On WPA-L, there’s an emerging discussion on the nature of English studies. It is, as anyone familiar with the list will know, the latest variation on a common list theme. Miles Kimball, as he has before, has suggested that English studies isn’t a unified discipline but is an administrative creation that throws together productive disciplines (such as creative writing, composition studies, and technical communication) with analytic disciplines (such as literary studies and linguistics). In his post, Miles includes fim studies and rhetoric, but never assigned them to one side or other of the dichotomy. (While arguing that English departments are administrative creations that bring together fields that have no natural relationship with each other, I should note that Miles also argues that a healthy approach to this administrative hodgepodge we call English studies should be one that seeks to use the natural tension between disciplines in a productive manner.) Kelly Ritter beat me to a response, which I reproduce here as an ever developing articulation of what was once a felt sense. It’s also a better articulation of an argument I make in a footnote in my dissertation.
Kelly’s point is an important one. Regardless of what our particular specialties are within English studies, to identify ourselves as concerned with production rather than analysis or analysis rather than production is to sell ourselves short. Simply put, to understand how to effectively produce meaning, you should have an analytical understanding of how meaning is made. Likewise, to have an effective analytical understanding of how meaning is made, you should have an understanding of how meaning can be produced.
If we recall, for instance, Andrea Lunsford’s definition of composition studies as “the way written texts come to be and the way they are used in the home, school, workplace, and public worlds we all inhabit,” we can see how these two functions exist in a dialectical relationship, even in such fields as linguistics and literary studies. Linguistics, for instance, includes pragmatics, stylistics, discourse analysis, and cognitive linguistics. While one may engage these subfields only through the analytical lens, they tell us how meaning is made so that we can understand how to more effectively create meaning.
Likewise, while literary studies often focuses on analysis, literary studies also involves an understanding of how texts make meaning within the culture they were produced and within the cultures in which they are received. To that end, we can use literary texts, as we can use any text, as a productive force for creating new meaning. One of my favorite examples of this is Apple’s first commerical for the Macintosh, directed by Ridley Scott and titled “1984.” This commercial works, I would suggest, because Orwell’s novel 1984 has become social memory. It is a commonplace upon which we can now create new texts and new meaning. We do this any time we use or hear the terms “Orwellian” or “double-speak.”
In his unfinished book, “Language as Hermeneutic: A Primer on the Word and Digitization,” Walter Ong begins the tenth chapter with an interesting discussion of the Greek words mythos and logos. Ong explains that while we generally translate the Greek term logos as “word,” “voice,” or “speech,” it is of a specific kind that means “computation, reckoning, account of money handled, hence treatment of cognitive matters in terms of discrete units—which are the basis of digitization” (2). Logos, he tells us, comes from the Indo-European root leg-, which means that logos is based upon “a spatialized, exteriorized visual and/or tactile metaphor” (2). The Indo-European leg-, he explains, gives us our English word “lay” and the ancient Greek word legein, which means “to pick up, gather, choose, count, arrange, and thus involves manipulation of discrete units” (2).
Like logos, Ong explains, mythos also means “word” and “speech.” But it also means “tale” and “story.” Mythos’ Indo-European root, meudh or mudh, “signifies to reflect, think over, consider—activities interior to the human being” (1-2). So, while mythos and logos do seem to overlap in meaning, Ong argues that they also seem to have real differences as well, differences that both Plato and Aristotle made much of. Ong notes that both “undertook to oppose this synonymous use of mythos and logos and to draw careful distinctions between the two terms” (4). And it is this distinction, he claims, that leads to logic and dialectic on the one hand and poetry and rhetoric on the other (5). In other words, historically, conceptually, rhetoric and poetic exist on the same side of the coin.
To extend this a bit, I would suggest that logos, as logic an dialectic, involves the division of information, knowledge, and ideas into discrete units, into data, that can be stored, arranged, and manipulated. (This is, of course, as Ong points out in this discussion, tied up with the origins of digitization as represented in numeracy and the alphabet’s origins in the Sumerian use of tokens as described in Schmandt-Besserat’s Before Writing.) On the other hand, mythos, that is both rhetoric and poetic, function by linking together information, knowledge, and ideas, what we might call data.
To put all this another way, rhetoric and poetics (along with composition studies, technical communication, creative writing, linguistics, film studies), in both their productive and analytic functions, give structure and meaning to information, knowledge, and ideas. In this way, what we call English studies is far more than a set of disparate fields grouped together for administrative purposes. That which we call English studies are unified in their approach to information, knowledge, and ideas, in their shared origins in mythos.