Concurrent session titles as ideographs?

Just getting back into the week after being at my 4th CCCC last week in Las Vegas. This was my first time actually presenting and I’m pleased to say that it went pretty well, despite having gone dead last (#N.08). I’m intending to post something more extensive on our talk sometime soon, but in the meantime I want to reflect briefly on some of the common terms that were used, explored, critiqued this year by way of a tag cloud of the titles of concurrent sessions.

Yes, the methodology is crude, can’t touch the depth of the individual panels, and lacks any sort of comparison, but here’s what’s revealed when I dump the titles into TagCrowd and limit the frequency to ten.

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Nothing too surprising here. “Writing” and “composition” makes sense given the field’s teleos, and “public” is up there because of the conference theme (“The Public Work of Composition”). But as we read Michael Calvin McGee’s “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology” this week in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory, I wonder if I can consider these terms as ideographs, “the basic structural elements, the building blocks, of ideology” (428). Ideographs are assuming, abstract terms like “liberty” or “rule of law,” “representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal” that “guides behavior and beliefs into channels easily recognized by a community as acceptable and laudable” (435). Ideographs are necessary, argues McGee, because of the materiality they may provide for the symbolist critique that overly relies on myth to explain hegemony. In short, McGee borrows a symbolic unit of analysis in order to develop a Marxist critique that goes beyond materialism.

In treating the above words as ideographs, we might understand the use of “public” or “literacy” or “community” or even “student” as givens for our work that require more critical reflection. As Raymie McKerrow notes in “Critical Rhetoric,” a “permanent criticism” might be our only means to understanding freedom in the context of social movements. That is, by using ideographs to understand common terms at CCCC, it might reveal assumption, or what McGee calls the “interpenetrating systems or ‘structures’ of [our] public motives” (427). In short, ideographs hold vast symbolic ideals of consensus, where community members will “inflict penalties on those who use ideographs in heretical ways and on those who refuse to respond appropriately to claims on their behavior warranted through the agency of ideographs  (436).

Of course while those heretics and refusers have likely already been denied access to the program by one of two stages of readers, McGee tells us we can read the words from the tag cloud as developing via two different ideologies: one diachronically and one synchronically. Ideographs develop diachronically, “expanding and contracting” throughout a term’s history; by understanding its subsequent applications, we begin to understand a particular grammar or logic to the term. At the same time, the ideology can be viewed as synchronic , as horizontal, rhetorical and context-bound. A synchronic structure allows us to consider how certain ideographs clash to create what McGee calls “synchronic confrontations” (433). Moreover, “[n]o ideology can be divorced from past commitments, if only because the very words used to express present dislocations have a history that establishes the category of their meaning” (434).  Kathi Yancey’s keynote at Qualitative Research Network Forum last Wednesday provided an interesting example of such dislocations as she traced the uses of “transfer” throughout the last 10 or so years. She didn’t, however, appear to expose any ideology embedded in the term; I wonder, then, what we’d understand of “transfer” if she treated like an ideograph.

Perhaps the most relevant ideograph for my work, however, is “digital,” especially, if I follow up on the last post, when we think of it in opposition to print. A quick search of the CCCC program app this year reveals that while “digital” received 30 hits, “print” received none. At the same time, print might be receiving a revival in  the term “multimodality,” but one has to wonder how that term gets conflated. As Jody Shipka and Jason Palmeri can attest, there is a gross equivocality given to “digital” and “multimodal” composition. And as Chris Anson noted in his chair’s address this years, MOOCs might also complicate ideographs like “access” or “public.” This post is too brief to experiment with the use of McGee’s framework, but I do wonder how a diachronic and synchronic view of any one of these terms might help reveal some of the ideologies that circulated last week in Vegas.