A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity
by Byron Hawk
U of Pittsburgh P, 2007, ISBN-10: 0-8229-5973-1

Reviewed by Wesley Venus, University of Georgia



Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four

As digital media is theorized in relation to writing selves and teaching selves, the proper contact point between rhetorical theory and composition pedagogy seems less apparent than it did when many of the suppositions about teaching composition were first made. Increasingly, it seems for some that the reason for this is that there is no contact point to be found at all, and for that matter, there never really was.[1] Intellectual spaces are difficult to navigate in this way, and while Byron Hawk’s book dwells in the space occupied by terms like “posthumanism,” “media studies,” “praxis,” and “kairos,” these terms also crowd the space traditionally occupied by terms like “heuristic,” “method,” “ideology,” and “argument.” Certainly Hawk finds this suitable because what he has to offer in his counter-history is as different from traditional historiography as additional is from new. In the era of posthumanism, it no longer makes sense to correct writing instruction's historical course and to recalibrate and to refine its instruments[2] toward new and better disciplinary understanding so much as it does to ask where composition is and by what means is it traveling? History plays a complicated role in a discussion of this kind because, though the post- prefix always implies a sequence, its stem word is modified in a way that is not necessarily causal or sequential. In this respect, Hawk proposes that composition studies' present not be thought of as existing at the end of an historical vector so much as a dimension in the rhetorical complexity of the present.


Hawk characterizes his method as a counter-method, and his desires for his book would be similarly complex ones. He invokes dissoi logoi, and in making the weaker argument the stronger, he wishes to complicate what is taken as commonplace about the rhetorical situation.[3] In that vein, he devotes the better part of his argument to revisiting the subject of vitalism and to debunking Romantic-era myths connected to it. Vitalism itself is a multidisciplinary doctrine which takes as a cornerstone principle the notion that the driving force or forces behind any life process—be it evolutionary, psychological, chemical, biological, or otherwise—cannot be reduced or understood wholly by rational law. However, to drive a life process of any degree of complexity and longevity, a locomotive of some kind must be prefigured; and vitalism takes energy inherent to the process as its power source, rather than something outside of it. Hawk uses little space to address vitalism except to show how it can apply to rhetoric, and the better part he devotes to contesting how it has been applied. He contends primarily that vitalism's credibility has been dismissed in composition studies because its resistance to reducibility has been mistaken for a resistance to effective use, but Hawk prefers to focus more on treating a rhetorical context as a complex and vital one, rather than on rationalizing its formation. So, the same can be said of the formation of a rhetorical subject, or of the writing subject in this specific case. For Hawk, this is where Romanticism has been misapplied. This confusion he attributes to a misreading of Coleridge done by twentieth-century composition scholars who were developing ideology-based composition taxonomies. It seemed during this period that critics theorized Romanticism and classicism as separable notions on the grounds that the former understood invention to be unteachable because it supposes a natural “genius,” which would be both subjective and irrational.

Chapter One: Mapping Rhetoric and Composition

He continues in Chapter One to explain how vitalism came to be conflated with Romanticism and with the myth of genius-based rhetoric, and in Chapter Three, “Remapping Method,” how Coleridge really thought about invention. Coleridge actually theorized vitalism in ways more consistent with the complex and generative intellectual phenomena in contemporary classroom contexts. Historical trajectories lead historians down many complicated paths which can mollify them with a comfortable sense of causality. Complex rhetorics, however, begin from the notion that any good description is more complicated than a synchronic description can provide. For instance, the assignment of mythical and unteachable qualities to a generative notion like vitalism seems consistent with the pattern in composition studies of faulting the legacies of previous notions about teaching for present problems. Hawk calls this the pattern of “retreat and return” (p. 14), where a past notion of some kind is brought back—often more than once—and scapegoated as a cause of some presently perceived deficiency in the field. Current-traditionalism, he notes, might be the most obvious example. Instead, the wrong problems are addressed, he argues, when framing up classicism and Romanticism in a dichotomy where the fundamental question seems to be in which cases are rhetoric and writing teachable. For one thing, the dichotomy reduces concepts like vitalism to the realm of myth and inaccessibility, but also it takes as a given that by “teachable” it is “rationally reducible” that is meant. Likewise, when describing a present circumstance exclusively as a function of its history, its complexity and heuristic potential is reduced.

Chapter Two: Cartography and Forgetting

While more recent modes of inquiry have complicated the present view of subject-formation beyond praxes and effective technique, what has been called social-epistemicism has done little to complicate the classical/Romanticist dichotomy or to undermine rational modes of inquiry. Hawk devotes Chapter Two to characterizing James Berlin’s dialectical methods in this vein and to establishing them as another part of the scapegoating, retreat-and-return disciplinary tradition. The Marxist framework, in pushing language and ideology to the fore, cannot account for complexity in the way that vitalism can and has. He founds this position on the observation that subjectivity in Marxian methods is based upon a disjunction between individual personality and the understanding of multiple subject positions (p. 82). Hawk’s observation here seems especially helpful, considering once again how teaching methods are crafted for individual subjects from large-scale dialectical critique. Again, the contact point between theory and application is not a simple one.

Chapter Three: Remapping Method

The fact that trajectory does not tell all can be underlined by observing past thinkers who come closer to the complex, diachronic way of thinking than those who came after them. As an illustration of this point, the two examples to which Hawk refers are Coleridge, once again, and Aristotle. In this respect, their contexts are entered by way of present contexts and what they have to say about epistemology is seen in ways more complicated than an historical trajectory would imply. For his consideration of Coleridge, he turns in Chapter Three to critic Paul Kameen’s views on method and vitalism. Many have complained, as Hawk notes of Berlin, that Coleridge aims too eagerly at unification (p. 87), and they attribute that to a sense of subject-formation that Coleridge does not actually have. That is, his epistemology supposedly conceives of a separation between mind and the world outside of it, and as a result of that, individual identity and motive would be subject almost exclusively to interior factors; but Kameen and Hawk find that Coleridge is intensely focused upon the interplay between self and the world, not in the discovery of meaning through the interaction of the two so much as in the exploration of it.[4] As a polarity, “self” and “world” to Coleridge’s thinking relate to one another dynamically, not canceling each other out, but propelling thinking forward through mutuality. Out of this position proceeds what Hawk refers to as Coleridge’s theory of human imagination,[5] and taking Coleridge’s method into account, imagination could be a suitable complement to the postmodern discussion, particularly considering the topic of teleology.[6]

Dialectical methods of all stripes suppose an absolute distinction of some kind, even where all other terms are variable; and behind any method, including Coleridge’s, lies the specter of the absolute.[7] The key difference between the part of his theory of human imagination Hawk champions and the methods preceding it is the notion that what is taken for an absolute in the mind of Coleridge’s subject can be absolutely true only for that particular person at that particular moment in time. Many have taken this viewpoint as proof positive of a subject-centered approach to rhetorical dynamics, but they misapply their own perspectives of dialectical subject-formation to Coleridge’s variable notion of subject-formation.[8] Such is the way of critical methodologies like Berlin’s,[9] which suppose a distance from a subject sufficient to provide the objectivity to understand it and the apparatus to generate arguments about it. Hawk proposes that only a counter-method would do in the present era, however, because it does not conceive of the absolute in the ways that even critical methodologies do. Instead, he favors paratactic methods—operating by addition rather than by the subtraction or exclusion/negation of dialecticism—as ways to counter any kind of dialectical method because they establish a kind of “intuitive plausibility,” which as he describes it, seems as close to full representation as language will allow: “Because no one method could ever uncover all the facts within a situation, the constant addition of new perspectives is the only general principle commensurate with scientific discovery” (p. 111).[10] The intuition one develops as a part of what Coleridge calls the secondary imagination is enriched by such a counter-method and is stimulated by the discovery of new associations, metaphors, and unifications—all of which are valid. It would be just as well, if not better, it seems, to turn the focus to the individual mind rather than to try and characterize the macro-complexities of its subject-position. In that case, the focus can at the very least be narrowed to a more particular context than the whole of society and its history. Hawk suggests “bodily experience” as a possible notion from which to begin. As he explains it, bodily experience might be described as “the local moment out of which more complex understanding is connected and initiated” (p. 113), and embracing this part of human understanding is to understand intuition as “a process of living in the complex, evolving interplay of body, mind, and the world” (p. 114).[11][12]

Chapter Four: A Short Counter-History

While Coleridge exemplifies the idea that the history of thought does not proceed to the present day in a wholly linear pattern, much older notions of rhetoric arise in the present context as well. In his fourth chapter Hawk points to Aristotle’s metaphysics for an even earlier articulation of these complex principles, and he places vitalism in the context of technê, or craft. Specifically he refers to the classical concept of entelechy, which supposes that a goal lies within the process of achieving it, and there is a drive within it toward actuality from potentiality (p. 124).[13] Though often obscured, vitalism seems to have surfaced in forms and known by many different names. After Aristotle, what becomes of vitalism, Hawk argues, is really all a part of an entelechical tradition, not the least important of which is posthumanism, in the sense that it involves viewing humans in the complex context of nature, technology, and language (p. 141). But out of this tradition there emerge three kinds of vitalism to which Hawk turns his attention: oppositional, investigative, and complex. Hawk describes each in detail,[14] but focuses the remainder of his book on the treatment of complex vitalism in the context of English composition. Complex vitalism considers what Nietzsche says about power and the creative impetus and extends it to the study of cognitive processes from complex sets of variables, a notion for which he finds Deleuze and Guattari’s desiring machine particularly useful. At bottom, though, in each of these three forms of vitalism, Hawk argues that it has become possible to envision action and desire originating from a complex process,[15] and not from the subject or anywhere else that is stable, and anything that occurs can be said to originate not from any particular part,[16] but from the internal ecological potential (p. 165).