Pflugfelder, Ehren Helmut.  “Texts of Our Institutional Lives: Translucency, Coursepacks, and the Post-historical University: An Investigation into Pedagogical Things”  College English 74 (3) 247-267.

  • P. begins by noting that coursepacks are a curious historical product that perserveres and transforms as technologies and time goes by.  He then makes a central claim: “Here, I employ ontological as an understanding of things in our world and how they exist — both our everyday assumptions about how material reality functions and broader philosophical investigations into the nature of the real.  Though we often think of material things as static entities, our ontological assumptions about how things function, our worldviews, change over time” (248).
  • He notes that this investigation into coursepacks is also an exploration of “what things mean in a post-historical university” or an institution that is “global, quasi-corporate, postmodern.”
  • Method: use Heidegger’s notion of tools and technologies, Latour’s work in ANT and Foucault’s work in historical methodology to trace shifts in the coursepack as it moves between different ontologies.
  • Central claim: “many seemingly banal, everyday things within the post-historical university are complex residuals of these shifting ontologies, and that by examining them in a certain light, we bring them closer to the surface of understanding” (248).  P. claims that coursepacks represent “an object from the underworld, from the abyss beneath the post-historical university” (249).
  • P. investigates coursepacks because their status as assembled is obvious, allowing us to make practical use of them but to also recognize their method of production.
  • P. claims to rely on ANT because it allows researchers to trace relationships between all of the actors within a given network to see how people and things act on one another without discriminating because of a priori assumptions.
  • A lot of the work that P. does in this article is to re-mystify the life of objects.  As he notes throughout, things are often transparent/instrumental . . . and returning things to equal ontological status will allow us to re-see things in particular moments – specifically, in this case, the moment of the post-historical university.  He states as much on 252: “I argue that we can see coursepacks in the moment of their withdrawing [Harman] and of their revealing, and in looking at our instructional materials with way, recognize our place in the constellations in which we are enmeshed.”
  • According to P., different ontologies = different conditions of existence.
  • P. argues that the coursepack is essentially the same object over time: a production of assemblage and cut-and-paste.
  • P. argues, in the example of McGuffey and Worcester, that the two parties involved in the copyright dispute operated under different “ontological regimes” or different general ways of understanding and looking at things – or different “general point[s] of view” (254).  This resulted in their different approaches to textbook production and intellectual property.
  • Translucency: “signifies the state of things that functio in the space between the transparency of our naive assumptions regarding the things in our world and our emergence into self-conscious theorizing about those same things” (255).
  • Valuable: the discussion of ready-to-hand (using) and present-to-hand (theorizing about) provides the basis for understanding Harman’s discussion of withdrawal in The Quadruple Object and other works.  These two aren’t related in a binary; rather, they’re constantly competing and always have actionable potentials/virtuals.
  • P. is taking the coursepack as object that is plugged into a constellation of different technologies that enact/switch-on particular virtuals, making them actuals.
  • Latour  contrasts with Harman’s reading of tool-being (things are ready-to-hand when they’re installed in constellations of things – objects when noticed are in an infinite state of withdrawal, tool-being is never observable because it’s potential is exactly what is inaccessible in its use), arguing that we only encounter objects ready-to-hand when a gathering or constellation has failed.
  • P argues that McGuffey saw the textbook as ready-to-hand, something to be practically used inside an ontology directed toward education and democratic citizenship.  Worcester, on the other hand, saw textbooks as present-to-hand, because he was aware of the ontological shift away from education and toward copyright/economics.
  • “Our encounters with thingness are always encounters with multiple, competing ontologies — some on their way out the door, some on their way in, always revealing and concealing.” (265)
  • Ontological regimes exist beyond their embeddedness in discourse, exerting influence through entire constellations of networked affiliation.  Tools and technologies are organized by the ecologies they inhabit.

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