Composition, Capitalism and the New Technology
Issue #44, June 1999
The outrage that many Americans feel at the desecration of the national flag stems from an idolatrous attitude to representation -- a belief that the flag is not merely the symbol but the incarnation of the USA. Of course, this is also the reasoning behind the flag-burnings which are a ubiquitous feature of anti-American protests, and behind the prominence afforded such spectacles on television news. In recent years, however, the symbolic priorities of foreign demonstrators have expanded. This week, when the anti-US hordes poured into the streets of Belgrade, the first thing they burned was McDonald's, and this was by no means unprecedented. In fact, over the last decade or so, McDonald's has come to be interpreted by much of the world as a literal embodiment, a personification, of the USA. In fact, much of the appeal of McDonald's to the rest of the world stems from a perception that, like an embassy, the premises of the restaurant constitutes a miniature piece of US territory abroad. How did we arrive at this situation, where a corporation incarnates a country?
In 1983, the Marxist critic Terry Eagleton ended his influential introductory volume Literary Theory with a call to abandon the study of Literature as a discipline, recommending that it be replaced by a modernized version of the ancient science of rhetoric. Like many radical teachers of Literature, Eagleton was convinced that the systematic study of a determinate body of canonical texts was politically repressive. During the 1980's, it became widely recognized, indeed almost axiomatic, that the Western canon privileges and so perpetuates a particular tradition of thought, which serves the interests of those people who occupied positions of social power during the millennia over which it developed. It was frequently noted that the works of canonical Literature were disproportionally composed by upper-class white men, and the assumption was made that the canon therefore reflected the partial, specific and biased world-view of upper-class white men. It followed that the canon must be actively repressing the voices of subordinate races, classes and genders, while arrogantly passing itself off as the intrinsically superior repository of universal values.
The subject of rhetoric appeared to Eagleton and others to have more liberatory potential than the ossified literary canon, because it was a fundamentally participatory and egalitarian science. Rhetoric does not presuppose -- indeed it implicitly denies -- the existence of absolute criteria of truth or value. Rather, it is an art of persuasion, which can be learned by anybody, and employed in the service of any group or interest. As a result, it seemed to many Leftist intellectuals in the humanities that the substitution of rhetoric for Literature would act as an empowering force, freeing subaltern groups from intimidation by a tradition which was not theirs, and allowing them to communicate the experiences which are produced by the occupation of alterior subject-positions.
As an English academic, Eagleton may not have been fully aware of how strikingly his conclusion paralleled that already reached by a burgeoning cohort of American specialists in the teaching of writing, or composition. Composition is not taught in England. No universities, and very few secondary schools, have what Americans call writing programs. The assumption, which is not theorized or even articulated, is that writing cannot be taught, although it can obviously be learned. The English education system is organized with the presupposition that it is unnecessary to teach writing, because writing is learned by reading. Of course, this premise is that of a deeply, even unconsciously, elitist society. It assumes that a viable knowledge of canonical literature, an acceptable degree of familiarity with its generic conventions and stylistic demeanor, will enable the student to independently compose adequate approximations on demand. Protestations that these students inevitably remain trapped within the conceptual framework established by centuries of white male hegemony are implicitly regarded as irrelevant, although individual intellectuals will usually pay them perfunctory lip-service.
Despite not being instructed in writing, it is clear to anyone who has experienced both educational systems that students at all levels write better in England than in America, according to the standards of canonical literacy. There are many who would argue that those standards are, or should be, obsolete just as there are many who argue that the ability to reason according to the standards of canonical philosophy is by no means superior to alternative, traditionally marginalized, modes of thought. According to this argument the problem can be traced to Plato's Dialogues, which relegate rhetoric below philosophy on the grounds that it appeals to subjective, rather than objective truth. The rhetor, says Socrates, having studied the notions of the multitude, manipulates his discourse in order to appeal to the prejudices and misconceptions of his audience. He is not concerned to pursue the truth but to persuade the people, and as a result he lapses into a disastrous confusion of truth and falsehood, and ultimately into a hideous confounding of good and evil.
The rhetor, in other words, is a misguided demagogue, while the philosopher is a benign dictator. The philosopher's ability and training give him an access to objective truth which is of necessity denied to the less fortunate, whom he seeks to instruct in the wisdom he has attained. The rhetor, in contrast, takes as his tools the untutored opinions already held by the people, and thus fashions arguments which, understandably, appear convincing to them. The assumption made by rhetoric is that subjective opinion is valid and valuable simply by virtue of the fact that it is subjective. The objective truth of Socrates, from the rhetorical perspective, is merely ideology: it is the partial bias of a particular class and gender, imposing itself upon others and falsely passing itself off as universal.
As it is presently practiced, the discipline of composition (often referred to as composition and rhetoric) is deeply committed to the rhetorical point of view. The dominant expressionist theory of composition is dedicated to the proposition that the aim of writing is to express the specific and particular attitudes and emotions which are produced by the writer's specific and particular subject-position. Anyone who has worked in the field will be familiar with its incessant demands for empowerment of the student, for student-centered classrooms, for increasing student agency by bringing the students' lives into the classroom. If one believes that self-expression is indeed the aim of writing, it naturally follows that the teaching of canonical modes of communication is an intolerable imposition on people from subaltern social groups. Thus, composition theorists often repeat the arguments made by opponents of the literary canon, contending that allowing students to write in their own subjective voices about their own subjective experiences will render audible the voices of socially marginalized groups such as women and minorities.
To this end, composition textbooks are largely composed of texts concerned to validate various modes of personal experience, and the graduate students who usually teach these courses may well be working on a similar project for their dissertation: women research the writing of women, gays uncover the history of gay writing and so forth, just as white men have always investigated the thoughts of white men. The message received by students is that their own, unmediated and subjective, reflections on their lives are important and valuable to the degree that they are accurate, or sincere. We have here a mutant form of postmodern Romanticism, where Wordsworth's elitist aspiration to display the soul of a man of more than usual organic sensibility has been replaced by the grim determination to lay bare the mechanics of any and all subject-positions. The Romantic notion of the transcendent individual genius has been democratized, so that everyone's internal reflections are now demanding and deserving of written expression and evaluation.
This raises the question: are composition courses really designed to teach students how to write? I must retreat here into the evidential territory of anecdote and experience, but if these are any guides at all the average student shows absolutely no improvement in his writing style over the course of a semester. Composition is very often taught by people who are in the middle of training to teach Literature, and who regard their present employment as a disagreeable but necessary step on the road to this greater ambition. The students, as a rule, are there because they have to be there, and they frequently wonder aloud what benefits they are supposed to be deriving from this compulsory attendance. And of course, it would be naive to ignore the fact that allowing graduate students to teach composition is all that allows most universities to maintain any sort of Ph.D. program in Literature.
Fundamentally, though, the purpose of composition is ideological. One might have suspected as much from the fact that it is the one course that everyone who graduates from any American institution of higher education must complete. In his critiques of Plato's dialogues, Jacques Derrida notes that Socrates' dialectical road to transcendent truth seems to be threatened by the invention of writing. Lacking the physical presence of an author, writing is potentially subversive of fixed subject-positions. Its significance is elusive, plural and variable. Writing comes to function, for Derrida, as the repressed Other of philosophical objectivity. As such, writing has been lionized and exalted by postmodern theorists as alterior, oppositional, and even feminine. Derridean terminology, which describes writing as embodying the freeplay of representation, caries a powerful rhetorical impact which allies the concept of writing with that of liberation, of libidinal freedom from repressive reason. The latter is often condemned as totalizing, with a half-conscious association with political totalitarianism. This half-assimilated post-structuralism is allied, in recent composition theory, to a benign interest in the allegedly radical possibilities of the new technology. These days, the sexiest topic at the Four C's (America's most important composition conference) is the pedagogical potential of hypertext. By introducing audio, video and network links into a piece of writing, hypertext enables a departure from the traditional form of linear narrative. It allows for persuasion through non-rational techniques which the ancient world would have recognized as rhetorical.
Many would argue that hypertext empowers students by allowing them to use the techniques to which they have long been subjected by advertizing and the electronic media. As early as the 1950's, works such as Roland Barthes' Mythologies offered critical analyses of such techniques, which Barthes believes represents a return to a pre-rational, or mythological, mode of encountering the world. In his famous analysis of a magazine cover which shows a black soldier saluting the tricolor, Barthes illustrates how the photo seduces the viewer into a complicated and controversial conclusion about French imperialism, not through reasoned argument, but by subtle rhetorical manipulations of sensory images. As with the current fetishization of the Stars and Stripes, the picture presupposes an idolatrous epistemology, in which the distinction between signs and their referents has collapsed. If students can learn to use images in a similar way, the argument runs, they will become aware of, and so protected against, the kind of ideological manipulation which such techniques can further.
But the notion of ideological manipulation pre-supposes the existence of an objective truth, away from which it is possible to be weaned. This is a notion that pseudo-Derridean composition theory is unwilling to concede. Students who use hypertext do not regard themselves as defenders of logic against rhetoric, they imagine that, freed from the tyranny of linear form and rational content, they are expressing their subjective experiences through the judicious amalgamation of words and images. This belief, however, is strikingly contradicted by the discursive messages derived from their writing. Teachers of composition frequently remark on the astonishing uniformity of taste and thought expressed by their charges. If a self is being expressed here, it is a remarkably unanimous and coherent one. It is as if the rhetorical emphasis on difference and diversity which emanates from liberal composition theorists is a ruse, invoked to disguise a radical conformity, and to provide an alibi for the imposition of an impregnable consensus.
In the opening of his much-maligned The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom notes that the one thing of a which a modern teacher of American Freshmen can be absolutely certain is that his students will be pluralists: they will believe that all subjective views are valid because they are subjective, and there is nothing they will deplore more than bias . Furthermore, they will regard as biased any opinion which departs from their own opinion that all subjective views are valid because they are subjective. Their toleration is totalitarian; they will not admit as valid any position except subjective pluralism. As Bloom points out, it is hardly an exaggeration to say that, at the end of the twentieth century, all American students believe this.
The American state enjoys, then, a degree of ideological unanimity of which Stalin could only dream. Composition, which constantly boasts of teaching students how to think as well as how to write, is an ideological apparatus for the inculcation of the doctrine that every individual is unique but also equal. The contradiction between individualism and egalitarianism is erased by the imposition of an ideology so uniform that it is no longer recognized as such. Through its emphasis on self-expression, composition inadvertently lays bare the objectification of the postmodern subject.
In The Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels point out that political egalitarianism only becomes thinkable once the commodification of labor has leveled human experience in fact. Once people have grown accustomed to conceiving of their lives as units of labor-time which can be equated with a certain proportion of money, the qualitative differences between the experiences of different human beings are displaced by this quantitative similarity. The same process operates in the material world, so that the qualitatively different use-values of objects are obscured by the merely quantitative fluctuations in their exchange-values. This standardization of people and the world produces the notion that all people have equal rights: in a later form, which Marx did not foresee, it produces the notion that all opinions are equally valid. At the same time, by freeing the sign from the referent and wallowing in the freeplay of pure representation, it creates the ideological illusion that subjective experience is infinitely varied and multi-faceted. The triumph of the commodity-form over the thing-in-itself invokes a fantasy of difference to mask the reality of identity.
There can be no better symbol of this process than the McDonald's restaurant chain. The appeal of McDonald's lies precisely in the world-wide uniformity of its stores and product, while the product itself has no use-value whatsoever, but seduces the customer through the images associated with it. When Serb or Iraqi demonstrators destroy McDonald's, they truly believe that they are fighting against imperialism, for in postmodern warfare an attack on the sign is also an attack on the referent. And the referent symbolized by McDonald's is, not so much the USA, NATO, or even the West, but the system of totalitarian pluralism which we know as the market. When composition theorists encourage their students to believe that subjectivity is a greater value than logic, when they suggest that the manipulation of images is a valid substitute for reason, when they utilize the new technology to enable a flight from linear narrative, they imagine that they are serving the egalitarian cause of class, gender and ethnic equality, and they are very probably correct. But they are purchasing that equality with the coin of uniformity, and the political torpor and ignorance which has resulted thus far forces us to question whether it is a price worth paying.
David Hawkes is a professor of English at Lehigh University in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. His most recent book was Ideology, Routledge, 1997.