Theorizing, Circulating, Writing: Moving Beyond through Postcompostion

Review of Postcomposition
by Sidney I. Dobrin 2011; Southern Illinois University Press

Megan McIntyre, University of South Florida

(Published: January 18, 2013)

Sidney Dobrin, in his newest book, Postcomposition, offers a dramatic new direction for composition studies. From the outset, Dobrin acknowledges that many in the field will find his project alarming. The first words of the text? “Don’t panic” (1). An iconoclastic argument meant to shake the foundational assumptions and dispositions of composition as a discipline, Postcomposition offers its readers a bleak vision of the future should composition follow the present path, which Dobrin believes denies the importance of theory in favor of praxis and is characterized by “a missionary zeal to minimize ‘theory for theory’s sake’” (9). Dobrin advocates a new path: composition as a study not of students and teaching but of writing itself. “The mantras of composition studies,” he argues in the final chapter, entitled, interestingly enough “Pedagogy,” “have worn thin, no longer offering answers that satisfy emerging questions about writing in its networked, hyper-circulatory condition” (187).

Figure 1

How can we escape these worn mantras in order to study writing as it circulates? This question serves as the foundation of Dobrin’s text, which begins with a call for theories of writing studies as opposed to the traditional pedagogical work of theorizing classroom practice. In Chapter 1, “Disrupting Composition Studies,” Dobrin forcefully asserts that continued attention to classrooms and students implicates composition scholars in the, to quote Dobrin quoting Sharon Crowley, “colonizing” work performed by the institution (12). If, instead, composition scholars want to accomplish the oft-discussed work of emancipation, Dobrin suggests we must begin by “disassociat[ing ourselves] from the classroom,” which is the aim of his project (13). “I do not forward,” he says, “a no-student approach but instead a not-only-students or a writing-without-students position” (15). Such an approach requires Dobrin to search for a space/place (a distinction that becomes important in the second chapter of the text) in which subjectivity and agency are no longer the primary concerns of composition. Throughout the first chapter, Dobrin maintains that the discipline’s focus on teaching, students, and agency has stunted our growth to the point that we have no claim to intellectual work outside of pedagogy. In fact, he maintains that “writing theory must move beyond composition studies’ neurosis of pedagogy, must escape the shackles of classrooms, students, and management” in order to realize the intellectual potential of networked, circulatory writing (28).

In order to move beyond the traditional classroom terrain of composition studies, Dobrin suggests that writing theory should dispense with the temporal metaphors of process theory and move instead toward writing spaces in the hopes of “theorizing writing in ways not yet put forward and not confined by chronological thinking” (29). Dobrin argues that space is in fact a more appropriate metaphor for writing studies because it echoes the rhetorical preoccupation with topoi and chora. Although it may begin as a metaphor, this discussion of space must move beyond metaphor: “To write is to give [literal] pause, to take up [physical] space and endow it with place-ness” (36). The first step in this movement from temporal concerns to spatial ones includes acknowledging the hegemonic space of composition studies, occupied as it is by institutional, pedagogical, and administrative concerns (42). Perhaps, however, Dobrin asserts, composition studies can still “deterritorialize, give up the safety of its places” within the institutional project of subject formation and, in doing so, attend to writing itself (55). Further, writing itself occupies, both in terms of taking up physical space and controlling both physical and metaphorical space. However, because of the proliferation of social technologies, writing also circulates, moving from space to space and place to place. In this way, writing operates in a constant state of becoming.

Once we have located the space/place of writing, Dobrin asserts that we must begin to unravel the subject of that writing. As subjectivity remains one of the chief concerns of composition studies, Dobrin begins his third chapter by challenging both the Enlightenment notion of the autonomous human subject and the discursively created, polyvocal postmodern subject. Instead, he advances a conception of the posthuman subject, which embraces the integration of technology to the point that posthumanism challenges assertions that “(1) there can be an identifiable separation between subject and technology and (2) the humanist idea of subject provides intellectual value to theorizing writing” (72). The shift to posthuman conceptions of subjectivity “demands a realignment of focus…upon the complex systems in which the posthuman is located, endlessly bound in the fluidity and shiftiness of writing” (72-3). Resistance to this move beyond humanist ideas of subjectivity, Dobrin believes, grows out of composition’s monetary reliance on student-subjects. Far from compromising the integrity of the subject, abandoning this economically privileged position may result in “an actual rescuing of the subject by not allowing the perpetual manipulation…of student subjects by the academy” (75). By replacing the autonomous human agent with posthuman notions of networks and circulation, we may begin to explore “the potential [of] what can be”: writing free from the “myth of stability and origin” (91).

As he does in the third chapter on subjects and subjectivity, in the fourth chapter, “Beyond the Administration of Subjects,” Dobrin advocates a radical break. Administrative tasks, he contends, have long characterized composition’s academic identity, and “a good deal of the institutional power” that composition lays claim to results almost directly from its administration of student-subjects, first year student-subjects in particular (93). Instead of problematizing the historical power of writing administration, Dobrin advocates a total abdication of this institutional responsibility. Such a move, he argues, is necessary “in order for phenomena of writing to be better theorized and for the work of theorizing writing to be better situated in contemporary intellectual work” (94). Once more, in this chapter on administrative responsibilities, Dobrin highlights the distinction between academic, disciplinary, and institutional work, which often features attempts to demarcate the work of one group/discipline from another, and the intellectual work of theory, which can move beyond institutional and disciplinary divisions. Administrative work, interested mainly, according to Dobrin, in validation and authentication via standardization, continually subjugates the administrator and the discipline s/he represents to “upper administrators who…act upon their own motivations” (106).

Dobrin makes two final points in this chapter on the relationship between program administration and writing theory. The first of these—that a move in composition studies toward graduate work in administration has the potential to further relegate composition to professional instead of intellectual work—though somewhat provocative, is unlikely to create much controversy. As he notes, many in these administrative positions regularly bemoan the often ignored status of the WPA when it comes to making important decisions about writing in the university. The second of these, however, promises to raise quite a few objections, something that Dobrin recognizes: “Unfortunately, the second site of disruption, the problem of contingent labor, will likely be read as a polemic, an argument not grounded in the reality of the ‘situation’ in which composition studies finds itself” (115). Nevertheless, Dobrin closes his brief discussion of contingent labor by asserting a deceptively “simple” position: “postcomposition should remove itself from questions of contingent labor, questions that have relegated composition studies’ primary identity and most of its anxieties to questions of labor and labor management” (116). Far from seeing this move as an attempt to ignore the problem of contingent labor, Dobrin contends that “nonparticipation, refusal to accept the institution’s prerogative, is the ground from which the contingent labor issue should be radically challenged” (118). I fear, however, that Dobrin’s brief attention to what some consider one of the most pressing social justice issues of 21st century composition is unlikely to satisfy many of his readers.

The next two chapters, which treat ecological models of composition and the impact of complexity theory on writing studies, feature a number of deft and increasingly complex theoretical moves. In Chapter 5: “Ecocomposition Postcomposition,” Dobrin explores the “already failed” project of ecocomposition (125). Dobrin attributes this failure to the inability of ecocomposition theorists, including himself, to substantially and successfully connect scientific conceptions of ecology to writing itself. Moving beyond the first shift toward ecologies of writing, Dobrin proposes an “ecosophy” approach, which ties ecological practices of writing theory to systems and complexity theory in order to offer a discussion of writing ecologies in which disruption and dissensus produce “an ever-increasingly complex view of writing” (157).

The subsequent chapter, on complexity, networks, and systems theories of writing, expands Dobrin’s discussion of disrupting writing and writing as disruption. By connecting Mark C. Taylor’s discussion of complexity theory to Byron Hawk’s “counterhistory” of composition studies, Dobrin attempts to present a version of complexity theory that is “more fluid” and able to “accommodate both writing’s different degree of complexity and writing’s unique form of relations with other networks and systems” (159). The result, according to Dobrin, offers “one of the many potential spaces in which writing theories might evolve free from the limits imposed by the tradition of composition studies research” (159). When taken together, Dobrin’s discussions of ecological and complexity models of writing create “spaces at the edge of chaos where the potential postcompostion lie… [and] begin to expose the dynamic facets of the phenomena of writing” (159). Dobrin seeks to extend these discussions, and further embed the posthuman subject in studies of writing, by introducing fluid dynamics from scientific discourse as a way to reimagine “circulation” as a central metaphor/methodology for writing studies. In doing so, he hopes that hydrodynamics will offer a useful beginning for imagining ever more complex systems of writing, thus “pushing writing theory a bit closer to the edge of chaos” (186).

In his final numbered chapter, Dobrin once more returns to the question of teaching writing. Chapter 7, “Pedagogy,” offers not a resolution to his initial questions about the centrality of teaching but a series of theoretical “nudges” toward a revolutionary reimagining of the discipline. Thus far, he contends, even theories of postpedagogy have simply replaced one subject (the autonomous Enlightenment subject) with another (the fractured, discursively created postmodern subject). The postpedagogical project, then, represents another failed attempt at paradigm shift: only the subject of composition, not its foundational assumptions about subjectivity and agency, has been changed. Postpedagogy as a theory contains further possibilities (for symbolic violence that can precipitate a revolutionary change in composition studies) that, according to Dobrin, have yet to be fully investigated. And “without engaging possibl[ities]” for conceiving of a writing beyond the classroom, composition “stands little chance of altering the conditions of composition studies’ actual” (191). However, despite his response to work by Hawk and Gregory Ulmer, Dobrin fails to acknowledge the kind of radical break that postpedagogical theories, via Ulmer’s Internet Invention and Electronic Monuments, Hawk’s Counterhistory of Composition, and Thomas Rickert’s Acts of Enjoyment, continue to explore. Their challenge to composition studies is certainly different from Dobrin’s: whereas his project imagines writing without students, Ulmer and Rickert imagine affect as an important reinscription of the teaching of writing. But these authors are certainly advocating a more radical shift than Dobrin acknowledges.

Dobrin concludes his discussion with a postscript on the very idea of “post” and the importance of reinvigorating theory in writing studies. In this final section, Dobrin rearticulates the overarching purpose for the text: “Postcomposition,” he says, “is a space of theorizing writing. Postcomposition is…a tipping point” (193). He desires, he notes, not the destruction of composition studies but “a way of thinking about (and beyond) the scope of composition studies” as “a constant nascent state of becoming beyond” (194, 196). Postcomposition offers, then, an important break from theory as no more than an existential justification for composition studies; rather, it operates as a way to explore the messy, complex ways in which writing circulates.

Despite often radical challenges to composition orthodoxy, the most consistently successful feature of Dobrin’s book is his ability to practice what he preaches about the ways in which theory revitalizes longstanding disciplinary conversations. Dobrin weaves diverse theoretical and historical work throughout each chapter: moving deftly, for example, from Ed White’s historical survey of the discipline’s administrative history to Gilles Deleuze’s conceptions of the past, Dobrin creates a carnival of theory that reinforces his edict in favor practicing theory beyond its effects on student-subjects. Make no mistake, this work is meant to agitate, to provoke, and in doing so, hopefully to move beyond the boundaries we have set for writing in composition. If nothing else, this book will surely initiate a number of important conversations about posthumanism, subjectivity, agency, and the role of composition in the study of writing.