Here’s the list of books I’m working on reading right now:
- Hardt and Negri, Empire. I’m committed to reading 50 pages a day, which means I should be done with this bad body on Wednesday. Comments to follow.
- bell hooks, Talking Back. Yes, I know I struggled with Teaching to Transgress, but I thought I owed her another chance.
- Olson and Worsham (eds.), Critical Intellectuals on Writing. Excerpts from JAC interviews. Not nearly as exciting as it sounded.
- Virno, Grammar of the Multitude. I’ve read most of thise bfore, but now that I’m into Hardt/Negri I want to revisit it. Also, it looks like it might be on JP’s fall syllabus, so a refresher would be in order anyway.
- John Muckelbauer, The Future of Invention: Rhetoric, Postmodernism, and the Problem of Change.
So, the last book I’m reading as preparation for likely/possible inclusion as our next Rhetoric Reading group text (though when that will be, I don’t know, esp. if Whirlball takes precedence). I’ve only read the intro and first chapter, but I’m already kind of puzzled at one of Muckelbauer’s main claims–not so much the content of the claim, but the structure of it.
Muckelbauer begins with the argument that, even in postmodernity, our notion of change is still bound to a modernist, Hegelian dialectic insofar as “change is always and everywhere the effect of overcoming and negation” (x). This is a point he returns to in Chapter 1, writing that, despite the attempts of pomo theory to overcome dialectical binaries, there is nevertheless a fundamental binary to which pomo theory remains committed:
While most contemporary critiques are directed toward realizing some particular change–whether in social dynamics, institutional structures, or eben just in intellectual landscapes–most also fail to attend to the implications of the movement of change that drives such work. Another way of saying this is that depsite the incessant and justifiable concern for problematizing a whole series of binary operations throughout the social field, the one binary that has remained firmly intact is that between “the same” and “the different.” (3)
His project involves engaging the question of change and the problematic surrounding it, but “engaging these questions has less to do with simply accepting or rejecting the content of any particular proposition and more to do with altering the style through which we engage in the everyday practices of reading, writing, and responding” (x-xi).
So far, I’m on board. Postmodernity has yet to exorcise all the ghosts of the modern era, and we need a change in practices–invention practices, for us rhetoricians–to move beyond the dialectic. Moving on.
In various arguments, Muckelbauer argues, the move to negation/overcoming typically takes one of three forms:
- Advocacy: Emphasizing a Traditionally Privileged Concept
- Critique: Advocating a Traditionally Underprivileged Concept
- Synthesis: Valorizing the Indeterminate “in-between” (6-9)
I take the first two here to be fairly self-explanatory. The third is glossed as follows:
Through concepts such as “intersubjectivity,” “hybridity,” “dialogue,” or the recently popular terminology of “networks” and “ecologies,” this response focuses on the indeterminate space between positions. … What warrants attention is not the content of the nodes, but the generative, ambiguous space tht exists between them, the blending of contingency and universality, the conjunction of interpretation and knowledge, the indistinguishable aspects of subjectivity and sociality. Thus, rather than simply reproducing an oppositional structure, this indeterminate in-between attempts to offer a way of disorienting the repetition of dialectical change.
An yet, in the very effort to redner this is-between, the existence of poles are still presumed. The disorienting, synthetic move is already oriented by the positions it synthesizes. … The indistinguishable blending that occurs . . . assumes that there is a distinguishable separation somewhere other than the boundaries. In short, to demonstrate the indeterminate or ambiguous in-between is to simultaneously reproduce the oppositional dynamics that characterize the nodes or poles “between” which something exists. (9)
No, I’m no expert on network theory (though my first Latour book is on its way from Amazon), but I think from what I’ve gleaned second- or third-hand about networks is that Muckelbauer is unfairly tossing “networks” into the phenomena he’s describing here. My sense (largely from Rice, though from Shaviro’s Connected and from Galloway’s Protocol as well) is that a network doesn’t exist between two points; that (duh?) is not a network but just a link, a connection, a binary. The network is built from an infinite number of infinite links, from one subject/object to multiple others. A binary is not a network, no matter how much Muckelbauer wants it to be so here. I take his point about “synthesizing” arguments, but I think that he reveals a lack of understanding here about networks.
(Update–I just brought in the mail; my first Latour book has arrived from Amazon–yay!)
So Muckelbauer’s project then, is “Moving Beyond the Dialectic” (10). He is careful to note that, although this seems like it is a simple matter of “overcoming” the dialectic, “any effort to overcome binary logic or move beyond the Hegelian framework simply reproduces this framework” (11). As he notes further down the page, “any attempt to refuse dialectical change or to move beyond it is necessarily destined to remained trapped within its repetitious negation and trapped by the ethical and political dangers it eables (11-2). The solution, Muckelbauer argues, is to instead invent a practice of “affirmative change” that is “irreducible to this repetitous dialectic of negation”. Here’s where things get a bit crackers for me:
Now, it is extremely important that this affirmative change not be thought of as something that is simply different from dialectical negation–such a gesture would repeat the very problems it wants to address (“that was the old version of change; this is the new one”). Instead, the key challenge for responding to “the problem of change” is to both articulate and demonstrate an affirmative sense of change that is neither the same as dialectical change nor different from it. (12)
I grant that I’m only 15 or so pages into a 150-odd page book. I grant that Muckelauer has not yet come to the promised passages of “articulation and demonstration.” But . . . but . . . isn’t he still, for all his protestations, working within the dialectic? Instead of the binary same/different, stable/contingent, he’s substituting affirmative/negative. Oh, this change is qualitatively not-same as negation, but it’s also not-different. So, it’s kind of a . . . synthesis . . . of the two, an indeterminate in-between?
I don’t get it. I think what he’s done is wanted to make an argument for a particular practice of reading, writing, and invention, then yoked it to a critique of the dialectic. But I think he’s still doing what he claims he’s not. I understand the problematic he’s trying to address, but I don’t think his proposed “affirmative change” is different non-dialectic (at this point), just because he says it is. I give him credit for anticipating my critique–which I admit it fairly obvious–but his answer to it at this point seems to be something like “‘Cause I say it’s not, that’s why.”
Hmm. More updates on this story as we get them. Back to you, Tom.