A brief jaunt into some things classical, 2 of 5 (Young & Sullivan)

Continuing with my messy slog through Essays on Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse (1984):

Young, Richard, and Patricia Sullivan. “Why Write? A Reconsideration” (215-225).

The authors take up a seemingly Phaedrus-esque argument; this one in favor of writing, rather than against it. However, Young and Sullivan’s case for writing is based on little more than the author’s valuation of certain types of thinking that seem to be engendered by writing. That is, the sonnet seems to be valuable “just because.” The reason to write is so that we can write what they count as writing. This might hit some people right in their warm-and-fuzzies, but it doesn’t play so nicely with my own set of assumptions.

“But what happens when we engage in a kind of thinking that is still more sophisticated, when we must hold in our  minds many units of information and their relationships, as we must when we are creating, say, a sonnet or a philosophical argument? We look for a pencil or paper. We simply cannot engage in such inquiries in our heads or talk them through out loud.” (222)

“The real test of the importance of writing to thinking comes with thinking that strains short-tem memory so much that some sort of prompt is required if we are to carry out the task successfully” (222). What are the ‘tasks’ that they’re talking about?

I agree that cognition and writing are connected, that the augmentation of memory (that Young and Sullivan here write about) is part of what makes inscription so culturally powerful (and we can see this in early studies of writing technology, for certain). That is, writing helps us record and do complex computations, to enact power over more individuals. But arguing that writing is important because we can’t create writing-afforded genres is a little suspect. It lies on a valuation of those genres at the level of assumption, not ratiocination.

That is, it should appear no surprise to anyone that pencil and paper (or whatever composing technology one should choose to employ) “appear necessary” for “the analytic/synthetic thinking necessary to invent theoretical principles and conceptual originality now prized in poetry” (223). Especially if they are working from a disciplinary perspective on what constitutes a valuable “poetry.” A perspective that likely dismisses the poems I can create, remember, and freely iterate and riff on as I interact with my children. Of Course the genres of the academy depend on a particular writing technology–but this is not the universally-applicable argument that Young and Sullivan intend it to be.

(For example, they critique dictation because it sounds like talking rather than writing (224). Why is this a surprise?)

A few interesting notes:

“Our lack of information about the effects of even such basic modes of production [i.e. pen and paper] is particular distressing, since we are entering an era when the word processor and computer are introducing new capacities and complexities into the composing process” (225). We seem today to have moved well past the effects question in many respects.

“A modern art of memory might provide explicit strategies [read: heuristics, see Byron Hawk] for increasing the power of short-term memory and for accessing long-term memory more effectively” (225).

“Why write? One important reason is that unless we do there are mental acts we cannot perform, thoughts we cannot think, inquiries we cannot engage in. Why is this so? Because of limits on the capacity of our memory” (225). Oy.


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