EDIT: This is an old description of what I intended for this blog but never actualized. In terms of the research that follows, it just didn’t take.
Folks who study words and language (and a good deal many others) are often interested in what is behind or underneath the words themselves. They talk about this in many different ways: meaning, persuasion, ideology, culture, structure, or historical periods just to name a few. “Verse” is, of course, poetics, which are words and a common way many think about literature and the discipline of English in general. “Sub-” as a prefix indicates something beneath. Thus, we have the “subverse,” that which is beneath the verse or the words.
Yet we also have a pun on “verse,” which comes to us from Latin and its meaning “to turn.” Language is often associated with turning; in Greek, we have the term “tropos,” from which we get “trope” as well as “tropical” and “troposphere.” Language is slippery and can turn on us, or, in the hands of those who can weild it well, be used to turn others. Unlike “universe,” then, a whole turning of a unitary cosmos, “subverse” stands to ask what is behind or beneath the turning? How does the turning happen?
Of course, to do so is also very subversive in the sense that it might lead to a turning, an over-turning, a making the status quo turn upside down. This is a time-honored tradition of languages and literature the world over, a very rhetorical aspect of art, talk, culture, and history.
This may seem abstract, so to bring things down to earth (from the “UNI”verse, perhaps), much of what is here will focus on the English program at the University of Northern Iowa with broader reflections on academic life, the discipline of English studies as a whole, my specialty areas of composition, rhetoric, professional writing, and writing program administration.
I write this to 1) process the program and the postions of its faculty – many of whom do not see at all eye to eye – and 2) to look under the hood, as it were, of why the department and the university turns the way it does. I have been attentive to this for many years and have to say that it is not always pretty. The ego and the cluelessness are often coupled and there are no formal avenues for explicit, collegial conversation about details and distinctions that matter. It is often an example of Jean-François Lyotard’s concept, “differend.” There are many language games but few avenues of reflecting and talking about how disputations might be resolved. The result is dysfunction, in my opinion. And that serves no one, especially our students, well.
Of course, this may be just typical (Lyotardian pun intended with a wry sense of “justice”) of English departments on the whole. Though I have visited a few and they may all have their problems and issues, few I know of exhibit the sense of “let’s not talk about things” so palpably.
So, yes, this is subversive, but as I understand subversion, it is also “just” and ethical. It is a good thing, or at least has an eye toward the good. In this way, my blog is perhaps itself a turning, a trope, a version. Like Jim Corder’s essay, “Argument as Emergence, Rhetoric as Love,” critique is little more than where we hit up against our neighbors and in that contact, we each can affirm our own unique selves. This is a deep care and respect for the other, affirming rather than negating. Or, as Diane Davis calls rhetoric (and this is certainly rhetorical), this is “first philosophy.”