Assemblage Theory Rhetoric/Composition Teaching

composing genres as assemblages

One of the newly instituted objectives of our first-year composition program is to have students write in "multiple genres" over the course of the semester. The basic goal here is really to have students encounter different kinds of writing tasks than the default, humanistic-academic essay. Essay writing is fine, but the idea is to have some variety. Why? Again, basically, so that students can realize that different writing situations call for different rhetorical and compositional approaches. 

Raising the concept of genre, however, has generated many questions from our instructors about what a genre might be (and perhaps, how I and/or the WPA are deploying the term). Most of our instructors are invested in literary studies, where I think the notion of genre operates a little differently from its operation in rhetoric. As I mentioned in my last post, we were reading Bazerman in our Practicum class, and I think that's a useful place to start for rhet/comp. 

And ultimately Bazerman will resonate well with where I am going to come from, which is an approach more informed by Latour and DeLanda. Here I want to focus on DeLanda in a way that partly presages what I have to say about DeLanda's critique of essences when I take up chapter 2 of New Philosophy of Society as part of the reading group Levi has established. 

As Levi notes, there is an interesting reflexive quality to a social realist ontology that it different from an ontology of natural objects. That is, calling a tree a tree doesn't impact what the tree is. Calling a plant a weed, doesn't change the plant (though it may change the way people react to the plant). On the other hand, the way we name things in a social milieu can be cybernetic. For example, students who become labelled as smart or troubled or whatever can tend to take on those roles. Clearly institutions play integral roles in maintaining those identities. For DeLanda I think this is why we have not only the axes of material/expression and territorialization/deterritorialization, which he borrows from Deleuze and Guattari, but a third axis of coding/decoding that deals specifically with the role that symbolic behavior has among social assemblages.

This brings us to the question of genre. DeLanda writes

Much as biological species are not general categories of which animal and plant organisms are members, but larger-scale individual entities of which organisms are component parts, so larger social assemblages should be given the ontological status of individual entities: individual networks and coalitions; individual organizations and governments; individual cities and nation-states. This ontological manceuvre allows us to assert that all these individual entities have an objective existence independently of our minds (or of our conceptions of them) without any commitment to essences or reified generalities.

I don't want to go too far into this in general terms, as I will be writing more soon, but I think this applies to how I understand genres to operate. Genres themselves are larger-scale individual entities of which individual texts are component parts. As such, it would be erroneous to think of a genre as defining essential characteristics that typify the texts they categorize, just as it would be erroneous to think that species do the same for individual organisms.  

Of course this is a fundamental challenge for a writing class. Typically genres are taught by identifying its textual/rhetorical features. This is how we tend to teach the "academic essay." Students really like models or, barring that, a rubric, which tells them the characteristics of an "A." And this is how we get the cybernetic quality of genres as an assemblage that include material, expressive, territorializing and coding forces. That is, genres might delimit the particular material quality of a text (e.g. a blog post must be online). It might delimit the expressive potential (e.g. the genre of the love letter vs. the business letter). A genre establishes territory (the blog post is on a blog; the composition essay is in a class; the academic essay is in the journal, etc.). And it regulates coding (what counts as evidence, what rhetorical and stylistic moves are acceptable, how the text is organized, etc.).

Genres are not just abstractions; they are also entities with their own particular history. They are born and die, and they change over time. They emerge from the constellation of objects that are their component parts, but they are more than the sum of those parts just as those parts are not a simple function of the larger whole. They also are exposed to other objects and assemblages in processes of composition, so a particular text of a particular genre emerges through an extensive set of relations. To quote DeLanda one more time: "unlike taxonomic essentialism in which genus, species and individual are separate ontological categories, the ontology of assemblages is flat since it contains nothing but differently scaled individual singularities (or hacceities)." Both the text and the genre are hacceities (of different scales). 

So what's the upshot of this? Well, one cannot say "write an essay," and mean write a text following procedure A resulting in qualities 1,2, and 3, and then say "write a proposal" following procedure B resulting in qualities x,y, and z. Instead, when one says write an essay or proposal or whatever, one is exposing a compositional task to a particular assemblage that will have material, expressive, territorializing, and coding effects upon it. From a pedagogical perspective then, the task is not so much to say "here are the rules/characteristics," but rather to provide the rhetorical-analytical tools for investigating the operation of these assemblages (which DOES NOT, btw, mean that one has to introduce this kind of theoretical language).

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