Here’s the (completed?!?!) first section of my (completed?!?!?!) paper for this semester’s style course. Enjoy.
Writing Style, Writing Technology, and Value Systems
Nature will bear the closest inspection.
She invites us to lay our eye level with her smallest leaf,
and take an insect view of its plain.
—Henry David Thoreau
Stylus virum arguit—our style betrays us.
One of the controlling ideas in Richard Lanham’ Analyzing Prose (2nd ed) is that Aristotle introduced—or at least codified—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. Lanham writes:
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.” Whether one believes this or accepts instead that style values are socially constructed, regardless of where such values come from, composition instructors at any level should be able to view their own value judgments critically with an eye to overgeneralizations, false rules, and impinging ideologies First year composition (FYC) instructors should be able to make these judgments with some level of objectivity as well as a sense of how and why consensus and disagreement over styles occur (indeed, this may become even more important as students and teachers ascend from lower-level studies into advanced and graduate work in composition, where the trainers are trained). That is, we should be able to “describe with some objective rigor where and how value judgments occur” (213).
In this paper, I problematize one of composition’s historically central style value judgments, transparent “naturalness”—one rooted in Aristotle’s Rhetoric but with runners spread far and wide from there. I use media naturalness theory (Kock, 2004) 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. This theory posits that since we are psychobiologically evolved to interpret face-to-face communication, a medium that incorporates the most elements of face-to-face has more “naturalness” and will thus be easier to understand than media incorporating fewer elements.
As techne—a systematic, productive way of knowing—writing cannot be anything but technological; thus, composition is a firmly (dare I say it, an essentially) technological discipline. In creating writing, humans bodily and cognitively interact with a variety of physical implements, systematically materializing psychological tools into understandable alphabetic and visual texts for the purpose of communicating messages to other humans. We use technologies to write with and write on, and as technologies change, the things we write and the ways we write them change as well. Even beyond this conceptual link is a formal and social one: through literacy projects at national and local levels alike, writing has been “inextricably linked” with technology (Selfe 5). Composing and consuming writing without some kind of technology is impossible; thus, being literate is being technological. Even the formal systems such as rhetoric that we use to describe, taxonomize, analyze, and create written texts are developed and contextualized technologies. Style, even if we resist defining it as a technology itself, is richly and undoubtedly bound up with the technological; styles deemed “appropriate” or “natural” are the historical result of a complex set of interactions between cultures, technological affordances such as the economics behind a sheet of paper, and human agency.
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. I define style here as the set of rhetorically and technologically mediated choices in language and form made by a writer. This definition integrates both ends of Gage’s dichotomy for style issues; 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 and preferred writing technologies allow for elements of style that are generative and emergent from “the integration of personality” or process, things that seem to emanate from somewhere beside or beyond conscious choice (Gage 618).
The rest of the paper (which I’ll post in bits over the next week) goes on to discuss Kock’s media naturalness theory, trace threads of transparent naturalness through composition-rhetoric, and problematize said threads using said theory.