Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Policing the word

Recently, there has been squall blowing through the media, one that had its point of origin in academics but rapidly radiated into the consciousness of the public at-large.  An edition of Mark Twain's The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was released in which a vulgar word for African-Americans was replaced by the word "slave."  The redacted word is deemed despicable by most of society and with good reason.  In fact the very uttering of the word is typically a kiss of death for the speaker, both in professional and social respects.  So much so, that I even hesitate writing it here, even though it is most germane to the post.  Conversely, I don't relish the notion of dealing with the subject in a kindergarten-esque manner, saying "the n-word" or some such.  Therefore, in the interest of striking a balance between the realistic and the sensitive, I will write the word only once and refer to it as "that word" thereafter.

The word is "nigger."

Twain used it in numerous facets in Huckleberry Finn, but mostly in reference to the character of Jim, a runaway slave.  Rather than debate whether the erasure of such a word is right or wrong, I wish to examine it from a perspective of Composition Theory.  
When you change "that word" to another, how does the text then change as a whole?  Is the edit subversive to Twain's original authorial intent?  Or does the composition still survive relatively intact?  Is this an example of a "contact zone?"  While it is true that "that word" is unacceptable in most precincts of society, there remain cultural sectors where it is not viewed as an insult, most copiously noticeable in "gangsta" rap.  Is this an example of one culture policing a text to prevent insult in a cultural demographic where insult might not necessarily be taken?  Divergent compositional views, it would seem. A question of axiology.
What does this do to the teaching of writing?  Is there any place at all for "that word" in the curriculum of English?  Or any other discipline for that matter?  Does this remove an opportunity to teach critical thinking?  To teach "close reading" and study an author's motives and intent?  What affect does sanitizing history have?  Should we remove all "inconvenient truths?"  This would seem to open up several other rhetorical Pandora's Boxes.  What of the study of military history or one of my pet areas, the literature of war?  At times, it would seem unavoidable to research those fields without at times engaging the derogatory words that soldiers used for their enemies.  Indeed, many of those words are racial slurs by nature, not altogether different in breech of common ethics than "that word."

Arguments could be made in many different directions, both axiological and pedagogical.  This will require further reflection.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Fan Fiction as a Reclamation of Authority in Writing and Myth-Making

This is the abstract and the introduction to a paper I recently wrote on theory and fan fiction.

    This paper examines the phenomenon of fan fiction, the writing of fiction based upon an already existing work of film, television, books, or other media, in terms of how writers and discourse communities appropriate myth, contribute to it, alter it, and circumvent recently emerged political authorities in doing so.  Ultimately, I argue that the reclamation of authority in the writing of fan fiction is an inevitable re-emergence of shared writing, storytelling, and myth generation, unable to be hindered by any outside political forces.

[1]    It is not unheard of for a teacher or other adult to address a gathering of children by saying, “I am going to read you the story of Jack and the Beanstalk.”  However, were the same adult to offer, “I am going to read you my story of when Batman ran for president,” the storyteller might be met with a fair amount of skepticism.  Did this story really happen in the movies, cartoons, or the comic books (i.e. is it part of the “canon”)?  By what authority does this person tell the story?  Is she a writer for any of the Batman media?  What does she know about Batman that entitled her to write this story?
[2]     Such questions would more than likely not be asked of a denizen of ancient Sumeria who wished to tell others of the tale of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.  Myths and tales of civilizations such as those of ancient Sumeria, Egypt, Greece, or even those as recent as bards’ tales in medieval Europe, were considered communal and without ownership.  As stories became published in books, read over radio, shown in cinemas, and broadcast over television, the concept of ownership, tied in primarily with the rights to economic profit, became one of critical consideration for writers.  Those writers who write stories based on such owned canons without expressed permission are engaged in the act of writing fan fiction.  What follows in this paper is my contention that the writing of fan fiction is reclamation of a writer’s right and authority to contribute to a discourse community acting in the continuous generation of myth.
[3]    First, let us examine just what defines “fan fiction” or “fanfic” as it is sometimes abbreviated.  Fan fiction, as outlined by Sheenagh Pugh in The Democratic Genre, can be defined as “writing based on a canon invented by another writer or writers and shared by the intended audience.”1   While the term “fan fiction” may be relatively new, the act of writing it is not.  Homer selected and discarded Greek myth to suit his needs in writing both The Iliad and The Odyssey.  John Milton took the written stories of The Bible to create Paradise Lost.  William Shakespeare borrowed generously from folktales, Greek myth, and from the archives of history itself (e.g. Julius Caesar, Macbeth).  Chaucer did much the same with The Canterbury Tales.  These are but a few of many authors who incorporated this practice into their work.  This is to be expected as no text exists in a vacuum and the writer is always already confronting previous authorship, the “ever-expanding archives” that Derrida speaks of.  A writer generates a fresh text only after coming into contact with previous texts in the epistemology.  Harold Bloom takes this assertion of Derrida and phrases it this way: “What Derrida calls the scene of writing is really the trespass of teaching.”2 Furthering this thought, Bloom expresses the writer’s act of reinvention and re-articulation in regard to poetry:
“Poems, I am saying, are neither about ‘subjects’ nor about ‘themselves.’  They are necessarily about other poems; a poem is a response to a poet, or a person to his parent.  Trying to write a poem takes the poet back to the origins what a poem first was for him, and so takes the poet back beyond the pleasure principle to the decisive initial encounter and response that began with him.”3
As Norman Fairclough would say, perhaps more succinctly, “the new is made out of a novel articulation of the old.”4   Nothing could be truer of fan fiction.
[4]    Dean Kiley, professor of new media production at Swinburne University, has narrowed the origin of fan fiction proper to the mid-20th Century.  Kiley argues that it was the proliferation of the mimeograph machine that allowed for writers to write and then mass distribute their texts: “The ‘zine, the do-it-yourself, deliberately crude, thrown-together, these-are-my-obsessions-what-are-yours personalized magazine revealed a lively consumer eager to dismember mass culture and might be viewed as fanfic’s most direct ancestor.”5
[5]    In the contemporary setting, writers of fan fiction often post their writing to the web sites of large online fan fiction discourse communities.  Members of the discourse community are then free to read the stories and post their own thoughts and criticisms on the piece.  In doing so, the readers of the stories are expected to be every bit as well versed in the canon of fan fiction’s subject matter as the writer is.  As Pugh illustrates: “In an age of fragmented rather than shared cultures, the fan fiction audience is unusual in having as thorough a knowledge of its given shared canon as a Bible-reading or classically educated audience once did.”6   What is more, the readers have a wide range of intentions to consider when reading a writer’s text, intentions that are unique to fan fiction.  In addition to simply telling a new story within the canon or extending a new tale to the given mythos, a writer may have the intent of establishing a romantic relationship hitherto unseen between characters in the canon.  This is known as “slash fiction,” such as “Potter/Snape” in the Harry Potter discourse community.  The viewer of a television series may become displeased with the outcome or the delivery of a particular episode.  This viewer may then take to writing how she would rather have seen the episode play out.  This form of fan fiction is known as an “episode fix.”   Also, the writer may wish to alter the canon altogether, writing about things that never happened in the set mythos save for in the author’s own imagination.  For example, a story about the Fantastic Four where the main characters receive super powers entirely different from those stated in canon as a result of their journey into space. 
[6]    While intention is a consideration for the fan fiction reader, it is the motivation to write that we are concerned with here.  As stated previously, fan fiction mostly involves writing about characters and settings that are the property of someone else.  Unlike Shakespeare or James Joyce’s appropriations of Greek myth and other such texts for their own work, the writer of the aforementioned Fantastic Four story is generating text based upon characters and themes owned by Marvel Comics and thereby The Disney Corporation.  These political and economic entities would be swift in preventing the author from reaping any form of monetary or any other tangible benefit from these stories.  Yet there are thousands of fan fiction authors currently engaged in the act of writing these stories and posting them online.  If there is no money to be made and no mass fame to be gained, two primary motivating factors in American society, then why is the writing taking place?  In the next section I will examine these motivating factors and how they relate to the continuing generation of myth.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

A new theory

Piggy-backing on my previous post about heated rhetoric, I wanted to bring this man's theory to light:

I came upon Bruce Lindner via a mutual friend on Facebook.  Bruce had written a note, expounding upon the very intriguing premise that none other than Karl Rove himself wrote the text for Sarah Palin's statement from today.  How does he know this?  By analyzing the text, Bruce has found what may be textual, telltale signs and rhetorical choices (especially that "blood libel" business.)  If nothing else, I think it is a skillful application of critical thinking upon a piece of rhetoric.  Here it is and all credit does go to Bruce Lindner:

"Sarah Palin used the almost unbelievably stupid phrase last night; "blood libel," in characterizing how she's feeling victimized over the Tucson massacre. I have a theory about this, that there's more to it than meets the eye. But first, if you don't already know the historical significance of the blood libel, you should go look it up on Wikipedia, or the like. I don't want to go into it here, only to say that for Jews, this is probably the most incendiary remark that she, or anybody else could have made -- particularly since three of the people who were shot were Jewish.

My theory is that not only did she not write that message, but I suspect that it was a set up by a very crafty man... but one who may have tipped his hand.

Sarah Palin is considered to be a likely GOP candidate for president in 2012. That's a huge problem for the Old Guard GOP, because they know she can win the nomination, but she can't possibly win the presidency. So it is in the interest of the party movers and shakers that she be crushed before too much momentum builds, and she becomes the only choice of the Tea Party... as the rest of the GOP candidates are considered "too liberal" by them (!!).

After listening to just the first few sentences of her comments early this morning, it was obvious to me that somebody wrote it for her, and I think I know who. The author had to know that including that blood libel comment would create a furor, and it certainly has! Nobody's even talking about anything else she said, just that one comment. And it's guaranteed to become another stone around her neck, come 2012. So, in my opinion, the author of Palin's video message deliberately intended to put Sarah Palin on the spot. There's not a doubt in my mind that Palin hadn't the first clue what the blood libel was before last night, so she had no reason to suspect anything. But I suspect that the author put that in there to contribute to the destruction of the "Palin mystique," so that he could clear her from the field of truly electable candidates.

Last February, I watched a live a debate here in Portland between Dr. Howard Dean, and Karl Rove. During that debate, Rove referred to the "pundants" out there who've been predicting this or that. I thought it was odd that a man like Rove would say pundants, rather than the correct use of the word; "pundits," which is derived from the Hindu word for educator. If you listen carefully to Palin's address, she too says "pundants." And I thought to myself; Rove set her up! I believe that he wrote that speech, and told her to say those exact words; blood libel, knowing it would further destroy her political ambitions. His interest of course, is that once she's out of the way, the Tea Partiers will have no choice but to choose between Obama, or his candidate, whomever that may be. And when she said the word "pundant," that (in my humble opinion) was one of Rove's fingerprints... not knowing the proper use of the word himself, I suspect that he wrote it into her speech INCORRECTLY, and in doing so, implicated himself.

The beauty of his scheme, is that Palin now owns those words. If I'm correct about this, she can't exactly say "Hey, don't blame me, I didn't know what it meant, and Karl Rove wrote it for me." Because if she did that, whatever shred of credibility she once had, would be gone. Nope, her only course now is to swallow hard, and to put it alongside all of her other asinine comments. But I believe we just witnessed a very rare event; a Karl Rove dirty trick that led directly back to Karl Rove. A mistake he never makes."

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Words matter

DISCLAIMER: The subject matter of this post is unavoidably political.  Nevertheless, I wish to keep the discussion within the confines of the principles of rhetoric and composition theory, and not an argument over which political party is the "correct" one.

Doubtless you have heard about it by now.  I'm sure my dogs have even heard about it.  Not sure about the neighbor's cat, but my dogs have heard.  Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot last Saturday in Tucson, Arizona.  She is recovering from a massive head wound, but several other people were killed in the shooting, including a 9 year-old girl and a Federal court judge.
What concerns us here is the notion that this insidious event may have been the result of heated rhetoric and texts in political and cultural discourse. Among the given examples of such speech both spoken and written:

-In 2008, Sarah Palin placed a gun sight on Giffords' district, along with the districts of several other representatives.  That web page has since been changed, removing Gibbons' name and the crosshairs.

-Sharron Angle, former Tea Party candidate in Nevada, once tangentially suggested "Second Amendment remedies" to deal not just with the supposedly ever-growing "tyrannical" U.S. government, but to replace her election opponent: Majority Leader Harry Reid

-President Obama once boasted of "bringing a knife to a gunfight" in terms of political sparring with Republicans.  A clear paraphrase of a line from the film The Untouchables.

Now one thing needs to be made perfectly clear: neither Ms. Palin nor any of the other above mentioned ever directly called for the deaths of Giffords or anyone else for that matter.  Never.   Again, we are concerned with the use of discourse regardless of the political affiliation.

Violent metaphors seem unavoidable.  The United States is a nation born out of gun violence, after all.  It is not uncommon for political confrontations to be termed as "showdowns, or "opening up with both barrels."  But what happens when these sorts of rhetorical devices are employed over and over again?  I can speak to you and profess to mean you no harm, but if my textual message to you is routinely peppered with phrases such as (only as examples) "gunning for you" or "shooting you down," your opinion of my intentions would likely be less than cordial.  When political discourse is collocated in the same space as a word like "reload" or the symbol of a target, it's difficult to infer a benign interpretation.  If someone placed a gun sight over where I live, I'm not going to take it as a compliment.  In all of this, I believe that we must ask what the motivation is in the composition of such speech.  When using gun or violence metaphors, what end result is the speaker/writer attempting?  Who is the intended audience for their rhetoric?  Are there multiple audiences?  Perhaps one they wish to inspire and another they wish to intimidate?

The questions of composition here seems to be ones of agency and  primacy.  Or the loss of primacy.  Once a writer composes a text, however long or short, and then releases it to an audience, that writer has lost all control over how that text will be interpreted.  To see an example of this in action, try writing something and then handing it over for workshop discussion.  I guarantee you will be surprised by a few of the interpretations that you will hear.  Just imagine what this means to a writer whose work is taken and mangled in interpretation, such as J.D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye was by Mark Chapman and Paul Schrader's Taxi Driver was by John Hinckley.  Barack Obama and Sarah Palin may very well have no intention to inspire violence, yet that cannot stop someone from taking their words as such.  In the end, there is nothing that a writer can comprehensively enact to prevent such drastic misinterpretations.

Yet there are ways to reduce the risk, it would seem.  The best analysis I have heard of the sad situation from Saturday was on MSNBC.  The affect of rhetoric is not altogether different from that of an influenza outbreak.  When such viral epidemics occur, those who are already sick with something else are the most at risk.  The same goes for heated rhetoric.  When words and phrases such as "Second Amendment remedies" and "reload" float about in the ether and are then added to with vitriol from all sides, it is the already mentally unstable who are at risk of taking in the text, interpreting it through their own filter, and then choosing to act.  The accused gunman from Saturday may have been just that: an already mentally ill individual with no real allegiance to any political party but influenced in whole or in part by texts within our marketplace of free ideas.  

Words and symbols create our reality.  The Greeks knew that long ago as both Plato and Aristotle wrote at length about speaking to persuade an audience.  If the use of words associated with violence or metaphors of violence are written, spoken, and broadcast on a continual basis within the arena of political discussion, the reality that will result could very well be one of combat, perhaps only verbally...or perhaps physically.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Statement of Purpose

Those of you who follow my other blog will no doubt notice a dramatic difference in tone here.  The purpose of this blog demonstrate my serious commitment to the study of Rhetoric and Composition Theory.  Here, I will be discussing the act and the art of writing as an academic discipline in and of itself.  

-I will explore the various exigencies that compel someone to write, whether it is a novel or a grocery list.
-I will discuss the nigh infinite processes by which someone takes the thoughts in their head and translates them into written form on a page or a computer screen.  This is nothing short of a form of critical thinking and it is the backbone of nearly every field of study.
-I will examine epistemology, how we learn the things that we learn, how written texts collide with one another to absorb each other's knowledge and then create new textual entities entirely.  As Norman Fairclough would say, perhaps more succinctly, “the new is made out of a novel articulation of the old.”
-I will wax philosophical with questions of axiology.  What makes "good" writing "good?"  What is "good" in terms of rhetoric and composition?  What forces and procedures are or should be at work in the composing of "good" writing?  What separates "literary" writing from "genre" writing?  Is it arbitrary?
-I will get political by taking an honest look at the various agencies that "gatekeep" or regulate who has access to a discourse community and by what criterion their writing is evaluated in order to gain admittance to the marketplace of free ideas.
-I will delve into the history of writing in an attempt to demonstrate a la Gary Olson how rhetoric and composition is intellectual work.  Not only has it been around since the Greeks, but it was in existence when humans first slapped crude paint onto cave walls.  

All of this and much much more!  Stay tuned!