Assemblage Theory Rhetoric/Composition Science Teaching

composition program #fail and assemblage theory

Perhaps these days it seems like I am throwing assemblage theory into every post. Maybe I am. But I've been thinking about it more and (probably as a result) seeing it more in the things I am encountering. So here a couple things I encountered in the last couple days.

The video is from 2002 and reminds me of his later essay "What is an Apparatus?" which I blogged about a couple months ago.

In any case, each of these pieces addresses the subject of science studies from a different angle, with Kuhn being a common touchstone of sorts (not that they all agree with Kuhn, of course). Agamben's piece is more abstractly about the concept of the paradigm (particularly the role of the paradigm in Foucault). The others are more directly conversations about trying to understand how science works.

Typically I am moving tangentially from these concerns toward my own and here taking up the issues of failure and paradigm-cum-assemblage.

I have discussed failure many times on this blog, particularly in terms of pedagogy. I emphasize risk-taking and experimentation in my classes. I try to encourage students to value failure as an integral part of a creative and intellectual life. Failure is deeply stigmatized in American education to the point where students are conditioned to avoid the risk-taking that is integral, in my view, to learning. 

Jonah Leher's Wired article discusses the problems laboratory science has dealing with failure and introduces some interesting neuroscience that explains, via fMRI, how our brains tend to edit out observations that we make that do not fit with our expectations. As Leher writes:

What turned out to be so important, of course, was the unexpected result, the experimental error that felt like a failure. The answer had been there all along — it was just obscured by the imperfect theory, rendered invisible by our small-minded brain. It’s not until we talk to a colleague or translate our idea into an analogy that we glimpse the meaning in our mistake. Bob Dylan, in other words, was right: There’s no success quite like failure.

Arthur's book looks to develop a theory of technological development or evolution. I haven't read it, just this Times review, so I can't comment on the book itself right now. However, the review resonated with me in its exploration of how in the mainstream we assume that science drives technology and that there is a rational, logical, incremental evolution of science (with occasional great discoveries of course). Leher points out that, to the contrary, laboratories regularly produce unexpected results and that they have curious ways of dealing with those failures where it would seem that the very last thing one would do would be to abandon one's theory.

If that sounds like a knock on science, it shouldn't. In fact, I'm more interested here in discussing how we do this very same thing in composition, not only on a pedagogic level but on a programmatic level as well.

While we can experiment in composition, it is not the same thing as a science experiment, obviously. There are far too many variables out of our control. Composition is all about failure. It is founded on the premise that students fail to write well. I have often argued that the institutional definition of a student is "one who cannot write," and inasmuch as that is the case, a curriculum designed to produce student writers is tautologically impossible. It would be like creating dogs that were cats. However that's really an argument about cultural-institutional attitudes toward students as writers.

I have to admit that composition scholarship is rife with heroic pedagogy narratives about great successes, but in my view such narratives are reactions to the general perception that composition fails. And we have many explanations for this failure (beyond the simple fact that we are strongly predisposed to view students are poor writers). We can blame technology or media (e.g. texting). We can blame socio-economic conditions or the public education system or any number of external conditions. 

And who can say that such conditions do not cause the failure of our experiment/program? Under laboratory conditions, scientists can spend months trying to eliminate such potential external reasons for failure. For composition, that would be like spitting in the ocean. It's imposible to eliminate external factors without eliminating the students. 

Still, that does not mean that the theories, the paradigms, that shape/cloud our perception of composition are not an integral part of our failure. Now, it would be wrong to say that composition does not develop new pedagogic theories and practices. At the same time, the bulk of actual pedagogic activity is disconnected from composition theory because the instructors are not participants in the discipline. Furthermore, as much as we have seen the development of disciplinary practices over the last 40+ years, much of rhetorical instruction is fundamentally the same as it was during the classical Greek and Roman eras. Now there's nothing necessarily wrong with that, but it does indicate a powerful paradigm at work.

As I was thinking about this from the angle of neuroscience, I was reminded of the Zen Buddhist concept of shoshin or "beginner's mind." Leher's article remarks on the value of interdisciplinary approaches to problem solving where the people involved do share all the same preconceptions. And I wonder if it is possible for me to bring a beginner's mind to the concerns of writing pedagogy. Not sure. When I think of such things, I am reminded of approaches like Diane Davis' in her CCC article, "Finitude's Clamor."

Having ditched "the rhetoric of assertion:" a first-year writing
course might adopt a rhetoric of exposition and reclaim the sense of "essay"
that it implies, making writing a way of testing out possibilities, trying out
questions together: writing as a way of putting oneSelf into question by initiating
conversation. The idea (the point) would not be to encourage a point- or
thesis-free essay but to admit and to affirm the thesis as a mark of exposure: It
indicates not power or knowledge or mastery but naked vulnerability. To state

one's thesis is to risk oneself, to open toward others; it is to initiate an approach,
an encounter, a becoming. Thus, the goal of writing would not be to
defend one's thesis and then cleanly and clearly to wrap up. Rather, the stated
goal of the essay in such a course would be
to hold the door open on this thesis (and
so, on one's writing-being), to keep it exposed
to various encounters, interruptions,
contradictions–to resist the urge to turn
away from the "outside" in order to finish
off the conversation. Assigned essays in this
course would ask not for the closing off that feigns mastery but for the opening
up that perpetuates the inquiry, that keeps the conversation going.

Perhaps a writing program might operate in a similar way.  To turn back to Agamben's lecture, he says 

the intelligibility of the paradigm is never presupposed, on the contrary, the specificity of the paradigm resides precisely in the suspension of its immediate factual reference and in the exhibition of its intelligibility as such in order to give life to a new problematic context. Perhaps to treat the hypothesis truly as a hypothesis and not as a principle may simply mean to treat them as paradigms. The paradigm is a hypothesis treated and exposed as such. It is a hypothesis or presupposition whose intelligibility is no more presupposed but exposed, so that it allows us to reach an unpresupposed principle. 

The common thread here is exposure (and our apparently built-in, neuroscientific predisposition to turn away from exposure to otherness–to the unexpected, to that which does not fit our presuppositions). I do find connections, at least for myself, between the beginner's mind that allows itself to be exposed and the practices of assemblage theory. It's hard to imagine a methodology of exposure. I don't think of assemblage theory as being that. That said, a realist social ontology, as DeLanda might put it, offers us a different way of thinking through paradigms that does expose them.

Davis writes about the "rhetoric of assertion," and I see that as a paradigm. I often think about the writing process. How does that paradigm intersect the particular spaces of a composition program: in classes, conferences, assignments, instructor comments, textbooks, and even in a student's writing practices? Rather than blinding ourselves to #fail outcomes, how might we expose that paradigm "in order to give life to a new problematic context"?

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