I got word that my Computers and Writing 2009 proposal was accepted, but I’ve been hesitant to blog about it, for reasons that may be apparent in my proposal, which follows in slightly paraphrased form.
My proposed presentation poses as its problem the environment of pervasive computer-enabled surveillance at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The problem is both practical, in the labor and logistics associated with the ubiquitous application of technologies of surveillance, and ethical, in my concern that ubiquitous surveillance may inhibit the development of the risk-taking thinkers essential to the Army’s mission. The presentation theorizes possible responses, contrasting the writing of political philosopher Leo Strauss and Roman historian Gaius Cornelius Tacitus on writing and domination. Finally, the presentation offers suggestions for how those responses might be enacted at West Point, and possible implications for other institutions.
At West Point, Web surfing is monitored, and spiders crawl the web for any mentions of the Academy, with mentions sent to the chain of command. (Interestingly, the Academy writing program endorses the use of digital technologies in the classroom, following the lead of the Academy’s general embrace of digital technologies.) Such a seemingly contradictory context requires a rhetorical response that moves beyond crude applications of Foucault’s “unequal gaze.”
I pose two alternatives for such a response: first, using the analysis of simultaneously esoteric and exoteric texts suggested by Leo Strauss in Persecution and the Art of Writing, and second, using the perspectives implied by Tacitus in his Dialogus de Oratoribus wherein authors intentionally place their meaning sous rature in ways that deliberately challenge hermeneusis depending upon interpretive context. Both writers suggest the possibilities of texts that can be interpreted in opposite ways by different audiences, depending on all parties’ positions of relative power within the rhetorical situation. However, I argue that Tacitus’s accounts implicitly offer the possibility of a counter-imperial micro-politics of resistance to the combination of domination and surveillance. The presentation then explores ways to enact that possibility of resistance in ways that open up opportunities for rhetorical risk-taking without compromising military missions, principles, or hierarchies.
And that’s it for the proposal, which I know will make the crawls come Monday morning, and which my bosses will see. (Hi, sir!) That’s enough for some nervousness on my part. But I’ve also been thinking that a blog entry — this one, for instance — is really the only way I can frame the project (after all, the conference program’s going to be indexed at some point) without making the presentation into some sort of rhetorical ambush. So I feel like there’s a whole lot of stuff in here: about classroom pedagogy, first and certainly, and about theories of rhetoric, but there’s the back-text as well, the usually unsaid except in my explicit invocation of it, about professionalism and what it means to talk about your job. (I don’t think I’m saying anything bad, but some might suggest I’m better off not saying anything at all.)