composition's process-product problem

Mike Edwards has a provocative post on the process movement that previews a Computers and Writing presentation I hope to attend later this week. Edwards takes up networked accounts of composing, as we see in Jody Shipka and Byron Hawk, as a way of rethinking process, but then is interested in a Marxian analysis of the diachronic nature of process and the "transformation problem" wherein process is reified as product. It's an interesting meditation. I share to some degree the networked approach in Shipka, Hawk, and others. Much network talk in composition stems from cultural-historical activity theory, which in many respects is probably more friendly to Mike's Marxian interests than a Latourian approach. My own view is not so much unfriendly as somewhat out of bounds.

For me, the fundamental ontological problem with composition's process movement is the inherent teleology that links process to product. I think Edwards sees that. Hawk makes a similar observation. And Shipka's careful accounting of compositional networks points to this as well. It's not a matter of better methods or more panoptic technologies capturing eye movements, keystrokes, or brain waves. Process doesn't equal product no matter what. 

In fact, in these terms, there is no such thing as a writing process. There are only retrospective accountings of what I did when I was writing. As if I knew what I was doing. I'm not suggesting that such metacognitive reflections cannot be helpful in one's development into a successful writer (however we want to define success). I'm simply contending that there is a fundamental, uncrossable divide between those accounts and the emergence of a "text" (e.g. this one). Beginning with this premise one might see the transformation problem differently.

The "process" is widely taught to composition students. We always say that it is recursive, but does anyone believe that writing doesn't begin with "invention"? The funny thing about the process is that it's underlying claim is that "this is what professional writers do." Actually what professional writers do is spend hours writing and researching; they have, by definition, made a living doing these things. If we want students to mimic "professional writers" then we shouldn't have them pantomime some ginned-up "process" but have them spend 20+ hours a week writing (and then do that for 10 years if we buy into the 10,000 hours to become an expert calculation). I don't know if I buy that calculation, but I do think there is no substitute for time on task or for the simple and sometimes brutal reality of writing in the wild and trying to make something happen with your words. 

But I've gotten off the topic of process and product, so let me get straight to how I see these things ontologically. If process/product is a false distinction it is because the activities of an object are not simply separable from the object. I am running… on a street, through a neighborhood, in daylight, on May 15th,  etc. etc. Running is a capacity I possess in relation to other objects, an agency that arises through those realtions. Running has its own autopoietic system: what it must do to remain running. Running can be apprehended as both process and product, but neither captures the object in full. Writing is a capacity that arises for me in relation to other objects, like this blogging application and my laptop. Writing is an assemblage in which I participate. In some respects I might say that writing is an assemblage that goes on without me. We can say that writing produces texts, but can we say that without asserting some teleology? Without asserting that the purpose of writing is to produce texts? Or even further, without claiming that writing is defintionally the production of texts and nothing else? Just as every tuneless humming is not a song and every muttering is not a sentence, every writing is not a text. At the same time, objects are more than their processes. This text is other than any accounting of process or activity could ever describe. 

Writing and text share a relation to one another, but it is not a causal or teleological one. Texts may need to be written in order to exist, but they are more than the writing. And writing does not necessarily cause texts to emerge.

In the end, I do believe that metacognitive reflection on one's experiences with writing can be useful. And I do think that getting feedback from an audience can also be valuable. In other words, thinking about your process and thinking about your product can both be helpful. However I have to say that for me these things have had limited value as consciously focused activities, though perhaps they are always operating in the background somewhere.  For me, writing has always been fundamentally about meeting the obligations of the objects I encounter, the demands they put on me, and composing something that works well from them. And here I will quote from Latour in Reassembling the Social we "don’t need to ignore the thickness of any given text, its pitfalls, its dangers, its awful way to make you say things you don’t want to say, its opacity, its resistance, its mutability, its tropism" (124).

Process that.


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