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Raúl Sánchez, The Function of Theory in Composition Studies

Allow me, if you will, to counteract last entry's high snark quotient with a bit of referential reverence. Or reverential reference. Or re(f/v)erence. Whatevs. I thought that, since I've been talking a fair bit lately about this book, both here and in conversation, I might go ahead and put together a bit of a description/review for those of you who haven't tracked it down. So,

Sánchez, Raúl. The Function of Theory in Composition Studies. Albany: SUNY Press, 2005.

I should start by noting that this is a short, short book. It's a set of theoretical provocations that only runs about 100 pages, and so it reads deceptively quickly. Deceptive because the position that it takes is one that I hope we take up in our field in much more depth. Its thesis is pretty easily gleaned on the first page:

The function of theory in composition studies is to provide generalized accounts of what writing is and how writing works....Contrary to the beliefs of some composition theorists, it is possible, and, more importantly, necessary for composition studies to have an agenda for inquiry comprised of theory and empirical research in a mutually informing relationship (1).

Easy enough, right? Well, not quite. Sánchez promises an analysis of our current "theoretical disposition" with an eye towards effecting a shift in our field, one that makes more room for the empirical study of writing than currently exists. And a little more controversially, he argues that "the period of composition theory's ascendance coincides with its having stopped making trenchant theoretical statements about writing" (3).

The problem, he explains, is hermeneutics, which is "a major obstacle to the study of writing." Hermeneutics reduces writing to a mere "technology of representation," rendering it secondary to whatever something else it is called upon to represent. Sánchez returns on several occasions to the theme that a model of writing that depends on hermeneutics is insufficient to the task of coping with the proliferation and circulation of language in an increasingly networked world. (You will begin to sense some of this book's appeal for me.)

You want a little proof? Okay. Here's David Smit, in The End of Composition Studies, describing our current state of scholarly affairs with respect to writing: "At the heart of these current paradigms, models, and theories is the fundamental assumption that the way we understand one another through language is primarily interpretive, a matter of hermeneutics" (9). According to Smit, this is as close as we have to fact in our field.

So anyhow, you may also begin to sense this book's appeal when I tell you that Sánchez quickly turns to Derrida, criticizing our field for adopting (adapting, more likely) a certain version of deconstruction as a reading practice, while ignoring grammatology as a productive method. What's kind of odd about this adoption, of course, is that so much of Derrida's emphasis, early on at least, is on resisting the model of naive hermeneutics that our field has claimed in his name. Sánchez rightly observes that often, what passes for "deconstruction" is usually a modernist debunking, designed to move us closer to ultimate signifieds, freedom from ideology, pure knowledge, authentic subjectivity, etc.

One of my favorite lines? "The field has been working at theory for too long to have gotten so little out of it" (12). Nice.

I should probably speed up a little, and that's possible in part because the subsequent three chapters mount parallel arguments about the relationship between writing and knowledge (ch 2), ideology (ch 3), and culture (ch 4). One of the most consistent threads throughout is that too much of our theorizing has presumed that each of these concepts precedes writing, and is reflected with more or less accuracy in/through writing. Instead, Sánchez argues in each chapter that these concepts are themselves the consequences of writing rather than its causes. In the final chapter, he argues that two of our most cherished concepts for thinking about writing--rhetoric and the subject--have been so completely shot through with representationalism that we should work rather at setting them aside.

As Mark Noe notes in his less enthusiastic review, there is a sense in which this book could run for another 100 pages, and turn from a manifesto to an example of the kind of writing theory that the first 100 call for. And there's something to this critique of FTCS. What's interesting to me about the review, though, is the way that it focuses exclusively on the theory end of Sánchez's equation, accusing/diagnosing him of seeking "a purer, pre-Berlin, post-structuralism." It's a move that I find kind of curious, because while Berlin's work is taken to task in the book, Berlin's influence on the field and on our reception of theory almost demands that focus. Is Berlin "silenced" in the attempt? I don't know, but Noe's avowed desire ("I would dearly love for Sánchez to read Berlin’s writing as fluid, situated, open to revision/ revoicing") strikes me as exactly the kind of move that Sánchez critiques, the attempt to make everything fit together at the deepest level of our disciplinary hermeneutics, by sanding down the rough edges until everyone has a place at the theory buffet. Maybe I'm projecting.

What I notice, though, is despite the prominent place that empirical study has for Sánchez, Noe's review doesn't mention it at all. Literally. The word "empirical" is absent. for me, that's one of the things that distinguishes this book from other calls for "breaking from" theory, Theory, or theories. It's not one of many in that regard, and it's not simply the latest "exercise in one-upmanship" that Noe seems to claim it is.

Where Sánchez's book succeeds for me is what I talked about in the comments from my "how" entry of a couple of days ago. If writing is a "technology of representation," then it is ancillary to the real stuff, whatever that stuff might be. Its value is referential--either it faithfully reflects that something else, or it obscures it to varying degrees. Writing is a veil in this model, an obstacle that must be overcome, in order to arrive at some deeper truth of subjectivity, ideology, knowledge, culture, et al.

If we can somehow work ourselves away from this ubiquitous model of representation, what we will be doing in part is (re?)turning to a model of writing and/or theories of writing where writing itself matters. "The most salient feature of writing," Sánchez writes, "is therefore not its representational function, but its ability to proceed as if it has a representational function." When we forget the "as if," language becomes invisible, representational, referential. But language proceeds in other ways as well--the critical refrain of much of Derrida's early work is that language matters, that it matters as much if not more than the logos it signifies.

I don't know that I have that much more to say. I'll most likely be teaching this book in the fall, and pairing it with Latour's Reassembling the Social, which provides more detail, I think, about what a turn away from hermeneutics might look like and how we might get there. At the very least, you could say that I recommend this book. I think it opens some new spaces for inquiry, not only challenging us to think outside of hermeneutics but prompting us to rethink our engagements within the tradition of hermeneutics as well. They're discussions that I hope we'll begin to have in our field, and I think of worse places to begin those discussions than Sánchez's book.

That is all.


certain version of deconstruction as a reading practice, while ignoring grammatology as a productive method.

Which, of course, is Ulmer's point throughout all of his work. There is always risk in tooting the horn of your diss director (and ending up in a fetishistic relationship), but the production aspect of grammatology I was exposed to as a grad student influenced me greatly. What is interesting for me is how it pushed me to composition despite the overall lack of interest in composition to this point. And maybe it's important, then, that I did a comp diss with a non-comp director....

I was thinking that all the way through as well, Jeff. If I remember rightly, he only mentions Ulmer in one or two places. Partly, it's because so much of the book focuses on the arguments/positions that need clearing away, but still...

Thanks for the review! This has helped me see/ understand more your point and my question about taking writing seriously. It also helps me see the relationship between Sanchez and Latour. In both of these things, if I understand your thinking, writing is not that "knack" for getting at or representing the Real (to mix Plato's critiques, but whatever..) so much as it is another Actant with which we must contend. In fact, as an Actant, writing/ language generates other potential Actants: culture, ideology, knowledge.

This is so cool, not least b/c it's what I'm trying to theorize in my own writing. What I see as the next step, though is to understand the function of language in a socio-physical ecology. The "matter" of language as a nexus between lived experiences and their physical manifestations. It can't represent either, but must mediate them "as if" it did.

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