Imitating Invention

Two posts in a month is unusual for me; two posts in a day might just make The Black Lodge explode.  My earlier thoughts on invention gestured toward my interest in considering the role that identification plays in the process of invention.  If invention suggests a process of creation, identification suggests to me the ways that we situate and orient ourselves toward each other and the world, orientations that in turn inform and constrain the possibilities for invention.

I have also been thinking about how these more theoretical ruminations might translate into the classroom, particularly with reference to the practice of imitation.  In The Future of Invention, John Muckelbauer discusses the role of imitation in writing pedagogy, particularly as an (supposed) embodiment of “repetition, copying, and tradition” that can be juxtaposed with “romantic subjectivity, an ethos that emphasizes creativity, originality and genius” (52).  Throughout his chapter on imitation, Muckelbauer examines and challenges both the limited notion of imitation as repetition and the romantic notion of invention that presumably discourages imitation.  For Muckelbauer, both traditional and romantic understandings of imitation can suffer from too great an emphasis on the model of imitation, whether this model be great, established rhetoricians or the genius, romantic self that gets reproduced in writing.  Reading Quintilian, Muckelbauer emphasizes that “what the ideal student will learn through imitation is not only a style or an ethical rule; he will acquire the capacity to respond itself” (76, emphasis in original).

It is difficult to say exactly what it takes for students to develop this capacity to respond.  There is no set process for acquiring this capacity, and yet, as both Muckelbauer and Alex Reid suggest, our response-ability can be enhanced by adopting a particular style of engagement, a particular frame of mind (“a state of awareness or attunement” as Reid says), a particular attitude that attends to multiplicity, radical alterity, and what Muckelbauer refers to as singular rhythms.  Of course, there is no set process for adopting this particular style of engagement either.  Given the impossibility of proceduralizing this capacity for response, Muckelbauer and Reid, following Deleuze and Guattari, offer one main suggestion:  experiment.  There are any number of ways that this suggestion can be mobilized in the classroom.  Below, I’ll consider some examples that have occupied my thoughts recently.  While these examples might not offer specific practices, I’ll share them in hopes of continuing the conversation on imitation and invention.

At the Humanities Gaming Institute at the University of South Carolina this summer, Tracy Fullerton led a workshop in which we were asked to modify an existing game in order to design a new one.  Our model was “Up the River,” and our main consideration in imitating this game was what experience we wanted the player to have.  Fullerton’s focus on a game’s experience provides a helpful counterpoint to Ian Bogost’s focus on a game’s procedural argument in his Persuasive Games.  As Reid argues elsewhere, gaming in the rhetoric classroom can allow us to do more than reaffirm our traditional concerns with argumentation and cultural critique.  If we translate the question of gaming to the question of writing (recognizing that these overlap in interesting and important ways), we might consider what it would mean to ask our students to focus less on offering a specific argument or interpretation in their writing and more on creating a particular experience for their readers.

Let’s imagine an assignment in which students are asked to imitate an op/ed piece for the school paper.  This would likely involve asking students to familiarize themselves with examples from the paper, identifying conventions of the genre, and performing these conventions in their paper as they present their argument or position.  Now imagine a situation in which students examine an editorial not to learn its rules and conventions, not to better prepare themselves to advocate and argue, but rather as a launching pad for something else.  Can we take some aspect of an editorial and use it as a starting point for a very different type of experience, perhaps one that is not motivated at all by advocacy, one that we would not expect to have while reading a newspaper?

Here’s another possible starting point for imitation and invention.  One of my favorite ways to think about imitation is to consider songs that have inspired other songs.  It’s particularly interesting when a band covers the song that directly influenced one of their own.  Take the following examples:  R.E.M. – “The Sidewinder Sleeps Tonite” and “The Lion Sleeps Tonight“; Sleater-Kinney – “I Wanna Be Your Joey Ramone” and “Rock Lobster“; Stone Temple Pilots – “Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart” and “Dancing Days“.  Each of these songs imitates some aspect of its inspiration.  Michael Stipe gestures toward the lion’s wail at the beginning of “Sidewinder”; both Sleater-Kinney and the Stone Temple Pilots write guitar riffs that draw from their inspirations.  There does not seem to be an equivalent for this in writing.  Of course, we can imitate style or cadence, and we can borrow words from others, but there is something different about playing the same riff in a different context or subtly shifting the notes.  As far as I know, there’s certainly no equivalent in writing for “covering” the source that inspired you.

Not knowing for sure that one of the great riot grrrl anthems came about this way, I nonetheless like to imagine Carrie Brownstein playing through a classic B-52’s song and ending up writing her own.  I wonder what it would look like for students to engage in the same sort of deference and playfulness.  What’s the imitative equivalent here for a rhetoric and writing course?  I don’t have a solid answer to this question, but I’m looking forward to asking my students to select a favorite paragraph or song lyric, to rearrange and play around with those words until something connects, and to see what happens.

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