This morning a tweet caught my attention:
— Jon Wargo (@wargojon) November 22, 2014
I haven’t read Albers and Harste before, so I’ll have to track down their work. This caught my attention because I have been thinking about the institutional purpose of composition lately: why do we teach writing? It’s a simple question, and I do not presume that it has a straightforward answer. The other day on twitter, I forced a binary in an attempt to tease something out, asking:
What is the *primary* purpose of teaching composition: to impact audiences or to shape writers? Question came up talking with a grad student
— marccsantos (@Oisin16) November 19, 2014
I got a few responses on twitter and facebook, and we discussed the topic briefly in my New Media Production seminar. Two different people saw through my sophomoric ruse and offered: “To shape writers who can impact audiences?” Touche. It is a smart response to a simple prompt. But I would say that it has as its ultimate telos an audience, an other. Which, given my interest in civics, ethics, Levinas, responsibility, hospitality, etc. is good. No complaints. Another FB friend offered an insightful comment here, too, asking/suggesting: “Is composition confined to the human? If not, then composition’s primary purpose may be to impact the world.” And I don’t mean to say composition (or rhetoric)’s effects are aimed at only other humans. Certainly there is room for a materialist composition that traces impacts across networks to all manner of actants, whether animal, vegetable, mineral, or ethereal.
But I’ve been working on a piece that deals with what I call listening, the ability to attend to the needs, presence, demands, intrusions of other(s) (and, again, those others need not be human or even animal). I’m drawing on a pretty wide range of theorists here, both those within R/C (Jim Corder’s work on narrativity and argument, Thomas Rickert’s work on ambiance, Diane Davis’ work on pre-original rhetoricity and “foreigner relations,” Jenny Rice’s recent work on forcing students to engage publics foreign to their own “passions”/investments, my own work on rhetorical support and recognition) and those outside it (Levinas’s work on the face and ethical interruption, Cavarero’s philosophy of vocal expression, Lingis’s work on pre-ontological community). But the common thread is how we can cultivate responsibility, recognizing that it is not an innate ability, but a muscle that must be trained, sustained. In short, my thesis for quite awhile–my original movement toward Levinas–is that knowledge alone is insufficient to address our (non)human problems. We need something Other than knowledge/Being. Other than the ability to communicate to the Other. We need to know how to listen to her, how to cultivate a very active inactivity, what Levinas might term a “fundamental passivity that mirrors the fundamental passivity through which the Other animates Being,” or, at least, something along those lines.
And I think this something has led me back to the question of the primary purpose / first principle of Composition (and Rhetoric) as disciplines. In my New Media Production class this semester, we worked through Ulmer’s MEmorial project from Electronic Monuments. One student, who had formerly worked with Ulmer and his Mystory project, noticed the difference between the two: how the former aims for an audience, while the latter exists for the student, the student as her own audience.
And, in conjunction with Ulmer, the mystory, and the idea of a student as audience for her own Facing, I was re-reading Cixous’s Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing. I was thinking of another MA student, whose thesis looks to re-examine the impact of poststructuralist style on Composition Theory. I led the student to Vitanza’s “Abandoned to Writing” and its enigmatic question of “what Writing wants.” Cixous:
I said that the first dead are our first masters, those who unlock the door for us that opens onto the other side, if only we are willing to bear it. Writing, in its noblest function, is the attempt to unerase, to unearth, to find the primitive picture again, ours, the one that frightens us. Strangely, it concerns a scene. The picture is not there without a reason. Those who have been in contact with this opening door perceived it in the theatrical form of a scene. Why a scene? Why is it a scene? Why will it become the scene of a crime? Because we are the audience of this scene: we are not in the scene; when we go to the theater we are not on stage. We are witnesses to an extraordinary scene whose secret is on the other side. We are not the ones who have the secret.
So, no illusion here. I am in fact interested in shaping writers in order to impact the world. And I think, as I work more on ethics, and continue to define ethics as a passivity (and a dedication to justice, to strife, to the barnyard–but that is another article–coming out in Philosophy and Rhetoric next year), I’m thinking more about a Composition that takes the self as its audience, that gets to know its ghosts, its death, its horizons, its secrets.
As I said in the beginning, I haven’t read Albers and Harste, and so I don’t know what kind of writing they are reclaiming, or who they are reclaiming it from. But I do know that I am not interested in making the writer feel stronger, traditional commonplaces of empowerment. I think I am interesting in a very particular kind of weakness. Or perhaps being a bit playful, I am interested in what Latour identifies as a might mightier than might. And that is the might willing to acknowledge its weakness.