In their introduction to The Locations of Composition, Christopher J. Keller and Christian W. Weiser (2007) noted that “[n]early all of the conversations in composition studies involve place, space, and location, in one way or another” (p. 1). Assuming this is the case, it is therefore incumbent upon rhetoric and composition scholars to continue examining how these conversations produce or help authorize certain worldviews about place and spatial praxes. In so doing, however, we must be careful not to tip the scales too dramatically by replacing problematic transparent or containerized conceptions of space with other conceptions established through the logics of critique and demystification. As I’ve argued in this webtext, while doing so might serve us well in the short term, it can also serve to convince us that writing’s primary function is to represent and recollect, and that it is therefore up to the challenge of drawing past embodied events into the realms of the present, knowable, and commensurable. For all that it shares with Reynolds’s Mapping URI project, Nold’s Bio Mapping project asks that we consider the limits that necessarily accompany our rhetorical engagements with the past, especially the past of our embodied being-in-the-world. When thought in terms of spatial rhetorics and pedagogy, Nold’s Bio Mapping project suggests that in addition to analyzing and critiquing space and spatial praxes, writing instructors and students should also be open to the possibility of “working-through” (i.e., engaging without definitively mapping or naming) the immemorial excesses that accompany writing and that often serve to frustrate its capacities to bring under a concept that which precedes and exceeds knowledge and experience as such.

As described by Thomas Rickert (2007) in his book Acts of Enjoyment, working-through as a pedagogical practice offers students and instructors opportunities to engage the pre-reflective, pre-ideological affects that underwrite our (i.e., our students’ and our own) decision-making abilities. Borrowing its name from clinical psychoanalysis, working-through begins at a very different place than many critical cultural studies pedagogies. Rather than treat the demystification of power as the one true pathway toward critical consciousness, working-through asks instead that we begin with the recognition that we will never attain “the magical ‘it,’” that there is, in Slavoj Žižek’s (1989) words, “no solution, no escape from it [i.e., the sublime object granting us full satisfaction]” and that “the thing to do is not to ‘overcome,’ to ‘abolish’ it, but to come to terms with it” (as cited in Rickert, 2007, p. 210). While students involved in a pedagogy of working-through might still engage questions of power, subjugation, and mystification, the ways they inhabit these questions would change considerably, as the point would no longer be to construct “a magic formula that will resolve our personal and social conflicts” (Rickert, 2007, p. 151), but rather to work through on a case-by-case, student-by-student basis the “pre-ideological enjoyment [jouissance]” each of us takes in our relations to ideology (Žižek, 1989, as cited in Rickert, 2007, p. 125).

As Rickert acknowledged, establishing such a dynamic in the classroom would require composition scholars to re-imagine a number of things, including what writing means and what it can do for us (students and instructors alike) in the classroom. If writing is always already born out of these unconscious and yet visceral investments in the structures of sociality, and if these investments at times exceed our abilities to represent them as such in language, then writing instruction as working-through must find ways to attune students to the significance of their embodied being-in-the-world (or, in this case, their embodied being-in-ideology) while at the same time being careful not to presume that these investments can be easily recuperated, theorized, and memorialized in writing as objects of knowledge. For Rickert, this would mean inviting students to consider not only the limits of their own memories of past events, but also the limits that accompany the activity of writing itself. If “all writing is recovery from the first line,” as novelist Stephen King claimed, then writing, Rickert suggested, must always constitute a failure of sorts, one that writers confront (and repeat) every time they sit down to recuperate and represent an event that can never be made whole again through the act of writing. In this sense,

Writing will never really get us to the great good place, the place where trauma could be resolved and not just palliated. And it is in this precise sense that I think about King’s statement that all writing is recovery from the first line. We as writers are all caught in this recovery, and the first line is but the trace of a fundamental core of antagonisms that return again and again in spite of all our best efforts, or maybe because of them. (Is this writing’s eternal return?) Writing is a salve, not salvation, a recovery from the opening blow, with all the discomfiting mucky-muck revised away for ease of presentation to the waking, enlightened world—and the fragile, writerly self. (Rickert, 2007, p. 28)

These affects and investments which at once compel writing (while at the same time make necessary its repeated failure) are precisely what composition scholars need to acknowledge and help students work through when we ask them to write about the unclaimed experiences of their embodied being-in-the-world.

In the spring of 2011, when I was teaching a senior-level seminar in modern rhetoric entitled “Writing (at) the Limits of Representation,” I experimented with Rickert’s pedagogy of working-through when I challenged students to not only explore questions related to writing, trauma, embodiment, and representation, but to also devise ways to write and respond to writing that demonstrated an attunement to the limits of representation. Over the course of the semester, we read broadly in rhetorical theory, contemporary philosophy, and literature, and we debated how particular perceptions of writing and representation affect the ways we think about history, narrative, the other, and even writing pedagogy (about half of the twenty-two students enrolled in the course were secondary English education majors, and of those more than half were mere months away from their student teaching experience, their first experiences teaching writing and, we hope, helping students develop sophisticated understandings of writing and themselves as writers). In inviting students to participate in these conversations about representation and about the perils and possibilities that accompany our attempts to render legible our embodied being-in-the-world, I hoped that we would highlight and work to minimize the problem of “ethical violence,” both from the perspective of writers who are attempting to give an account of themselves, and the from the perspective of teachers of writing who often require such accounts from students and demand in return a satisfactory response. In short, I wanted us to follow Butler’s lead in acknowledging, without ever foreclosing upon, the absolute otherness of the “I” that is speaking/writing to “you,” and to experiment with ways to write with this otherness in mind.

With this aim in mind, I asked members of the seminar for their first major writing assignment to explore their memories of a single day, September 11, 2001, and to author an account of themselves on that day that does not presume authoritative knowledge or control of the self but that rather “persistently undoes the claim of ‘mineness,’ mocks it, sometimes gently, sometimes violently” (Butler, 2005, p. 78). In preparation for this project, we read, among other things, Art Spiegelman’s (2004) graphic novel In the Shadow of No Towers (a text that self-consciously struggles to reconcile the desire to represent the enormity of September 11, 2001, with the author’s own experiences of being in Lower Manhattan that morning and his subsequent outrage at how the Bush administration used 9/11 to justify the Patriot Act and the so-called “War on Terror”), and Michael Bernard-Donals’s (2001) essay “History and Disaster: Witness, Trauma, and the Problem of Writing the Holocaust.” In their own ways, each of these texts asked us to confront the challenges writers face when attempting to shuttle between their past identities as witnesses—as embodied beings-in-the-world—and their present identities as producers of written testimony.

In Bernard-Donals’s essay, this tension between witness and testimony became especially pronounced when the witness—in this case Abraham Lewin, a Jewish victim of the 1942-1943 German liquidation of the Warsaw ghetto who produced a detailed personal diary of the event—attempted to chronicle an experience that was, without question, far in excess of what language and writing are otherwise capable of representing. As many of the entries cited by Bernard-Donals illustrate, Lewin tried for the most part to keep his diary grounded in the specific details of the events themselves, resorting, at certain times, to listing the names of victims or detailing a day’s events in as clear and “transparent” a language as possible (p. 148). In several notable instances, however, these efforts to objectively chronicle the events Lewin had witnessed appear to visibly buckle under the enormous weight of the events themselves, leaving in their wake brief asides and reflections in which Lewin interrupts his chronology to write, as in a May 1942 entry, “Words are beyond us now. Our hearts are empty and made of stone” (as cited in Bernard-Donals, 2001, p. 148). According to Bernard-Donals, these interruptions in Lewin's testimony are indicative of “what happens when the weight of events proves too much for the language meant to bear it” (p. 146). And yet, even though Lewin’s diary may not “make visible [that is, fully present as objects of knowledge] the world of Warsaw in 1942 and 1943, or reveal a life or the series of lives of those who died at the hands of the Nazis,” it does, Bernard-Donals argued, succeed in forcing us as readers to come to terms with the ways his written testimony cracks open a space in which “what has been lost to memory and to history” matters as much as “what has been fixed for history as a memory” (p. 157). As an historical account, therefore, Lewin’s diary is significant both for what it reveals about life in the Warsaw ghetto and for what it simultaneously conceals about those events. And it’s in these moments of concealment or absence, these traces in the text where the language of history begins to noticeably break down, where the tension between witness and testimony becomes most visible and where, potentially, something of the witness’ pre-reflective being-in-the-world begins to shine forth.

The productive tension Bernard-Donals identified between witness and testimony was very much on the minds of students when they began working on the “Engaging Memory/Representing Trauma” essay. As we discussed in class, the purpose of this essay was not simply to memorialize their experiences or recollections of 9/11, but rather to work through, at the level of language and representation itself, how impossible a project recollection and memorialization can truly be. The goal, therefore, was for students to not simply write about the limits of representation, but to write those limits themselves, to write an essay in such a way that it does not avoid or foreclose upon the tension between witness and testimony, between embodied being-in-the-world and its representation in writing, but rather welcomes and leaves room for those tensions to run loose in the writing itself so that they might, perhaps, allow something of the writer’s experience (but never the experience itself) to shine forth. For some students, writing (at) limits of representation meant allowing oblique references to their schools, friends, or confusions about what the word terrorism meant to them at the time to haunt their written accounts of 9/11, whereas for others it meant inviting into their essays poetic ambiguities or temporal-spatial discontinuities similar to what we had seen in some of the texts we were reading. None of these efforts, of course, produced exactly the same effects, and none can be said to have captured the same degree of rupture in the language of history evident in Lewin’s diary. Nonetheless, in most cases students were able to engage issues of memory and representation in very sophisticated and even quite touching ways—and they did this without having to perform the illusion of writing authoritatively about something that might have been forever lost to memory or that was never actually experienced in the first place.

Although this assignment did not specifically ask students to address questions of spatiality, I hope it is clear how the assignment’s principal challenge and point of departure can potentially map onto place-based writing projects such as Reynolds’s Mapping URI. Whereas Reynolds’s assignment invited students to describe how they felt at particular times and places on campus, and to use that information to support critiques of certain spatial practices, a place-based assignment attuned to writing (at) the limits of representation might ask students instead to begin from different location and with a very different worldview in mind, a worldview that doesn't presume the possibility of coherence or recuperation but that rather recognizes and affirms the ultimate otherness and irreducibility of one’s embodied being-in-the-world.

Several decades ago, the avant-garde Situationist movement introduced the methodology of psychogeography as a way to attune practitioners to the unclaimed experiences which exert pressure on everyday lived experience but which at the same time elude our abilities to fully account for them in the languages of science, philosophy, or politics. Often described as a kind of urban wandering or “drifting,” the Situationists’s psychogeography aimed to disrupt fixed and unified theories of space by re/introducing into the production of everyday life possibilities for random, individual encounters with the built environment. As Guy Debord (1958) explained, in a psychogeographical excursion “one or more persons … drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there” (para. 2). By immersing oneself in the pre-critical, pre-reflective randomness of the psychogeographic experience, Situationists believed that a person could begin to reconnect with how the rich “variety of possible combinations of ambiances, analogous to the blending of pure chemicals in an infinite number of mixtures, gives rise to feelings as differentiated and complex as any other form of spectacle can evoke” (Debord, 1955, para. 12).

Much like Nold, who conceived of his Bio Mapping project as a way for urban residents to re-experience familiar spaces at the level of felt (and un-felt) bodily sensation—and who also, it should be noted, associated his project with the Situationists’ psychogeography (see, for example, Emotional Cartography and the Greenwich Emotion Map)—Situationists such as Debord hoped that these individual psychogeographies would eventually provide the initial framework for a new research methodology, one capable of devising “the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, whether consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals” (1955, “Critique” para. 2). As recounted by Simon Sadler (1999) in his study of the Situationists, however, the notion of psychogeography’s “organized spontaneity” “was something of an oddity, and it certainly didn’t collate much real data.” For all of their “detective-style iconography," he noted, most of these psychogeographies “failed to yield anything remotely like ‘data,’” leaving their authors “struggling to explain the significance of [their] encounters with children and with old acquaintances” (p. 78). In his 1961 film Critique of Separation, Debord was compelled to admit the same failure on the part of psychogeography. While “[t]he sectors of a city are, at a certain level, decipherable," he said, "the personal meaning they have for us is incommunicable, like all that clandestinity of private life regarding which we possess nothing but pitiful documents” (as cited in Sadler, 1999, pp. 79-80).

That psychogeography, much like memory and Nold’s Bio Mapping project, fails to render the body’s being-in-the-world decipherable does not mean that, because of such failures, it no longer has anything to offer with respect to spatial rhetorics and pedagogies. Quite the contrary, in fact, since what psychogeography ultimately celebrates, and what it in turn asks its practitioners to confront in their own spatial wanderings, is the extent to which one’s embodied being-in-the-world always precedes and exceeds the categories, theories, and narratives we or others craft about it. From a pedagogical standpoint, such an acknowledgement suggests that even as we continue to invite students to write about their spatial experiences, to fashion rhetorically compelling narratives about “the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read” (de Certeau, 1980/1984, p. 93), we also need to remain open to—and ask our students to remain open to—the possibility that their attempts to render legible the body’s being-in-the-world will at best only provide an oblique, retroactive glimpse of the thing itself, and that any efforts to discursively recuperate unclaimed experiences will always be haunted by the immemorial traces of events that can never be made whole or available to us through acts of writing or memorialization. Psychogeography, Bio Mapping, Mapping URI, and writing more generally fail us, then, only in the sense that they betray many of the beliefs we have come to hold about writing and the teaching of writing: that writing, for example, produces coherent knowledge of events, and that teaching writing as an emancipatory art endows students with the power to make manifest and representable what lies on the hither side of reason, memory, and legibility.

If we’re prepared to acknowledge that writing can never really get us to the great good place where immemorial excesses can be resolved and not just palliated, then, I believe, we might begin to see these failures not as the end of writing and writing instruction, but as the opening to a new way of thinking writing that finds in such failures additional avenues for invention as well as the possibility of a place-based ethics attuned to the forgetfulness of memory and the limits of representation. Quoting Jean-François Lyotard from The Differend, Bernard-Donals (2009) characterized this possibility as “[t]he beginning of ethics” in which ethics “is the utterance of a word that brushes against history, what in its most radical sense worries less about the facticity of history … and attempts instead to write the impossible, to write that ‘which [may have not] yet taken place’ so far as the narrative of memory is concerned” (Lyotard, 1988, as cited in Bernard-Donals, 2009, p. 47). Worrying less about the facticity of history and attempting to write the impossible is, in many respects, what Debord and the Situationists were after all along. And it’s what a psychogeography of writing asks us to attempt as well, so long as we’re prepared to acknowledge and work through with our students the challenge noted by Butler (2005)—that “To know oneself as limited is still to know something about oneself, even if one’s knowing is afflicted by the limitation that one knows” (p. 48).