When Worlds Speak: Apocalypse, Composition, Critique

 

       Compositionists have in recent years begun, in a mode similar to the ethical, social and Sophistic turns of recent decades, the collective project of mobilizing the discipline to hold in greater esteem the cataclysmic situations of public concern unfolding in front of our eyes.  We need only examine the evening news to see this great drama enacted. Systemic economic collapse, chaotic social upheaval, and, most pressingly for both citizens and citizen-compositionists alike, environmental catastrophe all threaten our conventional way of life in unprecedented scale.  The political sphere, perhaps, has seen busier times.  Scientists have been warning us for years, however, that the same cannot be said of ecological woe.  The Great Barrier Reef is likely damaged beyond repair; auto emission regulations are being rolled back; and climate change marches will take place this coming weekend in hundreds of cities around the country, including in Washington D.C., calling for a greater and more unified response to this apocolyptic threat.

      With such immanent and dire threats pressing hard against our minds, there is compelling evidence within academic circles that scholars have begun to take matters of public concern, specifically those within environmental contexts, into substantial account and influence within their intellectual work and research agendas. The sheer abundance of subfields beginning with the prefix eco- serves as persuasive evidence of this; ecoanthropology, ecolinguistics, ecohistory and ecophilosphy are all subfields of their respective disciplines that are gaining more and more traction as independent fields of inquiry.

      Composition and rhetoric have not, to our credit, lagged behind this trend— in just the past month we’ve introduced Trace, a journal examining intersections between the technical sides of our field with concerns over environments, animals and natural bodies.  This new work, along with over a decade’s worth of conference presentations, journal articles and scholarly monographs, have asked and ventured answers to what exactly is contained within the relationship between written words and natural worlds.

      Our dire environmental situation, it seems, has not only influenced our classroom pedagogies within composition but also our understandings and definitions of composition itself.  Paul Lynch, in an essay published in College English a few years ago, asked the discipline to examine the relationship between apocalypse and critique, utilizing the French sociologist Bruno Latour as the linking bridge between the two entities.  I’ve long been fascinated with Latour’s particular brand of actor-network theory, but even more so in his commentary on deconstructive criticism itself, which he aptly showcases in his still-controversial Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam? essay from way back in 2004. Lynch employs Latour to pose a challenge to composition: How might we, as a discipline uniquely suited to addressing these environmental threats, take up the mantle of turning worlds into words, of providing voices vis-a-vis Latour to the toxic, polluted and trash-strewn natural bodies in dire need of our intervention? Indeed, in Lynch’s estimation, it is our ignorance on how to avoid this forthcoming environmental apocalypse that is the best argument for making it our project. To do this, we turn to a familiar friend: critique.  

      This is not your grandfather’s critique, however, or even its post-structural sister that’s become the standard in recent years.  Instead, borrowing again from Latour, the form of critique elicited by Lynch for future composition scholarship is oriented not toward the demystification so common nowadays, but instead toward construction, collection, mess and problem solving.  He ventures to ask a question that traditional rhetors (and anyone versed in literary and cultural criticism) shake their heads in disbelief: Could it be possible that critical thinking, the typical justification for our discipline and indeed for the humanities as a whole, has “outlived its usefulness” in light of our impending environmental situation?  

      A composition, he says, should not be judged based on how incisively it debunks, but rather on how expansively it “puts together” (470).  They should be, in Latourian vocabulary, learning compacts of collective experimentation. The critic should afford a space, an arena, in which important and productive conversation is enacted. For Lynch, composotinists should stop being problem creators and instead focus our collective energies on

      I wrote and presented a piece recently on the connections between Latour’s work on critique and the Flint Water Crisis.  My interest in the relation was centered squarely on Latour’s re-conception of basic tenets of critical application: is it possible to make our intellectual work productive, constructive, even fruitful? Could Latorian thinking inform our understandings of ecocrises?

      Lynch’s analysis ventures a variety of answers to questions such as these to varying degrees of resulting satisfaction. The writers on the leading edge of this apocalyptic turn beg us to renegotiate the work composition might do for the impending environmental state of affairs. Lynch

      I’d like to, here, break away from Lynch for just a moment to suggest an avenue in which we might “answer the call,” so to speak, and mobilize composition in a direction .  Our task is to transform our students into decision makers more readily capable of tackling the problems posed by the anthropocene.  Typical criticism seems to invent and cultivate problems, to borrow from Gerald Graff’s terminology.  What we don’t need, the apocalyptic turn says, are more problems. And so the task becomes,

      To close, I want to spend a few paragraphs making the case that emphasizing creative thinking within our writing classrooms alongside our traditional emphasis on critical thinking might further our interests within the discipline.  The cultivation of problem-solving attitudes, mindsets and habits within FYW classrooms and writing programs in general could be just the place in which our discipline is able to marshall the world into words, to assemble the productive measures to build new and badly-needed conversations, and propel the next generation to a place in which they’re able to navigate waters (both figuratively and literally) that may be so potentially dire that we’re unable to articulate them at the present moment. What can composition do to mitigate these threats?

      One viable direction in which we might turn our attention toward is located in a familiar place our discipline has always shared an uneasy relationship with. Could a major aspect of our future be found just down the hall? I speak of creative thinking, fostered in our own classrooms already but even more so in the creative wing of our writing programs. Patrick Sullivan refers to creative thinking in a recent issue of College Composition and Communication as “a foundational aspect of human cognition and intelligence” that could hold tremendous clout for the ways we theorize writing after the apocalyptic turn.  Sullivan makes the case that there is a wealth of value to be reaped from renewed attention within our discipline to creative thinking alongside our traditional orientation toward critical thinking-related endeavors. He cites recent mainstream scholarship, notably Nick Carr’s The Shallows and its groundbreaking work on neuroplasticity, to further the aims and ends of creative thinking’s potential in the writing classroom. Creativity, according to Ken Robinson, is something that can be nurtured and learned, which the brain’s neuroplasticity seems at least in part accountable for.  Indeed, a lot stands to be gained from thinking of creativity as an essential and integral part of how we theorize writing.

      If we could find a way to position creative thinking as part of the rhetorical, cognitive and educational repertoires our students might employ within their literacy quivers, are we not better serving to meet and satisfy the needs outlined by Lynch and the writers of the apocalyptic turn? We’re tasked, in composition, with articulating that which is sometimes difficult to express– we teach our students to do this every day. Might our job be, in true Latourian fashion, to enable our writers to give voice to the non-human natural bodies in such dire health?

      If composition is to move itself from a discipline of problem-creating toward one of problem-solving, as Latour and others have called for, it will take a commitment to fostering not only evaluative and analytical skills, but also creative ones. After all, who will form the next generation of innovators if not the young writers writing their ways through our classrooms each semester?

 

Works:

Lynch, Paul. “Composition’s New Thing: Bruno Latour and the Apocalyptic Turn.” College English, Vol. 74 No. 5. May 2012. Print.

Sullivan, Patrick. “The Un-Essay: Making Room for Creativity in the Composition Classroom.” College Composition and Communication, Vol. 67 No. 1. Print.

Latour, Bruno. “We Have Never Been Modern.” Trans. Catherine Porter. Harvard University Press, 1993. Print.

—. “Why Has Critique Run Out of Steam?” Critical Inquiry, Vol. 30, No. 2. Winter 2004.

Apocalyptic Turn/Sparking Change

And just like that, the Spring semester has flown by and will soon give way to the joys of summer.  Before we end, however, I’d like to take some time to outline the final capstone project I’m assigning to my first-year writing students to end our time together and draw everything to a cohesive close: a research paper project that we will draft together and eventually adapt into digital form.

This final project version will be available to the public, viewable by anyone with an internet connection.  Student participants, whom I prefer to call student-writer-citizens, will develop their own unique takes on matters of public concern– such as mass incarceration, deforestation in the Amazon, eugenics, gun control and the Syrian refugee crisis– and will then contribute their six-pagers to our collaborative online publication.

I’ll post that link here as the project develops.  For now, take a look at the official assignment prompt, posted to our class blog.  We’re calling this capstone project Sparking Change (for everyone’s knowledge, my students know their writing here is public and have signed off on it).

This final project (and indeed, much of what I’ve been working through with my writing classes this semester) is oriented around the idea of an apocalyptic turn that has occurred within composition and rhetoric in recent years.  The apocalyptic turn draws on the work of Paul Lynch, Lynn Worsham, Derek Owens and Kurt Spellmeyer, all of whom perform various critique of composition in the age of economic downturn, social upheaval and the anthropocene. Lynch explores a simple question in regards to these various affairs that loudly menace our world: “What can composition do to ameliorate these threats?”  He ventures a variety of semi-satisfying answers, which I’ll link to here, but this capstone first-year writing project is positioned as a partial answer to one of Lynch’s more contentious claims: that “our ignorance about how to avert the apocalypse is actually the best argument for making it our project.”

I’m working on a longer piece responding to Lynch’s claims, but I’m not sure we, as writers, compositionists and even apocalyptic writers/compositionists, lack a clear and obvious path forward to engage with the issues of environmental calamnity.  Is not writing itself, the writing we do every day– poetry, blog posts, Tweets, Facebook shares, YouTube uploads, academic essays– a proper response? Do our actions not impact the anthropocene, ? When I post these brief paragraphs to my website in a moment, I will tag the post with environmentalism, and it will join the discourse of environmental writings that have been combatting the anthropocene since the 70’s.  Our efforts may not be adequate, but I fear they may be all that we have available in our quiver of scientific, technological and political tools.

Poetry– our poetry— may be the answer we’re looking for. Can writing be constructive?

The Space We Occupy

My sister Andrea has spent the morning researching our family’s roots in Germany, Switzerland and France, in turn educating me on the interesting findings she’s uncovered. As it turns out, our family occupies a not-so-small bit of space in the world. Here’s a bit of what she’s shared:

Firstly, a direct ancestor of ours opened the Kresge chain of grocery shops, which eventually developed into the K-Mart chain of retail stores. Yay, big capitalism!

Secondly, my grandparents shared common ancestors that aren’t quite as far back in the family line as we’d wish they were. Yay, incest!

There’s a town in the Catskills that’s named after an ancestor of mine.

And lastly, my grandfather participated in D-Day, though he originally enlisted in the Air Force, in his own words, for the “excellent recreational activities… pool/billiards, volleyball, basketball, softball” which were apparently “unavailable otherwise.” His group was assigned the first mission of the day on June 6th, 1944. He went on to fly 62 missions in France and Belgium.

And before all of this, he moved 34 times and changed schools 28 times before graduating from high school. There’s so much to talk about.

A Blast From the Past

I’ve been reading a lot recently on literacy narratives, chronicles of time and transformation in which writers reflect on their past experiences reading, writing and communicating in conversation with others.  I’m intrigued with what I might find myself writing were I to begin a literacy narrative project, especially considering my literacy, as it stands, is only just in its infantile stages of development.  Today, for example, I had the opportunity to sit down with an associate professor at Syracuse University for half an hour to discuss publication, PhD programs and the world of writing and rhetoric.  The conversation, frankly, changed my outlook on my own literacy and, now that I think on it, my own personal narrative as a writer and a scholar.

So, here’s a link to my own literacy narrative published in The Crystallize Review way back in May of 2015.  Excuse the existentialism present in its opening (and closing) lines (and middle lines, too, ugh)– I was big into Sartre and Camus at the time.  I still am.

Here’s to always questioning our own literacies, and to writing reflectively about our relationships to knowledge, reading and writing themselves.