Expression and Experimentation

Expression as Experiment

In “Deleuze: (Neo)Expressivism in Composition” by Joshua Hilst, as the title suggests, we must reconsider as compositionists how we understand expression.  Hilst summarizes the prevailing understanding as reactions to the body of scholarship by mainly Peter Elbow.  I think the idea of an authentic voice is representative of this expressionism: “[Elbow] is ultimately in favor of a voice that feels like something I would say” (6). From this scholarship, Hilst argues that expression requires application of memory and originates from an infinitely mutable single substance, which has a desire for expression – “what is it that writing wants.” [1]

Before wincing at the idea, I want to note Hilst theorizing through Deleuze accidentally articulates an Asiatic rhetoric. In Confucian derived rhetoric, it is li; in several forms of Buddhist epistemology, it is the conceptual fictions of skandha. So, while many of us wrestle with the notion of a single substance through which infinite forms emerge, large portions of the human populace already subscribe to the ideas of memories being inventive, substances being singular through interaction, and experimentally based incremental change.

Contrastive rhetoric snarkiness aside, Hilst frames the re-conceptualization of expression very well. However, I want to point out Elbow is not unaware of the Deleuzian ideas of expression; he simply does not frame them in that manner.  For example, the idea of palpating to suggest that “since difference has no identity, we can’t identify it through words, but we can palpate it.  We can, in a way, sense its presence or see its effects” (Hilst, 4).  This idea is not distinctive from Elbow’s struggle to determine reasons for the dichotomy of the writer (producer) and the academic (consumer) which places false distinctions between what constitutes appropriate language use.  So, Hilst notes Elbow’s connection to Mary Carruthers’ “that the composition process is not complete until the composition has been read” (6).  That is, the academic (the teacher, the reader) has tremendous power to complete the expressive act.  Expression has a tremendous asymmetry toward the consumers.  In the Elbow paradigm as outlined by Hilst, expression does not (cannot?) take form until consumption has occurred.

The problem the Delezuian expression has with this skewed power toward consumers rather than producers is that static forms are necessary.  The question becomes how to understand deviations or imitations of form.  “An artificial tone does not necessarily have to mean Engfish – it can mean something much more inventive.  It can mean something that creates an entirely new perspective: on the self, on the world, on language” (Hilst, 6).  And we need to note also that “something expresses through me” (Hilst, 6).  In a way, the writer (the producer) relinquishes a lot of power in the new expressionism if the memories are not ‘there’ then expression, possibly invention, cannot occur.  So, while the academic (the consumer) might not enjoy a place of privilege, memories assume an important and in some cases domineering role.  In a return to my Asiatic references, not every person existing among Confucian-laden or Buddhist-infused cultures enjoys the experience.  Memories are great, but a right to be forgotten is equally important, especially in a networked existence.

The new conceptual frame for expression is great in part because it distances the idea of the individual; and, in my mind, diminishes the idea of ‘natural’ writing ability.  However, there are some areas where we need to experiment with this new expressionism.

Question: “Working in favor of the virtual, the unexpected, surprise, generates an endlessly renewable model, since the virtual can actualize in infinite ways” (Hilst, 15).  Grand, I have fifteen weeks and forty-four students covering a broad range of commitment levels and competencies, how might favoring the virtual assume a meaningful implementation?

Question: Buddhism and Confucianism begin with the discovery of the individual before the recognition of no-self.  That is, for there to be a no-self through which substance may flow, first a person must realize there is a self to negate.  Does this new expressionism find a space for discovery as it purports?  I think it does but denies the discovery is an individual.


2 thoughts on “Expression and Experimentation

  1. I also think Peter Elbow has a more nuanced conceptualization of voice than people seem to credit to him. After reading the Composition Pedagogy Chapter, I found myself curious about ‘resonant voice’ and a search produced this College English article (2007) by Elbow:

    One of the “dangers” of much scholarship is the deficiency model. Researching with this model, a person has no choice but to identify “flaws” or “incompleteness”. In some respects, the approach is puerile; for example, the impulse to suppose a contribution will be “novel”. As I continue through my methods comprehensive list, I find myself wondering why academia presses for freshness when, in terms of methods, everyone seems to have “stolen” from everyone else. And the demand for fresh / novel approaches seems to create a certain “amnesia” among researchers, or an insistence that though a method was previously used, “this time its different”.

    An alternative approach might be a stewardship model, to counteract the disposability inherent in the deficiency model and its associated methods. There is exploration of stewardship models in archival research, and I find the general mood much more appealing because scholarship feels more community oriented than glory-bound-stand-on-giants-shoulders orientations.


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