In Which I Say Too Damn Much And Also Not Nearly Enough about J. Berlin. (Berlin)

Berlin, James A. “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2009. 667-684. Print.

Because my dissertation (as broadly envisioned at this point) takes a big fat ideological turn by applying critical rhetorical analysis to our discourse of composition and technology, I won’t be able to go very far without dealing with James Berlin–both his historical studies (Rhetoric and Reality and Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges) and his shorter work, such as this article. Here, Berlin “situates rhetoric within ideology,” arguing that despite claims to the contrary, our rhetoric “is always already ideological” (667). Because of this nontranscendental status, any time we examine a rhetoric, we “must first consider the ways its very discursive structure can be read so as to favor one version of economic, social, and political arrangements over other versions” (667). As I’ll get into later, this implies the important relationship between what McKerrow (1989) refers to as the critiques of domination and of freedom. A rhetoric makes sense of the world and of the symbols used to interpret, explain, or construct that world according to its ideological perspective; thus it is never “a disinterested arbiter” or without bias. This is not the transcendent objectivist rhetoric of the current-traditionalists (or of the cognitive/process psychology rhetoric in composition classrooms). In “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class,” Berlin describes the unclaimed ideological commitments of the three major classroom rhetorics of his day: cognitive psychology, expressionism, and social-epistemic. His analysis points out the “social endorsements” of each rhetoric, especially the ways each rhetoric is quietly appropriated by the ideology it purportedly opposes.

Sequentially-organized notes and the glimmers of a digital-expressionist critique follow.

The Three Rhetorics In Brief:

  1. rhetoric of cognitive psychology: “refuses the ideological question altogether, claiming for itself the transcendent neutrality of science” (668) but is preempted by capitalist structures
  2. expressionistic rhetoric: “opposes the scientism of current-traditional rhetoric and its ideology” (668) but is still open to appropriation by the forces it resists
  3. social-epistemic rhetoric: “self-consciously aware of ideological stand, making the very question of ideology the center of classroom activities, and in so doing providing itself a defense against preemption and a strategy for self-criticism and self-correction” (668) (That is, a kind of discourse that oscillates (Lanham) between abnormal and normal (Bruffee), at one extreme critiquing normal discourse, and at the other becoming its own normal that must be critiqued.)

Cognitivist Rhetoric is, for Berlin, the “heir apparent of current-traditional rhetoric” (670) in its claim to a de-historicized, a-ideological position and its positivistic epistemology. Berlin frames current-traditional rhetoric as part of the 19th century university’s response to economic instability, with expert-model research rationalizing models of production for efficiency, manageability, and profitability and joining an elite academic culture with a self-made economic culture in the university. Cognitivist rhetoric is objectivist: “For cognitive rhetoric, the structures of the mind correspond in perfect harmony with the structures of the material world, the minds of the audience, and the units of language” (670). Flower and Hayes’ processes “translating” and “transforming” are (in my reading of his analysis), nearly current-traditional in their embrace of the thought/language dichotomy (672). The writing process–as analyzed and delimited by the cognitivists–is hierarchical and recursive, focusing on and producing ideals about the individual, every-day, real-world, work and academy writing, professional, efficient, and a spirit of self-made industriousness. Berlin argues that despite its denial of the ideology question (which is problematic enough!), cognitivist rhetoric actually supports capitalist ideologies:

It is possible, however, to see this rhetoric as being eminently suited to appropriation by the proponents of a particular ideological stance, a stance consistent with the modern college’s commitment to preparing students for the world of corporate capitalism (672).

Expressionist Rhetoric, the democratized inheritor of liberal culture, is most closely allied with problematically romantic ideals of the “inherent goodness of the individual” and the “fallen state of society” (674).

For this rhetoric, the existent is located within the individual subject. While the reality of the material, the social, and the linguistic are never denied, they are considered significant only insofar as they serve the needs of the individual” (674)

According to expressionist rhetoric, the individual exploits everything for him- or herself in order to reach the gal of “authentic self-expression” that eventually frees both author and reader. Berlin mostly concerns his critique with influential moderate figures like Macrorie, Murray, and Elbow, all of whom “continued the ideological critique of the dominant culture while avoiding the overt politicizing of the classroom” (675). This avoidance is a large element of Berlin’s critique. Because the expessionist locates all that is good, true, and possible in the individual working against collectives; thus it is powerless in political critique, as a protest of one is no protest at all. Also, expressionist values of rugged individualism are easily co-opted by capitalist systems.

Oddly enough, I find myself questioning Berlin’s assessment of Elbow. (Probably because my reading of WWT is so recent, but certainly because of my own sneaky American academic commitment to the individual. Just can’t shake it.) Berlin describes the truth-making process of expressionists as follows: “…when individuals are spared the distorting effects of a repressive social order, their privately determined truths will correspond to the privately determined truths of all others: my best and deepest vision supports the same universal and external laws as everyone else’s best and deepest vision (676). I wonder if he misinterprets Elbow (as Fulkerson seems not to) or gets the directionality off a bit; that is, is this an inward-motion or an outward-motion? Is it “correspondence” of them with me? or is it my embrace of them? This doesn’t read like a believing/listening rhetoric, that is–it reads like a rhetoric where we tap into a transcendent order. I don’t know if that’s as social as Elbow means (and describes it to be). See my critique of my critique of Elbow.

Berlin ends this section by describing a capitalist-committed expressionism (he claims this is the pursuit that “most” end up with): individualism and self-expression through “the consumption of some commodity”; “this separation of work from authentic human activity is likewise reinforced in expressionistic rhetoric” (677). For Berlin, the pure expressionist pursuit of private vision is often undercut by consumer individualism, by separating work and fulfillment, separating writing from “authentic human activity.” This being said (and probably accurate in its time), is it accurate anymore? That is, in “prosumer” culture, in a creative surplus economy, expressionist activity might be separated from work, but it doesn’t necessarily have to engage in consumption or become inauthentic through that divorce. The limitation here is that digital expressionism (new media composition, for example) might not truly be expressionist in that it is collaborative by nature–whether made by multiple authors traditionally understood or considered from a rip/remix/share perspective. Something to cogitate over: is digital (or 21st century) expressionism different from Berlin’s version?

Social-Epistemic Rhetoric is his home team. This third rhetoric has  “a notion of rhetoric as a political act involving a dialectical interaction engaging the material, the social, and the individual writer, with language as the agency of mediation” (678). Social-epistemic rhetoric has a historicist orientation wherein reflexiveness and revision are possible, continually acknowledging rhetoric’s “inherently ideological nature” (678). Unlike cognitivist and expressionist rhetoric, the real is located in dialectical interaction (b/w observer, discourse community, and material conditions): knowledge is product of dialectic, and dialectic is “grounded in language” whereby all are verbal constructs. Of course, lest we think this denies actuality:

This does not mean that the three [observer, community, material] do not exist apart from language: they do. This does mean that we cannot talk and write about them–indeed, we cannot know them–apart from language. (678)

In the interest of the subject’s agency, Berlin also makes sure to ferret out the relationship between determinism and individualism as discursive constructs:

For social-epistemic rhetoric, the subject is itself a social construct that emerges through the linguistically-circumscribed interact of the individual, the community, and the material world. There is no universal, eternal, and authentic self that beneath all appearances is at one with all other selves. The self is always a creation of a particular historical and cultural moment. This is not to say that individuals do not ever act as individuals. It is to assert, however, that they never act without complete freedom. (679)

The task of a good social-epistemic rhetoric is to challenge ideology. If you are familiar with critical rhetoric or the ideological turn in rhetorical analysis, this takes two basic forms. As Berlin describes: “The material, the social, and the subjective are at once the producers and the products of ideology, and ideology must continually be challenged so as to reveal its economic and political consequences for individuals” (679). This first form McKerrow describes as the “critique of domination.” Berlin offers the following ideology-challenging questions (in a non-comprehensive list, but one that is critically and methodologically helpful, I hope):

  • What are the effects of our knowledge?
  • Who benefits from a given version of truth?
  • How are the material benefits of society distributed?
  • What is the relation of this distribution to social relations?
  • Do these relations encourage conflict?
  • To whom does our knowledge designate power?

Social-epistemic rhetoric is perfectly suited to the second form of ideological challenge, as well: “Finally, because of this historicist orientation, social-epistemic rhetoric contains within it the means for self-criticism and self-revision” (679). This is precisely what McKerrow calls the “critique of freedom,” wherein the project of criticism (of rhetoric, for Berlin) is agitated by permanent skepticism of its own results. Interpretations of ideology are ideological and must be continually revised in the interest of, well, everyone.

Berlin finally locates this pedagogically, in a Friere-esque critical project to help students “extraordinarily reexperience the ordinary” (Friere qtd in Berlin 681). Students should be taught to engage in the CoD and the CoF (not so named in Berlin, of course), identifying control and power denied in their own lives and the “absence of democratic practices in all areas of experience” (680). A complex pedagogy with an unguaranteed goal of autonomy, he admits–but an important one.

Berlin’s basic, overarching theme: “a way of teaching is never innocent” and to ignore this “is to fail our responsibilities as teachers and as citizens” (682). This is a familiar note, and will be sung often on this blog. More on this later. Think Hawisher, think Selfe, and think Haas and Bizzell and others, to be reconstructed here as I get to them.

Reading list, HO!


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