non-metaphorical wayfinding and writing studies

Jonathan Alexander, Karen Lunsford and Carl Whithaus have a new article in Written Communication, “Toward Wayfinding: a Metaphor for Understanding Writing Experiences.” I think it’s a great article, and I’m planning to share it with my WAC colleagues. It provides a useful overview of important ideas in the field and adds wayfinding to that list.

So it’s just the Deleuzian in me that gets slightly triggered by the notion of metaphors in general. You’ll probably be glad to know I’m not planning on offering a mini-lecture on Deleuze and Guattari’s objection to the metaphorical. I’ll just dip into it briefly in a minute. Right now I’ll just say this isn’t about critiquing but rather why it might be useful to not think metaphorically here.

So Alexander, Lunsfurd, and Whithaus discuss four metaphors used by rhet/comp scholars to describe writers as they move from college into careers: worlds apart, literacy in the wild, ecologies and networks, and transfer. Very briefly, these are about different ways to characterize the relationship between school-based writing instruction, extra-curricular non-professional writing, and workplace writing. To this they add wayfinding. As they write, “As we pondered this call to research, we returned to the spatial–but this time with a twist, focusing on navigation–in an attempt to develop a way of thinking about writing and literacy that would place an emphasis on the complex and recursive movement in and out of different territories, reals, spaces, and spheres of writing ecologies. The metaphor we proposed that captures that sense is wayfinding” (18).

So my question is why metaphor? I should say there is a weird meta-feedback moment in calling “transfer” a metaphor, since a metaphor itself is a kind of transfer, of carrying. A metaphor takes you somewhere, from one context to another. Arguably the metaphor is itself a wayfinding: not a metaphor for wayfinding but literally a way to locate and move oneself. As I mentioned above, there is this Deleuzian thing about metaphors. As Deleuze writes

Of course, we realize the dangers of citing scientific propositions outside their own sphere. It is the danger of arbitrary metaphor or of forced application. But perhaps these dangers are averted if we restrict ourselves to taking from scientific operators a particular conceptualizable character which itself refers to non-scientific areas, and converges with science without applying it or making it a metaphor (Deleuze Cinema: the Time-Image: 129).

(BTW if you want to know more about why there are no metaphors in Deleuze’s philosophy, Daniel Smith’s recent article is pretty good.)

So the easiest way to understand this might be through the lens of new materialism. Alexander, Lunsford, and Whithaus take this up, noting that “scholars working under the rubric of new materialism understand the value not just of the particular tools that we use to write and communicate but also the ways in which such tools (in addition to discourses and ideologies) might vector and shape agency itself.” They go on to discuss Casey Boyle and then note “such a reconceptualization allows us to work against the subject/object split that sees humanity as agents over a world and instead revisions humans as only one part of a larger ecology of activity, encountering, learning, and becoming.”

OK. So let’s think about language/words as tools. As Deleuze says in Dialogues ,”There are no literal words, neither are there metaphors… There are only inexact words to designate something exactly.” I would suggest that if a word is a tool then it display inexactitude in its operation. Use a hammer to drive a nail into the wall and it probably will do the job, provided that you have a minimal amount of strength and know-how to use a hammer. But it will still operate inexactly. If nothing else energy will be wasted and misdirected. Words are tools/things, much like the objects to which they are connected.

To be clear, I am not suggesting that words cannot be used metaphorically. And it may very well be the case that some scholars use words like ecology and network as metaphors. At the same time though, I think there’s a humanist-idealist conceit in the articulation of these relations as metaphorical, one that says that words are subjective-representational-cultural, that we cannot know reality but only represent it metaphorically.

If the goal is (in Latourian fashion) to “work against the subject/object split” then I would suggest the necessity of moving beyond a metaphorical approach. So to channel Deleuze again briefly, I’m not talking about “literal” wayfinding but neither is it metaphorical. Instead it’s an inexact word to designate something exactly.

Here I would turn to Latour’s quasi-objects of reference, technology, and fiction (see An Inquiry into Modes of Existence). I’d rephrase the conception of tools vectoring and shaping agency to suggest a la Latour that the actor is s/he who is “made to act.” The actor “is not the source of an action but the moving target of a vast array of entities swarming toward it” (Reassembling the Social 46). And an “action is not done under the full control of consciousness; action should rather be felt as a node, a knot, and a conglomerate of many surprising sets of agencies that have to be slowly disentangled” (44). So this inexact but real wayfinding, as an action of swarming entities, of many surprising sets of agencies, is something writers (are made to) do.

One basic example Latour uses of these quasi-objects is the hiking map and trail up a mountainside. The map is a product of technological quasi-objects, as are the trail markers along the path. The beings of reference strengthen connections between the map, the path, and the mountain. And through this we can imagine ourselves as hikers. That’s a kind of wayfinding. We can see something like this is any writing-composition scenario. I am finding my way (inexactly) in this blog post. Technology, reference, fiction, and I are intertwined in this activity. I am not saying this metaphorically, though I am saying it inexactly. Language and writing are tools for grasping at other parts of reality. In the ways that we can build, strengthen, and maintain real connections/networks among parts of reality with language, those connections are not metaphorical. With this in mind I’d want to pursue wayfinding as a real, not metaphorical, thing.

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