Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Turn at Seventy: Particular Level and Style

Sunset December 2016
Perhaps the time to reflect lengthens, at least deepens, with age, as the past surely stretches back further than the sundial shadow falls ahead. Perhaps moments measure not by the ticking clock but more so in the degree to which “now,” this fleeting instant, saturates with beyond and before. As this school semester, Fall 2016, draws to its close, my mind muses across this cycle, the fourteenth term with a favorite course Good Stories, my next to last before retirement, colored by forty years of college teaching. 

Perhaps the best surprise this semester came first in recognizing a distinctive dimension in an essential quality. 
The course culminates in a concept called “the particular level.” This term resolves the constellation of the other three levels: Universal, Local, and Individual.  The particular level gives a snapshot of the individual’s uniqueness and significance. At its best, it’s a glimpse of destiny. A video made for Good Stories asserts that the specific value of the Particular Level comes in the individual’s movement from Multiplicity to Commitment.
Given this far-reaching scope and aim, unsurprisingly, the particular level has proven rather difficult to teach. I’ve found it hard to get students to locate it in texts when doing literary criticism; and when unable to discern the particular level in models, students have also been limited in the design of their own productions. Even with dedicated work throughout the semester, for a student to project personal destiny in their digital media productions that features one’s own unique fingerprint is no mean task.
When preparing to teach particular level once again in the Fall 2016 semester, however, I happily realized that the particular level could be detected through the rhetorical construct of style. This wasn’t a sharp lightbulb discovery. I’d long quoted the maxim remembered from my grad school days: “style is the man.” (See Note 1.)  But like most aphorisms, the permutations continue to radiate from an abstract distilled truth, and this semester allowed a renewed, more intense ray. I realized that an analysis of the style in a text could point to the place where it is most effectively displayed and felt. That point could then be examined in terms of the particular level.
The difficulty with teaching students to pick out a particular level in a text might be solved!—such was my optimistic feeling. Because, at least on a surface level, style is not a difficult thing to detect and label, especially when in addition to printed words digital media provides a voice track and a visual track. Even persons unfamiliar with the elaborate rhetorical schemes recognize and talk about vocal dynamics of pitch and rate, visual design such as color and pattern, and language features such as figurative language. 
This is not to say that effective judgment of style is easy. As evident in the 2016 presidential campaign, most persons lack capacity to judge authentic style with insight and precision, especially as style discloses ethical character and integrity or lack thereof. But perhaps I digress—the surprise involved in Good Stories Fall 2016 focused a way to teach students about the particular level by using the dimension of style to locate it.
The textbook that I’d been using for thirteen previous semesters was clearly modeling the connection between particular level and style. Why had I not appropriated this for my students? If it took me six-plus years to get it, what might I learn from my process that could help students do it in six-plus weeks?
One factor that deserves attention involves potential resistances to finding any value in style. Our social and story cultures have succeeded in giving us the proverb “Don’t judge a book by its cover!” I often hear it from students when we in Good Stories explore tales with the beast-to-beauty theme including negative versions where the beast does not transform. Perhaps before directing ourselves to study style, we need to work with our attitude toward it, especially any semi-conscious aversions.  
A significant part of my process of becoming able to work with style has involved bringing my attitude about it to consciousness. This included realizing and accepting that I have been suspicious of trusting style for a long time, at least since teenage disillusionment with preachers, politicians, and teachers who were exposed for their feet of clay or even stinkier muck. Perhaps that’s why I’d been resistant to making a close connection between the gold standard of “particular level” with the contaminated rhetorical canon of style. 
My rehabilitation of style as a valuable commodity has slowly progressed. Accepting its worth intellectually wasn’t too difficult. While Aristotle and others criticized the Sophists, Cicero and Quintilian extolled “the good man speaking well.” Rhetorical critics argued that resistance to Hitler failed in part because his rhetoric was more powerful in style; therefore, the good guys need to dress up—plain style with unadorned facts are just not enough. 
But the mind alone also is not enough. To be compelling, truth needs passionate embodiment. Effective style is inextricably tied to knowing-by-body. It might also be more attuned to that favorite of mine, sense-born-with. And I wonder how much embodied good style overlaps with moral sense. Exploration of these questions is deferred for later consideration.
The point here is to identify another part of my process that might inform preparing students to engage style in a positive way. In order for me to consolidate the gold of the unique (particular level) with the good dimension of style, I needed sufficient lived experience with authentic style so that the superficial, the faking dimension of style does not overly dominate the construct. Put another way, my intellectual understanding needed to be complemented with the body’s thrill of integrity. Hasn’t it been said so many times that the human journey is about recovering the unity of mind/body/spirit?
To “get” style, therefore, has to depend on a liberation into knowing-by-body where style and vital substance are one. Those of us nurtured as well as indoctrinated in fundamentalist religion often have a piece of work to do if the body/mind split is to be mended. Negativity linked to style also comes from our culture that is so permeated with advertising and other rhetoric designed to trick us that we develop a protective layer of cynicism toward style. This then makes it quite difficult to extract the good from it.
  My personal path of reconciliation with style still rides on the back of natural horsemanship. The discipline of dressage, perhaps like any art form, displays classical style. And again like most fields a person can take short cuts that result in a “look-like” quality, even enough to impress judges and win ribbons. But spirited horses and good coaches drive a caring person beyond that level of style. The classical appearance remains a vital sign, but it’s only as valuable as it reflects an inner dynamic that is called “true unity” in natural horsemanship. (See Note 2.) A spirited horse cuts through head-talk and acts on embodied authenticity. Even with a spirited horse, movement toward true unity depends on enough dedication and honesty to learn knowing-by-body and, more so, to develop a sense of feel.
So for any of us to become able to find the place where style reveals the particular level probably depends more on the ability to know by feel than it depends on our cognitive-analytical skill. Schooling, in general, fails to honor this. (See Note 3.)
In summary, as a first step in reflecting on Good Stories, Fall 2016, I’ve noted the surprise when I recognized a more vital connection between particular level and style. In exploring the background that clarified why I hadn’t made this connection sooner, I began to understand better why my students might be blocked from articulating style as a means of pinpointing the particular level in digital media productions, including their own work. 
I wonder how much progress we can make in decoding our destinies, much less in enacting them in powerful ways when and if our educational design remains mostly disembodied. Our campus has given terrific attention to Do Good—not just talk but embodied action.


How might we integrate Do Good more extensively within our academic classrooms? Our world faces a crisis as we have significantly isolated our intellectual activity from lived experience, especially from powerful socially-relevant actions exemplified in Do Good. When meaningful work gets integrated into our cognitive life, we should then have the embodiment of style, more capacity to articulate felt sense, and the ground for serious attention to moral sense.
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Note 1. The source of “style is the man” has been difficult to trace. I’ve been unable to find it explicitly in Aristotle, Cicero, or Quintilian. It can be traced at least to the mid-1700s in Buffon: “Only those works which are well-written will pass to posterity: the amount of knowledge, the uniqueness of the facts, even the novelty of the discoveries are no guarantees of immortality ... These things are exterior to a man but style is the man himself. 
— Comte Georges-Louis Leclerc de Buffon. 'Discours prononcé dans l'Académie française, Le Samedi 25 Aout 1753', Histoire Naturelle, Générale et Particulière, Avec la Description du Cabinet du Roi (1753), Vol. 7, xvi-xvii
Note 2. “True unity” is one of the key terms associated with “natural horsemanship” and other approaches to the human-horse connection that aim at increasing a respectful relationship. Ray Hunt is often referenced (Think Harmony with Horses: An In-Depth Study of Horse/Man Relationship. Bruneau, ID: Give-It-A-Go Books, 1978), and the term is used in Tom Dorrance’s title (True Unity: Willing Communication between Horse and Man.  Bruneau, ID: Give-It-A-Go Books, 1987). More extensive background on “natural horsemanship” can be found in: Miller, Robert and Rick Lamb. The Revolution in Horsemanship and What it Means to Mankind. Guilford,CN: Lyons, 2005; and Miller, Robert.  Natural Horsemanship Explained: From Heart to Hands. Guilford,CN: Lyons, 2007. An example of my application of natural horsemanship to teaching-story can be seen in:
Note 3. Eugene Gendlin (e.g., Focusing) and Sondra Perl (Felt Sense: Writing with the Body) elaborate on “felt sense.” I also suspect that this dimension called “feel” has something to do with what the gnostics call the “path of attraction.”