Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Time to reflect on teaching

My blog has been all McLuhan all the time as of late, but I have asked students in both of my classes to start blogging, so it might be a good idea to reflect on teaching instead of research.

After only a week and half, I am having to juggle the schedule in one class and explain a short assignment in another class. Both are really typical teaching moves, and they highlight two of the hardest things to master with teaching: pace and clarity.

Pace. I definitely err on the side of speed, thinking that it is better to get off to an energetic and ambitious start than a sluggish meandering start. Classes usually find a rhythm after a few weeks, and they always have their ebbs and flows throughout the semester. It took me quite a while to learn this--experience really is good for something.

Clarity. I wrote really short directions for a short writing assignment on my class schedule, and after I got a few emails from students, I realized that I was asking students to do about 4 things, all of which needed more explanation than the one sentence description I put on the schedule. These moments are really fascinating examples of just how hard it is to communicate effectively with people, especially with people you are just starting to get to know. I bet a one sentence description like that one might work late in the semester, when students are familiar with me and the assignments, but I can see how I was asking students to do too many new things all at once. Pace.

I will slow down in both classes on Thursday. We will talk, we will breathe, we will try to achieve clarity.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

David Byrne understands Marshall McLuhan

There is lots of evidence that David Byrne understands Marshall McLuhan, but a recent blog entry makes the point that the medium is the massage beautifully.

MM's diss. ends with an analysis of how Thomas Nashe was influenced by the grammarians, dialecticians, and rhetoricians of his education. A similar analysis of many new media artists would uncover, I suspect, McLuhan's influence (grammarian/rhetorician). Some would uncover Derrida's influence (the dialecticians), probably the postmodern poets and novelists, perhaps Michael Joyce). If it weren't late, I would try to generate other names and connections. Gotta flesh out the web of relations.

Slightly related note: Sketches of Gehry, a documentary about Frank Gehry, illuminates creativity, collaboration, experimentation, and some beautiful buildings. Worth checking out!

Sunday, August 27, 2006

How container ships changed the world

Three books on shipping contains reviewed in the New York Review of Books. McLuhan is probably never cited, but these books illustrate "the medium is the massage" beautifully.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

From Cliche to Archetype: McLuhan's composition text?

I have actually been telling those who will listen that From Cliche to ARchetype is McLuhan's neglected masterpiece, but perhaps more relevant to us compositionists is the possibility that the book is a kind of composition text, in the philosophical tradition. McLuhan even makes a hint in that direction: "The banishing of the cliche from serious attention was the natural gesture of literary specialists. . . . The writers of composition texts have made much of the cliche as they understand it. They are right in saying that the cliche ought to get great crical attention" (55).

I suspect McLuhan is implying that the composition texts spend a lot of time advising writers to avoid cliches, while McLuhan is in fact suggesting that writers / scholars / artists (because the cliche is not simply verbal) spend a lot of time working with cliches. Cliches, McLuhan argues, are probes, a term he uses often and loosely, but what I think he is getting at is the fact that cliches used unreflectively can reveal all sorts of personal and cultural biases (embedded ways of thinking), while cliches that are carefully and self-consciously retrieved can be powerful means of communication that bring with them rich and evocative histories, having been retrieved from Yeates' "rag and bone shop of the heart."

Okay, so the whole cliche as probe thing needs some refining, but it definitely seems like it has potential for compositionists. McLuhan and his co-author, Wilfred Watson, have laced the text with many other composition tools to be used. For example, they essentially offer up a version of Peter Elbow's "believing and doubting game" and put that into the general set of perceptual tools they call probes. The book as a whole is concerned with the problems / challenges of creativity, which I wrote about a few days agao. This process of retrieval, as I also suggested the other day, is an approach to language and literature that assumes agency and action, rather than study and analysis. The book offers up McLuhan's standard argument that the role of art is to provide an anti-environment through which we can reveal the invisible environments we live in, the water we fish swim in. The chapter on genre is genre ecology and media ecology all roled into one and offers a nice critique of Frye's literary approach to genre. The chapter begins with the subtitle: "Talent rides in a hackneyed vehicle" which seems to me like a beautiful and under-used aphorism in genre studies.

I suppose there is a whole article just on McLuhan as anti-environment for genre studies: why are we just now (36 years later) coming to roughly the same conclusions McLuhan and Watson arrived at in 1970? Not because they were geniuses ahead of their time, I suspect, but because we are living through a long age of interface, a long age of literacy and electracy overlapping, and the transition will be slow, the "progress" meager, the theory hope and claims of radical transformation extravegent.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

McLuhan in a different context

I keep writing about McLuhan and Ulmer, but last night, reading From Cliche to Archetype, McLuhan really clarified his difference from Northrop Frye, his nemesis. In defining "symbol," McLuhan quotes Frye's formalist / scientistic definition of symbol as something like (paraphrase here) 'any unit of meaning that can be isolated for examination of significance.' McLuhan's own definition of symbol draws on the etymology of the word, which means "thrown together," and McLuhan sees symbols not as static units to be analyzed, but the process of making symbols, the throwing together of images in order to create new meaning, or in the context of the book the throwing together of cliches (retrieving them) to make them fresh, to establish archetypes (which also happen to be "in play" and not static). In short, McLuhan sets up Frye as the formalist, and presents himself as the rhetorician.

This book also seems to be very much in concert with Derrida's thinking about the role of traces and marks that accumulate and that become part of the instability (or dynamism) of how we communicate. McLuhan even has a paragraph that sounds very much like the deconstruction of metaphysics, the notion that the cliches of the center and transcendence has been / is being replaced, in this era of discontinuity, by humans as, he wonders, "the missing link" or "hairless ape". I didn't understand what he was getting at when I read this passage last night, and why he was offering up the new cliche as a question, but I think I now see that he was documenting the same phenomenon as Derrida--the deconstruction of metaphysics, the replacement of humans as the center of the universe, as connected to or capable of transcendence--but he is questioning (because of his faith, perhaps) the emerging, evolutionary cliches--missing link, hairless ape. He seems to know and understand why those cliches are so prominently in play in the 20th century, but he is not likely excited by or inspired by those cliches.

So, what does it mean to re-read ALL of McLuhan? His texts provide an anti-environment from which to re-read all of the dominant scholarship of the last 50 years. In Cliches to Archetype, he quotes a long passage about the I-Ching being comprehensible in the west since we came to understand the computer. I think we are in a better place to understand McLuhan now (for Bakhtinian reasons, for technological reasons, etc), and when we understand him, we shed new light on more familiar faces.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Ads for each chapter

I just read McLuhan writing about ads at the end of From Cliche to Archetype, sounding very much like Ulmer on the logic of ads and the need to tap into that logic in a post print era, and I thought: "I essentially have ads (or at least images) to start every or most chapters of McLuhan for Compositionists. The map and tetrad for historical and intellectual context, the big triangle (which is feeling more and more like hot and cool all the time), and undoubtedly other tetrads or collages or interfaces (which I am seeing more and more in his work).

Not 10 minutes, but it's late, I'm tired.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

McLuhan and Ulmer, ad naseum

Just looking at page 15 of Ulmer's applied grammatology again, trying to puzzle through the distinctions that Ulmer is making between Derrida and McLuhan, or actually, Heidegger and McLuhan, because Ulmer is saying that Derrida turns to Heidegger rather than McLuhan to work out grammatology, the study of writing. Ulmer says Derrida does this because McLUhan "projected the return of an oral civilization" while "Heidegger located the essence of modern technology in the family of terms related to Gestell (enframing). . . . Derrida took up the question of enframing, as indicated in his exploration of all marginal and paragonal phenomena, in order to prepare the way for the shift away from, or the deemphasis of, speech in favor of writing" (15).

Okay--big breakthrough in understanding here, maybe. While not versed in Heidegger and the subtleties of enframing, it seems to me that McLuhan's "the medium is the massage" is very much a mantra for paying attention to enframing. It also seems to me that McLuhan (and Ong) did not so much project a return to oral civilization as simply notice, and in some ways document, the return of orality, a pattern that is increasingly clear especially when images are understood as "acoustic" in their orientation, or perhaps more precisely, if images are understood to be closer to speech and orality than they are to writing and inscribing. The flip side of this argument would be simply to say that it is increasingly clear to me that we are not culturally making a shift towards writing.

That said, I believe there are probably some Derridian nuances to tease out of "writing" and the shift Ulmer says Derrida favored. Later on the page, Ulmer does write "before grammatology can attain its applied status by working in the video medium, whose audiovisual capacity seems to fulfill the requirements of a double-valued writing (phonetic and ideographic . . . ), certain theoretical problems must be resolved" (15). This "double-valued" writing--phonetic (oral) and ideographic (image? inscription) might actually be a another way of saying that Derrida, like McLuhan, was actually trying to work on the problem of "interfacing" as much or more than "enframing."

My new working title. McLuhan for Compositionists: Working at the Interface.

Friday, August 18, 2006

Cronenberg and Warhol

David Cronenberg is one of my favorite directors; Andy Warhold is a fascinating Pop Artists; these videos show DC talking about AW. I had the good fortune to see the Warhol exhibit, Supernovas, in Mpls this spring.

McLuhan and Ulmer, again

I just read this in McLuhan's From Cliche to Archetype: "How to elicit creativity from these middenheaps [the rag and bone shop of the heart] has become the problem of modern culture" (184). "Eliciting creativity" is one of the central goals of Ulmer's Internet Invention, although Ulmer foregrounds invention, rather than retrieval, as the primary means of achieving / being creative. That said, Ulmer's popcycle seems to be something very much like a "rag and bone shop of the heart," more personal than cultural, although blurring that line. Ulmer, in fact, is much more concerned about the student and the personal than McLuhan. McLuhan consistently acknowledges students' environments, but he seldom addresses anyone's personal history.

So, in making one more micro comparison of McLuhan and UImer, I also need to figure out where all these comparisons lead. An article for Computers and Composition, in which I compare these two literary scholars and literary pragmatists who haunt Computers and Composition, but were not identified in the "big survey" as among the most influential of the theorists, losing out to the New London Group and Lev Manovich. What do M and U give that the NLG and Manovich don't? Creativity would be a great place to start. A signifcant concern for composing in the general sense, perhaps? I do like this angle--I just need to read more NLG to see if the contrast is significant. Kress certainly makes the right gesture from "analysis to design," but he is making this gesture in the shadow of McLuhan and Ulmer, and "design" isn't quite the same thing as creativity. And of course, creativity is a hot word; companion to affect, perhaps.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

A magical discussion

This discussion of magic and rhetoric is something I will need to come back to in the future.

The classical trivium and new media

Just finished McLuhan's The Classical Trivium and have some ideas for the special issue of Kairos--classical rhetoric and new media. McLuhan's thesis is that the branches of the trivium have historically jockied for position--rhetoric pre-eminent in Sophistic and Ciceronian educational scheme, grammar sustaining the middle ages, dialectic pushing grammar and rhetoric aside during the renaissance of the 12th-15th century, rhetoric re-emerging in the oppulent and lay-educated 16th century. Underlying this struggle is a bias against dialectics on McLuhan's part, although perhaps also a desire for unity--each element of the trivium playing its role in a comprehensive, encyclopedic education.

Mapped onto 21st century education and new media studies specifically, it seems possible that the classical trivium can help us think about how to approach this "field." Or, how English studies might approach this field. Wait. for Kairos, the issue is what do the rhetoricians do with new media. My sense is that the rhetoric and composition often draws its circle too tight (McLuhan says Cicero complained about the narrowness of the professors of rhetoric), so how do rhetoricians both adjust their own field to new media, as well as embrace the other two components of the trivium.

Grammar = connections, the editors and enclopediasts, the collators. Grammatical exegesis or hermeneutics looks for the unifying links in texts. The grammatical task facing those who study new media is to try and hold onto a graps of this moving target. There are multi-disciplinary readers (Multimedia from Wagner to Virtual Reality; the New Media Reader, etc.), encyclopedic-like texts that can be employed, and should be employed, rather than providing our students (especially u-grads) with rhetorical collections only (PP, New Words for a New World, etc.). Rhetoricians need to include a broad range of new media texts in their classes / in their research: television, film, games, web, video, etc. and understanding the interconnectedness (the transmedia, the interplay, the influences--as McLuhan notes in C-to-A). They need to practice the hermeneutics of the grammarians: seeing the connections, building eloquent knowledge, making use of taxonomies.

Dialectics = divisions, the deconstructions, the skeptics, the inventors. Recognizing critical theory / deconstruction as the heir to dialectics, and recognizing the ways in which dialectics has marginalized grammar and rhetoric since the late sixties, highlights in part why new media studies did not immediately follow from mcLuhan's work, and it also parallels the flight from comprehension by the lay public. That said, rhetoricians don't need to abandon dialectics completely. We need to break down and question our complicity with media outlets, with corporate softwarew giants, with corporate university plans; we do need to stay vigilant to both the material digital divide and the ways in whith the new media continue to repeat the binary biases of the old media. We also need to recognize that the dialecticians have been engaged in both hermeneutics and invention: Derrida's texts, Ulmer's work, Mark Taylor. But we cannot end with analysis: we must move to design, and generally I think the field wants to move out of obscurity and towards relevance again.

Rhetoric = production, persuasion, design. Rhetorical analysis as reception obviously still has a place in new media studies, as we break down not the binary bias of a new media production so much as its strategies, purposes, and techniques. In asking for and teaching production, we have new tropes and schemes to learn: camera angles, stategies of closures, the concepts of design, etc. We must also be careful not to limit our productions, and our student productions, to academic and technical communication, to argumentation. We must also explore self-expression and analysis (Ulmer), we must be willing to let students produce ads and MTV-like products as ways of understanding them, and we must teach them to design games, drawing on their understanding of myth, narrative, and ethical representation of the other.

Seems pretty do-able, except for the fast approaching deadline--October 15.

Friday, August 11, 2006

hot and cool, implicit or explicit

Thinking about how to teach genre, implicitly (though reading) or explicitly (through identifying of conventions, labels, etc. The former cool, the later hot. More generally thinking about approaches to composition--and learning. The hot approach prevails even in writing: work on skills, skills, skills--a narrow range of skills that students have difficulty mastering because that level of skill achievement is not possible or desirable. Even thought I am explicit in my genre instruction, I prefer the overall cool approach of teaching a wide range of skills, exposing students to the whole game of writing, and then encouraging them to keep playing, to develop their mastery as they go along. I think it is easier for them to understand the narrow set of skills that they are learning once they see the full range of skills that can go into writing. Students might be convinced that the specific set of narrow skills they focus on really are the right skills (not just the idiosyncratic preferences of their teacher), and then engage more fully in those skills. This model of education is not so different from what McLuhan proposed when he looked at the Hutchinson/Adler vs Dewey debates: stay broad through U-grad, get specialized when you are ready to specialize.