September 10, 2012

Bearing Witness to Loose Threads ... or Why We Need New Questions for Agent/cy

Folks, typically my participation on the blog consists of comments to your posts, but I wanted to write my own post to bear witness to some "loose threads" from our past couple of discussions.

For those of you still trying to figure out whether Ong's theory of “fictionalization” adds to or detracts from what you see as an inherent value to writing, you might take a look at a 2010 <TED talk> by David Byrne (musician and songwriter, turned cultural critic). The first 4 minutes of the talk echo the question about how much of the art depends on the venue, or on its architecture, where “architecture” is as much a perception and a realization as it is a physical or material structure. In a way, Byrne dispels the Romantic myth that “playing music to the crowd” is less passionate and less artful than “playing music for oneself.” In this way of thinking, even carefully masked or staged music can be artful because the mask or the stage is as much a construction of the audience as of the musician.

For those of you still trying to figure how you feel about Ong’s claim that you participate in fictionalization (or even what it means to participate), you might take a look at some of these film trailers and their remixes as a way of thinking about fictionalization differently:

As you watch them, you may see some common tropes that appear and reappear in the remixed versions. Not only does each remix fit a particular genre that you know well, e.g., horror, rom-com, coming-of-age story, it also assumes that your response will appreciate both the original and the remixed genres, and that you are a product of each genre. In order for the remix to successfully appeal to your sense of what makes it “ironic” or “not quite right,” it necessarily calls up a sense of “other” or “past.”

What Ong is most interested in is how writers of various epistemes “solved the problem” of the reader’s role in various narrative forms (17), and how those readers have been called on to relate to texts before them (9). Since that is Ong’s method, then—as several of you pointed out in class discussions—this must mean he relies heavily on visible changes in media (and in genre). In other words, he must believe that technologizing processes have been the primary impetus for shifting epistemes.

So, I think we got that far in class discussions, and in fact both sections offered up some compelling evidence for how Ong’s “audience” calls into question who or what is the “agent” in the act of writing. This is significant—especially because it isn’t so clear from Ong’s essay how agency is attributed, or whether agency is meant to describe a process of writing or a state of shifting power. Also, it isn't so clear how we should build genre-based theories of agency if our genres continue to evolve so quickly. Several of you raised that very good question today.

What is clear is that the "agent/cy" questions I posed near the beginning of the semester aren't serving us now. Ong’s essay almost requires us to ask different questions than we have been asking. For example, if the reader self-fictionalizes according to his/her perceptions of an idealized group (16), and if we have determined that the whole process of audience-construction is a kind of mutual or cooperative agency, then maybe we should be asking questions like the following:

  • How should we begin to understand the “self,” and is it possible to understand “self” separately from “past” or “others”? 
  • What kinds of things can/should count as “past” ? 
  • Can audience-construction actually accomplish something, like transformation or critique? 
  • What can or should be the relationship between writers and their genres, and between genres and their histories, and between histories and their audiences?

Let’s keep those questions in mind this week. I look forward to questioning with you.

-Dr. Graban

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