“Books & I Are Fighting”
17 Feb 2017
Shawna Ross challenged herself to write a satisfying version of the “I love books” narrative that she was tired of reading in graduate applications and undergraduate scholarship apps. On Facebook, Eric Detweiler challenged her to write an “I hate books” narrative that would still get admitted to grad school. Here’s my attempt at Eric’s challenge.
Part of my classroom schtick is to tell my students that “books and I are fighting” when it becomes shamefully apparent how much Netflix I watch. In my Rhetoric of Style class, I took things too far.
We were analyzing Dashiell Hammett’s sentence construction in “Arson Plus.” Several students had pointed out the odd shifts in verb tense and subject choice whenever Hammett’s Continental Op expresses his world-weariness. The Op only uses present tense when he is either observing the futility of human existence or the blasé attitude that many in law enforcement exhibit toward death and other grizzly human acts.
In digressing about how Hammett’s hard-boiled style would come to shape the existential detective narratives of film noir after World War II, I explained that what is shocking about hard-boiled is it substitutes the thrill of detection and the genius of the detective for an account written by people for whom the worst of human behavior is the day-to-day realities of their job.
“You can get used to anything,” I said. “When it becomes work,” I continued, “even something you love becomes odious.” Then I really stuck my foot in it: “For instance, I’m an English professor and, as a result, I hate books.”
Seemingly possessed, I continued, “students always come up to me and say ‘I want to be an English professor some day because I love reading.’ If you love reading, don’t do this for a living, it will kill any joy you might ever get from reading. I hate reading now.”
They looked as though they had just seen a puppy murder and I had done the deed.
I tried to play it off as a joke, and definitely said “please don’t tell anyone here I said that.” Class continued.
While I’ve often joked about this with my students, I realized in this moment, I meant it. Moreover, I meant it about “Arson Plus,” a short story by one of my favorite writers that inaugurated a fiction genre I cherish. Since that moment, I have been thinking a lot about the venom behind my declaration.
What does it means to be an English professor who is willing to affirm that, right now, he kind of hates books? I can imagine what you might think here: “of course, a rhetoric professor would say that!” At the risk of confirming your stereotypes about my discipline, I would point out that my students are always surprised at how many novels I have in my office, “for a rhetoric professor.”
In teaching students about style as a rhetorical operation this semester, I have been developing a model of rhetoric that focuses on eloquence instead of persuasion. In Darwin’s Pharmacy, Richard Doyle defines eloquence as speaking out “about the ineffable until we exhaust the capacities of our language unto silence” (103). This exhausting has guided my teaching in this class, along with Geoffrey Sirc’s call in English Composition as a Happening to rethink writing instruction as a mapping of language’s radical possibilities. Both these thinkers challenge me to consider rhetoric as a study in performative excellence rather than the ability to change minds. More flowers of rhetoric, less man in the rhetorical arena.
And I do think reading has a place in this exploration. Our written record is an attempt at a catalog of all the possible ways to turn a phrase, a case Erasmus makes in De Copia. Jim Brown’s “The Machine That I Therefore Am” starts to map eloquence for a cybernetic age, thinking about Erasmus’s various conceptual gizmos as rhetorical machines that program the sensorium of a robot rhetor.
Cybernetic sprezzatura suggests to me that there are ways I can figure computer programming as eloquence in my future research. In Does Writing Have a Future?, Vilém Flusser suggests that digital writing will be better left to artificial intelligences that arrange our thoughts into code for us. The art of the future, he says, will resemble programming, creating codes for an apparatus.
Given that Flusser’s answer to his titular question is “no,” how can English survive as a field? My answer is eloquence: language is still our greatest tool for communicating our deepest truths, the words we know by heart. We have not yet exhausted its expressive force and we take our students along with us in our mapping. So, I’m thinking more and more that the end product of an English major and the goal of our pedagogy is the writing we can guide our students to do. As we move into the future beyond writing, language will continue to shape the programming we run on ourselves, our machines, and our world.
Or maybe I just need to read a good book.