Trimbur, “Composition and the Circulation of Writing”

Trimbur, John. “Composition and the Circulation of Writing.” CCC 52.2 (2000): 188-219. (23 pages)

Trimbur offers a Marxist critique of composition, namely the composition classroom, in order to demonstrate how the current instantiation of the writing classroom obscures “the material conditions of producing writing and getting it delivered where it needs to go” (189). More specifically, he notices a neglect of the canon of delivery from invention, arrangement, and style in the teaching of writing and therefore our understanding of composition. His redefinition of delivery—one that sees the inseparability of the circulation of writing and the widening diffusion of socially useful knowledge—attempts to “expand public forums and popular participation in civic life” (191). In the light of his attempt to re-imagine the teaching of writing to include public and civic life, he challenges notions of the classroom he calls in loco parentis, or teacher as stand-in for middle-class family parents. This metaphor of middle-class family life allows him to describe the thread between production and consumption as untroubled. Students are not initiated into public and civic writing where the packaging and circulation of texts is a necessary part of writing.

Trimbur then defines circulation in various ways. In discussing Richard Johnson’s “What is Cultural Studies Anyway”, Trimbur describes the ways Johnson’s cultural products move between moments in the life of such products: production (transformation of a designer’s idea and manger’s concept); texts (involving the cultural products position within a context); readings (interpretations of others in different contexts); and lived culture (the function of text within symbolic narratives). In the teaching of writer, analysis of a cultural product often does not reach beyond production and textual results: when embracing circulation, we begin to understand the other moments of a cultural products life. In discussing Stuart Hall’s “Encoding/Decoding”, Trimbur also notes that the function of particular texts further relies on the ways audiences encounter the text: in the example of a television show, he considers whether the show was broadcast in the 1950’s, as a syndicated re-run on Nick at Nite, a documentary, or pirated online: “epistemological discursive status of a television show…in other words, it can be known in its various transformations or passage of form—depends on how it circulates and, in effect, how it is exchanged and capitalized” (204)

He then turns to Marx’s understanding of circulation; namely, that “the various moments in the circulation of commodities—the cycle of production, distribution, exchange, and consumption—not as a series of separate events taking place in a predetermined order over time but dialectically, as mediations in mutual and coterminous relations that constitute the capitalist mode of production as a total system” (206). Unlike Johnson’s focus on cultural products or Hall’s focus on mass media, Marx is concerned with commodity, understood dialectically as the unity of two aspects: exchange and use value. Use value presents itself in terms of satisfying human needs, but a resource (or whatever) doesn’t become a commodity until its use is described in terms of exchange value in the form of “profits and the accumulation of capital” (207).

However, Trimbur notes that the relation between use and exchange value is often contradictory. He offers the example of academic research: such research has use value for public and civic life (e.g. if research found that bathing can reduce risk of cancer for chimney sweeps), but the research’s exchange value for researchers is positioned as “career building, the accumulation of capital within a restricted coterie of cothinkers, and a limited social usefulness for wider audiences” (211-2). Trimbur via Marx challenges teachers of writing to begin to notice how the means of production are distributed in this manor.


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