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 Six: Toward Inventive Composition Pedagogies

Chapter Six moves the discussion forward into describing how a classroom in which complex ecology plays a role could look. While critical pedagogy has been based on mind-centered heuristics and pre-determined ideological viewpoints, it also assumes students are passive consumers, rather than creators and collaborators. In the realm of posthumanism, the old, dialectical model of the liberal humanist subject no longer seems to apply because, while it takes into account the situatedness of the world outside the mind, it does not complicate the lines of distinction between the two. Here Hawk presents the topic of desire and posits that motivation is shaped by competing desires. Further, those nodes that do exist—individuals, institutions, traditions, etc.—each are shaped by a web of competing desires. Rather than argue or understand that English composition exists to fulfill some practical need or that it functions to reinforce institutional hegemony, he favors the exploration of desire, power, and situatedness in course curricula by enabling language and communication to do what they do best: “seduce them into studying rhetoric even if they do not know why it is seductive” (p. 218).[19]

Something like this has been forwarded recently in the form of the “post-process” movement, but Hawk argues that this movement does not go far enough. While post-process theorists push in the direction of a more generalized comparison of rhetorical acts, he says, they do not pursue it to the degree of complexity that Hawk does with complex ecologies. He points to Kameen’s method of “personal writing,” where the ecology of the classroom does play a genuine role. In Writing/Teaching: Essays Toward a Rhetoric of Pedagogy, Kameen “invites academics to use classroom ecologies as open spaces that produce knowledge,” Hawk explains, rather than think, as has most often been done, of knowledge being transferred from teacher to student or being discovered in the process of writing (p. 225). No predetermined end is implied, and inquiry and invention are the only objectives. Hawk describes what goes on merely as “rhetorical activity,” and the specifics of it are merely that the teacher poses a question, and whatever writing is produced from that is viewed as knowledge created through the classroom ecology, utilizing but not describing its complexity (p. 225). It is a privileging in the classroom of listening, as he explains it, over dialogue. And lest what Kameen does be confused with what the “expressivists” do, “expression,” Kameen explains, differs in this instance from self-expression in the sense that Charles Taylor best describes it in “Heidegger, Language, and Ecology”: “expression is not self-expression; creative language is a response to a call” (p. 232).

Technology can be very important to what Hawk proposes here about complex vitalist paradigms because in bodily terms, it’s such a central part of the individual identity. When one considers his or her subject position in this case, digital technologies dramatize this sense of multiplicity. One knows where he or she stands in relation to everything else in the dialectical paradigm because, in that kind of an environment, if something is comfortably understood, everything is clarified in opposition to it. In the kind of nodal apparatus Hawk describes here, subjectivities are drawn up in ways that are not usually the same from one case to the next. Hawk points out of Gregory Ulmer’s “heuretic” that the Internet is best viewed as an apparatus than as a machine because its context—its ecology—is open-ended (p. 241). He sets Ulmer’s heuristic alongside Berlin’s by addressing the topic of privilege, to dramatize the difference between the production of method and the application of it (p. 248). When speaking of privilege in Berlin’s case, regardless of one’s program for undermining it, privilege is reinforced by addressing it in the first place. 

Hawk is really speaking about the teaching environment: “teachers need to build smarter environments in which to work” (p. 249). And so far as the role of theory, Hawk would prefer to conceptualize it as “not something separate from practice that is applied to a situation: it is linked to a pedagogical-machine and becomes an integral element in the mix” (p. 254). Ethics are likewise significant in the Spinozan sense of composition versus decomposition: when two elements (of any kind) encounter one another, they negotiate relations among themselves that might lead to the recomposition of both or the decomposition of one. Either way, in teaching, ethics depend upon the relationships one fosters in a pedagogical act (p. 256), and the elements at work are easy to imagine. But political desire in pedagogy leads to decomposition, a notion which recalls Hawk’s previous discussion of social-epistemicism; and in light of the fact that “all linking is potentially violent” (257), etho-pedagogical factors are an important part of thinking about pedagogy.