Just the (f)acts, please. (Sanchez)

There’s nothing like a title that you can only recognize as having two meanings after having read the book entirely. (I’m thinking also of Smit’s The End of Composition.)

Sánchez, Raúl. The function of theory in composition studies. SUNY Press, 2005. Print.

There’s a good review of this text at http://www.compositionstudies.uwinnipeg.ca/bookreviews/online/34-1/noe.html

Sanchez’ book starts pleasantly enough:

  • “The function of theory in composition studies is to provide generalized accounts of what writing is and how it works.” (1)
  • “Once we, as theorists and researchers, have dispensed with any residual legacies of positivism, we should be able to proceed in good faith with the business of the field: to study writing by methodically observing and analyzing the many and varied instances of it (i.e., empirical research) and by making warranted, general, and possibly predictive statements about it (i.e., theory)” (1).

But it gets dirty pretty quickly. The ironic argument of his book: “the period of composition theory’s ascendance [beginning in the early 1990s] coincides with its having stopped making trenchant theoretical statements about writing” (3). It applied lots of theories from outside composition to issues in composition, but didn’t offer new theoretical perspectives on writing. This bears strong comparison to one part of Smit’s analysis in The End of Composition.

Sanchez’ use of Derrida is important in its view of concepts as enactments of writing:

  • “Derrida’s early texts claim that writing is a paradigmatic human activity. As he notes in of Grammatology, writing ‘designates not only the physical gestures of literal pictographic or ideographic inscription, but also the totality of what makes it possible ; and also, beyond the sigifying face, the signified face itself’ (9). A grammatological approach to writing proposes that writing itself underlies all the conceptual, theoretical, philosophical, and even rhetorical activity habitually brought to bear on writing, as well as on terms such as language and discourse. It argues that concepts in which composition theorists regularly traffic–knowledge, ideology, culture, and also rhetoric and the subject–are best approached not as concepts at all but as examples of, enactments of, writing.” (7)

His overriding goal for theory is as follows:

  • “By redefining concepts as discursive tactics within a general framework of writing, composition theory can move closer toward explaining what writing is and how writing works in the world” (9).

For Sanchez, this revived method of doing theory (revived in the sense that this demand is met by such as Janet Emig, Mina Shaugnessy, David Bartholomae, and Susan Miller) is the opposite the now standard 1990s method for doing theory, one inaugurated by Hairston’s “The Winds of Change” and Berlin’s “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class”: “take a term or concept from a more respected and respectable field such as philosophy and use it to illuminate some aspect of composition studies” (12). This isn’t really theorizing writing, Sanchez argues. (There’s an anti-interdisciplinary argument in here and that’s a strong thread in the book.)

His major problems with composition theory are “hermeneutic imperialism” (62) and the “representationalist ideology of writing” (66).  First of all, a hermeneutic paradigm for composition “consigns writing to the role of representational technology” (67). More on this fascination with interpretation:

  • “While the work of traditional English studies remains the teaching of textual interpretation, the work of composition has been the teaching of textual production. […] Recent composition theory resembles literary theory in its attention to textual interpretation. But it does not theorize textual action, except insofar as it rationalizes interpretation as a form of action” (62).
Sanchez argues that cultural theory is a method of decoding or unpacking texts, but not all that useful for theorizing how they’re made and what they do. (Which I only agree with insofar as we can accept that cultural studies promotes a container understanding of writing that promotes the study of writing as looking at “something else” and avoiding looking at writing itself. But if cultural studies doesn’t really do that, then the whole argument is suspect.)

An odd paraphrase of much of his argument would have to be that Writing can’t be mistaken for its artifacts. (i.e., for its functions or deployments–we must study writing, not writing’s deployments?)

Sanchez argues strongly against “theorizing writing as container (of anything), or representation technology” (78), saying that writing is the only something that matters, and the something that needs to be theorized (rather than the “something else” that other theories look for when they look through writing). That is, he argues that we can’t theorize writing as a container (of culture, of ideology, if ideas, of epistemology, of prediscursive experience) because these things are “functions of writing itself” (83). There would seem–at least at this point in my reading–to be no style/content divide here. Composition studies should not look at cultural contents devoid of a particular medium in which it functions or abstractable across multiple media–that which it supposedly “represents”; instead it should look at writing. (Sanchez is unhelpfully vague about what this means or looks like–I feel like his polemic doesn’t adequately take up the task he’s calling for. That’s the (unforgivable?) nature of polemica, I suppose.)

Sanchez continues: “these supposed concepts [epistemology, ideology, culture, etc] are better seen as particular effects of writing’s apparently systemic function of invoking something else, which nonetheless and invariably turns out, upon examination, to be more writing. The most salient feature of writing is therefore not its representational function but its ability to proceed as if it has a representational function” (85). There are echoes (not explicit in his text, but in my head) of Law (and thus of Latour) in here, though it’s likely that Sanchez would question ANT’s interest in hinterlands beyond inscription devices themselves.

Berlin comes under serious attack as someone who helped to sidetrack composition by these issues within representation rather than the “representation function” itself (85).

  • “…while the subject matter of Berlin’s version of English studies significantly increases (thanks to the influence of cultural theory), and while the critical tools Berlin brings to bear on that subject matter are likewise much more sophisticated, the work remains the same: students interpret texts.” (64)
  • “This feature of Berlin’s work occurs elsewhere in the filed, and fairly often, especially in pedagogical discussions. Cultural theory influences composition studies’ idea of the appropriate subject matter about which students should write, as well as, on occasion, the analytical tools they should bring to bear on it.  But cultural theory has little if any influence on the field’s concept of writing itself. This fact reflects a failure of composition theory, one that has had wide impact.” (65).
  • This is followed by lengthy example: Seeing & Writing 2, by McQuade and McQuade, as a text that instructs students in how to see texts but not how to write them–”advice on how to write texts is brief and arhetorical” (65); a mysterious but tacit situation of the academic writing assignment.; “it helps preserve educational inequality by keeping the writing process essentially mysterious” (66).)

The “implicit theory” he mostly critiques is “the same one that underwrites the writing done in most literature courses: that writing is a device by which a nondiscursive subject conveys ‘thoughts’ or similarly interiorized constructs” (68)–usually, as Sanchez argues, combined with an assumption that students are already familiar with school genres and thus don’t need explicit instruction in or theorization of writing itself..

Toward the close of his text, Sanchez legitimately points out the limits of rhetoric in composition–its hermeneutic “prescribes a highly individualized and prediscursive notion of the subject, one that cannot help composition studies account, theoretically or empirically, for the current production and circulation of writing” (87). That is, not only is it hard to align the “rhetorical tradition” with itself (i.e to connect dots between classical rhetoric and postmodern accounts entails considerable “retrofitting” (87)), but it still tends to rely upon an individual speaker/interpreter (this is at heart Burke’s argument–terministic screens keep us from seeing what’s beyond them–we see in terms of the way we see). As he argues, “whether we try to reclaim a lost tradition of rhetoric or liberate it from the prison-house of philosophy, we are still dealing with a discourse (i.e., a tradition, a body of texts, a collection of theories) that is not equipped even today to address writing beyond the measure of the individual” (89-90).

However, Sanchez (for no apparent reason) can only see rhetoric as an interpretive or analytical affair, not a productive one. He mostly writes off the possibility of imagining rhetoric in a way that’s helpful to modern composition as too difficult and and only open to more debate. Apparently we need monolithic answers and models, which I don’t buy at all. I can see that he wants to go behind rhetoric, to say that rhetoric is a tactic, a discursive product of writing and thus can’t be used to go back and analyze that which goes before it. I think that makes sense. But only just barely.

That, and I’m not sure that the hermeneutic theories he’s so fussy about really do rely on representationalist/instrumentalist dispositions toward writing (i.e. container dispositions). I suppose if we break down understandings of ideology (for example) as a “producer and product” of writing, of discourse and subjectivity as mutually constitutive, of ideology being that which creates and is reproduced by writing, or of ideology as ‘manifest in discourse’, we can see these as instrumentalist–but isn’t the fact that all of these require us to look AT writing even as we look THROUGH it part of a disposition that isn’t simply technological (i.e. a disposition that identifies it “as a technology, as a means of conveying or producing something else.” (91).) Okay, so composition (theory) shouldn’t be interested in theorizing something else(s), i.e. hinterlands and that sort of thing–it should be interested in theorizing writing, the thing itself, and the things that it produces. But if writing is productive, isn’t there always a something else anyway? Writing as writing is good, but we’re interested in the “functions of writing itself”? Doesn’t this just bring us basically back to the same spot?


So Sanchez says we need to throw off the interpretive stance and take the (f)act stance. What does that entail? His “answer”:

“When, in the study of writing, basic questions focus not on meanings conveyed in or through or by acts of writing (the representational/instrumentalist paradigm) but on conections (re)made among and across endlessly generated (f)acts of writing, then the idea that there is something else apart from writing, driving writing, becomes suspect. In fact, it becomes possible to consider that the very notion of something else, regardless of how it manifests in particular instances, is itself a function of writing. The idea of something else, the idea of meaning, even the idea of ‘the idea,’ turn out to be structural functions of the (f)act of writing rather than metaphysical, philosophical, or even merely theoretical concepts” (96).

So everything is now a function of writing. But how does that help me look at writing? In the end, I’m still not sure how I”m supposed to go about theorizing writing… I’m also concerned about Sanchez’ deep disdain for anything that smacks of instrumentalism. That is, his interpretation (hah) of what it means that writing produces and is produced by (for example) ideology relies on the assumption that this is an instrumentalist perspective on discourse. But isn’t it more accurately co-constitutive?

**Copy/pasting from Google docs killed most of my italics. I may go back and fix them. I may not. We’ll see.


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