Kevin Mahoney, Richard Zumkhawala-Cook, and Scott Lyons gave a generative (albeit rather uneven) panel entitled “Composition and Rhetoric in an Age of Empire”, attempting (and sometimes not attempting) to apply some of the conclusions from Hardt and Negri’s famous recent book (PDF) to current theories of writing instruction. My parenthetical remarks in the previous sentence point towards what I saw as the major difficulty with the presentations: more often than not, they were an “all about Hardt and Negri” thing, and bearing only the most tenuous (if any) connection to what goes on in the writing classroom and the ways we talk about it. Still, the panel certainly offered some productive moments, and helped to spur some of my thoughts towards the presentation on Empire and Tacitus and the Web that I’m giving in Austin in May.
Empire, as Hardt and Negri use the term, describes the logic of sovereignty as constituted by supra-national forces under globalization. This networked (rather than centralized) logic operates by weakening and transgressing the boundaries to the movement of capital, technology, culture, people, and information. The panel chair summarized the four basic properties of empire:
- it lacks boundaaries;
- it does not exist in conquest, but suspends history in favor of a continous present
- it permeates every level of the depths of human existence and governs human nature itself;
- it exists for peace but is bathed in blood, substituting police actions for wars.
Kevin Mahoney, the first presenter, then began by asking: how can we better understand rhetoric and composition in empire’s globalized economy? How is our field and its attempts to foster a public democratic literacy relevant to the logic of empire? Mahoney offered from Hardt and Negri the suggestion that the “networks of relations of global capital have outpaced the ability of our language to keep up with their concepts”, and argued that the hegemony of transnational corporations has unmoored sovereignty from its place-based anchor, and deterritorialized it, leading to the question: where, precisely, do we engage our democratic rights? Where does democratic public discourse take place? Hardt and Negri’s project bears a strong communicative component in their view that production has shifted away from the material and towards the symbolic, and even material production has become much more dependent on communicative and symbolic production, to the point where struggles in contemporary society blur the boundaries between the cultural, the political, the social, and the economic. According to Hardt and Negri, the omnipresence of the networks of empire allows an openness for counter-empire, and Mahoney argued that a carefully restricted definition of kairos could be the tool with which to create an appropriate moment and space for acts of resistance. OK, so, yeah, I found a lot of this interesting and fun, theoretically speaking, but also rather ungrounded, and pretty vague even when Mahoney got to his concluding points about possible ways to connect this to the practices and theories of composition. I mean, one can contend that kairos is important without having to do the whole Hardt and Negri dance.
Richard Zumkhawala-Cook’s presentation on identity and empire did much the same sort of thing. Identity’s positions of difference under empire serve as a means for reinforcing empire’s constantly shifting boundaries and networks, and Cook suggested that we need to think about identity as an oppositional project within those shifting boundaries and networks. As theorized now, identity often serves as the deep structure of a silent and static individualism, a transcendent and permanent effect that destroys agency. (I know: huh?) In their multiplicity, identies are both fixed and hyper-individuated, and critical pedogogy’s engagement with identity can be used to target the logics of empire. Which to me seems pretty silly: for all his buzzwords and platitudes, Cook’s done little more than simply summarize Hardt and Negri completely uncritically. His suggestion that critical pedagogy can save the world simply substitutes “empire” for “hegemony” and offers zero evidence of any new ways of thinking about writing, and offers zero concrete connections to the practices and theories of teaching writing.
Scott Lyons did a much better job of examining the interplay between composition and empire. Empire and composistion are already intimately connected, Lyons argued, since the rise of composition as a discipline paralleled and coincided with the rise of empire, and one view of composition close to what I’ve been calling the vocational view would suggest that composition as a discipline serves the global markets of empire. (See the end of my remarks on Cyndi, Gail, and Pam’s presentation.) Furthermore, composition pursues the dream of a world without boundaries, and seeks to level disciplinary playing fields. Process, service, access, networks — some of the privileged progressive values of composition — are not separate from the values of the global market under empire: circulation, diversity, mobility, hybridity. Lyons pointed out that these values are not necessarily inherently progressive, and pointed to the global sex industry with its mixings and border crossings as one disturbing example. Ultimately, he suggested, what matters under empire is the efficiency of the circulation of information. Lyons concluded by suggesting that there was a sea change in the way composition views cultural difference sometime in the mid-90s, right around the time of the signing of NAFTA, and he characterized it by pointing out the shift in values apparent in Ways of Reading‘s replacement of Richard Rodriguez with Gloria Anzald