4Cs paper: Questioning the Histories of Katrina: Narrative Analysis in the Writing Classroom

[My paper from the Conference on College Composition and Communication panel I put together, Composed in the Wake of Disaster: (Re)Writing the Realities of New Orleans]

Questioning the Histories of Katrina: Narrative Analysis in the Writing Classroom

In 1978, Kenneth Burke and Fredric Jameson had a brief but important exchange in the journal Critical Inquiry. Jameson first published his rereading, which he also calls a rewriting, of Burke’s dramatistic analytic as “The Symbolic Inference: or, Kenneth Burke and Ideological Analysis.” Jameson more or less applauds Burke for providing a tool we can use to conduct ideological analysis of texts, whether they be literary or other cultural artifacts or historical discourses purporting to report what “really” happened. What Jameson in this article calls ideological analysis he gives a slightly different name by the time he publishes The Political Unconscious: that is, narrative analysis. (And as an interesting side note, Jameson’s bio in this issue of Critical Inquiry describes his next project as The Political Unconscious, with the subtitle Studies in the Ideology of Form. But of course, when the work actually appears, the subtitle turns out to be Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act.) In this paper, I want to offer a brief summary of the Jameson-Burke exchange by way of fleshing out a model for narrative analysis and then apply that model to two of the best and most popular histories of Hurricane Katrina.

"when the Modern Language Asses meet..."

In an article I read today (Donald C. Stewart. “Harvard’s Influence on English Studies: Perceptions from Three Universities in the Early Twentieth Century.” College Composition and Communication. 43 (1992) 455-71.) that discussed the perceived influence of Harvard's late-nineteenth-century writing program on other schools, Columbia's Brander Matthews applied this moniker to MLA. Matthews, it turns out, would become MLA's president two years later. And during these years, he and other colleagues from Columbia, such as Joel Spingarn, struggled with Harvard faculty over control of MLA. One cause of the struggle, Donald Stewart suggests, was an intense animus based on Harvard's exportation of what has come to be called current-traditional rhetoric, which these men, along with Michigan's Fred Newton Scott, considered pedantic and vapid.

Stewart more or less agrees. Of Harvard's Adams Sherman Hill, the fifth Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and a major force behind current-traditional (his Principles of Rhetoric is representative), Stewart writes: "when one considers the damage done to writing instruction in this country for so long by Hill's influence, and the tremendous difficulty of overcoming that damage, even now, one has good reason to regret the failure of more English teachers in this country to look to Ann Arbor instead of Cambridge for guidance in shaping their writing programs" (469).

"There's never been a paper bag for drugs. Until now." Or, What Is "Real Police Work"?

[Cross-posted at Long Sunday]

What's up with the title The Wire? I mean, having a wire up provides the detectives with a kind of talismanic assurance, and the capacity to surveil their "targets" is fundamental to the Major Crime Unit's operations. Still, doesn't the title reflect an almost unsupported (and unearned) privileging of the police? The series is nearly unique and certainly daring in showing the ineptitude of the police, sometimes from external forces and sometimes from individual incompetence or corruption, so it's not particularly pro-BPD. Moreover, many of the episodes involve no wire at all, and plotlines such as the atrophy of the Baltimore port, the Stringer/Avon business/gangster showdown, and the Hopkins study of Tilghman Middle School all proceed smoothly with or without a wire. And yet, the show is called The Wire. Why?

That's one of the questions that has been on my mind since I began watching the series. Another has to do with what is far and away the most common evaluation I hear: "The Wire is the best television show. Ever." A couple of friends have muttered this dispassionately and a bit wearily, as though they've come to the conclusion (which they should have all along recognized as unavoidable) only after sustaining vigorous disputation from other fans. (One friend tried to sell the show to me by saying, "It's like Deadwood, but more relevant." Hmm.) In any case, at a certain point, I began to wonder about these people's judgments. Although I can't find any reason to say they're wrong, something still bothered me.

Slave trade abolished...

officially, 200 years ago today. In the British Empire, of course. The Slave Trade Act of 1807 went into effect on the first day of the new year. Slavery, of course, wasn't abolished until 1833. Again in the British Empire.

Shockingly, the U.S. was many years behind on both counts. Thirteen on ending the slave trade and thirty on ending slavery (which also celebrates a birthday today, its 145th). It's a good thing the U.S. has stopped that nasty trend of being behind on progress.

Best albums of 2007 - an incomplete "best of"

So it's the time of year for "best of..." lists, and many sites have already posted "best albums" lists. I'm partly inspired by Eric, but this post will be nowhere near as elaborate as Eric's exhaustive year-end reviews. In fact, I won't even attempt to rank the albums; I guess my taste isn't that sophisticated. Rather, following the iTunes star system, I'll grade the albums, at least the ones that I feel strongly about.

Among the albums about which I don't have strong feelings are some that various sources seem to think are the tops, stuff by Panda Bear (and his steady drone), M.I.A. (I just don't think I get her--my fault, not hers), and LCD Soundsystem (although the album has grown on me). To be frank, I think all three are overrated. Among the others that make too little an impression for me to really care: Wild Mountain Nation by Blitzen Trapper (though the title track and “Country Caravan” are nice), Some Loud Thunder by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, Interpol’s new one, Allright, Still by Lily Allen, We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank by Modest Mouse (though it’s exciting that Johnny Marr has joined the band), Neil Young’s Chrome Dreams II, One Man Revolution by The Nightwatchman (i.e., Tom Morello, and perhaps the more moronic than oxymoronic title suggests where this goes wrong; still some of the guitar is [expectedly] nice), and Steve Earle’s Washington Square (which is okay, but just okay; there was certainly a time when I wouldn’t have imagined saying I just don’t care about a Steve Earle album, but that’s where things are).

The Mist and leftist anti-rhetorical paranoia

I saw The Mist this weekend, and I've already had one conversation with a co-worker defending my dislike of the film. Within the first five minutes, the dialogue--and its delivery--reveals a lot of the lameness that is to come. Still, I watched the film with a lot of interest after it became clear that Marcia Gay Harden's Mrs. Carmody posed at least as great a threat to the characters' well-being as the weird shit in the mist. Carmody is a skilled rhetor, and when combined with the fact that her diagnoses of the apocalyptic meanings of events in the community strike a chord, she becomes a persuasive force. Protagonist David says of Carmody at one point, "By tomorrow night, when those things come back, she'll have a congregation. And then we can worry about who she's gonna sacrifice to make it all better." Indeed (and here we witness the filmmaker's and King's paranoia), Carmody does resort to sacrifice.

But even before danger is imminent, characters (the ones who end up resisting her "seduction") dislike Mrs. Carmody for her religious rhetoric. And not only do they dislike her; they're perfectly willing to silence her forcibly. Amanda Dumfries slaps Carmody and then tells the others, "I'm sorry everybody, but this lady's perspective is a little too Old Testament for my tastes." Irene (still looking like Bunny MacDougal) throws cans of peas at Carmody, justifying violence by saying it's just "stoning," which is "perfectly okay" to do to "people who piss you off," since "They do it in the Bible."

"When I grow up, I’m gonna do vending machine maintenance"; or, comedy as symbolic action

Great conversation today with Eric and Doug about the recent Times article Pushing Their Luck, Sitcoms Are Playing With Race Cards, which seems to be a disturbingly uncomplicated reading of comedy. Alessandra Stanley does a nice job of noting a trend: "Jokes about race and racial tensions are suddenly all over television, or more precisely, all over comedies that pride themselves on tweaking convention and political correctness." But her observation, I think, misdiagnoses the object of criticism. It's not "political correctness" that 30 Rock, for instance, criticizes. (We should recall, of course, that political correctness is a fictional creation of conservatives--a kind of caricature of liberal attention to the marginalized which often functions as a straw person in conservative arguments. That some liberals have taken up the epithet of political correctness and worn it as a badge is lamentable, a way of allowing the opposition to define your own position.) If anything, shows like Arrested Development and 30 Rock analyze the lame assumption that political correctness or tolerance is an effectual form of political action.

For instance, there was last season's hilarious comment by Pete: "Look, we can all agree that Liz is—generally pretty racist." It occurs in the Jack-tor episode where Liz thinks Tracy is illiterate because he won’t read the cue cards. Pete's comment is both not true and true (hence, funny and quite serious at the same time). That is, in her very effort to be nonracist she was incredibly racist. Like much of liberalism. (Earlier in the episode, Liz remarks, "Tracy took advantage of my white guilt, which is supposed to be used only for good--like over-tipping and supporting Barack Obama.") And that's the genius of it.

30 an hour on a six-point scale

More evidence that standardized testing/grading is fucked up: Retired high-school English teacher Dan Verner grades SAT essays. For up to 10 hours per day, Verner grades 30 essays each hour--essays written by students within a 25 minute window. Two-minutes per essay, with music in the background. Yeah, this is clearly a formula for useful prediction of college success. (And insofar as it is, clearly the system is fucked.)

Acceptance: RSA 2008

Now I know which dissertation chapter to write next. (Perhaps too ambitious) abstract follows:

Toward a Responsible Pedagogy: Linguistic Standardization and the Erasure of Language, 1878-2007

When it comes to speakers of different dialects, can “rhetorical pedagogies,” as this year’s CFP asks, “promote understanding and identification?” This paper suggests that the answer is yes only if we resist “the erasure of language” from the composition classroom, as Susan Peck MacDonald’s June CCC article of that title urges (though it traces the very process of erasure since the 1970s). Instead of ignoring language, our instruction in composition should provide our students with metalinguistic awareness—teaching, for instance, about grammatical choices.

In support of such a pedagogy, this paper looks back, proposing that we reinvestigate late-nineteenth-century grammar and rhetoric textbooks. The period was unusually concerned with dialect and grammatical deviance—as literature, newspapers, and the furious publication of both linguistic self-help and grammatical criticism books all attest. Scholars have traced to roughly this moment (Adams Sherman Hill’s Principles of Rhetoric appeared in 1878) the current-traditional rhetoric—which Sharon Crowley has critiqued for “its theoretical backwardness and its pedagogical limitations.” But this paper will argue that current-traditional’s pedagogical limitations, by ignoring the process of composition and remaining inattentive to language itself, effectively rewarded possessors of linguistic capital, legitimating their existing linguistic practices and hence enhancing their value on various markets (occupational, social, and economic). If the current-traditional pedagogy thus salved the linguistic anxiety expressed by the culturally refined in the nineteenth century, then its conservative thrust has remained underanalyzed.

Meet the new standard, same as the old standard

We're studying the 1996-97 Ebonics controversy in RHE 310 right now. I asked students to read, initially, articles from the Washington Times and New York Times reporting the Oakland School Board's adoption of the Ebonics resolution and, then, the original resolution itself (as well as the amended resolution and the Linguistics Society of America's Resolution on the Oakland "Ebonics" Issue).

I asked my students to rhetorically analyze and respond to the reports in both Timeses. Many of their posts on our blog argued that, while we may justifiably concede that Ebonics is linguistically legitimate, we need to recognize that Standard English is required for success—and for circulating in middle-class America. Of course, I would suggest that this conclusion skips a step—and hence, misses the most crucial point. We should instead ask another question: should Standard English be required for success?

Of course, the other question we should ask—have asked, and answered—is what "the standard" looks like; and yet, even after concluding that we can't really say, except that it looks much like the language I use, whoever I am, students—and others—can't abandon the idea of the standard. I say others because in my dissertation writing group yesterday, readers of a conference paper I'm presenting in a few weeks asked whether my critique of a standard meant I wouldn't correct students' "mis-use." (While I wouldn't "correct" them for unconventional usage, I would make a rhetorical point about how they might expect their audiences to respond to a violation of convention.) Why is this always the reaction people have to challenges to the standard? I would suggest it has everything to do with imagining the standard as unchangeable, as too powerfully entrenched to be modified. Isn't this defeatist thinking at its worst? The equivalent to thinking one's vote in the presidential election doesn't matter? Of course, it doesn't, in either case, except that the aggregation of such attitudes does--and doing nothing effectively reproduces the status quo (in both cases).

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