Monday, January 30, 2012

The Rhetorical Canons as the Phoenix from the Writing Process's Ashes

This week I’m reading the opening chapters of Lingua Fracta by Collin Gifford Brooke as I continue my journey through Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. This week, however, I would like to focus my discussion for this blog post on Lingua Fracta almost exclusively, rather than balance it between the two texts. My choice for this approach comes from the fact that I have been greatly anticipating reading this book for some time now. It has been on my “to read” pile since Julia Romberger recommended it to me during the Fall of 2010.

I’m most interested, for the current moment in the chapter on Ecology. The author begins this chapter by immediately tapping into some ideas and concepts that I hold very dear to me: first the rhetorical canons and immediately after the trivium. In earlier entries on this blog I’ve spend time exploring other articles that discuss the rhetorical canons and our need to re-envision them in the 21st century (see my posts on Bolter, Prior et al, Porter and Reynolds in particular). Meanwhile, I have for some time attempted to come up with some pithy visual representation of the trivium to have tattooed upon my body, after I have λόγος tattooed on my wrist (which I will do once I either get up the guts or find a tattoo artist I trust, whichever comes first).

The first line from this selection that really captivates me is this:
“The canons have so completely diffused into our collective conceptions of rhetoric that they are almost beneath our notice, and yet most rhetoric and composition scholars would struggle to explain exactly what the cannons are” (29). 
 What a claim! I love this quote, however. I think it’s true that many people might be able to list the canons of rhetoric, but when pushed might struggle to describe exactly what each canon does, why it matters, or perhaps even more importantly: how to teach them. The ability to discuss the canons in this way becomes increasingly sticky when we consider it in light of how Brooke discusses the history of the treatment of the canons in the field. Brooke suggests that the story we tell ourselves about the canons of memory and delivery falling into obscurity in post-literate society is a false one.

Part of the fuel for this false narrative comes from the way in which we often tie the canons to the writing process.  Brooke explains that "the canons suffer the further indignity of being used as a model for a particularly artificial and linear version of the speaking/writing process, one that corresponds neither to ancient nor to contemporary production of discourse.  We do not speak of the recursive nature of the canons or of how the canons are unique to each individual speaker or writer." (30).

atomic bomb explosion with the words Blow up the Writing Process
Design my own; Image Source:  Interesting Atomic Bomb Facts
I root for Brooke as he moves through these lines.   Particularly as I have been attempting to evolve my first-year writing class into one that is more appropriately described as a first-year composition class because of its multimodal approach, I have found myself increasingly more uncomfortable with the notion of the writing process. In fact, I go so far as to start every class I teach with a discussion of the need to “blow up the writing process.” In fact, I always tell students that I want to make t-shirts with design pictured in the image on the left.  I’m uncomfortable with teaching the writing process or even “processes” although it’s a central objective on my course and an emphasis in the WPA Outcomes Statement for First-Year Composition because of the characteristics that Brooke describes:  it is artificial and linear.  What is it about this notion of writing process or even processes that make me chafe so?

 I’m uncomfortable by the linear nature implied by the idea of process. While people argue that the writing process can be recursive, that idea doesn’t mesh with my general idea of what a process looks like. Other processes I know seem to demand linearity. As a simplistic example, let’s consider the process of making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. You cannot skip ahead to the step of putting peanut butter on your knife if you haven’t first opened the jar. It just doesn’t work. Maybe I am taking the metaphor of process to far, but I just hate the notion the intellectual work of composing being described as a process…or even a journey. I like thinking of it as a dance or game, to borrow from Joseph Harris’ Rewriting: How to Do Things with Texts wherein he says, in explaining his approach to his book, that he is
“trying to show how to do things with texts, to shift our talk about writing away from the fixed and static language of thesis and structure and toward a more dynamic vocabulary of action, gesture and response. You move in tandem with or in response to others, as part of a game or dance or performance or conversation” (4). 
 Since I learned what the rhetorical canons were (admittedly, in my master's program) I have been drawn to them as a framework for teaching, to borrow Brooke's phrasing that I very much like, "the production of discourse" (30).  I do not wish to see them as a lens of the writing process, as Brooke explains we often mistakenly do.  Instead--I want to blow up the writing process altogether and start fresh with the canons.

Brooke, Collin Gifford.  Lingua Fracta:  Toward a Rhetoric of New Media.  Cresskill:  Hampton Press, 2009.  Print.

Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Del Rey, 1975. Print.

Harris, Joseph.  Rewriting:  How to Do Things with Texts. Logan, Utah State University Press, 2006.  Print.

By the way...

Earlier I was reading Clay Spinuzzi's review of Lingua Fracta on his blog a thought his opening comment was really interesting.  He writes:

"The first thing I noticed about this book when I pulled it off the shelf was that the cover claimed it was “Edited by Collin Gifford Brooke.” The second was that the subtitle on the cover said “Towards a Rhetoric of New Media,” while the title page reads “ Toward a Rhetoric of New Media.” When I contacted Collin about the first error, he told me that I must have gotten an early copy – later copies have been fixed. The subtitle issue is apparently still in the later copies."
The first thing I did having read this comment was check my book.  Indeed, my cover and title page are mismatched.  Are they matched on your copy of the text?


  1. First: great image (blowing up process)
    Second: great poll!

    Third, while I deeply appreciate your desire to nuke process; I wonder about the need to categorize (like I mentioned in class tonight) to allow for teaching and learning. In other words, do simplistic processes and/or canons exist as a way to instruct and a sign of mastery is the ability to "nuke it"?

  2. Your discussion of the act of composing as a dance or game is one that really brings back in delivery and memory -- the canons that Brooke feels have most been lost with the hyper-focus on writing as rhetoric rather than speech. To perform a dance, one does indeed memorize steps and, while one can dance alone, often an audience is part of the final dance. I have been struck by the removal of speech from the canon ever since Dr. Neff's Major Debates class in 2010 when we looked at the development of the current state of writing instruction as rooted in what happened at Harvard. I think you and I are similarly drawn to multimodal composition as a result of this limiting perspective created by the focus on writing.

    I also want to respond to Shelley's comment -- as a high school teacher, I do indeed use some very linear things to instruct and expect students to blow them up later through mastery. It is a beautiful thing to watch when a student can take the pieces of what we have done and create her own dance/game.

  3. Susanne--I think we're thinking on very similar lines. One thing that really stuck with me last semester when I was in Composition as Applied Rhetoric was that feedback on compositions used to be oral. When I asked the class why we moved away from oral feedback neither Kevin nor anyone else really had an answer, which made me think: "why not go back?" So I have and I'm really becoming interested in the role of delivery in feedback composition, rather than just my student's compositions. I'm also thinking about the role my choice to deliver feedback in an alternate means plays in student memory and my own memory. I don't remember essay feedback when I write it on papers, but I remember it when it's part of a conversation in my office. Student from my fall class (where I piloted my oral feedback experiment) could tell me on the last day of class some of the feedback they got on the first paper of the semester. Interesting!

  4. I thought I was the only one fascinated by the concept of dialing in “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep” , BUT I like the fact that your opening sentence began with “She dials…” I think in this day and age we already use dialing to get a bunch of things done. For instance, these days we accomplish a lot of things much more efficiently and quickly with the internet be it shopping, paying bills, or just about anything. It seems that just like Rick, we’ve also become as posthuman as we can get. I liked your detailed breakdown of Rick’s character, and the comparison between what is human/real and what is posthuman/futuristic.