Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Reading :: Breaking Up (at) Totality

Originally posted: Tue, 08 Nov 2005 21:22:42

Breaking Up (At) Totality: A Rhetoric of Laughter

by D. Diane Davis

I haven't read much thoroughgoing feminist theory since grad school, but what really struck me about authors such as Cixous and Kristeva was that they sounded like Terry Gross trying to tell a penis joke.

You know what I mean if you've listened to much NPR. Gross starts by introducing the interviewee, using her trademarked Very Thoughtful tone of voice. At some point she decided to inject her own (inevitably orthodox) views, which she always telegraphs with a nervous chuckle and a series of hesitations, then delivers with a leading question. That question is stated, withdrawn, and restated in rapid fire, as if posing a leading question in three different ways will somehow camoflage it as a leading question or make it any less of a statement. "So (heh hah), don't you think that ? have you ever ? do you wonder if ?" And when Gross is unsure or insecure, her voice grows even more thoughtful and her vocabulary even more academic. If she were to tell a penis joke, it would take ten minutes and she would radiate nervous discomfort all the way through.

Diane Davis, on the other hand, knows how to tell a really ribald penis joke. And, yes, that is a compliment.

Diane happens to be in the office next to mine. She's smart, animated, extroverted, and in constant motion. If you want to get a sense of her, you really should read this book. It's less colloquial than Diane is in real life, but it retains her gusto and iconoclast outlook. But perhaps "iconoclast" is not quite right. The book is about disrupting established, patriarchal modes of discourse ? hence the feminist theory ? but its goal is to encourage new sorts of conversations through affirmative laughter. Diane goes after this goal by drawing on Deleuze, Haraway, and similar scholars to explore themes of heterogeneity and multiplicity. She encourages us not to "fear fluidity" but rather to examine rhetoric ontologically, relying less on unified subjects and more on metaphors of fluids and clusters. The book "after an instantaneous gestalt switch rather than a long-term political program; we are after tactics rather than strategies" (p.56). The inventive use of typography throughout allows her to underline her points playfully. It's a bit like watching Rip Taylor.

Actually, the typography is symptomatic of Diane's extroversion. And like many extroverts, I think she has a hard time understanding that her vision of writing as uninhibited, orgiastic, excessive, festive, etc. is not especially appealing to introverts like myself. To an extrovert, introverts seem to be filled with fear and that's what makes them reserved, uninterested in engaging in the Burkean parlor, more inclined to strategy than tactics. No, introverts often find public engagement draining; festivals and parlors are tests of psychic endurance. Metaphors based on those sorts of events are therefore extremely unappealing to introverts ? accomplishing precisely the opposite of what they intend, binding rather than liberating, exhausting rather than rejuvenating. Characterizing this reaction as fffffffear is a bit unfair.

Despite the metaphor, though, the book really is valuable. Diane thinks about issues of power and privilege ontologically, and in doing so, levels a sharp critique of composition pedagogies (including feminist pedagogies) that often hits its mark. Don't be put off by the gnome on the front cover (not Diane's choice, by the way). Take a look.

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Reading :: Blog

Originally posted: Tue, 08 Nov 2005 20:45:41

Blog : Understanding the Information Reformation That's Changing Your World

by Hugh Hewitt

Near the end of this book, published in early 2005, Hugh Hewitt discusses the implications of the blogosphere for one particularly relevant sector:

When the first Supreme Court nominee of the new media era arrives, watch the blogs explode with commentary and investigation. Everey opinion the nominee wrote or case on which the nominee participated will serve as fodder for the new media. Anita Hill would not have lasted a weeked with the new media on her case. But a flawed nominee will melt more quickly than a Popsicle in Vegas in July. ... It will be a magnificent battle of text merchants. (p.148)

And so it came to pass. First Roberts, then Miers, and now Alito are being subjected to blogospheric examination. But it's worth noting Hewitt's role in Miers' inquiry: faced with a pick who appeared underqualified, whose position as President's counsel raised real questions about the separation of powers, Hewitt fell in line behind the nominee. Blogger Qando describes Hewitt in this way:

If you were to combine all three Powerline bloggers, Sean Hannity and any given Republican Party Chairman in some sort of GOP experiment to create the most reliable Republican pundit ever...you'd have Hugh Hewitt: the distilled essence of The Party Man.

I point out this issue not to hammer on Hugh Hewitt as a person but to illustrate one of the problems with Blog, his book on the blogosphere. Blog really does have some interesting insights and even flashes of brilliance. But it is also frequently blinkered because Hewitt really is a Party Man: he casts things in terms of Right and Left, he identifies Right as right, and he identifies the President as Right. So other dimensions of the political discussion ? in the Miers case, the good and proper perpetual antagonism among branches of government, which transcends party lines ? gets lost in his analysis. Symptomatically, he describes Andrew Sullivan as a "onetime conservative" ? after all, Sullivan used to support the administration, which made him conservative, and now he doesn't, which made him liberal. Yes?

No. But this limitation, which causes Hewitt to gravitate to heroic bloggers on the Right, diminishes the insights of the book only a little. Hewitt cites two ways of understanding the blogosphere as a transformative moment, a moment in which "everyone can be a journo" if they have a cameraphone and a blog (p.x), every reader can be an ombudsman and editor (p.37).

One way is by seeing the blogosphere as symptomatic of a Reformation. In Chapter 2, Hewitt retells the story of the Protestant Reformation, noting how the printing press provided the means for relatively cheap reproduction of texts and therefore routed around the bottlenecks that had allowed the Catholic Church to monopolize information. Once the printing press made the Scripture available to the masses, the principle of sola scriptura became a workable principle and the priesthood of the believer became tenable. That is, the printing press allowed Christians to decentralize church authority. This metaphor is somewhat illuminating, though I suspect it's not especially accessible to those without an evangelical background.

The other way is by seeing the blogosphere in terms of military strategy. In Chapter 1, which I found the most interesting chapter in the book, Hewitt calls on conflict theorist John Arquilla's work to provide a strategic vocabulary. Hewitt quotes Arquilla, who sounds a bit Harawayan:

Networking means much the same for the military as it does in business and social-activist settings, not to mention among information-age terrorists and criminals: monitoring the environment more broadly with highly sophisticated sensors; expanding lateral information flows; forming and deploying small, agile, specialized teams; and devolving much (but not all) command authority downward. But it also has a doctrinal implication that these other types of actors are learning faster than the U.S. military: It's a good idea to become adept at "swarming."

Swarming is a seemingly amorphous but carefully structured, coordinated way to strike from all directions at a particular point or points, by means of a sustainable "pulsing" of force and/or fire, close-in as well as from stand-off positions. It will work best ? perhaps it will only work ? if it is designed mainly around the deployment of myriad small, dispersed, networked maneuver units. The aim is to coalesce rapidly and stealthily on a target, attack it, then dissever and redisperse, immediately ready to recombine for a new pulse. (pp.3-4)

Let me emphasize that Hewitt is quoting Arquilla here; these are not Hewitt's words. Hewitt's contribution here is not in originating the idea but in applying it to the blogosphere. Although the idea doesn't really fit ? the blogosphere is not divided neatly into warring camps except in the minds of Hewitt and similar partisans ? it provides some insight into blog swarms.

Both ways of understanding the blogosphere emphasize decentalization of authority, and this is a theme that runs through the book. Hewitt contends that decentralization of authority has been most obvious in journalism so far, but it is spreading across other information fields as well (p.94). So the second half of the book is all about managing organizational identity in the face of this new decentralization. Hewitt really embraces what has elsewhere been called the "hyperlinked organization", encouraging blogs at all levels of the organization, as well as discussing strategies for dealing with blog swarms. (One is simply being truthful; here, he sounds a lot like The Cluetrain Manifesto.) In fact, he says that CEOs should blog honestly and daily (p.124).

Blog, in fact, was published by Thomas Nelson publishing, whose CEO has been blogging for a while on the theme of "working smart." I ran across this blog via a link from 43 folders and have checked in occasionally; after reading Blog, I'm fairly certain that the author began blogging on Hewitt's advice. It's relatively secular. (In fact, the CEO took a lot of heat in his comments section a while back when he announced that his company would donate Bibles to Katrina victims. One commenter asked: Why Bibles? Why not the Koran? The CEO replied: Um, because we publish Bibles. Like the commenter, I hadn't realized that fact until I read the reply.)

The second half of the book loses steam. In fact, Hewitt is clearly blue-skying the implications of blogging for different sectors in Chapter 12, probably because the book wasn't long enough. But the first half of the book is certainly worth reading.

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