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September 2011

from an earlier blog, circa 2006

the divide

How fortuitous that The Valve cccc’s entry took a turn towards race and rhetoric in composition studies because my next entry -- to complement the previous Foucault quote -- was going to be about this kindred passage from Toni Morrison’s “The Site of Memory:”

“Authors arrive at text and subtext in thousands of ways, learning each time they begin anew how to recognize a valuable idea and how to render the texture that accompanies, reveals or displays it to its best advantage. The process by which this is accomplished is endlessly fascinating to me. I have always thought that as an editor for twenty years I understood writers better than their most careful critics, because in examining the manuscript in each of its subsequent stages I knew the author’s process, how his or her mind worked, what was effortless, what took time, where the ‘solution’ to a problem came from. The end result -- the book -- was all that the critic had to go on” (305).

And does not this passage illustrate, in a nutshell, the very crux of the general differences between most composition and literary scholarship? Perhaps, when processing and defending against the never-ending indictments against composition studies, it might be worthwhile to return to the very root of the disciplinary divide, as suggested by Morrison here: the literary critic or archivist most often arrives upon the literary scene after the text has been created and the artistic process has been terminated and then interprets/judges the text -- and frequently the author’s intentions, as well -- on the basis of the discrete textual/aesthetic artifact [or, in the immediate case, the conference presentation title] and not on the basis of the selective, ragged and oftentimes conflicted process that produced it. Theoretically speaking, by contrast, compositionists -- at least in some circles -- are most concerned with howliterature or any piece of writing, for that matter, was/is actually made through the selective, evaluative process of sorting through the “thousands of ways” each text might be composed or each argument made. This usually entails teaching students how to be editors of their own work -- not indicting them for errors and mistakes. Rather thanjudging texts deficient [or, say, judging compositionists inadequate to the scholarly task of explicating race relations] -- “[c]riticism that hands down sentences sends me to sleep” -- the speculative, genealogical question becomes, why did this specific text or discursive thematic [e.g., the repressive hypothesis] appear at this juncture and not some other? The practitioner question also becomes: what conditions -- social, technological, economic, psychological, pedagogical, etc. -- made this particular text possible/viable and not some other? These sorts of questions, of course, both inevitably politicize the composing process and turn compositionists into interdisciplinary generalists by default -- and what’s wrong with that when the alternative is usually that of indentured servant to instrumentalist conceptions of literacy? Or to ask, what evaluative processes allowed this text to emerge from the field of possibilities and not some other? Or to ask, what selective economies delivered this text into an archive/canon and not some other -- or delivered this student into a remedial course and not some other? After all -- and as the rest of Morrison’s essay/lecture underscores -- it seems difficult to assume that any archival or disciplinary research gives us the full and complete picture of how discursive practices and [cultural] identity historically intersect, especially if we are talking about race relations in America and the extremely limited access to literacy education pre-1900’s and the self-protective, repressive forces at work in the composing process of most slave narratives, as Morrison points out. Undoubtedly, these critical inquiries into the composing/archival process may seem, to some, far afield from the traditional common-sense and populist expectation that composition teachers serve as diagnosticians of error and police students’ rhetorical coherency. Yet theoretically demarcating these evaluative differences [between literary studies and composition] is, perhaps, the only way to reclaim the field as something other than that subservient remedial or remediating enterprise that it has long been expected to serve as -- and hasn’t such a revisionary project been the motivating force behind much comp theorizing? Denouncements of theory aside, composition theory at its best has moved fluidly between practice and theory, and has long possessed the capacity to deliver composition practitioners from these problematic, constraining assumptions about remedial literacy education; it need not exclusively -- or at all -- superficially serve as a status symbol for “jet-setting” scholars or as institutional currency for tenure, if more pressing efforts were made to articulate its relevance in the public domain and outside of the limited conference milieu. The contemporary problem wrought by the blogosphere, though, is that anyone with a blog and an internet connection can come along and render the long history of composition theory’s dealings with these stereotypes null and insignificant by simply pronouncing the hackneyed, unmeritorious argument that “Johnny/Jane can’t read” and that we must therefore blame the already-severely-underfunded field of composition teaching for not doing its anticipated, menial job as police force and rhetorical sanitizer. And so, deja vu, composition is perpetually sent back to square one, as if it hasn’t dealt with these conservative arguments a thousand times before.

And the interesting and quite timely thing is that Morrison does, in fact, explore these issues [earlier on in her essay, “The Site of Memory”] as they relate to slavery and post-slavery narratives from the 1800’s and 1900’s and the ultimate limitations of archival research when it comes to depicting the whole of lived experience from the eras:

“Yet no slave society in the history of the world wrote more -- or more thoughtfully -- about its own enslavement.The milieu, however, dictated the purpose and the style. The narratives are instructive, moral and obviously representative. Some of them are patterned after the sentimental novel that was in vogue at the time. But whatever their eloquence or form, popular taste discouraged the writers from dwelling too long or too carefully on the more sordid details of their experience. Whenever there was an unusually violent incident, or a scatological one, or something ‘excessive,’ one finds the writer taking refuge in the literary conventions of the day. ‘I was left in a state of distraction not to be described’ (Equiano). ‘But let us now leave the rough usage of the field ... and turn our attentionto the less repulsive slave life as it existed in the house of my childhood’ (Douglass). ‘I am not about to harrow the feelings of my readers by a terrific representation of the untold horrors of that fearful system of oppression ... It is not my purpose to descend deeply into the dark and noisome caverns of the hell of slavery’ (Henry Box Brown).

“Over and over, the writers pull the narrative up short with a phrase such as, ‘But let us drop a veil over these proceedings too terrible to relate.’ In shaping the experience to make it palatable to those who were in a position to alleviate it, they were silent about many things, and they ‘forgot’ many other things. There was a careful selection of the instances that they would record and a careful rendering of those that they chose to describe” (301).

And, so, by this account, Morrison came along a century or so later and fashioned it her obligation and duty to imaginatively render the missing, unspeakable “interior life” that had been withheld -- by virtue of fear and by the necessity of survival -- from the composing process and thus from the surviving literary archives. As such, could one accuse Morrison, of all people, of “excessively politicizing and racializing” literature? To do so would be virtually unimaginable, given Morrison’s iconic status -- and yet somehow such an indictment is permissable against composition, even as it often shares similar inquiries and concerns as those articulated by Morrison above. To speak of double standards. And one cannot fail to note how popular Morrison has been in her endeavors to imaginatively restore that interior life, thus -- by matter of sales figures and a Nobel prize alone -- rendering economically circumspect any instrumentalist arguments about the irrelevance or “excessiveness” of “racial and political themes” to public expections about literacy instruction -- as opposed to corporate and administrative expectations, from whence most of the unfounded mal-literacy accusations derive. In fact, what really appears to be at issue here is not so much the politicization of composition instruction as much as it is the denial of its status as a literary/creative/documentary art of equal standing with literary criticism/scholarship and with more to teach than simply clarity and conciseness.

And I share in the more recent questioning as to why is it that Bauerlein imagines the field of “race studies” as requiring specialized expertise before “properly handled” or taught whereas he seems to assume, like many traditionalists before him have, that virtually anybody -- e.g., ex-congressman, CEO’s and manufacturers -- is capable of passing judgment on the vast field of composition studies and diagnosing literacy skills without “years of study”? What does it mean to cordon off a cultural identity and assume that one can only speak “responsibly” about “racial identity and race relations” when millions of folks live the variable experience and the traditions of blackness/whiteness every day? The underwriting pedagogical assumption there appears to be that of a scholar who thinks knowledge flows unidirectionally down from the archives and the experts to the people -- rather than dialogically emerging from within the classroom and from the interactions between disciplinary knowledges and lived experiences.

And let’s get real here: isn’t the truth of the matter that given the demographics of the field’s practitioners, composition studies has not been racialized enough?