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The green bean campaign in the memo.

NANCY MILLER has written an essay on her career, which had the following consequence when she became the director of the Women's Studies Program at Barnard: "I wrote a book-length collection of memos, characterized by the rhetorical turns of feminist righteousness, in a mode a colleague from Political Science taught me called `bullets'; my memo style, she explained, was too narrative."(1) From this comment we learn at least three things about memos: (1) Memos are ephemeral. Miller will never publish them in a book. Nobody would want to read them. (2) Memos are the product of various discourses. Like any writing, a memo has a particular rhetoric, which can be distinguished from other rhetorics. (3) Memos have generic forms. Depending on the occasion, some forms are better than others. There is probably also a fourth thing: your academic career is going to be representable in terms of memos, whether or not it proves to be better (Miller doesn't say for her part) to give than to receive.

What is a memo? I have at hand one from the vice-president of Student Affairs at my university to the "University Community" in which he states that, before anyone can "utilize" the food service, a Catering Service Form must first be completed at his office. If all memos merely presented information in this way, there would appear to be no need to pose questions about them. "Every established order tends to produce (to very different degrees and with very different means) the naturalization of its own arbitrariness," writes Pierre Bourdieu.(2) It feels so natural to receive memos in any university that few people who do not even know about the catering service, and do not care about the Student Affairs Office, wonder nonetheless why they should be bothered to read such a memo in the first place.

Every institutional structure may be more than the sum of its memos. And yet there is a very real sense in which the structure is cemented, day by day, department by department, out of hundreds and thousands of sheets of paper circulated as agreeably as air-conditioned air in summer or heat in winter. Memos comprise the preeminent example of an unexamined textual practice in the academy today. They are unexamined because they are practical. Yet the converse is more provocatively true: memos are practical because they are unexamined.

In a section of English in America entitled "The Memorandum as Act," on The Pentagon Papers, Richard Ohmann states the following: "The writers of memoranda sit on the stream of events and try to direct it. They employ power directly."(3) The most intriguing thing about memos as a textual practice is that they express power so immediately, ceaselessly, and bluntly that they hardly seem like "texts" at all. The vice-president of Student Affairs is in charge of the food service. Who can dispute it? Therefore the vice-president is authorized to disseminate rules concerning the food service. Who would want to challenge his authority to do so? The claim of memos to be purely factual follows directly from the unquestioned status of the power they exercise.

Consequently, the first thing one notices in considering memos as texts is the more curious: few are content to be "purely" factual. Ones that are have to do with time: Friday is "Black Friday" of National Collegiate Alcohol Awareness Week, the Sabbatical Leave Committee will hold a question-and-answer session on a certain date, the Writing Across the Curriculum Committee presents a lecturer, and so on--just to take some examples from my own university during a typical year. If the most basic function of a memo is to announce something, the announcement is most factual when the appointment of an executive assistant to the dean or the Valentine's Day carnation sale can be presented as a strictly temporal thing.

However, most memos cannot limit themselves in this way. Even the one cited above on the food service has another paragraph in which it is explained that the university food service contractor cannot be contacted directly for use of its facilities; instead, all such business must proceed through Student Affairs. From the perspective of its memos, any institution's power is not self-evident. It must be justified in hundreds of trivial ways. Even the simplest temporal facts need reiteration ("just a reminder") and hardly any information can be disseminated without consolidating why it is important in the first place or how it fits into some larger network of regulation, law, and policy. This is to say, the writing of memos is the writing of a politics.

"The greater the disparity in power between dominant and subordinate and the more arbitrarily it is exercised," writes James Scott in his study of textual hegemony, "the more the public transcript of subordinates will take on a stereotyped, ritualistic cast."(4) Memos are nothing if not, in Scott's sense, public transcripts, and therefore are written by the members of what he would term dominant groups. Subordinate groups are subordinate because they do not write countermemos objecting to the food service policy of Student Affairs. Moreover, what they can write in response must conform to the character of the public transcript. Later, I will try to show how parodies of memos are especially clarified by Scott's formulation.

Of course, some of the peculiar logic of memos has to do with sheer organizational size, confusion, or overlap. The relation (if any) between parts of an organization may not be hierarchical. Nonetheless, during the following discussion I will be more interested in texts where an organizational hierarchy is presumed to be in place and where some decisive boundary between dominant and subordinate groups is marked. Finally, I hope to demonstrate that each category can be studied as being in more direct and less stable contact with the other than the boundary between them would seem to allow. Power in a university structure most especially remains to be implemented and performed as a condition of its being rationalized. The rationalization opens up the memo to the very energies that Scott studies as hidden.

Modern work has long been work done in anticipation of some memo, still the premier text of bureaucratized control. And yet I will maintain that even in this text there is more "heteroglossia" that has to be accommodated than rule or custom would seem to stipulate.(5) Memos are obsessed with language. They often originate because a word or a phrase has been misunderstood, or because a new policy objective or procedural matter has to be clarified on an ostensibly semantic level. Words such as "disabled" or "interdisciplinary" gain a place in a professional lexicon, after all, only with struggle. Arguably, memos spend just as much time admitting words into a particular professional discourse as they do excluding them.

Furthermore, considered strictly as texts, memos have to be unusually intimate with the sources of their own critique. Some of these are outward. Everyone knows of cases when the broad public terms of a memo conceal a personal grievance on the part of the person who wrote it against someone else. Some of the sources are inward, such as the dean who writes regular memos defending himself against the critical reception of the last memo. But whether a memo originates as a critique or becomes an object of critique, it is easy to see how, as a public transcript, it is open to hidden ridicule. I believe the nature of this ridicule is a cardinal fact about the politics of memos, and in the final section of my discussion I want to consider the moment of parody in the memo. I will argue that it is ultimately in their parodies that memos are saved, perhaps even more than they are damned, by people who want to save themselves from their authority, having become aware how control of even the most minimal means of representation shapes the nature of experience itself.


Awhile ago at my university a document appeared entitled "Summary of Open CCPS Hearings on the Recommended General Education Program." Such documents--not to say such hearings--are of course the staple of academic business-as-usual: programs need continually to be readjusted, subject to recommendations, and launched into the next decade, if not the next century. This particular document could be classified as a report or position statement rather than a memorandum or a memo.

The differences are instructive, although they may not be worth insisting upon. A memo aspires to the condition of a memorandum, which is a more comprehensive and self-sufficient account of its own conditions, including the need for its very production. Some difference between a report or position statement and a memorandum, on the other hand, can be supposed, because the former has a more decisive relation to the conditions that summon it into existence. Ohmann gives a common, general rationale for all these texts: "By meetings, memoranda, and allied forms, the members of an organization try to grasp the import of past events and to exercise a measure of control over future events" (EA 191). The grasp of the position statement on a particular event, however, is so tight that its publication becomes an "event" in its own right.(6)

The document I referred to above authorizes itself to respond to objections to its recommended program--and these responses, in turn, become part of the program. Doubts had been expressed about certain "gaps" in the earlier recommendations. The Summary is not happy with these "gaps," continually referring to them in quotation marks in the process of explaining that in fact "these definitional `gaps' were explicitly acknowledged in the document." The very word "gap" has apparently caused some offense.

This rhetorical situation is very typical of public transcripts. Some problem of a more obscure or private nature has arisen that must be taken into account, and the available vocabulary has no convenient name for it. What to do? The most common solution is to adopt an alien word usage, thus reinstituting part of the very problem, albeit now in quotation marks. Thus, the Summary concludes its consideration of "gaps" as follows: "The definitional 'gap' for the writing intensive 'Wl' flagged courses have [sic] been formulated by the University Writing Across the Curriculum Committee, and are attached at Appendix B."

Yet slang, idiom, and all manner of everyday, conversational usage are read out of the public transcript neither so easily nor so uniformly. Another institution's Summary might have used the word "gaps" without quotation marks. Still another might have taken to the word as if it were its own very music, as the word "flagged" is apparently sounded here. More compelling is the Summary's use of the word "grandfathered," as in the following statement: "these courses would be 'grandfathered' in without formal review." This first use of the word is in quotation marks. The second use refers, without quotation marks, to "this grandfathering process," but a third instance of the word, in the very next sentence, features quotation marks once more.

Reports or position statements draw from the same fund of rhetorical and formal operations as memoranda and memos. A more extensive, encompassing practice (the document from which I am quoting consists of twelve pages) shows, I hope, how insecure even less protracted public transcripts are with choices of diction, not to mention other stylistic options. Consider a memo from the coordinator of Student Activities that puts "and," "hold," and "official" each in quotation marks. Why? It might not be so easy to see in abbreviated form, but the reason is the same as why the CCPS position statement stumbles over "gaps" and waivers before a "grandfathered" procedure: neither text, no matter how different with respect to institutional function, is self-sufficient. Therefore each occupies a position of perpetual instability about how seriously its lack of self-sufficiency should be understood.

The best solution is to leave the decision to somebody else. I think the following statement can be proposed as a general rule: the shorter the public transcript, the more it aspires to the condition of dialogue. Memos comprise such a heterogeneous formal practice because any one example can devolve back into the institutional forest from which it emerged or evolve into the more specialized hothouse growth proper to a memorandum. Both directions can take place in the same document. We have all read memos which conclude thus: "In addition, we are always looking for new ways to publicize activities and/or to elaborate on the content of the programs being scheduled so please call our office if you have suggestions that we might use or pass on to sponsoring organizations." Nothing guarantees, though, that there have not been preceding paragraphs whose vocabulary is safely distant from anything oral: "The University Special Projects program is designed to encourage and support special projects at State System of Higher Education universities intended to enhance the quality of teaching and learning at the university and to contribute to the professional development of faculty members involved in and/or affected by the project."

Some texts beg only to be read. (Or remembered, to recall the derivation of the word "memo" from the Latin memorare, "let it be remembered.") Others imagine a more active response--most conventionally, further questions that require actual contact with whoever sent the memo. Hence, memos usually conclude with a phone number, thereby reengaging the ground of dialogue in which they were presumably conceived. Memoranda, on the other hand, tend to discourage some further response, even if a phone number (or a deadline) is attached at the end. Often, the difference is not so much one of form or length as of tone. In a recent article on the great Indian scientist and administrator Homi Bhabha, one of his memos is quoted that deals with the attitude staff is expected to have toward the buildings and grounds of the Institute Bhabha founded, after which the author comments: "This is not a memo to grown men and women: it is a memo from a father to his children."(7)

In Bhabha's case, the dialogue never got started. Nothing vexes the politics of memo writing like the possibility of dialogue, even, if not especially, when the move into a conversational register proves to be more than a rhetorical gesture. Let me illustrate by citing a two-page document another Clarion dean sent to the Arts and Sciences faculty, which began by recalling the "dialogue" he had begun with a previous "letter" on the subject of the budget. "We must continue our dialogue" in this period of "diminishing resources," he concludes in the second paragraph. After several more have accumulated (in which we are asked to do such things as rededicate ourselves to our "mission" and reexamine our "priorities") a last flurry of questions suddenly becomes a storm, and the penultimate paragraph reads: "Is the College or the University more than the sum of its departments? Can there be biology without chemistry? Can the arts flourish if the humanities languish?"

These are indeed hard questions. But I do not think the dean expects anybody to answer them. Worse, he appears to be listening only to himself asking them. Notwithstanding the fact that the document calls itself a letter, and speaks to the upbeat end about dialogue, no space for a reply on the part of some other has been imagined, nor has any need for it been dramatized. The striking thing about the document is its written character, which has been purchased by assimilating the form of oral communication wholesale. On the basis of such an example, it would be tempting to say that a memorandum, as distinct from a memo, either represents a failed dialogue, or refers to a dialogue that already took place, but not according to the correct terms, which are stipulated in the memorandum. What the dean means, after all, is that we should be talking about our mission rather than our money.

Memos do not simply enact a contest over who gets to control language. They provide the central textual site within any organization for how power is made manifest. It must be done with some care. Ineffective memos fall victim to a whole dynamics of dominance, whereby a rhetorical stance has lost touch with the sources of resistance to a word, a subject, or a whole way of thinking Scott has studied the responses of subordinated groups to the fact that the public transcript has not taken them into account and instead only demonstrated all over again the great disparity of unequal power. Subordinated groups respond with what he terms the hidden transcript--a whole critique of power that encompasses rumors, jokes, strategic acts of protest, and so on. The public transcript, in turn, is shaped by the hidden one in constant but elusive ways. Scott states as follows about the hidden transcript: "the mere fact that it is in constant dialogue--more accurately, in argument--with dominant values insures that hidden and public transcripts remain mutually intelligible" (DA 135).

The reason memos speak so much about "dialogue" is not only because modern forms of social control prevent it. Dialogue keeps the argument open, or, in memo-exe, "ongoing." Dialogue makes it possible for a public transcript to be exactly intelligible to those over whom it has authority. Not all of these people are subordinates, or even if on occasion they are, not all of the time. Nonetheless, no public transcript is going to be able to recreate all the energies of those whose business it is to read the document. Some energies are always going to remain hidden, and, in Scott's terms, these are the ones--the ignorance, rumor, misunderstanding, and so on--that already exercise a shaping force on the memo. In effect, some of the substance of the hidden transcript is already part of the public one.

Scott puts the matter thus: "The hidden transcript is continually pressing against the limit of what is permitted on stage, much as a body of water might press against a dam" (DA 196).(8) What happens in ineffective memos is that the dam breaks, and all that a reader sees is so much hopeless effort to stop the flow. A friend once sent me a memo from the personnel director of Voice of America to all Washington employees on the subject of the agency's hazardous weather policy. The text begins by reminding employees that most of them are considered essential, and therefore are required to be at work during emergency situations. Immediately there are at least two problems: how to define "essential" and how to define "emergency." The memo cannot do either, and yet proceeds for a page and a half as if it has done both. Essential employees are those who are notified (annually, in writing) that they are. Those who have not been so notified will be "charged" for the leave they will be allowed to take, unless yet another category obtains: "extreme emergency situations." Examples are not given of this last category.

Nuclear war? Armageddon? my friend wondered in the margin. In his accompanying letter, he wrote a number of other queries about his own "essential" status. His whole communication to me functioned as the rebuke of a hidden transcript to the memo's public one. The personnel director had the thankless task of having to ignore how some words in some contexts are either haplessly dictatorial, like "essential," or hopelessly superfluous, like "extreme," added to "emergency." In addition, the agency imperative to mandate a-"weather policy" had to set aside such unregenerate facts about power relations since everybody likes to consider his or her job as in some way essential. And how do we recognize in an organization that encompasses a city rather than a campus that nobody likes to come to work when the city is covered with snow?

The importance to memos of the whole notion of a dialogue between dominant and subordinate, or public and hidden, can be framed in another way: ineffective memos fail to contain their own implicit parody. Instead, ridicule suddenly appears as if in the form of additional words--the very words, perhaps, that the memo was written to counter in the first place. The moment of parody is to the memo as the hidden transcript is to the public one: the subordinated voice of the whole dialogue, whose pressure can be felt but whose words cannot be uttered openly because the representation of the dominant depends upon their not being uttered. In a final section, I want to consider the significance of the subordinated voice when it speaks.


One day the Clarion University faculty received the following memo, which I give in full:

Between April 19th and 23rd, the Office of Alcohol and Drug Awareness Education and BACCHUS will be conducting a green bean campaign. This program includes a series of five posters that will be appearing around campus.

We are asking you to participate by bringing a can of green beans to your class sometime between April 19th and 23rd (just carry it with you if you like green beans). If the students ask you about them just say you like green beans. Only do it if you like green beans. Riverside [market] has donated several cases of beans to us if you need a can.

We want to surprise you with the posters, it is a fun and educational campaign. It has to do with alcohol abuse intervention. We want to keep it a secret for the students. If you would like more information about it to participate, you can call the Alcohol and Drug Awareness Education Office at 2418.

How can we explain such a silly document?

I do not think it suffices to remark how, once more, the language of dialogue is used to make an empty contact with an audience. What is this memo to say to someone who doesn't like green beans, but still wants to "participate"? Or perhaps somebody who likes only yellow beans? Or just somebody who does not see the connection between alcohol and beans? The connection seems so intrinsically frivolous--at least as given here--that a countervoice of some sort seems essential if the memo is to preserve its serious intent.

As it is, the text is so happily unaware of how it contains within itself the logic for its own subversion--if not mockery--that one could well read it and suspect a parody of a certain sort of excited, pious idealism. The sheer inarguable rectitude of drug awareness does so much rhetorical work that the whole proposal seems deliberately naive. Yet, short of picking up the phone, how can one be sure that the memo is not in fact a parody? I believe the only way is to emphasize the importance of another source of authority in the memo: the office, named both at the beginning and end. In any memo, origin is the ultimate guarantor of legitimacy, if not meaning. Indeed, considered purely as a political act, the dissemination itself of the memo is more decisive than its textual form.

Another example. In her presidential address to the American Studies Association a few years ago, Martha Banta mentioned part of the description of a graduate seminar "New Historicism for White Boys," that appeared in the faculty mailboxes of the UCLA History Department: "This is a course for nice liberal white males who feel politically inconsequential and seek safe ways to alleviate their helplessness and guilt, but all 'others' are welcome to watch them writhe." Banta confidently calls the memo a parody. Perhaps, although we are not given the full text6.(9) However, Banta does give one more piece of information: the course was to be taught by a Professor Blancmansge.

The most certain way to code a text as a parody is either to spoof its origin or just withhold it. If the document is a memo, the mockery of origin accomplishes an additional thing: to the degree that memos reproduce the organizational structure, that order itself falls under critique. This, in turn, is another reason why little is gained by reading the green bean memo above as a parody. The Alcohol and Drug Awareness Education Office is too inconsequential to be worthy of criticism, much less the peculiar homage that parody pays to authority by imitating it. The UCLA History Department on the other hand, is a more significant exemplar of institutional politics, or rather politics as course structure.

It is worth distinguishing between the fact of the memo itself and its particular textual form because many parodies of memos fix only on their origin, as a way of ridiculing the organizational fiat implicitly expressed in any memo, no matter how genuinely issued as a dialogue. Early in Don DeLillo's first novel, Americana, the narrator picks up the following memo and reads it:

To: Tech Unit B From: St. Augustine

And never can a man be more disastrously in death than when death itself shall

be deathless.

It turns out that these memos have been appearing in this particular subsection of the agency for over a year. "Previous memos had borne messages from Zwingli, Levi-Strauss, Rilke, Chekhov, Tillich, William Blake, Charles Olson, and a Kiowa chief named Satanta." The author of these memos has become known as "the Mad Memo-Writer," but the narrator finds this name too "obvious," and calls him Trotsky instead.(10)

Of course DeLillo's narrator is a shrewder judge than his fellows of the politics of memos. What "Trotsky" is doing is subverting the organizational location of the text by mocking two things in particular about its authority. First, the authority is, in Bourdieu's phrase cited earlier, "unnatural." To be subordinated is to be subordinated to a site. To begin to question why a department head is a department head can inexorably lead to more "revolutionary" questions, such as why there need be either departments or heads, much less how the issuing of memos reinforces the power of both, ultimately by situating each at the same unquestioned location over and over again.

A second thing Trotsky mocks is harder to stipulate, and has more to do with the fall into textuality that any memo, even the most brief, must endure, if only as a condition of being a written document which has an author. The very idea of St. Augustine or William Blake writing memos is absurd because the only nominal virtues of the text are local and practical: immediacy, utility, intelligibility, and so on. "Heteroglossia" to the contrary, the openness of a memo at the vernacular end becomes closure at the philosophical end. Memos are about procedures, not ideas. At most, the authors of memos are concerned with implementing things and not philosophizing on them. To put the point too bluntly: the memo is a stupid form of textuality, and only its effectiveness as communication within the highly local, temporal realm of institutional politics ultimately redeems it.(11)

Unless, that is, parody does. I have suggested parody as a component feature of memos in their character as public transcripts. Scott, however, scarcely mentions parody. His emphasis on the social experience of subordination defined in terms of submission and indignity precludes parody, which suggests not so much more respect for power than the serfs and slaves of Scott's account possess as more detachment from it. Parody registers how the experience of modern forms of bureaucratized control in institutional bodies is finally different from, say, the social situation of the proletariat in Czarist Russia, because the stuff of power is more equitably distributed and better managed ritualistically. Indeed, the ease is managed in part through memos, which negotiate the large question of how much power to distribute to subordinates in terms of the small operation of how much power to represent. How much? Just enough, it turns out, at once to engage and contain the argument of the hidden transcript.

Of course much depends upon the exact circumstances of any institution at one point in time. It is impossible for anyone to read the whole of an immense textual field encompassing hundreds and thousands of modern organizations and institutions.(12) Moreover, the very emergence of a memo is symptomatic of some dissonance or problem often simultaneously created and solved by the memo alone--ideally in a simple and time-bound manner. Yet gaps among levels of any organization continually open up. Neither the most exacting of memos nor the most eloquent of position papers will plug them all. Many groups are always being repositioned in terms of dominant and subordinate positions, sometimes by the very memoranda that attempt to arbitrate among them or mandate a dialogue between them.

How regularly in all these myriad work sites do parodies appear? Who can say? Many have an anonymous, folk character, such as a recent one I first read typed on the letterhead stationery of a Pennsylvania university. But the friend who sent it to me received a copy distributed from within her own Pennsylvania community college. To one side of the letterhead, the author of the memo has an individual (fictitious?) name, while on the other side something called the "Faculty Development Committee" has been typed in as the source. The subject of the memo is: "Control of Travel Costs." The opening paragraph reads as follows: "As you are all aware, we are doing our best at this time to control the expenditures of the University so that we can allocate our resources to the most essential things rather than to 'extras.' I have been long convinced that travel expenses are one area where real savings could be achieved if we put our minds to it. As a result of a lot of creative thinking by the Provost's Council and others, starting immediately, we are instituting the following policies relating to travel on University business." The first policy considered is transportation. Hitchhiking is the only option for assistant professors. Associates, "under some circumstances," can use buses. Full professors, "with the permission of the President," can use airlines, but only on a discount basis. "If, for example, a meeting is scheduled in Seattle but a discount fare can only be obtained to Detroit, then travel will be sanctioned only to Detroit."

So the document continues. About lodging: "Faculty are encouraged to stay with relatives and friends." Bringing along your own food is suggested as especially "cost effective." There is a concluding "Final Thought": "Let me suggest that departments and centers plan ahead for meetings and conferences and send faculty and students together in small groups. The experience could then become not a mere conference trip but an adventure not unlike the 'wilderness bonding retreats' we read so much about these days. The beauty of this proposal is that people pay good money for these retreat experiences, whereas ours can be had absolutely free."

This document provides a fine example of how parodies speak to power. How many myriad campus memos each year stipulating the latest institutional travel policies succeed in coming to terms with wayward individual expenses? How to they avoid casting each individual into a class, all subordinated to an arbitrary, dominant rule that forces its subjects to choose between steak and Spam? Travel costs are one of those subjects that doom an administration to have to legislate quite specifically and to have to endure being resented for it quite generally. To academics at least, the very subject is a ritual one.

So is the mockery. The above parody is misunderstood if read only as protest. It is just as much play-the explicit portion of a dialogue heretofore conducted only in official transcripts with an anonymous, irreverent, hidden presence which speaks at last in the parody. This presence should be conceived of as always already arguing with official cant of all sorts, and yet so much imbued with cant, if not in love, that the final suggestion expressed here, converting one form of academic nonsense into another sort, proves irresistible, The parody represents a joyously liberated discourse, although if it were completely uninhibited it wouldn't be a parody because there would be nothing for the discourse to adhere to, or to imitate.(13) Ultimately, I think, the parody is happy to be a memo, and probably more pleased to consider travel costs--or for that matter academic politics--than it can actually represent.

In this, the parody may well be symmetrical with almost any official memo on travel costs, which is most likely far more unhappy to say anything than it could possibly represent. Indeed, one surmises that a college provost is just about as sadly resigned to writing a memo about travel costs as a personnel director in the federal government is to writing about the weather. Either one would surely rather take up rhetorical arms against the languishing state of the humanities. In addition, all respective subordinates would rather read (or anyway receive) the result. Memos and their parodies provide unusually good examples of how the public transcript and the hidden transcript are, exactly in Scott's sense, each unintelligible without the other.

"The political struggle to impose a definition on an action and to make it stick," writes Scott, "is frequently at least as important as the action per se" (DA 206). I think we can conclude at least two things about memos on the basis of their parodies: first, memos are not disseminated without struggle, and second, parodies of them reveal how the basic political character of memos is in the form of an imposition. Once more, I do not mean to imply by this last point that the imposition, any more than the politics, is uniform. Memos may well be more heterogeneous as texts than the organizations within which they operate. Moreover, in their status as documents necessary to maintain day-today business-as-usual, most memos already "stick," merely by virtue of their very dissemination.

And yet, do they? Precisely because the "dialogue" of the memo comes, by definition, preabsorbed, I believe we can conclude a third thing about memos on the basis of their parodies: we simply can never know enough about how memos are actually received. This is to say, we do not know enough about institutional politics. In this sense, I endorse a recent proposal by Susan Horton--attempting to discuss the politics of her department's Ph.D. program--that runs as follows: "A Ph.D. in literacy could open up a space in which we could invite literature students who are well-trained in close reading to use their skills on, say, institutional discourse, in a practical course that could combine readings of Foucault, Benjamin, Nietzsche, and Vico . . . with a reading of, say, the language of university memoranda and college course syllabi."(14)

In another sense, however, such a proposal sounds like DeLillo's "Mad Memo Writer" gone madder--or rather, more academic. She has a Ph.D. now, and her "Trotskite" energies are displaced beyond recognition. Or anyway safely within politics of a familiar liberal pluralist sort. To dream of St. Augustine and memos on the same agenda is to recreate a model of the school as an institution where even its own ridicule already ritualistically venerated, becomes a further, deeper basis for subordination to an academic program. Horton's proposal is the sort of thing a would-be parodist would be delighted to try to write up, even knowing full well that Horton, when she reads it, would most likely be pleased to add the parody to her own course syllabus.

It may be that the dominance of some institutional discourses is so powerful that they cannot finally be publicly written about at all. Or else, if the discourse is a wider one, it may become almost exclusively institutionalized anyway in the process of being formally subjected to critique. In a chapter on gender- and racially-based language reform in his latest book, Russell Jacoby concludes thus: "Without a sure sense of linguistic limits, we are tempted to heal social ills by correcting, revising, and prohibiting language.... In easing the pain, decorous talk may forget the disease."(15) But what precisely is the disease of the memo? Its burden to represent the very idea of decorous talk? Could this explain, in turn, why no less a figure than Stanley Fish can take the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary meeting of Harvard's English Institute to declare at one point the following aphorism: "Academics like to eat shit and in a pinch, they don't care whose shit they eat"?(16)

Perhaps the best one can hope for concerning the politics of memos is to understand their power as the ceaseless, arbitrary imposition of dominant discourse upon recalcitrant, hidden experience. Institutional life is conducted on the basis of memos. And yet the basis of memos is not wholly life, not even in institutions. We might consider the strategy Paul Theroux adapts in having the last two pages of his novel about institutional life at the American embassy in London, The Consul's File, consist of a memo from the narrator to his superiors. The chapter, entitled "Memo," is about the impossible disposition of private sources of emotion within public frameworks of meaning.

The narrator (unnamed throughout until the final page of the novel) does not resign. He has learned too much during the course of the linked stories that comprise the book, and much of his experience is bitter. The narrator could have resigned, of course. Instead, in the memo, he confesses his love for "Subject" (a radical American academic whom he has met at a diplomatic party a couple of chapters before) and reports on the fact of his marriage in the last few lines. He begins his memo: "When I took up my post at the London embassy I entered into a tacit agreement to share all the information to which I became privy that directly or indirectly had a bearing on the security of the United States of America or on my own status, regardless of my personal feelings."(17)

By the conclusion, though, so much fugitive personal feeling has found its way into the transcript that the form has come to seem empty and artificial. The diplomat's words are by no means free from domination. If he wants to utter revolt, he has only the available discursive means, wherein there is only compliance. All he can do is write out his compliance in the form of a mockery, or rather expose his text to its own mockery, by which the estimable public face of the memo is seen as a disguise for its own hapless comedy.


(1) Nancy K Miller, "Decades," in Wild Orchids and Trotsky: Messages from American Universities, ed. Mark Edmundson (New York, 1993), p. 94.

(2) Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice (Cambridge, 1977), p. 164. In the case of memos, naturalization proceeds through accumulation. Hence James Phelan writes in his journal of professional life: "I go to my mailbox, which I find stuffed with memos, notices, papers, etc., and I begin to sort through them, banging things that can be handled by my very capable secretary, Cartha, over to her desk, where there is also another stacking tray for me. From that I pick up more folders, memos, notes, etc., and again try to handle on the spot whatever I can." Soon students appear, and the office phone rings. The "pile" finds a place in "the already existing ecosystem" James Phelan, Beyond the Tenure Track: Fifteen Months in the Life of an English Professor [Columbus, 1991], pp. 46-47).

(3) Richard Ohmann, English in America (New York, 1976), p. 191; hereafter cited in text as EA.

(4) James Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, 1990), p. 3; hereafter cited in text as DA.

(5) The reference is of course to Mikhail Bakhtin's famous formulation of the "other" of literary language. See The Dialogic Imagination (Austin, 1981), p. 263 and passim. The language acceptable for the official purposes of memos (no less than literary language) exists to be continually repositioned along a hierarchy of socially marked forms of speech and writing. My point is not that the language of memos is like literary language. I mean only that the language of memos changes, like all language use, if at a slower pace than heteroglossia.

(6) At the other end of a textual continuum characterized by power to shape or control events, I would locate minutes. Considered strictly as a document, minutes have no authority as a textual act apart from confirming the meeting to which they refer. Minutes are strictly transitory, "of' a specific meeting, whose actual business transpires irrespective of how the minutes are written.

In addition, meetings for which minutes constitute the only appropriate textual representation are themselves likely to be purely ephemeral, or "ongoing." At the minimum, the following sort of item, from the minutes of one of my own department's meetings, appears: "There's still a problem with the coffee pot, says Carole. Lois said she will speak to the graduate students to ensure they also attend to the coffee machine."

The minutes of another meeting begin thus: "Larry announced that this meeting's main business would be the visit of Dean Scanlon. Dean Scanlon let the Department know, at 2:05, that he would be unable to join us." The dean's absence did not, however, terminate a meeting that had begun five minutes earlier. The minutes record news from the Curriculum Committee and the Search Committee. Upcoming meetings of the English Club and the Writing Staff are announced.

Finally, the chair announces that the dean's visit will be the main business of the next meeting. Minutes for a meeting such as this record, I think, a kind of zero degree of a group's relation to the future, into which the past can only be reborn as if it never occurred at all because the group has ultimately no control over "the stream of events."

(7) George Greenstein, "A Gentleman of the Old School: Homi Bhabha and the Development of Modern Science," American Scholar, 61 (1992), 415. Greenstein does not consider whether the memo he cites might not have a national text. In an otherwise fine linguistic analysis of two memos, from National University of Singapore and United World College of South East Asia, respectively, Lester Faigley similarly fails to raise some question about how different national traditions might affect the writing of memos. About a headmaster's memo on the school dress code, Faigley has a point similar to Greenstein's:

"It is as if the dress code were handed down by God, and the students are blasphemers for not following it to the letter" (Lester Faigley, Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition [Pittsburgh, 1992], p. 97). Suppose we ask, however, if a paternalistic tradition is not at work in all these Asian memos, which do not issue along the lines of Westernized instrumental reason and technocratic organization.

It is quite likely, I believe, that there are some societies in which the textual practice known in the West as memo writing does not function as such. Compare Cathy Davidson, new to her teaching position in Japan, browsing through the accumulated memos in her mailbox, one of which (in English and Japanese) announces that "everyone should please try to have the health examination before the beginning of classes." Davidson is puzzled. "We didn't get memos at Michigan State that told us 'please try' to do things" (Cathy Davidson, 36 Views of Mount Fuji: On Finding Myself in Japan [New York, 1993], pp. 8-9).

(8) Of course the relation between the official structure of an organization and its social relations or other informal networks can be put in different terms to reveal the same sort of thing about bureaucratic authority. Compare Claude Lefort: "behind the mask of rules and impersonal relations lies the proliferation of unproductive functions, the play of personal contacts and the madness of authority" (Claude Lefort, The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism, ed. John B. Thompson [Cambridge, 1986], p. 109).

(9) Martha Banta, "Working the Levees: Building Them Up or Knocking Them Down?" American Quarterly, 43 (1991), 383. If it could be objected that the very idea of such a course is a transparent mockery of political correctness, consider the following assertion of the very same sort of thing about her course in gay literature by Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick: "I've gone so far as to include in the syllabus a request that students who consider themselves heterosexual find ways of not making that information available to the rest of the class until, say, three weeks into the semester: until, that is to say, ideally, a time when they have been able to register the presumption of their queerness, not as an outlandish if educative burden, but rather precisely as--in relation to this particular cognitive and erotic space and, who knows, maybe even in relation to others--something to be explored, expanded, and prized" (Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick, "Socratic Raptures, Socratic Ruptures," in English Inside and Out: The Places of Literary Criticism, ed. Susan Gubar and Jonathan Kamholtz [New York, 1993], p. 129). What to say? Did someone speak of parody? One would certainly like to see Sedgwick's syllabus. Perhaps some specific ways heterosexuals could keep their mouths shut (to mention that part only) for the first three weeks are therein suggested.

(10) Don DeLillo, Americana (New York, 1973), p. 19.

(11) Therefore, I do not quite agree with Faigley when he remarks that the sheaf of memos he received from the National University "was a kind of institutional memory," containing "traditional knowledge" (Faigley, Postmodernity, p. 91). "Archive" would be a better word here, because the word is more neutral with respect both to the wide range of uses to which memos can be put in organizations and to how all the uses finally have a purely ephemeral character--even if some memos exist to be kept on file forever.

This last use is especially true in the case of what I have earlier distinguished as position papers. But then we should attend to Robert Birnbaum's discussion of the important role in the decision-making process of "anarchical" organizations played by what he terms "garbage cans." Birnbaum writes as follows: "Garbage cans in an organization act like buffers or 'energy sinks' that absorb problems, solutions, and participants like a sponge and prevent them from sloshing around and disturbing arenas in which people wish to act. Ad Hoc long-range institutional planning committees may be the quintessential garbage cans, temporarily providing 'homes' for any conceivable institutional problem, solution, or participant" (Robert Birnbaum, How Colleges Work: The Cybernetics of Academic Organizations and Leadership [San Francisco, 1988], p. 165).

In Birnbaum's terms, the CCPS Summary considered earlier is so much sloshing. Correspondingly, how accurate would it be to say that the circulation of virtually all memos in any organization is finally a practice of waste recycling? Some of the basis for the humor of St. Augustine writing a memo is not only that he did not write as a member of an organization, we realize, but that he did not write garbage.

(12) Compare John Guillory's striking invocation of "the style of the memo," which he terms "the humblest text of bureaucracy," in his consideration of a key prophetic moment in Paul de Man. "It reports," he continues, "on the future productivity of rhetorical reading. . . . It is as though de Man were merely reporting, as though he were merely passing on instructions from somewhere higher or deeper within the institution itself, and not setting an agenda for his disciples, for the school (and faction) of rhetorical reading." De Man, in other words, has chosen a familiar "style" best suited to concealing, like a good bureaucrat, the presence of his own charismatic authority (John Guillory, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation [Chicago, 1993], pp. 258-59).

It might well be possible to stipulate a sort of zero-degree function of the memo, although even here function depends upon reception. Russell Jacoby recalls a controversy that swelled to national proportions a few years ago when A. Bartlett Giamatti issued the following memo on his first day as President of Yale: "In order to repair what Milton called the ruin of our grandparents, l wish to announce that henceforth, as a matter of University policy, evil is abolished and paradise restored. I trust all of us will do whatever is possible to achieve this policy objective" (Russell Jacoby, Dogmatic Wisdom: How the Culture Wars Divert Education and Distract America [New York, 1994], p. 23). The reasons for the controversy are complex. Among the theoretical questions is the matter of whether a memo must be restricted to its specific institutional or organizational setting in order to function officially. Giamatti's memo raises an even more provocative question: can a memo mock its own authority and still be a memo? Certainly some of the controversy was provoked by the spectacle of a college president mocking his own authority, and, perhaps worse, doing so by means of one of the culture's most revered textual forms.

(13) Compare Scott on the "undominated discourse" of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque (through Rabelais), "where there was no servility, false pretenses, obsequiousness, or' etiquettes of circumlocution" (Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance, p. 175). Scott goes on to criticize this notion of carnival speech as being too ideal. No speech escapes the power relations in which it must be enunciated and measured. My own point is that parody speech within an academic context is highly strategic, and based on accepting its restraints, if not the communicative dynamics of the context itself.

(14) Susan Horton, "Let's Get 'Literate': English Department Politics and a Proposal for a Ph.D. in Literacy," in Pedagogy Is Politics: Literary Theory and Critical Teaching, ed. Maria-Regina Kecht (Urbana, 111., 1993), p. 135.

(15) Jacoby, Dogmatic Wisdom, p. 91.

(16) Stanley Fish, "The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos," in English Inside and Outside: The Places of Literary Criticism, ed. Susan Gubar and Jonathan Kamholtz (New York, 1993), p. 107. Fish's remarkable performance needs to be seen within the context of the new mood of professional self-aggrandizement, as sketched, for example, in the final chapter of Jacoby's Dogmatic Wisdom. There Jacoby cites the typically "leftist" complaint of Louis Kampf: "Poor me. I have a nifty little job at a big famous place, but I feel depressed.... For years I've written articles telling people that universities are . . . the ideological servants of the ruling elites." "No need to worry," comments Jacoby. "As Professor Struggle explains, after wine and a pasta dinner he felt better" (p. 190). Fish's performance is what happens after wine and dinner, or rather after enough wine and enough dinners. As Fish concludes: "It is just something I have always wanted to do" (p. 108).

(17) Paul Theroux, The London Embassy (Boston, 1983), p. 246.
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Author:Caesar, Terry
Publication:New Literary History
Date:Jun 22, 1995
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