Rhetoric/Composition speculative rhetoric

process, paradigms, collectives, and Latour

I am continuing my slow march through An Inquiry into Modes of Existence (AIME) and want to do so today in the context of a conversation I had with my Teaching Practicum class. On Monday we read and discussed Maxine Hairston (“Winds of Change”)  and Lester Faigely (Competing Theories of Process) on the topic of the writing process. These pieces are from ’82 and ’86 respectively. While there are various arguments about when the process approach to teaching writing began, it is around this time that “teaching the process” as we still practice it became widespread.  To briefly summarize, Hairston argues that the process represents a kind of Kuhnian paradigm change in “our profession” (though who the “our” is might be a little unclear): is the profession “English” or is it a still nascent (in 82) “rhetoric and composition”? Four years later, Faigley describes three different process theories: expressive, cognitive, and social. He clearly prefers the third and is already recognizing the cultural turn in composition studies that will, by the 90s, move from being a process theory to a “post-process” theory.

Our class conversation focused on a couple points. Hairston writes:

in many schools, even graduate assistants who are in traditional literary programs rather than rhetoric programs are getting their in-service training from the rhetoric and composition specialists in their departments. They are being trained in process-centered approaches to the teaching of composition, and when they enter the profession and begin teaching lower-division writing courses along with their literary specialities, they are most likely to follow the new paradigm.

The first sentence is still true. I was doing that Monday. However I think it is fair to say, 30 years later, that literary scholars, despite being trained as TAs in process, do not teach the process in a widespread, paradigmatic way outside of the context of composition (if they even happen to teach composition, which I think is increasingly unlikely). I want to put this in context of Faigley. He begins with Stanely Aronowitz and Henry Giroux who “see the development of writing programs as part of a more general trend toward an atheoretical and skills-oriented curriculum  that regards teachers as civil servants who dispense pre-packaged lessons.” Faigely then quotes Aronowitz and Giroux’s assertion that  “The splitting of composition as a course from the study of literature,[sic] is of course a sign of its technicization and should be resisted both because it is an attack against critical thought and because it results in demoralization of teachers and their alienation from work.” I see these passages as still articulating the operation of composition in English departments, that composition is still often viewed as atheoretical, skills-oriented and an “attack against critical thought” (though what “critical thought” means here is up for question). And this is part of the reason why the paradigm change Hairston imagines doesn’t quite come to pass.

Instead, we get a bifurcation of paradigms where composition studies separates from literary studies on the question of process. Of course this becomes more complicated than Kuhnian paradigms can manage (at least as Hairston deploys them). For one thing, there remains a philosophical, hermeneutic, belletristic, humanistic branch of rhetoric whose methods parallel those of literary studies (as well as a social scientific branch of rhetoric that is quite distant from English). Then, as composition largely remains within English departments where the paradigms of literary studies remain dominant, there is a fair amount of gravitational pull on composition. So as Faigley’s “social view” becomes the post-process, cultural studies paradigm of the 90s, composition becomes less focused on process and turns back toward a text-oriented hermeneutics based on post-structural/postmodern interpretive methods. Composition moved away from any sense of teaching “skills” and focused on critical thinking (as it would be understood in a neo-Marxist, cultural studies ideological critique sense as opposed to the philosophy class, rational argumentation sense) and the resulting discourse analysis. During the same period however, we also see a rapid expansion of technical communication doctoral programs, followed by the emergence of professional writing programs. So while composition wavers in its relation to literary studies methods (likely because of its dependency on literary studies-trained TAs and adjuncts), elsewhere the broader range of “writing studies” is departing from the literary paradigm.

So what does this have to do with Latour? Well, maybe he offers a better way to understand what is happening. In chapter 10 of AIME, Latour focuses on habit as a mode that tends to make invisible the work that is done to create the impression of immanence:

Whence the feeling, as old as thought, that phenomena are “hiding something from us.” And it is true, they really are hiding something, yet there is no mystery to worry about: continuity is always the effect of a leap across discontinuities; immanence is always obtained by a paving of minuscule transcendences… Through habit, indeed, the discontinuities are not forgotten, but they are temporarily omitted. (267)

We may tend to think of habits in a negative light, especially in the lens of critique, but that’s not Latour’s point. To the contrary, habituation is helpful and necessary. His running example in AIME is the hiker searching for a trail when “he no longer has to choose, he can finally follow, he can finally put himself ‘in the hands’ of others, he knows what to do next, and he nows this without reflecting” (265). Clearly, a lot of paradigm is about habit: discontinuities are “temporarily omitted” so that we can pay attention to where the trail is taking us rather than the trail itself. The habits of literary study and writing studies are obviously different. We don’t need Latour to tell us that! Not only are they different trails heading to different destinations, they are habits for different beings.

What is most crucial, in my view, for Latour’s habit is the role it serves in addressing the classical Western ontological divide between immanence and transcendence. Latour notes that moderns were right to suspect “appearance” and to search for what was hidden. So here’s an extended passage that I think will make the loop back to composition and literary studies:

We no longer have to confuse making something explicit with imposing a difference between those who don’t know what they’re doing because they have “forgotten” the essence of Beauty, Truth, and Goodness, and those who know these things by way of “formal” knowledge. For habit, making explicit is simply to specify the key to reading that it veils while maintaining its presence through vigilant attention. This doesn’t mean that we have to grasp every course of action according to the mode of reference alone, as Socrates requires of his interlocutors, while unduly exaggerating the empire of that mode. This false dichotomy between practical knowledge and formal knowledge is imposed by the Socratic question itself; this is what empties practice of all explicit knowledge. (274)

Okay. In studying the practice of writing/composing/constructing, instead of the writing product (which is one way of understanding the difference between “writing studies” and “literary studies”), one is not only identifying different habits of “reference” (which is Latour’s mode for the production of constative/formal knowledge) but different approaches to habit itself. Latour’s point? Habit has its own way of knowing. If we want to make a complaint about composition studies, it might be the ways in which it has turned toward reference as a mode in developing a disciplinary paradigm: this is Sirc’s complaint, I would say. The “social turn” is a turn toward a hermeneutics… again. As Latour continues, “when we complain that the Moderns do not know how to account for their own riches, we are not trying to extend the critical question, the Socratic question, to their entire anthropology: we are asking, proposing, suggesting that they no longer raise that question, so that all the other keys can be made explicit, each according to its mode” (274). This is also the difference between genre-activity theory (which would be the contemporary disciplinary method in composition studies with which I have the most sympathy) and the assemblage-network-nonmodern rhetoric that I am trying to develop. Activity theory remains in that Marxian hermeneutic mode. Not that it has to, but I think it does.

However, this is certainly the difference between composition and literary studies. Composition has looked to practice and habit as having their own modes of knowledge; habits and practices that can be understood, taught, and learned on their own terms. I don’t see literary studies as situated in a way that can ask these questions or accept this kind of knowledge. Maybe it has something to do with the odd relationship the field has always had with the authors of literature. What Latour would obviously suggest one should do in studying literature–to follow the actors and give credence to their values, language, and practices–is nearly forbidden in literary studies. And yet this is exactly what composition studies has done since the inception of process research: studied the practices of writers.

There is your paradigmatic gulf.


One reply on “process, paradigms, collectives, and Latour”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.