Bending a bit

Historically, I’ve been unfair to Peter Elbow in my head and in my notes. I try not to be as dismissive in my teaching, and hope I’ve usually succeeded, but in my academic categorization of the world I’ve partitioned him off as a hypervitalist, irreconcilable with my “rhetorical” understanding of the world. Unfortunately, I’ve come to recognize—and must now cop to it—that this is a mildly cherry-picked reading of Elbow, one that stems from a pop-history doubtful version of expressivism that maybe draws a bit too much on Berlin and not quite enough on the primary texts themselves. That is, there’s so much social construction, rejection of transfer/container models of language, and commitment to some fundamental level of ‘incorrectness’ possible in language and reality* in Writing Without Teachers that it almost hurts me to read it.

It’s easy to read Elbow sloppily—a lot of Writing Without Teachers is itself sloppy or weird (probably intentionally)—to read him as someone committed only to an individual spewing themselves onto a page, never to be negotiated with readers but only to be placed there. But that’s not really fair. Yes, his theory-writing is (or seems) lazy—it doesn’t really engage in the conversation of ideas in an *academic* mode (i.e there is only limited careful references to ideas, people, sources; a dearth of cultural and social contextualizing; no data-driven theory beyond his self-sampling and anecdotal or lore-based explanations). But it’s a book that’s not really supposed to engage in an academic mode—it’s written for everyone else. So I’ve always given Elbow short shrift because I’ve always misread him, looking at the title as a teacher, potentially offended by the notion of the teacherless writing class despite my best critical decentered pedagogical commitment. This dismissal of mine likely also stems from my professional commitment to the practice of problematization—what Elbow would call the “doubting game.”

(okay. I’m tired of hyperlinking. all done.)

Re-re-reading Elbow now, I’d have to join him in arguing, as he does in the “Believing and Doubting” appendix essay to Writing Without Teachers, that the “doubting game has gained a monopoly on legitimacy in our culture” (150) and that this is likely an unfortunate one-sidedness in academic and intellectual history. This one-sidedness is rooted in Socrates’ “no” and eventually won out in Plato’s philosophical dominance of the sophistic approach to truth—a victory that plays out on down the ranks of the Western mind-hordes. (Elbow only briefly describes Socrates and Descartes as complicit here and provides a perhaps overbroad historical summary of post-seventeenth century skepticism and positivism, but it’s hard to disagree with too much of this.) So the current state of affairs, Elbow describes is that:

“to almost anyone in the academic or intellectual world, it seems as though when he plays the doubting game he is being rigorous, disciplined, rational, and tough-minded. And if for any reason he refrains from playing the doubting game, he feels he is being unintellectual, irrational, and sloppy” (WWT 151).

Yeah, I know that feeling. The inevitable result is that one never wins an argument with an English teacher (my family knows that truth well). Elbow argues at length that negative arguments never end up going anywhere; that problematizing on top of questioning on top of doubting back and forth ad nauseum of the kind we see so often in scholarly conversation (this is one element of an argument I’m working on for—I hope—an RSA presentation). Because I can always counter your misreading with a reading of my own that you can then counter as a misreading, we can go on for ever. “There are no rules for showing that an assertion of meaning is false” (161) in a context where everyday speech can and often does mean many things at the same time as a matter of course.

Elbow’s arguing (and I’m really feeling this argument myself right now) that we should stop doubting all the time and try believing once in a while. If we see why proposition X could be just as true as my own proposition Y, I might find out why one or the other is more true rather than more false. The statement is productive, offering an answer (maybe. for now.) rather than offering holes.

So. Even if just for this week, I’m forgiving Elbow his perceived sins against me and am going to try to Believe some of this stuff as I read and write about it. I’m seeing lots of rich connections between Elbow, Wayne Booth, and Kenneth Burke that I’m going to tease at—by putting myself into Elbow’s mind, by practicing a little LR (which may just be the same thing as the believing game) and letting myself identify with what he’s got to say to me as a writer beyond the simple stuff that I’ve already bought, such as the easy benefits of freewriting and writing a lot so as to have a lot to edit later.


*(I’m thinking a lot of Booth’s categorization of three kinds of ‘reality’ in The Rhetoric of Rhetoric—more on that connection and other comparison’s to Booth’s LR later).


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