Vignette: Messiness Matters: A Story of Writing in One Act

Derek Tanios Imad Mkhaiel & Jacqueline Rhodes

Building from our mutual experience in a graduate seminar on “rhetoric theories and histories” (Mkhaiel as student, Rhodes then as a professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures), we have writing events speak with and through one another. We play with diffractive writing (Barad), a transversal method that provides spacetime coordinates of moments in order to lay bare the hidden logics, boundaries, im/possibilities inherent within meaning-making mechanisms or events. Barad’s theory of spacetime mattering and diffraction brings together the importance of telling stories through and across time and thinking about the subjectivities and possibilities within and through different relations. We do our own diffraction in order to show the necessary, generative messiness of writing and thus of writing studies. 


Act 1, Scene 1


From the syllabus: Each week, you will invent a question that seems to run through the week’s readings. You will then compose a two- to three-page response to that question, drawing evidence from the readings themselves and from your ability to analyze keenly. Due every week at the beginning of class; first response due 9/7, last response due 12/7.


SpaceTime Coordinates: Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI, Fall 2017, Bessey Hall 218, WRA 805 Rhetoric Theories and Histories, Rhodes [professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures since 2016] and Mkhaiel [then a first-year doctoral student in WRAC] : “tell a story”/ diffracted through Foucault: “Discourse. . . is made possible by a group of relations established between authorities of emergence, delimitation, and specification” (49)/ diffracted through a narrative of the field, Rhodes: “turn in your ‘Big Question’”/ diffracted through Marx/ diffracted through Berlin (“Octalog”): “rhetoric, any rhetoric, ought to be situated within the economic, social, and political conditions of its historical moment, if it is to be understood . . . This means looking at it within its material conditions” (11). / Diffracted through Rhodes: History = histoire (Fr) = story, stories are material / material conditions / materialization of rhetoric, of limitations, of epistemic specifications, of intra-active emergences / Stories are a rhetoric’s materialization./ Diffracted through a back porch, Turkish coffee, winter’s final snow of the semester, Rhodes: “what's your big question?” / Mkhaiel: My story, my materialization/ diffracted through Donna Haraway, “It matters what thoughts think thoughts. It matters what knowledges know knowledges. It matters what relations relate relations. It matters what worlds world worlds. It matters what stories tell stories” (57), my big question “What else should be known?” Whose story are we missing? What are the ethics of materializing voices, worlds, and stories?/ diffracted through Rhodes: “Try working more specifically and making your prose tighter and more direct. jrr” 


Mkhaiel: I learn the most about myself as a writer, thinker, and a rhetorician in Rhodes’ courses, but turn in some of the messiest writing. In WRA 805, I had the opportunity to think through the methods and purposes of rhetorical historiographies, the ethics of epistemology, and the ethics of invention. I learned more about these topics through messy conversations in class, saying things that weren’t fully developed, or that didn’t make complete sense, and turning in writing that was challenging for me to write (and for others to read). 

I’ve learned to love messiness in writing, especially as a teacher of first-year writing. Messy moments feel like moments of creative intellectual endeavor—my WRA 101 students and I are trying to write thought. Run-ons are excited ideas that don’t know when to quit; fragments are dramatic brevity, not mistake. One time I had a student who used an excessive (I thought) number of commas; when I commented on the punctuation, I learned that she was trying to teach me how to breathe while reading her thoughts.   


Rhodes: Working with Derek makes me contend with the idea of control in writing, much as Richard Straub did some 20 years ago in his commentary on teacher response. And I’d say that right now, writing studies is losing control, and I’m trying to keep up. My comment on one of Derek’s “big question” responses (“Try working more specifically and making your prose tighter and more direct”) is less encouragement than a wish to replicate my own prose style. He’s more good-natured about this than I would be, in his shoes. Straub writes that students “must be allowed” to develop ideas, to take responsibility, to make decisions and “better choices” (248). But even that move––to allow––is a move of teacherly hierarchy, a refusal to engage in the messiness of knowledge production, a question, as Derek writes, of “the ethics of epistemology.” What does that “allowance” look like now, as we pay attention to mutually implicated selves/ecologies of meaning/matter? What does “writing” look like, and therefore writing studies? What story does this story tell? For us, it is the story of capturing breath––that intra-active materialization of thought––that Derek’s student refers to. It is the messy embrace of entanglement (the continuous un/weaving of material, thought, story, interpretation, guesswork) that might be the “now” of writing studies. 



Works Cited

Barad, Karen. “Quantum Entanglements and Hauntological Relations of Inheritance: Dis/continuities, SpaceTime Enfoldings, and Justice-to-Come.” Derrida Today, vol. 3, no. 2, Nov. 2010, pp. 240-68.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge. Translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith. Routledge, 2002.

Haraway, Donna. Staying With the Trouble: Making Kin in The Chthulucene. Duke UP, 2016.

“Octalog: The Politics of Historiography” Rhetoric Review, vol. 7, no. 1, Autumn 1988, pp. 5-49.

Straub, Richard. “The Concept of Control in Teacher Response: Defining the Varieties of ‘Directive’ and ‘Facilitative’ Commentary.” College Composition & Communication, vol. 47, no. 2, May 1996, pp. 223-51.