Authors Changing Authority -Part II

“Once a social context has become destabilized, writing will help to introduce emergent and competing alternatives (representations) and thereby introduce and stabilize the emerging system.  In such a context, written communication can become highly strategic, controversial, and negotiated at various levels as agents pursue competing and diverse representations.”
Brenton Faber, “Writing and Social Change” 2008.

I began the last article at the first ‘transition’ of communication systems: from oral to written, which happened about 5000 years ago; and I ended up somewhere around the second recognised transition, toward the printing press and the expansion of literacy from its monastic custodians, to scholars, and then the professions.

This post will be about the third transition -which we find ourselves amidst- from print to “computer-mediated” communication, and like the last post, I’ll specifically address how this might be played out in professional and organisation structures.  To cap it off, I’ll explain the empowering usefulness of “critical discourse analysis”, which essentially deals with the analysis and scrutiny of ‘discourses’ (conversations, texts, documents) in order to understand that ‘discursive context’ (ie, when you ‘talk shop’), making it possible to enact change using language, and texts –written by authors.

The reason I’m personally interested in this, as I alluded to in the first part, is that I am undertaking research in the methods of change in the institutions which are responsible for architectural education.

I’ll pick things up again around 1980, when commercial and professional environments undergo massive change because of the implementation of computer processing.  New workplace patterns emerge such as multi-authored documents, non-sequential writing, and multi-modal writing (hand-written and digital working documents), each with particular effects on authors.

Multi-authored documents (such as complicated proposals for funding) could be written non-sequentially (writing in independant segments, rather than start-to-finish) and collaboratively (often having very little contact with collaborators).  Importantly, these authors begin to perceive of their audience (readers) differently, and they begin losing their sense of possessive authorship (ownership).  They realise they are writing for their editor, rather than the targeted audience, which gives rise to an increase in ‘nominalisations’ (vague, generic, ‘normal’ terms) which flood commercial and institutional texts.  They became the mission statements, company bi-lines and corporate banners that make you feel like you’ve read something important.

“What We Stand For: Our Core Beliefs and Values
• Objectivity is the substance of intelligence, a deep commitment to the customer in its forms and timing.”

That’s from the CIA, a gem plucked out by Don Watson in his book ‘Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language’.  He lays out the best nominalisations: accountability, teamwork, commitment, continuous improvement, adapting to our customer needs… blah blah blah.

What is important though –and is an incredible achievement of the corporate world– is that this device became remarkably powerful.  A survey of ‘average’ writers in a corporate environment were found to actually increase the frequency and use of nominalisations when they were addressing or writing for a more senior member of management, or important clients.  When they wrote for an audience ‘below’ their level, they used less.  Ambiguity meant power.

This is reflected in professional rhetoric when a survey of 200 medical articles (across 10 years, by J.Z. Segal, 1993) reveals that authority is obtained through the high use of citation and nominalisations.  This is probably very familiar to anybody who attempts to read formal academic writing in any discipline. You’ll recognise it as ‘wank’, or in the corporate world, as ‘bullshit’.

“Over the coming twelve months we will be enhancing our product offering to bring you new features and access to innovative funds. You can be confident that our commitment is resolute, to make changes that investor’s (sic) value. -Insurance company newsletter.”
This is how Don Watson kicks off his book. Brilliant.

Authors Writing for Change

Authors are empowered by writing, making it possible to enact social change.  This is a position that ‘critical discourse analysis’ makes possible, arguing that by writing we not only reflect social systems, but continually reconstitute them.

“Legally, but also socially and culturally, modern organiszations and professions are the products of written communication.” Faber, 270.

If authors understand the type of writing they’re doing, and ‘where’ they are doing it, they can subversively effect change, by constructing a type of authority.  I think the type of authorship (and authority) I’m talking about now relates to the older term auctor (discussed in the previous article) because it is more about ‘allowing something to grow’, ‘enlarging’, which is also connected to augere (‘to augment’).  Authors plant subversive seeds of change within existing texts or organisations when they are destabilized, to augment change from within -even if they are originally external to them.

“Once a social context has become destabilized, writing will help to introduce emergent and competing alternatives (representations) and thereby introduce and stabilize the emerging system.  In such a context, written communication can become highly strategic, controversial, and negotiated at various levels as agents pursue competing and diverse representations.” -Faber, 271.

Conveniently, Brenton Faber explains this process using the recent commodification of higher education as a case study.  Through the 1990s, Universities were struggling with their image, they could not clearly say (or write) what it was that they did, and so the ‘system’ became destabilised from a discursive point of view, as well as a very practical one.  What happened was a ‘transitional change’ from a sophistic and rhetoric based structure, to a corporate and capitalistic one.  It is succinctly captured by the phrase “education market.”

So how does ‘discursive change’ actually work at a practical level?  Essentially the agent or new author subversively engages in the discourse by hybridising a new genre of language with the old one.  The new language (which is actually in conflict with the old one) is carefully choreographed to be palatable to the existing members of the organisation (otherwise it will be rejected outright), and is then steadily grown or augmented.  The process is so powerful because the instability of the structure is precisely the rationale for the implementation of a new structure, which is administered through discourse.

“…this concept of transitional change occurs in increments or linked steps as prior existent knowledge is disrupted and eventually displaced by small additions that ultimately build into new formations.” Faber, 270.

Faber points out the remarkable clarity of the current Higher Education “co-hyponyms”, which cleverly make new words interchangeable with old ones, even though their meanings and implications are completely different:

knowledge becomes skills, and competencies
students become retailers
facilities become resources
administration become management
education becomes training.

The rationale for this change is hard to argue against, as it coincided with massive governmental pressure on University funding.  The resulting corporate commodification of Higher Education becomes a stronger discourse to defend, ironically, by implementing a discourse based on strategic ambiguity and the absence of precision (Faber, 275 from Connell and Galasinksi, 1998)
The exemplar nominalisation becomes “excellence”.

This is not a pessimistic article.  Critical discourse analysis offers an empowering strategy of discursive wariness, because it recognises (and argues) that these contested structures (which is sometimes calls genre’s or orders of discourse) are formal, everyday, and most importantly improvisational.  As I began, and as discourse theory upholds, writing reflects and constitutes social systems.  It is a fluid structure, which is continually contested, and is subject to community regulation, making it a powerfully democratic system, so long as its members are not subversively suppressed.

Authors Changing

The current transition to, and maturing of ‘computer-mediated’ communication is obviously significant for the author, and for my subject of interest, architecture education.  Systems and practices which attempt to stabilise discourses (whether they are rules, policy, curricula, accreditation criteria) seem to be under a cultural pressure (maybe what Faber calls community regulation) to adapt to practices which undermine their perceived stability, such as versioning, hypertext, blogging, crowd-funding, print-on-demand, and unprecedented degrees of collaborative writing (Wikipedia).

Institutions are slow-moving beasts though, with a stubborn vocabulary, and even the pups are complicit. Architects for example, somehow remain solitary authors, despite ridiculous odds, even despite themselves.

In a Studio session held at a well known architects office yesterday, two students referred to one of the office’s projects as being by the office’s Director (after whom the office is named), the name was even used in the possessive sense of ‘his building’, luckily the namesake wasn’t in the room, unluckily two other –completely unacknowledged– senior architects in the office were. Cringe.  I also heard an architect (at University) describe buildings with no more information than the office who designed them, “His Building”.  Authorship (dubious in the case of a building anyway) in this case was more important than programme, scale, or any description. Cringe.  The audience was not only expected to know what office they were talking about (acronyms and abbreviations are commonplace), but to know exactly what buildings they had designed.  I suspect we were also supposed to be impressed by the speakers knowledge (and our relative stupidity), which is another great strategy for protecting a body of knowledge.
Ironically, my silence so far in both of these situations is complicit to the discourse I pretend to be resisting, because “it is important to acknowledge that disciplinarity per se does not rest on a commonly accepted body of rules, but rather is definied by shifting frontiers between negotiable terms, appropriations, misunderstandings and misalignments that nevertheless allow certain identities to emerge.
-Architecture and Authorship. 2007

It seems important then, for myself at least, to understand a discourse like ‘architecture education’ and ‘the architecture profession’ more thoroughly, and become both adept and acrobatic in its everyday negotiation and improvisation.  If only to be more wary, strategically wanky, and honest about my bullshit, because everybody’s shit stinks.

I have essentially summarised ideas from the following articles, most of which are in Bazerman’s fantastic reader.  My referencing above does not do them justice at all, in fact I am more of an ‘editor’ than an author here, but I suspect you would rarely picked up a book with so many vague and possibly boring words in the title, so I felt obliged to share what I think are quite relevant ideas, particularly as a Freeranger.
Reading Material:

“History of the Book, Authorship, Book Design, and Publishing” by David Finkelstein, in:
Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text.
Edited by Charles Bazerman.  Taylor & Francis, 2008.

Anne Beaufort, “Writing in the Professions” in
Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text. 2008

Dorothy E. Smith, Catherine F. Schryer, “On Documentary Society” in
Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text. 2008

Brenton Faber, “Writing and Social Change” in
Handbook of Research on Writing: History, Society, School, Individual, Text. 2008

Architecture and Authorship
Edited by Tim Anstey, Katja Grillner, Rolf Hughes. Black Dog Publishing, 2007

Death Sentence: The decay of public language
Don Watson. Knopf, 2003.