Commodification and composition

Kastman Breuch puts forward a vision of “post-process” that is broader than the “anti-process” theory it had seemed to become. She argues that although many post-process theorists critiqued the dissemination of process theory as the commodification of writing, true process theory had no such belief in writing as a “thing.” Her working of post-process liberates the theory from its overemphasized interpretation of commodified process; however, to my recollection and review, she doesn’t seem to refute or disagree with the claim that the commodification of writing is damaging to the activity. She argues that “this commodification of process should be considered as a slip and not a fall” (107), an argument that certainly has less than positive connotations for commodification.

We get a very different view (seemingly) from David Russell. He believes in processes of writing, not the process. The danger in writing instruction comes not in the commodification of a process but in one process’s overgeneralization as the process. To avoid that danger and advance the discipline, Russell calls for further research into activity systems, their genres, and the development of materials/tools that meaningfully communicate between systems. This development entails the commodification of writing:

“But we can realize our potential—broaden our network of influence—only if we know more about (involve ourselves as a discipline with) writing processes in many social practices, many systems of activity, many genres. And we must effectively commodify and disseminate that knowledge, that history of involvement.” (Russell 87)

For Russell, commodification is necessary for different activity systems to communicate (85). No one person can fully digest everything from a discipline, let alone disciplines we don’t specialize in, so we can only access different information in commodified forms—packages.

These two views on commodification differ in their judgments of commodification and composition. Kastman Breuch acknowledges the commodification of process and implies it’s a bad thing (“a slip”). Presumably, it should stop, but that’s not the focus of her article. Russell believes we should actively pursue commodification of writing processes. What’s the deal?

Q: Is there a difference in the way Kastman Breuch and Russell are talking about and using the term “commodification?” Are there good and bad kinds of commodification?

Q: Is commodification the creation of something to teach where Kent argues “there is nothing to teach?” If so, how?

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2 thoughts on “Commodification and composition

  1. Another great post, Tyler.

    Breuch appears to use the Marxist understanding of commodity, wherein people and ideas become treated as items of capital. The discussion of reification signals the Marxist usage.

    Russell appears to use a denotative understanding of commodity. Commodus designates what is convenient, has utility. I suggest this usage because Russell signals sensitivity to meaning and word origins: “The task for any discipline or profession is to make (facere, “to factualize”) the most useful tools, discursive and otherwise, and deploy them to make them more widely useful — lengthen its network of influence, its power” (87). In this remark, we see the complexity of the term. Russell knows there is a “power struggle” implicit in the university system — indicating an awareness of the political motives at play to which Breuch is more attentive. However, instead of “throwing out the old content wholesale” (87), Russell states that “the facts of composition, once they make their way out in a system of useful activity, will be translated, simplified, commodified (after all, not everyone who teaches or learns writing can or would want to read essays like the one you are reading)” (88).

    In short, commodification has an indexical existence, gradients of usefulness. The question is what is commodified? Is that useful, and, to fold some Marxist understanding into the mix — who decides…which we will explore with discourse communities with notions of membership, voice, and participation.

    In some regards, the process theorists have failed and the activity theorists have also failed. I arrive at this conclusion based on meetings with non-English faculty and graduate students. One reason to commodify, to place myself within the Russell-like mindset and the accompanying economics metaphor, is for portability. The more that I hear about “grammar” and “clear sentences” at meetings, the more that I realize composition is not extending its network of influence effectively. We know the complexity of the word “grammar” because we actively study composition. For most people, on a campus or in ‘the workplace’, composition is a rare focus.

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  2. Your second question returns me to my gaming studies research and master’s paper. Kent admits there is something to teach: “Kent’s (re)visioning of writing pedagogy, then, pushes PAST process and toward a dialogic understanding of meaning-making” (Breuch, 124). Of course, the question becomes, what is beyond process — without devolving into anti-process.

    The reason this notion of mentorship sends me to gaming scholarship is the research on “tutorial” systems for video games. There are multiple arrangements, and (undoubtedly) someone has devised a taxonomy of those systems. James Paul Gee has an effort when he compares how a player “becomes” Lara Croft and two other characters (the book is at home and I feel lazy about searching online). A shared feature, however, is the idea of player inclusiveness in the system. In video game studies, inclusiveness is often phrased as “meaningful freedom”; so, the player is not permitted simply to choose how the avatar looks and the name, but has input regarding the in-game activities. To layer more video game studies terminology, the player learns the affordances of the game. Affordances are rule governed yet their boundaries permit the player to explore options. In Jesper Juul’s terminology, in video games, rules are “half-real” — the game is programmed, scripted from the moment it begins to the end, yet the programming allows the player to implement options and experience engagement (this is what makes video games “addicting” right?).

    Composition might do well to realize the processes are “half-real”. Something happens when a person writes a text. Yes, it is dangerous to think in definite article terms — the process — but a transformative model has similar definite article problems. But shifting from the definite article to the plural — processes — or even toward abstract activities does little to resolve the problems inherent with writing. I find the trouble resides in abandoning the term “system.” My onotological assertion is that in addition to humans being meaning-makers, humans are system-makers in order to preserve and transfer meaning.

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