Assemblage Theory Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

communities, genres, objects, and expression

This semester I am teaching our Practicum for Teaching course: a graduate course in which we mentor our new TAs and discuss research in rhetoric and composition. Our primary text is the Norton Book of Composition Studies, and we've started with a number of interesting pieces from Bazerman, Bartholomae, Harris, and Elbow. Of course one always tends to read texts through the particular theoretical lens that one is working in or through, and I have been thinking about "assemblage, network, object" theory. Nevertheless, I was surprised at the connections I saw, and perhaps the potential to think the existing disciplinary foundation for thinking about rhetoric in these theoretical terms.

With Charles Bazerman and his longstanding interesting in the rhetoric of science, it is hardly surprising that there is a connection with Latourian approaches. Like Latour, Bazerman is interested in the construction, the composition, of scientific knowledge (though admittedly, he is primarily focused on how this construction occurs through rhetorical practices as opposed to the broader network of actor-objects at work). In this excerpt, the first chapter from Shaping Written Knowledge (1988), Bazerman focuses on genre and contends that "we must be careful not to consider this genre as a unitary social fact. Formal definitions, expected features, institutional force, impact, and understandings of the genre vary through time, place, and situation." Though certainly he is writing here at a time when Derrida and Foucault are taking over English Studies, and, as a rhetorician, he is content with this renewed focus on language, particularly non-literary language, we can see in Bazerman the move toward thinking about technology and other objects in rhetorical-compositional processes.

If we want to think about an object-oriented rhetoric, then we can't think of genre as a formal or essential category of texts but rather an articulation of a text in a social situation. I.e., a proposal isn't a proposal simply because it reflects some formal elements.

Joseph Harris' "The Idea of Community in the Study of Writing" explores the links between genre and community. When we speak about "academic discourse communities," especially in first-year writing, we tend to reference an abstract, textual community: writers who may never meet and only connect through citation. It's a community that comes very close to what we typically think of as a genre. Harris notes this. The same thing might be said of a students' "home discourse." Harris writes

There has been much debate in recent years over whether we need, above all, to respect our students' "right to their own language," or to teach them the ways and forms of "academic discourse." Both sides of this argument, in the end, rest their cases on the same suspect generalization: that we and our students belong to different and fairly distinct communities of discourse, that we have "our "academic" discourse and they have "their own" "common" (?!) ones. The choice is between opposing fictions… We do not write simply as individuals, but we do not write simply as members of a community either.

Harris ultimately seeks to recoup the concept of community from the abstractions of ideology, hegemony, and the like. This too strikes me as a project similar to Latour's reassembling of the social. The leap to abstract genres of academic discourse or vague academic communities is much like the leap to the bland background of the social. Does the generic genre of academic discourse exist? Only in the sense that it is constructed and maintained in the context of the composition classroom. But then, of course, it isn't "generic;" it is locatable within a network.

Of course this connects with Bartholomae's "Inventing the University," where we encounter a curious kind of invention. Students don't really get to invent the university; they have to invent a way to enter into the university. This is the problem that Harris is discussing and critiquing above. In Bartholomae's essay it is interesting to see how the force of institutional writing can serve to stultify writing for those who come to view the task in terms of formal genres.

Strangely, for those of us who find value in academic writing and its community of writers and readers, genre becomes a more fluid emergent understanding of the relations and mediations among objects (even if we don't always speak in those terms). Perhaps this is part of the problem that Ian was writing about recently. Even though "expressivist" rhetoric, in the sense that is generally applied to the work of Elbow and others, has certainly declined in popularity, perhaps a return to a philosophy of expression might be useful. After all, expressivism and process are put through the textbook grinder and come out as crude caricatures; then the terms get appropriated by other scholars who would replace them.

The primary problem with expressivist rhetoric, particularly as it devolved, was its focus on the individual as the sole source of expression. What we might do is extend the notion of expression to map the relations among objects. There are many objects and forces expressing themselves in a compositional assemblage. With expressivism we get past the non-local, generalized, spectral notions of university and discourse to examine the specific objects at work, expressing themselves.