“. . . they gnawed their tongues for paine”

“As the true method of knowledge is experiment, the true faculty of knowing must be the faculty which experiences” (William Blake, All Religions Are One, pl. 3: “The Argument“): gnaw not your tongue for pain; bite instead the hand that feeds — it is the hand of God Geometer, a.k.a. Urizen.



un-less.we.light.out. — and. —



Francis Bacon, Study for Portrait II: After the Life Mask of William Blake (1955)


Virno on Micro-Collectives

In an interview with Alexei Penzin, amongst many other insights, Paolo Virno argues that the kind of micro-collectives characteristic of post-Fordist production, i.e., immaterial labour (see Chukhrov), “socialize the entrepreneurial function” to foster the kind of “social cooperation” that works against the monopoly of the state (86-87):

Micro-collectives, workgroups, research teams, etc. are half-productive, half-political structures. If we want, they are the no man’s land in which social cooperation stops being exclusively an economic resource and starts appearing as a public, non-stately sphere. (86)

In other words, such groups work together to make stuff, but they also work against (↑) the state monopoly on power (↓).

If examined as productive realities, the micro-collectives you mention have mainly the merit of socializing the entrepreneurial function: instead of being separated and hierarchically dominant, this function is progressively reabsorbed by living labor, thus becoming a pervasive element of social cooperation. (ibid.)

Entrepreneurship ceases to be a way for the state to drive workers (↓) — and the prerogative of enterprising individuals — and instead enables them to work together (↑ or rather ↔).

We are all entrepreneurs, even if an intermittent, occasional, contingent way. But, as I was saying, micro-collectives have an ambivalent character: apart from being productive structures, they are also germs of political organization. What is the importance of such ambivalence? What can it suggest in terms of the theory of the organization? In my opinion, this is the crucial issue: nowadays the subversion [87] of the capitalistic relations of production can manifest itself through the institution of a public, non-stately sphere, of a political community oriented towards the general intellect. (86-87)

The model for such micro-collectives are artists’ collectives, artists being the “virtuosos” of immaterial labour, exemplifying what Penzin calls “the flexible, mobile, non-specialized substance of contemporary ‘living labor'” (81).

Two definitions:

  • “institution”: “Institutions constitute the way in which our species protects itself from uncertainty and with which it create rules to protect its own praxis” (85); the State has no monopoly on institutions.
  • “general intellect” (a.k.a. the “social brain”): the human capacity for “public or interpsychical” cognition through communication (“thinking with words”). It is the “main productive force of matured capitalism” (84), i.e., work is now virtual — hence the phrase immaterial labour. It could also constitute the “foundations of a [non-stately] republic” (84).

In order to allow this subversion, the distinctive features of post-Fordist production (the valorization of its own faculty of language, a fundamental relation with the presence of the other, etc.) demand a radically new form of democracy. Micro-collectives are the symptom — as fragile and contradictory as they may be — of an exodus, of an enterprising subtraction from the rules of wage labor. (87)

This “radically new form of democracy” is non-representative. It doesn’t work through a parliament but through soviets, i.e., workers’ councils, as “tools for democratic self-organization” (82) [soviet, совет, Ru. “council, advice, harmony, concord”]. It suggests the possibility of a “democracy of the multitude,” of a “public sphere that is no longer connected to the State” (90). So,

the monopoly of decision making can only really be taken away from the State if it ceases once and for all to be a monopoly. [Thus, t]he public sphere of the multitude is a centrifugal force. (90)

Of course, we must avoid “the cancerous metastasis of the State,” i.e. bureaucratization, centralization, and “the glorification of labor,” i.e. collectivization, that happened in Soviet Russia (90). Communism need not signal a massification (→ a people’s revolution). And we must remembers that micro-collectives represent “both a danger and a salvation”: they could signal a fragmentation of society (-) or its politicization (+). Communism can instead signal a democracy of the multitude (→ the soviets of the multitude)


Chukhrov, Keti. “Towards the Space of the General: On Labor beyond Materiality and Immateriality.” E-flux 20 (Nov. 2010). Web.

Lazzarato, Maurizio. “Immaterial Labour.” Trans. Paul Colilli and Ed Emery. Generation Online. 6 Mar. 2008. Web.

Penzin, Alexei. “The Soviets of the Multitude: On Collectivity and Collective Work.” Interview with Paolo Virno. Mediations 25.1 (Fall 2010): 81-92. Web.

Genette on Transtextuality

Gérard Genette defines transtextuality as “all that sets the text in a relationship, whether obvious or concealed, with other texts” (Palimpsests: Literature in the Second Degree [1981; 1997]). A txt can never stand alone; it is exponential.


Genette’s five categories of transtxtuality are

  1. architxtuality [arch- “original”],
  2. hypertxtuality [hyper- “above”],
  3. intertxtuality [inter- “between”],
  4. metatxtuality [meta– “after”], and
  5. paratxtuality [para- “beside”].

1. architext: a general txtual category that a txt may embody, e.g., mode of discourse, genre (txt-type), etc., i.e. a txtual archetype (see Genette).

2. hypertext: more broadly, a txt with a network of links to other txts, i.e. a networked txt; more narrowly, for Genette, a txt (B: the hypertxt) that is grafted onto an earlier txt (A: the hypotxt) but not in the nature of commentary (see Genette), the canonical categories being

  • parody and travesty, which are transformative, and
  • pastiche and caricature, which are imitative (the former of each pair being satirical and the latter non-satirical).

(For genette, a hypotext is the cited txt when a txt refers to its source, or a previous edition or version of it [hypo– “under”]; see Genette.)

3. intertext: a txt present within another, i.e., a citation (Kristeva thinks intertxtuality more broadly, i.e., as roughly equivalent to transtxtuality); thus, e.g.,

  • quoting,
  • plagiarism,
  • allusion.

4. metatext: a txt that comments on an earlier txt, i.e., a commentary.

5. paratext: the apparatus of a txt, i.e., that which surrounds the main body of the txt: prefaces, introductions, illustrations, dust jacket, footnotes, bibliography, etc., even typography.

For Genette, then, a txt is necessarily networked; all txts are hypertxts.

Paul Baran, Types of Network

Of course, the kind of network the txt sets up will vary based on our starting point, i.e., whether we begin with a single txt, or several, or the network as such, and whether we consider the network syn- or diachronically (see my intro to Tagmemics as a heuristic).

N.B. also:

context: the circumstances that determine or clarify the meaning of a txt [con- together]

cybertext: a txt in which the medium matters [cyber- abbreviation of kubernetes, “steersman, governor”] (coined by Espen Aarseth in 1997; see Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature [2007], ergodic literature being txts where the reader must do nontrivial work to navigate the txt).

plaintext: (computing) unformatted or human-readable (as against machine-readable binary) txt, a.k.a. flat text or cleartext; (cryptography) the txt before it is encoded (and becomes ciphertext), a.k.a. cleartext.

subtext: content implicit in a txt [sub- “under”].

urtext: a a primitive, seminal, or prototypical example of a txt-type [ur- G “original”].

+ pretext, teletext/videotext, inter-/intra-/extratextual, etc.

Mime-esis: Benjamin and Beyond

Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man’s. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.

—Walter Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” Reflections (333)

For Benjamin, mimesis is adaptive: it is how we interact with things in the world via acculturation, affinity and reciprocity. (For Adorno, on the other hand, it is assimilatory: it is how we conform with the culture industry’s images of us.) It is the Ur-drive of creativity. It combines semblance [Schein] and play [Spiel], to both re-present and re-produce something, i.e., to make it appear and to make it emotionally and sensorially real.


Mimesis is from Gk mimesis (μίμησις) “imitation,” from mimeisthai (μιμεîσθαι) “to imitate,” which original meaning persists in our words “mime,” “mimic” and, less directly, “image” and related words like “imagine” and “emulate” (via L. imitari), Richard Dawkins’ “meme,” the plant mimosa, because the leaves of some species (including the common Sensitive Plant) fold when touched, seeming to mimic animal behaviour.

Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Marriage (1434)

Though a reductio ad absurdum of orders of representation is possible, in practice, representation can be reduced to two orders . . .

Mimicry (presentation)—mimesis (representation [first-order])—metamimesis (representation of a representation [second-order])

  • mimicry:
    • “the action, practice, or art of mimicking or closely imitating … the manner, gesture, speech, or mode of actions and persons, or the superficial characteristics of a thing” (atextuality)
    • identical similarity to the other
    • empathy
    • pure intention, a.k.a. extension (to-and-fro)
    • examples: echolalia and -praxia
    • cf. cryptomnesia
  • mimesis:
    • “a figure of speech, whereby the words or actions of another are imitated” (OED), “figure of speech” being the operative phrase (textuality/mediation)
    • nonidentical similarity to the other
    • observation
    • singly mediated intention (to-and-fro through a medium)
    • examples: aleatory art, automatism, documentary photography, photorealism, trompe l’œil, etc.
    • cf. unironic plagiarism
  • metamimesis:
    • artworks that represent or include other artworks (intertextuality/intermediation), or comment on authorship or representation, those where the medium is explicitly part of the message (metatextuality/metamediation)
    • nonidentical similarity to another similarity
    • irony
    • doubly mediated intention (to-and-fro through a medium and another representation or with a representation)
    • examples: allegory, double portrait (like The Arnolfini Marriage), ecphrasis (art describing other art), parody, pastiche (cut-and-paste), self-referential art (like The Treachery of Images), etc.
    • cf. ironic plagiarism

Rene Magritte, La Trahison des Images [The Treachery of Images] (1928-29) [see Michel Foucault, This is not a Pipe (1983)]

It could be argued that all art that is metamimetic because it follows certain representational procedures, i.e., mediating technologies and techniques, that are part of the representation.

N.B. These forms of mimesis are relatively other-directed and involve resemblance of some sort; in nature, mimesis is mainly self-directed, i.e., organisms can defend themselves by dissembling or crypsis (though there is aggressive mimesis), which takes three forms:

  1. camouflage: an organism mimics an object in its environment to conceal itself, e.g., a moth camouflages itself against, i.e., has evolved a similar colouration to, the tree-bark it inhabits;
  2. mimesis: a species mimics a specific object or organism or part of one, but one to which the dupe is indifferent, e.g., a stick-insect “imitates,” i.e., has evolved to resemble, a twig;
  3. mimicry: an organism mimics another organism that is unpalatable or threatening to the dupe, e.g., a palatable butterfly mimics an unpalatable one.

Shklovsky’s theory of priem ostranenie (“defamiliarisation”; cf. Brecht’s alienation effect [Verfremdungseffekt]) as the essence of art, might well be the equivalent in literature of aggressive mimicry in nature, e.g., a predator mimics a harmless object or organism, e.g., a snapping turtle’s tongue is disguised as a worm to lure fish.


Talk of mimesis, as the word suggests, goes back to the mimetic theories of the Greeks (surprise!) . . .

Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle (of ethos, logos and pathos, moving clockwise) reinterpreted

  • Plato: in Book X of the Republic, Plato describes mimesis metaphysically—and pejoratively—in terms of Socrates’ metaphor of the three beds: one bed exists as an idea made by God (the Platonic Idea/ideal); one is made by the carpenter in imitation of God’s Idea; one is made by the artist in imitation of the carpenter’s. The artist never gets at truth (the Idea of the bed). Mimesis is thus deceptive, which for Plato indicates that human beings are essentially ignorant beings. In Book III, he also uses the term to describe the way a “poet” impersonates the person speaking in direct speech. (Note that Plato’s primary theory of poetry is not mimetic but expressive: of the furor poeticus for which the poet should be exiled from the polis [see Ion and Republic II].)
  • Aristotle: in the Poetics, Aristotle describes mimesis as the capacity to copy and to beautify nature, for example, in making images (iconopoeia) and making plots (dramaturgy)—the latter involving two orders of representation: of life in the text and of the text in the performance. It beautifies—or universalizes—nature by seeking out and/or capturing its telos (the “end” or “good,” a.k.a. the “fourth” or “final cause”). Mimesis thus produces fiction, which for Aristotle indicates that human beings are essentially mimetic beings. (Note that Aristotle’s theory of tragedy as cathartic mimesis is expressive too.)

Both Plato and Aristotle also distinguish mimesis (imitation: showing or representation) and diegesis (narration: telling or report). They don’t see diegesis as mimetic because there is a narrator more or less explicitly framing and commenting the action. For Plato, tragic and comic poetry are mimetic, lyric (dithyramb) is diegetic, epic is both; for Aristotle, poetry (art) with an authorial narrator or persona is diegetic, otherwise it’s mimetic.


But to return to Benjamin: besides the ontogenetic (developmental) aspect of  mimesis, which is most apparent in mimetic play, there is its phylogenetic (evolutionary) aspect, which goes back to the magical correspondences that could be produced to control natural processes for propitiatory or prophetic ends (such correspondences survive in astrology).

The most suggestive kind of correspondence is “non-sensuous similarity”: a kind of textual—and, perhaps, even metatextual—similarity “not only between the spoken and the signified but also between the written and the signified, and equally between the spoken and the written” (Reflections 335). Onomatopoeia (Gk. “the making of a name or word” in imitation of a sound associated with the thing being named) is the most obvious example of such similarity, but there are others like spells, mantras, systems of divination (omens, sortilege, augury, textual—like bibliomancy—or semiotic—like tasseomancy), etc.

Language, i.e., the human word that communicates things, takes over from magic, i.e., the divine Word that names them (see “On Language as Such and on the Languages of Man,” Reflections 324, 327). It, then, “has thus become . . . an archive of non-sensuous similarities, of non-sensuous correspondences,” a reservoir of the traces left by divine language in the postlapsarian world (Reflections 335).

Cf. Baudelaire’s “Correspondances” (from Fleurs du Mal [1857]):

Nature is a temple where living pillars
Let sometimes emerge confused words;
Man crosses it through forests of symbols
Which watch him with intimate eyes. (23)


Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: PUP, 1953.

Baudelaire, Charles. Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire. Trans. Geoffrey Wagner. New York: Grove Press, 1974.

Benjamin, Walter. “Doctrine of the Similar [Die Lehre von Ahnlichkeit].” 1933. Trans. Knut Tarnowski. New German Critique 17 (Spring 1979): 65-69. (See Gesammelte Schriften 2.1 [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977] 204-10.)

—. “On the Mimetic Faculty [Über das mimetische Vermögen].” 1934. Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Ed. Peter Demetz. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken Books, 1986. 333-36. (See Gesammelte Schriften 2.1 [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977] 98-99.)

Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October 28, Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis (Spring 1984) 125-33. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. 85-92. [in short, in full].

Foucault, Michel (with René Magritte). This is not a Pipe. Illus. René Magritte. Ed. and trans. James Harkness. Berkeley; Los Angeles: U California P, 1982.

Puetz, Michelle. “mimesis [sic].” The University of Chicago: Theories of Media: Keywords Glossary. Winter 2002.

Taussig, Michael.  Mimesis and Alterity.  New York: Routledge, 1993.

Writing as Slavery

In Tristes Tropiques, Claude Lévi-Strauss considers the status of writing in the history of civilizations, by which, as Dan Visel suggests, “Gutenberg’s invention of movable type leads directly to the excesses of European colonialism” (“This Progress” at if:book):

The one phenomenon which has invariably accompanied [writing] is the formation of cities and empires: the integration into a political system, that is to say, of a considerable number of individuals, and the distribution of those individuals into a hierarchy of castes or classes. Such is, as any rate, the type of development which we find, from Egypt right across to China, at the time when writing makes its débuts: it seems to favour rather the exploitation than the enlightenment of humanity. This exploitation makes it possible to assemble workers by the thousand and set them to tasks that taxed the limits of their strength: to this, surely, we must attribute the beginnings of architecture as we know it. If my hypothesis is correct, the primary function of writing, as a means of communication, is to facilitate the enslavement of other human beings. The use of writing for disinterested ends, and with a view to satisfactions of the mind either in the fields of science or the arts, is a secondary result of its invention—and may even be no more than a means of reinforcing, justifying or dissimulating its primary function. (C. Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, trans. John Russell [NY: Criterion, 1961] 292 [silently edited])

The primary function of writing is slavery. Its secondary functions—in science or art—are more or less disguised slavery.

. . . because it is a sword in disguise.

Or, as seminal communicologist Harold Innis puts it, “The sword [power] and pen [knowledge] worked together” (30). Innis’s discussion of the space-binding media like newspapers and books that facilitate empire-building is apposite (see Empire and Communications [1950; Toronto, Ont.: Dundurn P, 2007] and Wikipedia).

Innis offers a suggestive binary model of social “biases”:

  • time-bound society: oral, narrative/mythic/mnemonic, tribal, hierarchical/communal
  • space-bound society: written, conceptual/rational/calculative, imperial, egalitarian/individual

For him, Classical Greek civilisation (surprise!) balances the two—embodied, presumably, in Plato’s dialogues, which unite the oral and the written, and the mythic and the rational. Modern Western civilisation, especially in the USA (but now globally), has tipped the balance toward the latter: it is entirely space-bound and thus obsessively present-minded.

The overwhelming pressure of mechanization evident in the newspaper and magazine has led to the creation of vast monopolies of communication. Their entrenched positions involve a continuous, systematic, ruthless destruction of elements of permanence essential to cultural activity. The emphasis on change is the only permanent characteristic. (Changing Concepts of Time [1952; Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2004] 11)

It could be argued, though, that the technology that has usurped pen and paper—the personal computer and the Web—reverses this trend: it has given voice to a new orality, opened and expanded the archive and its mythopoetic possibilities, fostered virtual and glocal tribes, etc. But all this takes place within the horizon of transcendental capitalism, which renders groundless and ephemeral any competitor for its monopoly on permanence. The Last Trump has blown; we live in the End Times.

Heinrich von Kleist: not the Marquis of the O, but of the Arrow

On the Marionette Theatre” by Heinrich von Kleist [1777-1811] (translated by Idris Parry) [pdf; alternative translation by Thomas G. Neumiller]

[“Über das Marionetten Theater,” Berliner Abendblätter (12-15 Dec. 1810)]

Michelangelo, The Fall and Expulsion from Garden of Eden (1509-10)

Kleist suggests that the Garden of Eden could have a second gate: when we return to innocence via experience.

“[I]n the organic world, as thought grows dimmer and weaker, grace emerges more brilliantly and decisively. But just as a section drawn through two lines suddenly reappears on the other side after passing through infinity, or as the image in a concave mirror turns up again right in front of us after dwindling into the distance, so grace itself returns when knowledge has as it were gone through an infinity. Grace appears most purely in that human form which either has no consciousness or an infinite consciousness. That is, in the puppet or in the god.”

“Does that mean,” I said in some bewilderment, “that we must eat again of the tree of knowledge in order to return to the state of innocence?”

“Of course,” he said, “but that’s the final chapter in the history of the world.”

William Blake, Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794)

Interestingly, Philip Pullman made the same connection between Kleist and Blake in his Preface to the Folio Society edition of The Northern Lights (2008):

Where Kleist’s essay differed from [the “sickly nostalgia” of most children’s stories] was in its bracing optimism. We can’t go back, he says; as with the original Paradise, an angel with a flaming sword guards the way; if we want to return we have to go all the way around the world, and re-enter Paradise through the back gate, as it were. In other words, since we cannot dwell forever in the paradise of childhood, we have to go forward, through the disappointments and compromises and betrayals of experience, towards the fully conscious kind of grace that we call wisdom. Innocence is not wise, and wisdom cannot be innocent.

But the dialogue can also be read as an ironic play on the dichotomy of classicism and romanticism, one in which a moral problem—the problem of knowledge of good and evil—is recast as an epistemological problem (as it always is by Kantians—and all those ethico-epistemologists who take knowledge as value-laden, from Socrates on). It becomes about what we know/can know and how we come to know it, and the whys and wherefores of both.

Kleist sides with neither classical idealism (Ideas are absolute: Idea-lism) nor romantic imagination (the I is Absolute: I-magination). For him, like Fichte, human beings desire an Absolute without ever being able to identify with It; individual existence hangs on this difference. Thus, consciousness is not grounded in anything outside of itself: we cannot know noumena, or things-in-themselves; the phenomenal world, or the world of things, arises from self-consciousness (I am conscious of myself . . .), the activity of the ego (. . . as an I . . .) and moral awareness (. . . because I am called to limit my freedom out of respect for the freedom of the other). The subject is intersubjective: I know I’m someone because I know I’m not someone else.

We might say: human beings are transcendent beings, not infinitely “transhuman,” i.e., in part divine (beyond-the-world), but finitely transhuman, i.e., always projecting (in-the-world), whether we take them to be always already embedded cognitively and socially, or desiring, or evolving by self-modifying or –versioning [transcendent, “climbing beyond,” from L. transcendere, from trans- “across” + scandere “climb”] (. . . hence Duchamps’ stroboscopic self). We are, to misread Heidegger’s ethico-epistemological axiom, “ecstatic beings in the world.

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase, No.2 (1912)

Thus, consciousness is the golden arrow of desire (or rather, desire [other-direction] precedes repulsion [self-protection]), always directed and dialogic.


See the new edition of Kleist: Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist, ed. Peter Wortsman (Archipelago, 2009).

The Smart World of Ogle

Richard Ogle, Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas (Harvard Business School P, 2007)

See Smart World at Amazon.com and Ogle’s blog (with some excerpts).

Creativity is an emergent process in networks, not a property or product of individual actors or their actions.

The mind is embodied (Andy Clark, Francisco Varela et alii): we cannot understand it if we confine it to what happens inside a skull but have to understand it as inextricably woven into the environments in which it exists. In fact, the mind is extended—it stretches out to network with other minds. (Clark calls this “outing the mind” [9].)

We don’t create with our brains (the mind-inside-the-head or MITH model of conscious human agency—what Clark calls “pure thought” [xii]).

We create an environment, i.e., a world of technological artefacts and systems (tools)—or, indeed, “myths, cultural or social practices, scientific paradigms, business models, and . . . art forms” (Ogle 12)—that thinks for us (the embedded intelligence or EI model—what Clark calls “embodied thought” with the “mind as controller” (Clark xii, 7).

“Idea spaces” are the hubs or “hotspots” in the network. These are like the “attractors” of complex systems, for example, websites that all of a sudden attract huge numbers of visitors and links. These hotspots can generate tipping points, like the “bifurcators” of complex systems, where the systems undergo a “phase transition” into a new state (see Bob Leckridge’s blog).

Creative people let the environment or system think for them.


[W]e constantly have recourse to a vast array of culturally and socially embodied idea-spaces that populate the extended mind. These spaces . . . are rich with embedded intelligence that we have progressively offloaded into our physical, social, and cultural environment for the sake of simplifying the burden on our minds of rendering the world intelligible. Sometimes the space of ideas thinks for us. We live in a smart world. (Ogle 2, plagiarising, alas, Daniel Dennett’s Kinds of Minds [NY, NY: Basic Books, 1996] 134)


[T]he creative mind shifts culturally or technologically embedded intelligence from one idea-space to another.

(This is essentially Arthur Koestler’s “bisociative act [that] connects previously unconnected matrices of experience” [The Act of Creation (1964; Penguin, 1990) 47], i.e., the recontextualization, usually wilful, playful or mistaken, of an idea, image, etc., but turning the artist or thinker into a catalyst, rather than a genius. Creativity is paratactic, then.)

The creative “revolution” of Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) exemplifies this process:

[-] Picasso didn’t make a sudden “leap” on his own,
i.e., it wasn’t genius + inspiration → leap;
[+] “the leap he made over what preceded it is due primarily to the powerful effect of African sculpture,”
i.e., it was genius surrendering to an inspiring world → leap.
[H]e surrendered his genius to a strangely exotic world, that, with the shock of the new, radically reorganized and reshaped his art. Picasso invented neither the nonrepresentational, fractured plains nor the exorcist function that would leave such a searing mark on twentieth-century art. African art possessed its own aesthetic and logic, and this became a space to think with. Almost immediately, its energy, forms, and purposes began to drive his own. Encountering a powerful new idea-space, he entered it fully and let its strange but compelling logic think for him. (9)
Debbie A. Foster visualizes the book in her excellent blog, My Mind on Books:

Speaking Truth IN Power

If to be critically literate is to fight the power, to speak truth to power by prescribing what counts as true  (which truth always looks like Truth talking, a mere inversion of the status quo), then to be “positionally” literate is to speak one’s truth in power, by describing—or giving an account of and accounting for—one’s position in a field of positions, some more powerful, i.e. in accord with the forces of the status quo, some less so (which is a truth talking—and an intervention in the status quo).

Positional literacy in the template university (U 2.0) is the modest courage to ask after templated education, to put it in question in order to give a better account of the university, of teaching and learning, of the classroom, etc.

This is necessary because the university dissembles. It openly declares its design and designedness, not to mention, its designs, but reduces them all to a single principle: process as product—process in-itself, the university in aeterna. This is design that pretends it’s not. (To operate, this principle requires a procedure of continuous feedback aimed at total [ac]countability—which procedure requires standard measures, i.e. templates.)

The fixation on process is, of course, self-defence—and pretence (designed again, then). The university in aeterna has embraced process because it feels itself threatened at every moment, as if throwing up its arms and saying “Look! I’m entirely transparent to process; I’m free of design!” makes it less of a threat. (This threat is, however, turned inward upon its inhabitants.)

The academic today cannot but serve this design, as they dis-assemble and re-assemble stuff more or less according to templates. But this can be done viciously or virtuously: by working to measure, e.g., counting throughputs and outputs (speaking the Truth of power), or by hard-to-measure work like giving an account of oneself (speaking truth in power).

Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking [Writing] (Peter Elbow)

Peter Elbow, “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment,” College English 55.2 (Feb. 1993): 187-206. Research Library, ProQuest. Web. 16 Oct. 2009.

Against ranking . . .
  • i.e. using numerical grading that assesses writing with a single, holistic score: it is unreliable, uncommunicative, privileging grades—or quantity—over learning.
For evaluating . . .
  • i.e. making distinctions as to the quality of different features or dimensions of the writing.

Ranking pretends to be objective; evaluating highlights that reading is subjective.

How to evaluate:

  1. grade portfolios, rather than individual assignments
  2. do a little grading (“H” for honours and “U” for unsatisfactory)
  3. use an analytic grid to evaluate
  4. encourage and/or compel sharing, collaboration and publishing
  5. use modified contract grading

Analytic Grid

N.B. Evaluating is time-consuming and can make students defensive and second-guessing; try “evaluation-free zones” (197):

  1. the private free-write
  2. the unevaluated quick-write/sketch
  3. an early sustained period of free- and quickwrites

And most importantly . . .

For liking . . .

Liking, far from being additional, i.e. fortuitous—and dangerously subjective, is foundational (199):

  1. Writing is not about fixing up a piece of writing until you like it, it’s about liking a piece of writing and fixing it up. (The first implies a “Darwinian model”: we start off bad and, as we get better, we gain a wider audience [200]; others decide what’s “better.” The second implies an ecological niche model: we find a small audience, who like us and encourage us to better ourselves; we decide what’s “better.”)
  2. Good writing teachers like student writing—and “see what is only potentially good” (ibid.).
  3. It’s easier to suggest changes in a piece of writing that you like than in one you don’t.

Liking ≠ evaluating: we can say “This is terrible, but I like it” (201).

How to like (more):

  1. private writing and merely shared writing
  2. shared  writing (both evaluated and not)
  3. learning to see what is good—and potentially good
  4. getting to know students as people and talking with them individually about their writing
  5. sharing our own writing and writing issues
  6. fixing our own writing and liking it

Elbow Summary

It’s about redistributing HOPE in the writing zone!

Hope and Fear

Creatures of habit(us): bundle theories of the self

All my hopes vanish, when I come to explain the principles, that unite our successive perceptions in our thought or consciousness. I cannot discover any theory, which gives me satisfaction on this head. —David Who-me, A Treatise on Who-man Nature

Allan Ramsay, “the Younger.” Detail. [David Hume.] 1754. [Herr Hume has something less than satisfying on his head: “a scholar’s cap of rich but well-worn crimson velvet,” according to Mossner’s Life of David Hume (1954; OUP, 2001) 280.]

According to David Hume, we tend to think that we are the selfsame person we were five years ago, however our features might have changed. But he denies that there is a distinction between our features and the mysterious self that supposedly bears them: when we—aside from the metaphysicians among us—introspect, we must conclude that we are bundles of perceptions: “a bundle or collection of different perceptions which succeed one another with an inconceivable rapidity and are in perpetual flux and movement” (“Of Personal Identity,” A Treatise of Human Nature [1739-40; Courier Dover, 2003] 180 [1.4.6]).

Hume on the Self as Bundle

If each if us is a bundle of perceptions that do not belong to anything—a commonwealth, or a cosmos, no less—then the question of personal identity becomes a matter of characterizing the loose cohesion of our personal experience in terms of the relations of causation, contiguity, and resemblances, i.e. the connexions of various ilks, that hold among the perceptions.

Most often we assume that experience tells us something about the world and is organized in orderly ways because we tend to generalize on the basis of past experience (“habit”) or tradition (“custom”). (Most famous is Hume’s critique of our traditional understanding of causality in his Enquiry [“Of the Idea of Necessary Connexion,” An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Stephen Buckle (1748; Cambridge UP, 2007) 69 (orig. 75-76)]). We are creatures of habit.


Francis Bacon. Self-Portrait (1973).

“For me, realism is an attempt to capture the appearance with the cluster of sensations that the appearance [here his self] arouses in me” (letter to Michel Leiris, 20 Nov. 1981).

For more on Bacon, see “Bacon’s Skin.”

For the good Bishop Paley, even moral action is interpretable likewise: it is merely habitual, making us bundles of habits:

There are habits, not only of drinking, swearing, and lying, . . . but of every modification of action, speech, and thought: Man is a bundle of habits. . . . [I]n a word, there is not a quality or function either of body or mind, which does not feel the influence of this great law of animated nature. (William Paley, “Virtue,” The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy, ed. John Frost [1785; B. B. Mussey, 1852] 47-48 [1.7])

We are creatures of habitus.

For (the better) Emerson—reading nature in a seemingly less anthropomorphic way—our selves are “intertwined with the whole chain of organic and inorganic being,” making us bundles of relations of a different ilk than those that Hume suggests might hold “us” together:

[O]ut of the human heart go, as it were, highways to the heart of every object in nature, to reduce it under the dominion of Man. Man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world [and] he cannot live without a world. (Ralph Waldo Emerson, “History,” Essays & Lectures, ed. Joel Porte [1836; Library of America, 1983] 254)

We inhabit creation.

Or, conversely, I might say, it inhabits us, for better or for worse (pace Novalis):

“Whose heart does not leap with joy,” cried the youth with glittering eye, “when the innermost life of nature invades him in all its fullness! When the overpowering emotion for which language has no other name than love expands within him like an ever-dissolving vapour and, trembling with sweet fear, he sinks into the dar alluring heart of nature, consumes his poor personality in the crashing waves of lust, and nothing remains but a focus of infinite procreative force, a yawning vortex in an immense ocean?” (Novalis, The Novices of Sais, trans. Ralph Manheim, illus. Paul Klee [Archipelago Books, 2005] 103)

Whose doesn’t? The heart of those for whom nature is an invader that nests tombs in their breast and dusts their pillow with ash. It leaps—with sorrow—as if into an abyss.