tho’ this be madness

A long-promised response to Crowley’s The Methodical Memory, written in response to, if not necessarily tribute to, the occasion of her retirement.

At first, I admit, I was taken aback by this book.  Where was the Crowley who wrote the history of composition in the university with such wit and nerve?  Who was this Crowley, prattling on about the history of outlines, interminably, with no purpose in sight?  Why had this been recommended to me?

But then I tried thinking through these questions, or, more accurately, tried to think around them.  As I am coming to learn, (especially in response to Crowley) an argument need not be written at the superficial level of the text itself–it can reside too in the metadiscourse around the text, and I think that that is a valuable lesson for me: that frustration with what may appear at first to be a difficult, dull, or uninviting text may be the fault not of the author or the text but of my own reading.  Or, to sing the death of the author a little louder, the text is not exclusively what is written but what is read.

So, setting aside the questions of style and enjoyment in which at first I was caught up, let’s reconsider what Crowley is doing here.  We need to start with the preface, in particular this passage:

The Methodical Memory contains no new historical discoveries.  For the most part the textbooks read here are known to historians of rhetoric and composition studies.  However, I read these books from a postmodern perspective.  This perspective assumes that the intellectual trappings of modernism—such as the sovereign authoring subject—are no longer useful theoretical resources for the teaching of composition.  To put this another way, The Methodical Memory is a deconstruction, rather than a history.  It tries to unravel some of the strands that make up the fabric of modern rhetoric to see where they intersect and where there are holes in the fabric.  A deconstruction of a discursive practice allows it to be critiqued.  (xiii-xiv)

I think my error in first getting into the text was to assume that Crowley here meant that MM was going to be a text of stylistic invention ala Vitanza or Ulmer.  This is not the case.  However, rereading this passage as I transcribe it here, I am drawn to two terms as valuable for what Crowley does accomplish in this book: postmodern and deconstruction.

Postmodern is a valuable term here because Crowley very much seems to be drawing on Jameson’s advice to “always historicize” (even though this slogan is from Political Unconscious and not Postmodernism–thanks Wikipedia!).  That is, Crowley is historicizing practices now considered transhistorical and ideologially neutral in composition and rhetoric–invention practices, yes, but also outlining (82-5), the use of transition (123), paragraph composition and organization (126-7), the emphasis on continuity and coherence (130), and my old friend the five-paragraph theme (135).  Historicization, then, as a process of literal de-construction: a disassembling of tropes and ideas into their constituent (and historically situated) origins.  (I know this may be old news to more advanced scholars of pomoism who’ve actually, you know, read Jameson–I have not–but it is still a valuable lesson for me.)  Crowley’s argument then, is not just that modern rhetorics/current-traditional pedagogies are bad, but that they have lost their intellectual value not so much because of postmodern troublings of the subject or epistemology (as in Faigley, Ulmer, Vitanza, Sirc, Rice), but because composition scholars and teachers have lost a sense of reflexivity and recursive interrogation of their methods.

To be fair, Crowley does not make this accusation without some sympathy for compositionists.  She writes:

The composition course was invented out of whole cloth in response to late nineteenth-century hysteria about low levels of literacy manifested by entering college students.  But composition had no subject.  Nor did it have a cadre of professors who had devoted their professional careers to its mastery.  Its teachers were recruited from the ranks of willing persons who could speak and write English reasonably well.  These people had to be taught a subject matter as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Given this institutional situation, the textbooks that survived were not the most innovative or subtle or exploratory; they were  those that  were the most teachable.  …  The singular contribution of the textbooks published late in the century by the big four, then, was that they packaged vagrant remnants of the intellectual traditions that spawned current-traditional rhetoric in such a way that the whole shebang could be efficiently memorized, taught, and studied. (141-2).

There is something here that might be worth exploring–an article, maybe?  If Crowley is right here, that the institutionalization of c-t rhetoric was a reaction to a literacy crisis, then we might want to offer this as a moment of juxtaposition with the literacy crisis of the 70s and 80s, which (as Crowley herself, Faigley, and Sirc have argued) led to the similar institutionalization of process pedagogy as a likewise uninterrogated master technique for teaching writing.  (The question behind the juxtaposition might be: why does composition react to crisis with prescriptive measures rather than any other form of response?  Why are we prone to giving in to the logic of authoritarianism in that sense?)

In the end, what is valuable in Crowley’s book is not the history (which as we have seen she disavows as being the focus of the book), but rather another metalesson (as in Composition‘s lesson about history as argument): not only is she making an implicit call for a self-consciously reflexive pedagogy, one that interrogates its techniques and methods rather than positing them as essentialized, naturalized, and “the way things are done,” but she is offering a model for doing so: to achieve such reflexivity, Crowley seems to be arguing, we must understand not just our methods, but also the historical exigences behind those methods.

Hmmm . . . .


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