Ontology of revision


For most freshmen, revision seems like an afterthought. But in more process-heavy writing, it’s central. Revising the argument, the thinking behind the argument, the organization of the argument, and the grammar and syntax that laces and threads these thoughts together.

Revision, as its name suggests, is a “re-vision,” a re-seeing, and re-consideration of the work.  (Before one turns it in, presumably).

Lately, I’ve been thinking about the ontology of revision. Phrased another way, what mode of being does revision cultivate–or vise versa?

If I may run with an idea and see where it goes: If we do want to consider writing as taking place in an ecology, then we must consider how an ecology–not just an individual (idealized, abstracted) writer–revises.

A quote from Heidegger’s The Origin of the Work of Art: “The establishing of truth in the work is the bringing forth of a being such as never was before and will never come to be again.”

Seeing a work as a being and not a work changes our orientation to it.  It gives it a certain stand-alone substance. It is not a progeny of the writer, nor even the broader context of the writer, but a “being” equipped with its own possibility for local manifestations and hidden space.

Here, I think Levi Bryant’s ontology is particularly helpful for its emphasis on action. As he puts it, “we should not speak of qualities as something an object possesses, has, or is, but rather as acts, verbs, or something that an object does.” Looking at the ontology of a work, we might say it “works.” And in working, it fulfills a certain rhetorical agenda. The writer may have an aim for the work, but whether that aim takes place is the responsibility, the local manifestation, of the work.

As Hamlet phrases it, “The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.” So the work itself, the “play,” is what moves the king.

So revision. Here revision is not just a seeing again, but a consideration of vision in a broader sense, a sense in the way that the work is “enworlded,” to use a word from Rickert. This differs from mere social context or writing ecology in the way Cooper takes up in her 1986 piece. These are still in discourse among writers.

Instead, as Rickert phrases it,  “world emerges from having a life with others and with things. . . . it emerges from everything we do amid everything else that is” (Ambient Rhetoric, 221). It includes the potential affect allowed by things and the potential being that a work, on its own, may  manifest.

In practical terms, this creates an ethical imperative: we must consider what effects (and affect) the work may manifest on its own, in the world, and what elements of the world are wrapped up in the work. Here, the writer is a “shepherd,” to use a term by Heidegger and Rickert, and revision is a consideration of the broader ontology that this work will represent and be representative of.

Perhaps, like Hamlet, our work will “catch the conscience” of someone. It may ripple into memes and remixes on social media. It may (mis)represent a minority view or inspire the construction of more alternative energy. It may have its own inclinations, which we must draw out and direct.

Here, audience isn’t just some imagined “reader,” but a world of relation, which we must re-vision as writers, through our veil of ignorance.

14 thoughts on “Ontology of revision”

  1. Brett,
    I found your blog post incredibly poignant and refreshing, as this is an area in our field that I believe warrants more contextual and socially and culturally-situated considerations. While process writing in the 80s completely changed the way most contemporary writing instructors teach revision, I agree that most students, and unfortunately still some instructors, view revision as a post-writing move, one that has unfortunately often conflated with editing or proofreading.

    Now, those of us in the field understand the difference between micro/low-stakes and macro/high-stakes concerns in writing, but the students we encounter most likely will not.
    Here in lies a solution within the very question you’re raising: to perceive and present revision as something ontological, something greater and more symptomatic of the individuals and communities composing and revising texts. While, I would not be as presumptuous to pose a particular strategy for such an approach in this short reply, I do think this very question and conversation about revision in this way is the first step.

    Considering the current generation (or ecology) of students today surrounding revision, I wonder whether an over reliance, or at least a wide access, to automated studying, researching and editing technologies will result in students less likely to appreciate revision as a nuanced process that occurs during pre-writing, writing, and post-writing and more likely to approach revision in an automated and correction-centered manner.

    On a somewhat related point, I have found that tying students work to tangible audiences when possible seems to make revision more meaningful, or at least more urgent. And, in that sense, finding ways to tie their writing to genuine senses of authorship and ownership can sometimes result in a greater sense of investment in revision as a process.

    1. Meant to reply to this earlier. Loved the comment. Lots to unpack, if you ever want to meet up and discuss these things! (Stay groovy!)

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