Skip to content

Composition Forum 27, Spring 2013

Dobrin, Sidney I. Postcomposition. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2011. 211 pp.

Bookmark and Share

John Pell

According to Sidney Dobrin, “Composition studies marches on as a zombie: animate but empty” (200). Thus, in order to invigorate writing theory, Dobrin argues throughout Postcomposition that scholars of writing embrace new paradigmatic approaches to writing, namely approaches informed by complexity theory and ecological understandings of time and space. Such an approach, Dobrin argues, replaces the notion of “composing” with the idea of “writing”—the recursive and emergent phenomenon that is both enacted by and acts upon subjects within complex systems. Postcomposition, which draws upon other scholars examining writing from within the framework of complexity (Hawk, Sanchez, Taylor), offers a stinging criticism of contemporary composition theory and pedagogy and encourages thoughtful reflection for those devoted to the study of writing.

As Byron Hawk notes in A Counter-History of Composition, “complexity is the moment of transition from order to chaos and back to order” (155). Dobrin, like Hawk, draws heavily upon the work of Mark C. Taylor, insisting that complexity provides a theoretical approach that helps scholars make sense of the innumerable writing practices that shape discourse. As Dobrin notes in the introduction, complexity theory refocuses attention on writing, which has never actually been the “subject” of composition studies. Rather, composition studies has historically focused on the subject, writing. The focus of Postcomposition, then, is to extend composition studies’ “field of vision” and offer a theoretical approach capable of accounting for the networked processes informing writing without deferring to the traditional notion of the autonomous, writing subject (3). The study of writing, Dobrin quips, should be about more than “subjects and administrations of those subjects” (3).

Dobrin opens his case for the field becoming Postcomposition by deconstructing composition studies’ most sacred cow: the student writer. The location of composition theory, Dobrin laments, continues to be the writing classroom and its students. As such, composition, historically, has been “more interested in issues of subjectivity and agency than in writing” (13). These commitments, informed by the rise of social constructionist theory, result in the continual dismissal of writing theory that does not explicitly address either pedagogical practices germane to First Year Composition or writing program administration. Writing theory, if it is going to address the contemporary moment, Dobrin suggests, must “move beyond composition studies’ neurosis of pedagogy” and engage the larger intellectual concerns of writing (28).

Engaging the various sites of writing, however, requires a new critical paradigm. For too long, Dobrin contends, composition theory anchored itself in temporal metaphors. That is, composition studies relied on the metaphors of literary criticism to makes sense of the writing process—texts represent movement across time. Authors move chronologically and linearly through the composing process and as such their texts provide evidence of development, growth, and depth. For Dobrin, unhinging writing theory from the academy and the classroom demands a new critical vocabulary for how discourse emerges in time and space. Drawing upon a wide range of work—from Plato to Derrida, quantum physics to ecocomposition—Dobrin argues that the space of writing exists at the edge of chaos, “[t]he moment of possibility [that] exists in the moment prior to space becoming place, the moment before arrangement and meaning” (40). Composition studies emphasizes place—the completed discursive event, the text, the measurable outcome of writing; Postcomposition, at least according to Dobrin, will focus its attention on the moment prior to completion, the space in time where there is infinite potential. While Dobrin is careful to point out that Postcomposition is aware of power differentials and cultural-historical differences that inform discursive patterns, these challenges are not a priori—there is always room for struggle, for change, for novelty.

Spatiality as a metaphor for potentiality leads Dobrin to perhaps his most provocative claim about Postcomposition: writing theory needs to reflect a posthuman stance toward discourse. If writing theory is no longer beholden to the classroom or the administration of subjects then it becomes clear that discourse is not simply the result of deliberate, historically and culturally informed composing; rather, discourse is the “never-ending (re)circulation” of writing “throughout network, system, and environment” (77). Such a view leads to a (re)considering of the subject, and perhaps more controversially, the administrating/teaching subject. As Dobrin makes clear, composition studies closely aligns itself not only with the teaching of students but also with the management of those that teach students. The blurring of writing theory with a composition theory of “management science” creates conditions averse to developing a theoretical approach to writing that is as intellectually rigorous as the guiding methodologies of other academic disciplines. Therefore, Dobrin concludes that Postcomposition disassociate itself from composition studies’ commitment to engaging contingent labor disputes. Such disputes are inevitable given that composition studies effectively convinced the academy that first-year composition is an essential component of undergraduate education, which resulted in the development of programs dependent upon the same type of contingent labor the field supposedly abhors in order to keep composition’s footholds within institutional bureaucracies. Such a position, Dobrin surmises, is at best intellectually dishonest and at worst tyrannical and therefore has no place in a writing theory that moves beyond the subjects of composition.

Instead of continuing to engage with these debates over classroom practice and program management, Dobrin turns his attention to writing theories that have attempted to engage questions of emergence and space, namely ecocomposition. Himself a key contributor to the development of ecocomposition as a theoretical approach to writing studies, Dobrin is nevertheless forthcoming in his critical assessment of that ecocomposition, which has been unable to reshape composition studies as he and others imagined. What ecocomposition provided composition studies, Dobrin asserts, was a theoretical orientation to writing that emphasized the complexity of networks—meaning-filled discourse is informed by the conditions of complex ecological systems. Postcomposition, then, pushes systems thinking without appealing to the notion of the autonomous writing subject, a mistake Dobrin believes severely limits the theoretical import of ecocomposition. Instead, Postcomposition posits the notion that complex discursive systems include but are not determined by the actions of writing subjects.

To view writing as function and production of complex, ecological systems Dobrin argues, leads to the “edge of chaos,” the moniker he employs to describe the moment of emergence, the moment when writing becomes meaning-filled through its interactions with other objects, including writers, within complex systems. As Dobrin makes clear, chaos is not an apocalyptic vision of writing studies’ future; rather chaos denotes the moment at which writing facilitates the emergence of networks. In other words, writing provides resistance to the ebb and flow of multiple contingences, slowing these processes momentarily in order for those invested in particular ecologies to catch a glimpse of the factors shaping our discursive encounters with others and the world. Postcomposition, Dobrin encourages, is a way forward for our field, a possible future with an expansive view of how writing continually reshapes time and space.

To be sure, Dobrin is a deft and provocative writer, and anyone familiar with his previous work will recognize his trademark wit and grandiloquence. And, for those of us who find theoretical works a welcome break from the pedagogical oriented work typical of our field, this text certainly delivers. So, while I would gladly recommend this book to those interested in exploring the implications and possibilities of posthuman theories of complexity on composition studies, I want to conclude by offering a few critical remarks.

Dobrin goes to great lengths to remind readers that Postcomposition is a wholly different theoretical approach to writing, an approach that holds a radically different ontological view of writing. It is therefore difficult not to read Postcomposition as a kind of dismissal of composition studies and its history. When Dobrin matter-of-factly states, “Composition studies, you see, does not matter; writing does” (3) it is easy enough to see that he wants to offer a new paradigm, one disassociated from composition studies. Such a position, however, seems unreasonable. Let me be clear, an orientation toward writing not bound by composition studies social-epistemic tradition seems absolutely appropriate if scholars interested in writing want to invigorate our research in response to globalization and technological developments. If claiming, as Dobrin does throughout this text, that the way forward is to reorient to writing via complexity theories and ecological metaphors, it seems a bit contradictory to conclude that Postcomposition “moves forward, away from composition studies’ past(s)” (211). If we take Dobrin’s proposal seriously, it would seem that Postcomposition names the potentiality, a theory of resistance, which has the potential to facilitate the emergence of a new theoretical paradigm and thereby allows us to learn more about writing beyond the academy. This new paradigm, though, would necessarily be informed by composition studies, such is the nature of complex ecosystems. Change is possible, certainly, but novelty is a function of new and unique relationships formed by the networks of objects within such systems, not the arrival of objects from beyond the systems in which we are immersed.

And, while I found Postcomposition to be challenging and thought-provoking, at times it felt as if Dobrin over-estimated the importance a single text might have on a whole field of study. When authors encourage dramatic paradigm shifts within a field of study they run the risk of alienating readers. Such is the case in Postcomposition. While it seems reasonable for Dobrin to suggest that Postcomposition is an alternative to the social constructionist bent of contemporary composition theory, it is quite another to compare one’s work to messianic anticipation: “composition studies, too, seems to be waiting for some sort of messianic arrival—an event that liberates composition from its stagnation” (200).

In the end, Dobrin’s monograph provides scholars of writing with an erudite introduction to a potential future for writing studies, a future shaped by theories of complexity and ecology that moves beyond the administration of subjects. Postcomposition is a potentiality, a possibility of what writing studies might look like; to claim anything more, at least according to Dobrin, relegates Postcomposition to a normative function—yet another approach to writing that prohibits generative theory and “inflicts a constitutive blind spot that limits what may be known about writing” (3).

Works Cited

Hawk, Byron. A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2007. Print.

Sánchez, Raúl. The Function of Theory in Composition Studies. New York: SUNY P, 2006. Print.

Taylor, Mark C. The Moment of Complexity: Emerging Network Culture. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2001. Print.

Bookmark and Share

Return to Composition Forum 27 table of contents.