Dis/Posed, or, A Locative Apparatus of Position

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On day four of the two week GA instructor training, we were afforded the honor of having Jonathan Alexander come to speak to us. His talk, “Practical Multimodality: Invention, Revision, Dissemination,” sparked wonderful conversation in the First-Year Writing Program already.

Firstly, it may be worth mentioning that I may or may not be an Alexander fanboy, as may be evidenced by the number of my “Notes” on this blog being readings of his published work. It somehow seems that I’ve always missed moments of meeting Dr. Alexander. In Dr. Banks’ Queer Rhetorics seminar (circa Spring, 2014), Dr. Alexander was slated to Skype into our class the one time I was not able to attend class—later at 4Cs15, I almost caught him a handful of times as he was entering or leaving a space. To say that I am a fan of his work is just to say that over the course of my education, his work has been extremely formative to my thinking about writing and teaching—and that it is not uncommon for a citation of him to appear in a paper I write.

I will likely return to some of Alexander’s main topics in a later post as I’m still letting his thoughts on multimodality set in. For now, I want to inhabit a moment early in his talk. There he talked about learning and teaching disposition—to be attentive to what we are disposed to. Alexander noted that his own learning disposition is to try out what he doesn’t know.

I’ve been thinking a lot about spaces, places, and positions lately, especially in terms of how we come to understand our positional interrelationships. When Alexander moved between the nominal disposition to disposed, I started thinking a little more about this. What does it mean to be dispositioned or to be disposed. I quickly started sketching a bit of framing around this word position and the verb pose and its relationship to many of its prefixes it comes in contact with: sup—, im—, re—, and dis—. These quick sketches prompted me to think of something of a psychoanalytic geography. This, in no way constitutes any deep linguistic or psychoanalytic thought with any degree of seriousness; however, thinking about the locative function of these words provided me with some insight into thinking about myself, writing, and teaching. Each quick etymological work is constituted only of my own interactions with these words and a quick reference of the OED.

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I started doodling around the form position. A quick OED flyby of definitions of position occupy ranging meanings from one’s relationship to space and place, to a title or status occupied (often in terms of employment or sports), to a belief or argument one inhabits. The word is relational and deals with inhabiting and occupying. Additionally, position seems to deal also with sites of tension or difference—where beliefs and arguments come in contact, where social differences touch—making this word one that is as descriptive of other and the boundaries of other/self as it location and occupation. Perhaps that “I” occupies a form of being where “you” isn’t.

When position takes the form of a verb, that interrelationship and contact is put into motion. The definitions it takes involve proposing thesis, setting in place one’s occupation, or locating one’s position. These are sites of contact, moments in which argument occurs, where one is placed, where one is found in place. Interestingly, the act of placing in these definitions of position is acted on the self or subject. Which, again, seems to suggest to me that the “I” can only come to recognize or position itself when in contact with the “you”.

What I hope also to suggest about position is it’s relationship to topoi and place. Topoi as an inventional term within rhetoric often gets used in terms of topic selection in very isolated, easily located and differentiated kinds of ways. The apparatus of locating in position seems to operate similarly: one occupies a position in the concrete singular sense that one occupies a topic. However, thinking of position as invention may offer different forms of thinking than topical invention when one considers position as always in contact—that the positions occupied are always connecting, but also that position touches adjacent meanings.

But what happens when position is taken into other words? Supposition seems to at once denote signification, assumption, and expectation. Much of the present definitions seem to come from assumptions that appear in line with understood facts or operating assumptions that refer back to cultural phenomena. Supposition seems to promote an expectation of outcome or understanding. There is room also within supposition for suspicion and doubt, which I think is important. In terms of locating position within supposition beyond the easy kinds of root-word location, supposition’s arguments, contacts, and settings seem to precede the act of occupation or proposal. The act of assumption draws on preconstituted values and ideas that predate the rhetorical situation.

Position’s locating apparatus may somewhat informed by supposition’s insistence predetermination of outcome and expectation. In some ways, supposition may operate normatively as a normalization of the preconceived. However, and perhaps paradoxically, supposition does not become supposition until the assumption is internalized and all (if any existed) reference to reality is no longer referenced. One may only encounter supposition through the suspicion or interrogating of those assumptions.

Imposition has always been for me a politeness word—something that “I” does not want to be or create for “you”, that “I” recognize “you” as valuable and thus wish to not be an imposition. Imposition has never appeared to me as a negative action, but rather a negative consequence for an action. Imposition’s definitions span acts of layering, arranging, laying hands (in terms of religious Christian terms), attaching, accusing, taxing, or burdening. Imposition is an action of placing on one—placing guilt, duty, obligation—but there is an on top of within the defition. Imposition is additional. The “I” is layered within imposition. There is excess and exhaustion. Still situated within this locative function of position between the “I” and “other,” imposition seems to show enacted the encumbrance of contact with “otherness.” In this way, imposition may be the consequence of resisting, doubting, or moving against what may be the superego’s normalization of position within supposition. Imposition seems to locate movement or occupation outside or beyond or unsanctioned by (sup)position. Perhaps this locative tension of mobility can help name or interrogate the discomfort around naming the tacit, the normalized, ideas around our privileged positions: I think of the backlash I receive when I talk frankly about my whiteness, my maleness, the ways that I am classed, and the privilege those afford.

What then of reposition? Reposition seems to name return to one’s position. I may mention the resting capacity of repose later, but reposition seems to seek that rest that comes with return. That movement out of one’s relational position is exhausting and imposing and that the self can only be at rest when it returns to its social designations. Reposition may help name the exhaustion of sustaining contact—the difficulty of activism and attention.

To return to disposition, the word that initially prompted this exploration, what function does it serve to position? Disposition seems to offer duplicity of the will and the capacity of the self to be willful. Disposition seems to also refer to the “natural” (in a normative sense) arrangement of constituent parts while also referring to the means by which one can dispense with constraints. In the terms that Alexander mentioned disposition, he was referring to one’s tendencies or inclinations. In some ways, this refers to the desires of the self or the conditions by which the self can be satisfied. In my estimation, disposition’s attentiveness is to the self’s orientation. It follows the desire to rest, to move, to be in line, and to occupy. In the locative apparatus of position, disposition may be most closely related to orientation in that it both recognizes the conditions of occupation of a position, but it is also the function by which one feels the boundaries of position. The self comes to know their position to their sense of being in line or oriented with it, or through their restless shifting and movement: disposition names that self-in/out of-place.

While I’ve already written more here than I should, I did want to call attention to the fact that I’ve devoted my attention to the —tion words. What I think is powerful about understanding position as a site of inquiry and invention is that it equally has the power to give us actions. The verbs and all their cases and tenses—pose, suppose, impose, repose, and dispose—equally offer sites for understanding doing, being, and performing. And what of, perhaps, unposed? Is that our site of queering this apparatus? Acknowledging of the candid and/or willfully out of place?

What I think this language does well is a noticing of orientation, body, and action that surround issues of positionality.

Contact(ed) Ethos

In day three of the two week graduate assistant instructor training, we talked a lot about teaching personas and how we come to these personas. We riffed on Malea Powell’s  “Learning (Teaching) to Teach (Learn)” and her CCCC address in which she asked us to consider all our relations. A gesture toward collective. A gesture toward a complexity that surrounds, fills, informs, and constitutes performances of the layers of ethos that spread across subjects, where there may have only been one visible subject. A question that may appear simple: are we not the sums of our relations?

We took a moment to make representations of some of our relations—those who we carried with us, who were never far, who were inflected in our ways of thinking. On white sheets of paper with an outline of a gingerbread person, we filled in stylized representations of those who were (not?) already there. They were collected and taped to the chalk board at the front of the room, just behind where our WPA, Derek Mueller, facilitates this workshop—now standing among the visible, no longer absent, presences.

That space is a powerful space to sit and listen to and feel the silences, the apparitions, the sense of self.

Drawing heavily from postmodern theory, the queer theory traditions that I’ve read readily discuss the fragmented self, or the instability of the “I”. This tradition has widely informed my understanding and use of ethos. While talking about our ethical responsibility to one another, Judith Butler perhaps frames this best when she says, “The “I” that I am is nothing without the “you” that you are.” Which is to say that I can only come to know my self and the boundaries of self once I recognize a boundary of other. Butler may not necessarily be talking about questions of ethos, but certainly troubles any stable same-self and places self as interrelated.

To return to the activity in this training, to have attention called to the hazy boarders of self, other, and relationship presents a necessary vulnerability and intimacy. This activity requires a sort of felt sense of who is near and around me as well as acknowledges a certain amount of slippages between where I end and another begins. For me, it was a moment of feeling, perhaps for the first time in this way, ethos as contact(ed). Rather than dissolve the self or the rhetor, feeling the touch of another as constitutive is to take seriously social responsiveness and self-positioning.

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Later in the session we discussed part of the textbook that graduate assistants in EMU’s FYWP use to teach, Understanding Rhetoric. In this discussion, we talked about the third issue, “Writing Identities.” In this issue, there is an illustration of a mirror, cracked into four pieces, with four fragments of a face split across the mirror. In this illustration, selecting performances of self becomes central and visible. We adapted some of this illustration to talk about our performances as instructors. For an activity, we had four boxes in which we had to draw representations of three aspects of our self that we could perform proudly or easily in front of a class and one that we were nervous about.

While digressing from the prompt stylistically, I remember being immediately struck with the idea of Pop Art in the Warhol sense. I hastily sketched out four iterations of me with the same structure in each frame and trying to use bright colors, made-negative imaging, and simple alterations to convey, if not separate performances of self, points of slipping.

It was an endeavor that I see as inextricably linked to the first activity, perhaps drawing on Ben Rafoth’s IWCA address, which discusses Warhol, in that he suggests Warhol’s moves demand different questions “Who do we not see, even when they are present? In other words, drawing out the human potential in a writing center requires social understanding to bring about agency” (22). Rafoth suggests that Warhol’s paintings ask who the subject is by enacting his images’ multiplicity through their iterative yet fragmented nature.  It seems as though these images convey at once singularity and multiplicity: the unified image is gained through contacts of the self.

If we were to explore ethos as contact(ed), what does that even mean or look like? How does that map on pedagogically? What would it mean to enact a pedagogy of contact—that embraces the vulnerability and intimacy at the hazy, messy slippages between self and selves? I’m not sure. I am still trying to listen and feel. Nor am I necessarily convinced that the rough, drafty space of this blog is the right venue for a deeper exploration.

An contact(ed) ethos may necessarily be responsive to the others present, absent or not, and feel them touching back. Understanding ethos that way means being adaptive and ethically and etheticly responding.

A Brief Listing of Citations

Banks, William P. “The Values of Queer Jacketing: What Happens When Student Writers Go Gay?” MEAT Journal 1.2 (Winter 2005–06)

Butler, Judith (2015). “The Ethics and Politics of Nonviolence.” Presented at Oakland University.

— (2009). Frames of War: When is Life Grievable. New York: Verso.

Powell, Malea (2012). 2012 CCCC chair’s letter. College Composition and Communication, 64(2), 423-431.

Malea Powell (2006). “Learning (Teaching) to Teach (Learn)” in Peter Vandenberg, Sue Hum, and Jennifer Clary-Lemon (eds.) Relations, Locations, Positions: Composition Theory for Writing Teachers. Urbana Free Library: 571-580.

Rafoth, Ben (2016). “Faces, Factories, and Warhols: A r(Evolutionary) Future for Writing Centers” The Writing Center Journal 35.2, 17-29.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1990). Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California Press.

What and Who We Sponsor

In EMU’s two week graduate assistant training workshop, we were asked to write our literacy narratives. Below is my draft for that assignment:

Literacy seems to always be a deceptively easy word to define. It may be easy enough to use it as the ways in which one comes to communicate with others—often discussed as being through reading and writing alphabetic texts. However, if literacy is only talked about as reading and writing alphabetic texts, there is something that seems flat and emptied about it. Literacy has the capacity to understand communicative acts and practices as culturally located and imbricated with the technologies used to create or surround such acts (See Haas, 2008; Cushman, 2011; Shipka, 2011).

When I was in preschool, my teacher asked my class what we each wanted to be. Many of my male peers responded with “lawyer,” “doctor,” “astronaut,” or “president.” Many of my female peers replied with similarly interspersed with answers such as “mother,” “wife,” or “princess.” I answered that I wanted to be a mermaid and was immediately informed that this was not an appropriate answer—it is hard to be a successful mermaid in this economic climate—and so I answered with father and was again shot down. Defeated, I answered writer. Whether out of spite, stubbornness, genuine interest, or some premonition of a four-year-old’s intuition, it is an answer that I’ve stuck by ever since.

I include this as an opening anecdote as it at once sets up my journey toward understanding writing and literacy, if simplistically, but also seems to meaningfully come into contact with the boundaries of acceptable literacies that permeate the educational contexts I’ve inhabited since disciplinarily or institutionally. In many ways, my teacher and my answer pushed me in a direction that made visible these demarcations of valued and acceptable literacies within education—I could be a writer because that was something that was understood by my teacher to be something appropriate for a male student proceeding into grade school to pursue.

My family moved from Delaware to Virginia when I was eight, midway through the school year. That year would be the first that I encountered standardized testing. The SOL’s. I failed the test in Virginia history—a subject widely taught in early education in Delaware. By whatever assessment apparatus was used, I landed in a series of “slow track,” remedial classes going forward. This lasted until my family moved to North Carolina when I was twelve, where I would be tested again and placed into all advanced classes. How does this connect to literacy—and why is this writing so episodic? My momentary occupation of this system was yet another encounter of boundaries, of ways of being and knowing that would be valued in an institutional context. This is not to say that this essay should be concerned with the woes of standardized testing—in fact, it was in some of these remedial classes that I was able to play—really play—with writing. I was able to tell stories and communicate through more experimental language, but technologies: I composed through Legos and toys, I wrote an essay through still shots of myself using sign language that I edited post-print, I learned code from a friend and turned in a hacked version of the school’s website as a final.

The writing strategies I’d been able to explore in that setting allowed me to subversively compose in future settings—though often unsuccessfully until later into my undergraduate experience at East Carolina. After hearing many of the questions I had about writing and my interests within English Studies, my mentor, Will Banks, encouraged me to change my area of focus from Literature to Rhetoric and Composition and to apply for a job as a peer tutor in the University Writing Center. The writing center and my classes that focused in rhetoric and composition gave me a vocabulary to talk about writing and to explore the possibility of writing much more formally with instructors and mentors who encouraged playfulness as a form of invention.

But what I’m struck with, even now, is how these literacies I’ve discussed all take place within classrooms for instructors, or are in service of such enterprises. Why haven’t I described the cruising practices I learned in gay clubs and bathhouses? Or the ways in which queer neighborhoods and spaces can be “read” as much as they are navigable or traversable? Or the ways that I learned to code my performance of self with levels of masculinity so that I would appear nonthreatening to the cis/hetero men that I interact with in professional settings? Or the countless other literacies or literacy moments that my cultural positioning as a queer person informs my sense of self and citizenship, my research, and my pedagogy? I feel this is largely because of those interactions with boundaries of acceptability I interacted with earlier on that have been continually reaffirmed. Literacy, with all of its bagginess as a term, within institutional contexts seems to make so much distant, inaccessible, and invisible. Instead, conventional uses of the term literacy seem to only promote a certain list of activities, technologies, and products, promoted by sanctioned professionals, within certain contexts. Subversion of such should only be done cleverly and not too radically in order to avoid discomfort (What would a student think if they knew their instructor had history in the baths?).

However, as a potential literacy sponsor, am I to also affirm these boundaries that surround and contain acceptable literacy? Would that be “professional”—another word that seems coded with implications to appear, perform, and act in ways that support a white, cis/heteropatriarchy (See Cox, 2012)? Are there ways to explore the subversive and potentially disquieting capacity of literacy productively and still set up students for success, in so far as success is measured?

I don’t mean to suggest that my classroom explores the cruising practices of gay men. Though, I do intend to raise the questions surround why it does or does not explore those practices and forms of communication, to raise the questions of what and who we sponsor. I was fortunate to have mentors that sponsored disruptive and subversive literacy practices and I intend to do the same in my own work.

Brief List of Citations

Brandt, Deborah. (1998). “Sponsors of Literacy.” College Composition and Communication, 49(2), 165-185.

Cox, Matthew B. (2012). Through Working Closets: Examining Rhetorical and Narrative Approaches to Building LGBTQ & Professional Identity Inside a Corporate Workplace.

Cushman, Ellen (2011). The Cherokee Syllabary: Writing the People’s Perseverance. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press.

Haas, Angela M. (2008). “Wampum as Hypertext: An American Indian Intellectual Tradition of Multimedia Theory and Practice. Studies in American Indian Literatures, 19(4), 77-100.

Shipka, Jody (2011). Toward a composition made whole. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press.