5390: Article Commentary 4: Techne on the Soul

Miller, P. (2008). Writing on the Soul: Technology, Writing, and the Legacy of Plato. Composition Forum, 18, 1-14.

“Hookwise,” this article has a good title—even if it’s stereotypically structured (phrase-colon-explanation), the structure is useful.  From reading only the title, I can tell that the article is about something I’m interested in; I get a theme (writing technology), and a direction or angle (Plato’s legacy, which I know is contentious in studies of writing tech.).  He’s quite clearly grappling with the writing-technology/techne wave that I’ve mentioned in other analyses. Beyond that, Miller immediately—by the fourth word in his piece—points out a dissonance, an “ambivalence” that he’s going to treat in the article. This is a good word to start with, and the author gets right to showing that ambivalence with exemplary titles from CCCC presentations.

By the end of the first few paragraphs, a CCC-ish scholar-teacher audience is clear, especially with his many references to CCCC conference titles. Miller takes his time getting there, but is clearing picking up a specific set of ideas and using them to think about new approaches in composition teaching and theory.

Stylistically, something that struck me as curious (odd, even) was the way he phrased something in his abstract: “writing-as-tool metaphor.” I was curious about why he chose metaphor instead of idea or concept (which is really what he seems to be treating, as the first paragraph treats idea and ‘connotations’ of the word. It turns out that this came out of one of his sources’ arguments, but the curious turn of phrase (to me) certainly made me perk up my ears. Beyond that, Miller has a generally clear style, with occasional eruptions of passive voice.  That is, this is relatively stratightforward academese, with plenty of interrupted sentence structures and past participles: (“In academia, at least partly because the visual is associated with the material, the visual has long been viewed as a poor cousin to the linguistic.”) Miller doesn’t shy from the “I,” and uses an occasional turn of phrase or interesting example to keep his sentences from being overly dry (“dust off some moldering Dewey”; “it’s a Republic of Writing”; “People like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla became the de facto poets of the United States.”)  Otherwise, this is fairly typical academic fare, and doesn’t jar me too far in one way or another, neither overly simplistic nor densely hyperterminological.

In terms of scholarly bona fides and shared knowledge, a look at his name-drops (Yancey, Trimbur, Stafford, among others) shows he’s done some good homework. His argument is sophisticated and well-situated.  He agrees with a criticism of the notion of writing-as-tool but wants to refine that criticism rather than “elide” materiality and head for dangerous dualism. The first part of his article is a thorough examination of Plato, well-situated in authority and translation issues, including references to classical Greek culture at large as well as Havelock and Cornford.  His assertions seem thoroughly argued, with lots of connections to other scholarship, especially appeals to authority and historical argument. In terms of a shared-disturbed knowledge turn, there is perhaps not a huge shift, but Miller does an effective job of setting up the Cartesian dualism of externalism and internalism, techne and episteme, platonist and sophist, and then neatly brings them back together with a series of claims from John Dewey. Doing so, he fairly effectively draws the two ‘sides’ of tool-knowledge and theory-knowledge back together.

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