Faigley, _Fragments of Rationality_

Faigley, Lester. Fragments of Rationality: Post Modernity and the Subject of Composition.Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1992. (239 pages)


Faigley sets out to use postmodern theory (and theories of postmodernity) “to attempt to understand some of what has happened in composition studies since the 1960’s”, specifically considering the question of the subject (22). His introduction is an attempt to map out what we mean when we say postmodernity—to do this, he often juxtaposes modernity with postmodernity, but concedes that the distinction is not always clear (it wouldn’t be pomo if they were clear). A key distinction, however, is what he calls “the structure of sensibility” between modernity and postmodernity. Namely, quoting Harvey, “postmodernism swims, even wallows, in the fragmentary and chaotic currents of change as if that is all there is” (44 qtd. in Faigley 4). It is marked by fragmentation and contradiction.

Faigley notably sorts discussions of postmodernism into three “metadiscourses.”

  • Aesthetic discussions of postmodernism refer to the blurring of high/low culture and embracing popular culture. More, the postmodern artist becomes “part of a general production of commodities for consumers” (7).
  • Faigley distills the philosophical discussions of postmodern theory into the following claim: “there is nothing outside contingent discourse to which a discourse of values can be grounded—no eternal truths, no universal human experience, no universal human rights, no overriding narrative of human progress…[scientific truth, objectivity, and law] have no meaning outside of particular discourses and are deeply involved in the qualities they are alleged to be describing objectively” (8).
  • He also separates postmodern theory with what he refers to as discourses that propose an era of postmodernity, indicative of a more general cultural condition. Faigley considers the ways the fragmentation of the subject can be attributed to economic and cultural shifts. Namely, “cultural production has become integrated into commodity production” (10). He specifically considers the movement toward Post-Fordism or “the breakup of mass culture” that constituted “a pluralization of tastes, styles, and practices…The world has become a bazaar from which o shop for individual selves” (12). He continues, “Purchasing and using consumer object is a temporary and unstable attempt to occupy an imagined identity provoked by an image” (13).

Postmodern theory and postmodernity have particular consequences for the paradigm of composition studies that embrace the individual and writing subject. He raises a few points of departure: “locating the subject in terms of shared discursive practices in a community” (17); the utility and validity of an authentic voice (hooks); and the role of agency in such a framework.


In the Turbulence of Theory

As described in his summary in the introduction, Faigley offers a review of scholarship to demonstrate the ways postmodern theory has entered into composition studies. In many ways, the emergence of postmodern theory and research agenda came in reaction and opposition to cognitive theories of writing. Bizzell, for example, saw a shift in how student deficiencies were perceived: namely, teachers should not perceive students difficulties with writing as a mark of cognitive deficiency, but rather to difficulties in joining an unfamiliar discourse community. (31). In fact, much of the transition toward postmodern theories was in reaction to the privileging of the autonomous individual rather than how writing is contingent upon socially, historically produced codes and conventions. However, while Faigley notes that the emergence of postmodern theories was initially unified, its application has been less unified as we entered the 1990s. Namely, there became varying questions about “how we are to achieve democracy through discourse” (43). For one, Trimbur and Bruffee became embroiled in debates about the role of consensus/dissensus in the classroom. Trimbur claims, for example, that “a rhetoric of consensus must be defined in relation to a rhetoric of dissensus. Consensus would come to be based ‘ not so much on collective agreements as one collective explanations of how people differ, where their differences come from, and whether they can live and work together in these different” (Trimbur 610 qtd Faigley 42). Moreover, there began a focus away from individual expression of values and toward the meaning and practices of those values. Distilling this debate, Faigley writes, “many would agree that it is not enough to focus on expression of values but that teachers should enable students to become agents for social change. Few, however, are saying how that fostering humane values will necessarily result in social change” (46).


The Changing Political Landscape of Composition Studies

Faigley looks at parallel cultural, political, and economic factors involved in literacy education in the United States, particularly in how such factors intersect with composition studies’ confrontation of social inequality. Overall, language “has long been the site where cultural conservatives have sought to stay the tide of change…For centuries, language has functioned as a cover term for an array of cultural values and identities” (79).

He first begins to note the ways that the writing-as-process movement in composition studies mirrored the sentiment of students’ rejection of authority in the 1960’s. The process movement began to reflect autonomy, antiauthoritarianism, and personal voice in writing pedagogy. However, such movement was short-lived as the back-to-basics movement “fueled the accountability movement that had begun in the early 1970’s when states started to require schools to public achievement tests” (63). Testing, then, became a driving force to keep teachers and local administrators accountable to “power elite of distanced educational ‘experts’ working in conjunction with politicians who recognized education ‘reform’ as a hot campaign issue” (63). Within composition studies, the process movement began to receive traction because it could accommodate a wide swath of pedagogies while also working against “the teaching of writing according to correctness and fixed modes” (71). However, Faigley also notes that the process movement at times reflected current-traditionalist models of writing that avoied “the social histories and consequences of particular acts of writing” (72). Faigley then describes the ways cultural studies-focused classrooms became in vogue in response to process theory. However, using UT Austin’s English 306 controversity, he notes how public reaction to such classrooms demonstrated “that many in the public and in the academy think that first-year writing courses should be either about great literature or matters of grammar and mechanical correctness.” He continues, “In spite of nearly thirty years of scholarship in the ‘disciplinary’ period, composition studies has not reached square one in convincing much of the public that writing should be understood as process” (77) This last claim reflects the disconnection between the research done in composition studies as the public outreach of such disciplinary discussions in general public forums.


The Linguistic Agent as Subject

Here, Faigley describes an alternative approach to subject and agency rooted in linguistics, once an allied discipline in composition studies, but no longer. He focuses much of his attention to the work of critical linguistics, particularly from the East Anglia school of thought. He distills this school of thought into a set of assumptions:

  • ”language is a function in the sense that all language, written or spoken, takes place in some context of use” (89).
  • “language is systemic because all elements in language can be explained by reference to these functions: in other words, we should conceive of elements of language as constituting organic whole” (90).
  • “if the relationship between form and content is systemic and not arbitrary, then form signifies content” (90).

Faigley also analyzes a memo and newsletter from an institutional body (involving uniforms) to demonstrate what we can gain from this linguistic approach. He offers some key terms: agency in this context refers to “the match between the language of the text and the actions being described in the text” (94). Transitivity is “a term to talk about how speakers and writers choose to represent their experience by selecting among the options available in the grammar of a language” (90). To analyze the transitivity of a text, one would observe process (actions, typically verbs), participants (typically nouns), and circumstances (conditions). In Faigley’s analysis of the memo and newsletter, he notes how individuals can use language to obscure processes and participants (by using passive voice, for example, or by deferring an action to an entity like “the College”) in order to break down resistance and build authority. He also considers the concept of doxa or the unquestioning acceptance of certain conditions—when such conditions are not unquestioned, orthodoxy is established as an imperfect substitute whereby conditions should be accepted by mystifying an air of authority.


Ideologies of the Self in Writing Evaluation

In the evaluation of writing, “each judgment of value is made from some notion of value, usually a notion that is widely shared within a culture” (113). In this sense, “”writing quality reflect larger cultural assumptions about the purposes of literacy education” (113). As the premise of Faigley’s book has charted out up to this point, literacy education is at a particular moment: one that is beginning to embrace postmodern theory and is situating itself within an era of postmodernity. However, many in the field—particularly teaching practioners—evaluate student writing that embraces and values the “authentic” “coherent”, “rationale” self. That value is directly incompatible with postmodern theories, succinctly summarized at the start of this chapter: “Along with challenging the authority and naturalness of representation, postmodern theory has taken as its other main targets the unity of human consciousness and the primacy of human reason. Postmodern theory questions the existence of a rational, coherent self and the ability of the self to have privileged insight into its own processes. Postmodern theory denies that the self has universal and transcendent qualities but instead renders our knowledge of self as always contingent and always partial” (111).

Citing Joe Harris, the embrace of an autobiographical essays that demonstrate “honesty” of experience “reduces writing to a simple text of integrity. …To ask students to write authentically about the self assumes that a unified consciousness can be laid out on the page. That the self is constructed in socially and historically specific discursive practices is denied” (128). In fact, citing Foucault, such valuation of authentic voice tangentially embraces a power dynamic whereby the teacher asks students to confess without considering how the teacher represents “institutional authority in this process” (130). In other words, “honest writing about personal experience…can also be interpreted as an institutional exercise of power” (131).


Coherent Contradictions: The Conflicting Rhetoric of Writing Textbooks

Here, Faigley uses a Foucaultian lens to explain and critique the assumptions made in two foundational composition textbooks, James McCrimmon’s Writing with a Purpose and Rise Axelrod and Charles Cooper’s St. Martin’s Guide. He specifically confronts these textbook’s purported goal to teach “truncated conception of coherence, which supports bureaucratic rationality where reason is restricted to narrow channels of expertise and questions of ethics are suppressed’ (133). To challenge the purported coherence of these textbooks, he first offers a critique of North’s House of Lore (while admitting it as a place to start to discuss contradiction in text books). In particular, Faigley notes that this metaphor does not explain how particular practices—like, free writing—are continually reworked and, accordingly, produce contradictions in the reasons behind using such practices.

He then charts out a linguistic analysis of textbooks, rooted in Althusser’s redefinition of ideology “as a set of cultural practices, rather than of ideas” (139). Faigley continues to explain Althusser’s position in relation to the subject: “the key move in Althusser’s analysis of ideology is the imaginary placement of the individual at the center in control of her or his own destiny” (139). Continuing, “People are subjected to dominant ideologies, but because they recognize themselves in the subject positions that discourse provide, they believe they are subjects of their own actions. Their recognitions…are misrecognitions because they fail to see that the subject positions they occupy are not their own constructions but are historically produced. The imaginary quality of the identification with a subject position gives ideology the appearance of common sense and makes ideology such a potent force to shaping people’s lives” (139).

He further offers theories from Foucault to expand upon Althusser’s redefinition of ideology and subject. Foucault defines subject as a two-sided concept: “there are two meanings of the word subject: subject to someone else by control and dependence, and tied to his own identity by a conscience or self-knowledge. Both meanings suggest a form of power which subjugates and makes subject to” (143). In this way, Foucault rejects liberal humanist’s notion of power, namely that power suppresses identity and that resistance is a such authority is inventive of identity. Rather, for Foucault, “Power is involved in all practices: power is productive. Thus the result of the technologies of observation, surveillance, and record keeping is not princailly the repression of the individual but the making of individuals, the literal molding of ‘docile bodies’” (144). In this way, “Discipline [and Disciplines] ‘make’ individuals” (143). People are not “repressed” but “shaped” by the technologies of power (145). Following these arguments, Faigley via Foucault directs us “toward analyzing how textbooks ‘conduct’ students through acts of writing and at the same time set out a possible field of ‘conduct’ for student writer that has implications beyond the classroom” (146).

Faigley doesn’t exactly come around to say his position—or maybe he does…it was a long chapter—but judging by (1) his exhaustive critiques of both of these textbooks (because they represent a current-traditionalist model), (2) his embrace of postmodern theories of writing—see above, and (3) his outlining of Foucault’s position, we might extrapolate that the old paradigms difficult to break away from. A paradigmatic shift in composition research (whether it’s to postmodern theories of whatever) pales in comparison to the technologies of power that purvey the teaching of writing and reflect those old paradigms.


Achieve Utopia of the Networked Classroom

At the core of this chapter, Faigley questions “what might happen if we were to disrupt standard classroom practice and introduce new forms of written discourse?” (165). He centers his attention primarily on networked classrooms through computer technology. At the start, he sets himself apart from those who take a position of technological determinism to discuss computers (namely, that computers have changed the way we think and teach); rather, he considers a scenario where “radical changes in our thinking are embodied in the software for hypertext and electronic written discussions and in the ways writing might be taught using hypertext and electronic written discussions” (166). Through examples of class discussions in online chat forums, he charts out a couple of observations.

Channeling Lyotar’s postmodern condition (wrought with uneasiness), “the teacher’s role as guarantor of authority—providing the ‘metanarrative’ that gives coherence—is disrupted when a class makes extensive use of electronic written discussions” (185). And similarly, the authority of the text is also decentered as participants begin to find dissensus. In this way, “the equality of participation, however, does not necessarily lead to ‘community building’ as some teachers have theorized following Kenneth Bruffee’s model of collaborative learning where conversations lead to cooperation… Indeed Lyotard theorizes just the opposite, that conversation is inherently agonistic and to speak is to fight” (185). However, Faigley does note that, “contrary to Lyotard’s claim that consensus is always repressive…consensus is at times politically desirable” (199).


Student Writers at the End of History

Here, Faigley lays out arguments of technology and postmodernism by Ong, Jameson, and Baudrillard. He focuses much of his attention to Baudrillard. According to Baudrillard, the consuming of commodities becomes the “ways of speaking and participating in a cultural whose structure is based on the desire for and consumption of new objects” (207). In such a framework, he proposes that the difference between reality and representation has disappeared: “Baudrillard traces a succession of phases at the image from representing reality to distorting reality, to masking the absence of reality, to finally’ bearing no relation to any reality whatever’” (Baudrillard 11 cited in Faigley 208). This final phase is what he calls “pure simulacrum” which is the core notion of what he calls hyperreality, a structure of reality based in simulation, presenting the imaginary as if it were real. It is the structure of hyperreality that individuals “are seduced into participation in various electronic communication networks and they become ‘terminals in these networks” (209). In this way, those within a society accept the imaginary that is simulated to them (by various media), and accepts it as real; thus, a kind of utopia exists—such as the one projected in Reagan’s America—that rejects materials, objects, meanings, and people who conflict with this utopia. In this way, Baudrillard claims “we are at the end of history” or “at the end of being able to talk about history” so “there is nothing left to do but ‘play with the pieces’ of the deconstructed universe” (210).

Baudrillard, then, seems to reject individual agency: “as society is increasingly saturated with ever expanding quantities of information, objects, and services, the space for the autonomous subject with a capacity for critical though collapses” (213). Baudrillard continues by explaining that “what we all want as objects (and we are objects as much as subjects…) is not to be hallucinated and exalted as subject… but rather to be taken profoundly as object” (124 cited in Faigley 215). In this way, there is a metamorphosis of subject to object. Loss of object is loss of self (which goes in line with his earlier arguments that consuming commodities constitutes participation in culture).

As Baudrillard has theorized, his structure of society has demonstrated that meaning does not exist. However, Faigley challenges this claim: namely, he writes, “the aspect of postmodernity that Baudrillard misses is the extreme heterogeneity of discourses circulating today. Because people in technologically advanced nations encounter more competing discourse than ever before, the construction of meaning is now extraordinarily complex and problematic” (217). In this way, he argues via Stuart Hall that no one final absolute meaning is very different than claiming than claiming that no meaning exists whatever. The construction of local narratives—linking, re-making, and re-combining different kinds of genres—“authorizes a local we that delineates a sense of self” (218). This, then, denies metanarratives of modernity and upholds “the construction of local knowledge agreed upon by participants in that knowledge” (218). Through Lyotard, Faigley then hints at the possibility of agency, where individuals are attached to a node of the vast network of culture and thus must be constantly innovating and participating to prevent the “entropy of the overall system”. (218).


The Ethical Subject

In this final chapter, Faigley confronts a kind of dilemma that he has charted out throughout this book: namely the role of agency, subjects, and community in postmodern theories and the postmodern era. He summaries succinctly, “postmodern theory understands subjectivity as heterogeneous and constantly in flux. The present frustration of those who have followed the course of theory I have just sketched—those who have used notions of community as a critique of the autonomous individual, but then have had those notions of community unravel into complex sets of power relations—is where to locate agency in a postmodern subjectivity” (227).

He begins with an extension of previous arguments on the use of electronic technology. Namely, electronic media allows for the flattening relationship between reader and author: Because an electronic text facilitates many different readings and thus changes each time it is read, it lacks the authority of a unified persona. Instead, the persona in an electronic text necessarily appears to be fragmented and partial in perspective” (229). While we could take a technological deterministic perspective here (i.e. that the technology determined this way of thinking), Faigley, on the other hand, proposes that “electronic technologies provide the occasion for displaying new forms of subjectivity as well as a casual force (230).

Faigley then confronts the idea of community: “the ideal of community is persuasive for many people because it implies that you can understand others as they understand themselves and that others will understand you as you understand yourself” but as Faigley points out, “postmodern theory challenges this belief” (231). Namely, such understanding flies in the face of previous arguments about the unified, rational self: “the concept of community performs an analogous denial by presenting the fusion of its members as the ideal” (231). Community, then, many not be a proper metaphor to discuss relations in the postmodern world. Through Young, Faigley claims, “what is needed to replace the individual/community dichotomy…is a politics of difference.” For example, “cities give ‘hints of what differentiation without exclusion might be…in the good city one corsses from one distinct neighborhood to another without knowing precisely where one neded and the other began’” (Young 239). Faigley continues to claim that city would allow a recognition and understanding of a politics of different, one that ‘[affirms] diverse social groups by giving political representation to these groups, and celebrating their distinctive characteristics and cultures’ (Young 240 cited in Faigley 232).

Lastly, Faigley offers the concept of the differend, a concept outlined Lyotard. The concept explains “how justice is to be determined when each party in conflict does not agree on the relevant rule of justice” (233). To get a better idea of what this means, refer to Postmodern Literature Dictionary: “Lyotard’s term for a dispute resulting from the fact that one party cannot voice her complaints (or points) because the other insists on speaking within a different language game or genre of discourse (such as one person speaking within narration and the other within speculation).” The key, then, in postmodern education is to consider the ways we understand and recognize differends and find the genres best suited for the occasion (?I think?)


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