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Composition Forum 20, Summer 2009

Hawk, Byron. A Counter History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. Pittsburgh: UP of Pittsburgh, 2007: 400 pp.

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Noah Roderick

For the past few decades, one of the most popular topics in Composition scholarship has been the history of Composition Studies itself. The competing, sometimes overlapping narratives are framed in good Hegelian fashion, with emerging theories successively making their predecessors irrelevant. In his well-known historiographies of the discipline, James Berlin generalized four categories of competing theories: current-traditional rhetoric, cognitive rhetoric, expressivist rhetoric, and his own socio-epistemic rhetoric. Richard Fulkerson, on the other hand, tabularizes competing rhetorical theories as current/traditional, expressivism, critical/cultural studies, and procedural rhetoric, placing the tradition he believes most rational as the latter stage (658). And, of course, there is the broader set of process pedagogy vs. postprocess theory. These sets overlap and diverge at various points in terms of methodologies and normative goals, but they all rest on the single axis of epistemology. In his aptly titled, A Counter History of Composition, Byron Hawk asks us to leave behind the epistemological traditions of rhetoric and re-discover rhetoric as an ontological practice.

Hawk further argues that as the proliferation of communication technologies continue to fracture our understanding of what is good and effective writing, it no longer makes sense to teach texts as if they are strictly the product of a dialectic between writer and audience. To explain, Hawk notes that the principle concerns of epistemological sets of theory are generally concerned with the relationship the author bears to her audience. Epistemological theories may disagree on such points as whether or not there are universal cognitive processes at the foundation of writing, or how accessible are audience needs and desires to the writer. What is common to all of those theories, however, is that the writing subject is a synchronic self. Hawk, on the other hand, maintains “any account of the subject in a contemporary rhetorical theory for technological culture cannot presuppose an interiority (at the very least one that pre-exists its situatedness)” (189). Instead of a pedagogy of heuristics, which presupposes interiority, Hawk argues for the importance of “ecology and immersion,” in which students gain a greater understanding of their rhetorical presence as multivalent, existing from moment to moment, in connection with other bodies and technologies (166). Thus, in a dialectical pedagogy, the teacher enters the room as the expert or the critical theorist, and then employs a series of heuristics so that by the end of the class, the student transforms into the expert or critical theorist. In other words, the same meets the different in a dialect, in which the different is eventually subsumed into the same.

Posited against dialectical pedagogy is a pedagogy of possibility, which Hawk draws from vitalism and complexity theory. While specific writing skills or political goals for students are not part of the equation, general goals for Hawk’s posthumanist approach might be summarized as the ability to think of different ways of locating themselves within complex human-technological networks, the emergence of students’ own purposes for using rhetoric, and along with that, their own methods of rhetorical invention. If the last two goals sound vaguely expressionistic, Hawk has already anticipated it. In fact, the first objective of A Counter-History of Composition is to disentangle romanticism, expressivism and vitalism, which the discipline of Composition has conflated throughout its short history. Hawk charges, “[c]ompositionists use vitalism as a term that denotes an ‘anything-goes’ approach to writing and thinking, as an ahistorical category that subsumes multiple divergent practices, and as an assumed negative counterpart to the preferred rhetorical practices that establishes a binary between rhetoric and poetics” (3). The misreading of vitalism ultimately comes down to a question of invention. The traditional rhetoric/poetic divide in Composition assumes that rhetorical invention is analytical, whereas poetic invention is expressive. The assumption is that which is analytical is teachable, and that which is expressive is personal or even romantic and mystical. Furthermore, the understanding of vitalism in Composition was swept up in the fight between socio-epistemic rhetoric and expressivism, the former dismissing the latter as romanticist. Vitalism, as a kind of expressive practice, was grouped in with the romantic and individualistic expressivism. Countering this assumption, Hawk asserts, “While vitalism has romantic variations, at its roots it is theoretically and historically distinct” (4). In order to trace this non-mystical, non-romantic theory of vitalism, Hawk begins, interestingly enough, with Coleridge, whose theory of primary and secondary imagination understood invention as existing in the phenomenological relationship between the material world, intuition, and the human faculties of synthesis. From there, non-mystical, “investigative vitalisms” nurtured a productive and complex relationship between science and philosophy, from which, up until now, Composition has failed to benefit.

Though Hawk’s first objective is to create a counter-narrative to the overly simplistic historiographies of Composition, his disentanglement of vitalism from expressivism and romanticism could not be more relevant to the present. The discipline of Composition is being called upon to teach writing in ways that integrate the complex technological environments that are found in our information driven economy. As Amy Devitt points out in Writing Genres, the emergence of new communicative technologies and new technological environments means a proliferation of new writing genres. It is no surprise then that institutionalized writing is steadily moving away from the essay as the universal proving ground for student writers, and towards teaching to write effectively in a variety of genres students can expect to work in as they leave college for the workforce. This shift from writing as a single, universal skill to writing as multiple and genre-based is both potentially liberating and potentially disenfranchising. On the one hand, the essayistic genre carries with it a whole Western legacy of linear thinking and instrumental rationality. On the other hand, teaching writing as multiple and genred is easily co-opted by a free-market capitalist instrumentality wherein students would be encouraged to specialize in the activity systems they anticipate they will encounter in their careers, which would, in turn, all too easily translate into the ossification of methods and the rigidity of thinking. Hawk’s emphasis on ecology and immersion promises to counter-act such hyper-disciplinarity and ossification. First, when writers begin to see themselves not as fully autonomous subjects who use technology for well-defined purposes, but as Deleuzean desiring machines whose potentiality is only realized in connection with other desiring bodies who are themselves also mechanic extensions of a rhetorical ecology, the instrumental relationship between subject and object that rigidifies methods will dissolve. As a result, students will begin to see rhetoric as an adaptive process that requires a proliferation of methods at every instant. Instead of pre-ordained processes or methods, students would “start with experience, generalize a pattern or schema from that experience, turn that pattern on future experience, and then adapt the pattern to devise a new schema” (192).

In terms of teaching critical thinking through rhetoric, Hawk is dismissive of the socio-epistemic or critical/cultural studies approach. He insists that such an approach amounts to nothing more than indoctrination, and that students are only resistant anyway. This is a tired old argument advanced by professional polemicists from Stanley Fish to David Horowitz, and it creates a false binary between one’s academic interests and one’s political interests. He does, however, make some other cogent arguments against socio-epistemic rhetoric. For one, Hawk joins Sharon Crowley and Michael Murphy in their argument that at least in Berlin’s case, socio-epistemic rhetoric is easily co-opted by the instrumentalist ideology of the institution because his curricular goals start from the first-year writing course, which itself exists as a cash cow for the institution, and which sustains the exploitive (and ever expanding) adjunct labor system. Secondly, Berlin’s approach teaches students to become more critical consumers of information through rhetoric, but it fails to address invention as a social phenomenon. Thus, the normative ends of Berlin’s socio-epistemic rhetoric are directed towards social rather than individual concerns, but invention is largely a matter of the individual subject working beyond false consciousness to address an exterior social totality. Hawk’s ethics of connectivity begins with an infinitely malleable subject who is herself an expression of a socio-ecological totality. This means that the desire to listen must precede the desire to interpret and represent.

Paraphrasing Martin Heidegger, Mark Haugaard comments, “the scandal of Western philosophy is not that we have failed to build a bridge between subject and object but that such a bridge was ever demanded” (135). A Counter-History of Composition strikes me as a Heideggerian project in more than one way. Many of Hawk’s ideas, and the ideas of scholars he draws upon, are derived from Heidegger’s phenomenological endeavors to collapse the subject-object gap. More than that, Hawk seems to want to do to the history of Composition Studies what Heidegger wanted to do to the history of Philosophy in Being and Time. Whereas Heidegger wanted to bracket the traditional philosophical question of how should humans be in the world in favor of the question of what being itself means, Hawk wants to circumvent the question of how to use rhetoric for the question of what it means to be a rhetorical, affective body in the world. However, I wonder if Hawk’s thesis is not susceptible to the same kind of criticism Emmanuel Levinas leveled at Heidegger’s. Whereas Heidegger promotes ontology as a first philosophy, Levinas argues that it is ethics. He claims “ethics is not derived from an ontology of nature; it is its opposite, a meontology which affirms a meaning beyond Being, a primary mode of non-Being” (76). In other words, there is an asymmetrical responsibility to the other that precedes and stands in excess of the relationality of being. For his part, Hawk asserts that “[l]istening to the other, the rhetorical situation, and the language is not an arbitrary, mystical endeavor or a matter of disclosing personal feelings; it is a basic rhetorical and ecological reality” (232). The difference between this line of thought and Levinas’ is subtle. Listening and realizing one’s situatedness for Hawk, is a way of accessing “reality,” of moving toward an understanding from which the infinite possibilities of invention (knowledge building) emerge. In so far as ethics are concerned, the assumption seems to be that since the invention of knowledge derives from a knowledge of being-in-relationality, any arguments that follow would be attuned to the rhetor’s responsibility to the other. Thus, the assumption is that ethics is derived from an ontology of nature. But for Levinas, knowledge must begin from an ineffable (or even “mystical,” if you like) responsibility to the other. In practice, Hawk thinks that students should bring their own interests and goals to the classroom, and that the teacher should facilitate the expression of those interests and goals in multiple genres and media, which then transform those interests and goals into a multitude of possibilities, thus revealing the complexity of invention. The individual student, however, maintains ownership over “what use-value the curriculum may ultimately have for them in their particular contexts” (218). This, it seems to me, re-opens the door for the possibility of mastery. A Levinasian approach, on the other hand, might call for students to try and express each other’s interests, goals and desires through multiple rhetorical modes.

Heideggerian baggage aside, A Counter-History of Composition opens up a crucial discussion for the discipline, particularly as the forces of informational capitalism put more and more pressure on higher education to vocationalize. Moreover, the sheer sophistication of Hawk’s ideas make the book a challenging but thoroughly rewarding read.

Works Cited

Devitt, Amy J. Writing Genres. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2004.

Fulkerson, Richard. “Composition at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century.” College Composition and Communication. Jun 2005: 654-687.

Haugaard, Mark. “Nationalism and Modernity.” Making Sense of Collectivity: Ethinicity, Nationalism and Globalization. ed. Sinisa Malesevic and Mark Haugaard. London: Pluto Press, 2002.

Levinas, Emmanuel. “Ethics of the Infinite: Interview with Richard Kearney.” Debates in Continental Philosophy: Conversations with Contemporary Thinkers. Richard Kearney. NY: Fordham UP, 2004.

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