Electronic Texts and Tacit Persuasion Patterns

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Teaching critical theory last night, I was pleasantly surprised by a passage in Richard Lanham’s 1983 Analyzing Prose, excerpted in Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan’s anthology Literary Theory as “Tacit Persuasion Patterns.” Somehow it jumped out in a new way this term, and it sparked an interesting discussion of how student blogs can work to create a community of reader-writers:

Compulsively patterned prose…is hard to take…. We don’t like the compulsive repetition. But even more, we don’t like the direction in which the intellectual current flows [in the experience of such repetition]–from pattern to thought, rather than vice versa. We have thought, ever since this patterning was repudiated by the plain styles which followed upon the scientific revolution, that thought came first. Words only dress it up. Western educational history, until that time, mostly thought otherwise. Verbal patterns were instruments to think with, and they were taught as part of the training in how to think. Pattern/thought, pattern/thought, pattern/thought–a continuing oscillation. We shall see this pair of viewpoints return when we come to consider electronic text. Patterning there is dynamic and three-dimensional but, even more than with print or manuscript, exerts back-pressure on how we think, and how we learn to think. (186)

So, when working with electronic text–especially collaborative forms of reading that themselves function in rather writerly ways–the “patterning” of rhetoric, the forms of language, clearly shapes how we think rather than the familiar commonplace that thought shapes how we write.

One of my students connected this moment to an excerpt from Stanley Fish’s “Interpretive Communities,” where he notes that “what utterers do is give hearers and readers the opportunity to make meanings (and texts) by inviting them to put into execution a set of strategies” (Rivkin & Ryan 220). There is a clear way in which these modern critics are interested in, as a whole, critiquing, defamiliarizing, or throwing into relief the artifice of meaning. We’re reading structuralism for next class, so I’m interested to see how this conversation will develop after a few bits of Ferdinand de Saussure! (Contemplating the utility of The Magnetic Fields for said class….)

How will the use of blogs in this class shape our discussions, and even our understanding of critical theory?

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