Published on November 26th, 2012 | by Thompson4
Collections Shedding Containers
Collin Gifford Brooke’s Lingua Fracta seems an ideal closure to our course this semester, and “[c]losure is no less important now than it ever has been, but with the advent of new media and interfaces that resist closure, proairesis provides an important corrective to the hermeneutically oriented inventional theory that has prevailed in our field to date” (86). Technology has certainly changed what we’ve come to think of as writing and even the brains we use to think about writing, but “our cortex did not specifically evolve for writing. Rather, writing evolved to fit the cortex,” Stanislas Dehaene would most certainly say (Hayles 70). Now that technology is forcing the evolution of our brains, it’s time we allow for the evolution of writing practices in universities and high schools by utilizing these technologies.
Brooke’s chapter “Proairesis” is a real eye-opener. In fact, I had trouble staying awake until this chapter, but Brooke finally starts talking turkey (excuse the holiday pun) in Chapter 3. “[M]uch of our theorizing about invention in rhetoric and composition remains bound by the particular media for which we invent, and for the most part we invent (and ask our students to invent) for the printed page,” (68) and although this book is just four years old, we, as academia, still seem to be stuck in the past. N. Katherine Hayles reports in her 2010 essay “How We Read: Close, Hyper, Machine,” “Students read incessantly in digital media and write in it as well, but only infrequently are they encouraged to do so in literature classes or in environments that encourage the transfer of print reading abilities to digital and vice versa” (63). Earlier in Lingua Fracta Brooke states “we appear willing to acknowledge that rhetorical practice changes as our technologies do, and yet we have maintained an oddly binary vision of that change” (35). Many of the obstacles preventing this change may be due to the fears raised by Nicholas Carr and Mark Bauerlein. (Interesting anecdote, Mark, since you seem to be so fond of them: I forgot your name but remembered the name of your book and Googled it. So I forgot your name, but remembered what N. Katherine Hayles thought of your book. Does that make me a member of the dumbest generation, or am I a member of the smartest generation for classifying keywords in order to better utilize my brain and technologies, or are you the smart one for coming up with a creative, memorable title?) So “digital reading may be sloppy in the extreme,” as Hayles puts it, but “other research not cited by Bauerlein indicates that this and similar strategies work well to identify pages of interest and to distinguish them from pages with little or no relevance to the topic at hand” (66). I admit, I have some of the same fears Carr and Bauerlein do, but I also believe in the philanthropic and educational opportunities new media provides.
One of the educational opportunities new media provides is a first-hand experience for students to shed light on the myth that academic writing is simply putting a container around words. “Academics are trained to read networks of scholarship that, even in a print context, are densely interlinked and connected, if not digitized. We learn to situate our own work within those networks, providing links in the forms of citations, foot-, or endnotes, and bibliographic entries. The texts that we produce bear a strong resemblance to individual readings of a hypertext: We choose particular paths through webs of scholarship, keep track of those paths, and account for them by publishing essays and books that then occupy a place within the webs that we have engaged” (78-79). The media itself has imposed this myth, and as Mark Richardson pleads in “Writing Is Not Just a Basic Skill,” it’s time we free our universities of it. “Writing is not the expression of thought; it is thought itself. Papers are not containers for ideas, containers that need only to be well formed for those ideas to emerge clearly. Papers are the working out of ideas. The thought and the container take shape simultaneously” (2). Using blogs and even social media, like the example Hayles provides regarding the use of Facebook to learn Romeo and Juliet, will not only shed light on the issue of “containers,” but make students more comfortable while investigating and learning their own, personalized writing practices.
I called this blog “Collections Shedding Containers” because I think Brooke’s discussion of collections, especially the use of data mining to produce tagclouds and the example of Google Reader as a collection that allows for searchable content, is indicative of how these databases are a form of writing. “In itself, language does not actually mean anything; it is only when it takes the form of utterance, when it is put into practice, that meaning is generated. The same is true of databases” (101). Brooke certainly utilizes the multi-modality we all wanted from Manovich, and I think the full-page screenshots in the book may have been part of the reason I thought he did a better job describing databases and how they too are writing despite what Manovich would call an absence of narrative. These collections are representative of a larger whole that many readers may not understand, but those that hold a common interest or a relevant question will find them helpful because “we as users participate in the construction of our interfaces” (134) and “[t]he more intimately we are involved in the assembly of a collection, the more likely we are to perceive it incrementally and narratively, while different patterns may emerge in a casual encounter of someone else’s collection” (110). That, of course, reminds me of a movie, one I’ve used for this blog before, but a different scene.
“[T]he technical structure of the archiving archive also determines the structure of the archivable content even in its very coming into existence and in its relationship to the future. The archivization produces as much as it records the event” (qtd. in Brooke 143). I love this Derrida quote because I think it encompasses what Brooke is saying about databases and collections. The act of archiving is a form of writing itself. The simple act of Owen (Danny DeVito) collecting “change my daddy let me keep” gives the collection a narrative to those he shares the collection with and is absent of narrative if Larry (Billy Crystal) were to pry the box of change from beneath the floorboards without Owen present. We could say the same thing about the team WHIP of the Minnesota Twins in 2012. WHIP is a baseball statistic that stands for Walks/Hits per Innings Pitched, but for those of you who don’t know that, the statistic is simply a meaningless collection of numbers. For me, it’s a way to determine a pitcher’s value through an analysis of balls batted, bases on balls, durability, and, in a way, composure. “We take in information, sometimes without being aware of it, and only notice it when that information connects with other data to form a pattern worth investigating” (166). At least you now know what WHIP is, and that collection of numbers will no longer be meaningless.
With that said, I think it’s beneficial to consider some of the proposed changes Brooke suggests to the rhetorical canons because the suggestions are based on McLuhan’s idea that “the medium is the message,” and our writing practices are relative to our technologies. I also think Hayles presents plenty of examples of our technologies being used in ways to bring about a change to our writing practices that teachers should consider.