January 27: Not Your Mother’s Cultural Studies

This semester’s Rhet/Comp graduate reading group at FSU has been raising and grappling with some challenging questions at the intersections of human rights, rhetoric, and composition pedagogy:

  • What trends or developments in Rhet/Comp theory over the past 67 years might be refreshed by what we’re understanding as “human rights” discourse, or by the questions raised by its study?
  • Is making civil rights into a humanizing discourse (for teaching writing) the answer to avoiding colonizing tendencies in the teaching of writing, or to fostering empathy to civil rights in our pedagogical work?
  • What is needed for a sense of civil history, and what do we do when these needs conflict with what we perceive is needed for writing? For that matter, who controls the definitions/parameters of “civil rights”?
  • How do we teach ocular epistemology (and make it rhetorical) without standardizing it? How can we teach it without reducing it to something tacit to “look for”?
  • For that matter, how do we avoid over-objectification, messianic syndrome, or hyper-representation in our teaching?
  • What kinds of processes should we be encouraging in our classrooms, what (set of) constructs should we define as “human rights” discourse, and how do those align with other methods, theories, processes, threshold concepts we teach?
  • How will we know when our students arrive?
  • Ultimately, (how) might we be at risk of epistemically excluding others in this quest?

The unanswered question remains: (Why) Should we all care?

For one of our meetings I asked us to put Royster and Cochrane’s “Civil Rights and Human Rights” (RSQ 41.3) into conversation with selections from Hesford’s Spectacular Rhetorics (Duke, 2011), and in some ways it was difficult. While Royster and Cochrane argued concretely for reinvigorating two discourses—civil rights and human rights—historically through a particular community’s practices, Hesford argued abstractly for developing a critical ocularcentrism about representations that are delivered through spectacle. Heavy on my mind was the ease with which our discussion might be polarized by aligning “human/civil rights discourse” with “cultural studies,” and placing it outside the reasonable purview of Rhetoric and Composition.

In some discussions and circles, this polarization occurs very often for any number of reasons: the belief that focusing on writing is inherently different from focusing on systems of power; the perceived staleness of Berlin’s (1992) imperative to see culture and rhetoric as synonymous; a renewal of Fulkerson’s (1990) delineation of theory, epistemology, and composition; a weariness of Fulkerson’s (1990) delineation of theory, epistemology, and composition; to name only a few.

At the same time, I thought Royster and Cochrane’s argument presented us with several possibilities for understanding how Hesford’s ocularcentrism (and similar concepts) can become central to college composition at all levels:

  • The possibility that … African-American contributions to composition are inextricable from the tradition of reinvigorating practices, and in turn, inextricable from discussions of writing efficacy (i.e., we don’t talk about writing efficacy without talking about reinvigorating practices);
  • The possibility that … the recognition politics that constitute civil/human rights actually are the current domain of composition, have historically been (keeping in mind that many histories are still unrealized), and will continue to be in certain communities—perhaps even in new political climates;
  • The possibility that … “illusion of difference” is actually central to composition pedagogy in and among communities or institutions where “difference” is more of a daily occurrence, and this may not always be visible in “white-dominated” contexts;
  • The possibility that … for many composition practitioners, teaching the tools of composing is inextricable from questions of exclusion and access;
  • The possibility that … movements toward everyday writing reflect some of the same desires that catalyzed Kinneavy’s “basic aims of discourse,” “students’ right to their own language,” and theories of voice—to some extent, these were public projects stemming from conversations about who values what kind of (human) activity;
  • The possibility that … the idea “that’s not the domain of composition” is actually a temporary luxury.

My goal in asking us to treat these conversations as if they were necessarily aligned—indeed, as if it weren’t an option to think about teaching writing without thinking about human rights in some critical or methodological sense—was neither to justify nor to debase the cultural studies dilemma. Instead, I meant to argue that this is, in fact, the optimum time to question Rhet/Comp’s various alignments and disalignments with civil rights, and to rearticulate its “place” where culture and power are concerned.

On the eve of Executive Order 13769, I wonder by whose axioms or reasoning we ever had the luxury to separate epistemology (more specifically, to separate knowledge about writing) from humanistic concerns. When did the questions of how, when, and what students learn—or of how language and imagery function together or apart, or of how conventions grow from and beyond social expectations of genre—cease being tied to power? Why/how/where did we ever consider any aspect of writing—from efficacy to imagery to linguistics to access—politically irrelevant (within or without of the university)? When did composition get away from study of/by/with/through/for culture? I’m not so sure that it has.

Just because a course is situated in difference—or writing difference, or discourses that result from certain kinds of difference—doesn’t mean that it is not focused on writing, not turning our attention to writing, or not being delivered through an exclusive commitment to writing as knowledge making. Thus, my own contention with this perceived composition/cultural studies divide is that it is rooted in an outmoded tendency to introduce Eurocentric Critical Theory into the writing classroom as a subject (rather than a process), and perhaps buoyed by falsely dichotomous notions of “culture” and “composition” (or even “composition” and “power”) that puts them at odds.

While I would argue that we must continue to have healthy discussions about the parameters of our field, I would also argue that this dichotomy is not the most pressing. Whether or not we subscribe to “cultural studies” as a singular ideology or even a singular historical moment seems besides the point, when there is a more pressing conversation surrounding the function of writing in knowledge building and innovation. For such conversations to go forward, it isn’t sufficient to set up camps between “composition” and “culture” without universalizing the criteria that cause some approaches to get labeled as “compositional” and others as “cultural”—particularly if they both focus almost exclusively on writing activities and epistemology. For me, these concepts are not incompatible, and thus it is time to rearticulate.

I doubt this rearticulation will resemble composition’s post-Fordist debates, thought it may well recognize the temporary luxury of pursuing composition’s own epistemology apart from the very real situations in which (and through which) it is deployed.