Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

genius and the impossibility of teaching writing

It's a familiar argument, I think. "You can't teach writing. Good writing is a matter of natural talent or genius." The answer is, "Well, that depends on what you mean by 'writing.'" In elementary school, kids learn "to write" by forming their letters. No one would doubt that's a learned skill that can be taught. On the other hand, if you mean that one cannot be taught to write like (insert a list of your favorite authors here), then I'm sure that's true. No one can be taught to write like me either. And in a strange (and maybe unfortunate) way, that can be the default of composition pedagogy, right? That is, as instructors our default mode would be to teach students to write like we do. From a different perspective, that seems almost inescapable. After all, are we supposed to teach them to write like someone else?

This is another version of the error/problem of thinking through paradigms that I discussed in my last post. However, here I want to think about this issue in terms of the notion of "genius," particularly as Agamben takes up the term in Profanations. Agamben writes that "Comprehending the conception of man implicit in Genius means understanding that man is not only an ego and an individual consciousness, but rather that birth to death he is accompanied by an impersonal, preindividual element." In this respect, genius is connected not only to some "spirtual," higher plane (i.e. some external source of inspiration), but also to all the unconscious processes of life: "If we didn't abandon ourselves to Genius, if we were only ego and consciousness, we would not even be able to urinate."

This intimacy with a zone of nonconsciousness is an everyday mystical practice, in which the ego, in a sort of special, joyous esoterism, looks on with a smile at its own undoing, and, whether it's a matter of digesting food or illuminating the mind, testifies incredulously to is own incessant dissolution and disappearance. Genius is our life insofar as it does not belong to us.

So we might be able to say that that part of our lives which is "genius" is not directly "teachable," at least this would be the case if we constrain pedagogy to acts of communication between two or more conscious subjects. Certainly, genius, so defined, responds to pedagogy, but does it do so in a predictable way that would satisfy the "outcomes" we hope for from curriculum?

Agamben addresses specifically the issue of writing. 

Suppose the ego wants to write — not to write this or that work, but simply to write, period. This desire means: I (Ego) feel that somewhere Genius exists, that there is in me an impersonal power that presses toward writing.  But this Genius, who has never taken up a pen (much less a computer) — has no inclination to product a work. One writes in order to become impersonal, to become genial, and yet, in writing, we individuate ourselves as authors of this or that work; we move away from Genius, who can never have the form of an ego, much less that of an author. Every attempt by Ego, by the personal element, to appropriate Genius, to force him to sign in one's own name, is necessarily destined to fail.

So this should be a familiar refrain within the song of theory. Writing comes from elsewhere. It is a way to become-other. And at the same time, there is the will to immanence, to make the self present in the text, through the signature, etc. From here, though, Agamben goes in a couple interesting directions, and then I will return to this issue of teaching.

Agamben writes that "An author's style — like the grace displayed by any creature — depends less on his genius than on the part of him that is deprived of genius, his character. That is why when we love someone we actually love neither his genius nor his character (and even less his ego) but his special manner of evading both of these poles, his rapid back-and-forth between genius and character." And then the most interesting turn at the very end of the essay:

But for each person there comes a time when he must be separated from his Genius… only now do we begin to live a purely human and earthly life, the life that did not keep its promises and, for that reason can now give us infinitely more… only now does the very long unlearning of the self begin.

I can only imagine here that the notion of the genius has shifted somewhat from that which is connected to the unconscious processes that keep us functioning (e.g. urination). Here at the end we have returned to a more traditional understanding of what genius is. Here we come to see that writing cannot solely be the impersonality, genial condition of genius. After all, genius cannot take up a pen. What is at stake here at the end, is the particular/singular "back-and-forth" that reconnects us to Agamben's notion of "whatever." I love you, whatever you are, in your singularity. 

As we see in this final passage, one does not only separate from genius but also unlearns the self. Writing, for Agamben, is the evasion of both of these poles. As long as we cling to genius, we must simultaneously cling to ego. Through writing we might move away from this dialectic.

Ok, so try teaching that????

Maybe not. That said, in composition we have long eschewed the notion of individual genius (as unteachable) and pursued a more instrumental, heuristic process that produces predictable works. It is fundamentally a pedagogy that says "Through pedagogy, through a careful manipulation of the conditions of writing, I can regularize your writing practice so that you all (the students in the class) will produce predictable texts that will approach acceptability."

In the end, it comes back to the first question. If by "writing" we mean the production of business reports, letters, and memos that are not replete with "grammatical errors" and are generally intelligible (i.e. what most college students will be asked to produce as professionals). This would appear to be a teachable skill. And this would also appear to have nothing to do with what Agamben means by "writing," and even less to do with genius. Fair enough, though I would suggest that even though would might never mention Agamben, even when writing memos, one is becoming impersonal, one struggles with the issue of the signature, and that the difficulty of writing (anything) always resides in the back-and-forth between genius and character.

Of course that kind of writing has nothing to do with what we teach in composition, either. The funny thing is that I don't know what we mean by "writing" in composition. The traditional definition of composition was that we were teaching general writing skills and simultaneously "academic" writing skills. Then we said there really isn't such a thing as "general" skills. Then we said there really isn't such a thing as general "academic" skills either. 

But I might suggest a return to "general" writing. To writing that is not part of a specific economy but rather writing as part of the "general economy" in Bataille's sense. Or perhaps in the context of this post in the sense of the genial. 

Can this be taught? Now perhaps the question turns to what one means by "teaching." If one means the creation of conditions under which one encounters this experience of writing, then yes. If one means creating opportunities for reflection and discussion of these concerns, then yes. 

In the end, the problem isn't that writing cannot be taught, that genius cannot be taught. Nor is it that writing is such an instrumental, basic activity that writing instruction can only be remedial at the college level. The problem is that the whole business of writing instruction is far more complex than that. Which does not mean that students need to read Agamben or Bataille! But it might mean that writing pedagogy must emerge from an understanding of writing that is more complex than what is represented in a composition textbook.