A Counter-History of Composition

The primary purpose of Hawk’s book is to revive Vitalism as concept, category, and method in composition studies. He cites the continued use of old maps constructed by Berlin and Young — chiefly Berlin — as received categories and methods that are now more of an impediment to the field than a useful starting place (259). To resurrect vitalism, he steps outside of the composition studies discourse community. He argues that he must do this, because vitalism has been misnamed and misunderstood since the onset of the discipline. It was labeled romanticism by Young and ignored by Berlin. As a concept in composition studies, vitalism shows up in the margins of Paul Kameen’s “Rewording the Rhetoric of Composition” and as a footnote in Victor Vitanza’s “Three Countertheses.” Hawk draws from these authors, mostly implicitly, but for the most part, his discussion derives from authors like Coleridge, Bergson, Deleuze, Heidegger, and Foucault.

In his afterward, he makes a case for his selection of authors and approach in authoring the book. Vitalism, above all, holds two assumptions.

  • Life is fundamentally complex.
  • Life is fundamentally generative. (265)

As a method of constructing history, disciplinary boundaries are  fictions. Words cannot have a singular meaning. He borrows from Lovejoy here — (1) ideas retain a core identity that remains and cuts across the various discourses and periods (2) key terms are multivocal and can shift in meaning due to historical context and taste (3) primary writers from a period can waver in a term’s ambiguity. To impose unity on a concept or thinker reducing the complexity of a term or marginalizing it. This is a really heavy part of the book. As a history, Hawk’s work isn’t intended to proscribe a new dominant map of the field, one where vitalism is seen as equivocal to the categories within the early maps. Rather, and Hawk makes this quite clear, the book is intended to be rhetorical. He is inventing an origin that might positively affect the field at present. The situation in which the early maps were written has changed. Hawk’s history is intended to bring new life into the field by critiquing the “life-negating” categories drawn in initial maps and histories.

The old categorical maps no longer fit institutional and technological contexts in which teachers and theorists of writing and rhetoric operate. Therefore, I want to remember the past differently than Weidner and Young in order to affirmatively forget their categorizations, and I do so in the hope of positively affecting the field in the present.

To meet this end, Hawk seeks to articulate differences. He wants to create assemblages of concepts, open up possibilities for new thoughts, new practices, new inventions. He uses a rhetorical historiograhpical method to look at names, dates, and central points as points for describing sets of assemblages. “[T]he book is a series of events and the larger assemblages of texts, bodies, and practices that the events make possible.” Bodies are crucial for Hawk. Bodies are an essential part of vitalism, and the methods and concepts that Hawk discusses not only account for the individual (mind and body) but start with the individual.

This discussion is tied largely to the idea of invention. It make sense. The rhetorical situation in which the field began was focused on the idea of invention.

Chapters 1-3

Hawk begins his discussion with Young who Hawk argues unfairly excluded vitalism in favor of more formal methods of invention. In Hawk’s reading of Young, he understands the need for classical rhetoric as a basis for the discipline to start to establish composition as a research-based discipline with its own knowledge base (25). He understands the discipline’s need to deal with current-traditionalism while still establishing some preliminary disciplinary knowledge. In Young’s early iteration, vitalism is classed as an informal, almost mystical and unteachable process, instead of a theory or a philosophy. Part of these discussions includes the need to distance himself from anything than might be considered undisciplinary — something unteachable like vitalism or romanticism & something that might be taught by anybody like current-traditionalism. In contrast with Young, vitalism is an informal method that is essential to invention.

Hawk continues his discussion with Berlin. Berlin’s contributions to the field are numerous, but Hawk centers on one — Berlin’s reading of romanticism and method through the lens of dialectics and the continued exclusion of Vitalism. Hawk establishes this as the point where vitalism is lost, because Berlin’s maps became (and still are) circulate among participants in the field. Vitalism is equated with romanicism, and eventually disappears from his discussions as he continues his inquiry into dialectical methods that focus on epistemic approaches that center on knowledge production.

The last chapter to discuss the historical context discusses Kameen’s work in method. Kameen offers a re-reading of Coleridge (the place where all of this started), and argues that intution (the basic emergence of invention) is “grounded in the body and its complex relations with the world as they unfold with material situations” (107). The idea here is that old maps exclude. Social-epistemic rhetorics exclude. Attention to the body — placement, perception — and though form a feedback loop, giving the rhetor the ability to create new relations, new knowledge (117). Being attentive to the body, the physical, is essential for new possibilities. This is the basic idea — seeing a constellation among “heuristics, minds, bodies, texts, and contexts”– drives discovery.

The body is the link between situation and invention. (120)

Chapter 4 — Counter-History

Working from Kameen’s rereading of Coleridge as drawing connections between the world, the body, the mind, and writing, his interest in the ways that his reading can expand the field’s conceptions of rhetorical invention and the composing process. Hawk argues that vitalism has a standing tradition as a theory and a method beginning with Aristortle. He relies on Aristotle’s idea of entelechy, “the process of development by having a goal within” (124). Entelechy is an internal process, directly correlated with the body which is directly connected to the situation. The process of body to situation to body is a feedback loop that seeds future processes. This is a process among processes that are generative and self-organizing (124-25).

Vitalism continued through Aristotle, influenced alchemy, was subverted by empiricism, and resumed in modernism by Foucault, and into the humanities by Deleuze who articulated an expressionism (the expression of complex relations) as opposed to the expression of an individual subject in expressivism. Expression is “the expression of a world, of an entire system, of life, not just one element or function within it” (158). Through this perspective and in relation to Aristotle’s entelechy, we get posthumanism wherein the machine/human binary is revised to account for the agency that resides in the parts of the individual. Parts produce desire, generates movement, and production. Machines aren’t objects to be used by a subject. Rather, the machine connects people to other contexts and people. It connects people to the “material flow of life” (163). In other words, an ecology created through relation in which we are codependent on the ecology to reproduce and we are an integral part of the ecology, connected through our relations.

We are desiring machines, assemblages of a range of elements that facilitate interactions that connect us to larger systems from which knowledge emerges.

Chapter 5

Hawk forwards compelling critiques of the instrumentalist concept of technology. A good deal of his discussion deals with the concept of techne and its varying conceptions as written by Young and Berlin. For Young, techne is a rigid, formalist practice: “the knowledge necessary for producing preconceived results by conscious, directed action” (168). Young’s account portrays techne as a means wherein the technician is the efficient cause (the source), holding the formal cause (structure or design) in mind while moving toward the predicted final cause (purpose). Young’s account has been re-examined by Hawk and others thoroughly.

Hawk’s account of techne does not support the notion that idea that techne can be controlled by a particular subject. Technology is “only one element in a larger, more complex set of relations…” (168). Any piece of technology or technical process or technique can only “carry out its full potential within a larger ecological structure” (172). Hawk uses Heidegger’s idea of a manifold assignment or potential paths for future development that the whole ecology makes possible (172). Within these larger arrangements or constellations, something like a hammer can be used in its full potential, because there are trees and wood and designs and contractors with strong arms and gyms for making strong arms, etc.

Hawk continues his criticism of the instrumentalist critique, citing the idea that technology brings certain ways of being and seeing to light. (172). Here, Hawk is clearly connecting his discussion with his purpose for the discussion. The emergence of web 2.0 and the implementation of web 2.0 has forced us to see relationships between ourselves, technology, nature, and language. Technology isn’t just a tool, it’s a culture of production and consumption. So, to start to talk about technology, the entire constellation must be discussed as a thing in the process of change (175).

We, as people have always been intertwined by the things around us. Heidegger noticed this a while ago. We noticed this when we started thinking about the mobile device, workflows, and our constant connectivity. Our identities, goals, and ambitions became intertwined with the devices that we carry. We noticed that we are amalgamations. We draw energy from the environment, and the environment is interface (178-79). The human body is constituted with situation — technologies, contexts, and texts (178). There is no division between the ambience and the elements that interact with it. And that is where it starts to get strange. We are nodes, formations of different strands that act within larger networks (other nodes). When we act or strive through telenechy, we produce new screens — a division from the individual and the environment — and the screens that we have change. In doing so, we form new relations, connecting to larger networks.

Instead of something that we can exert our “will upon,” technology is something that we dwell within. For Hawk, our theory, our method, and our future as a discipline depend on acknowledging and responding to that reality. The larger environment is a series of interactions and exchanges that produces behaviors, texts and structures that impact everyone in relation to the ambience. It is a loop. We interact with technology, and we are interacted upon. That recursion of the loop allows emergence or reproduction.

This chapter details the extent to which we are connected with other entities within ecologies. In the context of invention, expressing and the act of expression (the acknowledgement and mapping of the larger system) must start with the situating of bodies within the ecological context. For Hawk, invention is action preceded by a method, technique, or heuristic.

Chapter 6

Hawk’s goal is to suggest a pedagogical method that situates human bodies within ecologies. Once there, invention (reproduction) and arrangement (self-organization) can occur. What is tricky is that the heuristic itself is part of the larger system, so it must be constructed to work within that specific system, creating relations between specific entities. Banking on Friere, Hawk articulates the idea that teachers should look to their specific contexts to invent and develop pedagogical practices, processes, and methods. The key for any pedagogy is that it cannot have predictable outcomes. If the outcomes can be predicted (as is the case with Berlin’s liberatory pedagogy), then we are using an instrumentalist account of techne. The goal is to create a curriculum that has a set of commonplaces for invention, linking, and connection. How the entities in the ecology arrange and interact isn’t predetermined. What will emerge isn’t predetermined. In that sense, we are engaging in curriculum design through hermeneutic guesswork.

Hawk outlines a couple of strategies. The first is that the starting point is the context and its participants. He discusses a method detailed by Paul Kameen in which he asked students to read-around with moments of silence in between. By doing this, Kameen asked students to dwell in the process of building (returning to chapter 4). Silence allows the entities residing in the context to connect to the ecology, the ambient source of energy for reproduction. The collective desires of everyone, voiced through the read-arounds and heard in the silence, to develop a space full of life, where students are departing on multiple lines of flight.

He cites Ulmer who develops a method for developing methods that map constellations. The purpose of this is to develop maps of individuals’ local space and connect it to larger discourses, practices, and institutions. As is the case in Kameen’s method, Ulmer begins with the student, but Ulmer is more attentive to the person’s background. Starting with the background of the individual and situating that individual according to what is there, Ulmer encourages connections, creating pedagogies and methods that encourage new genres that take advantage of hypertext. One of those methods or heuristics is CATTt, a heuristic that encourages the production of a chora — the space where eternal truth resides. This is similar to the ambience.

What matters here is the development of heuristics, implementation of digital tools, and the act of teaching is dependent on a complex set of relations. To be true to that reality, we must recognize the fact that the subject cannot be acted upon.

So What?

The metaphors in this book have been difficult for me to track. During my reading, I was startled by the frequency in which he transitions from one metaphor to the next. So, if I am paying a little too much mind to the distinctions between his metaphors. I offer working definitions of the terms before I attend to the questions.

I like this one for ecology: “increasingly specific configurations of immediate relations among a number of technologies, bodies, and texts” (171).  This definition emphasizes the idea of relation between the beings that comprise the ecology. An ecology can grow or change as new relations are formed as a result of striving (Aristotle’s entelechy), the vitalist impulse (Bergson), or desire (Deleuze and Guattari). Hawk’s use of constellation comes from Rutsky’s continuance of Heidegger’s discussion from “The Question Concerning Technology.” Rutsky is addressing the instrumentalist understanding of technology as a way to fix objects in terms of their potential benefits: “…[H]igh techne is an artistic practice that emerges from a constellation of humans, technology, culture, and the world that ‘continually breaks things free of a stable context or fixed representation,’ representing them instead as a part of an ongoing process or movement‘” (175).   The concept of constellation implies movement, so reselections, reconfigurations, and divergence are built into the metaphor.

Ecology emphasizes the environments in which the writer lives and produces knowledge (223). It is tied to idea of emergence or the creation of complex, situated systems through the relations between “technologies, bodies, and texts” (171). I am not sure if most of these relations already exist or if they must be formed. I guess it depends on the individual. Constellation pays greater attention to the contexts that students are already participating in — cultural ideologies, economic practices, disciplinary theory, and workplace practices. To develop a curriculum using the idea of constellation, we ask students to map their “local space and connect it to these larger discourses, practices, and institutions” (236). In drawing that map, students are not creating new relations. Instead, they are using invention and arrangement to “bring these lines of flight from tacit potential to conscious possibilities” (244). Both of these metaphors are helpful in their own right.

I emphasize community in FYC classrooms and the associated ideas of knowledge production (social-epistemic, consensus & awkward discourse), identity, and context. I frequently use technology as an example or as an illustration for these concepts.

First, I abstract the technology to the context of its development or ask students to look it up and present their findings. Then, we build consensus about its predominant uses, why that system works for those purposes, why it fails for others, and what its consequences might be. Then, we use it. I like to explore how and why we use particular pieces of software, and often, no two sections emphasize similar benefits, consequences, or articulate how the software fits into their lives. I thought I was being really savvy until reading this book.

The first point I’ll make is related to constellation, and the second deals with ecology. Related to constellation, I think that this is a descriptor for what I do. By the end of the course, our writing and discussion reaches well outside of the course into communities and into the future. But, I also think that Hawk’s discussion of constellation illuminates something that I’ve missed. I assign all of this stuff with a particular set of expectations. Those expectations may start when I select the appropriate interfaces. Namely, I expect them to be able to use interfaces within the classroom in the same way that they are used in society.

I expect for students to see intersections between how they participate in their various contexts, and I expect for that point of intersection to exist on a digital screen. I expect students to see overlap between each other’s conceptions of writing. I expect for them to change in really specific kinds of ways at the end of the course.I have a limited set of possibilities for them to enter into. I know what all of these concepts mean. I know where how and from where the digital landscape came from. Their process of discovery is more or less a kind of learning. The only unknown is what parts (specifically) of that landscape they will latch onto. The possibilities for that are quite narrow. In a lot of ways, the majority of the constellation has been written for them. The potential benefits that they could feel by the end of the course are constrained. In my classroom, they do not so much “these virtual spaces among texts, logics, and practices” as they do incorporate existing entities into the classroom through understanding and use. They are not given as much of an opportunity as I had previously thought. I always ask them to articulate and revisit their desires for the course, but I am not giving them the means for that desire to change. Instead, I have only been offering the potential to create predetermined assemblages of the ranges texts they produce (in web and document formats). I’ve been cleverly prescribing screens and ways of investigating their various contexts.

The other idea I latched onto was related to ecology — silence. Hawk reviews a book by Kameen who draws from Heidegger who discusses the act of dwelling and building. Kameen’s and Hawk’s reading relate dwelling and building to writing and invention. Heidegger makes the point that to build is an act of dwelling. Invention is not just a process. It is a clearing in which we live, listen to, and emerge. In the classroom, this looks like silence as opposed to “jumping self-centeredly to positions” (230). For the classroom to shape into an ecology, the entities within it must dwell there, listening to the relations. Everyone and their interactions dwell in the ecology and help to develop. I like lots of noise — kinds of texts across systems developed using the different configurations best supported by those systems. I like lots of reading, lots of response, lots of discussion, lots of good essays. All of that gets noisy. I am still very attentive to the end, and as a result, I am falling in line with student’s preconceptions. I often say, “We are doing this, because it X.”Both of these terms request open-endedness. Constellation suggests a real exercise in inquiry into the various beings that comprise the classroom, and ecology suggests dwelling in that space. As an instructor, I have methods for mapping for what is there and encouraging new interactions. These terms have given me a new way to think about the writing classroom, process, and a new set of possibilities to answer the question, “What am I doing here?”

Hawk, Byron. A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. (2007)

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