Berlin, “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Classroom”

Berlin, James. “Rhetoric and Ideology.” College English 50.5 (Sept. 1988):477-494. (18 pages)

A discussion of the relationship between rhetoric and ideology and its implication for the composition classroom has, according to Berlin, been largely neglected largely in part to current-traditionalist approaches to the teaching of writing that root themselves in “disinterested scientism” (477). However, by placing rhetorical approaches to composition at the core of the teaching of writing, Berlin also notes that we must contend with rhetoric’s inability to be innocent: “[rhetoric] can never be a disinterested arbiter of the ideological claims of others because it is always already serving certain ideological claims” (477). Given this context, Berlin sets out to outline the varying ideologies that manifest in three approaches to composition: cognitive, expressionist (sic), and social-epistemic. The third approach, Berlin favors.

Berlin’s concept of ideology is counter to an ideology-science binary that is often circulated: in this stance, ideology stands counter to objective, scientific truth; it is, thus, “false consciousness” (478). Rather, Berlin sees ideology threaded in all aspects of rhetoric and discourse and thus, in his project, he is noting competing ideologies as opposed to objective truth vs. ideology. In ideologie’s relationship to rhetoric, “ideology provides the language to define the subject (the self), other subjects, the material world, and the relation of all these to each other. Ideology is thus inscribed in language practices, entering all features of our experience” (479). Ideology addresses three questions: what exists? What is good? What is possible?

  1. “the rhetoric of cognitive psychology refuses the ideological question altogether, claiming for itself the transcendent neutrality of science” (478). However, while cognitive rhetoric espouses disinterest in ideology, it nonetheless is appropriated in order to support certain ideologies. In particular, the “new American university’ as Berlin points out, sees the marriage of the academic and the economic where the university’s penchant for science is rooted in the profitability of those knowledge sets. Cognitive rhetoric plays directly to these sentiments and is co-opted to serve the “reification of technocratic science characteristics of late capitalism” (484).
  2. Expressionistic rhetoric [sic], on the other hand, has always openly admitted its ideological predilections, opposing itself in no uncertain terms to the scientism of current-traditional rhetoric and the ideology it encourages” (478). Expressionistic rhetoric is focused on the discovery and exploration of the self: “the most important measure of authenticity, of genuine self-discovery and self-revelation, furthermore, is the presence of originality in expression” (485). While writing can be used to discover the truth of one’s self and thus the truth of one’s situation, the situation—or community one functions within (486)—is meant to serve the development of the self (485).
  3. Social-epistemic rhetoric is an alternative that is self-consciously aware of its ideological stand, making the very question of ideology the center of classroom activities, and in so doing providing itself a defense against preemption and a strategy for self-criticism and self-correction” (478). In this rhetoric, the focus is on “the ways discourse is generated—we are studying the ways in which knowledge comes into existence” (489).“The material, the social, and the subjective are at once the producers and the products of ideology, and ideology must continually be challenged so as to reveal its economic and political consequences for individuals” (489). It is this ideology that, for Berlin, is best suited to prepare students to be consciously aware citizens in a democracy: in interrogating assumptions through dialogue, students are able to better participate in society and build society itself.

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