5365: A Chunk of Writing

Here’s the first chunk of text for my Style paper. It mostly speaks for itself, and consists of a couple of major brainal breakthroughs, though they aren’t obvious so much in the text as where the text is pointed next.  There’s probably holes, here–ignore or comment at will.  And yeah, it switches from MLA to APA at some point. I know.

edit–updated April 13th.

Style, Technology, and Value Systems (Working Title, I Promise)

One of the controlling ideas in Richard Lanham’ Analyzing Prose (2nd ed) is that Aristotle introduced a “fundamental distortion into Western thought about language and style” (213).  That distorting element was Aristotle’s framework for style: a scheme of virtues and vices based on the relative transparency or opacity of the words a rhetor used in his discourse:

The scheme denied the whole self-conscious side of human life. Furthermore, it radically confused the relationship between reader, text and reality; by insisting on the self-standing idea and the transparent verbal surface, it made the continuing oscillation between At and Through vision seem to be an either/or choice only […] As a result, it was seldom clear in the subsequent rhetorical tradition whether a statement was being made about a text or a reader’s response to it; about a ‘high’ style or a ‘high style’ subject; about a ‘decorum’ that adjusted style to subject or one that fit subject to style. (213)

In his text, Lanham attempts to dismantle the efficacy of the Clarity-Brevity-Sincerity theory of prose style based on Aristotle’s scheme, which argues that “prose ought to be maximally transparent and minimally self-conscious, never seen and never noticed” (1).  In doing so, he doesn’t argue so much that writers and teachers of writing should throw traditional prose style value systems out the window—value judgments are useful when meaningful—rather, he reminds us that such judgments are “private and unique.”  Composition instructors should, however, be able to make them with some level of objectivity as well as a sense of how and why consensus and disagreement over styles occur.  That is, we should be able to “describe with some objective rigor where and how value judgments occur” (213).  As Adams notes, “Connotations too often take the place of well-crafted definitions” (2)

In this paper, I wish to problematize one of composition’s historically central style value judgments, “naturalness,” using Media Naturalness Theory to argue that our judgment of a style’s naturalness has more to do with cognitive adaptation to particular writing technologies than the innateness or humanness of a particular style.

It is important that—even if we do not formally include technology in our definition of style—we recognize the role technology plays in forming style values, rather than include naïve connotations of ‘naturalness.’ Such a recognition or redefinition can help writing instructors make decisions about the style values we uphold, gatekeep, and teach, and can bring both openness to real stylistic change and wariness of the impulse to pedagogically commodify or relativise ourselves out of existence.  For the purposes of this argument, I define style as the set of rhetorically and technologically mediated choices in language and form made by a writer.  I feel this definition integrates both ends of Gage’s dichotomy for style issues.  That is, style is rhetorically mediated in that it can indeed be a result of “the application of conscious choice” in structures and elements. Style is technologically mediated in that our own backgrounds (even so far as our background with the techne of writing itself) and use-choices allow for elements that are generative, emerging from “the integration of personality” or process (618). I recognize that adding yet another (re)definition of style to the centuries-long list perhaps serves to further stir the turgid waters of this concept’s long debate, but blah blah blah…

Naturalness v Technologicalness (ick)

Throughout his treatment of prose style, Lanham returns many times to the core stylistic value of transparency: “the style that does not show” (185).  For Western scholars, he argues, “studied transparency represents the climax of the print revolution”—those working out of this tradition often think of it as “an inevitable norm” (95).  This norm of transparency is rooted in Aristotle’s Rhetoric, where he defines style primarily as clarity:

Style to be good must be clear, as is proved by the fact that speech which fails to convey a plain meaning will fail to do just what speech has to do. […] We can now see that a writer must disguise his art and give the impression of speaking naturally and not artificially. Naturalness is persuasive, artificiality is the contrary; for our hearers are prejudiced and think we have some design against them, as if we were mixing their wines for them. (cit)

Thus begins “the long-standing argument for styles that don’t show, that are not noticed” (Lanham 189).  For Aristotle and much of the rest of the Western rhetorical tradition, the clear style, the style that’s unperceivable as a style, is the most “natural” style.  For example, in his 1827 Practical System of Rhetoric, Samuel Phillips Newman[1] includes “naturalness” as a central quality of style: it is without affectation and “is such as, in our opinion, it should be—such as in consonance with our experience and observation” (180, emphasis mine).  Newman describes his natural style as without forced attitude, without effort or labor, enabling thoughts to simply flow from one brain to another.  It is as if the naturalness of a style gives readers a direct neural connection to the writer.  One also can’t help but be reminded of Bacon’s and Locke’s critiques of rhetoric, which center around clarity and purely expressed ideas.  The ideal goal for Enlightenment language, as described by Lanham in The Electronic Word, is thus: “Ideally, in a Netwonian society, you wouldn’t need words at all, sincere feelings and clear ideas of physical entities would do it all. You look through the words to the goods that are really out there in the real world” (229).  The reader ought to be able to grasp concepts, content, and messages directly, without any mediating—and thus distorting—influence.  This mind-to-mind connection—and even the way our discipline sometimes values writing itself as the best way of connecting two minds—is richly endowed with the core value of ‘naturalness’ that undergirds the concepts of clarity and transparency.

This tradition of transparency and immediacy in prose, the desire for unmediated connection between the writer’s and reader’s minds, consistently defines the best or clearest style as the most natural, and we often even ascribe this sense of naturalness from prose itself to the technologies we use to create and consume it.  Bolter, in Writing Space, notes that “print has often been regarded as a medium that should disappear from the readers’ conscious consideration. Indeed, two levels of mediation are supposed to disappear, the printed page and the prose itself” (43).  He describes this further with Grusin in Remediation, that print supporters have a long history of thinking of print as a natural medium, more true and immediate to human experience (43).  They see computerized texts as unnatural, highly technologized and less in keeping with traditions of literacy and the goal of unmediated, immediate, transparent interaction with ideas and the minds that present them (42).

Along with natural methods of consumption are supposedly natural methods of production.  Baron, in A Better Pencil, emphasizes writer’s reactions to composing technologies such as pencils, handwritten script, and keyboards.  Neo-Luddites such as John Zerzan, Kirkpatrick Sale, and Ted Kaczynski all feel that computers and advanced writing technologies mechanize, dehumanize, and thus denaturalize information production and consumption (Baron 19ff).  Led-pencil nostalgists such as Bill Henderson claim that older writing technologies are better than newer ones because the tools themselves “respond directly to the mind” in a natural, transcendent manner (qtd in Baron 38), while longhand is often perceived as more individual and even poetic than typed or printed text.  Yet all writing tools are complex technologies that change the ways we write—for good and ill.  Pencils sped up and mobilized art and composition, while the addition of the eraser changed the amount of thinking a writer had to do before committing something to writing.  In a curious and amusing parallel to debates surrounding the modern spell-checker, anti-eraser teachers, fearing pencil’s detrimental effects on student cognition, argued that “if the technology makes error correction more easy, students will make more errors” (Baron 44).  And before typewriters become common fixtures in offices, to insure universal legibility, clerks and other office-workers had to learn a specific, uniform handwriting system—manuals and instructions for posture and finger position were once common, and some inventors went so far as to design harnesses to enforce muscle memory on writer’s hands (Baron 56).  Even the most nostalgically natural writing implements, even when they work toward universality and transparency in writing production, are

We can understand this sense of naturalness—whether assigned to writing technology or to the written word itself—to mean a kind of transparent text that facilitates immediate mind-to-mind idea transfer.  A natural style is a style which isn’t a style, one that we can ideally look Through and find impossible to look At.  The problem with this definition is that even writing itself is not natural.  Lanham identifies this concern in Analyzing Prose: the desire for naturalness “is not only self-contradictory but dishonest” (189).  That is, words and styles don’t grow like plants, and to attain the naturalness that Aristotle describes is to simultaneously create a text and then hide or disguise that creation as such.  That is, if a text has the quality of naturalness, its readers should be able to perceive its unperceivability, a contradiction of the highest order.

Of course, Lanham doesn’t take things quite far enough.  Writing isn’t just not natural.  It is material and mediatory; it is technological, a tool we use to communicate in language (see Haas, 1996).  That is, not only do we use technologies such as pencils and keyboards to create writing, but our writing is itself a developed technology, a Vygotskian “psychological tool” that mediates the development of higher psychological functions and brings consciousness into being.  In its technological-material state, there would seem to be little about prose that is natural.  Though we can certainly claim that style is “inherent in action” (Thomas and Turner, qtd in Dilger), style is also mediated in very complex ways by not only the choices we make, but the technologies that inform those choices.  (EXAMPLES?)

This Aristotelian sense of naturalness is both questioned and explained by Media Naturalness Theory, offered by Ned Kock (2001) to resolve the shortcomings of social presence and media richness theories in their attempt to explain computer-mediated communication phenomena—and technologized language, more broadly.  Media naturalness theory compares media on the basis of how well or badly they remediate face-to-face (rather than mind-to-mind) idea transfer.  A medium, such as two-way video, that incorporates elements of collocation, synchronicity, facial expression, body language, and audible speech to a high degree is considered more psychobiologically natural than e-mail, for example (Kock, 2004, p. 333).  On this scale, any kind of writing is unnatural; however, certain elements of our stylistic value system, such as “voice” can also be explained in light of this theory.

Media Naturalness Theory

What is media naturalness theory; what problems/paradoxes does it point out for composition/writing?  Psychobiological model for understanding communication..

Naturalness and another reason why “Voice puts prose, any prose, in a new light” (Lanham 117)

Ex—why students might prefer IM to Email and FB to IM, and any of those to a long text.

Cognitive Adaptation

<write it>

Implications for Composition

Naturalness, Nativity, Cognitive Adaptation, and what it all means!

<write it>

[1] Kremers reports that Newman is the first American with a commercially successful composition text (185).


3 thoughts on “5365: A Chunk of Writing

  1. – Might suggest Writing Style with your title, perhaps Writing Technologies
    – Good notes regarding At vs. Through
    – I’d argue that value judgments aren’t private and unique, however, and that, like Matthew Arnold might suggest, they’re basically socially constructed.
    – I’d use social construction theory to help you think about media naturalness theory
    – Define media naturalness theory earlier
    – Go into techne more
    – Might look up Kevin Garrison’s dissertation when you have time. He examines technological determinism as it relates to TC and technology studies.
    – Might avoid Bacon/Locke as that takes you in another direction
    – Excellent integration of Bolter/Grusin and Baron
    – There is a line of “naturalness” in composition theory
    – If you’re looking at cognition theory in composition, need to look at Lunsford/Ede.

  2. Thinking about your need for examples of how technology impacts style choices. What if you discuss technology needs. That is, I notice many of my writing students at FIU (since they are often international) choose certain technologies over others because they also use them to communicate with people at home and/or overseas. The average college student might make the same choices to keep in touch.

    I wonder how access to technologies affects your idea that “style is also mediated in very complex ways by not only the choices we make, but the technologies that inform those choices.” Or campus access to these technologies? Or the access of that area/location?

    Does that make sense?

    Really like your definition of style!

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