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February 2012

atomization: the field (of composition) from afar

This presentation revolves around a concept that I have been using to holistically diagnose the central issues hindering the field of composition studies -- pedagogically, institutionally and, alas, economically -- and that concept is, as I have conceived  it, "atomization."  Atomization is theoretically derived from Michel Foucault's genealogical analysis of penal and pedagogical institutions in his now  30-year-old "Discipline and Punish" [Surveiller et Punir].  One of the primary tenets of Foucault's book was outlined in his chapter "Docile Bodies," wherein he talked about how power is enacted through a process of "partitioning" or progressively dividing up institutional spaces and groups into smaller fractions so as to facilitate the observation and tracking of individuals [pp. 142-149]  Now, obviously, "Discipline and Punish" has often been used in composition pedagogy for the purpose of theorizing the classroom space and the surveillance technologies [or gazes] used in those spaces to "normalize" students and their behaviors.   For instance, Jennifer Gore's "The Struggle for Pedagogies" has been taught in many composition theory courses since its publication in 1993.

In this presentation, however, I would like to take Foucault's analysis of "partitioning" to yet another level, i.e., the level at which it interfaces with James Sledd's analysis of the "divide and conquer" approach used to "intimidate" faculty and, in effect, obstruct them from recognizing their joint and shared economic interests with the untenured [see point 37 in "Disciplinarity and Exploitation" By Sledd, "Workplace"]   Indeed, if one reads Foucault's historical study and Sledd's contemporary manifesto in conjunction with one another, one begins realizing that they share in the same root analysis of the central problem plaguing composition studies, i.e., the problem of atomization whereby the "partitioning" serves to prevent individuals from recognizing themselves as part of a collective whole possessed of mutual and binding interests and thus mitigates any perceived "threat" of revolt or rebellion.  As Foucault puts it, "This machinery works space in a much more flexible and detailed way.  It does this first of all on the principle of elementary location or partitioning.  Each individual has his own place and each place its individual.  Avoid distribution in groups, break up collective dispositions, analyze confused, massive or transient pluralities" [pg. 143]  See also William V. Spanos' The End of Education, pg. 36, for further explication.

Now, I would like to take both Foucault's and Sledd's analyses to the next level -- the level above all of the traditional frays, where one can begin seeing all of the myriad of ways in which the field and composition teaching --  both universally and locally -- have been partitioned and 'atomized' to the intellectual and financial detriment of the whole -- both composition teachers and students.  For one, students suffer from 'atomization' -- that is the atomization of their writing life -- when they must move discontinuously from one writing assignment to the next  -- one writing class to another  -- with no or few opportunities  to advance writing/intellectual projects of their own from course to course.  Faculty, as well, suffer from the atomizing effects of the grading [or evaluative] process as they must shift from paper to paper, breaking down the energies and concentrations necessary for their own writing lives as they are transformed into disciplinary agents for the institution.  Furthermore, as Sledd has observed, disciplinary rank itself is also a form of atomization that works against the interests of the whole.   Thus, with this presentation, I would like to explore these many ways -- and then some -- that atomization is at the root of our disciplinary discontents.