CCR 611: Comp Histories/Theories

A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity

Once a way of thinking becomes so ingrained that no one bothers to question it, the most effective way to make it show up is to attempt the opposite argument that no one would even consider investigating. (10)

Hawk begins his book with the claim that composition has misrepresented and reduced vitalism. Vitalism—“a set of philosophical and scientific theories that extends from Aristotle to the twentieth century”—has been used as a loose approach to writing and thinking that is often associated with subjectivism, romanticism, expressivism. Hawk argues that the fundamental question of vitalism is “What is life?” (4), assuming that life is fundamentally complex and generative (5). Though Hawk acknowledges that vitalism is tied to romanticism, reducing it to this one period reduces its broader philosophical and scientific history and prevents us from examining its relevance to contemporary pedagogies of invention. The major claim of this book, then, is that “transforming rhetoric and composition’s image of vitalism from mysticism to complexity provides a basis for thinking about rhetoric and pedagogy that is more attuned to contemporary contexts” (6). Hawk enacts dissoi logoi, “making the weaker argument the stronger,” to make this claim and show the value of vitalism.

In Chapter 1, “Mapping Rhetoric and Composition,” Hawk focuses on Richard Young’s drive for disciplinarity in order to show how his categorical mapping flattens rich understandings of method as a model for rhetorical invention (13). In “Paradigms and Problems,” Young positions vitalism—through invention—as a “mystical process, whether in the world or the mind, that writers cannot consciously control or account for,” which leads to a privileging of formal (heuristic) procedures rather than habitual and contextual learning (24). In “Arts, Crafts, Gifts, and Knack’s,” though, Hawk focuses on Young’s renewed focus on vitalism as romanticism and his attempts to position rhetoric between current-traditionalism and new romanticism. I found the breakdown of the different elements useful:

  • art (heuristics to aid in the discovery of content),
  • craft (the emphasis on form and surface features of a text),
  • gift (innate natural talent), and
  • knack (something learned through habit or practice). (25)

This distinction is important because, as Hawk notes, current-traditional rhetoric and new romanticism take up these different elements differently: “Whereas current-traditional rhetoric contrasts craft with gift and emphasizes teaching craft, new romanticism contrasts craft with art as the mysterious powers of creative invention and emphasizes creating situations in which it can be learned informally” (26). These are two very different ideas about craft (emphasizing the writing can/can’t be taught debate) that speak to Young’s privileging of techne (“knowledge necessary for producing preconceived results by conscious directed action” [56 qtd. in 27]) as habit. Hawk also notes that Young’s conflates current-traditionalism and expressivism—understanding them both as sharing the idea that writing and invention can’t be taught, which devalues invention and privileges arrangement (35-36). Ultimately, Hawk’s critique of Young is that within his categorical history (and distinguishing of art, craft, gift, and knack), he oversimplifies the invention process—creating long-term consequences, such as “expanding the definition of method as well as art, theorizing affect and the body, and developing situation-specific heuristics or methods” (41).

In Chapter 2, “Cartography and Forgetting,” Hawk shifts his focus from Young to Berlin, who picks up Young’s articulation of current-traditional rhetoric, reading vitalism as natural genius, and establishing a Marxist framework that values language and ideology—“mind-centered pedagogies”—and necessarily devalues vitalist or bodily epistemologies (50). Because Berlin makes a direct (and problematic) correspondence between world, mind, and language, Hawk argues that his understanding of vitalism (invention as individual genius) is also problematic because it ignores the transactional nature of knowledge and meaning (51).

Berlin’s first full map of rhetoric and composition appeared in “Contemporary Composition” with four categories: neo-Aristotelian (classical), positivist (current-traditional), neo-Platonic (expressive), and new rhetoric (epistemic). Vitalism makes a brief appearance through current-traditionalism, but only through a reductive notion of genius. In Rhetoric and Reality, vitalism manifests within the rhetoric of liberal culture, which sought to foster a select few geniuses who were gifted and was highly influenced by Brahmanical romanticism  (67). In his critique of Berlin, Hawk notes that Berlin calls for a plurality that allows for a better (and more unified and objective) understanding of competing historical ideologies, even though he simultaneously acknowledges that complete objectivity is impossible (75). Hawk also notes that Berlin’s first-year pedagogy can’t account for the complexity of change, and he reduces vitalism for the sake of politics. That is, Berlin’s desire to raise student consciousness and adopt social-epistemic rhetoric forces him to “forget history, forget disciplinarity, and forget his own unconscious, nonrational pedagogical desire in order to focus solely on individual, rational consciousness” (84).

In Chapter 3, “Remapping Method,” Hawk turns to Paul Kameen, who—like Berlin—was wary of Young’s connection of Coleridge and vitalism and whose “research practice resembles the desire for ongoing invention, leaving the question open, rather than setting out a clear and stable end-goal” (87). In the 1980s, lots of taxonomies emerged: Bizzell’s division of inner- and outer-directed theories; Faigley’s cognitive, expressive, and social approaches to composing; North’s methodological division of researcher, scholar, and practitioner (87). And as people questioned Berlin’s restrictive taxonomy (objective, subjective, transactional), folks called for a remapping that would account for the discipline as “a cluster of related issues, texts, theorists, and practitioners (a flat, nonhierarchical surface that links to subfields in other disciplines), which carries with it a wide variety of possible combinations or assemblages” (90).

Kameen’s approach to this remapping in “Rewording the Rhetoric of Composition” attempts to reestablish the importance of imagination (via Coleridge) in the field. He argues that imagination has acquired a more colloquial meaning, which has elevated invention; his issue with this is that “the use of invention rather than imagination as the primary metaphor for thinking excludes insight, intuition, and nondiscursive thought as the polar counterpart to rational, knowable, discursive thought” (103). Coleridge values polarity and the balance between material and mental processes, which sets up a nice argument for the embodied nature of thinking. For Coleridge (and for Kameen), intuition is more complex and dynamic than it is typically treated and is “grounded in the body and its complex relations with the world as they unfold with material situations” (107).

This circles back to a critique of Berlin’s epistemologies because his attention to the subject’s rational choice causes him to lose “the complexity of the local, of the way the body is connected to its social, cultural, historical, and technological environments” (113). Berlin also positions heuristics as something that function primarily in the mind, but Kameen’s reading of Coleridge positions heuristics as functioning as a larger method interested in networking “heuristics, minds, bodies, texts, and contexts” (120). For Kameen, method and heuristics are not in opposition; rather, “Method is the ground and the force behind the invention and use of heuristics. Heuristics do not function in a vacuum; they function within complex and specific rhetorical situations. Importantly, the body is the critical, epistemological link between situation and invention” (120). It is this focus on method, complexity, and embodiment that Kameen offers as important to vitalism that Hawk finds more useful for the field.

It is this focus on complex vitalism, which drives the focus of Chapter 4, “A Short Counter-History.” Here, Hawk argues that the issue with vitalism is that the field has selected one definition, “equating it with romantic genius and individual expression, excluded vitalism from the discourse of the field based on this definition, and thus covered over the possibility of seeing what vitalism has become” (122). To flesh out this counter-history, Hawk begins with Aristotle and entelchy—“the overall configuration of any situation, including both natural and human acts and forms, combines to create its own conditions of possibility that strive to be played out to completion” (126)—in order to show that Aristotle was vitalistic through his focus on the power to move from potentiality to actuality (the enaction of the potential). That is, this movement forms an ecological context for rhetorical interaction. From Aristotle, then, folks used vitalism in any attempts to theorize a self-motivating system (127), broken down into three categories: oppositional, investigative, and complex.

Oppositional vitalisms of the late-18th and early-19th centuries focus on notions of electromagnetic force (science) and notions of polarity (philosophy) in order position life as “the outcome of productive tension” (137). Investigative vitalisms of the mid-19th and early-20th centuries focus on evolution and cell theory (science) and phenomenology and time (philosophy) in order to explore the dynamics between micro- and macro-level processes (137-38). Finally, complex vitalisms of the 20th century “turned the opposition of mechanical and vital theories in a complex cooperative system, completing the shift from substance-based theories to event-based theories,” (139) and it is this vitalism on which Hawk focuses most of his attention. Influenced and forwarded by Heidegger, Foucault, and Deleuze, complex vitalism seeks to “examine our complex situatedness within the world, language, technology, and institutions” (158). This is a posthumanist model, which positions the body (human or not) as a single part within a more complex system, and Deleuze & Guattari argue that positioning the human subject as the center of expression excludes the overall situation, which separates subject and object unnecessarily and reduces our understanding of complex systems (165).

Chapter 5, “Technology-Complexity-Methodology,” begins with Hawk’s acknowledgement that neither Young nor Berlin could have anticipated the technology boom in the mid-1990s that shaped (and continues to shape) the rhetorical landscape—particularly in terms of how we understand techne and heuristics. And with the emergence of network culture—which increasingly values ecology and immersion—Hawk argues that Berlin’s mind-centered heuristics are less relevant than Kameen’s phenomenological approach  (166-67). These technological developments have motivated a renewed interest in techne that run counter to its articulation as an instrumental understanding of technology (168). Hawk argues for ecological understandings of both technology and techne:

Technology, as with any technical process or technique, is only one element in a larger, more complex set of relations that problematizes simple notions of cause and effect. This shift to a larger ecology means that techne is both a rational, conscious capacity to productive and an intuitive, unconscious ability to make. (168-69)

This understanding positions technology away from a humanist perspective that pits the human and technological as opposites and toward an understanding of how they operate within complex ecologies (169).

Hawk spends a lot of time with Heidgger’s view of techne here, which positions technologies as always experienced in relation to other objects in a network. Within this networked arrangment, there are “manifold assignments”: “the potential paths of future action and development that the whole ecology makes possible” (172). So instead of positioning technology within a cause/effect framework, this acknowledges that technology and humans work together with different elements, creating conditions of possibility that set up paths for potential futures (172). In this configuration, technology has a revealing function, bringing certain things into being and to light.

Hawk also re-examines Aristotle from the lens of complex vitalism, which I found really useful (and reminded me of Brooke’s rearticulation of the rhetorical canons in Lingua Fracta). Logos—which is traditionally conceived within a narrow notion of logic—becomes more complex within a networked system, which is decentered, recursive. Hawk writes, “Such a logic means that networks become complex adaptive systems because there are multiple networks co-adapting to one another” (187). And ethos, which focuses on the individual character or identity of the subject, “gives way to a multiplicity of selves that emerge through complex relations” and moves beyond the idea that the subject chooses a political position; rather, a networked ethos recognizes the relationships that helped to establish those identities and their affects on the body (189). And finally, pathos—which is usually positioned in opposition to logic and focuses on the values of an audience in order to ground persuasion—focuses on affect and the relation of bodily responses in network culture:

Affect, then, is “an ability to affect and a susceptibility to be affected”: it is a body’s capacity for relations within a network—the potential for linking to and being linked to. Emotion is simply consciously, linguistically “recognized affect” (Massumi 61). Operating outside of a consciously recognized personal or subjective mode, affect functions at the level of distributed vitality, node, and screen. The body may screen out some potential relations while filtering in others, keeping it open to relations. A node is not unified or self-contained but multiple and fragmented, connected to the world through various affective relations. Because media operate as additional screens for a node, any understanding of rhetoric in the contemporary world needs to understand rhetoric at the level of affect. (190)

I wanted to quote this at length because it seems useful for considering the body’s role within rhetorical, media ecologies. Hawk ends this chapter with a call for composition theorists to develop methods “for situating bodies within ecological contexties in ways that reveal the potential for invention, especially the invention of new techniques, that in turn reveal new models for action within those specific rhetorical ecologies” (206). That is, we should create methods that are generative, embodied.

Chapter 6, “Composition Pedagogies,” focuses on how complex vitalism can help us better understand (and theorize) our pedagogical practices. Hawk writes that most pedagogical discourse in the 1990s was focused on critical pedagogies, influenced by Berlin’s articulation of social-epistemic rhetoric, which asked, “does this pedagogy seek to produce the proper political subject and corresponding critical text?” (208). Hawk points to Hardin, here, who critiques Shor and critical pedagogy because—even as Shor attempts to decenter his authority and empower his students, this does not erase the fact that ‘students can and do see teachers as embodying the power of law, no matter how much the teacher may genuinely want to help them” (211). Similarly, Hawk critiques Berlin’s critical pedagogy because Berlin attempts to construct a heuristic that emphasizes his politics rather than focusing on process.

So this is an issue of process and method. Process is linear, pre-directed, and method is more open. Hawk writes, “What emerge from Berlin and critical pedagogy are competing desires—the teacher’s desire for a universal, conscious subject, a citizen rhetor, and an embodied student whose desire emerges from a particular context and cannot be predicted” (216). Noting Crowley’s discussion of the discourse of need, Hawk argues that teachers’ pedagogical desires typically don’t mesh with student’s emergent desires, which we see in Berlin (217). Kameen, however, offers an alternative pedagogy with his focus on classroom ecologies, arguing that the issue of knowledge should not privilege the teacher’s ideology and intention or what students produce in writing or subjectivity; instead, it is the interaction of the teacher’s knowledge and the student’s writing wherein knowledge emerges (221). This, Heidegger, argues, is a space of dwelling: “To dwell in building a text is not to master self, world, audience, or language but to live in them, listen to them, and emerge with them” (230). This dwelling, this existence in a liminal space, is vitalist because it creates an ecological context through listening: “a material response to an embodied situation” (232). And just to provide some context for how vitalism affects this pedagogy, Hawk offers a breakdown of the differences between expressivist, social-epistemic, and complex vitalist pedagogical desires:

An expressivist hope would take a passive role in pedagogy and hope that the students’ desire can produce good writing. A social-epistemic hope would take an active role in determining the pedagogical goals and hope the students adopt the teacher’s desires. A complex vitalist hope would take an active role in designing pedagogical contexts and hope the students come to understand their situatedness and learn to develop ethical connections that will lead to productive acts and texts. (258)

In the “Afterword: Toward a Counter-Historiography,” Hawk articulates what he sees as the contribution of his project: “I am building on the examination of what gets excluded from other (more dominant) histories in order to rethink received concepts and categories that at this point are more of an impediment to the growth of the field than a useful conceptual starting place or map” (259). He notes that, often, revisionary historians often reinscribe exclusions, but sub/versive historiography—which he performs—allows for the production of multiple counter-histories (260). And acknowledging the potential paradoxical nature of critiquing categorizations through the development of categories (oppositional, investivative, and complex vitalisms), Hawk notes that his categories “are trying to articulate differences rather than wash over them” (273, emphasis added).



Hawk, Byron. A Counter-History of Composition: Toward Methodologies of Complexity. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2007. Print.


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