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.