Johnson-Eilola wasn't misrepresenting a database-as-only-connections a bit. Let's go a step further. What's a database minus the fragmented words? It's a structure for those words (in a poststructuralist sense). If a database depended on the existence of specific words, how could it anticipate new ones? That is, a database is a schema that is created to maximize the efficiency when you search its contents. Other applications might parse words on the web into the schema, but the schema remains the same. Combined with its engine, the database is a process which is not content specific. etc.

But I was a database administrator in another life. Let's move on...

(Ah, if I'd been the first to use the horrible pun in the title. Poor guy. I can relate to having folks use your name in what seems to them to be horribly creative ways which really aren't at all if you've been keeping tabs, well, all of your life... Picture stolen from here without permission, but it doesn't look like he bothered either.)

I have always enjoyed reading Geoffrey Sirc (an online pub somewhat similar to this one is "Stagolee as Writing Instructor"), and this chapter was no exception. Yet instead of starting in on the obvious experimental format of the piece, I'd like to launch directly into the jarringly abrupt shift in his argument that occurs a few pages into his "Activities" section, where we read...

... my challenge, I feel, is to have these young people burnish not anthologized writers' essays but their own form of powerful pensee, while, certainly, at the same time learning some kind of basic prose styling to help them avoid verbial pitfalls in formal settings. (128 emph obviously mine -R)

The shift from the theoretical near-hyperbole to wholly practical gave me whiplash, honestly. The admission of such pedestrian (overstatement) considerations inserts an entirely new, not particularly obvious pedagogical subtext to the chapter-proper that came before it. When reading it, page 123 in particular, for some reason, I littered the margins with questions of these pragmatics -- but not complicated ones. They were often, rather, extremely brief questions revealing near disbelief of the disconnectedness of Sirc's theory with the assumed practice.

Sirc QuoteConfused Marginalia
Arrangement of materials and notational jottings is a desperately important compositional skill.
Archiving such work in boxes on the internet would allow others to study and re-arrange our student's notational scribbles, in much the same way Suquet couldn't wait to get in and re-arrange Duchamp's scribbled notes from The Green Box.
Caesura--the stylistic device most absent in our cirricula.

Each of these quick scratches is loaded with follow-ups. What are the politics of his suggestions? What sort of academy does Sirc envision? Is it really a surprise that caesura doesn't have a firmer spot in our instruction? What is the use of a "compositional future" that can foreground "intellectual fascination" and the "idio-aesthetic" to the point of eclipsing conventional writing? And now that we know that pragmatics do figure prominently in his conception, the politics are that much more difficult to identify.

For me, his continued use of the curiosity cabinet (116 (bottom), 125 ("curio cabinet"), 126 (generally; here museums) as a central metaphor speaks to these politics. The curiosity cabinet, though it may have contained what seems like trash and found objects to today's viewer and did, on occasion, literally contain "animal and bird shit" (118), was not an exercise in "childlike modes of acquisition" (unless you play the progressivist science card) but colonization and imperialism. They were, instead, a means of replicating a colonial mastery overseas through a largely symbolic recreation of that mastery at home. The cabinets were a sort of Discovery Channel of the 15th through 17th centuries, allowing one to, through the presentation of hummingbird eggs, fossils, plant clippings (growing colonial species in one's garden was a similar fad representing control and hierarchical superiority of civilization over savage lands in the 16-1800s) and other artifacts that were in fashion. The cabinets were meant to quickly represent and recreate the impression of the vastness of the British Empire (and others'), not provide a ludic outlet for its collectors.

You can still see a little of this unquestioned acceptance of colonization in Sirc's use and recommendation of commercial software like Word, Powerpoint, and Dreamweaver, when each has easy to find, mature analogs in FOSS software (say Abiword, OpenOffice, and/or Seamonkey's Composer or Amaya). Can one forward an argument that Sirc's eventual interest in stopping short of an academics for the same motivation as the Cornell's box art reflects the degree that education-as-professionalization has eliminated education-for-intellectualism? Is there anything but the corporate university? (And if you followed me over the edge on that jump of logic, congratulations on your comprehension skills. I'm not sure I can follow it from that poorly written section.) Sirc's classroom, condoning the breakdown of the corporate/academic divide each time he sends students to Word, becomes a bizarre self-contradiction, and I don't mean in some salvageable heterotopic sense.

I'm also confused by what seems a clear contraction: Privileging "Any composition or work that cannot be reproduced in standard sheet form or cannot be reproduced at all" (Hendricks quoted, 118) while at the same time lauding the opportunity to "the ability to archive the mysterious wealth of the quotidian verbalscape" (123, "archiving" also on 124, about 17 lines up) which the binary medium's ability to accurately and infinitely reproduce enables. There seems to still be a naivete of how digital media works here. The introduction to Sign Here!: Handwriting in the Age of New Media (Neef et al) cleverly identifies that the typewriter's standardization of script "shifted the emphasis to the standardization of script, but it may even have increased the notion of authenticity associated with handwriting" (8). Cornell's boxes seem to have some of the same characteristics of "authenticity" that Sirc's digital box art lacks by virtue of its medium.

Ever since the invention of and spread of moveable type in modern times and of the typewriter in the late-19th century, the idiosyncracsy of manual writing has given way to standardized, replicable, power-driven letters produced by machines. (Sign Here! 7)

I believe the lessons extend to Sirc's suggested connection of Cornell box to the html eBox as well.

There's also the danger of his line of reasoning opening itself up to a critique of attempting to creating a discultural elite, a haute couture to compositional weaving. What precisely is the place of this "aesthetic of the cool"?

I'm caught wondering why his chapter is itself so conventional, and believe we are meant, perhaps, to consider the audience: Composition instructors that don't yet "get it", whatever it is, exactly. There are small pranks of convention in the chapter that don't retard comprehension by design; the pranks are so small as to be only noticed, and serve as a pain-free introduction to the feel, if not the practice, of what Sirc argues.

There are interesting lessons here, both the activities, (which seem excellently conceived and do seem to argue their usefulness on their faces) as well as in theory (the web, as currently situated, is particularly well-crafted for realizing "the potential for such open-ended text" where "no draft is ever finished," or at least not necessarily finished (120), nor is there a particularly good reason that web content needs "meet the standards of text in print" (Applen quoted on 120)). Sirc's approach, as experimental and unconventional as it might be, can be hooked into composition instruction through these openings, and be used to represent a feel rather than a process, thereby becoming useful pedagogical tools. Doing so, however, requires something of a paradigm shift in the primary purpose of instruction in composition, and such an instructional style is one that's become less and less popular over time due to a much different (or, in the case of wundercabinets, the same?) pragmatics.

I'm tired now. I have more ranting, but I think that's plenty for our blogs, right? Welcome to the ever enjoyable world of Ruffin's paper writing. Take this shite and start editing into something that approaches comprehensible... *sigh*


Kathy O said...

Ruffin - I liked that you focused on the chapter that I found most confusing. I have never read any of Sirc's other work, and as I have been reading this semester as a PR instructor, didn't see how this would apply. Perhaps we can have an offline conversation about this to see how it might be helpful in other contexts, like in my own research (or is this more a "composition thing"? Just asking - it was all new to me)

martinkn said...

[I'm caught wondering why his chapter is itself so conventional, and believe we are meant, perhaps, to consider the audience: Composition instructors that don't yet "get it", whatever it is, exactly.] So true! I was wondering the same thing... though I think you are right that he was considering his audience and just gave us a taste of unconventional design. I personally think it is so hard to think of unique approaches to a writing task after being told most of our academic careers to think linearly Wysocki only goes into doodling and writing in the margins but Sirc really takes this further). Maybe it would help to watch the creativity of children who don't have those boundaries yet?