the ontology of composition

Levi has a recent post on Transformative Agency and Writing that is worth reading for any writing teachers. As I have remarked many time, here and in my book, I was struck when reading Lester Faigley's Fragments of Rationality when he wrote (something to the effect of) that the differences among composition pedagogies hinged upon the subjective positions we wanted our students to occupy. Levi's post is related to that when he writes "If it is true that writing, thinking, and acting have these synthetic or creative powers, it follows that all thought, writing, and action are a risk. They aren’t a risk simply because they might fail, but because we become something other in the course of these activities." And, as I commented on his post, this reminds me of Deleuze and Guattari's position, when they write “writing is traversed by strange becomings that are not becomings-writer, but becomings-rat, becomings-insect, becomings-wolf, etc," by which they mean that through writing we don't become "writers" but rather that writing is a mechanism for becoming-other. This is implicit in Faigley's recognition: through writing we are transformed. Of course, he is observing that composition pedagogies seek to manage those becomings, which is unsurprising for a state activity. At this point there is hardly any irony left in a discipline that is, on the one hand, enamored with Foucault, and on the other hand, so very anxious to exercise disciplinary and panoptic powers (all in the name of liberation and critical thinking, of course… oh and don't forget eliminating comma splices and plagiarism).

But I have digressed from the start!

The point I want to make, which I think is the central point of my book, is that the study of composition is a study of ontology. It's a study of how things come to be. It's the study of how media objects are composed, but more generally it's a study of how symbolic action is composed. However, as I have many times argued, one cannot stop there. One's theory of such forms of composition must rest upon a more general theory of composition. That's why I turned toward Deleuze and Guattari, and then later Massumi, Delanda, and Latour, and now to speculative realism and an object-oriented rhetoric that investigates a "minimal rhetoric" upon which the rhetorical practices of symbolic action rest. In my view, when one is operating at the level of ideology, representation, and culture in trying to understand writing, thought, and agency, one is simply examing the wrong ontological space. It's like trying to split atoms with a hammer. And by this, I don't mean to suggest the primacy of one ontological space over another. If you want, you can reverse my analogy and say it's like using a particle accelerator to hang a picture frame. Certainly ideology, etc. are attempts to conceptualize networks, objects, forces, etc. with which we have relations. It's just that these concepts are not up to the task of investigating composition without further investigation into ontological processes.

As Levi notes, when we start writing we don't know what we are going to compose or what we will become. Activity-genre theory has given us a way of understanding how compositions and the mutative potential of writing upon the subject get captured and territorialized. We can also discussed the autopoietic function of the objects operating in any compositional network. Part of this is certainly functioning at what we typically call the cultural level. 

However, here is the part that interests me, and I think also interests Levi in his post. It's that moment as a writer when one encounters something strange, something maybe dangerous (to one's standing, one's argument, whatever). It is this moment of becoming-other, and one might argue (as I have) that one has an ethical obligation to that becoming as it is only through such moments that thought and agency become possible. Weighed against that obligation though is all those dangers. And I could provide some litany of the petty academic dangers I might face, but instead one might think of the notion of a minor literature. Often these dangers are manifest in political-culture terms, writing against an oppressive state or revealing a corporate cover-up, etc. But those dangers are not necessarily ones of composition itself. That is, if one has already decided one is a revolutionary, then writing the manifesto is only a reification of that territorialized identity, even if it does put one in more danger. The danger in writing the manifesto is in realizing that one is no longer a revolutionary or at least no longer shares the revolutionary party line. 

Honestly though, I don't want to romanticize the "danger" part because what I am talking about here is really quite mundane. In fact, all thoughts, all symbolic behaviors, are composed this way. Yes, sometimes we have these uncanny-like moments where we realize that we don't think what we thought we thought. But mostly we come to identify with the thoughts produced through the distributed cognitive networks in which we participate. We call them our thoughts, and I write "This is what I'm thinking today." But it's a literary conceit, like talking about the sun rise. As Deleuze and Guattari note, "The two of us wrote Anti-Oedipus together. Since each of us was several, there was already quite a crowd."

If you can get to that point, then you can really begin to investigate distributed compositional networks. Not just the people and cultural artifacts of genre-actvity theory. The broader ontological relations that generate thought and agency, which in turn participate in symbolic action and media composition.