Assemblage Theory Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

creativity, writing talent and the autonomy of objects

Perhaps these seem like an odd collection of terms, but bear with me.

First off, let me say that I think my discipline (rhetoric and composition) has strong commitments to a number of somewhat contradictory impulses:

  1. that everyone can "write" (and perhaps should write);
  2. that there is really no such thing as natural talent or creativity;
  3. that writing is a social rather than individual activity.

And my thought is that of course these things are all true, but they are also completely wrong. The discipline's commitment to democracy means understanding writing as a socio-political activity that everyone can engage in equally, at least on some abstract-potential level. However, I cannot get away from the fact that there are people who have an exceptional talent and interest for writing (some of whom also teach writing). The same rhetoricians who will refuse to see writing as a natural talent are quick to say they have no natural aptitude for math. Hmmmm. Undoubtedly, the mission of rhet/comp is well-intentioned, particularly if one has faith in the notion that literacy equals empowerment. At the same time, to be committed to writing having certain characteristics because writing instruction must serve a particular political end would ultimately be destructive.

All of that is a little preamble to my consideration of why I think many of my colleagues in rhet/comp would be troubled by the notion of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation that I discussed in my last post. In the mainstream discourses of my discipline, I fear that intrinsic motivation would sound too much like a kind of naive humanism, where many in my field would rather insist upon the role of social, cultural, and ideological forces. In short, all forces are extrinsic. Don't ask me how we get from there to empowering students through literacy, because honestly that little trick of agency has always escaped me.

From my view, this intrinsic/extrinsic talk must also be reconciled with assemblage theory and relations of exteriority, which is where my work and this blog often operates. That may also seem like a difficult rhetorical trick, but actually I think it's fairly simple.

When one discusses relations of exteriority, in my view, one must begin with the dissolution of inside and outside as absolute, essential characteristics. (Admittedly then, relations of exteriority is a somewhat misleading term, but that matter will have to wait for another day.) That doesn't meant that inside and outside cannot exist as emergent and very real characteristics of objects. E.g. my house has an inside and an outside. They exist and not just in my mind as concepts. In a related way, subjectivity/consciousness emerges through relations of exteriority, through a network of distributed cognition and symbolic action, through embodied processes, and through exposure to assemblages of objects. Subjectivity is semi-stable inasmuch as those relations and assemblages are semi-stable. Even though subjectivity emerges through relations of exteriority, it has an inside and an outside as surely as my house does. The point of assemblage theory & relations of exteriority is "simply" to argue that subjectivity (or any other object) is not defined that which emerges as an inside.

However, given all that, as subjects we experience our lives as a collection of intrinsically and extrinsically motivated activities. And I'm not going to try to account for them all. Instead I want to jump right to the one that is at issue here: writing. We are regularly given obviously extrinsic conditions where we are called upon to write. Student writing assignments are an obvious example. But we are also often obligated to write various kinds of things on the job. The point that Dan Pink is trying to make (see previous post) is that when we are asked to do creative, intellectual work that extrinsic motivations (e.g. carrots and sticks) not only don't work, they can be detrimental. Grades, extra credit, bonuses, etc: none of these things are particularly good motivators in getting people to do good creative work (and I would describe writing as creative work). Now certainly those things we experience as "intrinsic" forms of motivation emerge through assemblages, through relations of exteriority. That doesn't make them less intrinsic. Everything ultimately comes from some other place.

Take for example this post. Why am I writing it? (Why are you reading it?) There is no obvious extrinsic motivation. I don't get paid. It's not related to my job. Maybe I think it will make me famous or at least improve my reputation, but even if I did, there would certainly be no clear reward for writing this post right now. As such, I might say I am intrinsically motivated. What that means to me is that these actions are motivated (though not determined!) by assemblages/relations of exteriority that I subjectively experience as coming from inside. (As to why you're reading this, I have no idea; it probably has something to do with your relationship with your mother.) But this is where we might encounter the "autonomy of objects" (btw, Levi Bryant has some interesting posts on this subject: here is one). If all objects have autonomy to some degree, with the plane of immanence being a degree zero of pure autonomy, there's no special free will for humans. To be autonomous here means that objects have emergent characteristics and behaviors that are reducible to their relations with other objects.

When we are looking at the kind of positive psychology that informs Pink's work, we are not developing some general ontology. The point, quite simply, is that when humans act out of experience of autonomy, mastery, and purpose (to give a shorthand for the qualities of intrinsic motivation Pink explores), they are more successful at creative tasks. If you are a corporate manager or a WPA then you might think about creating work conditions that are conducive to these experiences. Similarly, as a teacher, one might facilitate these conditions to give students opportunities to draw upon intrinsic motivations for their writing.

So I will end with where I started. It's true that in some basic definition of writing, nearly every human has the cognitive ability to write. That said, everyone does not have the equal potential for writing and not everyone will find pleasure in it (anymore than the typical English professor finds pleasure in mathematics). While writing certainly is a social activity, we need to be more careful with that term "social," as Latour has pointed out. We need to recognize how inadequate conventional "social" explanations are for our own motivations as writers. Despite my understanding of things like audience, genre, and discourse, I know quite well that my best writing does not come from meeting those external demands. It is a sadly impoverished view of writing that does not recognize the necessity of intrinsic motivation. And I fear that in our desire to make writing logical and learnable, to make it something that is equal for all people, we ignore those aspects.