Last year, in the name of progress, I stopped recycling. No more retooling old writing material for new purposes. Sustainability be damned; I would forgo one of the key lessons of graduate school and go it alone: make it new, write an entirely different conference paper/article/book chapter. I would do this not because the practice of reusing was beneath me but, rather, because it was beyond me. Around March of 2011 I realized that I no longer related to this work that had been so close to me for so long. Laser-focus attention on one manuscript, the “big” book, made my words sound so familiar they had become alien.
For any writer, or anyone trying to sustain writing over time, this condition is the result of dizzying revision–making the writing better and making it useable again and again. Philip Roth sums up the practice best via his character Lonoff (the Malamud avatar) in The Ghost Writer:
I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and turn it around again….
Writing as revisiting where you already are.
If there is such a thing as post-unpublishedprose depression, it sinks in when your sentences’ stretch marks are so severe that they can’t be tamed with an updated citation or a new angle. That’s the state I was in when I abandoned much of what I had written in the recent past. New research on the history of complexity studies, on materiality, and on the politics and culture of the 1990’s would not get tied up in knots but remain straight and future-directed. Progress.
Now I think that promise of novelty and innovation was a distraction. Perhaps a good one. Eighteen months after I tried to run away from what I thought was dead prose I am returning to find out if there is something alive, something between familiarity and alienation.
For this upcoming AEPL conference I am reconnecting with some “old” historical research. Research on New Criticism (the “formalist” literary movement that changed forever how we read literature and how we teach it, setting in motion generations of “close readers” of the “text itself”) feels like it belongs anew. Some of these ideas got started in an article I did for the special issue of College English, “Materiality, Genre, and Language Use”. (At the end of this post I include some of this talk and discuss how I think new histories of major intellectual “paradigm shifts” like New Criticism can tell us something about writing.)
There are two reasons why I found myself in this familiar territory again. First, I looked over all my “new” writing of the last year and a half. Whether a book review of Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter or a description of what my College’s Writing in the Majors Program does, it turns out that lots of what seemed novel were relatives of the ideas I’ve been hanging around with for years.
Normally that would depress me. But in honor of complexity studies, and in particular the work of Physicist Yaneer Bar-Yam, I am celebrating the axiom that everything is one big idea. That idea needs visibility in order to test its validity and its vitality.
Here’s what Bar-Yam, discussing the New England Complex Studies Institute (NECSI) and its early attempts to define the origins of complexity as a transdisciplinary field of study, says about the relationship between connecting ideas and creating new ones:
The first task of NECSI was to organize a conference, the International Conference on Complex Systems, to declare the importance of the new field and give a venue for people to meet and discuss what we were interested in. I invited many guest researchers with broad vision to present at the conference…. At the first conference many of them stood up and started their lecture with the exact words, “And now for something completely different.” They didn’t see the connections to the talk before theirs. By the second conference this was said by fewer people and by the third or fourth we stopped hearing it.
Complexity happens when ideas are in conference with one another.
The second reason why I’m linking old writing with new projects is this: it belongs here; it has found a home. How do I know that?
From my “Writers Block.”
The ever-prolific Steven Johnson famously describes the social nature of idea generating in his blog and books. And Randall Collins‘ work researches the origin of intellectual ideas in “social intellectual networks”–like-minded groups. I think of these groups as blocks: writers talking about writing together.
This is my celebration of Writers Block.
Writers Block. Definition: a real-time coming together of those whose writing processes and products are discussed as ongoing, mutually important realities. Different from: “Writer’s Block”—an individual stuck in his or her composing—and “Reading Block”: a condition that comes from reading so much so fast that the prose can’t move out of the confines of itsef in order to be meaningful in other contexts.
A Writers Block can offer the long view of innovation and progress: that it’s an effort of consistent cutting and pasting. When we hear one idea said aloud we know that there necessarily had to be something before, after and around it.
The blank page still has to be filled. But it’s the mix that matters.
Excerpts from a draft of the talk “Distraction and the Seeds of Innovation” for the AEPL conference, June 28-July 1, Estes Park, Colorado.
(From the Introduction):
One argument of this piece is that we cannot seed innovation thought a particular heuristic or mediation. Rather we have to acknowledge that the idea and the process of getting there are both a part of single activity. The procrastination, or “bad beginning” I just described is one way I practiced “higher order distraction.” Higher order distraction is distraction that gets acknowledged as an element of the larger idea. My lower-order, or bad beginning became a higher order distraction when it was visible, described, defined, and in turn, realized as relevant.
Through process pedagogy and cultural studies, deconstruction and the student-centered classroom, we in English studies have done a good job of breaking down distinctions between high and low culture, between student and professional writing, between composition and rhetoric. But my goal in this talk is not to break down distinctions but to put them together. As part of a larger project, a book I am writing this year called Reunion: Writing and Teaching the Locations of Innovation this talk considers how bad beginnings and big ideas emerge together and how the literacy activities of my discipline, English studies, can make that visible.
(From the Conclusion):
A central task for new critics was to distinguish between what was internal to the text and profession and what was external, what was natural and what was processed. Scholarly writing like Brooks’ essay in College English mixed the two, but made clear that this was the not the natural order of things. Segregation between kinds of scholarship would increase in the years just before and then during and after the rein of the New Critics. Literary criticism appeared in books and journal articles while various redirections in the discipline, such as the turn toward a research-centered agenda in the 1920’s and 1930’s and conflicts which arose in response to the new criticism of the 1940’s and 1950’s were addressed in conference panels at the MLA and the NCTE. This distinction led the way for the separation between a critic and a scholar, and between the critic and the text, an important separation that marked, in the 1930’s and 1940’s, the difference between researchers, or scholars and critics, which had a “generalist” appeal to them. The difference between the immediate concerns of the field, relegated to the oral domains of the discipline, and the more permanent, scholarly concerns of the field, published in journals, was formalized in the late 1940’s. In 1947 the editor of the PMLA began to differentiate between “brown” and “blue” issues of the journal: blue for scholarship in literary studies and brown for “proceedings” or “transactions” of meetings or committees. From 1883 through 1970, the PMLA published the MLA conference proceedings, bulletins, and committee votes and policies as supplements to the regularly published volumes of scholarship. Other redirections in the social structure of the culture, including the growth of colleges and the increase in college students, the addition of women students and faculty and the wide gaps in the literacy levels of students, were seen as issues for teachers, administrators, and those who did not engage in what Eliot called the work of the “individual soul.” Teachers of the new freshman composition or communication courses were most likely to confront issues of student population, learning, and curriculum in their “informal” gatherings and publications.
The example here proved to be only one in an untold history of distraction and fight with distraction in literary and rhetorical story. What happens when we don’t acknowledge the melding of brown and blue, high and low, distraction and disciplinary revelation? I think the answer is that we lose the many ways the work we do in rhetorical, literary and cultural study connects with a complex networked world.
When I say “the work we do” I mean the practice of literary criticism, rhetorical theory, mindfulness and writing—the stuff of conferences, publication, teaching. But I also mean to highlight the work we do with beginning writing very particularly. In the larger book project, I continue my study of “paradigm shifts” through the present day. But in the second half, which I hope to initiate with a chapter entitled “Beginning Again: Basic Writing’s Complex Possibilities” I turn from reading to writing.
The large and varied world of first-year writing instruction is perhaps the most maligned area of English studies, if not the most discussed and the most profitable. But its properties as a laboratory for complexity are undervalued. And I think the many layers of distraction and innovation that goes on by teachers, students, and institutions in the name of beginning or bad or lower level writing begs for reinterpretation.