Monday, May 13, 2013

On "Writing Studies" and recent projects

"Writing studies," is a somewhat hypothetical discipline (insofar as we still don't see research positions in "writing studies," but rather "new media," "communications," "composition,"  "rhetoric") mentioned in Sid Dobrin's book Postcomposition, as a way to mark a form of disciplinary research apart from "composition," traditionally associated with First Year Writing and 'research' on pedagogical methods. In Dobrin's own words,
Thus, the primary agenda of Postcomposition is to argue for a move
beyond the academic work of composition studies in favor of the revolu-
tionary potential of the intellectual work of writing studies, specifically the
work of writing theory, an endeavor likely best removed from the academic
work of pedagogy and administration." (Postcomposition 24). 
Too often in composition, 'writing' is tied to a subject, usually a student subject. Writing as an expression of that subjectivity or writing as constituting that subjectivity. For Dobrin, 'writing' should be the focus of a 'writing studies' such that the subject cannot be torn from the inscriptional practices themselves. I like to think of this as thinking each inscriptional practice as a performance of a subjectivity, one that can only be described through that particular assemblage of inscriptional practices. That is, "subject," is no longer an expression of a human being or a consciousness, but the particular moment of inscription. The human and nonhuman actants work together to inscribe a 'subject' (if we still even want to preserve that term, so as to preserve a sense of agency). Byron Hawk gets at this through Deleuze and Guattari's ideas of the 'molecular' and the 'molar' in A Counter History of Composition:

"Meaning, purpose, and intention all are molar and separate subject and object, but the desire and the force behind them are molecular and collapse subject and object [. . .] The subject is a molar residual, off to the side, a side effect of desiring-machines, not a single center from which desire is born" (165).

 Raul Sanchez argues in his 2012 article, "Outside the Text: Retheorizing Empiricism and Identity," that the subject is neither an 'effect' nor an origin or something that precedes a moment of inscription:

"Identity names this singularity, which is neither a precursor to the act of writing nor merely its effect. If we no longer say that identity is expressed through writing, but rather that identity names the moment of inscription-the intrusion or emergence into Judith Butler's "grammatical time of the subject" (117)-yet is only available in and after writing as writing's condition of possibility, then we can also say that identity manifests, at once metaphorically and materially, in both the figure and the body of the writing-subject. These claims make it possible to recognize that there is neither an origin story for the "moment" of inscription nor an aporetic limit at which one must hover perpetually. They make it possible to name the act of writing, the moment of inscription, as that which marks a convergence of time, space, and linguistic code at the production of a text. More important, they make it possible-necessary, actually-to use this very convergence to embody, figuratively and empirically, the convergence itself. They make possible the writing-subject as both thing and word, object and concept."

The writing-subject in this sense is an event -- an event that draws together all of the actants, human and nonhuman. As Latour puts it in We have Never Been Modern, "History does something. Each entity is an event" (81). 

Ok, so the writing subject is linked to an act of inscription. Is writing simply any act of inscription? In broad terms, yes, it is. Every event leaves traces -- I would be tempted to say irreversible 'traces'. "Writing" ever since writing scholars' took notice of Jacques Derrida, has been refigured as 'the trace' in general. "Writing" is not necessarily about conscious invention and arrangement of an essay, but writing could be as simple as a mark on a wall or an animal's tracks. 

If this is truly the case, then scholars of "writing studies" are able to study practically anything as writing, as acts of inscription, of traces. My question, however, is what do we get by understanding in terms of 'writing' rather than 'rhetoric'? Are there not rhetorical limitations to the word 'writing'? Although his tone bothers me, I can't shake Ian Bogost's point in Alien Phenomenology that, "writing is only one form of being" (90). Of course, the problem with his statement is how he slips from 'writing' to "language" and then proceeds to deny the medium of writing and even language of a certain materiality, so brilliantly traced by Derrida. Bogost writes that in contrast to philosophical works (with the exceptions of Derrida, Nietzsche, or Wittgenstein) "philosophical works generally do not perpetrate their philosophical positions through their form as books. The carpenter, by contrast, must contend with the material resistance of his or her chosen form, making the object itself become the philosophy" (93). Here Bogost makes two mistakes: 1) seeing Derrida's form as a "book," when Derrida explicitly attempted to subvert that very medium, and 2) denying the inseparable bond between medium/form and content. 

In other words, Bogost makes no meaningful distinction between writing/carpentry outside of the fact that carpentry seems to lead us to 'doing philosophy' with objects other than the pen and paper. But if we understand writing as any trace, then these 'carpentry' projects of philosophy are just as much 'writing' as they are carpentry. Furthermore, the 'designation' writing, given its rigorous deconstruction by Derrida, avoids some of the baggage that 'carpentry' contains -- an emphasis on the 'hand made', for instance. 

Thus, carpentry just becomes a better metaphor for describing the practice of 'philosophy'. But what exactly is 'philosophical' about Bogost's projects? Of course this depends on our definition of philosophy, but if philosophy is the "invention of concepts" as Deleuze and Guattari contend, then Bogost's projects are not philosophy, even if they contain an 'affect' or a 'percept', which is the domain, according to D&G of ART. 

Within Derrida's understanding of writing, however, such art works would be considered "writing." But what do we get from describing artworks within a general system of writing? Does it erase the specificity of it being art or does it put into question the boundaries of what constitutes the art "work" (does it include all of the 'writing' and 'responses' that take place because of it? . . .and any possible future response?). 

Currently, I'm trying to adapt a significant piece of my writing on BioArt to a writing posthumanism. In my original piece, I framed the project in terms that would preserve these works as art, even if, at the same time, the artwork is always within a complex system of writing events, which will affect the function and efficacy of the artwork (critics reviews, theoretical statements from the artists, etc.). 

The question I have for myself is: what is it about BIOART that makes visible art as entwined within a writing system of human and nonhuman actants? My hunch is that by using 'life' materials as their medium, there is an increased probability of the artwork to not simply be the subject of writing surrounding it, but 'writes us' in some unique way. There is an unpredictableness, a propensity for failure that can be made visible through Bioart that reveals the general conditions of artworks: the possibility of their 'failure'. However, it is precisely the failure of BioArt that gives it's significance for biotechnological practices because the force of this failure is to recognize our inability to simply program and control life through genetic coding or otherwise. We can substitute "writing" for genetic coding, since there is no real way to control, in this age, the effects of our writing practices. What is the fate of this blogpost? What videos go viral? BioArt also is potent example of how our best laid plans can be foiled by nonhuman agency. 

But then, does BioArt simply become a stand in for any "writing?" Indeed, could not the same point be made with other artworks or even other inscriptions? Is there something that BioArt adds to our understanding of 'general writing' (that is, 'writing studies') or is the point of writing studies to show the very specificity of this writing practice? But then would we not succumb to the temptation of 'rhetorical analysis'? What words, what concepts does BioArt suggest that would be an essential supplement to our understanding of writing-as-system? 

These are the issues I am struggling with as I attempt to integrate some very specific research on an important group of artists and artworks in the biotechnological age. 

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