Excavating the Subject
Jim Henry 
 
     
  Think computers and composition and the image of first-year students in front of VGA monitors comes to mind.  The advent of "word processing" on the personal computer has enhanced composition instruction in the genre of the singularly-authored stand-alone essay: by using editing menus, student composers can revise more easily and by using the "tools" of word processing programs, they can self-check elements such as spelling, usage, "style," and the like--elements that in earlier days had to be embraced without the benefit of software and which, more often than not, represented points to be deducted by ever-vigilant composition cops.  (Like the traffic cameras at Fairfax intersections, this software catches infractions so that student composers can avoid awkward negotiations with enforcement agents.) 

More recently, the spinning of the world wide web has offered student composers an alternative to the narrow rhetorical forum of the classroom, with its rigid hierarchy, limited audience, and focus on demonstration texts composed for a grade.  On the web, students might compose sites that are actually used for purposes other than demonstration, by audiences genuinely interested in the topic.  These sites may even represent collaborative composition, the form of authoring most employed in organizational writing (where most students will expend most of their future discursive efforts) yet rarely taught in composition courses. 

As welcome as these innovations in composing processes and forums may be, their contributions to composition to date has had mostly to do with processes--the processes by which composers revise texts, and the processes by which texts become public.  We might celebrate these contributions, just as Compositionists three decades ago celebrated the purported "paradigm shift" from product to process in composition classrooms, a shift which rendered instruction richer by refocusing attention on the processes behind discursive products.  Yet this focus on process too often colludes with a focus on forms, reinforcing the notion that composition, unlike literature or folklore or film and media studies, for example, has no "content."  Composition, by virtue of its institutionalized practices and epistemologies in the twentieth century U.S., has emerged in the public (and academic) eye as having no subject beyond the formal. 



Historical Determinants of Composition Epistemologies

Two forces most shaped the reductionist epistemologies of composition as most of us have encountered them: the emergence of a high-volume economy in the U.S. in the early twentieth century and the restructuring of colleges and universities which began at the same time.  The high volume economy effectively tied the interests of the citizenry (and particularly the middle and upper class) to the interests of large corporations, which generated added value to products through economies of scale.  These economies of scale were abetted by Frederick Taylor's "scientific management," itself an outgrowth of "time-motion" studies of shop floor activities that gave rise to the assembly line and restricted workers' movements (and purview) to a narrowed, more "efficient" scope of engagement in the organization's product.  Most authority in these organizations resided at the top of rigid hierarchies.  Literacy requirements for the smooth functioning of organizations structured along these lines were simple: functionaries below the top tier had to be able to interpret directives, implement them, and report back up the chain of command.  Like the purview of craftspeople in the preceding economic era, any "personal" elements in discursive processes were effectively eliminated. 

At about this time, the job of being a professor in colleges and universities was also being restructured along Taylorist lines. The research university emerged as a model of postsecondary education in which the professorate was charged increasingly with producing knowledge via scholarly publications that would enhance the university's reputation.  Dramatically reduced as part of a professor's role was that of mentoring students--from beginners to the most advanced.  Like shop floor workers in another sector, professors' roles in the organization narrowed. 

During this same period, departments of rhetoric, previously charged with educating students in discourse and its uses, began to disappear on college and university campuses.  The responsibility (and benefits) of instructing students in composition was taken over for the most part by English departments, resulting in significant shifts in instructional practices and epistemologies.  Whereas rhetoric departments instructed students first and foremost as future citizens, English departments instructed them as consumers of literature.  Whereas rhetoric united instruction in oral expression and written expression, English departments narrowed discursive focus almost exclusively to the written word.  By mid-century, New Criticism had emerged as a pseudo-scientific approach to literary interpretation, reshaping discursive hegemony on college campuses and mandating an evacuation of "affect" and "intention" in the reception of discourse.  Affect and intention (beyond the intentions of demonstrating competence) had been eliminated from composition, too, so that the perceptions by students of composition as a content-less endeavor far removed from their discursive goals and desires had been effectively assured.  And with professors assuming new roles primarily as publishers rather than as mentors (instruction in composing now falling to exploited part-time labor, for the most part), the uses of composition to ends other than discursive certification were unlikely. 

For those people who, by whatever fortuitous means later in life, have managed to recognize the depth and power of discursive engagement as going far beyond its representations in composition courses, questions arise: Why was instruction in impersonal discourse repeatedly valued over instruction in the personal?  Why did composition focus unduly on formal properties of discourse while essentially ignoring the aims of discourse?  Why was I forced to compose alone?  Why were the effects of discursive acts for the most part ignored in composition instruction?  Why were discursive constructions dealing with age, gender, race, social class, professional class, sexual orientation, and the like--constructions that shape everyday identity in profound ways--framed as add-ons in composition instruction rather than as its focus?  Compositionists in the past decade have finally framed a way to explore these questions--by reconsidering their subject. 



The Subject of Composition

In Fragments of Rationality: Postmodernity and the Subject of Composition, Lester Faigley explores postmodern theory for the ways in which it might be applied to composition.  His exploration leads him to suggest that students be invited to explore "how agency can be constructed from multiple subject positions"(224).  How, for example, might any one writer's purview shift according to his or her positioning in an organizational setting, and how do varying positions become articulated to one another--and to powerful ideologies--through concrete action?  Similarly, Susan Miller has proposed "disclosing connections between specific social and textual superstructures and highlighting how writing situations construct their participant writers before, during, and after they undertake any piece of writing"(Textual Carnivals: The Politics of Composition 198).  To speak of  "subject positions" and the "construction" of participant writers is to take on the theoretical projects of postmodernism, among these projects that of tracing the ways in which discursive forces shape the lives of all who are "subject" to them. 

Subjectivity as shaped through discursive processes has been addressed from various theoretical perspectives.  Louis Althusser's theory of ideological state apparatuses as determinant of the relationships that subjects of the state assume with respect to one another, though critiqued for its mechanistic analysis, reminds us nonetheless that the discursive acts of the state (and its surrogate institutions, including colleges and universities) play a strong role in shaping citizens' identities and perceptions of their purview with respect to fellow citizens.  In departments of rhetoric, composing students might have addressed such theory because of the department's emphasis on citizenship.  Students who have learned composition's epistemologies not only through its classroom practices but also through its institutional "service" status, however, have also learned to be subjects of discourse primarily as passive, subordinate, functionary examinees, detached in their writing from any collective efforts or gestures toward bona fide agency. 

Michel Foucault might compare these subject positions with those of "patients" as he analyzed them in nineteenth century medical discourse.  In Madness and Civilization, his project was to discern the ways in which a discourse such as medicine, via the institutionalized forms it took in France in the 1800s, established sanctioned realms of purview for certain "subjects" of that discourse while withholding it from others.  In the discourse of medicine, he demonstrated, physicians enjoyed great latitude in the positions they might take--as examiner, as analyst, as professional, as guardian of knowledge, etc.--while patients' latitude was highly constrained.  One experience with a twentieth-century doctor enacting such a nineteenth century subjectivity should convince even the most skeptical that such constructions continue to obtain, are powerful, and deserve scrutiny. 

In various attempts to point out the ways in which the "author function" in contemporary U.S. culture has effected realms of discursive exclusion which leave student writers at the lowest levels of exegesis (or entirely out of it), Compositionists have also harkened to Michel Foucault's celebrated questions from "What is an Author?": "What are the modes of existence of this discourse?  Where has it been, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself?  What are the places in it where there is room for possible subjects?  Who can assume these various subject positions?"(120). 

Questions such as these prompted Compositionist Lester Faigley to formulate his suggestion cited earlier.  What kinds of places, indeed, do we make for studying composers in the ideologies of writing that we forward through our classroom practices and through our university structures?  What are the terms of agency as we shape it?  What kinds of subject positions will writers fill when they leave our classrooms and assume agency in organizational settings?  How will they be expected to, and enabled to, exercise their purviews as writers?  What kinds of understandings of writing can we furnish them?  How can we help them understand and complicate their notions of subjectivity? 

These questions are not merely academic.  Just as the national economic shift to a high-volume mode of production at the beginning of the century influenced the kinds of discursive demands made of educational institutions, so has the shift to a high-value mode of production at century's end suggested discursive reconfiguring at the post-secondary level.  For in a high-value economy, labor theorists claim, the organization's prosperity depends upon its ability to draw upon a wide array of workers' skills and knowledge in problem solving and knowledge production.  Otherwise stated, the "authority" that in the economy of yore remained exclusively at the top of the pyramid now must move down and out, through a flattened hierarchy that often makes use of short-term teams.  Like the terms of authority, the terms of authorship, too, within the organization, are likely to change in significant ways. 

To examine the terms of workplace authorship as organizations are currently shaping them, I set out seven years ago to collaborate with professional writers (and aspiring writers) in research on workplace writing cultures.  This research has been conducted in English 612: Cultures of Professional Writing, and has enabled us to excavate the subject amid current workplace discourses. 



Archaeological Excavations

In The Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault says, "The word archaeology . . . indicates a possible line of attack for the analysis of verbal performances"(206), these performances understood not in the sense of individuals' enunciations but rather as moments when particular discourses manifest themselves, with repercussions for those who are subject to these discourses.  As stated earlier, his project was to depict the workings of medical discourses in the 19th century.  In the Writing Workplace Cultures project, our aim was to depict the workings of workplace discourses at the end of the 20th century.  To do so, course participants used ethnographic methods to study writing projects and processes in specific workplace cultures (most often their own) and then to compose a writing ethnography addressing some theme or issue that their fieldwork had indicated as salient.  In this way, they mounted what Jean-Francois Lyotard might term a petit recit on the workings of discourse in a specific local culture.  On my web site, you can see the abstracts of these petits recits as composed over seven years. 

If you are a professional writer, a writing student, a curriculum designer, scholar, or workplace manager, you can also muse upon the organizational features bearing upon workplace authorship.  You can ponder, for example, the skills required of writers in specific organizations, or the status of these writers.  You can review an array of collective procedures in document processing, these procedures played out against a backdrop of subcultural dynamics.  You might muse upon the ways in which organizational goals shape discursive forms and functions.  Or you might be interested in scanning an inventory of writers' positions and jobs according to different kinds of organizations. 

You might also consider discourse simultaneously in its modernist and postmodernist senses, comparing the kinds of documents writers compose with the underlying discourses composing their workplace cultures and the terms of their workplace subjectivity.  You might ponder their writer psychology or the effects of discourse on knowledge and behavior. And in postmodern spirit, you might consider these writers' representations of themselves as so many shards in an archaeological dig, to be pieced together as representations of possible outcomes of composition epistemologies when put to work. 

I have used the verb "ponder" repeatedly in the preceding paragraphs to indicate a stance.  Just as postmodern theories of subjectivity undergird this archaeological project, so is this formal presentation of "research findings" conceptualized in postmodern terms.  Fredric Jameson has spoken of "cognitive mapping" to render the petits recits of postmodernism more effective beyond local levels, to extend analysis to the social structure "in our historical moment, to the totality of class relations on a global . . . level"(416).  Extending the trope of maps in their discussion of postmodern research on workplace writing, James E. Porter and Patricia Sullivan say, " the maps we draw are not meta-maps, but rather heuristic ones"(319).  As you view the shards in this archaeological dig, match them with your own discursive situations, your understandings of composition, and your desires and aims as a writer, the better to use them heuristically to ponder and refigure your own subjectivity and your discursive horizons.

Think computers and composition two decades from now, and databases of all kinds will be available to composing subjects.  They probably won't be using VGA monitors, but they will be using such databases to explore value and their positions in systems of value from a variety of perspectives.  Opportunities for and possibilities for representing one's "self" in writing will have transmogrified, rendering twentieth-century approaches to computers and composition a quaint reminder of discursive disciplining in a previous economic era.