Higher Education

subdividing the (textual) world

I see many friends on Facebook remarking on MLA’s efforts to reorganize their group structure. Collin has blogged about it. This is definitely one of those “short straw” tasks where no one wins. It’s a fairly trivial matter. I don’t know who uses these groups or what purpose they are meant to achieve. I know several of my rhet/comp and tech comm friends have responded critically, but I think this is mostly because this is yet another rehearsal of a very long history of antagonism between writing studies and literary studies. While some colleagues tell stories of departments that find a common sense of purpose across this divide, that is quite clearly not the general history of English departments in the last twenty years. What message does MLA intend to convey when rhetoric and composition is one of what must be at least 100 different groups? I can think of four possibilities:

  1. There’s no message. This ended up this way because no time or energy was devoted to how MLA members or potential members might express interests in this general area.
  2. MLA sees rhet/comp as a limited field, equivalent in scope to a single literary period (each period gets its own group).
  3. MLA has very few members interested in this subject, so there’s no point in having many groups.
  4. MLA is actively discouraging interest (and members interested) in rhet/comp.

If I were MLA, I’d go with #3 as my answer. It might be true. There might be very few members who have used whatever passed for this group in the past. Of course the counter-argument might be that probably very few literary studies members would be interested in a group labeled “Literature.” I don’t think it’s #4; that’s just so clearly against the organization’s financial interests. I think the most likely answer is some combination of #1 and #2.

What’s more interesting to me though is what this says about our continuing commitments, in both writing and literary studies, to 20th-century, print-based paradigms. As I’ve said many times on this blog, I think both disciplines are pretty much doomed. By that I mean that I think the future of literary studies is to become art history: a smaller and far less central (to the university) version of what literary studies was in the 20th century. And writing studies will be subsumed by whatever discipline takes on the challenges of digital literacy and practice. Maybe rhet/comp will just become that, but I see no evidence that such a transition is more likely than some other field emerging just as rhet/comp emerged in English departments many decades ago. In other words, matters like this MLA thing are a classic example of rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. These aren’t discussion groups; they are grave markers. That doesn’t mean that we are dead. My point is that the epistemological paradigm represented in these groups needs to be replaced.

Rhet/Comp has subdivisions too, even if MLA doesn’t know how to spell them. They’re easy to see in the CCCC program, where there are 14 different categories. Be cool or be cast out!  In the case of rhet/comp the subdivisions reflect a historical commitment to  humanistic/academic essay writing; individualistic, isolated writing processes; vague, spectral visions of culture and empowerment; instrumentalized technologies; and, lest we forget, the heroic pedagogy narrative.

Of course we need to subdivide the world in our efforts to understand it. The problem isn’t with creating categories but rather with the historical processes by which the categories are produced and maintained. So arguments for “big rhetoric” or claims like my own that do not wish to limit rhetoric to the study of human, symbolic action are not arguments for eliminating categories but for establishing new paradigms. I am more than tired with arguments about redefining MLA or English Studies to be more expansive, when the whole thing has no future. A far more nimble mode of collectivity will be required to meet this challenge than either a professional organization or an academic department is likely to provide.

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