from my journal

 I was writing about how oftentimes creative writing emerges at the point where students and/or writers feel repressed and constrained by their lived experiences.  Students/writers then write against the grain of that repression and those constraints.  When I was at Albany, other students and a few faculty liked to talk about the nexus of discourse or the the nexus of critical and creative discourse, without talking about the psychological conditions that bring about the nexus or when critical discourse no longer serves to represent what is going on inside the interior, psychological landscape of a person.   Creative discourse is oftentimes a reaction against critical discourse, a blossoming out of the heart and soul from repressed circumstances. This was what was found in Michelle Cliff’s writing – a Jamaican-British mulatto who wrote against the oppressive British schooling that she received.  Her writing was beautiful, evocative and soulful.  She wrote a creative essay entitled, “If I Could Write This In Fire, I Would Write This In Fire” – which evoked the strength she felt from  her anger at what aspects of her personality and experiences as a Jamaican had to be repressed by her British style of education.  But those who talked about the nexus at Albany did not consider the psychological conditions that brought on someone like Michelle Cliff’s writing. And I felt that it was important to call attention to the psychological conditions that produce creative writing in relationship to critical writing so as to understand what enables its production.  It’s not something, in other words, that we can simply ask students to write without having them live through some repressive circumstances.  Yet many students have experienced repressive circumstances in their educational and/or institutional experiences.  I would encourage my students to write about their academic histories and what was beneficial and what was repressive or difficult for them.

 

 


organic cultural theory

Organic theory is derived from lived experience.  It's the feeling of being oppressed, suppressed, repressed -- it's the voice that rises up against suppression and oppression.  What it is not is rational nor analytical nor methodological.  Rather, it begins with a feeling of being oppressed by a misrepresentation of self.  It begins in the interior of the self, with pressure being put on the self by what it is not.

So many within cultural studies want to theorize  oppression as if it were an object of study that can be methodologically identified.  But this approach too often ignores how oppression begins with a feeling -- a feeling of being misrepresented or being silenced or ignored.  Writers -- as opposed to theoreticians --seek to represent these feelings as they bubble up.  You see such writing in Michelle Cliff's If I Could Write This In Fire, where she writes about the feeling of being mulatto and  yet white enough to be afforded the privileges of a British education.

Organic theory is about running up against constraints and feeling those constraints deeply enough that one wants to write against them.  Reform begins with running up against social constraints.  Resistance to those constraints is a feeling.


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?

 

 


A Reversal of Influence: How Composition Studies Might Transform the 'Institution' of Cultural Studies

From my 2004 cccc's presentation, "A Reversal of Influence: How Composition Studies Might Transform the 'Institution' of Cultural Studies"

Although the relationship between cultural studies and composition is configured differently in every department, more often than not, cultural studies takes on the institutional clout of literary studies/theory, while composition studies is left to struggle against the status-quo perceptions of its remedial functions -- even when composition incorporates cultural studies approaches.  (see Miller, Textual Carnivals)  And although many compositionists simultaneously work from within cultural studies paradigms in both their teaching and research, cultural studies as a disciplinary entity is, nonetheless, often imagined as a 'rigorous' specialization set apart from the more 'menial' labor of teaching composition courses.  Such an institutional hierarchy persists in many English departments, frequently regardless of how many composition theorists practice cultural studies (e.g., James Berlin & Michael Vivion's Cultural Studies in the English Classroom), and this presumption about where cultural studies institutionally resides inevitably impacts how composition studies is thought of in relationship to cultural studies, i.e., as a mere recipient of cultural studies' theories.  Michael Berube has taken note of this problem in his book The Employment of English. (87)  However, Berube's proposed alternative is actually not all that 'new' since composition studies has sought, in many ways, to make cultural theory relevant and useful to undergraduates over the past decade.  Indeed, I would argue that the specialization of cultural studies and its institutionalization in a manner resembling literary studies traditions (see Sosnoski, Token Professionals) has occluded how the various appropriations of cultural studies within composition studies might restore relevance to the field of cultural studies.

"Similar to how Susan Miller proposed in 1991 that composition possesses a transgressive potential in relationship to literary studies (i.e., the carnivalesque of the 'non-literary'),  I am proposing that a transgressive potential exists in relationship to cultural studies insofar as composition studies often invites students to envision 'canonical' cultural studies texts in dialogue with their lived experience.   For as much as experiential writing has been occasionally disparaged  by critiques of expressivism, experiential writing deployed within cultural studies-oriented composition classrooms potentially teaches us how cultural studies texts actually function (or matter) for students to the extent that students are invited to articulate, through writing assignments, how they comprehend the explanatory powers of cultural theory in relationship to their lives.  In this sense, composition studies has developed an understanding of cultural studies that constitutes an implicit critique of how cultural studies has been institutionalized in many English courses, most especially in regards to the problem of its limited effects beyond the classroom as a consequence of encouraging reverence and specialization.  This presentation will explore how composition studies' understandings of cultural studies teaching might transform the way cultural studies has become entrenched as a specialization in English studies.   How might we break down the artificial hierarchy between composition studies and cultural studies so that composition studies might be granted the status to interrogate how cultural studies is practiced within English departments (rather than perceived as merely influenced by cultural studies)?   How might composition studies overcome its marginalized status so as to be seen as offering a viable critique of and alternative to the institutionalization of cultural studies?"

 


the imperative to write

How often do we think about composition or writing as an imperative?  I have been thinking about a quote by Marianne Williamson, from A Return to Love, where she writes about this imperative:

"How could Leondardo da Vinci not have painted?  How could Shakespeare not have written?  In Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke tells a  young writer to write only if he has to.  We are to do what there is a deep psychological and emotional imperative for us to do.  That's our point of power, the source of our brilliance.  Our power is not rationally or willfully called forth.  It's a divine dispensation, an act of grace" (166).

 


desire vs. constraints

If the blogosphere proves anything, it is that writing just wants to be free.   People want to express themselves on whatever topic or subject fuels their passions.   So, what does this mean (or what has this meant) for composition studies?  Perhaps composition studies can take a lesson from the developments in the blogosphere and reconsider the role of desire in spurring on student writing.  For the most part, composition studies has been about imposing constraints on student writing, i.e., telling them what to write and especially how to write -- not taking into consideration students' desires to write.   Of course, this is not true of all comp teachers, yet there appears in the journals an unhealthy dosage of "johnny can't write" complaints of some kind or another and then a listing of remedies for addressing those complaints.  But if we look at writing from the standpoint of what fuels the desire to write then those complaints go out the window.  Such a standpoint involves mutually examining with students what makes them want to write and then fashioning the conditions that will lead to such writing.  


expressive hypothesis

The expressive hypothesis is kindred to the repressive hypothesis which was, as some may already know, posited by Foucault.  The repressive hypothesis says that whenever something, e.g., sexuality during the Victorian age, is perceived as "repressed," it is actually being talked about all the more plentifully.  So, although the common lore is that sexuality was repressed during the Victorian era, it was actually the subject of endless discourses on containing, managing and purifying the sexual body, particularly of females, homosexuals, ethnic populations and adolescents.   

Now, the expressive hypothesis is somewhat similar to the repressive hypothesis, to the extent that it suggests that the more you express, the healthier -- emotionally, psychologically, spiritually -- you will be.  It is like a talking cure or talk therapy, in a way.   Expressivism can be a therapeutic exercise without, in any way, diluting its intellectual or theoretical force.  You express so what is within the heart and mind can come out and engage the world communicatively.  


expressivism is like songwriting

Even though there are folks who say that expressivism is only an interior experience of writing, in actuality, expressivism is a form of communication kindred to songwriting.  As with expressivism, songwriters write songs to communicate with the larger world, not to communicate simply with themselves.   It is that very yearning to connect to a larger mileau that spurs on songwriters and expressivists alike.   Hence, there is no such thing as an expressivist writing to him/herself alone since any writing implies a desire to communicate.  It's that desire to communicate that drives expressivist writing.  And that is what makes expressivism the most radical tradition in composition studies, i.e., because it allows for the desire to write rather than positing writing as merely an academic task.  Expressivists are not taskmasters; rather, they are communicators who long to connect with the world.  This tangentially begs the question, why is the desire to write so often neglected in composition studies?  Too often students are given writing tasks that do not engage their desire to write.  Students are expected to perform writing tasks rather than being asked to explore, creatively, what they desire to write. More later. 


expressivism = the creative arts and more

Expressivism is the equivalent of unleashing the creative arts on the academy.  Expressivism is practicing, in writing, the creative art of self-discovery and learning about the larger world.

Too often, however, the creative arts have been either segregated to specialized art and theatre classes or marginalized in the academy -- rather than being holistically integrated into the entire curriculum and all of the disciplines, where they might transform the curriculum by offering a creative reenvisioning of learning.  The creative arts have even been marginalized in English departments, where creative writing is often segregated from the practice of interpretation and reading texts and then underfunded, undervalued and underpromoted in relationship to literary studies.  There are so many ways these divisions might be challenged and transformed through seeing the curriculum through the eyes of expressivism.  Integrating expressivism into a literary studies class, for example, might mean having students try seeing the text through the eyes of the writer (or poet or artist) and imagine what went into the creative process of producing the text that is being studied.  More on this later. 


more on expressivism

I want to contend that expressivism is the most radical tradition in composition studies.  Expressivism --  where students write from lived, felt experience -- challenges the status quo of academic decorum.  Academic constraints can weigh heavy on students' own senses of purpose when they write.   Sometimes the constraints -- or perceived constraints -- are so  heavy that students experience writer's block.  Writer's block can  be conceived of as an interior, felt experience or, otherwise put, when the literacy demands of academic prose subsume the student writers' own voices and senses of purpose when they write.  Students alone do not have this problem;  many seasoned writers feel oppressed by the constraints of academic prose.  That's where expressivism offers a creative, artistic outlet that can burst the self-important bubble of academic writing.  More yet to come on expressivism. 


freedom of expressivism

Some say that poststructuralism and social constructivism have supplanted expressivism as the mode of teaching writing; however, I say that it's time to reexamine the radical potential of expressivism in today's academy.   As most know, postructuralism and social constructionism both contend that experience is discursively constructed and can only be known through discourse.  Expressivism, it has been said, privileges experience as a mode of knowing and expressing.  But what about expressivism as privileging a form of experience that exceeds and transgresses academic constructions of knowledge? What happens when expressivism allows students to openly express their inner truths that go against the grain of traditional knowledge making practices in the academy? More on this later.