[journal entry] on James Berlin’s “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class”

Watch out for this one. This one is more of an exploratory summary (a euphemistic way of me saying it’s too long). I got the thrust of Berlin’s article (social-epistemic pedagogy is most immune to subversion from the dominant ideology), but I also wanted to get a good handle on his survey of the other philosophies/pedagogies. And that took me a while.

September 26, 2007

James Berlin wants to do two things in this article: 1) convince/remind his readers that there is no such thing as an innocent (non-ideological) rhetoric, that, really, the only way to get at what’s going on with different rhetorics is to look at them through the lens of ideology, and more specifically through the lens of how each rhetoric can be co-opted by a dominant ideology or political power structure; and 2) to argue for the social-epistemic rhetoric – of the three he examines — as the rhetoric best armed to resist and even to fight domination from political power structures.

Berlin examines three rhetorics and evaluates them based on Goran Therborn’s definition of ideology as something that asks three main questions: what exists? what is good? And what is possible? In this way, Berlin shows in turn how the first two — cognitive psychological and expressionistic rhetoric — each fail to resist outside (ideological) domination (or at least, strong influence). Only social epistemic rhetoric is able, by virtue of its answers to those three questions, can resist political pressures (as I’ll explain further below).

Berlin likes Therborn because the latter emphasizes that no one – no philosophy, no proposition – has found or can claim to have found the “truth” (10). Because, Therborn says, we are all bound by our economic and social environments, so to speak, we have no independent way of accessing any transcendent truth (10). Basically for Therborn ideology is not some stance that a person can adopt and then apply to her writing and thinking and interacting with others. Ideology is, instead, created BY the way we all interact through language.

Berlin uses Therborn 1) because he agrees with Therborn’s social constructivist views, and 2) because Therborn’s outline of what ideology ultimately address (what exists, what is good, and what is possible) forms a method for evaluating other competing rhetorics.
1) Ideology questions epistemology
2) Ideology provides epistemology with standards, structures, desires
3) Ideology sets limits of what we can expect of the universe

Berlin first describes cognitive rhetoric. Basically, since all human beings, cognitivists assume, share the same mental structures, and if writing is goal-oriented (which they believe that have discovered/verified), then that goal-oriented process will be describable and can thereby be used as a tool for all writers aiming for successful writing (however they might define that success). Cognitivists focus on – as if purely scientifically – how writers write, how their goal-oriented process is similar to everyone else’s. According to Berlin, cognitivist rhetoric doesn’t ask of Therborn’s questions (what exists, what is good, what is possible). It just examines the human writing process, assuming, as all scientists do, that the object of their study is discernable, rational, and not random or subjective.

Cognitivists assume, in fact, that the mind is so rational that it can always translate all its thoughts into language, and not just into any language, but language which itself is rational. Since they find reason so prevalent and powerful, they want to focus on pinpointing and describing the way human rationality affects the composing process, and in turn to use that insight to enable the individual to create whatever writing he or she wants to produce. They don’t ask any of Therborn’s questions (what exists, what is good, and what is possible). They only want, again, to understand the cognitive processes of writing, and to offer advice to anyone who wants to understand the way their own brain works in order to write more easily and with better quality. Berlin points out that therefore cognitivists, by ignoring any epistemological or value questions, can be easily used for capitalist and consumerist interests. For one thing, if rationality is so rock-solid both in the mind’s process of writing and in the written product itself, then it’s possible and preferable to value individuals whose reason is more developed than others. And in that way, Berlin argues, cognitivists play into hierarchical power structures (with the smarter at the top).

Cognitivists see the main problem of writers as simply their failure to follow rational principles, to follow the well-scoped-out process of goal-centered behavior. Cognitivists don’t reflect, don’t question, don’t consider class and power structures. They assume the key to good writing is to be found in simply understanding how the writing process works and in giving advice based on those discoveries.

Expressionistic rhetoric, in a way, is just the opposite of cognitivist. Where the cognitivists base their whole model on the belief that the universe, including human reason and language itself, is rational (and that there is a rational correspondence between the two), the expressionists base everything on the unique, often non-rational, experience of individuals. Their goal is to liberate society by liberating individuals, and they liberate individuals by helping each person find her own “authentic” voice. Audience is only a tool for the writer to help find her true self. There’s an evangelistic tone to expressionism, the way Berlin describes it. Like religion, its goal is to free individual for a more fulfilled, freer life “even if the whole world is scandalized” (17). Expressionists are also very romantic/mystical in their belief that the individual, by getting to know one’s self, by digging down into selfhood can tap into transcendent truth – or, at least, truth shared by all human beings. Berlin quotes Donald Murray referring to the “shock of recognition” that one writer will experience when reading another self-fulfilled writer. [This reminded me of the opening paragraph of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance,” one of the best lines of which is: ”To believe your own thought, to believe that what is true for you in your private heart is true for all men, — that is genius. Speak your latent conviction, and it shall be the universal sense; for the inmost in due time becomes the outmost,—— and our first thought is rendered back to us by the trumpets of the Last Judgment.”]

Berlin argues that though expressionistic rhetoric seems subversive – in its emphasis on the individual against societal pressures – it isn’t really. Expressionistic rhetoric actually plays into the values of the elite basically, says Berlin, because it is actually quite ineffective in countering social, economic and politic pressures. By emphasizing personal self-fulfillment and individualism, it ends up playing into capitalism by actually thereby emphasizing private power. Here Berlin also makes the point that there’s another reason expressionistic rhetoric plays into capitalistic power structures. But, I’m not clear on what he means here (page 19). Somehow, by emphasizing personal discovery, it ends up having to separate off a person’s personal life and writing from her work life. I get how that separation would play into capitalism (by making the individual a producer of goods, a worker, separated from her true “self” or full personhood). But I’m not sure how/why that separation would happen in the first place, in an expressionistic model.

Finally, Berlin likes the social epistemic rhetoric best because it can resist political pressures. While cognitivists naively ignored questions of ideology and expressionists put too much faith in the individual to change the world, so to speak, social epistemics focus themselves dead-on critiquing whatever paradigm is dominant. They do this by formulating a rhetoric which is based on the changeability of meaning and interpretation and thus remaining always fully aware of how contingent and changeable all ideology, all knowledge is. For them, knowledge is always changing, because it is generated by the interaction of writer, community, and context. And if knowledge is always changing, it’s obvious that cultural, political, economic paradigms are also changeable. Since “reality” is constructed, that it is not something transcendent or knowable other than through the intersection of the “observer,” the “social group,” and the “material conditions”… then this three-way intersection, interaction will always continually serve to question current knowledge structures/paradigms. Social epistemic not only believes that knowledge is constructed (not found) but provides society with a good way of always reforming (reminds me of semper reformada of the Protestant reformers). AND, since knowledge is always constructed (not found), democracy is easier to maintain [if it is every full achieved!] because no one can come along and privilege any persons or truth-traditions over another (since their claims to some transcendent priority are completely undermined).

Social epistemic rhetoric proposes a pedagogy in which individuals grow into self-fulfilled self-critical and societal-critical persons rather than mere half-mindless consumers or pawns. The way to do this is to bring together these three in the writing classroom so that they can continually interact and question each other: the student, the teacher, and the shared experience. These together serve to keep knowledge fresh, so to speak – fresh in the sense of uncontaminated by power or larger pressures. This pedagogy, Berlin admits is “most difficult to carry out” (23) – probably because it is so un-hierarchical, so relatively un-organized (in a sense), so unpredictable. But Berlin believes it is the best rhetoric, 1) because it matches with his sense of reality (i.e., reality as non-transcendent, as socially constructed) and 2) because it serves best to interrogate rather than succumb to political pressures.


2 thoughts on “[journal entry] on James Berlin’s “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class”

  1. It’s fun to hear your reactions because I remember vividly sitting in the yard, autumn, 2003, working my way slowly through Berlin for the first time! That was a challenge. I won’t say that I have “got it” now, but it comes easier. One thing I like is the way the taxonomies of Berlin and Fulkerson intersect to give a sketchy map of composition-land (the field!). Berlin’s point that “everything is already ideological” makes real sense. Whether I think about it or not, if I teach sentence diagramming that clearly means that I believe grammar is valuable and diagramming is a good way to teach it. If I spend 10 minutes on a free write, clearly that shows my priorities. It’s another way of saying that what we do (not what we say) reveals our priorities!

  2. Thanks, Sara! Yeah, I know what you mean: I love the way these taxonomies… well, they’re like putting on x-ray glasses, aren’t they. Not that the glasses are always accurate, but they reveal the underlying structure (priorities, philosophy) of teaching and writing. Like being able to see in the ultra-violet as well as the “visible” spectrum. Or, being able to look at a human being and see the DNA “underneath.” Okay, I’m waxing over-analogic, a new disease I just discovered. :-)

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