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Composition Forum 17, Fall 2007

Sánchez, Raúl. The Function of Theory in Composition Studies. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2006. 123 pages.

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L. Hill Taylor

Raúl Sánchez is right. Rather, he is right when he claims that composition as a field “has been working at theory for too long to have gotten so little out of it” (12). In The Function of Theory in Composition Studies Sánchez correctly posits that composition theory as an identifiable domain, currently and historically since the 1970s, seems to be governed by a disposition that hinges on an “enduring method for ‘doing’ composition theory”. This disposition tacitly mandates that one take “a term or concept from a more respected and respectable field such as philosophy and use it to illuminate some aspect of composition studies” (12). Succinctly put, Sánchez’s project picks up on the notion of observation-based theory, similar to those of empiricist researcher Linda Flower. By doing this he advocates a “theorized version of writing as a key term or concept” enabling a move away from merely applying already existing theories and treating theory as a form of writing, thus creating a scenario where compositionists “might generate new theories rather than retrofit existing ones” (14). To many in the humanities and social sciences, this may seem like an advocacy for post-critical theory, which I’d characterize as when one goes into a situation (rhetorical or otherwise) with a privileged notion or theory in place, but remains chiefly concerned with the gaps and contradictions in the use and application of that theory—what unexpectedly emerges. These emergences become the fertile ground for new understanding and theory, if such a thing as explicit theory is even necessary. I believe that this is the most valuable call made by Sánchez’s treatise.

This is a short book, coming in at one hundred pages, but it holds potential to serve as a useful text that will require thorough attention. I envision its utility applied to many audiences, though it may have more interest for university-level compositionists not encumbered by heavy teaching loads and fortunate enough to have more advanced writers in their courses. Even with this caveat in place, the book can stand as a model for a much-needed discussion of theory’s place in composition; Sánchez’s handle on and interrogation of theory is particularly useful as it provides a working history and current contextualization of the relationship of social and philosophical theory within the field of composition. Consequently, it is a superb book for anyone looking for a primer on the use of theory in composition, and a particularly good book for graduate students in composition and rhetoric. However, it would be selling The Function of Theory in Composition Studies short to merely let it stand in as an introduction to theory and attendant debates in the field of composition. The book does more than that, and Sánchez’s project is bigger than that, too.

What Sánchez is setting out to do is to leave behind what he refers to as the epistemic imperative that has governed the dominant theories of writing in our field, theories that allude to writing as a notational system concerned chiefly with getting at or revealing a “something else” that oftentimes turns out to be “knowledge” or a process fixated on developing a theory of knowledge (15-17). Sánchez champions a theory of writing borrowed from Derrida, where the endgame is to contextualize discourses of knowledge and ultimately delineate “knowledge as one of several tacitly deployed honorifics bestowed upon certain collections of statements and activities” (16). As a result of this positionality, Sánchez spends a lot of time hashing out and applying philosophical and social theories. If readers can embrace this book’s mandate that compositionists generate theories specific to our practices and aims (versus uncritically retrofitting theories from other fields), then I believe most readers will find this detour through theory necessary and invigorating.

The Function of Theory in Composition Studies starts out heavy on theory and may require some readers to deploy patience and consideration. The first two chapters, “The Current State of Composition Theory” and “The Discourse of Knowledge in Composition Theory,” lay a foundation for later philosophical critique and explication. On the first page Sánchez issues the following mandate:

The function of theory in composition studies is to provide generalized accounts of what writing is and how it works. These accounts can both guide and derive from the results of empirical research and, in the case of student writing, from classroom practice. Contrary to the beliefs of some composition theorists, it is possible and, more importantly, necessary for composition studies to have an agenda for inquiry comprised of theory and empirical research in a mutually informing relationship. (1)

The purpose is to analyze how the field of composition has made it to our present state of affairs without such an agenda dominating our practice. Once this analysis and critique has been levied, Sánchez posits his preferred theoretical frame and challenges readers to pick it up in hope that its use will yield a practice with empirical results. There is no meaningful discussion of practice in this book that limits its immediate usefulness to those in the trenches of writing instruction. But what makes this different from other texts preoccupied with theory is the hopefulness and faith in the taken-for-granted complexities of writing. Sánchez seems to believe that we can do better and that his theoretical frame can make us ponder the possibilities of pedagogy in classes even where no explicit theory governs the discourse or is even addressed (68).

The third chapter, “Composition’s Ideology Apparatus,” takes an exciting turn toward the use of an Althusserian, and nascent cultural studies, model of critique, arguing that by not realizing that “the concept of ideology is articulated in ideologies” we are failing a true critical pedagogy (53). Historically, readers are told, there has been a subordination of rhetoric to ideology in the writing class (60). Oftentimes, this has been done unknowingly, and uncritically “understood” as just the way pedagogy and curriculum manifest. We should analyze this machination of hegemony in our own field, and the lens of cultural studies can add value to this effort. Sánchez recognizes this necessity and does so in the middle chapters of his book. However, it would have been useful to turn to more contemporary cultural theorists who have ties to the Birmingham School, the origin of cultural studies. A lot of Sánchez’s critique, especially in chapters four and five, deals with theories of writing and representation, but readers unfamiliar with theories of representation might wish to consult outside works (like those of Stuart Hall) for his argument to make sense. Chapter four foregrounds compositionists who have commented on the phenomenon of culture as well as a few cultural theorists, namely Homi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak, illustrating that much of composition’s use of cultural theorists and their theories has come by way of literary studies (61). It is this borrowing and retrofitting of discourse that indicts the field of composition as a reproductive apparatus, as well as subordinates it to other fields and knowledges. The result is a conjunctural present beset by an impossibility of real progress, fostered in part by the lack of a creative representational space and little authenticity of an individual identity for the field of composition.

Chapter five, “Writing Without Subjects,” wraps up the book and explains a way out of the aforementioned conundrum. He writes that “composition theory since the early 1990s has described writing as little more than a technology of representation” and that “composition theory has inserted the old representationalist account of writing into various conceptual contexts such as those of epistemology, ideology, and culture” (85). Sánchez wants these supposed concepts seen as particular effects of “writing’s apparently systemic function of invoking something else,” which ultimately turns out to be more writing (85). He wants to expose the ideology that governs our assumptions about our practice. If this can be achieved then writing’s most salient feature becomes “not its representational function but its ability to proceed as if it has a representational function” (85). This new theoretical frame, or new “grammar” as Sánchez ends up calling it (100), enables new possibilities for composition.

With no apology, and maybe none necessary, Raúl Sánchez has produced a tight theoretical piece that proposes no concrete examples of praxis. However his impatience for our often uncritical appropriation of dominate theories of composition is what the field needs. Through the dismantling of the current relationship with theory, it is these new horizons and possibilities that are worth pursuit, and if a detour through theory by way of The Function of Theory in Composition Studies gets us moving in that direction, it is an indispensable route. If this means we pick up his frame and make a Derridean reading of our field and practice—great. If it means that we simply teach with reflexivity and irreverence toward the theories in our field, working to come up with original lenses based on our own conditions of engagement—even better.

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