Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Rhetoric and Composition's Conceptual Indeterminacy as Political-Economic Work

Academic journal article College Composition and Communication

Rhetoric and Composition's Conceptual Indeterminacy as Political-Economic Work

Article excerpt

The installation of managerialism as the core subjectivity of the discipline of rhetoric and composition is therefore not so much an indicator of the field's ''success" as evidence of its particular susceptibility, the very terms of its intellectual evolution intertwined with the university's accelerated move toward corporate partnership, executive control, and acceptability of profitability and accumulation as values in decision making.

-Marc Bousquet, "Composition as a Management Science"

Introduction-The Political-Economic in Rhetoric and Composition

At its most basic level, the study of political economy seeks to understand the relationship between the specific material situation and the realm of the ideological/superstructural, where systems of valuation are established and maintained. How labor, capital, and the administration of the workforce come together to constitute the realm of the "social" represents the most fundamental aspect of the political-economic investigation. To an extraordinary degree, questions about rhetoric and composition's status and legitimacy as a discipline are tied up with the labor conditions in first-year writing (FYW). In the realm of administering composition programs, the vast majority of labor is centered on the teaching of FYW, often described as a scene of exploitation of a captive labor force.1 While there has been extensive study and documentation of the economic conditions that have resulted in the casualization of the writing instruction labor force (Bousquet; Bousquet et al.; Schell; Schell and Stock; Scott), scholarship focusing on rhetoric and composition's shifting understandings of itself as a field of inquiry in relation to economic regimes such as neoliberalism has been less visible. How, for example, does a specific definition of what constitutes "the field" serve local and national economic imperatives, as these imperatives are discursive formations informing what it means to "do" rhetoric and composition? What connections exist between the increasing casualization of the FYW workforce and the continually shifting conceptions of rhetoric and composition? If, to paraphrase the title of Marc Bousquet's famous JAC article, composition is a management science, how has that science shaped the professional horizons and aspirations of the field? One must theorize this question as a function of political economy, examining it in relation to larger economic trends (retrenchment of the welfare state and the rise of neoliberalism) and in calls for increased accountability within higher education to promote conceptions of "writing" as "a skill" (Adler-Kassner and Harrington). As part of the effort to teach writing as a skill, the domain of rhetoric and composition has necessarily remained nebulous and ill-defined as part of the effort to remain responsive to the calls for reform mandated by these external parties. Rhetoric and composition accrues tactical advantages for itself by keeping the disciplinary concepts guiding its inquiries vaguely defined, so as to remain responsive to the political-economic gains associated with its key disciplinary foci. Indeed, political-economic benefits accrue to the field as a result of a seeming commitment to conceptual indeterminacy with respect to loosely defining "writing," "rhetoric," and "literacy," even if the effects of this conceptual indeterminacy are not entirely clear. Similar to the dereferentialization of excellence described in Bill Readings's The University in Ruins, the relative emptiness of large signifying terms at the center of our disciplinary enterprise actually works productively. Think of the elasticity of the following "keywords in composition": "context"; "discourse"; "network"; and "materiality" (Heilker and Vandenberg). The imagination runs ahead of these "keywords" as a result of their conceptual breadth, filling in discursive spaces, and, at the same time, seeking to make the case that our expertise extends into them. …

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