Author Functions

casual Foucault

“In writing, the point is not to manifest or exalt the act of writing, nor is it to pin a subject within language; it is, rather, a question of creating a space into which the writing subject constantly disappears.”

-Foucault, What is an Author?

It’s been a long time since I added a new post, and much has happened in the meantime: I passed my comprehensive exams, got married, spent a brief period being far too overworked in non-academic jobs to reasonably carry on the writing and research required of someone who eventually hopes to graduate with a PhD–if you’re reading this you presumably already know that higher education in the United States is staffed largely by an underpaid, undervalued, and frankly exploited population of graduate students and adjuncts. If you didn’t already know that, check out Lee Hall’s account of the situation over at The Guardian.

But that’s not what I want to write about today. I began this blog in part to prepare for the aforementioned comprehensive exams, and now I’d like to use it to reflect on some texts and topics informing my dissertation, beginning with Michel Foucault and his concept of the “author function,” not least because, given my long absence, something like a “death of the author” joke seems entirely appropriate. So, while I can’t promise laughs, I will give a brief summary of what Foucault has to say about the author function in this text, which is actually a lecture delivered before the Societé Francais de philosophie on February, 22, 1969. You can see the translation I’m using here.

Let me foreground this with a little bit about my interest in this topic, aside from having always found Michel Foucault a mind-altering and copacetic read. Part of my dissertation involves examining the institutional histories of composition and rhetoric, on one hand, and, on the other, creative writing, asking why there’s not more cross-pollination between these flowers of the academy, and wondering how each might benefit from the other. The institutional separation of these two is a bit odd, especially since the emergence of “creative writing” as a distinct area of study, branch of knowledge, and institutional department is a fairly recent event. If we go back a little ways, say, to the Renaissance, we don’t find young Shakespeare or young Spenser in anything like a creative writing workshop; the great English poets and playwrights of the time got the same type of rhetorical education that every other male child whose family could afford it got: a fat dose of Latin, and Cicero in particular, lots of practice translating Latin into English and vice-versa, and an education in rhetoric that prioritized amplification, the generation of matter for themes by the use of figures and tropes.

Another feature also makes this period interesting for thinking about authorship and creative education: the “author” as we know him hadn’t yet entered the stage, although he was beginning to peak around the curtain. This is because what Foucault calls the “author function” wasn’t yet established. An easy way to roughly illustrate what Foucault is getting at when he talks about the author function is to point out that while biographies of Shakespeare proliferated in the twentieth century and after, none were written during his lifetime. And while Foucault is careful to distinguish between the author as a writing subject and the author function that he describes, the impulse to write biographies of such subjects is one concomitant feature of this function. And while no one was writing biographies of the bard just yet, the Renaissance makes for an interesting historical juncture for thinking about the author function because, while it isn’t quite established, we can see it beginning to emerge in the recognition on the part of publishers that names like “Shakespeare” and “Spenser” could serve to designate a particular sort of goods, and this is another feature of the author function. We can also recognize the author function emerging in the work of Montaigne, the first blogger, but that’s a story for another time.

Here’s how Foucault describes the “author function” as it relates to the author’s proper name:

. . . an author’s name is not simply an element in a discourse (capable of being either subject or object, of being replaced by a pronoun, and the like); it performs a certain role with regard to narrative discourse, assuring [I suspect that this is an error in transcription, and that “assuming” is intended] a classificatory function. Such a name permits one to group together a certain number of texts, define them, differentiate them from and contrast them to others. In addition, it establishes a relationship among the texts. Hermes Trismegistus did not exist, nor did Hippocrates – in the sense that Balzac existed – but the fact that several texts have been placed under the same name indicates that there has been established among them a relationship of homogeneity, filiation, authentication of some texts by the use of others, reciprocal explication, or concomitant utilization. The author’s name serves to characterize a certain mode of being of discourse: the fact that the discourse has an author’s name, that one can say “this was written by so-and-so” or “so-and-so is its author,” shows that this discourse is not ordinary everyday speech that merely comes and goes, not something that is immediately consumable.  On the contrary, it is a speech that must be received in a certain mode and that, in a given culture, must receive a certain status.

Foucault goes on to delineate other features of the author function–my overview is not remotely representative–but it’s the function of the author’s proper name that I want to focus on.  In short, the name of the author is a classificatory device that indicates how a group of texts (those associated with the author’s name) are to be received. A game you can play that helps illustrate this function is to imagine that familiar works were written by different authors: how would we read Pride and Prejudice if it were the work of Friedrich Neitzsche, or Don Quixote if it were the work of Franz Kafka (Borges asks a version of this question in his “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote“)?

Now, one might reasonably object that even if no one was particularly interested in Shakespeare, the writing subject or his peers as subjects for biography, there’s still evidence of something  like an author function at work in the authority attributed to classical figures like Cicero. Foucault, however, covers this objection in a passage that nicely illustrates what I want to highlight about emerging author function in the Renaissance:

There was a time when the texts we today call “literary” (narratives, stories, epics, tragedies, comedies) were accepted, put into circulation, and valorized without any question about the identity of the author, their anonymity caused no difficulties since their ancientness, whether real or imagined, was regarded as a sufficient guarantee of their status. On the other hand, those texts we would now call “scientific” – those dealing with cosmology and the heavens, medicine and illnesses, natural sciences and geography – were accepted in the Middle Ages, and accepted as “true,” only when marked with the name of their author. “Hippocrates said,” “Pliny recounts,” were not really formulas of an argument based on authority; they were the markers inserted in discourses that were supposed to be received as statements of demonstrated truth.

Foucault goes on to point out that in time the relationships that these realms of discourse have with the author will reverse, with the author’s name becoming an important sign in literary and “creative” writing and becoming significantly less important in the realm of the sciences, where replicability of results outweighs the weight of a given proper name.

Interestingly, elsewhere in this same lecture, Foucault notes that writing has a long history of association with the delay, stalling, and cheating of death (as examples he points to the Greek epics with their concern for prolonging the memory of the hero and The Thousand and One Nights, in which Scheherazade spins her tales to forestall death, and, I would add, the Renaissance sonnets with their promises of immortality). However, Foucault says,

Our culture has metamorphosed this idea of narrative, or writing, as something designed to ward off death. Writing has become linked to sacrifice, even to the sacrifice of life: it is now a voluntary effacement that does not need to be represented in books, since it is brought about in the writer’s very existence. The work, which once had the duty of providing immortality, now possesses the right to kill, to be its author’s murderer, as in the cases of Flaubert, Proust, and Kafka. That is not all, however: this relationship between writing and death is also manifested in the effacement of the writing subject’s individual characteristics. Using all the contrivances that he sets up between himself and what he writes, the writing subject cancels out the signs of his particular individuality. As a result, the mark of the writer is reduced to nothing more than the singularity of his absence; he must assume the role of the dead man in the game of writing.

Much of this I take as Foucault’s comment on what other theorists and developments of writing made clear before him–the death of the author, etc.– but I am very interested in the way that Foucault presents writing as an opportunity for disappearance and self-erasure on the part of the writer (something he also touches on in the introduction to the Archaeology of Knowledge). In this regard, the “death of the author,” so-to-speak (and Foucault I think complicates this idea by highlighting the ways in which the author function continues to operate in our culture) is actually an opening of possibility for the writing subject, specifically the possibility of disappearing within the labyrinth of discourse.

Is Composition Not Rhetoric?

Today I want to examine a critique made by Sharon Crowley in the Fall 2003 Enculturation. Her title is “Composition Is Not Rhetoric.” Her argument is essentially that while a brief interest in rhetoric flourished during the period of classical-rhetoric revival in the 60s and 70s, it came and went without having much effect on classroom practices, which held to a current-traditional framework. The actual historical connection between writing instruction and rhetorical education, Crowley asserts, was severed by the same late-nineteenth century Arnoldian humanists who instituted the first-year composition requirement. Textbooks and academic studies by authors like P. J. Corbett continue to be read by graduate students entering the profession, but have neither become popular texts in these classes or had much effect on their practices. The invocation of rhetoric has improved the academic prestige of composition and those who teach it by connecting the field to a long-established discourse and opening new avenues of research, historical inquiry among them, but while professionals in the field enjoy an improved position within the university, the practices of composition classrooms have little to do with rhetoric.

While composition justifies its assertion of an association with rhetoric by reference to the inclusion of written composition as a subject among the texts of classical rhetoric, composition as it is actually taught is not rhetorical, because it does not draw on rhetoric’s emphasis on invention, which Crowley defines as “the systematic discovery and investigation of the available arguments in a given situation.” Nor does composition at present “conceive of the arguments generated by rhetorical invention as both produced and circulated within a network of social and civic discourse, images, and events.” Lastly, composition is not rhetoric because of its failure to intervene in the social discourse of its context: “any practice entitled to be called “rhetoric” must intervene in some way in social and civic discursive networks.” Crowley does acknowledge that some practices under the banner of composition aim at social intervention, but notes that the approaches in composition studies that do so draw on Marxist theory and cultural studies rather than rhetoric (and here it seems reasonable to ask whether these other theoretical approaches might not be capable of rhetorical practices).

Having defined rhetoric as a heuristic process that emphasizes participation in civic discourse, Crowley describes composition classrooms as being based on expressivist assignments in which students are asked to write from their experience and then presumably evaluated according to current-traditional criteria of arrangement and style (I’ll note in passing that these features are themselves elements of the traditional rhetorical canon, if only the leftovers once invention is removed from the criteria). Crowley associates this expressivist tendency with process pedagogy, and sees it as an abdication of the traditional emphasis within rhetoric on engagement with civic discourse. Additionally, Crowley sees this process-oriented expressivist composition pedagogy as bereft of the rhetorical category of invention. Thus, because it features neither invention nor civic engagement, composition pedagogy as it exists today, or at least in 2004, is not, on Sharon Crowley’s terms, rhetoric.

I think it’s excellent that such a critique should come from within the field. The link between composition and rhetoric, whatever it may be, seems to have the status of an important on-going problem related to the field’s emerging identity, not in the sense that such a problem will be definitively resolved and the field’s identity established for good, but in the sense that this problem, no doubt in several permutations, has been a defining problem for the field for decades, ever since the question of rhetoric was reintroduced, and different answers to this problem have produced a variety of identities and movements within the field, often operating simultaneously. Sometimes, as Crowley’s critique indicates, different simultaneously extant responses to this problem may be mutually exclusive, such that one particular identity established in response to this question may be founded on the denial of the validity of other responses. In this case, Crowley relies on a definition of rhetoric drawn from Charles Sears Baldwin to counter the narrative of rhetoric’s retreat and return.

Baldwin draws a distinction between rhetoric, associated with invention and truth, and sophistry, associated with superficial stylistics:

“what has intervened to deviate rhetoric and frustrate its best use has again and again been the preoccupation with giving effectiveness not to the message, but to the speaker.” (quoted in Crowley)

Crowley speculates that Balwin’s critique of sophistry, concerned not with advancing good arguments but with making the speaker persuasive, might have been an indirect critique of the expressivist turn in composition pedagogy that was prevalent in his time (Crowley suggests that expressivist pedagogies continue to exert influence; this hasn’t been my experience, but my institution may be an exception, or, more likely, the discrepancy could be the result of a shift in institutional trends since Crowley’s article).

But while composition pedagogy may fall short of being rhetorical, Crowley does add that “As far as I can see, there is no necessary reason that rhetoric could not be taught in this course,” leaving open the possibility of a future rhetoric-composition that does emphasize invention and intervention in discourse. This rhetorical-composition-to-come is the challenge Crowley’s article makes, and the promise it simultaneously offers.

Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality

While I’m sure I’ll circle back around to Pedagogy of the Oppressed,  whose last chapter in particular strikes me as especially relevant for rhetorical studies, in the time between my last post I re-read James A. Berlin’s Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985 (Freire actually gets mentioned a number of times in the course of Berlin’s book, a testament to his enduring influence on scholars and teachers of composition and rhetoric). Berlin’s book is invaluable for his situation of various movements of twentieth century composition pedagogy and scholarship into a historical narrative. Berlin categorizes the various “rhetorics,” for part of his argument is that writing instruction in the last century was characterized by a multiplicity of rhetorics, according to their epistemologies, or at least epistemological assumptions.

He identifies three epistemological currents in twentieth-century American writing instruction, each with it’s own sub-variants and associated rhetorics. They are objective epsitemologies, which locates reality in the material world, and which is associated with “current-traditionalist” rhetoric, a rhetoric that assumes that the writer’s job is to communicate the perceivable truths of the material world and focuses its instruction on the stylistic correction of student writing–the defining feature of this epistemology where rhetoric is concerned is that it assumes language to be a neutral vessel that simply transfers information; subjective epistemologies, which locates truth in the mind of the individual and which is associated with expressivist rhetorics, including those drawing on cognitive psychology, that focus on trying to elicit personal truths from writing students, often through writing assignments that ask the students to consider their own lives, backgrounds and environments, as well as through exercises like journal keeping and automatic writing; and transactional epistemologies, which see reality as a product of discourse, and whose associated rhetorics include classical rhetoric, which understands rhetoric to be the province of all things not verifiable according to logical or scientific criteria of truth, including, for example, questions of ethics and politics, and the more skeptical epistemic rhetorics, such as those drawing on the work of post-structuralist philosophers and literary critics like Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida, and Roland Barthes, as well as Nietzsche, the granddaddy of this epistemological family tree, who understand knowledge itself to be rhetorical because of the ways that language and discourse establish the categories for what can be perceived or accepted as evidence or truth (a simple example of this would be the ways that different academic fields establish their own domains of knowledge characterized by specialized vocabularies and criteria of what counts as admissible truth).

Berlin favors rhetorics deriving from transactional epistemologies, and does so explicitly, but his presentations of other rhetorics are not uncharitable. He is careful to point out, for example, that the subjective liberal rhetoric of belles-lettres preserved an almost mystical approach to literature in the face of an encroaching mania for approaching every subject according to ostensibly scientific methods in the first part of the century. In spite of his care to present various rhetorics generously and in their own terms, his categorization of them, their major figures, and their epistemologies is where Berlin is most open to critique, which is hardly surprising given the scope of his work. I find myself resistant to his characterizations of ostensibly subjectivist composition scholars like Donald Murray and Peter Elbow, although I might find myself in accord with Berlin’s overview when I’m more thoroughly versed in their work.

This small objection aside–and, really, these spots of resistance are a valuable gift to someone doing research because they open lines of inquiry into other texts–Berlin’s book serves admirably as a kind of road-map of twentieth century composition and rhetoric in the United States, or, more accurately, as a particular travel writer’s admittedly subjective take on a territory he knows and loves, and loves some areas of more than others. It’s a book I feel I should be reading in a continuous loop, along with the many, many books and articles it points to, as I travel the many roads of rhetoric leading toward my comprehensive exams.

“Banking” vs. Problem-Posing Education

Paulo Freire

Paulo Freire (Photo credit: chhhh)

Like Mary Louise Pratt’s “Arts of the Contact Zone,” which I wrote about in a previous post, the second chapter of Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed is reproduced and widely circulated in the textbook Ways of Reading, under the title “The ‘Banking’ Concept of Education.” I’ve taught it several times myself, and I doubt that I’ve done a great job of embodying the essay’s lesson. That’s because teaching as we usually understand it, which consists of the teacher presenting information that the students are expected to commit to memory and reproduce when prompted, is exactly what Freire is calling into question here. It’s not very easy to break from deeply engrained habits and attitudes that shaped most of our own educations, but in this second chapter Freire outlines an alternative approach, one that will help students become critical participants in our shared reality, rather than merely frustrated spectators.

First, what’s wrong with education as we’ve normally experienced it? Freire begins this chapter by writing that education suffers from “narration sickness” (71); that is, in the usual way of doing education, the teacher presents a narrative about the world that the students are expected to internalize and reproduce when asked to do so. Freire identifies a number of problems with this system: the information presented to the students is separated from their existential experience, and therefore dull and lifeless; the students are trained to take a passive role in relationship to the world; the world is treated as a static reality separate from the student, and the student is treated as an individual separate from the world, rather than a participant in the on-going creation of reality. These are the reasons Freire says this style of education is dehumanizing: it separates students from a critical participation in the world, and in fact discourages it, substituting a false image of the world for the true knowledge that comes from the pairing of action and critical inquiry, which Freire also calls praxis.

Freire labels this dehumanizing style of education the “banking” concept of education, because it treats students as empty receptacles into which the “banker” teachers deposit information. What makes it dehumanizing is that the students are excluded from actively participating in their own becoming by the dichotomy between teacher and student that is central to banking education: the teacher is an absolute authority, and the role of the students is to receive the narrative the teacher presents uncritically. Students are presumed to know nothing, while the teacher is presumed to know everything. Drawing on terms from Freire’s previous chapter, we can observe that in this case the students are the victims of a false charity that perpetuates a structure of oppression while presuming to do it for the students’ benefit: the teacher gives the gift of knowledge, understood as the teacher’s property, to the students in an act of educational welfare. The students have no role in contributing to or challenging the narrative they’re presented with, or in establishing the objectives or values of the class. It is always an authority who sets the agenda, and always the students’ duty to adjust themselves to the agenda the authority has set. Because the students are presumed to be fundamentally ignorant, and because knowledge is the property of the teacher, information presented in banking education is necessarily abstract, with no relation to the students’ own experiences of the world. Because the knowledge presented in the classroom is divorced from the students’ own observations, the students’ perspectives and experiences outside the classroom are understood to be educationally worthless. What matters is that the student memorizes facts; the application of knowledge to reality has no role in banking education. That is to say, banking education treats the students as non-historical: “banking theory and practice, as immobilizing and fixating forces, fail to acknowledge men and women as historical beings” (84), which is simply to say that banking education denies the students a role in determining the shape of the world, whether the world of the classroom, politics, or the workplace. The authoritarian quality of banking education trains the students to be submissive members of society even outside the classroom.

In contrast to banking education, Freire proposes “problem-posing” education. Problem-posing education departs from banking education by resolving the teacher/student dichotomy. Whereas banking education is founded upon the inflexibility of these roles, problem-posing involves a collective critical inquiry in which the participants are teacher-students and student-teachers. Freire outlines the contrast thus:

Banking education (for obvious reasons) attempts, by mythicizing reality, to conceal certain facts which explain the way human beings exist in the world; problem-posing education sets itself the task of demythologizing. Banking education resists dialogue; problem-posing education regards dialogue as indispensable to the act of cognition which unveils reality. Banking education treats students as objects of assistance; problem-posing education makes them critical thinkers. Banking education inhibits creativity and domesticates (although it cannot completely destroy) the intentionality of consciousness by isolating consciousness from the world, thereby denying people their ontological and historical vocation of becoming more fully human. Problem-posing education bases itself on creativity and stimulates true reflection and action upon reality, thereby responding to the vocation of persons as beings who are authentic only when engaged in inquiry and creative transformation. (83-4)

In problem-posing education, teacher-students and student-teachers mutually participate in praxis, in “true reflection and action upon reality.” Freire develops the specifics of how such a program might work in more detail, here and in the following chapter of Pedagogy of the Oppressed, but I don’t intend to get into the details here (although I certainly encourage you to read Freire, especially if you teach or aspire to).

What strikes me as most important for teachers of composition and other subjects, as well as their students, is to recognize the problems that Freire has identified in his description of banking education, and to work on developing and instituting alternative education practices within our own institutions and cultural contexts. Part of this process means recognizing the extent to which we’ve been conditioned by the banking process in our previous experiences of education, and, frankly, habituated to the authoritarian values it promotes. I believe that recognizing and dismantling this training is bound to be a long process, given that virtually all of us spent our most impressionable years in institutions of education dedicated to and shaped by the banking method and its assumptions. (And here I’d like to gratefully acknowledge the very few places in public education where, in my experience at least, the banking method was not applied–mainly humanities classes in which students were encouraged to think critically and develop their own perspectives about the stories they were presented with, something that runs fundamentally counter to banking education and its insistence on uncritical acceptance of given narratives). Such reflection and action seems extremely important now, with the increasing emphasis on standardized testing in the United States, and the corresponding bowdlerization of the humanities, which, let me say again, are one of the few pockets of resistance to the banking method, another being art classes.

While the institutions of primary and secondary education are already afflicted with a mania for standardized testing, the emergence of the massive open online course, or MOOC, threatens to make banking education an entrenched feature of higher education as well. The risk is especially grave to humanities classes, especially such widely-required, widely-staffed courses as English 101 and 102, which administrators will be increasingly tempted to replace with cheaper online classes that will require fewer staff and faculty to facilitate. Whereas the composition classroom has the potential to be a forum for the open exchange of ideas and the kind of problem-posing education that Freire advocates, the MOOC is by it’s very structure an exercise in pure banking education: in the MOOC, the transfer of knowledge is entirely one way; the student receives the instruction from a distance via the medium of technology. In this case, the banking concept’s distance between teacher and student is actually enacted physically, as the teacher becomes a kind of distant authority, less a human being to the student than something akin to Orwell’s Big Brother. Direct critical collaboration with either the instructor or classmates is not possible, and the student is alienated not only from the course’s ostensible subject matter, but from all potential partners in the dialogue that Freire observes is “indispensable to the act of cognition which unveils reality” (83).

Because of these immediate and increasing threats to anything resembling critical pedagogy in the United States, Freire’s book seems more important than ever, and less like an abstract exercise in theory, which it was never meant to be, than a call to action and reflection on ourselves, our students, and the situation we mutually find ourselves in.

Paulo Freire, Pedagogy, and Humanization

Pedagogy of the Oppressed

Pedagogy of the Oppressed (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My next several posts will focus on Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. I intend to take it a chapter at a time and present some of the important points from each. I don’t have much of a chance of doing this book justice, even approaching it one chapter at a time, and I strongly encourage you to read it for yourself; it’s a foundational, probably the foundational text of critical pedagogy, and much scholarly writing on education and social justice draws on the concepts it presents.

Freire’s first chapter lays out a theoretical basis for a pedagogy of the oppressed, explaining why such a pedagogy is necessary and what its aims must be. Later chapters will present the methods of this pedagogy in more detail, but this first one is dedicated largely to describing the situation of the oppressed that renders such an approach necessary. It should be acknowledged right off the bat that this is a book about pedagogy in the interest of changing the world and social order according to the needs of people, and that from this perspective education in the traditional sense means shaping people according to the desires of an oppressor class. It should also be acknowledged from the outset that Freire is writing with a particular historical context in mind, and that applications of his work should take into account that we’re not living in 1970 Brasil (and Freire himself would probably be the first person to point this out).

Freire begins the chapter by describing the dichotomy humanization/dehumanization: “Within history, in concrete, objective contexts, both humanization and dehumanization are possibilities for a person as an uncompleted being conscious of their incompletion” (43). That is, as conscious, historical beings, humans face the task of humanizing themselves and others; as Freire will demonstrate, this is the particular burden of the oppressed class, since those who do the oppressing are not able to give freedom and humanization to themselves or others. Freire comes closest to concretely defining the work of humanization when he writes:

But while both humanization and dehumanization are real alternatives, only the first is the people’s vocation. This vocation is constantly negated, yet it is affirmed by that very negation. It is thwarted by injustice, exploitation, oppression, and the violence of the oppressors: it is affirmed by the yearning of the oppressed for freedom and justice, and by their struggle to recover their lost humanity. (44)

Humanization is the struggle to be recognized as human, and the educator who would contribute to social justice must start by recognizing his students as humans. Another distinction Freire makes early in the chapter is useful here, that between true generosity and false generosity (charity):

False charity constrains the fearful and subdued, the “rejects of life,” to extend their trembling hands. True generosity lies in striving so that these hands–whether of individuals or entire peoples–need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work, and working, transform the world. (45)

A pedagogy of the oppressed must be truly generous, and not merely charitable. The problem with charity being, of course, that it does nothing to address the situation of dependence or larger social order responsible for the inequalities it ostensibly ameliorates. See the excellent RSA Animate video with Slavoj Zizek describing the problem with charity:

One facet of this true generosity is that the educator working for freedom and humanization must work with students, with confidence in their own critical consciousness. The oppressed cannot be liberated by slogans, by propaganda passed down to them from a well-meaning elite; these forms of discourse are themselves only means of oppression. They must be partners in doing the work of liberation themselves.

Pedagogy which begins with the egoistic interests of the oppressors (an egoism cloaked in the false generosity of paternalism) and makes of the oppressed the objects of its humanitarianism, itself maintains and embodies oppression. It is an instrument of dehumanization. (54)

The educator who would serve the cause of humanization encounters a problem here, however, because the oppressed who must be his partners suffer from a kind of split-consciousness, having internalized the perspectives of the oppressors. Much of the first chapter is given to describing this split, dualistic state of the oppressed: “They are at one and the same time themselves and the oppressor whose consciousness they have internalized” (48). For this reason, the oppressed may not desire to change the social order to eliminate oppression so much as to assume the position of the oppressors themselves, since this is the image of humanity with which they have been presented: “Their ideal is to be men; but for them, to be men is to be oppressors” (45). (As a side note, I think there’s an opening for gender criticism concerned with the construction of masculinity here, and I’m sure good work has already been done on this, but I haven’t done the research to see what’s in the field; I’d welcome recommendations for reading on this topic). The function of critical pedagogy as Freire sees it is to assist the oppressed in perceiving this internalization of the oppressor’s perspective:

The central problem is this: How can the oppressed, as divided, unauthentic beings, participate in developing the pedagogy of their liberation? Only as they discover themselves to be “hosts” of the oppressor can they contribute to the midwifery of their liberating pedagogy. As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible. The pedagogy of the oppressed is an instrument for their critical discovery that both they and their oppressors are manifestations of dehumanization. (48)

The key to perceiving and overcoming this divided consciousness, as well as the reason why liberating action must have a pedagogical character, is praxis. As Freire uses it, praxis means a combination of action and reflection that manifests the critical consciousness necessary for humanization:

One of the greatest obstacles to the achievement of liberation is that oppressive reality absorbs those within it and thereby acts to submerge human beings’ consciousness. Functionally, oppression is domesticating. To no longer be prey to its force, one must emerge from it and turn upon it. This can be done only by means of the praxis: reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it. (51)

Praxis consists of an ongoing dialectic between action and reflection, each informing the other. Reflection alone, he cautions, creates a false image of the world and changes nothing, while action alone without critical consciousness would fail to address the roots of oppression:

To surmount the situation of oppression, people must first critically recognize its causes, so that through transforming action they can create a new situation, one which makes possible the pursuit of a fuller humanity. (47)

Here again is the problem with charity, or mere activism: ostensibly liberating action that does not address the causes of dehumanization only facilitates the perpetuation of oppression. Likewise, a “liberating” education that consists of an educated elite handing down slogans and propaganda to the oppressed, and which does not engage the oppressed in the struggle for their own humanization, will fail to result in freedom or humanization:

Freedom is acquired by conquest, not by gift. It must be pursued constantly and responsibly. Freedom is not an ideal located outside of man; nor is it an idea which becomes myth. It is rather the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion. (47)

I want to linger on that last part, which says that freedom is “the indispensable condition for the quest for human completion.” In Freire’s work, freedom is not an end unto itself, but the necessary condition of possibility for the work of becoming human. This is why we can recognize the struggle for humanization in the demands of the oppressed for justice, for rights, for recognition. They demand the freedom to become human, challenging the system that treats them as a means-to-an-end for an oppressor class.

In his next chapter, Freire will outline the methods of such a pedagogy in more detail. For an attempt to put these principles into practice in an American context, I recommend Ellen Cushman’s essay “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” which I wrote about in a previous post.

Composition in the Contact Zone

 Mad Max

In my previous post on Ellen Cushman’s “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” I wrote about that author’s call for rhetoric and composition scholars to engage their communities in reciprocal “civic participation,” rather than relying exclusively on critical pedagogy to effect social change. The next author whose work I want to focus on, Mary Louise Pratt, asks us to rethink our assumptions about the communities we inhabit, both inside the academy and out in what in happier times was sometimes called “the real world,” when it was easier to pretend that professional teachers and scholars were secure in their positions and immune to the Mad Max ethos of corporate capitalism, and before globalization had transformed the entire world into a giant Thunderdome.

Unlike Cushman, Pratt emphasizes classroom practices, at least in the address/essay I want to cover here, “Arts of the Contact Zone.” That widely circulated essay is included in the influential freshman composition anthology, Ways of Reading, which I have great affection for and great reservations about, and the page numbers I’ll be giving are drawn from the eighth edition. While “Arts of the Contact Zone” prioritizes questions about classroom practice, the essay also makes it clear that Pratt is very concerned with the other communities we inhabit, and how we can navigate them once we acknowledge that they are not the homogenous, monocultural spaces we might have assumed them to be. Pratt signals this concern when she introduces the subject of Felipe Guaman Poma de Ayala’s The First New Chronicle and Good Government with an ironic aside:

I was asked to speak as an MLA member working in the elite academy. In that capacity my contribution is undoubtedly supposed to be abstract, irrelevant, and anchored outside the real world. I wouldn’t dream of disappointing anyone. (500)

The story of The First New Chronicle and Good Government is a heartbreaking one, and I strongly encourage you to read Pratt and her sources for the details. Suffice it say for now that texts written in modes other than the recognized forms of discourse endorsed by cultural authorities are apt to be ignored, misunderstood, neglected, discarded, or tucked into a museum and forgotten for three-hundred years, as happened with Guaman Poma’s sprawling letter to King Philip III, which presented a native Andean perspective on the Andeans and their history and also documented the abuses of the Andeans at the hands of Spanish colonizers. The Spanish Monarch would never receive the twelve-hundred page letter addressed to him. As Pratt writes,

It was not till the late 1970s, as positivist reading habits gave way to interpretive studies and colonial elitisms to post-colonial pluralisms, that Western scholars found ways of reading Guaman Poma’s New Chronicle and Good Government as the extraordinary intercultural tour de force that it was. The letter got there, only 350 years too late, a miracle and a terrible tragedy. (500)

Pratt uses Guaman Poma’s text to introduce a pair of concepts useful for thinking differently about our own classrooms and communities: contact zones and the authoethnographic text. She defines contact zones as:

social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today. (501)

Seventeenth-century Peru, occupied by Spanish conquerors, is one of the contact zones Platt describes, and Guaman Poma’s letter intended for King Philip III, making use of both Andean and Spanish modes of communication, serves as an example of an autoethnographic text, which Platt defines as:

a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations others have made of them. Thus if ethnographic texts are those in which European metropolitan subjects represent to themselves their others (usually their conquered others), authoethnographic texts are representations that the so-defined others construct in response to or in dialogue with those texts. (501-2)

Español: Guaman Poma - Nueva_crónica

Español: Guaman Poma – Nueva_crónica “Españoles soberbioso criollo o mestizo o mulato deste rreyno” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Since such texts exist in dialogue with the texts of a dominant culture, they adapt and sometimes subvert the modes of discourse of the prevailing culture they’re responding to. I’d suggest that the academic essay genre we ask our students to conform to is one of the officially sanctioned modes of discourse authorized by the dominant culture (and like all such official discourses, open to the possibility of subversion and adaptation to the needs of minority groups marginalized by the dominant culture).

Pratt’s notion of “contact zones” counters descriptions of culture as unified, homogenous, and monolithic. Such conceptions of culture invariably marginalize, or simply ignore, the perspectives and experiences of both external cultures who might be subject to that culture’s aggression or interference, as in the case of Native Americans exploited and exterminated by European conquerors, and minority groups within that culture whose own narratives and self-conceptions do not fit the dominant cultural narrative.

Understanding our communities as contact zones rather than monolithic cultures has a profound effect on our interpretation of them and the kinds of narratives that seem appropriate to tell about them. Although he never uses the phrase to my knowlege, I believe that Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, which you should purchase and read immediately, is a good example of how our perspective changes when we understand our culture and its history as a contact zone wherein groups of different cultures, classes, and varying degrees of legal standing co-exist in widely unequal relations of power. In that book’s first chapter, he writes:

The treatment of heroes (Columbus) and their victims (the Arawaks)-the quiet acceptance of conquest and murder in the name of progress-is only one aspect of a certain approach to history, in which the past is told from the point of view of governments, conquerors, diplomats, leaders. It is as if they, like Columbus, deserve universal acceptance, as if they-the Founding Fathers, Jackson, Lincoln, Wilson, Roosevelt, Kennedy, the leading members of Congress, the famous Justices of the Supreme Court-represent the nation as a whole. The pretense is that there really is such a thing as “the United States,” subject to occasional conflicts and quarrels, but fundamentally a community of people with common interests. It is as if there really is a “national interest” represented in the Constitution, in territorial expansion, in the laws passed by Congress, the decisions of the courts, the development of capitalism, the culture of education and the mass media.

When history is understood as a universal narrative, that narrative invariably presents the perspective of those in power, the perspective of the conquerors, rather than that of the conquered, and perspectives that do not align with the dominant narrative are made to disappear. Likewise, when we presume a common culture in our composition classes, we do violence to the actual diversity of perspectives and narratives that may make up the class (and I fully acknowledge that some classes are more diverse than others).

Being willing to understand our classrooms and communities as contact zones means being willing to let go of some of our old, comforting certainties, among them the certainty that the teacher, as representative of the dominant culture and its perspectives, has the authority to speak for all as a kind of objective, universal spokesperson. (This is the perspective that Ellen Cushman warns us against in “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change,” and the reason she insists that scholars’ civic participation in their communities be reciprocal and that their research be in communication with community members and not merely about them). When Pratt describes her experience in a classroom understood as a contact zone, she emphasizes the challenges of beginning to relinquish this position of universal authority:

It was the most exciting teaching we had ever done, and also the hardest. We were struck, for example, at how anomalous the formal lecture became in a contact zone (who can forget Atahuallpa throwing down the Bible because it would not speak to hm?). The lecturer’s traditional (imagined) task–unifying the world in the class’s eyes by means of a monologue that rings equally coherent, revealing, and true for all, forging an ad hoc community, homogeneous with respect to one’s own words–this task became not only impossible but anomalous and unimaginable. Instead, one had to work in the knowledge that whatever one said was going to be systematically received in radically heterogeneous ways that we were neither able nor entitled to prescribe. (510)

Re-imagining the classroom as a contact zone means re-imagining our roles as teachers and writing instructors, as well as the purpose and kinds of writing we ask our students to perform: whose voice and perspective do we ask them to take, and whose interests does it serve?

Ellen Cushman: Liberatory Pedagogies and Civil Participation

English: Photo of Paulo Freire

English: Photo of Paulo Freire (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ll now begin a series on texts dealing with questions of social activism in the practices of rhetoric and composition scholars, starting with Ellen Cushman’s essay “The Rhetorician as an Agent of Social Change” (College Composition And Communication 47.1 [1996]: 7-28). As my previous post on Elbow indicated, these issues are never far away when we’re talking about writing and writing instruction, so we might as well get down to it, right?

Cushman’s essay is a good place to start because she raises some questions about the relationship between academic work and social activism that will be good to keep in mind when when we turn to the work of Paulo Freire, Mike Rose, bell hooks, and other scholars relevant to the field. In fact, I hope Cushman’s essay will serve as an antidote to some of the problematic assumptions that can follow from well-intentioned approaches to pedagogy and social action. If your orientation is anything like mine, you’ll need such an antidote, because the approach to critical pedagogy we’re comfortable with, i.e. teaching to raise consciousness in the classroom, isn’t adequate to her goals, and in fact leads easily into a lot of problems that can have the reverse effects of what we intend: specifically, reinforcing the hierarchies and institutional roles that treat teachers as all-knowing, active subjects and students as passive receptacles of the knowledge offered by teachers, in other words, the “banking” concept of education described by Paulo Freire, whose work informs Cushman’s and whose image, unlike hers, was easily obtained by a cursory online search.

Instead of a particular pedagogical program, Cushman advocates greater involvement with the community surrounding the university, and while I think she also means this on a more general, figurative level, in her case she means explicitly bridging the gap between her institution at the time of this essay, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and the neighborhoods adjacent to the campus. The social change she seeks to effect is not a raising of the consciousness of university students through cultural critique in the classroom, but reciprocal assistance to community members who can benefit from the specialized training of rhetoricians, while simultaneously offering those scholars the opportunity and permission to learn from their experiences and perceptions. I’m getting a little ahead of myself here, but I want to be careful not to frame these ideas in language that leads us back to the banking concept in which “the teacher thinks and the students [or community members] are thought about” (Pedagogy of the Oppressed 73). She writes:

Some critical theorists believe that the primary means of affecting social change is to translate activism into liberatory classroom pedagogies. This paper seeks to address other ways in which we can affect social change, something more along the lines of civic participation. (7)

I want to note that Cushman does not oppose “civic participation” to “liberatory classroom pedagogies” here, but seems to regard them both as potentially helpful avenues of social action. The problem with relying solely on “liberatory classroom pedagogies,” however, is that in that case the rhetorician doesn’t participate as such in civic life outside the academy. In order to enable this civic participation, rhetoric and composition scholars must bridge the gap between their universities and the surrounding communities. To illustrate this gap, Cushman describes the Approach at Rensselaer,  a massive stone staircase that was “Once an access way to the university on the hill, literally and figuratively” (9), but which had been allowed to fall into utter disrepair by the mid-1990s when Cushman wrote her essay due to disagreements about maintenance responsibilities between the school and the city. For Cushman, the Approach exemplifies the distance between universities and their neighboring communities. She writes,

Everyday, we reproduce this distance so long as a select few gain entrance to universities, so long as we differentiate between experts and novices, and so long as we value certain types of knowledge we can capitalize on through specialization. (10-11)

So one of the issues Cushman raises that we’ll do well to keep in mind, and I think this one might be the most troubling, is that the nature of professionalization in the discipline, including its emphasis on specialization and intellectual property, itself enforces a gap between scholars and the communities next door. Cushman’s own experiences, described in this essay, testify to the persistent difficulties of bridging this gap while remaining invested in the profession’s standards and values.

She draws on the work of Malea Powell to describe how professionalization encourages a “colonizing ideology” in which academics must stake a claim over a particular subject area, defending this claim and displacing any other scholars who happen to already be situated there:

If the scholarly territory happens to be occupied by other scholarly endeavors, our job demands that we show how these original scholars fail to use their territory well, thereby giving us manifest justification for removing their theories from the territory through expansion, co-option, or complete dismissal. In some fundamental ways, we shirk our civil responsibility and always already enact violence under the guise of objective distance, and the thin veil of ‘creating’ knowledge. (11)

Obviously, this colonizing ideology applies not only to the work of other scholars, but to the people we theorize in the course of staking out an academic specialization for ourselves. The alternative isn’t a complete disavowal of scholarly work, but an approach to scholarship that “take[s] social responsibility for the people from and with whom we come to understand a topic” (11), that is, a scholarship that doesn’t theorize about people, but in communication with them. This means seeing ourselves as participants within a community rather than experts postulating about the community from the privileged position of the ivory tower.

Cushman is careful to make plain that she’s not talking about making rhetoric and composition scholars social workers, or an army of saviors from on high marching into their communities to deliver liberation. Instead, she’s asking us to reflect on our roles in the communities we’re already part of, both the academic community and the larger community of which the academy is part, and how these roles relate to one another:

I am asking for a deeper consideration of the civic purpose of our positions in the academy, of what we do with our knowledge, for whom, and by what means. I am asking for a shift in our critical focus away from our own navels, Madonna, and cereal boxes to the ways in which we can begin to locate ourselves within the democratic processes of everyday teaching and learning in our neighborhoods. (12)

At this point in her essay, Cushman goes on to offer examples from her own experience of what this might mean and how it might work, or not work. It’s a section well-worth reading for how it illustrates both the approach to civic participation Cushman advocates and the pitfalls of professional, academic perspectives. I’m not going to describe the remainder of Cushman’s essay in detail for the sake of keeping this post near the one-thousand word mark and in the interest of not boring you to death.

I do want to touch on one, last, major point in Cushman’s essay, however, and that is that we should be careful of assuming that only broad collective action is helpful or constitutes legitimate social action. She writes that “Most current accounts of activism in cultural studies don’t do justice to social change taking place in day-to-day interactions,” and argues for a greater appreciation of “the ways in which people use language and literacy to challenge and alter the circumstances of daily life” (12). In other words, Cushman advocates a conception of social action that isn’t exclusively invested in “sweeping social upheavals” (12), but in the ways the scholar’s specialization can benefit community members in their daily pursuit of better lives for themselves and their families, which might include such apparently mundane tasks as assisting them with applications for loans, jobs, or housing, as well as helping them articulate their perspectives in ways that might help their voices be heard where they’ve previously been dismissed or ignored (and, I should note here, it’s important that this civic participation is reciprocal and that the scholar not see herself as a savior liberating the masses; what community members have to offer the scholar are their own perspectives and experience and the authorization of the scholar’s theorizing of the community they both participate in).

Cushman anticipates the claim that such an approach to activism consists merely of “coping devices” (14), and she articulates an able defense that I’m not going to cover in detail here. One question that Cushman’s work leaves open for me, however, is whether this form of activism challenges the status quo, or only assists members of the community in improving their material conditions while perpetuating it. I don’t want to suggest that the latter would be a fault; I certainly don’t object to people seeking better standing for themselves, but I do want to maintain a space for critiques of the larger social order as a whole or in part. I don’t believe such critiques and the kind of civic participation Cushman describes are mutually exclusive, however, and I’d like to think that she’d agree with me. So, a better question would probably be: how can liberatory pedagogy and civic participation both be utilized to promote social change in-and-outside the academy? Or, even better, what can liberatory pedagogy learn from civic participation?