stories and symmetry at #4c12

Perhaps it was just the framing experience of Malea Powell's opening address, but stories ran prominently through my experience of 4C's. I must admit to sympathy for the position Sid Dobrin expressed as part of the opening address performance: I, too, am tired of your stories. To be specific, I am tired of a particular storytelling.

I attended the following sessions. 

A.36 Object Lessons: Doug Hesse, Kathleen Blake Yancey, Nancy Sommers

B.19  With the Spirit of James Berlin: Michelle Ballif, Byron Hawk, Susan Jarratt, John Schilb, Victor Vitanza

C.25 (my own panel) with Jim Brown and Matt King

G.07 Gamers, Scholars, Guildies: Jan Holmevik, Wendi Sierra, Richard Parent, Cynthia Haynes, Joshua Abboud, Doug Eyman

H.13 Latour and Rhetoric: Scot Barnett, Marilyn Cooper, Carl Herndl, Anne Wysocki

K.14 Digital Humanities and Writing Studies: Bill Hart-Davidson, Matt Gold, Kathie Gossett, Karl Stolley, Geoff Sauer, Liza Potts

Stories are a conventional part of how we present our research: what happened in my class or my experience doing a particular kind of research. Histories of rhetoric are also stories or at least include narratives. I heard all of these kinds of stories: stories about gaming, stories about dh projects, stories about teaching, stories about history. The "Object lessons" panel conveyed memoir through meditations on personal objects–a trombone, a coffee can, a scrapbook, etc. Is Latour interested in storytelling? It depends on what one means by story. The panel took up Latour's use of serial description. Certainly these descriptions are temporal and construct narrative. For the most part in these panels and others I have seen in the past, stories aren't the story. That is, story is not the focus; it's the everyday tool we employ to construct and secure knowledge. From this perspective, one can understand Powell's call to include non-Western and other excluded stories/histories of rhetoric into the discipline. While the panels I attended (as indicated by their titles) had focuses other than race/gender/class/etc (which is not to say such issues were not addressed) they had their own stories about inclusion: games, digital humanities, and so on. 

So what am I tired of? I am tired of the asymmetrical story. The issue of (a)symmetry is one of the principle divides between activity theory and actor-network theory. Put simply activity theory places an asymmetrical emphasis on human actors and ANT does not. As Latour puts it, "To be symmetric, for us, simply means not to impose a priori some spurious asymmetry among human intentional action and a material world of causal relations." It is hardly news to recognize that stories are told from perspectives, that they are motivated. It is, perhaps, one way of expressing the condition of correlationism. Symmetry, on the other hand, is the principle of a flat ontology. This is not to suggest that asymmetrical relations cannot exist among objects, only that they are not assumed a priori. I am tired of the asymmetrical story that presumes the centrality of the human and puts symbolic action in solely human hands, as if an extensive litany of objects was not participating in the conference hall.

I must apologize for the appearance that I am painting all these panels and their participants with the same brush. I do not mean to characterize all these presentations in this way. And I do not even mean this as a criticism. So what if I am tired of something? Why would that be a reason for anyone to change their behaviors? It shouldn't be. I am, however, interested in asking if it is possible for C's to change its story.

Here's my example. As a respondent to the Latour panel, Anne Wysocki asked how the panel's discussion of Latour might be brought to bear on the challenges of teaching basic writing. At first this struck me as an odd question (of all the possible places one might take up ANT, why this one?). However as I thought about it, I realized that basic writing really offered a significant example of the asymmetrical conceit at work in composition. Basic writing (and much of FYC in general) addresses concerns of empowerment. It is fair, I think, to say that novice writers describe their own conditions as lacking agency. By learning a process, developing a voice, inventing a university, acquiring critical insight, or similar processes, we might say (and regularly do say) students become empowered in the classroom. These strategies make sense depending on one's worldview. I liken them to the following analogy. 

There's a drought. In certain cultures the drought means that we need to appease the gods. In the US we have different explanations. Even though we still have droughts, we don't worry about the problem of appeasing the gods. In an analogous way, we can observe the situations basic writers and other FYC writers encounter: struggles with invention, for example. A Latourian approach may not answer the question of how to help students invent the university any more than scientific approaches to droughts help appease the gods. To put this more generally, the concern rhetoricians might have with ANT (and speculative realism) is the way its emphasis on flat ontology, on symmetry, on leveling the field for objects and subjects, fails to address the question of how to empower subjects. While retaining the goal of helping students develop as writers, an ANT approach would not presume the particular kind of asymmetrical role for the student writer that is identified as missing in familiar depictions of the classroom (and which result in heroic pedagogy narratives of how that assymmetry/empowerment/agency is recovered). 

For me, the fundamental problem with our legacy position (and its stories) is that it presumes that humans (and language) play an ontologically unique role in the universe. So what would it mean to tell symmetrical stories about writing? I am not sure though I'm guessing it will take practice and experimentation.