I want to wish everyone a happy Burkeday — Kenneth Burke was born on this day in 1897, making today as good a day as any to celebrate rhetoric.
KB is part of my origin story: When I returned to graduate school for my PhD, my first course wasn’t actually official. The summer before I started, I sat in on Victor Vitanza’s Kenneth Burke course. For me, it was like a homecoming, and only partly because I was glad to get back to academia. I was a fairly half-hearted rhetoric and composition person, having done a concentration in my MA program on the counsel of our graduate advisor. I’d originally gone to graduate school thinking to study Irish literature, and I was possessed of a fondness for critical theory. While I could see some connections with rhet/comp, they were weak ties at best, and it may not have been an accident that I ended up taking a couple of years after my first attempt.
Anyhow, reading Burke was a revelation for me. It wasn’t always easy reading, nor would I say that I agree with everything he wrote, but I’ve always felt a resonance with his work. I don’t doubt that it shows up in my own writing from time to time. But reading Burke was one of the things that made me feel (finally) like I’d made the right decisions to go back to graduate school and to stick with rhetoric and composition. One of Burke’s passages that has always appealed to me comes from the Afterword to the 3rd edition of Attitudes Toward History, revised a bit for an interview he gave later on:
Remember the big traffic jam in New York when the subways stopped? That’s when I learned the word gridlock. Gridlock means you can’t go any way. The traffic is so jammed, it can’t go forward, backwards, or sideways. What I had was counter-gridlock….So, I’d write six or seven pages; then another tangent would seem needed, and I’d start over again, with the same baffling outcome. Instead of no way out, there was a clutter of ways out, each in its own way running into something that cancelled it.
Kenneth Burke, “Counter-Gridlock”
I don’t know if other people’s minds work that way, but mine sure did. I think that’s part of what drew me to hypertext originally, and eventually to blogging and social media. Along the way, I’ve learned tricks to help tame my own counter-gridlock (cut the first 5 pages, work on multiple parts at once, etc.), but it’s always there, making it harder for me to force my ideas into the shapes that I know they need to take.
There’s another piece of Burke that always appealed to me secretly. Burke was raised on the work of Mary Baker Eddy (who founded Christian Science), and while he turned away from those ideas to an extent, there is a sense that runs throughout his work that language is not simply representational but material, that the ideas we hold affect us physiologically. The idea of literature as “equipment for living” is a mild expression of this. There’s a story about him that says that one of the reasons why he never published the third volume of the Motives trilogy was that he would be “finished,” and not just in the intellectual sense.
You might imagine how even the hint of this would appeal to a kid who grew up reading and gaming in worlds where language did have that power. There’s a “not really…but maybe” quality to it all in my head that sometimes crosses over the line separating figurative and literal. If you were to connect this idea to a passage from an academic text like this one, published in the fall before I started back to graduate school–
After all, anyone the least bit familiar with the workings of the new era’s definitive technology, the computer, knows that it operates on a principle impracticably difficult to distinguish from the pre-Enlightenment principle of the magic word: the commands you type into a computer are a kind of speech that doesn’t so much communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably, the same way pulling a trigger does. They are incantations, in other words, and anyone at all attuned to the technosocial megatrends of the moment — from the growing dependence of economies on the global flow of intensely fetishized words and numbers to the burgeoning ability of bioengineers to speak the spells written in the four-letter text of DNA — knows that the logic of the incantation is rapidly permeating the fabric of our lives.
Julian Dibbell, A Rape in Cyberspace, Village Voice, December 1993
–well, then, you might begin to tease out some of my own motives and interests. In The Philosophy of Literary Form, Burke writes, “The magical decree is implicit in all language, for the mere act of naming an object or situation decrees that it is to be singled out as such-and-such rather than as something other” (4).
Here’s where it gets even less rational. Imagine that you’re a person for whom writing has never been a struggle, but who does struggle with putting it into a straight line. And imagine further that you’ve got a secret fascination with what Dibbell calls that “logic of the incantation.” You force your work into those shapes, article after article and conference papers galore, and eventually, you even manage to craft your own little snow globe, your first book.
I shouldn’t continue in 2nd person here. I started deflecting before I even realized that I’d done it. I am those things, and have done those things. The process of taking Lingua Fracta from initial manuscript to published volume, however, took almost 5 years. If you’ve read my book, you’ll know that my father passed away before he had a chance to see it published. What you may not know is that my grandfather did as well, about a year later. And my grandmother’s health at the end of her life was such that she probably only caught a glimpse.
Part of me loves my book, and part of me blames my book. It makes no sense, and even sounds silly to me as I write it down like this. But the fact of the matter is that I stopped wanting to write for a long time. The gradual fade of my first blog took place over about 3 months following my father’s death, and the loss of my grandparents sealed the deal. In my brain, I know that this is a story (events happen) that a tiny part of me has turned into a plot (events are connected!)–that’s the very definition of superstition–but sometimes all it takes is a tiny part
The tiny thing that helped me come out of this, to the degree that I’m out of this, came last summer. Since my book was published, I’ve been thinking on and off about what I’ll do my next book on. I’ve had several possibilities in mind, but I’m fairly sure that when I hit a certain level of detail in the planning, something in me just shut down. It was too easy to turn to something else and just forget about it. I’ll spare you the long stories of my self-distraction.
Last summer, though, I realized that I don’t have to write another book. Ever. I say this fully aware that this is a luxury; I am in an incredibly privileged position to be able to say it. But I don’t mean it in the sense that I no longer have to work: I’ve been writing articles and chapters for collections, supervising students, teaching and designing courses, mentoring as best as I’ve been able–I overfill my time (sometimes) with the work that I’m obliged to do and the work that I enjoy doing. What I mean by this is that I can continue my work, my reading, my writing, my teaching, my mentoring, my participation–and none of those things have to take the particular material form of a book.
Is this distinction clear enough? Because it’s made all the difference for me. In that deep part of me that associated my book with loss and grief, the idea that it could be the book as formal obligation rather the specific incantation I wove to meet that obligation shook something loose in me that’s allowed me to start relearning how to write. I know that this might sound like “Aha! It wasn’t my fault after all, but the evil institution that made me do it!” But that’s not quite right. Writing had become this thing that forced me against my inclinations and ended in heartbreak. It wasn’t a matter for me of finding someone else to blame; rather, it was working my way through to a place where “blame” didn’t quite work to capture the full range of possible relations. It’s not like it doesn’t still occupy me, but I no longer feel locked in by it.
I don’t know if this quite makes sense. It does in my head.
Here’s a last little odd fact about me. When I was young, I was fascinated by writing backwards and writing upside down. To this day, I can read text upside down almost as quickly as right side up. I would practice backwards cursive with a mirror–something about inverting and reversing the shapes of letters felt like magic to me. I loved codes, non-Roman alphabets, letter substitutions, all that stuff. Our daily paper had a cryptoquote next to the crossword that I would try and solve in my head. Palindromes, ambigrams, word ladders, snowball poems, I have always been fascinated by the extravagant capacities of language. So add that fascination to my discomfort with the book as form and my fascination with the logic of incantations, mix it together with a little technology expertise, and it makes perfect sense that what I should do is to do it backwards, to announce the “publication” of my new “book.”
Believe it or not, I’m not joking.
My next project is called Rhetworks, and I’m publishing it today, even though it hasn’t been written yet. It may or may not become a book; I’ve toyed with the idea of describing it as a BOOC, a Book-Sized Open Online Colloquium. I’ve been thinking about the relationships between rhetoric and networks for close to 10 years now, and I think I’m going to start writing something big and sprawling on the subject.
Over the next 2 years, starting today, I’m going to write it online, using a PBWiki installation. That means that I’m going to write in public, which scares the heck out of me, but not nearly as much as it used to. I’m going to make mistakes and I’m going to have to trust in the generosity of my readers. At the end of two years, if I feel like I have enough material to justify publishing it as a book, I may do so. But I’m equally prepared for the possibility that I won’t. In either case, I’ll be writing under a Creative Commons License and it will stay up there, freely available to anyone who’s interested, regardless of any subsequent form it might take.
I have a hypothesis, a fairly grand one, that I want to work through, and I even have a set of keywords that may someday provide me with the chapter structure for a book. But neither of those things will drive this project. I am interested instead in giving reign to my counter-gridlock, without knowing ahead of time whether or not it will actually work. But at its most basic level, this is an experiment. It may not catch on, I may grow bored with it, other people may find it stupid or silly or self-indulgent–I can imagine a hundred different ways that this could fail. And that’s why I’m going to do it.
Oh, but there’s more. My first idea was to write Rhetworks on a private wiki, and invite people to visit it once I’d gotten “enough” of it going to feel comfortable sharing. What I’m doing instead is to invite you to participate in it from the get go, and to contribute to it as much as you’re comfortable with. For some, this may mean correcting a typo or two, asking some questions in the comments, or adding a work or two to my bibliography. And that’s fine. But that’s just the start of what’s possible. I’m willing to collaborate with you on sections. I’m willing to list you as co-author. As long as you’re comfortable, I’m willing to let you publish your own work on the site, and even in the pages of the book, if it comes to that. My only request is that you make your own work as available and editable and shareable as I’m making my own. Does that mean that I’d be willing to include a chapter written by someone else entirely in the book version of this? Or include entire sections or chapters that disagree with me? Yes. Yes, it does. I’m also open to the possibility of using the site as an invention space and breaking off pieces of it to publish collaboratively in other venues–I know that not everyone can afford to invest time and effort as open-endedly as I can.
And yes, I can imagine that this project could be derailed by edit wars, or that someone might get it into their head to try and ruin it. I’ll be restricting editing access to registered users, so that I can exercise some minimal amount of supervisory influence. But I have thought about a lot of different ways that people might make use of the site, add to it in ways that I cannot predict, and even disagree with me in fundamental ways, and I find that I’m surprisingly okay with that.
A scholarly project sits at the heart of a network by nature. The traditional model of publication, though, encourages us to mediate that network ourselves, often out of fear of what would happen if we let others see before it was complete. William Germano described it as a snow globe in the Chronicle a couple of weeks ago:
Within the realm of the snow globe, every authority on the subject has been cited or pacified. Look inside and find a perfect, tidy, improbable world where no questions are asked, or invited. Scholarly books, especially first ones, are a paranoid genre—their structure assumes that someone is always watching, eager to find fault. And they take every precaution against criticism.
He asks if we dare write for readers–what I want to do here is write WITH readers, with you. I want to create a book-sized network of scholarship that itself is the product of the network. It’s not coincidental that it’s about networks, too.
I go back and forth about this. On the one hand, it feels like the next step, or maybe a leap of faith: the idea that scholarship can locate itself somewhere that’s part text, part connectivist MOOC, part community. Germano suggests that maybe “the best form a book can take—even an academic book—is as a never-ending story, a kind of radically unfinished scholarly inquiry,” and part of me believes that enough to give it a try. Maybe what I’m describing is actually a 2-year online course on networks and rhetoric, open to anyone who’s interested. (I will almost certainly use it to some degree in the digital humanities course I teach next spring, and I hope others will take it up that way, too.) It pushes the idea of public, online review even further, and maybe it will ultimately push at our ideas of what acceptable (and accessible) online scholarship can look like.
And then there are days where I imagine that I’m so crazy to even think of this that I can’t see outside of the crazy. Even if I manage to summon the effort, time, and energy to do this successfully, it feels insanely risky, when I could just sit down, open my books, fire up my browser, and bang out a publishable manuscript.
And then I think about the “clutter of ways” that I want to give voice to.
I think about how maybe if I cast my spell backwards this time, something magnificent might happen.
And I think about Clay Shirky’s incantation–publish, then filter–and how much more sense it makes to me, even if it sounds upside down.
And then, one day in early May, I publish a book that doesn’t yet exist, and invite you to write it with me. I wonder what could possibly happen next.