Berlin, Vitanza, and Self/Assessment

Last night my graduate course on Contemporary Rhetoric spent some time in 1996; we discussed two important treatments of postmodern theory in Rhetoric and Composition--Vitanza and Berlin. Below is the lecture I gave. Those who shared a former life with me will hear familiar notes.

In University in Ruins, Readings highlighted the growth of excellence following the deconstruction of traditional University meta-narratives. Left without an absolute(ly Good) transcendent rasion d’etre, the University has fashioned for itself (perhaps paro/a/logically?) a new meaning to inhabit (since, as Berlin summarizes, rhetoric and postmodern theory begin from the position that we all exist mediated through language and discourse). That the new meaning cannot itself be qualified or quantified, exhausted, limited, or even defined, makes it a particularly apt response to the postmodern dilemma (the lack of meta-narrative, the disappearance of the autonomous subject): in Ulmer's parlance, We B Excellence.

In Postmodern Condition, Lyotard predicted the rise of an administrative class within academia. We have already discussed the ramifications of this process—particularly, the emphasis on production and assessment. These two related ideas surface in Berlin, particularly in his discussion of Post-Fordist education. Lyotard’s administrative class is Berlin’s managerial student/teacher. There are differences—for Lyotard, the development of the administrative (dedicated to performativity and efficiency) is considered as a move in a language game, an almost Darwinian adaptation to survive according to the “new” rules laid out by the changing conditions of the game. It is a struggle for survival.

In Berlin, it is cast as a more overt and conscious exercise by those in power to regulate and control—rather than a kind of “naturalistic” evolution it is a political strategy (take, for instance, Berlin’s remarks on Foster, Butler, and Blitz and Hurlbert(48-49)). It is not surprising, in Berlin’s narration, to see corporate interests speak to the need for (and only for) “the ability to speak and to hear, to read and write the English Language fluently and with true comprehension and true ability to articulate ideas” (48). Those familiar with such discussions will see the code: English Language instruction as a dedication to clarity, to efficiency, to hegemony. Riffing on our past, to obedience more than to thinking. To teach “clear” expression is to teach/craft a Conservative (read: submissive) subject.

Post-Fordism calls for workers without any specialization. It destroys unions by declaring that any shmoe can do the job. Think of how today’s large corporations (McDonalds and Walmart come to mind) actively developed a strategy called “zero-skilled labor,” such that the corporations could easily negotiate the high turnover in the workforce. That most difficult resource, the human resource, ideally becomes little more than standing, breathing, welcoming, and thanking. Provided enough institutional scaffolding, the parts are completely and immediately replaceable. Not just burgers but students. I argue that there is a desire, a will, to automate teaching, too.

Berlin draws upon Harvey’s term “flexible accumulation” to describe this Post-Fordist reordering: In flexible accumulation, markets are as much created as they are identified and so “control over information flow and over the vehicles for propagation of public taste and culture have likewise become vital weapons in competitive struggle.” (Harvey 1989, 160). (46)

I will return to notions of weapons and struggle later. Here, I would stress that education operates as a market, that this is not news—that Heidegger, Lyotard, and Readings have already made this argument quite clear to us. There is always the question of whether postmodern theory is simply new grist for the mill, flexibly accumulated and regulated.

But the rise of assessment, as I have been referring to it, is an intensification of the principles of flexible accumulation (as struggle over information and subjects in-formation) in the arenas of education. By and large, this intensification largely reserves itself to primary and secondary levels, but we can also trace its presence in higher education as well. We are not too far from the Spellings Commission for Higher Education, and its gentle nudges for Universal Exit Exams (in the name of customer satisfaction…err…accountability to prospective students). Continuing national economic hardship will only intensify such desires. Account for everything, down to the minute, down to the sentence. Ensure student outcomes. Program Study. This phrase Program of Study takes on new meaning in the Excellently Assessed Performative University in Ruins. No longer a map drawn by the autonomous protagonist-student as they weave their way through the disciplinary landscape (narrating their own story), it now speaks to identity formation regulated within a discourse. Those of you who read Foucault can fill in the blank. Those of you hit by Foucault can too.

But let’s recast this regulation in a more sensitive light—let’s say that, instead of a last gasp to consolidate power and legitimize expenses (hey, we need money because we need teachers because we need to craft subjects over here), let’s say that it is a humanistic response to shifting conditions—one that challenges the Post-Fordist assumptions of interchangeability. Not anyone can be an engineer. In fact, it takes four years of micromanaged, I mean carefully planned, curricula to begin to produce one. It is, no doubt, a humanist response that I here describe—one that seeks to make the student, as a function of an Enlightened curricula, special and irreplaceable. Such aspirations do not necessarily have to be an mendacious or nefarious as Berlin suggests (see 47, and his discussion of Foucault 63). Perhaps Victor’s committee, composed to ensure writing doesn’t fly awayves, speaks here.

Berlin invests himself in critical citizenship and critical pedagogy. I commend him for not backing away from these terms. But we have to recognize the impact of such a commitment. Sure, critical could be deployed in some neutral way a so as to suggest an apolitical-way-of-seeing. Berlin rejects such a fallacy. Every way of seeing and of teaching is always already drenched in a political—curriculum and pedagogy. Its political down to where you put the desks.

And Berlin’s use of “critical” never comes without a politics. It’s a determined politics. For those of you who have never flipped through Freire, or even more so, spent some time with Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, Bourdieu’s Distinction, Williams’ Culture and Society or Stuart Hall’s Representations, or any of the other seminal texts in the new/old tradition we would call Cultural Studies, critical means Liberal. Socialist. Progressive. Was anyone even a tiny bit surprised to see Berlin ground this theoretical recommendations for English Studies (notice: Cultural English Studies) on socialist economic theory? Or to see him deploy terms like superstructure, base, capital, corporate hegemony?

Berlin names his politics—his aspirations, his goals, his raison d’etre, his telos.

My sneaking suspicion in preparing this lecture (and we will see how this plays out tonight), is that most of you will choose Berlin over Vitanza. We shall see. Why? Because I suppose you will find solace in Berlin/West’s condemnation of Vitanza’s theoretical play/language—the repeated haunting charge of “bourgeious mysticism.” White, affluent, secure theorists play a highly Sophist.icated theoretical game because they are divorced from the pain and necessity of lived reality. Such games turn our energy and attention away from the real problem and from real solutions. Lacan once argued: the zero form of sexuality is masturbation. Theory cast as Vitanza (and Derrida, Lyotard, and anyone else who engages in that theory, that turn attention away from the weapons and the struggle) is masturbation par excellence; for each plays their own game, and each plays alone. Hence Berlin’s repeated effort to emphasize, in the face of postmodern deconstructions of the subject, the “shared” subject position (again and again he hammers this point). Berlin makes it clear that, to avoid paralysis by analysis, we need a metanarrative and a vision (67). His project is thoroughly Modern. I hope you all noticed this. Berlin conserves even if not a conservative. Why? To change things for the better, of course. And who would question such things? What kind of monster?

Vitanza. Who writes, as Cixious, as a beast. But I will return to this shortly.

First, back to Berlin (insert pun about fascism in service to a revolution with another pun on a revolution returning to the repressed and the re-pressed as students in molds /pun). What Berlin ignores is a principle of which he is very much aware—consubstantiality Burke would call it. It is the Derridean binary opposition, the idea that the signifier, more than reaching back to a signified, reaches out to other signifiers in the network of its circulation—particularly, Burke stresses, to those signifiers against which it emerges (simple: try to think of hot without cold, don’t think of an elephant). By conserving attention to Harvey’s weapons and struggles he does little more, in my opinion, than recirculating, reconstituting, replicating, extending the status quo. Berlin would use postmodern theory to provide new terms for the old war.

If read across Cornell West, then this is an admirable, human cause. Berlin:

Against the plea for the abandonment of comprehensive historical accounts and the denial of any significance in the myriad details of everyday life, I would propose the necessity for provisional, contingent metanarratives in attempting to account for the past and present. Here Vitanza and I totally part company. While history may be marked by no inherent plan or progression, it is the product of complex interactions of disparate groups, social institutions, ideologies, technological conditions, and modes of production. To abandon the attempt to make sense of these forces in the unfolding of history is to risk being viticimized by them. (73)

Clap. Fist pump. Go get 'em tiger.

But wait a minute. Defer a minute. There is an explicit teleological end to Berlin’s ideal—history is the future too (and if we listen to Derrida, history is the future first, the sight/cite/site of deferment, the judge, the present as the will-have-been (81); Berlin proposes to reveal to the student sites of conflict (sights, cites, sites oh my). Berlin doesn’t just(ice) reveal conflicts, he proposes to write/rite/right them. Does one not conclude that there is a precise determination of the Good every time Berlin deploys the term “democracy”? What if a student in his class used Glenn Beck’s Americanist mantras to attack Cornell West’s call for rhetorics forefronting the marginalized and the oppressed? Anyone want to venture how that would go? One need look no further than Berlin’s explication of differance and alterity: “we are asked to locate heretofore silenced voices” (71). Notice where agency lies—in the “we.” Always with Berlin, agency lies in the self and is never deferred to the other (precisely because Berlin’s goals are determined and not dialogic, narrated and not spontaneously emergent). And, many times, Berlin’s self is not only multiple but plural (such that students are a collection of selves-to-be) in a very singular way (see also 100).

Berlin’s utopia and certitude do frighten me. It is a call to arms, and a pedagogy that marches. To war. For all its pretensions to multiplicity, it threatens to cleanse.

Nevermind the fact that, based on my personal experience, social epistemic rhetoric doesn’t work. It leads to performativity and resentment. Students delivering what the teacher wants. Many have written on this point, most notably Marshal Alcorn (Changing the Subject in English Class, see also Sloterdjyk's Critique of Cynical Reason). Alcorn stresses Berlin’s reliance on an autonomous subject, one who will make the write/right/rite choices once the path has been opened. Berlin, according to Alcorn, fails to appreciate the depths of ideology. It is not a mere software that can be reprogrammed. Ideology permeates the very Being of the machine. This paragraph could be much longer, and much better.

Vitanza, building from Lyotard (and my Heidegger, but not his), would chose to play a differant game than Berlin, to invent new practices, engagements, styles. Yes, seen from Berlin’s perspective, Vitanza’s language is elitist rather than egalitarian. But we might also stress that Vitanza’s language is sophistic in the sense that it is developed for a very particular audience—it makes no aspirations to a Universal human movement, it idealizes a conception of language in which each person takes ownership of words and invents—meanings, histories, hysteries. Notice how Vitanza opens agency and defers determination to something other than humans. If not as a Human, then as animal. (This is base, but not the base of Berlin’s discourse, not the base binarily determined through superstructure).

More than anything else, what I hope you take away from your encounter with Vitanza is the line “we would no.” We would kNOw the other, and hence negate her:

The negative—or negative dialectic—is a kind of pharmakon, and in overdoses, it is extremely dangerous. (E.g., a little girl is a little man without a penis! Or an Aryan is not a Jew! And hence, they do not or should not—because in error—exist) The warning on the label—beware of overdoses—is not enough; for we, as KB says, are rotten with perfection. We would No. That is, say No to females, Jews, gypsies, queers, hermaphrodites, all others. By saying No, we would purchase our identity. Know ourselves. By purifying the world, we would exclude that which, in our different opinions threatens our identity. (12-13)

We would locate (know) the other’s silenced voices and speak for them. Or, we could resist knowing. We could recognize the desire that builds behind our kNOwing. This is Vitanza’s complex response to Berlin’s question “what do you want?” He wants Berlin to confront his desires, to learn to listen to what students desire in a way that doesn’t pre-judge or determine. Of course-one cannot rigorously assess desire! One can, however, assess writing (but not desire as expressed in W-R-I-T-I-N-G). Berlin would reprogram what we study. Vitanza would study our need to Program. In his “Three Counter-Theses” essay, Vitanza identifies three primary drives for R/C that he would oppose: the will to systematize language, the will to be language’s authority, the will to teach systematized, authorized language to students. I hope, looking back at this week’s readings, you can see how he implicitly indicts Berlin for continuing all three.

Yes, I think Vitanza would accept the charge that he masturbates. Probably without guilt. And in public. In, of all places, a per-versity. I’m pretty sure he enjoys it (perhaps, Levinas would argue, too much—and without the goal of fecundity--but that question comes from my own ghosts).

We could develop rites that write it (desire) more than right it (kNOwing). Perhaps. Maybe. In a future. In a future that resists the call to assess and secure, measure and validate. Always in a future in which “we are only just beginning to write” (Nancy, qtd in Vitanza).


pure_sophist_monster said...

V.V. gave me Herpes, and I have (n)ever the same.

Insignificant Wrangler said...

Oh, you, you've always been a monster.