Author: preterite

An Oration

(via Jacobin)

AN ORATION delivered at Greenville, Headquarters of the Western Army, North-West of the Ohio, July 4th, 1795, by the Reverend Morgan J. Rhees.

Illustrious Americans! Noble Patriots! You commemorate a glorious day—the Birthday of Freedom in the New World! Yes, Columbia, thou art free. The twentieth year of thy independence commences this day. Thou has taken the lead in regenerating the world. Look back, look forward; think of the past, anticipate the future and behold with astonishment the transactions of the present time!

The globe revolves on the axis of Liberty; the new world has put the old in motion; the light of truth, running rapid like lightning, flashes convictions in the heart of every civilized nation. Yes, the thunder of American remonstrance has fallen so heavy on the lead of the tyrant that other nations, encouraged by her example, will extirpate all despots from the earth!

. . .

Citizens of the United States: Be not frightened in beholding so many emigrants flocking to your territory. If all the inhabitants of the world were to pay you a visit, you can compliment each of them with half an acre of land. But, sirs, look forward and behold with transports of joy this vast continent from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, forming one grand Republic of Brethren.

At present it is impossible to calculate on the rapidity of revolutions. What formerly took a century to accomplish is brought to pass in a day. If the snow ball as it rolls, multiplies its magnitude, the torrent being checked for a season, runs with greater rapidity. So the cause of truth and liberty, being opposed by despots, will gain greater energy, and will eventually, like a mighty deluge, sweep every refuge of his from the earth.

. . .

Citizens of United States: Whilst you commemorate a glorious resolution, call to mind your first principles of action — never forget them nor those who assisted you to put your principles in practice.

. . .

Citizens and Soldiers of America—Sons of Liberty: It is you I address. Banish from your land the remains of slavery. Be consistent with your congressional declaration of rights and you will be happy. Remember there never was nor will be a period when justice should not be done. Do what is just and leave the event with God. Justice is the pillar that upholds the whole fabric of human society, and mercy is the genial ray which cheers and warms the habitations of man. The perfection of our social character consists in properly tempering the two with one another, in holding that middle course which admits of our being just without being rigid and allows us to be generous without being unjust.

Slavery and Composition: Some Economic Context

My current book project, still very much in the early stages, examines the interrelationships among the American 19th-century slave economy, the technological and economic advances of the Industrial Revolution and the corresponding expansion of literacy, and the growth of American higher education and the emergence of composition as a discipline. That means for right now I’m pulling together threads from a whole bunch of different sources and disciplines and noting correspondences while trying to resist the urge to assign direct causality—but even so, there are multiple intersecting narratives, and they feel like they have a shape to them that’s been emerging from the way I’ve looked at composition and economics in other contexts.

So here’s a very brief and partial early version of some aspects of those intersecting narratives, arguing that the origins of composition studies flows directly from the value of the labor appropriated in the early American slave economy.

Read more

Grad Seminar: Rhetorics and Literatures of Modern War

Last semester, I had the good fortune to co-develop and teach a graduate seminar titled “Rhetorics and Literatures of Modern War.” It was an intensely challenging and rewarding semester, due both to the insightful contributions of the graduate students and to the materials themselves. Much of the credit for the materials selection goes to my collaborator Dr. Susan Dente Ross, whose wisdom and efforts I remain grateful for, and to the many other folks (including Alexis Hart and Pete Molin and my former colleagues at West Point) who contributed suggestions and expertise.

The syllabus is available here: https://wp.me/a4aNQJ-tv (PDF). There’s of course far more we could have (and should have) included, but this approach—triangulating from multiple perspectives, multiple genres—felt like a good first attempt. If you’ve done or are doing something similar, I’d welcome hearing about it.

Forthcoming in Collected

The editors of the collection Rhet Ops: Rhetoric and Information Warfare recently informed the authors, me included, that it’s available for pre-order from Pitt Press, and up on Amazon as well, due out in October.

I’m excited, because it’s been one of the rare remaining opportunities I’ve had to re-focus on the intersection of the military, rhetoric, and Marxian economics that I was looking at while working on my first book (delayed revisions at last completed) but have since moved on from. Part of the reason I’ve moved on is because the military/veteran stuff, while important to me, also has felt more and more like self-focused and self-interested identity politics, and I feel like there’s more than enough of that scholarship already from straight white men like me. So my desire has been to turn my introvert’s attention outward, and that attention lately has been focused on the beginnings of book #2, on the historical intersections of the 19th-century American slave economy, the technological and economic boom of the Industrial Revolution, and the emergence of the American system of higher education and the discipline of composition in particular.

I’ll have more to say here on those topics. For now, my thanks to the editors, Jim Ridolfo and Bill Hart-Davidson, and my thanks to you for reading if you’re still with me. An excerpt from the nice blurb from Christa Teston:

The other thing I really love about this book is the ways it integrates Marxist material rhetorics (and even Foucault) in meaningful, contemporary ways. For all of the ways our field has moved on into ‘new’ materialisms and other re-imaginings of extant theories, we sometimes lose sight of these foundational scholarly contributions.

I’ve been arguing for a while that the engagement we’ve “moved on” from was never really much of an engagement to begin with.

Maintenance and Upkeep

The site’s been down for a while because of some brute force attacks and such. And my writing’s been down for a while because other stuff’s been happening. So I went in and updated stuff under the hood, though I still haven’t changed the look of the place — maybe that will come soon. But I’ve also realized the old domain and title — vitia, a Latin word that roughly means things like abuses, faults, sins, and such — no longer fits what I’d like to be doing here. It was from 2003, when I was in grad school, busy finding faults and being critical. So I’ll be moving to another domain and merging material with my professional academic site around the end of 2019 or the start of 2020: preterite.net. No changes at the moment, though, other than an attempt (not quite a promise) to get back into writing more regularly.

Nineteenth-Century Cognitive Capitalism?

Some of my research lately has been focusing on 19th-century technologies and economies and their relationship to the 19th-century birth of composition studies. I’m particularly interested in the ways that the economic transformations of the Industrial Revolution and American slavery intersected with composition pedagogies and the progression and development of higher education. I’ve also been teaching about the history of the digital and its relation to labor, and participating in a reading group working our way through Marx’s Capital volumes 2 and 3, and so there are a number of ideas coming together for me right now. I’ll share more on the topic of the economics of slavery later as I read further in that domain, but tonight I’m thinking about Marx’s concept of the “general intellect” from the Grundrisse and what 19th-century cognitive capitalism might have looked like, depended upon, and made possible. Already, of course, I’m anticipating the objection that I’m dehistoricizing and decontextualizing a 21st-century concept and thereby making a foolish category error. Well, fair enough. I’ll at least think through that category error. The first objection might be that there wasn’t enough of a “general intellect” (though Marx was imagining it) for there to be a cognitive capitalism in the days when capitalism itself was still young. (I date capitalism’s broad emergence and supercession of mercantilism from 1776, the year Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published.) The idea of cognitive capitalism and a general intellect rely both upon a widespread system (network?) of capital and a widespread system of educating a workforce or populace (the two are necessarily distinct in the 19th century).

So we have this intersection I’m imagining coming into being that for me comes out of the passage from Marx’s 1858 “Fragment on Machines” in the Grundrisse where he writes,

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it; to what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.

Machines are “the power of knowledge, objectified.” Elsewhere I’ve talked about imagining the classical economic factors of production—land, labor, and capital—transformed under cognitive capitalism (or, I think more precisely, under our present system of intellectual and affective economic activity) into material-technological capital (computers and algorithms and networks replacing land as the new sites of production), intellectual and affective labor (the work humans perform at those sites), and intellectual and affective capital (the relations and building blocks and books and documents and programs that humans work with and on at those sites). So Marx’s “Fragment” is where I imagine those transformations emerging from.

Read more

Zeugma Departs

Zeugma the cat went to her rest yesterday. She was born May 1, 2003, and I adopted her on July 9 of that year. Zeugma’s companionship helped me through the difficult times in my life, and helped me through the good times as well: I’ve been looking at photos of her through the years sitting in the plastic box of hanging file folders that held my dissertation, grooming her sister Tink, watching birds in the snow and sun, exploring the cabin in West Virginia, riding with me across the US in the cab of the moving truck, being Malcolm’s first friend, waiting for me to finish an article. She always tried to be bolder than she was, always responded happily to affection, and always showed curiosity and patience. The doc diagnosed her with cancer and gave her six months, and for two years beyond that she shared her life with us. Part of me still looks for her by the front door or on the wing chair or sleeping beside my pillow where she spent her last days. Goodbye, sweet friend, dear companion: be at peace and ease. I carry you in my heart, and see you in the world around me.

a two-month-old kitten looks up a young cat beside a birdfeeder a cat and an infant share a lap a cat beside a computer

From My Cold, Dead Hands

When I teach first-year writing, I sometimes use the story of Charlton Heston’s post-Columbine NRA speech in Denver as an example of rhetorical kairos, keyed to its time and place. (What actually happened, as always, is more complex than the story.) The lesson I try to teach: whatever one’s views on guns after Columbine, the time and place of that speech affected or reinforced them. There is such a thing, I suggest, as a rhetorical moment.

Recently, we were in another such moment in the furor over iPhone encryption. John Oliver did a good 18-minute job  of explaining some of the particulars, and it’s worth your time if you haven’t seen it. The furor over encryption, in a US context, was a fight about the intersection of information and technology and politics, and that intersection is one I’ve lately had increasingly strong thoughts about.

I was dismayed to see James Comey, the Director of the FBI who selected the fight with Apple over encryption, taking what became the government’s public stand. Tim Weiner’s excellent 2012 history of the FBI, Enemies, notes (lest we forget) that Comey is the former Acting United States Attorney General who was in the intensive care hospital room on March 10 2004 when John Ashcroft refused the request brought by Andrew Card and Alberto Gonzales from President George W. Bush to reauthorize the Stellar Wind government eavesdropping program. Ashcroft said at the time that it didn’t matter, “‘[b]ecause I’m not the attorney general. There is the attorney general.’ And then he pointed at Comey” (Weiner 434). Comey refused as well. Later, in an admirable 2005 address to the NSA, Comey would describe what then-director of the FBI Robert Mueller “had heard [two days later] from Bush and Cheney at the White House”:

“If we don’t do this, people will die.” You can all supply your own this: “If we don’t collect this type of information,” or “If we don’t use this technique,” or “If we don’t extend this authority.” (Weiner 436)

Eleven years later, Comey supplied his own this.

Comey and the FBI were wrong to demand decryption. Code is speech. Forcing someone to speak is a violation of the First Amendment. Osip Mandelstam was commanded to write a poem in praise of Stalin, refused, and died in a cold prison camp near Vladivostok after smuggling out a letter to his wife asking for warm clothes. Apple’s 3/15 response to the FBI rightly invoked the specter of compelled speech when it pointed out that “the state could force an artist to paint a poster, a singer to perform a song, or an author to write a book, so long as its purpose was to achieve some permissible end, whether increasing military enrollment or promoting public health.” So-called “back doors” that would allow a government of eavesdropping and informants like that of Stalin’s regime endanger us all. And the FBI’s expressed position is hostile to liberty and anti-Constitutional.

Consider the similarly Stalinist inverse of compelled speech: Read more