by Perry Meisel
What do our students really know when they walk into their first writing class in college? Too often we tend to think they know nothing at all - that their implicit scholarship in pop music, sports, fashion, even the semiotics of motorcycle repair, is altogether beside the point when they arrive in our midst. Texts and Contexts makes no such assumptions, and tells us why by appealing to the developments in the theories of human discourse that have contributed so much to the history of contemporary thought in the last two decades and more. Thanks to such developments - and, of course, to their own imagination and good sense - the Summerfields have generated a text and a practice very likely singular among efforts of its kind.
Crucial is the book's delicate but decisive adjustment in our pedagogy by moving it away from the usual "process" approach to composition and onto the student's - and the teacher's - growing recognition of what the Summerfields shrewdly call our "enabling constraints." These enabling constraints are the sediments of convention in everything we do, even in what we are, and in forcing them out into the open, the Summerfields show how useful a theoretical background can be in clearing up the muddle that has confronted us for years over the problem of teaching composition. Reading and writing, maintain the authors, are both products of concrete social exchange. Text production and text reception are a common process that makes the theory of reading - criticism - and the theory of writing - composition - virtually one and the same.
The implications of such a pedagogy are almost innumerable, but we can isolate at least two chief effects among them. The first is the degree to which the Summerfields tactfully but efficiently integrate the lessons to be had from structural linguistics, narratology, psychoanalysis, and philosophy; the second is the degree to which they can thereby go on to alter our frequent reflex manner of sustaining models of composition based on outmoded notions about hitherto uninterrogated categories such as essential selfhood, autonomous being, spontaneous expressiveness, and the supposed transparency of language itself.
First, then, the assumption throughout - as the title tells us - that any text always already has its context; nothing, in short, makes sense except in relation to something else. By virtue of subscribing so diligently to this axiom of structural linguistics in the tradition of Saussure and Jakobson, the Summerfields presume in all their suggestions for teaching the existence of a larger - and largely unconscious - cultural context looming up to determine what we do in even the most apparently marginal of writing exercises. This context the Summerfields call "funding," a term borrowed from the American philosopher John Dewey; other familiar terms for it include ideology, Chomsky's "competence," Foucault's "episteme," Lacan's "Symbolic," or, most recently, what Stanley Fish calls the presuppositions shared by "interpretative communities." To recognize this determining context startles us into realizing how entirely implicated we are in the social languages we normally oppose to our privacy. It is quite clearly the authors' intent, then, to make us hesitate about continuing to insist upon the notion of the "solitary" life of the author as it is usually mystified by our culture; instead, the Summerfields describe the real nature of the scene of reading and writing as a function of the "social production of discourse."
Thus, central to the theoretical recapitulations contained in the Summerfields' pedagogy is their reassessment of the status of the self, that fragile vessel to whom all of our teaching is addressed. Following one of the chief philosophical implications of structural linguistics (those made especially evident by the linguist Emile Benveniste and the philosopher Jacques Derrida), the Summerfields conclude that the self comes into being as a belated function of the various discursive situations in which it gets positioned - whether as father or mother, daughter or son, lawyer or doctor, student or teacher. The self is not - as the psychoanalysis of Jacques Lacan is most exact in articulating - what we usually think it is, an essence independent of time and history, "beyond culture," to use Lionel Trilling's phrase. The self is instead a bundle of conventions from the start, and its location in language is fundamental to its very coherence. The implications for teaching make the philosophical ones even more readily apparent.
Second, then, the results at the practical level of pedagogy proper: the "inner process" for the Summerfields is not what we customarily think it is in our usual attempts to theorize the self in the theory of composition. The authors are in fact exact and explicit about their lack of belief in a Rousseauesque kind of freedom in which an essential self may be said to exist independent of the community that otherwise sustains it - another way of saying that even the most private of personal experiences is at the same time also necessarily social, since it takes place as the result of discursive conventions that don't just express but actually shape what feelings we have. Thus, the otherwise familiar usefulness of notebooks and journals in composition class is, for the Summerfields, less the function of the students' discovery of an "authentic" self than it is of their discovery "that as their jottings accumulate, they come to constitute a representation of the self." This is not normative "process" pedagogy, then, but one designed instead to produce a more contemporary - and, for our students, a more faithful - view of the nature of experience than the liberationist ethic of spontaneity can provide. It is, as the Summerfields say, an "effective alternative to the current orthodoxies offered by the term process."
Indeed, the book has a luminous figuration for why "internal process" is not really monological or self-sufficient, a figuration theoretically precise as well as reminiscent of the psychological companions that haunt our Romantic literary heroes from Keats to Pater to T.S. Eliot - that of our "ghostly interlocutor," as the Summerfields call it, even in the solitude of idleness or despair. The "inner process," conclude the authors, is itself always polylogical, since "any 'personal' experience is," as they say, "inescapably saturated, informed, packed by public meanings."
The production of a systematic pedagogy in accord with the contemporary climate in criticism was, of course, bound to happen anyway - the demands of the real are too acute to have prevented it. If there is a reason why our renewed attempts to teach writing in the last decade have frequently failed, it is that we have relied too largely on outworn models of reading, writing, and selfhood that force us into appealing to categories that our students are predisposed to reject on the basis of what their lives are like in an overtly systematic and media-oriented world. While neo-conservatives imply that any devolution in reading and writing skills is a function of open admissions policies and affirmative action, the real truth is that such devolution is actually a function of our clinging to precisely the kinds of essentialist notions that the Summerfields put so plainly into question. The point, therefore, is not to lead students of composition - or of literature - into a realm of absolutes, but into an awareness of historicity and cultural particularities instead. Our students' various knowledges or "fundings" are not only systematic, but, given today's communications society, knowingly so. What may well separate us from our students is our lingering humanist belief in a realm beyond systems to which our students no longer assent. Thus a pedagogy of "enabling constraints" is one that is sufficiently paradoxical to correspond to the world as it presents itself in the present. "We bring them," say the Summerfields of their own students, "to a certain place in their heads wherein certain structures become," not restraints or ornamental annoyances, but, rather, "appropriate," and, indeed, "necessary." The text of the self and those of the world are in ever-shifting relation and pedagogy consists in bringing students to an awareness of the manifold structures those relations can and may take.
It is not, however, only a practical absorption of theory or even a winning pedagogy that distinguishes Texts and Contexts. Its plasticity as a text in its own right also requires recognition as a reflexive instance of what it has to say. After all, any ordering of its series of recommended writing exercises, each of them ingenious in itself, is provisional and experimental. Like Hugh Kenner's description of any given reading of Joyce's Ulysses, any given use or reading of Texts and Contexts is only one of so many "trial alignments," none absolute, none nugatory. In its refusal to construct itself upon any fixity, the book does what it says: the "various interacting dialectics" that may, as the authors put it, give shape to the book are always a function of how the teacher reads and uses it. The text, in other words, can, like any text, address itself only to particular, never universal, contexts; to put it another way, every text is a function of its reading, of its place in a signifying chain determined by specific reader or audience. To discover, moreover, that the plastic structure of Texts and Contexts resembles the structure of a postmodern novel such as Cortazar's Hopscotch is hardly surprising given the commonality of their projects. Like modernism and postmodernism themselves, the best pedagogy is clear about the socially necessary, if metaphysically random, orderings that language and society require of us no matter what our particular or momentary beliefs.
The range of the book's implications, then, are as striking for the criticism of literature as they are for the teaching of composition. Chief among them is the plain inevitability of our having to recognize that texts are different by virtue of degree rather than of kind, that a student essay and a poem by Ted Hughes - the kind of juxtapositions the Summerfields are fond of supplying us - in fact occupy or overlap equivalent discursive spaces despite what differences may otherwise separate them. But, of course, one can't measure that distance - one can't evaluate either Hughes's poem or one's own composition - without the presumption that both texts belong to similar fields of signification. Such a presumption is no less than the very precondition of measuring one's ability to perform in any discursive field at all, and the precise educational yield of the Summerfields' approach. In the process, it forces us to rethink, too, not just the relation of the literary to the paraliterary text, but also the reason we privilege literature as an object of study in the first place. We do so because literature is the locus par excellence for the production of persuasive rhetorical effects upon others, a microscope of the field of power in all its realms of play in life and letters alike, even in the semiotics of motorcycle repair. This position is perhaps difficult to accept wholeheartedly because of its raw truth; its inevitabilities are, however, inescapable. As a teacher, one cannot hesitate to explore every possibility.
Foreword to Texts & Contexts: A Contribution to the Theory and Practice of Teaching Composition, by Judith and Geoffrey Summerfield. New York: Random House, 1986.