Audiences Read

As I’ve already acknowledged, Derek Mueller’s CCCC presentation impressed me, and it impressed me because of the ways it used a careful examination of the practical realities of writing with weblog technologies to deeply complicate the assumptions of some of the foundational texts of rhetoric and composition. In this way, I think the work Derek’s done moves beyond the tired ways folks like techno-evangelist George Landow have written about the intersection of critical theory and technology: in Hypertext 2.0, Landow’s primary claim seemed to be, “See! Hypertext stands as proof that Derrida and Baudrillard were right!” While the book caused a brief stir, I think it’s of little interest to compositionists now because it went no further than drawing facile parallels: like a compare-and-contrast essay, it was easy. What Derek has done in his analysis of the ways in which certain internet technologies (the simple link, the bi-directional link, the ping) make us re-interrogate our theories of audience (and vice versa) is to radically complicate our understandings of the ways audiences read, and are read, in the classroom and on the Web. What I hope I might do here is offer some supplements to what Derek has said about readers, about audiences, without falling into the trap of making simplistic Landow-style one-to-one theory-practice probative assertions. And, yeah, I’m gonna be fighting the cold medicine while so doing, so I hope this doesn’t lapse into Burroughs-style supreme induction.

Jacques Derrida, in his discussion of the “picada” or “track” or “trace” in Of Grammatology, tells us we must meditate on a number of things: “writing as the possibility of the road and of difference, the history of writing and the history of the road, of the rupture, of the via rupta, of the path that is broken, beaten, fracta, of the space of reversibility and of repetition traced by the opening” (107). In addition to the connotations of the term ‘trace’ that Spivak mentions in her translator’s preface to Of Grammatology (spoor, track, imprint, footprint), we should also consider that ‘trace’ is the Appalachian slang term for a seldom-traveled trail, often along a ridge, a trail too narrow to be a road, a trail that often fades away or loses itself, a way where others have been before, but a way that’s inherently unreliable, and that seems to change each time one takes it. Webloggers, in their attention to the recursive nature of their genre, already know this; we’ve all seen the way that discussions turn back and back again, the periodic repeating conversations around a topic that seem, in their odd tidal way, to gradually push forward a body of collective knowledge with multiple iterations.

Think of this in the context of Lawrence Lessig’s CCCC presentation on copyright.

Lessig pointed out that the problems produced by the intersection between copyright law and digital technologies lay in the fundamental fact that digital technologies rely, inherently, upon the act of copying, of transcription. When I first ran into Derrida’s contention that “the moment of transcription is the dangerous moment, as is the moment of writing, which in a way is already a transcription, the imitation of other signs; reproducing the signs, producing the signs of signs, the copyist is always tempted to add supplementary signs to improve the restitution of the original. The good copyist must resist the temptation of the supplementary sign. He must rather show himself economical in the use of signs” (Grammatology 227), seven years ago, my initial impulse was to think that what we’re doing in composition classrooms and in our own scholarship is finding ways to multiply meaning, to be bad copyists. And of course that’s what Lessig’s all about with his notion of remix culture; of the possibility of reversibility and difference. In fact, I might contend, the skill of a good writer lies not in making sure all readers follow her completely and precisely — that’s actually pretty much what a bad writer does, someone who reinforces cliché and stereotype; someone in whose writing all the answers are already gridded -— but in creating disruptive loci, those remixed spaces of flawed following that are so uncanny that they yield immense possibilities for productive speculation. The good writer is someone who has an idea of how to disrupt expectations, an idea of how to produce responses that she wouldn’t anticipate.

I think of what Derek has had to say about the way weblogs foreground — in complicated ways — the presence of a distant audience (and so, implicitly, how Derek has complicated our concerns about the nature of reading), and I think of what Mariolina Salvatori wrote: “Reading,” Salvatori argued (and I’d like you, Dear Reader, to think about this in the context of the weblogs you read), “is an act of investigation, a chain of hypotheses, a respectful and responsible working-out of how one might make a text mean in ways that might honor the act of writing that precedes it. The reading I am talking about is demanding and complicated in so far as it is an attempt to acknowledge, or to imagine, or to hypothesize the complicated, multifarious decisions a writer makes to come to the moment he/she feels she has produced a text worth reading [...]. In other words, what makes this reading complicated for me, and fascinating, is the attempt to hook up with another mind [...]. This reading does not deprivilege the writer; it does not suggest that the only activity that’s important is reading; it might suggest, instead, the importance of reading to foreground, acknowledge, celebrate, assess the importance of writing” (Salvatori, personal communication). Derek’s arguments about how web technologies foreground a complicated reflexive self-awareness on the part of writers that we’ve previously neglected to examine lend considerable credence, I think, to the self-aware “difficult” pedagogies argued for by Salvatori, Patricia Donahue, and others.

Consider, in this light, the first of Derek’s technologies of audience, the simple hypertext link. Colin MacCabe once offered a working definition of poetry as a genre that calls attention to its own form: could we not say the same about the hypertext link? When one follows a footnote (and footnotes are hypertextual in nature, with the way in which one word or term or phrase yields or links to another) or a hypertext link, one is made conscious of the act of reading; the form calls attention to itself. The link is disruptive in that it self-consciously calls attention to the text’s attention to another text. Now: think back to Derek’s taxonomy of the simple link, the bi-directional link or trackback, and the server ping. All three of these technologies are technologies that place writing sous rature, that by making the writing something other than inevitable foreground the writer’s work as inherently unreliable for any given reader, and so shift our attention from the picada/trail/trace itself to an understanding of what might have made it possible to follow that trace. Our attention moves from the the path taken to the circumstances and processes leading to the taking of that path. In such a way, the first-year writing course (perhaps especially if it involves blogging) might become a course not so much in learning how to write as a course in learning how other people read, and this is where we might see the public turn, the “social” of social software.

Roland Barthes points out in “To the Seminar” that “In the seminar (and this is its definition), all teaching is foreclosed: no knowledge is transmitted (but a knowledge can be created), no discourse is sustained (but a text is sought): teaching is disappointed. Either someone works, seeks, produces, gathers, writes in the others’ presence; or else all incite each other, call to each other, put into circulation the object to be produced, the procedure to compose” (The Rustle of Language 337). Following Barthes, I might extend the trace metaphor by suggesting that the ridge-trail or via rupta must always exist for more than one person; its purpose is public, and it is only brought into existence by the repeated actions of more than one person. This is the weblog cycle: post, comment, response. Anyone following weblogs for a while will see cycles, the perpetual return of certain topics and positions, just as we see in our professional literature. But this is an abstracted phenomenon: what Derek has shown is a way to nail this apparently transcendent and de-historicized high theory (viz. Kaufer & Waller, “To Write”) down into everyday practice: the dated chronology and linkage of weblogs force contextualization in their making-visible of historicity and interpersonal relationships.

Certainly, much of this seems old hat — a rehearsal of what we all already know — when considered as an aspect of what writers do. What I’m trying to suggest, though, is that it carries radical implications when we think about what readers do, and such considerations — as Mariolina Salvatori has repeatedly pointed out — are rather unfashionable today. But what Derek’s done in his attention to audience is to foreground the role of the reader in ways I think we dare not ignore. When one speaks or writes, when one expresses oneself, one is demanding to be read, to be listened to, to be paid (note the renumerative metaphor) attention: one is saying to one’s audience, “Follow me.” Consider Barthes’ implication that language coerces attention in complicated ways: “Has it never happened, as you were reading a book, that you kept stopping as you read, not because you weren’t interested, but because you were: because of a flow of ideas, stimuli, associations? [...] It is such reading, at once insolent in that it interrupts the text, and smitten in that it keeps returning to it and feeding on it, which I tried to describe” (Writing Reading 29, bold emphasis mine). Could this not be the defining characteristic of the link-functions of blogging — the simple link, the trackback, the ping — the combination of interruption and perpetual return?

Mariolina Salvatori writes in response to Hirsch: “When a teacher unreflexively enacts for or with his or her students a theory of reading that focuses on the text as the manifestation of, the locus of, the writer’s vision, that teacher will tend to valorize traditional concepts of authorship and authority. This way of reading constitutes the writer as the Author, the Creator who creates out of the raw data of experience a ‘unique,’ inimitable, artifact” (“Pedagogy: From the Periphery to the Center” 23). Both the simple link and the trackback disrupt this circumstance by positioning writing within a network (see Krista’s work). “To read, to perceive an author’s work as the progressive perfecting of an intention, rather than an intention perfected, realized, achieved, calls into question the myth that works are ‘fathered’ by an inexplicable fiat; to read a text in order to examine, to reconstruct the process, the work in fieri, calls attention to the [...] writer’s successive phases of evolution and discovery” (Salvatori, “Pedagogy” 28). Again: blogging, with its links and its dates and its evidence of revision, its concretization of writing sous rature, helps to foreground all these issues for us. In that sense, it serves not as Landow’s proof, but as a caution, and as a way to pull our eyes back to the labor inherent in the process of writing. We are reminded: pay attention.

One thought on “Audiences Read

  1. Derek

    Sorry for the delayed comment; I’m feeling the end-o-first-year burn of late.

    I like the distinction between *what writers do* and *what writing readers do*, Mike. Particularly in first-year writing, I find it useful to turn from what writers do to what readers do when they write, are read, when they are re-written and write back. Not really an elegant way to put it, but I like to think it complicates hermeneutics with what Ulmer calls heuretics; more than interpreting, invention is the thing we’re after, and rhetorical invention is active and selective, finding more robust germination in certain picadas/tracks/traces (thanks for this helpful, orienting etymology, btw). I wasn’t very careful in distinguishing between paths and trails, and I actually felt some reluctance about using those interchangably. You’ve put me on to several useful ideas and supplemental readings as I try to refine this project, develop it with richer support, etc.


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