digital rhetoric

composing processes and the "excess of facts:" computers and writing 2007

So this is not really an account of the conference, more like a wandering or spin-off. But this phrase, the "excess of facts" came up in the lunch talk by Helen Liggett, which dealt with street photography and the composition of urban spaces. As I took it, she was talking about the difference between staged photos and those that were instead captures of daily life: the latter include an "excess of facts," purposively excised from staged photos that challenge our ability to answer or even ask what the photo is "about."

I started thinking about this in terms of a panel I’d seen earlier that drew on Latour with DerekVan Ittersum, Jody Shipka, and Patrick Berry. These presentations investigated the ways we talk about invention or innovation and what might be elided in our more traditional attempts to account for these processes. So we can see this excess in both compositions and compositional processes, or perhaps we don’t see them or have trouble seeing them or try not to see them (not willfully but as a matter of inculcated practice).

This is some interesting work. I was particularly taken with Shipka’s discussion of her student’s "chicken in a box" composition, as I think were most folks in the room. Pursuing compositional processes in these more extensive ways, out into a varied material network, will have worthwhile results I believe. At the same time, I think it is curious to imagine getting into the occluded spaces of composition through the production of additional compositions. I suppose it points to the fractal or iterative/combinatory dimensions of writing (turtles all the way down so to speak).

Then came along Richard Doyle’s engaging evening talk, which I though echoed some of the themes of my own presentation, particularly the challenges of the "attention economy" and the impact on higher education. Doyle, however, had an interesting take in which he talked about the excess of information as a productive or at least integral part of human culture. If I understand/recall correctly, he suggested that the production and dissipation of information, as we build and collapse increasingly complex theories, could almost be thought of as a central identifier of humanity. It’s something I write about, in a way, in my soon-to-be-released book from Parlor Press, The Two Virtuals: the emergence of symbolic behavior and then writing as mechanisms for managing/enabling increasingly complex informational-social structures.

In any case, Doyle’s talk suggests, to me, that the "excess of facts" is indeed a necessary function of composition, perhaps tied to the second law of thermodynamics, as he mentioned.

We already know this, I suppose, when we recognize the error of some of our students when they seek to hammer their prose into a form, to prevent the excess of facts before they even appear.

I’ll have to think about this some more. Now it’s time for me to arrange for a cab to get outta here.

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