One way to "get real" about OOO and non-Western metaphysics is by reading the quasi-spiritual explanation of power by Lakota elder, Fools Crow, as told to Thomas Mails (1991). For Fools Crow, power is our own, “natural,” energy that can be supplemented by asking other “spiritual” powers such as the power of rock, sky, or deer. Thus, Fools Crow may provide clues to a non-Western conception of assembling the social. While we should be careful here to not conflate the two, distinct, cultural traditions within which Latour and Fools Crow work, a comparative look at these ways of thinking might help broaden the conversation and forge alliances (Powell 2004) necessary for what Latour calls the articulation of propositions. In turn, this could lead to other culturally animated articulations in the kind of political ecology Latour calls for.
Yet, despite these similarities, my experience of these cities is one of great difference. Winona has a much more vibrant craft movement, anarchist collectives, three intentional communities, downsizing, alternative education, and much of what Schor cites as beneficial and sustainable. Cedar Falls, despite in a slightly larger urban area and with a slightly larger university, nonetheless is comparably more conservative in this regard, if "conservative" is the right word. There are some excellent things in Cedar Falls, but not the kind of informal networks that provide support for building an alternative economy Schor argues for. Moreover, things have not always been this way. My friend, Matthew, shows in the "Secret History of the Cedar Valley" that musically, Cedar Falls was once a stop on many punk touring circuits. People in both Winona and Cedar Falls describe regular commerce, travel, and interaction among "progressive" individuals from both cities in decades past, but a resulting decrease as many of these individuals left Cedar Falls. So, I wonder about this. What conditions allowed these things to develop and grow in Winona and the surrounding areas? What conditions might have inhibited their growth in Cedar Falls?
In talking with several folks about this in recent days, there are certainly some not-so-surprising variables:
- students attending UNI are about 90% from Iowa, many from very small communities where alternative economies are largely unknown,
- without an influx of out-of-state students, as in Iowa City and Ames, there is less exposure to new ideas,
- Cedar Falls has less heavy industry than Winona, though John Deere is nearby in Waterloo. This maintains a higher land/ housing value and average income.
- The population of Cedar Falls is more organized around churches than might be the case in Winona.
Taking first things first, Winona is situated on the Mississippi River and its historical legacy as well as its current identity is intimately tied to it. Travel along the river takes on a mythological dimension from Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Herman Melville, blues music, Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, and the like. Since its settlement by people of European ancestry in 1851, Winona has been a wayplace for transients, drifters, "river rats," and, according to some, even gangsters. This continues today with Winona being the fourth-largest port of call in Minnesota, a terminus for the DM&E railroad, home to Watkins, Inc., RTP, We-no-nah Canoe, Hal-Leonard Corp, and several electronics factories.
Cedar Falls, located on the Cedar River, sees only small watercraft passing along its watercourse, though it did accommodate some riverboats in the 19th century. Moreover, the access to water traffic is limited by two features: the small bluff along the south shoreline of the river where the main part of town is built and the bottomlands of North Cedar which separate this community from the town's center. With the construction of the Highway 218 interchange, the Cedar River is pinched between the higher southern shore and the built up ramparts supporting the interchange. This probably led to greater flooding in North Cedar during the 2008 floods. Still, the landscape is simply not able to accommodate river traffic in the same way as Winona.
Aside from the river, Winona's geographic location is part of the Driftless Area, a highly distinctive landscape of bluffs deeply cut by small rivers, creeks and other drainages. Such a landscape is not as conducive to large-scale factory farms as the young drift plains around Cedar Falls. Within the cities, Winona's development is marked by immigration patterns quite different from Cedar Falls. Notably, Winona has several, small neighborhood taverns interlaced with residential areas.By contrast, drinking establishments are more concentrated in the downtown, College Hill, and 18th Street areas in Cedar Falls. The cities are shaped, in some degree, by geography and history. The landscape presents some opportunities for its use as opposed to others. These, in turn, shape population flow, income, socioeconomic interactions, and the like.
This is all well and good, though it doesn't satisfactorily explain the differences to me. More accurately, the ways in which these explanations might be offered seem overly deterministic, failing to explain why there are several individuals in Cedar Falls, myself included, who seek and work toward alternate economic and social relations but who are regularly frustrated with the opportunities. My theory I work out here relies on speculative realism, a concern with ontology or "being" in a set of complex relations that exceeds the epistemological, or "ways of knowing." In short, my contention is that the way individuals relate to the landscapes -- the way landscape affects rather than the effects of landscape -- is what needs accounting.
In Winona, the bluffs offer an easily discernable place "outside" the hub of the city. One can see the densely wooded bluffs from any point within the city proper. In Cedar Falls, such wooded areas like Hartman Nature Preserve or Big Woods Lake are hidden due to a flattened topography. Horizon lines are quite different and, as such, offer a very different "sense of place," an affect of inhabiting a particular location. In Winona, as in mountain towns where I have lived, or large cities with skyscrapers, there is more of a sense that one can travel outside those horizon lines and see things differently. In Cedar Falls, moving outside those horizon lines simply brings one to more of the same. The horizon may have shifted, but what it encompasses is largely the same content.
Such an affective sense of place might also work more reflectively on a Cedar Falls subject since it feels true that, as the old saying about small towns goes, everyone can see your business. There are no hidden valleys, protrusions to hide behind, or geographic location with which to shield one's self from the business of the city. Such affective dimensions to thought appear secondarily in written and other forms of expression. Different perspectives, insights, or ways of being are difficult to come by in one's daily life if one sticks within "the grid" of a small city like Cedar Falls. They simply do not have the opportunity to arise in our consciousness as a result of our daily interactions with our environment.
From a speculative realist standpoint, inhabitants of such areas might "prehend" their place quite differently. That is, an individual's sense of place becomes one complex machine by which possibilities are grasped and with the ability to grasp some possibilities but not others (to have some possibilities readily "at hand"), a specific skein of thinking and expression is woven from the khora. This always generates new possibilities and the conditions may one day be ripe for Cedar Falls to have a network similar to Winona. So, the sense of place one gets from certain horizon lines is never determining, but nonetheless real in the way it is ultimately woven into the forms of expression and life chosen by individual dwellers.
Perhaps this means, for teachers on the plains, be they coastal or interior, we need to keep this in our minds as we formulate lesson plans and pedagogies. We might add new things for students to weave from and into. We might work to give them places to hide, peaks to scale, reference points in the distance that could help re-orient them within space and place, offering new possibilities for expressing and living.
In short what I want to ask is “What does it mean to Be literate?” a question which entails a shift from epistemic questions to ontological ones. We might productively shift our attention to how we understand Gee’s statement about literacy as a way of Being in the world and inquire into how literacy shapes, influences, and perhaps even constitutes some part of our Being. This has been rather prohibited from the standpoint of social construction and cultural studies, which understand the world and Being (physis) as separate from any discursive representation or identity. Strong versions of social construction reduce everything to nomos, to matters of convention or law, denying that we can ever have access to physis itself. However, recent scholars in philosophy and rhetoric have begun theorizing Being and ontology in ways that admit the arbitrariness of the sign, to its function within social systems such as language and literacy. These discussions are not completely compatible nor are they yet fully worked out. One debate, between object-oriented ontologists (OOO) and process-relational theorists (PRT), occurs via weblogs of scholars advocating for their understanding of being. Because these are ongoing scholarly approaches to Being, I am not going to advocate for any one “correct” version of understanding Being or Being literate. However, I do want to outline some of these discussions and relate them to Gee’s description.
Such a project can explore an area described by Victor Vitanza (1991) as a Third Sophistic. For Vitanza, this is not a chronological movement stemming from an originary “first sophistic” of ancient Athenian rhetors and following the subsequent Roman “second sophistic” of the second century CE. Rather, a third sophistic, as Vitanza describes it “is not necessarily sequential” (emphasis in original), but inclusive of Gorgias, Nietzsche, Lyotard, de Man, Foucault and Lacan (117). A third sophistic counts to “many things” rather than simply one or two, a move that breaks up monist and binarist patterns of thinking. Such thinkers “theorize about the ‘impossibility’/ ‘Resistance’ of the Logos (reason, logic, law, argumentation, history) to Theory/Totalization, because of the Gorgian Kairos and the Lacanian Real — both of which enter the Logos and break up the cycle of the antitheses,” thereby breaking with the given patterns of difference and creating something new (117). Elsewhere, Vitanza argues that the history of rhetoric has been founded on negation or lack and a Third Sophistic can re-think the writing of rhetoric’s history with careful concern for the “negative essentializing” done within monistic or binaristic ways of thinking (1997, 12). While Vitanza critiques how logos has been used for such negative essentializing, he takes this one step further by pointing out this has often been done “to varying degrees in respect to physis and nomos” (12). Vitanza, then, offers clues as to how we might look at and understand Gee’s definition of literacy as something that encompasses more than just representation.
Gorgias and Classical Rhetoric on Being
Scott Cosigny argues a point similar to Vitanza, noting how “several scholars argue that Gorgias’ remarks on language, knowledge, and truth anticipate the views of such twentieth century thinkers as Heidegger, Derrida, Wittgenstein, Ayer, Rorty, and Fish” (1-2). For Cosigny, Gorgias presents us with an antifoundational account, one which coherently posits reality as the effect of various language games. Cosigny argues that as a result, “the most fundamental element of discourse is the maneuver, or trope; and discourse as a whole is composed of various maneuvers that may be used in various games” (77, emphasis in original). This is in sharp contrast to Aristotle who “sees tropes such as metaphors and puns as ‘deviations’ from the proper function of language, that of naming essential features of the world itself” (77).
We can see similarity here not only to Vitanza, but to Gee’s descriptions of Discourse and semiotic domains. For Gee, Discourse and semiotic domains are always a social network of practices and ways of making meaning from within a specific situation rather than from an abstract, decontextualized one. Gee describes semiotic domain as “any set of practices that recruits one or more modalities (e.g., oral or written language, images, equations, symbols. Sounds, gestures, graphs, artifacts, etc.) to communicate distinctive types of meanings” (18). Like Gorgias, Gee downplays the specific content of the communication in favor of the maneuver involved, a maneuver that is not completely arbitrary but potentially given within the semiotic domain.
Just how these maneuvers work, though, is something not always clear given either Cosigny’s or Gee’s arguments. While Cosigny admits his reading “underwrites Vitanza’s assertion that Gorgias is the principal precourser to our own Third Sophistic” (210), his articulation and defense of how Gorgias viewed nomos appears at odds with Vitanza’s critique of negative essentializing. Much of this critique proceeds from disenabling qualities of negation, diaeresis, negative dialectic and the like. But rather than fight against or negate that which does the negating, Vitanza embarks upon a theory of “denegation,” or affirming the negative. For Vitanza, “It is not just a matter of doing away with physis, some universal notion of it, and accepting nomos, our differences, but of perpetually denegating both physisneg. and nomos” (15). Thus, even those things which will necessarily be excluded from logos and by virtue of the imperfections of language, are still present and affirming that present absence is not only a strategy common to members of a third sophistic, but required to address the problems inherent to the hierarchies and domination of monistic and binaristic thinking.
Cosigny, however, while admitting Gorgias does not hold the views of Plato’s Callicles “in which the ‘weak’ members of a community agree to adopt various conventions such as morality and law in order to prevent the ‘strong’ individuals from overpowering them,” nonetheless argues that Gorgias sees nomos as the exclusive realm of being and change (130). As Cosigny reads Gorgias, nomos shapes identity, though this does not mean Gorgias argues for the status quo. Rather, Gorgias “promotes the institution of the agon, an institution in which people advocate opposed viewpoints and which is therefore an institution of change that encourages people to challenge established beliefs” (131, emphasis in original). Moreover, Cosigny points out that the agon is not in need of any justification from Gorgias with regards to its ethics or political foundation since to do so would admit to foundationalism, a first principle, or a counting to one. Tellingly, Cosigny supports his argument by citing John Rawls’ concept of “reflective equilibrium,” which is seen as “an ongoing hermeneutic project” about what seems the most reasonable belief about the world. In other words, by theorizing the agon as a hermeneutic project of opposed viewpoints, Cosigny emphasizes nomos and leaves little room for physis.
My paper laid out a small critique of Jim Gee's definition of literacy as "ways of being in the world," a definition followed by Colin Lankshear, Michelle Knobel and others. While these folks start with "ways of being," that phrase is quickly shifted to "identity" and take the difference to be something ontological vs. something presenced through representation. Now, I admit that even a representation might have its own ontological status, but that status is certainly different from the ontic of the human that uses that identity for various purposes, some of which humans are not entirely aware. By focusing on identity, research is tilted toward epistemology and discovering how we know and differentiate between identities. This is certainly fruitful research and any theory of being, in my mind, has to grapple with this at some point. However, as folks like Graham Harman and Levi Bryant point out, it has its limits: everything is so radically politicized and subjected to endless hermeneutics that it is often more intractable than it opens up any new horizons.
My main claim is that for literacy, composition studies, and rhetoric, an ontological as opposed to an epistemological approach may be in order. This isn't entirely new. In fact, as Victor Vitanza has argued, this extends the project of a Third Sophistic, notably the work of "nonpositive affirmation" that might shift the history of “negative essentializing” especially with respect “to physis and nomos” (Vitanza 12). If physis is the world (nature, material reality) and nomos is the word (law, custom), how do we move from one to the other in such a way that we retain some measure of correspondence or fidelity? If nomos is decoupled from physis and the relations are only arbitrary, how do we manage our effects on and from our spatial and material environments? For Vitanza, this is one of the fundamental discussions that runs throughout and constitutes the history of rhetoric and, I would add, the history of Western thought's attempt to theorize the connection between "the word and the world."
As I claim, identity is not sufficient to account for such a connection. Instead, we might look to being (or Being) as a basis. This won't disregard epistemological work by any means, but would extend the conversation in different ways. As Vitanza has pointed out, and as more recent work has detailed, Gorgias is one of the key rhetorical theorists to look to in formulating such a project. For Gorgias, in a precoursory refutation to Descartes, thought and being are certainly not the same, since not everything that is thought comes into being. Rather than posit a kind of nihilism, however, Gorgias' other extant writings detail the ways in which logos (word, language, discourse) operates not as content, but as variable maneuvers within social situations. Thus, according to Scott Cosigny, he "anticipates Wittgenstein's characterization of language as a family of games; that his construal of inquiry as rhetorical debate within socially sanctioned agons anticipates an array of contemporary hermeneutic theorists such as Gadamer, Rorty, and Fish" (210).
Interpreted this way, Cosigny does not account for the social sanctions themselves. Nor does he go as far as Vitanza in following the implications of the split in logos that Gorgias recognizes (the split between physis and nomos, which always produces a paradox and a "dispersion/ scattering of the antitheses that leads to 'something new, irrational'" Vitanza 243). For Vitanza, Gorgias' On Non-Being can be read more as pastiche than parody since a parody always implies an original whereas "One of he primary conventions of pastiche is that there is no origin, original, that is, no No" (261). Through the double-bind of kairos-logos, something else is produced from the available materials. Such new things, however, are not entirely present, but always part of the "will to power as falsehood." Through the mixing of kairos and logos, a being becomes something new, though still unified as a subject -- still affirmative in its Being as a being. Here, Vitanza follows Deleuze's follow-up to Nietzsche that "the living world is the will to power, will to falsehood, which is actualised in many different [forces]. To actualise the will to falsehood under any power, to actualise the will to power under any quality whatever, is always to evaluate, to lie, to interpret, to measure]" (279). Logos can only distort, evaluate, and lie. Kairos, however, is ambient in the environment and inserts its own operations within any situation of logos, dispersing them, opening the way onto the lie.
Within such kairotic moments, thought, we have a lot going on. In a follow up post, I will draft how I see current ontological debates informing this process with a special eye to differences (if any) between Process-Relational Theorists (PRT) and Object-Oriented Ontologists (OOO). But for this kairotic moment, I am tired and need to attend a meeting...
Advanced Writing Theories
Not always theoretical... not even always academic.. but always written..