digital rhetoric

public circulation

My sabbatical project has been thinking and writing about public networked pedagogy, meaning specifically the practice of teaching writing/rhetoric in publicly-accessible, online spaces from blogs and wikis to YouTube and Second Life. In part clearly one would have to say that each networked space has its own characteristics and thus must be dealt with separately. However that doesn’t mean that some interesting things might not be explored on a higher level of generality.

So I begin with three starting points: one non-academic, one generally academic, and one specific to our discipline.

  1. Fairly obvious… media networks have reduced the cost of collaboration (a point in Clay Shirky’s new book) and thus have made it easier to share media, information, thoughts, purposes, etc. in a market-like environment beyond the direct management of institutions, state or corporate.
  2. Media networks have given rise to a new kind of public intellectual-academic. Beyond the traditional academic star variety, it is now broadly possible for academics to be public with their work from having their own blogs to publishing in open access online journals to making their course and/or course materials public. It is now also possible for academics to hold public discussions without the taint of seeming to push things down people’s throats with some "we know better" attitude.
  3. In rhetoric and composition, particularly computers and writing, there is a growing recognition of the study of circulation and networks (two concepts I see as linked) and examining the materiality of these conditions. How do media and information circulate in/from/through/about/out (student) compositions? How might we study the networks along which this circulation transpires?

As Trimbur and others have noted, the traditional composition classroom attenuates the public characteristics of composition. Of course it cannot, and wouldn’t want to, erase them. Courses employ publicly-available textbooks, practice publicly-recognized teaching methods, engage in practices that are publicly assessed and so on. However, the student’s specific writing and the teacher’s response remain private. Indeed one might wonder why plagiarism is such a big deal when we’re just having a private chat.

Oddly, this attenuated academic discourse is meant to simulate some future public discourse, but as is often the case with simulations, it’s a copy of an original that doesn’t exist.

Trimbur goes in the direction of Marx to discuss circulation, but this gets me thinking about Derridean hauntology. One of the specters in Marx is value, and value (both use value and exchange value) is what circulates. As Derrida writes,

The "mystical character" of the commodity is inscribed before being inscribed, traced before being written out letter for letter on the forehead or the screen of the commodity. Everything begins before it begins. Marx wants to know and make known where, at what precise moment, at what instant the ghost comes on the stage, and this is a manner of exorcism, a way of keeping it at bay: before this limit, it was not there, it was powerless. WE are suggestion on the contrary that, before the coup de theatre of this instant, before the "as soon as it comes on stage as commodity, it changes into a sensuous supersensible thing," the ghost has made its apparition, without appearing in person, of course and by definition, but having already hollowed out in use-value, in the hardheaded wood of the headstrong table, the repetition (therefore substitution, exchangeability, iterability, the loss of singularity as the experience of singularity itself, the possibility of capital) without which a use could never even be determined. (Specters of Marx, 161)

So kudos to those with the will to slog through that quote! It’s kind of the "Derrida thing," the always-already-ness of the commodity. But to me it suggests how compositions are always-already haunted by their circulation through the marketplace, by their exchange-value, which as Derrida contends is necessary for use-value. We know this implicitly with texts, right?  Is an interpretation an exchange or a use? There is more than one kind of marketplace; not every exchange must directly involve money.

A composition then is a place, or perhaps more accurately a time-space along a circulating network, haunted by its virtual condition.

But then we come to this situation of the new academic/public intellectual–someone like me, unknown, just another professor, but public, out on the web: to adapt the White Album, "no one will be watching us, why don’t we do it on the web." (Indeed the only thing more ubiquitous than blogging online is doing it and putting it on the web. And yes, people will watch but the availability of porn is so huge that the number watching you is so small as to be virtually no one.) The point is about the same here. Yes, people do read (though I’m not sure if anyone reads this far!), but the relative number is virtually no one.

Anyway, public academics move in two distinct directions, I think. One direction desires to be overtly political. In my reading of scholarship about public writing in rhet/comp, it is almost always about responding to political situations or making some overtly political statement. It’s kind of risky, in a way, to ask students to expose themselves and/or to expose yourself as a "political" professor. The second direction has academics producing work of almost zero public interest (*cough*). This might be the case with many open access academic journals.

But the problem really lies, if I may be so bold, with the attenuated nature of circulation. The student says, "I don’t care who reads my paper or what ‘use’ it is, as long as my professor give me an ‘A.’" The professor says, "I don’t care (so much) who reads my article or what ‘use’ it is, as long as the journal accepts it for publication." We have made the intellectual work of humanities very insular, and by that I am not referencing its esoteric, theoretical qualities. I am instead suggesting that the way we work is closeted, insulated. This is true of both classrooms and scholarship.

Clearly this is getting to be a looong post, but I want to get back to my third starting point regarding the cost of collaboration. As I said before, this is in Clay Shirky’s new book (which I’m reading right now), but you could see it in the Cluetrain Manifesto nearly a decade ago. Institutions–corporate, state, educational–exist in part b/c they are an efficient way to organize human labor to get things done. More efficient than leaving everything to the marketplace. We can say this and set aside conventional ideology where Marxists end up with state-control and capitalists end up with corporate-control. The point here is that emerging networks lower the cost of collaboration and make markets of various types more effective.

To jump to the point: do I need the traditional hierarchical-managerial trappings of discipline and college to do intellectual work? Can we compose and share our work with larger audiences (and I’m not talking general public here but a wider audience of academics who share our interests, whatever they may be)? Can we collaborate with a wider community of students?

Of course the obvious answer to these question is yes. But the stumbling blocks have always been around authorship, validity, reputation, and so on–matters which, in my view, arise from failing to see how composition always already circulates, always already is haunted by the network.




5 replies on “public circulation”

Thanks, Alex for a really interesting post. I’d like to read this again so that I could make a more astute observation. Of course, your strongest point is the most obvious, yet one that will resonate with me for quite some time. Why do we act surprised when students just do what they do for an A when at the same time we do what we do just for tenure.
The irony is that it was never intended to be this way, that tenure was something that was a reward but in our current time, a really irrelevant measure of value. “We don’t really care what you write; we just care if what you write is published by places that have been around for x number of years and have an elite readership.”
But it’s one of those funny paradoxes that the economy seems to absorb effortlessly. What if tenure worked the way it was designed? What if publishing in a particular journal meant that people would actually read your work? I don’t think we’ve begun to scratch the surface of the extent to which digital publishing has started changing the nature of work . . . . Thoughtful post!


Well! (I approached the Derridean sentence in my usual manner–first just reading it like poetry, then going back, finding the actual sentence in it, and feeding the various clauses back into that frame. Who says training in both poetry and diagramming aren’t useful?)
To the extent that I am at all an academic anymore–even an “at large” one–I’m only ever and always already a networked one. For me, this brings freedoms and limitations that are perhaps the inverse of those at work in academia.
Almost noone reads any of it, you know, including that which is published in the tenure worthy journals. But, out here, I feel freer to chase ideas, and to forge intellectual connections far more varied than fulfilling the desire to attain any sort of rank or recognition in academia typically demands. Over the holidays, an “in the academy” colleague (I think of him as one, anyway–I don’t know if the reverse applies) went round and round about this very thing. “What you’ve written here,” he suggested, “is something that nobody will read.” I had evidence of, say, a dozen actual readers who responded, including a few of the aforementioned academics of rank, and figured that a dozen truly enganged folks meant the thing was not only worth it (*I* liked doing it and learned a ton along the way, and was driven to the composition by that alone), but probably pretty much as valuable, in terms of academic economics, as a thing is likely ever to get for me: 12 or so connections and the new connections those lead to means still more opportunity to learn and explore, and still more great company to do that in.
Insular and attenuated. Hmm. Well, the “just having a chat” condition of student writing being shared only between individual student and teacher should, I think, be good and gone, by now. Why isn’t it? For the last ten years that I taught comp, all students always had access to each others’ work. My grades and comments on that were were still mostly one-on-one, yes, but I’d sure have been very cool with breaking down that expectation (especially as applies to the commentary–with grades we get into privacy issues), and “hauntology” applies here, as well. Students routinely shared this aspect of our writing economy with one another, as well. And, as more and more of our writing was shared online (mine, too), I found myself composing more and more “to everyone” responses to groups of essays: noting patterns, strengths, sometimes pointing out things in individual essays as examples–individual essays all of us could look at together. (Here’s a nicely handled opening, closing, bit of work with argument, weaving in of a quote etc.) So. Perhaps this is actually pretty good practice for networking. I expect quite a bit of it does go on.
Why do you write beyond the official channels, Alex? Why here? I’m glad you do, because this is one sort of place I value for intellectual engagement, but I do wonder. Mostly, I write and think alongside (sometimes it’s only that) or in connection with (better) others because I just can’t help it: love it, value it, it’s built into my inner economic system.
Have you ever noticed that most blog response posts are of the “I hear ya” or “I read ya” nature? One danger I see here is that while collaboration is quite possible, it isn’t truly as deeply or inherently valued as all of the all hail Web 2.0 theorizing would seem to suggest. Mostly, I *do* think this is parallel play as opposed to cooperative play, side-by-side as opposed to collaborative. As the number of blogs continues to expand (though few are vital), the networking opportunities don’t necessarily expand, as well. We can only write, think, respond in/with/to so many spaces and voices. And what to do with the response that isn’t a response *in the space of the responded to writing*? If I crafted a response to your thoughts above, and placed that in my space, that’s really quite a different move, isn’t it? It’s a response, still, and linked, but it’s a claiming and a valuation system quite different than the act of “appending to.” Reminds me of the film “Separate Tables.” Dining alone, together.
Quite a different thing than dining together.
Sooooooo. Guess I’d say that while there are definite intellectual freedoms here, and some real advantages to that (I’m not forced to worry about how any given utterance might impact my standing within the fomalized hierarchy of a university, or a discipline), this writing space’s circulation is attenuated, too.
More and more, it’s a matter of flinging the flimsiest of filaments from one little promontory to the next. Relatively speaking, how often does the ductile anchor hold.
Not, I think, very often at all.


Thanks Kafkaz, I can always count on you for a thoughtful response. Why do I write here? I won’t say it’s b/c I get to “say what I want,” but I will say it puts me outside the demands of scholarly discourse to address a broader range of issues and address them in different ways. For good or bad, I think I get a larger readership here than I do in scholarly spaces. I certainly get more direct and immediate feedback, which is valuable to me.
I agree to that there’s no great social revolution going on here. There is much parallel play, as you put it, not unlike what we see between scholarly articles in a way. However I also think we have not be brave enough as a community to really test these waters.
I should be clear that I don’t imagine there will ever be a massive general audience for our work. Nor do I think that by putting our work online we will suddenly become so much more culturally relevant than we are now. As you suggest, connections are difficult to make and sustain.
However I also want to say here that our difficulty in getting online and exploring the possibilities of networked composition lies in our attenuated concepts of composition that insist insulating the author from the network.


Hmm. Here’s what I wonder. Could it be that the sheer size of the network insulates us even though we are deliberately present, there? I wonder this, increasingly, about blogs, in particular. It would be quite easy for me to launch a blog now, feed it daily, and never, ever have a visitor. Now, of course I could put some energy into promotion, but that’s quite a different activity now than it would have been even two or three years ago. The *fact* of a blog is no longer compelling.
It’s odd, really. Whenever I’m not frustrated by encounters with those who resist the online world, I’m poking at the spaces and the folks who *are* here, and wondering what that means for us. Connection? Maybe. But, it’s oh so easy to hide here, and a snap to disappear, even if we aren’t trying.


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