The crisis of representation has been felt most directly in composition studies in arguments to abandon “the rhetoric of assertion”. Gary Olson (1999), for example, has argued that one of the consequences of postmodernism must be that we stop thinking of writing as a process to be “mastered”. Drawing on Haraway and Lyotard, he argues that instead of writing to assert and represent, we should write—and therefore teach students to write—in order subvert and resist. At about the same time, Stephen Yarbrough (1999) has argued that composition studies is grounded in an outdated theory of meaning that is dependent on the notion of reference, i.e., on the existence of things in the world to which words refers, facts that make sentences true. Following Michel Meyer, he takes the very existence of fiction to belie this conception of meaning, since, in the real world, saying that “Hester Prynne has a daughter named Pearl” is no more true than saying that “Captain Ahab has a daughter named Pearl.” It is a fundamental attack on the notion that linguistic meaning is grounded in the truth of factual propositions. Olson aligns himself with the “post-process” movement in composition studies, while Yarbrough’s view can be described as “post-rhetorical”. Both are proposals to abandon the classical Aristotelian definition of rhetoric as the attempt to persuade an audience that something is true.
(231 words -- that's too many)
[Note: this post is part of an ongoing project described here. I'll be offering some meta-reflections on this project over at Jonathan Mayhew's blog, Stupid Motivational Tricks.]