Monday, January 30, 2012

Dr. Robert Garrity: A Requiem

Tonight, I wish to pay tribute to one of my greatest teachers: Dr. Robert Garrity, Professor of English at Saint Joseph's College.  He passed away last Friday, January 27th.

Dr. Garrity was among the smartest men I have ever known.  He was a linguist of exceptional ability.  Ancient Greek, Latin, Old English, you name it and he could both read it and speak it.  Though I only had him for one class, Christian Impact On Western Civilization, he instilled in me a love of Medieval and Renaissance literature.  He was one professor who you could not get away with skipping the reading...or allow for a spelling or grammar error in a paper.  I can remember writing a piece on the play, The Madwoman of Chaillot, "Which you spelled 'Challiot'" he told me with no small amount of disdain.  My friends and I thought that we should adopt him as our grammatical "sergeant-at-arms" for our group listserve.  We could have used him in that capacity to be sure.

As typically occurs at times like these, my friends have been contributing their own memories and reminiscence.  Author Bernard Sell, a student of Dr. Garrity's classes in Latin, recalls trying to explain pop culture concepts to the professor.  "I loved how befuddled he got when you tried to clue him in on pop culture," Sell said on Facebook. "He'd try for a little bit, and then he'd give that wincing grin that said "Well, the ancient Greeks and Romans didn't bother with this, so why should I?"   My friend Armando once recalled Dr. Garrity speaking of the Library at Alexandria and the look of frustrated agony on the man's face as he lamented what knowledge was lost when the library met its end.  That's the kind of scholar that he was.  Me?  I remember him doing readings from the Bible at Easter Vigil mass.  He usually read from the Book of Exodus, letting loose with those vocal pipes he had honed after years of theater.  "Pharaoh's chariots and charioteers..."  Shook the whole church.  I also will remember him as a teacher who first sparked me to think about what motivated a writer and why a writer makes the choices that she/he does.  Certainly wish I could have taken his course on History of the English Language.

I know there are people who might read this who think this guy sounds lame.  We didn't think that.  We thought he was cool.  Supercool.  In our goofier moments, we imagined him hanging out with the likes of Guns N' Roses.  Academic rock star meets heavy metal rock stars.  Or serving as a tactical officer on the bridge of the Enterprise.  Oh and their linguist, too.  Bernard toyed with the notion of strapping a keg of beer to his back and showing up at Garrity's door.  "Dr. G," Bernard would say.  "Let's toke this f**ker."  Like I said, goofy.  But it is testimony to how highly we thought of him.

I have heard that the best way to keep alive someone who has passed on is to value and perpetuate what they cared about.  That's what I intend to do.  Oftentimes I've joked that my friends and I, especially Bernard, would all make good monks.  We'd live the monastic lifestyle, secluded and serving as custodians of uncared for literature, keeping it safe through these new Dark Ages until another Renaissance can come along.

Oh and one other thing.  If there is anyone out there who is still myopic enough, still jaded enough, still ignorant enough to believe that teachers can no longer have an impact on a student's life...well, this post is your answer.

Rest easy, scholar.  Your job is done.
Resquiescat in pacem.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Socrates is a punk!

A bit of levity for you this evening.

I came across this story of a conversation overheard between two undergrads reading Plato's The Phaedrus for a class in Rhetoric:

STUDENT #1: What?  Socrates is a punk!

STUDENT #2: What do you mean?

STUDENT #1: He shows up late and then starts asking a lot of questions.  Socrates is a punk!

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Why write novels?

I know.  I KNOW it’s been a long time since I have posted anything to this blog.  Regrettably, life…and other blogs…get in the way.

But if rhetoric and composition theory have been bumped, it is only from my to-do list and not my head or my heart.  As I allow that bit of maudlin expression to marinate, I’ll explain what prompted my return to this long-suffering blog of mine.

It was an article in The New York Times by Garth Risk Hallberg.  It asks the literary question, “Why Write Novels At All?”     Why write novels in an age where entertainment is derived more and more from alternative, more visually stimulating media?  After a lengthy and in my opinion, rambling introduction, the writer asserts that the aforementioned question now replaces “How Should Novels Be?”
Again we come back to one of my favorite facets of composition theory: exigency.  Philosophically, I become the equivalent of a five year-old, constantly asking "why why why?'  Why write?  There must be a compelling force for writers to sit down and hammer out a novel, even in this day and age where reading has been supplanted by any number of other new medias.  As Bawarshi defines it: “Exigencies compel us to respond and/or act.”

Hallberg traces the origins of the question back to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of “cultural capital.”  This was the idea that choices in the consumption of art forms such as books are indicative of one’s social or intellectual status.  The more complicated and difficult to access a work is, the more it sets the consumer apart from the herd.  Readers with well-worn tomes of Shakespeare’s complete works belong on a platform elevated well above those who select Stieg Larsson.  Again we see that old chestnut of axiological issues, “literary” versus “genre” fiction.  I could easily get swept up in debating the idea that no one agency of authority may define “good” writing.  I enjoy that as much as the next scholar of English but fortunately Hallberg moves us past that notion in his article.

Instead, he focuses on the rationale given by writers such as Franzen and Wallace.  In particular is a citation from Franzen's wryly titled essay, "Why Bother?": “Simply to be recognized for what I was, simply not to be misunderstood: these had revealed themselves, suddenly, as reasons to write.”  To know we're not alone.  It's as good a supposition as any, I guess, but still it's a bit glib.  I cannot say it is without it's truth or merit.
In my own research into rhetoric and composition theory, one of my favorite concepts has become that of Jacques Derrida's "ever-expanding archives."  No text exists within a vacuum and every text eventually points to many many others.  A work of fiction, a poem, even a blog post such as this one could not exist without 2000 years or so of previous texts.  Could we view, perhaps, the need to feel "not alone" in our experiences as text making contact with other texts?  Our own experiences affirmed by reading another's...who in turn was affirmed by the texts that he/she read?  Reading such writing, in this case a novel, allows one to educe the connection between themselves, the writer, and all those who came before he/she.  One might even extend this thought further and link it to Kenneth Bruffee's idea of social or collaborative learning.  This the epistemological theory that much like texts, humans do not exist independent of one another and that all learning takes place through social interaction.  "No man is an island," if you will.  This would seem to disqualify any literary works tending towards pure solipsism.

The answers to the title question are as many as there are fiction writers.  If pressed, I would offer this as my own reason for being a novelist:

As Michael Chabon wrote in his introduction to the edition of Best American Short Stories that he edited, "entertainment" is a primary cause.  We writers feel that there are stories and narratives within us and we will just not be complete until we have released them into written form.  On some level, we wish to entertain.  However, as Chabon points out, "entertainment" has pejorative, almost sleazy connotation to it in the academy.  "Entertainment" means gaudy glitz, spandex, explosions, and so on and so forth.  Yet how many works of fiction in the "canon" were written with the initial intent to entertain?  More than many realize.
Second of all, I see myself as attempting to cobble together some sense of order from life.  I can process and plan to deal with things that just make no bloody sense to me or are otherwise too painful to deal with head-on.  Instead, fiction allows for an alternative, a safe format and arena in which to process these complications.  If I am lucky and have exercised "good" writing, then perhaps my readers will identify with these same socio-psychological struggles via the novel's unique ability to accommodate a character's internalization on the page.  This, I believe, does dovetail in greater and lesser respects with the aforementioned causal notion of "knowing we are not alone."
In tandem with that, I believe that many writers are aware of "the social and political consequences of acts of literacy" as David Wallace says, changing "not just what they know but who they are."  Literature harbors the ability to transform the writer, the reader, and thereby the world.

Whether or not people will continue to read is another matter entirely.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

More than the constraints of genre

Previous posts have attempted to rhetorically tackle the axiological question of what is “literary?”  In the gap since writing those posts, I have become aware of the question in more specific ways via my own writing.
When not writing academic papers on the subjects of Rhetoric and Composition Theory, I’m writing fiction.  As I write fiction, I find my process continuously intruded upon by precepts ingrained in me during my graduate studies.  “Show, don’t tell.”  “Incorporate all five senses.”  “Description, not dialogue.”  And most of all, “never, ever use an adverb.”  While these axioms may all be well and good, I sometimes think that they occupy the forefront of my mind while I’m writing, even more so perhaps than plot or character.  Which leads me to ask, am I really writing what I want to write?

In order to steer us away from a literary discussion, let’s take a look at this in terms of genre and authorial invention.  Bawarshi says that the writer invents the genre.  Yet at the same time, the writer is invented by the genre.  The precepts of the genre, those constraints that include, say, MLA format for papers, that confines or at the very least guides the author towards an end text that is acceptable to the particular discourse community.  Playing into this is what Foucault calls “the author-function.”  This, according to Foucault, does not refer to the actual author, the writer, but to the author’s name, “the literary name,” that artistic and philosophical “endowment” or “canonization” that grants a text a certain value or cultural status.  The author, in Foucault’s view, “is a certain functional principle by which, in our culture, one limits, excludes, and chooses; in short, by which one impedes the free circulation, the free manipulation, the free composition, the decomposition, and recomposition of fiction.”  ASIDE: “Decomposition” and “recomposition” really hearken back to cut-ups, in my opinion.
Upon hearing the description of the author-function, it is not hard to see how most writers want their work to end up in the good graces described above, to be considered more “literary” by that machination that posits, “Faulkner good, L. Ron Hubbard bad.”  Whether that statement is true or not, the apparatus is apparent.  This function delimits and relegates which works are “important,” “worthy of study.”
From said study by the academy, certain similar attributes of texts, “hallmarks” if you will, are identified as benchmarks for “literary” quality writing.  Since many writers strive for this form of literature or at least wish to be respected as such, they aim for these hallmarks in effort to make their work “worthwhile.”  Indeed a worthy aspiration but I cannot help but wonder just to what extent these constructed genre constraints, constructed either by classroom instruction, critique, or “the inner editor” limit the style of form of texts?

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

"Literary" writing, continued

Continuing my examination of the axiological nature of the phrase, “literary writing,” I will pick up with where I last left off: the notion of location.
If we may view “location” as being a mindset, a situation within which the writer is composing, then the subject of “intentions” is unavoidable.  Is it the writer’s intentions that make a text literary or not?  By default, if a writer sets out to create “art” and not “entertainment” is the result therefore “literary?” 
This may be argued in terms of what James Berlin asserts, that all text contains ideology.  There is a value being expressed, even in the most indulgent, hedonistic, or even prurient texts.  The literary work is a container, a textual composition carrying an ideologically-charged particle or more sizeable mass than that depending upon intention, perhaps.  All literature is therefore rhetoric
As Berlin says (Villanueva p. 717), “a rhetoric can never be innocent.”  It contains a value that is being communicated to an audience, in this case a reader.  The writer in this case, is asking, “What exists? What is good?  What is possible?”  Through this process, the writer’s desires become structured and normalized, especially when placed vis-à-vis the expectations of the literary discourse community, those very same writers/readers/Authority regulators mentioned in the previous post.  Recall what Collins and Gentner claimed as they defined “good writing” as “writing that conforms to a set of rules set by some authority.”  This evaluative apparatus is pervasive.  It is present not only in the reading of a novel or short story, but in the casual perusal or a newspaper or especially in the grading of a student essay, research paper, or other such assignment. 
This process of evaluation is constant, but the criterion for axological approval is ever changing.  What was considered a “literary” work in the 19th Century is a far cry from what the postmodern sensibility would consider as such.  If this contemplation seems twisty and convoluted, that’s because it is.  While I am admittedly free-associating in true blogger style, I believe that any effort to definitively congeal a meaning and standard for “literary” results only in what amounts to a rhetorical strawman.  Therefore, I would humbly argue that what constitutes “literary fiction” should not hold as much importance as it has enjoyed.  Sufficient for the day is the task of evaluating any text.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

But is it "literary?"

“Literary.”  This very word has connotations that are at once sublime and controversial.

In many rhetorical situations, calling written work “literary” gifts the text with a blessing, if not altogether a canonization, granting it access into an “upper echelon” of literature.  By way of comparison, calling a given piece of writing “genre fiction” tends to create a diametrically opposite response.  “Genre” evokes connotations of flash, gaudiness, emptiness, and perhaps worst of all, entertainment.  A perhaps more succinct way of summarizing this comparison might be that “literary” means “art" whereas “genre” means “commerce.”
The tropes, the trappings, the “furniture” of various genres are easily identified.  If a reader is told that a book is a “Western,”certain expectations are formed in connection with that term.  There are thoughts of mesas, men riding the range, and so forth.  “Science fiction” conjures thoughts of space travel, advanced technology, or perhaps just life in the future.  Yet what are the basic attributes of “literary” fiction?
Those are murky and ambiguous at best.  Where the above examples of genre tropes are perhaps oversimplifications, the same type of over-generalizations might be made after a cursory cull of literary fiction.  “Literary” means dysfunctional families, substance abuse, men brought to ruin by philandering, and harsh political points of view.  But where is the demarcation point between “genre” and “literary?”  “Horror” is a genre, but many would consider Edgar Allan Poe, one of the luminaries of that genre as well as others, to be a
true “literary” writer.  What accounts for this?
In terms of composition, this is really a question of axiology.  What is “good” writing?  As I habitually do in essays of this nature, I will invoke Aristotle and his concept of the “three goods:” that which is useful, that which is pleasurable, and that which is of the highest moral quality.  Let us belay the “useful” for the purposes of this discussion and focus on the remaining two “goods.”  “Genre” writing, with its connotations of entertainment and escapism, could certainly be viewed as “pleasurable,” but cannot reading “literary” be equally enjoyable?  “Literary” fiction might derive its identity by imparting a morally good message or by being upheld as a standard of high craftsmanship, the “morally” strongest paragon of the art form.  Could “genre” writing such as The Spy Who Came In From the Cold provide the same thing?  Or is this all more along the lines of how Collins and Gentner define "good writing": "writing that conforms to a set of rules based by some authority."  A definition that Bizzell questions by asserting, "This approach leaves no way to justify the authority's decisions as other than arbitrary, and hence there 'rules' are situation-bound."
That may be the key.  What about the writer’s situation and intentions, born out of "the politics of location?"

More to come...

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Writing as an academic and intellectual discipline

Dr. Richard Wentz once said the following about famed Naturalist, Loren Eisley: "For Loren Eiseley, writing itself becomes a form of contemplation. Contemplation is a kind of human activity in which the mind, spirit and body are directed in solitude toward some other. Scholars and critics have not yet taken the full measure of contemplation as an art that is related to the purpose of all scholarly activity – to see things as they really are... Using narrative, parable and exposition, Eiseley has the uncanny ability to make us feel that we are accompanying him on a journey into the very heart of the universe."

This, I would argue, lends to the concept that writing is not merely a tool or an activity, but scholarship in action.  It is a discipline in and of itself.  True, writing is an essential component of many academic fields, ranging from political science to history, from business to psychology.  Given that writing stretches across the curriculum, it is tempting to classify it as just another tool to be used in academic discourse.  Like others in the field of English, Rhetoric, and Composition Studies, I believe that writing is much more than that.  
Consider for a moment what writing entails.  A writer, meaning anyone who writes as spurred on by their own particular exigency, is engaged in the act of taking the thoughts in their head and transferring them to visible representation while tempering them into a form that can be easily understood by one or more readers.  Through this, the writer has much to consider.  Who is my audience?  What form will be most accepted by that discourse community?  What are the rules to adhere to when writing for this community?  Most of all, how do I connect my separate and distinct ideas so that they best communicate what I am thinking?  Whether consciously or subconsciously, all of these matters percolate within a writer's head during the composition process.  
Something unique is happening at this point.  Something that stands apart from any one particular field of academics.  This is a cognitive process unlike any other.  It is, indeed, the very act of contemplation.
In Rhetoric and Composition as Intellectual Work (ed. Olson, 2002), Charles Bazerman recommends "three syntheses" in the study and teaching of composition and rhetoric: historical, theoretical, and practical (pp. 36-38).  The historical synthesis is an understanding of where composition has been and a view of the world "in relation to the emergent infrastructure of written communication." (36)  The theoretical, as I understand it, encompasses a great deal in terms of a developing understand of the how and the why of writing.  Aspects of the theoretical synthesis include but are not limited to genre theory, process theory, activity theory, rhetorical theory, and the theory of literacy.  The practical is just that: how does the individual...whether writer or student of writing...take these syntheses and apply them to their composition task at hand, whatever that might be?  In other words, that age old question from students young and old alike: "what's in it for me?"
I am very much a supporter of Brazerman's "three syntheses" model and I fully advocate for the stand alone study of Rhetoric and Composition Theory.  I am not the first to suggest this nor will I be the last, but I wish to strategically place myself within that discipline.  The questions of why we write and how we should teach it are ever present in my mind.