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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Jun 11, 2019

Some time ago, I was asked by listener Sarah Rumsey to do a podcast on composition theory. That’s a doozy of a topic, so I read a lot, I poked around, even pulled together a couple drafts, but couldn’t find the balance of breadth and depth to do this subject justice. So I gave up.


Ah, clever listener, you know I didn’t really give up, because this is Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history and I am Mary Hedengren and instead of trying to capture the entire depth of rhetorical theory thought I could just rip off someone who did.


Granted, the “did” in this case happened way back in 1982, when rhetoric and composition was still a young discipline, but the “someone” is James A Berlin, namesake of the Conference on College Composition and Communication Jim Berlin pub crawl. In addition to, I guess, being a man who could hold his liquor, Berlin was a composition historian and in 1982, he took stock of the current field of composition in an article titled “Contemporary Composition: the Major Pedagogical Theories.”


Now before I dive into this major theoretical typology, let me say that the article has been accused of being a little simplistic and a little...strawman-ish. Berlin himself acknowledges his bias in the article, stating, “My reasons for presenting this analysis are not altogether disinterested. I am convinced that the pedagogical approach of the New Rhetoricians is the most intelligent and most practical alternative available, serving in every way the best interests of our students” (766). Well, in that case, why even worry about other theories? And why should Sarah be taught all of these competing pedagogical theories in her composition classes? Why not just settle down with one intelligent and practical one without holding up competing theories? Won’t that just confuse would-be instructors and, worse, muddle students who must adapt from one instructor’s theory to another as they progress through their classes: freshman comp with a classicist and advanced writing with an expressionist?


Well, for starters, you might not agree with Berlin’s conclusions about which is best. And, even is so, Berlin fears that most people don’t think consciously about their overall theory of writing and learning at all “ many teachers,” he says, “(and I suspect most) look upon their vocations as the imparting of a largely mechanical skill, important only because it serves students in getting them through school and in advancing them in their professions. This essay will argue that writing teachers are perforce given a responsibility that far exceeds this merely instrumental task” (766).


Okay then, what are the theories Berlin posits for how “writer, reality, audience and language--are envisioned”(765)?


First are the Neo-Aristotelians or Classicists. You might suspect, they echo the philosophies of Aristotle, but Berlin claims that actually they are “opposed to his system in every sense” (767). Okay, then, what does Aristotle posit and what do these wannabes do? Aristotle, if you remember from that famous fresco by Rafael, is the one pointing down to the earth. Berlin describes Aristotle’s view that reality can be “known and communicated with language serving as the unproblematic medium os discourse. There is an uncomplicated correspondence between the sign and the thing” (767). Aristotle’s rhetorical writings are among the most complete we have from the ancient world and emphasize reasoning, but also acknowledge that sometimes it takes a little appeal to emotion, too, to get the job done.


Then Berlin says, in essence, okay, but what those so-called Neo-Aristotelians actually do is Current-traditional or Positivist. [For those keeping track at home, this means that there are two terms (Neo-Aristotleian or Classicist) to describe the general theory and then two (Current traditional and positivist) to describe the way that people botch it up and sometimes still call themselves NeoAristotlean.] So in what ways have Current traditionalists been mucking up Aristotle’s ideas on rhetoric?  Well, for starters they abandon deductive reasoning altogether and embrace exclusively induction, emphasizing only experiment and then they also “destroy” a distinction between dialective and rhetoric, “rhetoric becomes the study of all forms of communication: scientific, philosophical, historical, political, eval and even [gasp] poetic” (769). Additionally, “truth is to be discovered outside the rhetorical enterprise--through the method, usually the scientific method of the appropriate discipline, or as in poetry and oratory, through genious” (770). Instructors in this theory move beyond persuasive to “discourse that appeals to the understanding--exposition, narration, description and argumentation” and is “concerned solely with the communication of truth that is certain and empirically verifieable--in other words, not probablistic” (770).


The second band Berlin identifies are the neo-Platonists or expressivist. Let’s think back on that fresco by Rafael--Aristotle pointed to the ground and Plato pointed to the sky. If neo Aristotleans see themselves as focused on the empirical, the neo Platonists  head in the opposite direction “truth is not based on sensory experience since the material world is always in flux and thus unreliable. Truth is instead discovered through an internal apprehension, a private world that transcends” (771). Because of this, for our writing instructors, “truth can be learned by not taught” (771). The expressionists then “emphasizes writing as a ‘personal’ activity as an expression one’s unique voice” (772). Berlin objects that, like that neo-Aristotleans, these Expressionists have strayed far from Plato’s precepts--”Their conception of truth,” he says “can in no way be seen as comparable to Plato’s transcend world of ideas.” Non of them,” he objects “is a relativist...all believe in the existence of verifiable truths and find them, as does Plato, in private experience” (772). Further, although expressivists may encourage freewriting and journaling, they also emphasise workshopping and peer review, practices that, accord to Berlin will “get rid of what is untrue to the private vision of the writer” (773). This peer practice to purify private truths is not about communication to others, to expunge insincerities. There is a very Dead Poets Society vibe to the whole thing.


So, to summarize where we end up, the Current-traditionalists who think they are Aristotlean are dropping “personal and social concerns in the interests of the unobstructed perception of empirical reality” while the expressivist Neo-Platonists are finding reality only within and using an audience only as a “check to the false note of the inauthentic” and some lingering true NeoAristotleans or classicalists are emphasizing rational structures and only occasionally acknowledging things like “emotion”  (775).


Then there is New Rhetoric. You can almost feel Berlin heave a sigh of relief at finding something sensible. “In New Rhetoric the message arises out of the interactions of the writer, language, reality and the audience. Truths are operative only within a given universe of discourse, and this universe is shaped by all of these elements, including the audience” (775). In other words, if Rafeal were painting the school of Athens now, Aristotle might point towards the objective earth and Plato towards the transcendent heavens, but New Rhetoric (personified, let us say, by Berlin himself) would be pointing outwards towards you--towards the viewer and also towards the painter. The writer creates truth, doesn’t just discover it in the world or within herself, but actually creates it.


And what does that mean for composition? Everything, says Berlin. “In teaching writing we are not simply offering training in a useful technical skill that is meant as a simple complement to more important studies in other areas. We are teaching a way of experiences the world, a way of ordering and making sense of it” (776).


And that’s why learning theory is important. When you’re teaching students to write, are you teaching them to just “write down their observation” about the outside world as though it were uncomplicated? Are you asking them to just “write whatever comes into your mind” about a topic as sincerely and unrestrained as possible? Or are you asking them to create meaning with their audience and, in the same sense with language?


I confess that reading this article in 2019, I’m less twitterpated with the idea that people can make up whatever truths they want. Although no one would ever describe themselves as a Current Traditionalist, some of these ideas--writing in the disciplines, using mixed research methods, even including belleliteristic writing seem very comfortable to me. Things have changed since 1983, not least of which is composition theory.


And I guess this means that this ccan’t be my only podcast on theory. Ah, rats.