Composition Without Rhetoric: John Guillory

[Cross-posted at The Valve]

English departments are constantly struggling to justify their existence in an increasingly results-oriented academic hierarchy. What does studying literature prepare you to do? How will it help students get a job? We usually answer it with some version of "critical thinking and persuasion through written arguments," which we hope will hold off the administrators another year. But are the skills one uses to compose a compelling argument about George Eliot relevant at all to the kind of writing that dominates the corporate world? Why does it often seem that one is writing all the time -- email after email after email -- without actually involving oneself with the inner life of the language? In "The Memo and Modernity" (Critical Inquiry 31.1) Guillory draws on everything from Quintilian to Erasmus to The Handbook of Business English, to show the emergence of a massive genre of informational writing that is neither truly scientific nor rhetorical.

Guillory argues that the late nineteenth century saw the rise of the memo -- a genre of bureaucratic writing that is, effectively, anti-rhetorical. It is a kind of writing that exists between two more frequently opposed genres, literary/journalistic and scholarly/scientific:


He makes a compelling argument that the middle term, "informational" writing, is in fact best understood as anti-rhetorical. In doing so, Guillory is directly opposing a dominant theory in composition pedagogy, that all writing is always in some sense rhetorical ("Everything's an Argument").

It's much more complicated than that. The benchmark text for Guillory is JoAnn Yates' Control Through Communication, which works through the emergence of the memo historically, in the 1870s and 1880s. He uses Yates in several ways, but perhaps the key passage is the following one:

The Yates thesis, then, is that the memo emerged as a result of a new kind of managerial practice, and not as a development of rhetorical theory. On the contrary, the invention of the memo entailed a deliberate forgetting of rhetoric, an act of oblivion. The memorandum was not an evolution of the business letter but a new genre of writing. The term "memorandum" in this new generic sense began to be used in the later 1870s and early 1880s, although it did not become common until the 1920s, by which time the form of the memo was in widespread use. The idea of the memorandum as a "note to oneself" precisely captures the situation of internal communication within an organization. Hence Yates speaks of the memo as constituting an "organizational" memory. That this mode of remembering, displaced from individual minds to documents, was premised on the forgetting of rhetoric, underscores the little revolution in the history of writing Yates rediscovers.

The memo is thus a distinctive genre of writing, not merely a subset of rhetorical prose as traditionally understood. It is by definition a professionalized (or bureaucratic) mode of expression. For Guillory, its difference from the classical "business letter," which was highly rhetorical, should not be dismissed:

The story of rhetoric's demise has been told often enough to have provoked a revisionist history in which it never died at all, but was rather dispersed, in which the motives of rhetoric were hidden behind even the most scientific language. The revisionist history is credible if rhetoric, as the "art of persuasion," is rediscovered wherever the motive of persuasion exists. The rhetoric that seems to be nowhere is then said to be everywhere. 26 Some very sophisticated reassertions of rhetoric have relied upon this line of argument, for which Nietzsche's will to power is often invoked as a precedent, as the truth rhetoric tells about every speech act. Against this view, I would argue that if rhetoric is the art of persuasion, it makes a difference if the art disappears, leaving us only with persuasion. It must make a difference if information genres are founded on the deliberate suppression of rhetorical techniques. Such writing may fail to transcend the motive of persuasion, but it cannot fail to be different generically from what preceded it.

Guillory is going against the "everything's an argument" philosophy that leads Composition classes to claim a kind of universal importance in American universities. For Guillory, the three genres of writing -- literary, informational, scientific -- are distinct from one another, and should not be confused.

Perhaps the most interesting part of the essay is the second half, where Guillory talks about the "internal contradictions" of information genres. One is the contradiction between concision (brevitas) and verbosity (copia). Modern writing fetishizes the former, and assiduously avoids the latter, to such an extent that most young people have already fully assmilated the logic of business-class brevitas before they even reach the college freshman writing classroom (where brevitas is usually immediately reinforced and amplified). The kind of copia that characterizes literary writing from earlier periods is hard for many students to understand: it seems like waste, or rambling, or showing off. It's not impossible to convince students to appreciate elegance and style, but it takes time and effort (I often wonder how my Victorianist colleagues can get students to get into writers like Ruskin...).

The second contradiction Guillory talks about relates quite directly to the fierce debates we are (always?) having, about clarity (claritas) vs. jargon (which Guillory refers to as "technicity"). This is a huge question for us in literary studies, as we are often aggressively accused of over-reliance on a mystifying professional jargon. Many literary critics respond to these charges (as GZombie has recently done, on his blog, and in comments here and at Crooked Timber) with the argument that literary analysis is a specialized kind of skill, which requires training. Literary critics can and should use their jargon in the same way that our colleagues in the Genetics Department or Computer Science use it. (If he were to respond to this, I imagine that Guillory would argue that literary/journalistic and scientific genres of writing are distinct from one another. The advent of "technicity" in literary studies is therefore fallout from its attempt to fashion itself as science.)

Guillory's article speaks to this question (obliquely), and also, interestingly to the question of how it is that Composition has come to be merged with English, despite the seeming divergence of information-oriented composition pedagogy from the traditionally more rhetorical orientation of literary studies. I'll end with a quote from near the end of Guillory's essay that brings all of this together:

These tensions were interestingly played out in the twentieth century in the teaching of business and professional writing. The first attempts to teach business, professional, technical, and scientific people how to write were by and large undertaken by persons in those fields. The aims of this pedagogy were very close to those expressed by the originators of the memo form: to break with the old rhetoric, and to fashion new genres of writing. Even as late as 1929, Philip McDonald complained in his English and Science about the way in which English was taught in the schools, which he saw as promoting obscurity, pomposity, and ornateness. (89-100) But McDonald means to indict a rhetorical style. His conclusions favored the continued segregation of technical writing from English departments. Yet after the second world war, business and technical writing came under the province of English and composition teachers, who were naturally more disposed to favor the norm of clarity descending from belles lettrist culture than the norm of technicity regnant in the professions. The technical fields put up little resistance to this transfer of teaching authority because they were themselves increasingly troubled by the tension between technicity with clarity.

The reassertion of a literary norm within the field of informational writing seemed to respond to a perceived decline in the communicative effectiveness of writing that paced the explosion of information and media. The tension between clarity, which posits a hypothetical general reader, and technicity, which assumes a specialized addressee, has never been resolved. The failure of modern writing to achieve clarity brings technicity into disrepute; but technicity is an inescapable requisite of modern writing and is not, in itself, incompatible with clarity or communication. An analysis of informational writing that fails to recognize the complex relation between clarity and technicity is unlikely to yield a composition pedagogy adequate to the demands upon writing in modernity. The reassertion of clarity by the literary professoriate, like the reassertion of brevity, forgets the inaugural act of information genres, forgets the forgetting of rhetoric.