Monday, February 16, 2015

Assertion and the Writing Moment

My engagements with the field of composition studies is bringing more and more results. Most recently, I discovered that we're about fifteen years into a movement toward "post-process" writing instruction. I was struck in particular by an essay by Gary Olson in a seminal book called Post-process Theory: Beyond the Writing-process Paradigm, which carries the intriguing subtitle "Abandoning the Rhetoric of Assertion". While I agree with post-process scholars like Olson that there can be no single, unified "theory of writing", I have a feeling that the confidence that I have in my own advice makes me sound otherwise. In truth, I think my advice is probably more pre-process than post-process. I don't have a theory of the writing process so much as an approach to the writing moment. I believe that academic writing can be described, not by modeling any particular process as it unfolds over time, but by suggesting what happens every time we sit down to write a paragraph. And here, unlike Olson, I do not think it is wise to "abandon the rhetoric of assertion."

I've written about this before. Almost a hundred years ago, Bertrand Russell introduced Wittgenstein's Tractatus by declaring that "The essential business of language is to assert and deny facts." Wittgenstein himself would later abandon this view, and rhetoricians have always known that it is mainly a philosopher's conceit.* In real life, language has lots of other business to conduct, and even to insist just that assertion is somehow the "essential" business is arbitrary. That is of course Olson's point; if we want to teach students how to write, i.e., to master written language, we're going to have to teach them much more than merely how to assert and deny facts. But to go from this to outright abandoning the business of assertion is, to my mind, to go too far. Today I want to suggest why, and to suggest an alternative.

While it's an easy and glib thing to say, let me begin by pointing out that Olson's argument for abandoning the rhetoric of assertion takes the form of a series of clear, coherent paragraphs that, by and large, each makes an assertion and offers support for it. (This sort of "performative contradiction" is a familiar feature of discourse and is nothing to be ashamed of. Sir Philip Sidney wrote his Defence of Poesie in prose; Dante wrote his argument for demotic Italian in Latin.) That's because he's making an academic argument. The paragraph is the unit of scholarly prose composition because it is ideally suited to the statement of a fact, to assertion.

I am subject to fits of what Wallace Stevens called the "rage for order". So while Wittgenstein and the post-process composition instructors would have us despair at establishing clear boundaries between different kinds of writing, I am going to tell you that in addition to the assertive moment of writing, which is the occasion for academic or scholarly or "scientific" writing, there are clarifying, intensifying and enjoining (or injunctive) moments of writing, occasions for philosophical, poetic and political writing respectively. Perhaps the boundaries are not as clear as I would like, but let's follow Ezra Pound and Rosmarie Waldrop and see form as "a center around which, not a box within which". That is, let's not focus on the boundary conditions but the core task. These tasks can be taught in the classroom and this will also give students the strength and skill to handle, let us say, "ghostlier demarcations" (stealing a phrase from the same poem by Stevens).

Let me simply state them in this post, leaving their development for later. Philosophy is the art of writing concepts down. The aim is to achieve clarity by bringing to presence the conceptual apparatus that supports our thinking. To this end, the philosopher deploys a rhetoric of clarificationexistence.** Poetry is the art of writing emotions down. The aim is an intensity that comes from bringing to presence the emotional apparatus that supports our feeling. To this end, the poet deploys a rhetoric of intensificationinspiration.** Political writing aims to empower the subject. At the center of a piece of political writing is the representation of an act that the writer is trying to persuade the reader is just or unjust. To this end, the politician deploys a rhetoric of injunction. Finally, scientific writing aims to capture an object. At its center is the representation of a fact that the writer is trying to assert or deny and, to this end, the scientist deploys a rhetoric of assertion. Mastery of each of these tasks requires practice. It comes from discipline.

To say there are four tasks is not give them equal weight, though composition teachers and composition programs are of course free to decide themselves how to distribute the emphasis. I would insist, however, that the essential business of academic writing has at least traditionally been to assert and deny facts. We lose something if the rhetoric of assertion is displaced from its central place in academic writing and in the composition classroom. We lose even more if we fail to identify it as a distinct mode of writing among other, equally distinct modes of writing. It is not the the distinction that is blurry; it is particular pieces of writing "on the boundaries" that are blurry. They are out of focus. (This can sometimes by good and proper, to be sure.) Assertion, in any case, is a large part of what students come to school to learn how to do. The teaching of other forms of writing should never involve denigrating the importance of assertion. What is important is to help students train their ability to establish a moment of assertion, a distinct occasion on which to compose a statement of the facts.

*[Update: I should use this opportunity to pass on a story from my ex-wife that I've told before. While we were living in Germany, she was attending the lectures of a prominent professor of rhetoric, Joachim Knape. When the course got to the work of J.L. Austin, he resorted to a wonderful bit of sarcasm. "Ooooh," he said, "you can do things with words!" In order to appreciate the remark you have to know a little about the arch-rivalry between philosophy and rhetoric and that Austin's magnum opus is called How to do Things with Words. It must, indeed, be amusing to rhetoricians that arguably the most important work of philosophy published in 1962, after more than 2000 years of condescending to "sophists", was a book that challenged "the assumption of philosophers that the business of a ' statement' can only be to 'describe' some state of affairs, or to 'state some fact', which it must do either truly or falsely."]
**[Update 2 (04/06/15): I never really liked my original labels for the philosophical and poetic "rhetoric", namely, "the rhetoric of clarification" and "the rhetoric of instensification". I considered something more like "rhetoric of reason" and the "rhetoric of passion", which may actually be the best way to describe it. But scientists probably wouldn't want to be excluded from the former, and politicians are rarely lacking in appeals to passion. So I've decided go with a distinction between an existential and inspirational rhetoric. Not all philosophers will like the idea that their rhetoric is "existential", but I think there's a sense in which it is. Let's remember that Colin McGinn wanted to rename the whole field "ontics", i.e., the inquiry into "being". We might also say philosophy deploys a rhetoric of "extance", but now we're making up new words.]


Jonathan said...

I hate "process" but "post-process" seems even worse. I like "product." In other words, it doesn't matter how you get there, you just need to do it.

Jonathan said...

The debasement of postmodernism. Rather than careful rhetorical analysis, the blanket assertion that assertion itself is bad because it is sexist, elitist, whatever. The hermeneutical sophistication needed to really use that body of theory, vs. the slapdash overgeneralization. I think I have an ass-kicking to do.

Anonymous said...

Compare the (politicized, multifarious) stances of the authors in the Kent book on post-process ... whatever with the clarity of Francis-Noël Thomas & Mark Turner. Perhaps I am a third-rater who sees that one writes not to please a phallophobic or post-colonialist audience, but to present and defend assertions for an intelligent -- but otherwise nonspecific -- audience. The value of Thomas and Turner to someone who cares about their writing is immeasurably greater than the niggling pedantry of the post-process mob.

Andrew Gelman said...


Cool classifications you got there! But I'll disagree with this one: "Poetry is the art of writing emotions down."

I thought the definition of poetry was "songs without music."

Sure, poetry can be about emotion, but is that necessary. The best poetry is emotionally engaging, but then again the best philosophy, science, etc., is also emotionally engaging. When it comes to subject matter, I think poetry can be something as simple as the memorable, memorizable recounting of a story.

Thomas said...

@Jonathan (& Anonymous): Yes, it seems composition studies had a bit of a postmodern, ahem, moment, at the turn of the millennium. Recall that at least one version of Rebecca Howard's argument for patchwriting was rooted in the idea that the concept plagiarism "reinforc[es] prejudices of gender and sexual preference." Olson offers a similar kind of argument for doing away with assertion. I've also noticed that Barthes' "Death of the Author" is invoked in strange, somewhat simplistic way by contemporary plagiarism scholars. More on that coming up in a later post.

@Andrew: Thanks! The poetic transposition of Wittgenstein's take on philosophy is "Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must dance." I almost want to say that your definition of poetry and mine say the same thing. My counter argument to those who think my definition is too narrow is to suggest that perhaps their concept of emotion is too narrow. But less cheekily: poetry, like philosophy, uses a variety of materials, not all of which are emotional, I agree. Sometimes a poem will invoke philosophy, or science, or politics. But it does this in the service, if you will, of the emotion. And when a philosopher invokes emotion, it is in the service of conceptual clarity. Like I say, I'm not trying to enforce the boundaries between philosophy and poetry, science and politics. I'm trying to get the heart of each matter.

(In the case of poetry, I mean that most literally: the heart is to poetry what the mind is to philosophy.)

Thomas said...

(I might have meant "almost literally".)

Anonymous said...

The addendum makes me smile. While I find it interesting to follow Austin and the bands of acolytes and critics in philosophy, the use of performativity in sociology leaves me cold. That version of doing something with words is a mess. (Ask Uskali Maki) In fact, didn't you once weigh in on this among the org theory mob?

Thomas said...

Always glad to occasion a smile.

I don't remember that discussion at orgtheory. (Tried to do a little searching. Came up empty.) But I think you are right that performativity is sometimes (perhaps too often) used in a vague way in social science. It's basically the kind of "debasement" that Jonathan is talking about above (and here). A complex, subtle phenomenon is reduced to a blunt & simple thing and discovered everywhere. Theory becomes doctrine. Interestingly, it actually begins when a philosophical notion (like Austin's performatives or Wittgenstein's language games) is read as theory.

Lily Wilson said...

I love your classification.

Thomas said...

Thanks. I'll have to take a few moments to unpack them one of these days.