Recent talk of process has made me curious about the role that Latour has or hasn’t played in rhetoric and composition. Thanks to the great work Collin and others have done with CCC Online, you can actually search the works cited of CCC articles going back to 1987. So that’s a start.
Looking there you can see Latour cited in a Mike Rose article in 1988 that deals with issues of cognition and teaching. There’s a second article in 1990 by Dorothy Winsor on engineering, one by Cynthia Selfe in 1999 that deals with technology and literacy, and two in 2005 by DeVoss et al on new media and Moskovitz and Kellog on science writing. That’s not to say these articles deal substantively with Latour, only that Latour appears in the works cited page.
Check MLA and you’ll get 19 hits for Latour, Bruno dating back to 1994, seven in 2005-06, mostly in "theory" journals or science fiction or science studies. Nothing in rhet/comp. Search for latour in comp pile and you’ll get four hits. Two articles from the journal Science, Technology, and Values, a dissertation from 1995, and an article in an essay collection on the machine grading of student writing. Of course this doesn’t tell the whole story. Latour has been put to work in technical writing. In TCQ there have been more than a dozen references in the last few years. It is also not uncommon to find reference to Latour in computers and composition.
However, there is a general story here. We read Latour as speaking to the issues of science and technology. Those of us in English Studies interested in those matters, whether we study science fiction or technical writing or computers and writing or science and literature, have a tendency to reference Latour. Otherwise, not so much.
But there are some very interesting implications, particularly about process, in thinking through Latour.
For example, as is oft-cited, Latour discusses Robert Boyle’s invention of the vacuum pump as a significant node in the emergence of modernity. Boyle used the device to conduct experiments that allowed him to fabricate scientific facts (e.g. Boyle’s Law). These facts where then able to spread, with the device. That is, where one had a pump, one could re-fabricate these facts. In this fashion knowledge passes along a network, through the mediation of non-human actors like the pump.
How does the "writing process" spread? Like Boyle, who brought in gentlemen scholars to witness his experiments, we bring graduate students into pedagogy courses and fyc programs to witness the experiment of teaching and to practice conducting the practice themselves. Instead of a pump, we have textbooks that mediate the spread of the writing process across fyc programs. We have programmatic syllabi, course requirements, and so on that serve the same purpose in local contexts. Typically we have the process rolled inside the modes. So students write mode-driven essays (e.g. compare/contrast, the argument, the summary, the process, the research paper) and in each instance they reinact the same general process (invent, draft, revise, edit). Like Boyle’s laboratory, FYC is a writing lab where we can suck all the
air out of the room and fabricate facts about the writing process, an
activity that can be repeated in other labs provided that we pass along
the non-human actors (textbooks) and train the teachers to use the
That is what we propagate. It is certainly what gets propagated at Cortland where the particular required modes are "respond to one reading," "respond to two or more readings" (i.e. compare/contrast), the argument, and the research paper.
Is it good or bad? I don’t care. Not interested in judgment. Certainly we could make a similar analysis with computers and writing. (In fact I do something along these lines in an article I’m working on right now.)
Equally interesting to me is the way process theory (or theories) rely upon the dividing up of knowledge and the abstraction of knowledge from materiality. As Latour argues about science, scientists can insist that their knowledge is objective and pure, even as they fabricate it in labs that work in social competition with one another and wrangle over grants and laws and commerical applications and so on. Knowledge like the process is made possible by the dividing up of the
world which says we can make the brain into a black box, and we don’t
have to worry about social contexts outside the immediate context of
the author and audience–though in doing so, we overlook that
the process is mediated by textbooks, syllabi, classrooms, general
education requirements, discoures on literacy, perceptions of student
writing, and so on.
So if post-process is generally (though not in all cases) an assertion of the social, it tends to function as using the social (and hence ideology) as a framework for composition. However, much like the writing lab knowledge of the process, ideology is also fabricated at local sites and mediated across the network by non-human actors. I should note there isn’t any particular origin point, just a starting point for investigation. Process does originate in the lab. Ideology doesn’t originate at a particular point. But we could say, from Latour’s perspective, that neither process nor ideology serves as a meta-structure for the other. The crucial point being here that situating writing practices as a function of ideology doesn’t offer much insight into how to write.
Learning to study the local interactions that shape writing practices may be a kind of specialized knowledge that is unnecessary for most writers. I’m not suggesting that we teach these things in FYC. I’m just suggesting that the relatively unsophisticated practices we teach students, while perhaps appropriate for them, may not actually describe writing. But then this has always been a kind of dividing point in rhet/comp, right? Is a focused on figuring out ways to teach students to write better? Or is it focused on the study of writing practices? Perhaps both, but the two are not necessarily reinforcing. There’s plenty in the latter that would be of little use to the former, and focusing on the former probably wouldn’t get you very far with the latter.