rhetoric & composition, networks, and object-oriented politics

Jeff Rice and Steve Krause each point to different articles in the latest issue of College Composition and Communication. I'd point you to the articles, but they are safely behind a paywall. However, the articles in question are Chris Gallagher's "Being There: (Re)Making the Assessment Scene" and Marilyn Cooper's "Rhetorical Agency as Emergent and Enacted" respectively. Gallagher's argument is that writing assessment should be conducted primarily by local participants (i.e. teachers and perhas students) rather than be a top-down or corporate process, and he draws on Castell's defintion of networks to make this argument. Cooper invokes Latour and an autopoeitic neurophenomenology to develop a theory of agency. She does so, however, to argue

Conceiving of agency in this way enables writers to recognize their rhetorical acts, whether conscious or nonconscious, as acts that make them who they are, that affect others, and that can contribute to the common good. Responsible rhetorical agency entails being open to and responsive to the meanings of concrete others, and thus seeing persuasion as an invitation to listeners as also always agents in persuasion.

What I see in both articles is a familiar article of faith, a shared disciplinary belief, in a Modern ideal of ultimately rational human agents who can participate in an Enlightenment-style democratic, civic rhetoric, AND that this rhetorical practice, as it is rational, will inevitably lead toward a familiar kind of liberal society of justice and equality. As I see it, the fundamental problem with scholarship in my field is that it must start and end with this belief. If a method or experience or evidence supports this goal then we use it and validate it. If a theory or data seems to make this goal more difficult (or impossible), then we critique it, attack it, discount it, or just plain ignore it. Or, alternately, we just plain misread it.

For what it is worth, I share in Gallagher's skepticism of the Spellings Commission. I've written here many times of my doubts regarding assessment practices, particularly these broad assessement efforts that get so much national attention. Given the broader national discourse on education, it is understandable that teachers at all levels want to fight for more control over the ways in which their work is assessed. Gallagher articulates this larger national pressure as the force of neoliberal ideology, which I think is the mainstream way that teachers and teacher unions respond to NCLB and the whole Bill Gates/"Waiting for Superman"/Michelle Rhee business. While the politics of the field of rhetoric and composition reflects typical left-wing academic leanings, it shares a broader worldview with its neoliberal, conservative opponents. Despite the now old postmodern critiques, rhetoric and composition has continued to search for ways to articulate enough agency and rationality for teachers and students to hold on to its beliefs and to pursue its idealized future. For example, Cooper write that Deleuze and Guattari "kill off the subject by disintegrating it into forces and vectors and seeing change as a product of interactions in complex systems, an approach embraced by Victor Vitanza and other “third sophistic” rhetoricians. It is a useful approach in many ways—except that it leaves no room for any notion of embodied agency and individual responsibility."

I am somewhat sympathetic to this notion of "use." In fact, I often write here that my interest in theories and other things is related to how I can use them or more precisely what they allow us to do or make. Here though, the complaint is that if a theory doesn't support an already existing vision of the world then it should be abandoned. I am less sympathetic to that.

So here is a problem that my field, and I think much of the humanities (which has similiar political beliefs/objectives), will have with OOO or ANT or other forms of speculative realism. First of all, at least as I view an object-oriented or actor-network approach, there are real objects and actors that resist our ability or desire to impose a theory or narrative upon them. Latour emphasizes paying attention to what the actors actually say and do. One can't simply cast about for a theory that will legitimize one's story. Instead one actually has to try to compose knowledge from the objects that are there. Of course the sophisticated, postmodern theorist will tell us that such compositions are always already overdetermined by ideology and then cynically will select a "useful" approach to attempt his/her own overdetermination. Clearly though, the enterprise of speculative realism is to break outside this system, not in order to achieve some pre-established political goal or modern secular-humanist faith, but to explore the real ontological conditions of our situation.

Gallagher turns to Castells and social network theory to make the following argument:

As we trace linkages outward, we recognize that we lose centrality with each tie. Actors further removed from the central activities of the network may still play important roles—for instance, policymakers help shape teaching and learning environments through important resource, equity, and access decisions, and technical experts do so by helping develop effective, sound practices, processes, and procedures—but those roles are limited by the actors’ locations in the network and their relations to others within it. Meanwhile, teachers and students retain their status as the central “dyad” (a common unit of network analysis) in the network. Though we need to be careful in taking up network logic, then, it may be a powerful rhetorical device in remaking the assessment scene and claiming the expertise and leadership of faculty and students.

This seems to beg the question that if "network logic" turned out not to be a "powerful rhetorical device," would we then just ignore it? If, hypothetically, after putting social network analysis to work, we discovered that it demonstrated the value of these more distant decision makers, would we ignore those results or critique them as some neoliberal ideological tool?

When it comes to assessment, I think that in practice I agree with Gallagher in that when we study what happens in a composition classroom we need to make every effort to actually listen to the teachers and the students in the room. How do they understand what they are doing? What agency do they ascribe to themselves? How successful do they view their own enterprise? What objects and events can we note at the various sites of writing pedagogy: classrooms, websites, offices, dorm rooms, word processors, etc? Yes, of course, there are limits to the knowledge that we can construct, but this is our task nonetheless. 

Then comes something completely different, some construction of what should happen. I suppose I shouldn't say it is completely different, as we can likely map the actors' conceptions of what should happen into the study of the actual classroom and follow the mediations of those conceptions out of the classroom along networks through textbooks, professional development, prior institutional experiences, and so on. My point though is that there are conversations that go on, away from classroom sites, about "what should be done." We can also study the actors in those networks. Instead of jumping immediately to neoliberal ideology or whatever, we might follow their trails, ant-like. For example, I don't think there is anything inherently neoliberal about this neverending fascination with grammatical correctnesss. More than anything that's what I hear in conversations outside my field. "Students can't write complete sentences." And I hear this from adminstrators and Marxist faculty alike. 

I don't think that OOO or SR in general has embedded within it a sense of what should happen. I would suggest it has an implicit ethics (as I have argued here in the past) that extends from the fact that cognition and agency are relational. That is, even though objects are withdrawn and do not require one another in order to be, in order for objects to do or to have (as in have thoughts, feelings, etc.), they require relations. Thus ethical obligations of interdependency are built in. However, these are minimal. That said, OOO likely does weaken many more politically charged theories that rely upon a concept of ontology that OOO rejects. It also casts doubt on the stories we tend to tell about our ideological bogeymen. On other hand, it does suggest that if one wants to study poverty, for example, one would be able to investigate the real ontological conditions of poverty, and presumably the ability to construct such knowledge would be useful in altering those conditions. Unfortunately this is not work humanists are accustomed to doing, since instead we assume that we already know what those conditions are and how they are caused.

Thus, in the end, I am left with the concern that many of my rhet/comp colleagues will not find OOO "useful" enough, because, not surprisingly given Latour's well-known position, OOO demands that (to quote Latour) "instead of a future of no future, why not try to see if we could not have a prospect at last? After three centuries of Modernism, it is not asking too much from those who, in practice, have never managed to be Moderns, to finally look ahead."

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