Monday, February 11, 2008

Passions and pedagogies in the crisis of modernism

Ahh, the crisis of modernism. For those of you who haven’t taken a class from Victor V., the crisis of modernism and postmodernism are one and the same. His point is that modernism’s not over yet – it’s in its death-throes, and as its child fights its way into our common sense, the parent and child exist together for a while, duking it out. Think of the battles between Luke and Vader: spectacular, messy, hands lost on either side.

I made the (smart, as it turns out) choice of reading Sirc in tonight’s optional pieces, and I’m going to get to him and make him converse with the other three at some point. But first, I need to write down the fantasy that Sirc’s article made me have about my dissertation and possibly all of my future academic work.

Sirc is basically making an argument for applying postmodernism to composition. Instead of single authors pouring their individual geniuses onto blank pages, Sirc envisions authors writing by bricolage (which term I was amazed to never see, btw) – selecting bits and pieces of meaningful scraps and putting them together into a new meaningful whole. He wants composition to be “choosing rather than fabricating” (187). Such forward-thinking writers would, by taking the “means of production” (i.e. publication) into their own hands, wrest control of texts from the textual authorities, the gatekeepers, the Wardens of Taste: academics. The ideal locale for this pomo writing, Sirc suggests, is the Web. (And he wrote all this before Web 2.0!)

So okay, here’s the fantasy Sirc’s article made me have. What if my dissertation was an evolving web text? The hypertext parts are exciting enough: I have this vague sense of not just hyperlinked documents, but visual representations of 3-d interconnecting pieces, arranged into little chapterlets with my stories and musings offshooting to videos, pics, audio, other sites, etc. But I’ve batted around the hypertext parts before. What usually turned me off to them was that I couldn’t imagine wanting to read a single-author hypertext, especially one that’s book-length. What occurred to me tonight was, why would it have to be single-author? What if I published sections of my diss as I worked on them, inviting commentary from not only my committee but anyone else who cared to read and comment, like my wife, or my best friend, or other gamers (academic or not)? Gamers are some of the most prolific writers on the web. They’re also frequently the least well mannered, the harshest critics, the most enticed to flaming; but hell, one has to develop a thick skin in academia anyway. I would use these public discussions to revise my ideas; I’d probably keep the originals and the revisions up so everyone could see the ideas evolve. It would be academic conversation in real time.

And it would still be academic, or at least my part would be. It would still involve all the research and critical thinking that an ordinary academic book would. One of the problems I have with Sirc is his air of utopianism, of anything-whatever goes. I’m not against research; I’m certainly not against academic rigor; and I’m really not against informed taste, either (though I acknowledge that all such “taste,” as well as the “information” behind it, is culturally constructed, upheld by loci of power, ultimately subjective, & c.). These are parts of academia that I respect and like. But in my fantasy, the parts of academia that I don’t like – its disconnection from the outside world in terms of where it’s published, the voice it’s written in, and the audience it’s “conversing” with – disappear, because the medium just steps around them.

And therein lie the problems. People don’t like to give up power, especially people who work extremely hard to attain positions that give them very little power in the first place. My fantasy dissertation circumvents all of the standard hoops and features of academic publishing, the biggest being peer review and print publishing. The latter is hooey and is on its way out anyway, but I understand, at least abstractly, the merits of the former. Actually, I shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss print publishing, since its ethos is still very much real. And as someone who not only wants to finish his Ph.D. but then get a job afterward, I am concerned with ethos. Of course, in inspirational movies, and in Sirc’s essay, the guy who’s rejected for his crazy-seeming-but-actually-awesome ideas winds up victorious in the end, vindicated by history. (Of course, a lot of those guys were fucking miserable in their lifetimes.) Would my fantasy idea get rejected? Is it awesome, nuts, dumb? Maybe y’all can help me out with that.

In the meantime, let me hastily attempt to do the assignment this blog’s supposed to have been accomplishing. Actually, as I look back over Yancey’s piece (my second-favorite of this group), I notice some ways that Sirc and my fantasy-babble that he inspired can relate. Early in her article, Yancey notes,

Never before has the proliferation of writings outside the academy so counterpointed the compositions inside. Never before have the technologies of writing contributed so quickly to the creation of new genres. The consequence of these two factors is the creation of a writing public that, in development and in linkage to technology, parallels the development of a reading public in the 19th century.

Literacy today is in the midst of a tectonic change. (298)

I think Sirc is celebrating this tectonic change, the new compositions of the writing public that’s outside the academy. I think I’m fantasizing about academic work that reaches outside to this writing public while still maintaining the better qualities of academic work. This work would reveal and reach out to the multiple literacies that Yancey mentions (or that the New London group handily combined into “multiliteracies”), not only because they’re fun and interesting, but because they’re “social in a way that school literacy all too often only pretends to be” (302). In many ways, Yancey says, the composition we’re practicing now already incorporates “multiple genres remediated across contexts of time and space” (308); apparently, we just need to acknowledge this fact in our writing and teaching. Yancey’s concept of remediation is not entirely dissimilar to Sirc’s concept of choosing, in that they both involve altering some already-existing text(s) for a new context and purpose. And as she says about hypertexts towards the end of her piece, “In sum, the potential of invention is a function of delivery, and what and how you arrange - which becomes a function of the medium you choose - becomes who you invent” (317). Delivery, arrangement, choice, bricolage. Synthesis. Research. Who will I be able to invent?


amymcdougall said...

Well, Ritter, I've gotta say that your minor criticisms of Sirc don't hold a candle to the praises you owe him (and yourself, of course) for the dissertation epiphany his essay inspired in you. Too Utopian or not, Doctor Pomo Eccentric Sirc deserves a big ol' embrace from you when you meet him in New Orleans in four short weeks. I'll be watching.

Awesome ideas are a-brewing, and I commend you for your boldness in even considering an interactive project that would reach--and invite unbridled responses from--the reading public.

With a B.A. in print journalism, I've come to value words and ideas that reach the common people, so I echo your frustration with the insular nature of academic writing. But, like you said (or Yancey said and you agreed?), we're seeing far more cases where society at large is affecting scholarly writing and scholarly writing is "finding its way out." I'm convinced that your fantasy could easily join the ranks of such projects.

While retaining strong ethos and research (which could involve applying many of the theories we've read about in this seminar), a project like this could be far more effective in speaking to the multi-literacies that make up the reading public that surrounds us and that IS us. (Wouldn't scholars within our niche world be relieved to read your dis b/c it breaks convention?) And I don't think I'm the only one who would cheer you on... in fact, I think I hear the New London Group chanting your name now...

amymcdougall said...

Oh man... I just read Rebecca Moore Howard's essay for today, and though the focus on plagiarism isn't as relevant to your fantastical dis idea, many of her thoughts on the proliferation of text certainly are. Ideas of high vs. low literacy, literacy "for the masses," and how the public responds/reacts when, say, scholars publish online instead of traditional print.

She says, "[the] mechanism of mass-distributed text occasions a new round of anxiety and resistance—as is evident in the deluge of scholarly and media publications challenging the value and credibility of weblogs and wikis" (6).

Will you face this brand of resistance from the old-schoolers? Perhaps, but I think it's about time they stop sleeping with their hallowed books and start logging on to forums that are more inclusive to those who can't (or don't want to) get published by Harvard University Press.