Reflections on October 11 readings for 8011

9 Oct

This week, we’re having a visit from Dr. Bernadette Longo. In preparation for that, we are finishing her book Spurious Coin and reading some things she sent along in advance of her visit. I’ve taken copious notes on these six chapters of Spurious Coin but if figured I’d just share a couple items of interest to me, and a few questions I have for Professor Longo.

Longo, B. (2000). Spurious Coin: A History of Science, Management, and Technical Writing. State University of New York Press.

Chapter 3. Longo’s stated purpose: To trace “the development of the textbook and standardized education in response to Bacon’s project for a public science. It also traces Bacon’s ideas through the works of Locke, Hume, and Huxley.” (xiv)

I really knew nothing of Johann Comenius a “Bohemian Reformist clergyman who lived most of his life in exile in 17th-century Europe,” was influenced by Bacon, and really originated the textbook, according to Longo. (45-46)

Chapter 4. Longo’s stated purpose: To address “the impact of T. A. Rickard’s technical writing textbook, A Guide to Technical Writing (1908), on a century of technical writing practice.” (xiv)

Longo offers an interesting definition of “textbook” which she acknowledges may be oversimplified: “textbooks contain knowledge that purports to be exhaustive, important, useful, standardized, idealized, for the public benefit, and encouraging of systematized social stability through science.” (71) I don’t really see most of these characteristics in many textbooks, either in terms of what they purport to provide or in what they actually provide. Why has Longo characterized them this way?

Chapter 5. Longo’s stated purpose: To explore “how mechanical engineers developed management systems for large, complex organizations in the United States during the late-19th and early 20th centuries. Through their designs for social systems these engineers shaped the contemporary knowledge system that relies on the dominance of scientific knowledge and is controlled through technical communications.” (xiv-xv)

Longo says: “Lewis’ management system watching workers constantly in a panoptic distribution was made possible by technical writing.” (93) Is she maintaining that technical writing was a sufficient or merely necessary condition for such a system? The former seems unlikely, but this statement leaves that door open.

Chapter 6. Longo’s stated purpose: To focus “on Fredrick Taylor’s scientific management system and its transformation into a functional-military management system based on principles of efficiency” and to address George Crouch and Robert Zetler’s A Guide to Technical Writing (1948). (xv)

This chapter raised a concern from my perspective that Longo is imposing glosses on the texts of others that arise from her own impressions. For example, she uses a quote from Crouch and Zetler: “there were quite as good brains among the shop people as there were in the office; they simply followed a different line” – Longo interprets this as a “Darwinian separation of manual- and brain-workers… as a natural consequence of evolutionary development.” (120) I think that if there is not any overt evidence that Crouch and Zetler were alluding to evolution, more commonplace interpretations of the “line” metaphor are more likely. (E.g., train tracks are lines.) Without backing up this interpretation with more, Longo seems to be grasping at an extreme gloss on this text….

Chapter 7. Longo’s stated purpose: To discuss the tension between engineers as “technically trained scientific knowledge-makers and technical writers as liberal arts trained scientific knowledge-makers” (xv).

I was curious about a quote from Walter Benjamin, who argues that mechanical reproduction alters the foundations of art: “Instead of being based on ritual, it begins to be based on another practice—politics.” (125) I wonder whether art has ever NOT been based on politics—certainly the Egyptian painters and sculptors of 3,500 years ago were engaged in sacramental work in the tombs and temples of pharaohs, but it’s pretty easy to put a political gloss on that work. Certainly in the Renaissance, the patrons of artists were engaged in a political dialog as their “clients” engaged in virtuoso acts of artistic production.

Chapter 8. Longo’s expressed purpose: To “speculate[] on ways to revalue the currency of science by expanding the types of knowledge that technical writing can include in practice.” (xv)

Longo really just summarizes where she’s been, where she could have gone but did not, and where the discipline should go: into cultural studies.

One quote that stood out to me as being probably just wrong: “At the end of the 29th century, many people in Western cultures are beginning to realize that positivist science—and its knowledge/power system—do not allow us to adequately address complex social issues that seem to defy remedy: environmental degradation, homelessness, teenage unwed parents, breakdown of family units, hate speech and actions, arms control, to name but a few of the more apparent issues.” (165) I can’t really figure out what this is supposed to say. First, I’m not sure this change is happening. Second, it’s certainly not happening due to any conscious rethinking of science’s role or approach to problem-solving. Most folks either trust science or not—or something in between—but their attitudes do not arise from any understanding of the limitations of logical positivism.

In summary, I really enjoyed this book, but I can’t help but feel that it is really just an impressionistic effort to follow one or two of the millions of threads that contribute to the role of science and technology and writing about them in modern society. Longo has told us one of many “equally possible narratives” regarding this subject, and she has done so in an interesting way. But I am not inclined to grant much credence to her claims about historical causation, etc., in light of all the threads that are undiscussed. Instead, I regard it as an invitation to think critically about technical communication and science and their role in today’s world.

-Brian

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