Thursday, December 04, 2014


One thing that always makes me cringe when reading student papers is when they use my words, taking them from something I've written or something I've said in a lecture, but clearly don't understand what I meant, and so either turn it into a cliche or into nonsense. There's an implicit accusation in such "pastiche" (which, let's remember is supposed be a kind of homage), namely, "You told me to write like this! If you don't like it, blame yourself." This is true even at the formal level, of course, when a paper follows my guidelines to the letter and yet completely violates their spirit. The problem is that the student has tried to obey me, not understand me. Though I think it's rarely intended like this, it sometimes comes off as sarcasm.

In most cases, such students are doing what Rebecca Howard calls "patchwriting", something I've been talking about for a while now, even when I seem to be talking about something else. I'm trying to get clear about why I think it is wrong, and why I think it is poor advice, both for young writers and for their writing instructors, to allow it in the composition classroom. It should also be disallowed in the scholarly literature, of course, though I've come to see that this does not go without saying. I've heard people openly defend their borderline plagiarism as patchwriting.

I think that my disagreement with Howard is quite fundamental. It is about the very nature of language and writing. Inspired by Ludwig Wittgenstein and William Carlos Williams, I believe that language is the means by which we articulate our imagination, literally the means by which we join images to each other, the means by which we compose ourselves. In writing, this can be done very precisely, or rather, by writing we can make ourselves more precise, more articulate, even when speaking. "We make ourselves pictures of the facts," says Wittgenstein; that is, we imagine them. In Spring and All Williams correctly notes the profound importance of this process:

Sometimes I speak of imagination as a force, an electricity or a medium, a place. It is immaterial which: for whether it is the condition of a place or a dynamization its effect is the same: to free the world of fact from the impositions 'art' ... and to liberate the man to act in whatever direction his disposition leads.

His friend, Ezra Pound, made a similar point in his ABC of Reading, though with a focus of the polity not the individual:

Your legislator can't legislate for the public good, your commander can't command, your populace (if you be a democratic country) can't instruct its 'representatives', save by language.

In other words, language serves an important representational function, and what you want to be able to represent are the facts you know and the acts you master. You can't do this directly, however. Your language is not directly connected to either the facts of the world or the acts of history. What you represent in your words is, first of all, your imagination. You have to learn to speak your mind.

Patchwriters see language more in terms of performance than in terms of representation. Susan Blum has very good way of putting this, albeit one that I find disturbing in its implications. We can approach our students either as "authentic selves" or as "performance selves". That is, we can ask them to represent their own ideas, the ideas they "own", however inchoate, in their speech and writing, or we can ask them merely to perform for us, to use language in appropriate ways under appropriate circumstances. I suppose there's a middle ground, which is actually closer to my veiw, where we ask students to perform their ability to articulate their ideas, but Howard and Blum seem to be asking us to accept that students aren't even trying to be themselves, and while they are no doubt as interested in "power" as people have always been, they don't desire the "authority" that we old-school traditionalists once believed is the legitimate basis of power. So instead of helping them to discipline their imaginations in a way that also frees them to act in accordance with their dispositions, Howard and Blum, and the composition instructors that find their approach compelling, are encouraging students merely to channel power through language, to speak as they are told to speak, not to say what they think.

Using language in this way will, I fear, change it beyond recognition. Let's call the result "patchese". It will be full of what Sarah Palin once called "verbage", of which James Wood rightly noted: "It would be hard to find a better example of the ... disdain for words than that remarkable term, so close to garbage, so far from language."

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