Authority Anxiety and Writing/Reading/Computers

Our four readings this week were quite interestingly interconnected.  I’d like to point out a few important threads that I see running through all our readings, in no particular order, but which I think will foster fruitful and possibly political discussion.

1)  Reading, Writing, and the Computer

Fitzpatrick, amusingly, declares she must “perform the ritual” of saying she is not a technological determinist. A technology by itself does not enact change. However, to deny that technology assists change would deny that our outlook on literacy is changing. The rise of digital publishing has forced us to rethink peer review and the form of the book– how long should it be? Should there be chapters? (Laquintano) Brandt points out that the “postures” and technologies we use for reading and writing have merged into one device; computers, smartphones with keypads, tablets with styluses (styli?) that are molded to look like pencils. Even Aarseth’s ergodic, labyrinthine narratives have a place here– Fitzpatrick details how much easier her writing process is with computers. It is, specifically, “nonlinear–” it progresses in fits and starts, ideas are inserted, deleted, abandoned mid-stream. There is an entrance and exit– like a proper labyrinth– but the narrative it is multi-cursal in writing and can take any direction, go back, and take a different one, or upon re-reading, be reminded of the paths that were not taken (Aarseth again).

It is probably not necessary to flesh out how the computer has affected our writing processes– we’ve addressed that in this class before– but what’s interesting to consider is all the moral-panic headlines that grab the covers of Time and Newsweek and the Posts and Times and Presses and Suns of our neighborhoods: Is Google making us stupid? Are computers making us lazy? Is text messaging making your child illiterate? We’ve all seen the headlines and we chuckle to ourselves. “Oh, how determinist! Of course computers aren’t making us lazy, we’re changing the way we think about accessing information based on the tools now available to us!” AH HA. Is that maybe how we should look at authorship and authority? Should we step away from the “well, this is how we’ve always done it” attitude of the academy? Methinks we ought, and we would be better-served for it.

This brings me to my second point:

2)  Authority Anxiety

This is touched on in all four of our readings. Aarseth mentions it outright– the constant “civil war” occurring within the field of literary studies as to what “constitutes its valid objects,” what is worthy of being paid attention to and why. Laquintano’s takes a slightly more roundabout route and examines how authors of e-books attempt to establish their authority (sometimes unsuccessfully) to author a book about their chosen subject (in this case, poker). Brandt’s anxiety arises in her statement that literacy is a “fragile resource” connected to economic class, and mentions that professors in universities have unlimited access to technology, but that for custodians at her university, accessing technology during work hours is grounds for severe disciplinary action. Finally, Fitzpatrick gives the most critical assessment of our anxiety regarding changes in authority: She says it’s all well and good to talk about Foucault and Barthes and the death of the author, but academics especially tend to get very nervous while considering what that means for US as authors.

So what is the underlying cause of this anxiety? Is it a sense that people who are “established authors” feel threatened by the ability of people who don’t have the same “qualifications” as they do to produce and disseminate texts? Is the state of “authorship” and “literary worthiness” determined by an unseen panel of judges, the academy? How do we define “authority,” and how do we determine who has it? How does our idea of “authority” change in the age of digital publishing and (ideally) democratic access?  What do we make of the institution of digital publishing, and how can we deal with it in terms of the academy?  What about collectivist forums?  Can this help us contextualize our initial anxiety about our edits on WikiComp?

There’s a lot of fodder here in terms of the future of our writing and our attitudes towards publishing and the “walled garden” of authorship (especially in the academy), and I’m really curious as to what you– teachers, students, writers, and readers all– think.

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6 Responses to Authority Anxiety and Writing/Reading/Computers

  1. red says:

    Sorry, Kate, I kind of ran in a different direction, but I think it still touches on some of what you’ve brought up here.

    *Creativity and collaboration*

    I am wondering about collaboration and our unquestioned tendency towards it as a superior and digital way of doing writing/reading/thinking/inventing. Laquintano says something in the section on “Writing and the Future of the Book” which caused me pause (“… because writing and publishing can blur, and because of the new role that readers/writers can play in collaborating with the primary author of the text” (487)). He says this as necessarily good thing and much of his article is about the dynamic space in-between market/non-market, reading/writing as they pertain to authorship, but I am curious about this all hailing to the values of collaboration. I recently heard an interview with Rex Jung, a neuroscientist at the University of New Mexico, where he discussed his research on creativity and the circulated myths on how to foster creativity. I am not so sure I believe everything he says, but I find it curious that his research suggests that brainstorming is a folly (because of Groupthink, etc—we know that already, right?) but he takes it further to suggest that collaboration does not improve creativity or invention.

    This, combined with our readings this week, has me in quite a thought-pickle. I have been sufficiently enculturated into thinking collaboration creates better invention in creativity, that it doubles the idea-power, but Jung suggests that we often are too afraid in groups to really take the time and leap of faith necessary for real creative thought. Here are some of Jung’s thoughts on that:
    The main reason why is because of this process of trying out strange new ideas versus when you put people together in a room, almost invariably they will try to conform socially. So you will get creative ideas, but you won’t get as creative when people are trying to please each other than when they’re trying to push the envelope. And so the studies invariably show that the quality of the creative ideas that people put out individually are invariably higher in quality than those done in a group format.
    Collaboration may be better (especially with increased modularity) for efficiency and productivity, but I wonder about creativity. Much of our work is collaborative at some level now; we are always in conversation with many (in class, on twitter, advisors, conversations, dm@p collaboratory), but is it making better invention? Erin Anderson and I often joke that we will write a collaborative dissertation because we have two different ways of seeing things, but the two together are amplified. Yet, now I want to question this concept for just a moment. Is Laquitano concerned with what it means to have multiple authorship on the level of creativity and invention? The benefits are evident, but what of solitary thought?

  2. Kerry says:

    I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it means to value (aesthetically) surprise and/or newness—and about when/where/how surprise and newness can be appropriately collapsed into a single descriptor vs. when they are better separated from one another. You’ve probably gathered that I’m suspicious of valuing newness because I’m pretty sure that either (1) nothing is new, or (2) everything is new. I’ve probably said this directly on the blog before, so sorry. But I deeply value the experience of surprise, and I think that (admittedly personal) attribution of value has a lot to do with both this week’s readings and the way Red is talking about creativity and connectivity. (Also with last week’s question of intimacy, I think.)

    Surprise, for me, has something intimate to do with the experience of living with a “spatial, artistically complex, and confusing artifact” like a labyrinth or a cyber text or a fantastically multimodal composition (Aarseth 7). But I’m also pretty convinced that any object can be understood as a “spatial, artistically complex, and confusing artifact.” This resonates with the way Aarseth says, “The ideological forces surrounding new technology produce a rhetoric of novelty. Differentiation, and freedom that works to obscure the more profound structural kinships between superficially heterogeneous media” (14). I wonder a lot about the sentence-level movement from novelty to differentiation to freedom here. In particular, I’m tempted to think of differentiation as less problematic that the other two (maybe because modularity, which allows for reconstructions/reconstitutions of wholes, demands some sort of differentiation between parts).

    I’m also interested in how the rhetoric of novelty relates to the way we’ve been chatting off and on about the relationship between academic genres and crisis rhetoric, including particular ways in which this relationship manifests in literacy studies.

    Just because “we have historically overvalued” something (whether something like the traditional scholarly model of monograph authorship or the relationship between collaboration and creativity) doesn’t mean that we should never use that thing again. It does or should or could mean: we need to reframe how and where and why it can be useful. And I’m tempted to propose that one benchmark might be: we can/should continue to use the “old” model as long as—and wherever—it can still surprise us.

    Red’s post has me thinking about how in mid-March the poet John Gallaher did a trio of blog posts on creativity (drawing heavily on Jonah Lehrer and Groupthink stuff). He addresses the idea that sometimes in problem solving it helps to consider irrelevant information and asks how we can cultivate a relevant sort of non-attention attention.

    He also recounts the fact that when asked to free-associate about “green,” nearly everyone says “grass.” And quotes psychology professor Charlan Nemeth saying “Even the most creative people are still going to come up with many mundane associations…if you want to be original, then you have to get past this first layer of predictability.” And he describes a Nemeth experiment in which “pairs of subjects were shown a series of color slides in various shades of blue and asked to identify the colors. Sometimes one of the pair was actually a lab assistant instructed by Nemeth to provide a wrong answer. After a few minutes, the pairs were asked to free-associate about the colors they had seen. People who had been exposed to inaccurate descriptions came up with associations that were far more original. Instead of saying that ‘blue’ reminded them of ‘sky,’ they came up with ‘jazz’ and ‘berry pie.’ “

    That’s a long borrowed bit. But maybe it gets at one of my big anxieties, which has to do with what seems like an overvaluing of certain types of speed (which certainly relates to efficiency, and which showed up as a big ebook virtue in Laquinto). So maybe what I’m really saying here is just that I worry about this issue of speed in relation to valuing of “making it new” just for the sake of making it new, subscribing to rhetorics of novelty, subscribing to rhetorics of crisis, designing platforms, and getting caught up in group think. Yet I also suspect speed and efficiency have to do with what types of collaboration do in fact support creativity—I’m tempted to say that the problem is less collaboration and more looking at collaboration or engaging in collaboration in the short term rather than with an enormous timeframe in mind (the difference between writing a group presentation for a class and writing a collaborative dissertation?). Even though this isn’t the way Fitzpatrick sells it, I’m also tempted to say that one of the virtues of post-publication review is that the review process itself can, in that format, actually take place quite slowly.

    On the other hand, now I am thinking of Italo Calvino’s wonderful memo on Quickness (as a virtue in writing/literature), and thinking that I need to start creating a taxonomy of types of speed that relate to creative production and engagement.

  3. reb50 says:

    Some interesting points came out of these readings for me. Brandt writes, “…books have value because their goodness can rub off on readers and it is this moral value…Writing is less for good than it is a good” (164). As she explores people who write for work, one subject states, “It crystallizes you” (170). It felt as though the writers were discovering themselves through their writing, which I am not judging as good or bad, but simply something I think I notice. Brandt talks about achieving authorship while writing in “obscurity” and “anonymity” (173).

    This had me thinking about how pervasive written text is. I don’t know how many different books are published each week, but based on what I find on the under $10 tables at book stores, I’m imagining vast store houses of mediocre and subpar books that someone wrote and someone published. Is this writing in obscurity and writing for yourself?

    And then I thought about how everyone I know (that’s hyperbole, but it doesn’t feel like it) maintains a blog. While I have two blogs, either is currently being used, and only one was ever a daily web log of my life (when I waitressed in the summer, I kept a blog of the ridiculousness of the restaurant business). I kept the blog for myself, and other than my friends and family, I’m pretty sure no one else ever read it. But I really never marketed the blog as something worth reading, and I think keeping it did help to “crystallize” my time at the restaurant.

    From there I am thrown towards the mini blogs of Twitter and Facebook, again, both spaces in which I have a name and have contributed. Some people post information on these forums to inform others or to persuade others, but so much of what I see is information for information’s sake: I <3 my dog, going to make dinner now, boo broken washing machine, only 3 more days till the weekend, etc. These posts are written for the author, and yet they are set into a public space to be consumed just like the books at the bookstore.

    I’ve stopped looking at the bargain books tables, I’ve stopped posting to my blog, I no longer ever sign in to my Twitter, and I write on Facebook about once a month. And these readings make me question why I’ve stopped writing. Have I stopped authoring? Do I not believe I have authority?

    Fitzpatrick’s emphasis on the originality, creativity, productivity, and ownership is so poignant in my opinion. I’m not sure if anxiety is causing me to stop writing, but frustration does describe my self-critique as I tell myself, “No one really wants to read what I’m writing here.” If, as Brandt says, people write more than they read, then who is reading what I’m writing anyway? Who really reads all their Twitter feeds? Who reads their friends’ blogs on a consistent basis? Perhaps people do. Fitzgerald cites Hesse: “What appears to be emerging from the digital revolution is the possibility of a new mode of temporality for public communication…in a continuously immediate present” (69). And I think that is a significant part of my frustration, that I will never be immediate enough. Even drafting this post I feel this lack of timeliness. While I am drafting in Word, someone else might be posting to the blog and invalidating what I’m trying to flesh out. Fitzpatrick in a way alleviates this frustration by establishing digital spaces (not sure if I used that term properly) as spaces in which to draft, version, and collaborate, so, according to that premise, I should not feel pressure to be in final version.

    Finally, Fitzpatrick writes what many of our readings in this class have done: “The key, as usual, will be convincing ourselves that this mode of work counts as work” (79). People seem to be devoting a great amount of time and effort to convince others that what they do is really worth doing. Is this a more contemporary trend or have people throughout history always found themselves justifying and rationalizing to this extent? Is this a consequence of being an innovator and pushing the envelope of the field, regardless of time, or is this a symptom of computer-based modes of composition?

    • adam.loretto says:

      To start where Renee ended: “Finally, Fitzpatrick writes what many of our readings in this class have done: “The key, as usual, will be convincing ourselves that this mode of work counts as work” (79).”
      And to tie Fitzpatrick to Brandt and Peter’s questions about Laquintano.

      When I think about what work is or isn’t, I think the debate over the popularity of poker is a good example. Laquintano mentions that poker players chafe at poker being equated with luck and gambling. Instead, they want it to be considered a game of skill. The process is multi-faceted. On television coverage, graphics display a player’s odds of winning at each round of betting, announcers discuss pot odds and other poker jargon while detailing the mental gymnastics involved in each decision. To achieve legitimacy, poker has to be a science, not a game or a lottery. So, poker borrows from what other fields have done to prove they are really “work.” Mathematicians and statisticians test real world situations numerically to find out why things happen or propose actions. Number-crunching poker players make claims about the mental math involved in making appropriate decisions. The connections to psychology are also common. Legitimate work also has a published discourse (journals, white papers, annual reports). Laquantano mentions that poker has published for a long time, but of course, ebook publishing fights its own battles for legitimacy. Peter asked what kinds of feedback the authors got, and I read the article as saying it took a variety of editors and reviewers fulfilling a variety of roles. Several, maybe the majority, probably pushed on the authors’ poker strategies. But there were also those, perhaps some for whom writing was part of their day jobs, who offered grammar and punctuation advice. The attention to the form of the books is not superficial (I’m sure no compositionist would argue that it is, but I’m just setting up a point): as part of building legitimacy both in poker circles and in wider social estimation, the authors establish ethos. The ethos aids the sales of the book, and for many of them, their coaching. Thus, the means of their economic production becomes tied to their writing (and of course their poker playing).

      The idea I took from the Brandt was that economic production is becoming more tied to ability to write: “Today the tightening association between socioeconomic status and literacy, the growing gaps in wealth between the literacy-haves and the literacy have-nots, stems in part from the patterns of access and investment that accompany the role of writing in economic productions” (p. 172). Even in fields like poker where the profession itself is not focused on writing, the biggest haves are those whose reputations are built on both their technical proficiency and their ability to write about the game in a way that others can use.

  4. Lauren says:

    This post is a lot of things… sorry in advance for jumpiness!

    This week’s focus on authorship and the way that writing is supplanting reading as the primary literate activity most people engage in on a day-to-day basis had me thinking all kinds of thoughts, some of which I can document/bring up here and others of which are hopefully somewhere in my marginal comments, not lost to me forever, so I can think more about them in the future!

    Anyway. The connections between Laquintano’s “sustained authorship” and Fitzpatrick’s discussion of versioning and publishing online via blogs, etc. before moving to print (as she did with her book) were nice and quite useful for me: with Laquintano we get the unauthorized version of this kind of authorship, happening through self-publishing and ebooks rather than traditional publishing routes (post-blog, Fitzpatrick’s book was published by the NYU Press). The difference the press makes in how sustained authorship methods actually work is interesting–the poker plays Laquintano interviews can revise their books whenever the want; what would happen if Fitzpatrick wanted to release another version of her book, say, next year, only 2 years after it was originally published? Something tells me I doubt she’d be able to (even for a book about that very issue!), but I wonder when and where something like that will become possible. I like the idea that something could be constantly revised and yet still be “official” and could still “count” (in ways that self-published books currently do not), but at the same time, I appreciate the value of a more static text, too. How can you work with a text if it might always be changing? Accessing/citing one version makes that easy, but what if the writer radically changed an aspect of a book after more consideration? You could still speak to the old view, I guess, but would that even be fair? I’m not sure if anything I’m saying makes sense/is actually interesting, but Fitzpatrick’s book took a lot of issues I’ve heard a lot about recently and made is somehow easier and more interesting for me to follow them in her discussion, so I’m suddenly having all of these thoughts. I love the idea of our scholarship always being in process, in the act of becoming (all the stuff on page 70), but the potential unwieldiness of that IS kind of terrifying–as she says, “This thought will make many of us nervous, in part because we already have difficulties completing a project; if we have the opportunity to continue working on something forever, well, we just might” (70).

    This actually leads me to something else–the way that Fitzpatrick continually returns to our anxieties as writers as potential reasons for our hesitancy to embrace new ways to publish, peer review, etc. She admits to her own anxieties; she points to others she thinks have been/are holding us back. There’s something in the way she labels these issues “anxieties” rather than other, more aggressive or negative-sounding “issues” that was helpful to me. “Anxieties” seem legitimate, but unfounded, and I’m more willing to reconsider something if it seems like that might be the case, rather than being accused of being wrongheaded, etc. (Not that I had much to reevaluate because I’m pretty much on board with everything she said, but I do tend to be more traditional about some things, so.) There’s an “I’m nervous, too” move happening in her writing that was reassuring, and in that reassurance, I felt more compelled to listen to what she had to say–very savvy. Overall, she had me considering and reconsidering things that while I’d heard talked about before, I think I’d never really given that much thought to–like collaborative work in the humanities vs. the hard sciences. I have a very good friend getting a PhD in Biochemistry we talk a lot about the differences in our programs and in the hard sciences and the humanities–the nature of his work being so much more collaborative is not new to me, but I started thinking more about not necessarily how his publications are multiply authored, but what the also means for the writing/drafting/revising process (which not every author contributes to and is differently distributed in different labs/by different advisors, etc. but still involves multiple people). We’re overdue for a phone call and I have the urge to talk to him about all the writing he does and what that collaboration actually looks like, and I think it’s nice that Fitzpatrick has inspired that. (And we used to work at a writing center together, so he’ll be up for enduring my questions about writing!)

    The last thing, related to my friend in the sciences–we talked several months ago about the publishing process, because he couldn’t believe how long it takes for something in English to get published vs. how long it takes research from his lab. There, something gets sent out and returned within a few months, sometimes faster, because with that kind of research, the longer you take you run the risk of the research no longer being as current. He reads journals, hardly any books, and he has to get through them quickly because, again, the work builds on itself and if he doesn’t get through stuff right away, there’s a chance it will no longer be relevant. What would humanities scholarship look like if our publishing turnaround wasn’t so long? What Fitzpatrick’s suggesting might get us there, and I’m very, very curious about what could happen–obviously this is already happening, sort of, on blogs, but what about more “officially sanctioned” stuff (articles)? We don’t have the same relevancy problem (usually) as the hard sciences, but I wonder how conversations in the field would shift if they were happening more rapidly.

  5. Kate says:

    Synthesis of Class: (Late and Commenty Though It Is)

    While we were displaced by the now seemingly ever-present bomb threats, we managed to have a fruitful and interesting discussion about many topics.

    First we discussed serial scholarship– how the potential fluidity of a digital text might prevent, as Lauren C. said, us ever finishing anything, and could lead to scholars constantly getting into “fights,” correcting and arguing with each other’s work. To Peter, this seemed petty and not productive, but Red said it could really further conversation. This statement met with general agreement, but UnLauren made the distinction of medium, and Annette said speed was also important– i.e., Twitter arguments vs. issues of a journal that only come out quarterly, or as Renee suggested, blogs where the author reads and responds to the comments, which are asynchronous and can come from anyone at any time.

    But what about Twitter and blogs? Can we take them seriously? What does it mean to be “official?” We were bothered by this term. I suggested that the narrative in video games could be considered a literary work, but wasn’t, even though someone suggested that the skills gained from these kinds of adventures was a new literacy wth a willingness to strategize about the future, to see failure as valuable, and to engage in collaboration.

    Annette said it was obvious that to “count” in academia obviously depended on some kind of hidden system, and Peter expressed some concern that maybe everything he read had to have some larger purpose for it to “count.” I countered that the MLA had somehow seemed to lend legitimacy to Twitter because it released an official method of citing Tweets. But Tweets have an author, whereas, say, Wikipedia does not conform to the author function and does not have a byline, which is why we feel weird about it (UnLauren). We feel connected to the author function; even with all our WikiComp responses mushed together, everyone was still trying to pick out whose lines were whose.

    On Twitter, Kerry wondered why we follow people on there, and what makes us interested in hearing what certain people have to say. Is it whether they are interesting? Is it whether they conform to the genre expectations we have for them? (i.e., content of poets vs. compositionists vs. theorists vs. celebrities) Does a Twitter user’s (or a blogger, or a website moderator, or whomever) visibility contribute to their legitimacy?

    Red was wary of saying that officiality is conferred by visibility. Is visibility inherent in a work? How does that happen? Does it “count” only if people read it? (Obviously not; people read a lot of books that “scholars” wouldn’t consider to “count.” Not yet, anyway.) So what is that key between visible and official? We don’t know. Kerry says what “counts” is its context. Is it written in one of those “social niches” that things like e-books are published in? Do e-books and digital publishing hurt your credibility? And what about rivalrous intellectual property? Do you keep it from being circulated too much? As it circulates more, does its value decrease?

    Later, we discussed why there are so few collaborations in the humanities as opposed to science. Annette said it was partly an issue of the availability and expense of many materials involved in science– equipment, etc. Red says we tend to censor ourselves and take the safe road when we’re involved with other people, rather than saying or suggesting things that might seem really crazy. Peter wondered if the lack of coauthorship in composition affects the way we teach.

    We also had a short discussion about “anxiety.” Peter wondered what that even meant and whether it was productive to sit around wringing our hands all day. Red said that Butler, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger all claimed anxiety was productive. Our responses to this indicated we thought of anxiety in a different, more abstract way– not in the medical way of panic attacks and sweating and tightness in your chest. We talked about the bifurcation of reading and writing and how that contributed to potential anxiety (reading = good, comfort; writing = bad, punishment). Kerry also talked about “newness” and “oldness” and how we shouldn’t abandon the idea of newness, but shouldn’t shun oldness, either.