Composition’s New Thing: Bruno Latour and the Apocalyptic Turn

I’m immersing myself in Bruno Latour‘s Reassembling the Social. So last night, when I was discussing an upcoming conference presentation with one of my professors, my head tilted and my eyes opened a bit wider when Latour’s name came up. I never expected to discuss Latour, even briefly, with this particular professor, but, also, from the conversation that followed, I understood this piece, by Paul Lynch (published in English Journal in May 2012) to be about the end of composition as a discipline. Promptly after dinner I stopped by the library, saw Apocalyptic in the title of Lynch’s piece and decided (felt compelled, really) to grab a cup of coffee and read for an hour.

The piece begins with an epigraph by John Stewart, a quote that softens the end-times allusion of the title. Lynch discusses a number of “turns” composition has taken as a young discipline, arguing that a most recent turn involves “an apocalyptic turn, in which the end of the world looms ever larger in our disciplinary and pedagogical imagination” (458). Lynch references a number of writers regarding the apocalyptic turn and details three writers right away: Derek Owens, Kurt Spellmeyer, and Lynn Worsham. These and other scholars explore the implications of large-scale economic and environmental collapse, local and global violence, and, in short, very bad things happening all around us through the lens of composition.

Lynch asks, “what, finally can composition do to ameliorate these threats?” (458) The aforementioned authors, Lynch says, suggest that critical thinking has outlived its usefulness  and he uses this line of thought to bring into examination the usefulness of “the critical impulse that has been one of composition’s central values” (458). (An aside: I’ve followed a discussion from a blog post titled “Critical Thinking is Bogus” from Alex Reid. In my reading, Reid’s focus seems to be more on how “critical thinking,” or any kind of cognitive activity, for that matter, is situated and not really something that can be taught as a generalized skill set. Rather, systems of thinking, like close reading in an intro lit course, are what we ought to be exploring in education.)

Lynch goes on to explore the implications of Latour’s post-critical stance as established in We Hvae Never Been Modern and other works. Lynch envisions a move past the “apocalyptic logic of critique and closer to an apocalyptic turn toward responsibility” (459).

Lynch’s turn away from the logic of critique includes a discussion of David Bartholomae‘s essay “Inventing the University.” Lynch respectfully discusses Bartholomae’s ad-lib like critical formula: ” ‘While most readers of ____ have said ____, a close and careful reading shows that ____’ ” (463).  While recognizing a “critical enterprise” as an important component of education, Lynch wonders how useful it is in the present zeitgeist, though he’s not entirely dismissive, turning Bartholomae’s fill-in-the-blank supposition back onto the entire critical enterprise, suggesting “critique may become a trained incapacity” (463).

In critique’s place, Lynch calls for “contemplation, connection, and cultivation … as the discipline’s central values” (464). Lynch moves from there to look at Latour’s “An Attempt at a ‘Compositionist Manifesto’,” (next up on my reading list), a discussion of “capital-T Thing” (467) and gestures that connect Kenneth Burke with Latour while weaving Plato’s cave allegory throughout.

This is a piece I’ll come back to and perhaps blog about again. I’m eager to check out some of the “apocalyptic turn” texts Lynch mentions, too. But in the meantime, I’m thinking about how Lynch’s observations on critical thinking, alongside Reid’s discussion, impact my own thinking.

As I become more familiar with ANT through Latour (and as Ian Bogost speaks about in Alien Phenomenology), I am sensing a turn to the slowing down of observations, a reveling in the complexity and messiness of it all, a move toward observing and noticing all of the strangeness and ambiguity around us, tracing connections and taking stock. Let the patterns reveal themselves on their own terms, this turn seems to say, and keep on observing because those patterns are probably going to change soon. The critical impulse, it seems to me, runs the risk of too quickly turning knowledge into totalized or essentialized assumptions that become static, rigid answers that try to self segregate themselves beyond the flux of situatedness and into the shiny, sure realm of objectivity, a realm that, of course, can be accessed through critical thinking.

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