To Publish, To Avatar
Glen T. Southergill
Glen T. Southergill, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Professional and Technical Communication affiliated with the Writing Program in the College of Letters, Sciences, and Professional Studies at Montana Tech and Individualized Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program at the University of Montana. His scholarship focuses on histories and theories of rhetoric, with special attention to electracies, dramatisms, and critical software studies.
I began a section of a freshman seminar, which at Montana Tech served to orient and introduce students to our Professional and Technical Communication program, with two brief readings from Jason’s Epstein’s Book Business: Publishing Past Present and Future.
“The professors [at Columbia in 1945] were leaned, fluent, and worldly and considered the education of undergraduate their main obligation if not their greatest pleasure” (55)
And then, Epstein observes,
“When I become a publisher it was my under-graduate encounter with books that I wanted to share with the world. I believed and still do that the democratic ideal is a permanent and inconclusive Socratic seminar in which we all learn from one another” (56).
The reasons for my selections were, in retrospect, somewhat naïve. I picked passages that struck me as good instructional tools to reinforce administrative nomenclatures surrounding preparation for or participation in each workshop. They provided me an opportunity to sketch, perhaps in my mind as much as theirs, an aspirational philosophy of “teaching” that promoted reconciliation between my humanities orientation with my institutional STEM-centric affiliation.
And it may have coaxed mature answers from existential professional questions—why am I here, and what do I hope to accomplish?
My logics were [arguably?] sound.
The results? Unexpected.
wondered wandered, mid-thought before entering the seminar room, did Epstein get it wrong? Was his sense of prudence less derived from literate (book) or oral (professor-mentor) apparatuses, than with something electrate (avatar)?
At first glance, we may claim not. For circa 1945, could such a claim be made? But his encounter with prudence was composed in 1999. His recall was rendered from temporal cloth, what Gregory Ulmer would invoke as a “time-wisdom” with “a capacity to make an appropriate decision in an instant by taking the measure of a particular situation in its temporal context”(xvi).
Avatar had, [arguably!] arrived for him. It [arguably!] gifted Epstein a sense of how to narrate the course of events that followed. It [argh-uably!] whispered in his ear as the publishing industry around him morphed into something else, guiding him (and those influenced by him) into uncharted waters.
With these thoughts in mind, I confess that I was befuddled. I wished to generate a response born of my, for want of better language, epiphany. I wished not to challenge Epstein directly, given that the story was at its inception his own. But rather I wished point out that:
when I read;
when I projected;
when I contemplated;
when my students responded;
when I opened my "smart" phone to consult Epstein's biography;
when I wrote a "digital" answer to my reading;
I also underwent an experience of Avatar, which as Ulmer notes,
“you and I need to meet the avatar that we already have, that we already are, now that it may be augmented within the digital apparatus (electracy) beyond branding to become prostheses of counsel and decision” (ix).
And, in the room of class, I became again a student—I undertook Avatar, as much as I wondered the influence of Epstein’s Avatar.
What follows, my response: my invocation to a “spirit” recast.
Burke, Kenneth. Attitudes Toward History. 3rd ed. University of California Press, 1984.
Epstein, Jason. Book Business: Publishing Past, Present, and Future. W.W. Norton & Company, 2001.
Gries, Laurie. Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetorics. Utah State University Press, 2015.
Ulmer, Gregory. Avatar Emergency. Parlor Press, 2012.