Expressivism and social epistemic rhetoric reconciled (through Gramsci!)

In “Expressive Pedagogy,” Chris Burnham and Rebecca Powell review the story of Expressivism in composition studies. At the center of Expressivist theory, they explain, is the “writer’s imaginative, psychological, social, and spiritual development and how that development influences individual consciousness and social behavior” (p. 113). As a product of this approach to writing theory, Expressivist pedagogy encourages freewriting, journal keeping, and reflective writing as activities that help an individual find her voice. Donald Murray, Ken Macrorie, Peter Elbow, and William Coles are singled out as the most influential proponents of a shift from emphasis on the acquisition of academic language to writing as a means to create an identity: “know thyself” (before you know the others) became the tacit motto of expressivism. However, when I read of inviting students “to use their own language” (p. 114), I can’t help wondering what language is the students’ own language. The language they use with their peers in their social groups? The language of intimacy they use with their loved ones? In fact, we are all multilingual, aren’t we? A limitation of this theory is the use of the word “language” in the singular form, the platonic idea that buried in our ego is the secret language of the unconscious, the one and only true language.

But then Burnham and Powell bring up Kinneavy’ s claim that “through expressive discourse the self moves from the private meaning to shared meaning, that “expressive discourse traces a path away from solipsism toward accommodation with the world.” The question arises spontaneously:  how so? What is the path that leads from focus on the self to focus on the other? Another question is stimulated by Britton’s work: how can the expressive role mediate between the participant role and the spectator role?

Berlin’s critique appears to be grounded in a concern that expressivism privileges individualism and a detachment from the real world.  Expressivism eschews the demands of a transactional society by implicitly divorcing ‘voice’ from social responsibility and political action. From Berlin’s perspective, instead of focusing inwardly on personal languages, students should study hegemonic languages and analyse the discourses by which they are defined.  In line with Freire’s claim that language is a social construct always prior to individuals and that social experience both shapes us and informs the languages we use, Berlin advocates renewed focus on language understood as an agent that creates the real world.

I believe that while it is important to place emphasis on writing as a means through which we construct our identity and forge our unique voice, it is also important to recognize that the language through which we construct our identities is laden with cultural assumptions that inevitable shape every effort at identity-building. In other words, the bricks that we use to build our identity do not belong to us; rather, we borrow them from the community in which we live.

In medio stat virtus, the ancient Romans said.  Perhaps we can reconcile the opposite theoretical camps (expressivism vs social epistemic rhetoric) by going back to Gramsci’s ideas on personal and social languages. Gramsci was a linguist by training.

In a letter written from prison (March 26, 1927), Gramsci recommends to his sister that she lets her son speak in Sardinian, to “facilitate his free spontaneity of linguistic expression during the first stage of his learning, without making the mistake of constraining his child’s fantasy in the ‘straitjacket’ of an inadequate Italian” (Rosiello, 2010). Gramsci’s understanding of language as a cultural product does not stop him from recommending that, before learning the language of hegemony (standard Italian) to participate to the political life of the nation, it is a good idea to let children develop their cognitive abilities by writing in their personal language. But these words must not mislead us, Gramsci also argued that if popular masses want to organize themselves to become hegemonic class, they must move beyond the sectarianism of dialects to gain control of a more powerful communicative instrument — standard Italian — an instrument through which they can exercise a new hegemony.

My questions are embedded in the second paragraph of this post.


Luigi Rosiello “Linguistics and Marxism in the Thought of Antonio Gramsci.” In Gramsci, Language, and Translation. Ed. Peter Ives and Rocco Lacorte. Lexington Books, 2010, p. 34


4 thoughts on “Expressivism and social epistemic rhetoric reconciled (through Gramsci!)

  1. I concur with your evaluation of the representations of expressivism, and I want to push further in two regards. First, does the (neo)expressivism address the issue of a single language? I think language can be singular in a non-Platonic manner, and Hilst seems to address precisely this issue. In a similar manner to Royster declaring all of her voices are authentic, there is a need to recognize the singularity of substance finding a plurality of form. The switch toward memory and experimentation resolves many of the lingering problems — that is, the bricks of community are not so much linguistic as they are sociologic.

    The second issue is to ponder whether expressivism has not suffered a disservice through misrepresentation. Are we re-visiting the problems that process theory encountered where the praxis induced a collapsed version of the theory, so the expressivist theory is richer than the praxis permits or has been permitting?


    • I think expressivism almost certainly suffered the same reductionist challenges that other theories such as process have. At the same time that the critiques help us to see the limitations of a theory, they often overstate those limitations and don’t recognize the small and sometimes large or direct ways that the accused theorists have accounted for the limitations. Often by solving one problem (such as current-traditionalism’s focus on correctness and form) by swinging our pendulum so far as to introduce other problems (singular voice, an overly aggressive embrace of personal writing) but I think most of the time the pendulum swings are in practice more than in theory.


  2. I feel the conversation about praxis and theory is an important one. Theory seems to become reductive through practice only when practitioners limit themselves to the activities recommended or implied by one particular theory. Our recent synthesis activity helped me rethink the relationship between theories and how they can inform and enhance one another when practiced together. In practice, for example, I value both the individualistic exercises of the expressivists (journaling, freewriting, etc.) and the collaborative exercises of social constructivists (group activities, service learning, etc.). Post-theory, after all, doesn’t reject the idea of writing processes. It builds upon process theory. Discourse Community theorists don’t advocate for only producing collective texts. They promote community and diversity in instruction to help individuals from their unique social, political, racial, etc. positions. Must theories be viewed as always exclusive of other theories? Isn’t there room (or shouldn’t there be room) for them to coexist in practice? There is a big difference between applying theory because it makes sense to learning and applying theory because the theory says to do it.


    • I guess I should continue to advance the “ontological stack” in regards to theory. It is absurd to imagine theories do not co-exist. The question, in my mind, is how productive can a scholar be in the space of one article if more than two theoretical lenses are applied? I wrestle to do just to one lens, and read with admiration when scholars, again in the space of one article, juggle two theories.

      So, in some regard, is the problem not that theories cannot co-exist, it is more the disciplinary activities of preference (articles, seminar papers, presentations) impose limits upon researchers attempting to manage several theories.

      In praxis, I struggle to imagine not applying several theories — in some regards this imaginative struggle interrupts my scholarship because I read drafts or outlines then realize I am doing a disservice to one theory or another.

      Recall from the readings for Rhetoric and Argument — integrity is consistency, so scholarship might risk “pick a horse” and hope it wins, places, or at least shows.


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