Richard E. Miller’s ‘Writing at the End of the World’

Richard E. Miller’s Writing At the End of the World (U Pittsburgh Press) is an important book that all humanities teachers should carefully read.  You might want to begin with Miller’s four-part YouTube presentation.  In the wake of recent school massacres, with violence and the “end of the world” seemingly upon us, Miller’s discussion is especially pertinent to composition instructors who worry about how to teach today’s students.  With violence dominating news headlines and media soundbites, students’ lives seem to be more disrupted and distraught than ever.  If that’s an accurate description of our mediated reality, then what’s the point of teaching the humanities?  What roles does reading and writing have in our lives?  Does our commitment to evaluating the “Great Books” and masterpieces of world literature in fact transform lives for the better?  What room can we find for institutional critique in classroom contexts that traditionally proffer students the “idea of the university”?  I’ll let Miller issue his own questions:

The challenge for all those whose lives are inextricably bound to the literate arts, is to make a compelling case for why writing might be said to matter in the twenty-first century….What isn’t clear, though, is …how to use writing as a practice for constructing a sense of hope and optimism atop the ruins of previous worlds.  Is it possible to produce writing that generates a greater sense of connection to the world and its inhabitants?  Of self-understanding?  Writing that moves out from the mundane, personal tragedies that mark any individual life into the history, the culture, and the lives of the institutions that surround us all?

Miller discusses the problem, as he sees it, in the following lengthy section from Chapter One, “The Dark Night of the Soul”:

For some, it will hardly come as a surprise to learn that reading and writing have no magically transformative powers.  But for those of us who have been raised into the teaching and publishing professions, it can be quite a shock to confront the possibility that reading and writing and talking exercise almost none of the powers we regularly attribute to them in our favorite stories.  The dark night of the soul for literacy workers comes with the realization that training students to read, write, and talk in more critical and self-reflective ways cannot protect them from the violent changes our culture is undergoing….We tell ourselves and our students over and again about the power of reading and writing while the gap between the rich and poor grows greater, the Twin Towers come crashing down, and somewhere some other group of angry young men is at work silently stockpiling provisions for the next apocalypse.

If you’re in the business of teaching others how to read and write with care, there’s no escaping the sense that your labor is increasingly irrelevant.  Indeed, one way to understand the dark, despairing character of so much of the critical and literary theory that has come to dominate the humanities over the past two decades is to see this writing as the defensive response of those who have recognized but cannot yet admit that the rise of technology and the emergence of the globalized economy have diminished the academy’s cultural significance.  And so, to fight off the sense that words exercise less and less power in world affairs, one can declare that discourse plays a fundamental role in the constitution of reality.  Rather than concede that reading as an activity has come to consume less and less time in the average person’s life, one can insist that the canon wars are the ground upon which the nation’s political future is being determined; rather than accept the fact that technological advances have taken control of publishing out of the hands of the few and transformed everyone with access to the Internet into a potential author and critic, one can decry the movement of our culture’s critical center from the university to the sound stage of the Oprah Winfrey Show.  What is unthinkable in such pronouncements about the centrality of academic work is the possibility that the vast majority of the reading and writing that teachers and their students do about literature and culture more generally might not be all that important.  It could all just be a rather labored way of passing the time.

If you share the kinds of doubt that Miller poses, then his book will be worth your time.  He poses a lot of questions.  Although he doesn’t provide many practical solutions (what kind of answers might we expect given the pernicious weight of the questions?), he allows us ample space to consider our own.  Miller is a careful thinker and a subtle writer.  I cannot recommend his book more enthusiastically.

Miller doesn’t think that our reading lists and writing assignments per se make a whole lot of difference with students.  For him, books don’t transform or save lives, and he’s likely right.  The personal ‘redemption narrative’ is extraordinarily limited, and he discusses that kind of narrative in detail.  About the saving value of books, he says the following:

While it may have been true at one time that the written word exercised such extraordinary powers over the literate and the illiterate alike, never again will there be another written text that plays such a transformative role in a nation’s history because no single text will ever again be able to occupy center stage.

Sure, doom and gloom as usual.  What’s the point of books?  The Book has no future in our digital technology age.  The printed word is mute and often arrives stillborn from the press.  Any text we use is corrupt with biases and prejudices, social agendas, or our own tastes.  Even the “Great Books.”  If we prefer one narrative strain, then by exclusion we tacitly do violence to other equally valid narratives.  Our book selections can be entirely ‘bourgeois’ or intellectually elitist and the average person has no concern with them.  The ideal of bringing light to the uneducated masses, the illiterates, and the Promethean efforts of the cultured to stave off the floods of uncultured barbarians knocking at the gates of higher learning, the ideal to transform (I daresay “convert”) them with Great Ideas by Great Men, is laughable.  Take the subway or public transportation and discover how far that project will work.  Walk around the aisles of Wal-Mart and witness how far “close reading” will be useful to the average consumer.  Or listen to people’s insignificant chatter prior to the orchestra warming up in the symphony hall.

So what’s next?  What’s to be done?  Composition and literature classes in the struggling humanities aren’t going the way of the Dodo anytime soon; plenty of educators have faith in the so-called system, and if they don’t have the kind of idealistic faith that motivates many of them to enter the profession, then plenty of folks earn salaries rubber stamped by the system, a bureaucracy so large and foreboding that it seems nearly senseless to endeavor critique or resist it.  And haven’t we heard about the so-called “crisis in the humanities” before?  No one is reading (our book lists)!  The humanities are in decline (at the Ivy Leagues)!  Nearly every year the incumbent MLA president feels required to address the “future of the humanities.”  Michael Berube is a humanities scholar who recently addressed the issue.

As much as we hear cries in the wilderness about the future of the humanities, as educators we still have a responsibility to teach warm bodies in the classroom, individuals with lives and personalities of their own.  After all, people are still voluntarily lining up for a variety of reasons to fill classrooms.  We have to teach something or so it would seem.  If students meet us halfway by enrolling in classes and showing up to them, we have a responsibility to their minds.  Are their minds open?  Do we fill them?  According to Paolo Friere’s critique of the banking concept of education, we needn’t feel the burden of “depositing” information, but at the same time it is not necessary to adopt a critical pedagogy set on liberating the minds of digital youth.  That is, we needn’t point out the obvious–that modern lives are characterized by the virtual–the simulacrum of commercial media.  As to the chattering sheep in the symphony hall… well, at least they show up in their glittering finest with an intent to listen, eventually.

Miller discusses a popular strategy that many composition instructors adopt: “A return to “personal” or “non-academic writing” as a way to reclaim a form of expression that really matters–writing that reaches beyond the walls of our conferences, that eschews jargon to make a bigger tent, that dismantles the sense that the writer is the master of her past or of all that she surveys.”  The polar opposite of this view is argued by academics who worry about intellectual standards and the academic discourse community.  For example, David Bartholomae has stirred up debate on “inventing the university.”  Accordingly, we have to teach students how to cope with and address institutional discourse, which may be entirely outside the personal.  In response to these perspectives, Miller says, “My own reading in this area has not provided me with a resource for hope about the possibilities of reimagining what it means to write in the academy.”  Thus, he outlines the following procedure:

I want to explore the extent to which it is possible to escape the confines of this debate in order to see if its polarized positions can, perhaps, be reworked to produce an idea with which we can think anew about writing as a place where the individual and the academic, the private and the public, the individual and the institutional, are always inextricably interwoven.

This allows him to explore “the various ways in which writing matters” by which we are invited to consider “the kinds of writing that produce visceral reactions in actual readers and the kinds of writing that evoke in a given writer a similarly profound felt response at the moment of production.”  As we do this, then we can “move discussion of how texts might work under ideal conditions to an examination of how they actually work in a given context, excavating bodily responses for material evidence of the ways culture is present in the writer’s very act of experiencing the composing process and in the reader’s responses to the writer’s text.”

As it turns out, the kind of writing that matters is deeply embedded in the humanities.  Miller doesn’t turn away from the humanities or merely pronounce its decadence, rather he proposes ways of making the rhetorical enterprise more interesting and crucial for us, as teachers and students.  Evidence of this can be seen in a composition reader that he co-edited, which is called The New Humanities Reader.

As Miller recommends, we need to work through a “variety of ways of defining the project of rhetoric” as a “discursive process of creating a space, a frame, a narrative structure where others can begin to have our experiences, to see the world the way we do.”  Thus, in this way, rhetoric can be seen as “transformative, as an activity whereby we remake ourselves in the image of those in power,” a procedure that embraces “dialogic aspects” of the personal and the institutional, allowing us to “expand our notion of the rhetorical project to include the ongoing work of learning how to make oneself heard in a variety of contexts.”

And this would seem to be the point of the humanities: our listening to different voices, not always in harmony, quite often in dissonant dialogue.  Sometimes the voices, in printed words or echoing the materiality of the marketplace, mark a difference, which can give us hope.

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