Michael's Reviews > Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures: Refiguring College English Studies

Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures by James A. Berlin
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Nov 30, 08

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Read in November, 2008

In the first half of Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures (2003), James Berlin overviews the history of English studies in the United States since the nineteenth century, in order to historicize the current state of English studies and advance his conception of the discipline: a pedagogical field “instruct[ing:] students in signifying practices broadly conceived” that asks students to interrogate production and reception of a variety of texts, including their own, as ideological and not disinterested (100-101).

In the first section of the book, Berlin historicizes English studies, showing how the field changed in the nineteenth century from one that viewed literature as the province of rhetoric and learning to one that viewed literature as a matter of “taste” and “sensibility.” This move, along with a turn to a nationalistic tradition of literature, accompanied the development of a the bourgeoisie and created a discipline that largely made invisible its class loyalties (5).

For Berlin, English studies did not develop solely because of faculty and student interest in literature, but in concert and reaction to the material and economic conditions of historical periods. The growth and development of English departments in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was largely in response to a Fordist economy that created a growing urban and middle class populace—one in which education was central to economic and social movement. Berlin argues that at this historical period there were three competing conceptions of literacy, each of which defined poetics and rhetorics in relation to each other.

1. Meritocratic-scientific: This vision of literacy, now known as “current-traditional rhetoric” saw the real as factual and able to be conveyed easily. Invention did not have to be taught, and formalism (the organization and the mechanics of an essay) was most important. One’s ability to write was directly related to the faculties of one’s mind. Literacy was a tool of the managerial class (30-33).
2. Liberal-cultural: This vision of literacy argued that there are certain liberal and humanistic values which college graduates should share, and that one’s “writing is a manifestation of one’s spiritual nature” (33). Under liberal-cultural literacy, impressionism was celebrated, scientism was suspect, and the real could never be fully conveyed in writing. Berlin sees this version of literacy as undemocratic and conservative (33-35).
3. Social-democratic: Democratic literacy advocates argued that institutions are in-process and socially constructed. They believed that in order to engage in democratic discourse, all citizens must be able to read and write, and that no one class of people owned the right to language. Berlin critiques this model of literacy for failing to see how certain power structures (economic and social) limit one’s ability to engage in public discourse (35-38).

The social and economic shifts of a post-Fordist economy (postmodernism) prompts the second section of Berlin’s book, “The Postmodern Predicament.” Berlin sees the modernist curriculum of English studies as an inadequate response to the economic and cultural conditions of postmodernism (globalized economies, changes in mass production, decentering of urban spaces, the rise of a service sector, an increase of immigration in the 1980s, and time compression) (45-50). Berlin argues that English studies cannot simply accommodate itself to the marketplace (that is, respond reactively to claims that colleges are not producing quality workers), but must place itself within the larger goals of education: creating critical citizens of a democracy (54). English studies is central to a democratic education, Berlin argues, because it is required of all students in school, from high school to college (57).

Berlin draws on postmodern theory in a way “that neither totally celebrates nor totally rejects its conclusions” (72), for he sees postmodern theory as too compelling to merely reject and sees mere celebration of the “ludic” postmodernism as dangerously undemocratic (68-71).

It is from here, as well as his description of twentieth-century social-constrionist rhetoric, that Berlin turns to social-epistemic rhetoric in Chapter 5. Social-epistemic rhetoric departs from social constructionist rhetoric in two important ways: it sees writing as a process (that is, writing is a discovering of meaning and an inventive process, not simply transmission), and the integration of postmodern critiques of “signficiation, the subject, and foundational narratives” (87). According to Berlin, postmodernism has taugh rhetoricians that subjects are unstable, not autonomous, and constituted by discourse. These insights signal a turn in rhetoric from individual autonomy to political agency as “the guiding principle” for writing (88). Being constituted subjects does not mean that we are already determined, and Berlin stresses that we are still singularities; therefore writing must be studied in specific contexts because signifying practices are dialectic: “in response to each other in ways that are not mechanically predictable” (90).

Berlin’s work thus far leads to two important conclusions: 1) Because language is constituted, the binary between creative (literature) and referential (rhetoric) work breaks down; and 2) because “[p:]roducing and consuming are both interpretations,” this binary too needs to be reconfigured (93). It is not that there is no distinction between literature and other rhetorical works (remembering that literature is rhetorical) or between production and consumption, but rather that the focus needs to be on semiotic and cultural codes (93). Neither poetic nor rhetoric texts are more important, nor are “the effects of the two [ever:] mutually exclusive” (100).

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