Now that I think I’ve (mostly) got a handle on Olson’s (1994) main claims in The World on Paper, it’s time for me to add my two cents. After I finished the book, I sat back for a minute and though, “Uhhh what does this have to do with my project?”
Which, in a nutshell, has to do with gesture, collaborative writing, and the rhetorical canon of invention. But that’s a post for another day.
Olson mentions gesture, but only occasionally, and only as supplemental to speech. Olson includes gesture in the list of paralinguistic elements that help communicate illocutionary force in speech. We’ll leave aside for now the fact that McNeill (1992) and others argue (convincingly) that gesture is not, in fact, secondary to speech, but an integral part of language. What I want to point out now is that gesture is included in the elements that help communicate illocutionary force, and that illocutionary force is integral to meaning in language.
However, illocutionary force is also what Olson argues writing lacks. Text doesn’t have the ability to raise an eyebrow, to give a thumbs up. So it lacks the ability to fully convey “what the author meant” (whether speakers always achieve that via speech is another matter). But often, and for centuries, it has generally been assumed that good, well-written texts communicate “precisely,” “accurately,” and “clearly.” These are goals in many different types of writing, but especially in technical, professional, scientific, and business writing. These are still teaching objectives in technical & professional writing pedagogies, even if our field does acknowledge texts’ issues with illocutionary force.
Though gesture may not be evident in final versions of the texts, they are often made when collaborators come together to write the texts. And some researchers have already found gesture to be important to collaborative writing processes. For example, gesture has been found to help collaborators more precisely convey embodied knowledge in complex engineering documents. In their study, Haas and Witte (2001) found that gestures made by city personnel had a “direct bearing” on their revised text. City personnel in their study were not happy with a diagram in the text they were revising; they were concerned about its ambiguity and potential “misreadings” of the text and diagram by potential readers–they were concerned about the text’s illocutionary force.
Through gestures, the city personnel were able to revise the diagram to a version which they were satisfied would be “taken” as closer to their intended meaning–gestures helped refine the illocutionary force of the diagram.
That’s what The World on Paper has to do with my project. At least, that’s how I’m thinking about it right now. Maybe after I read more texts on my list, that relation will change. Actually, I’m counting on it. Can’t wait to see what’s next!
McNeill, D. (1992). Hand and mind: What gestures reveal about thought. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.