Can Cultural Studies Claim Content for Composition?

This week I’d like to address the questions posed in Diana George, Tim Lockridge, and John Trimbur’s essay “Cultural Studies and Composition” under the subheading “Cultural Studies and the Composition Classroom”: “Does composition have a subject matter? Does it have its own content” (104)? These questions were also a central theme of debate in ancient Greece regarding rhetoric. Some sophists believed that, according to snippets disinterred from ancient texts, rhetoric’s content focused on morality and ethics, or at least the ability to persuade based on moral and ethical principles. From this privileged perspective, the rhetor could “craft” a “persuasion” (Plato 37) “about what is just and unjust (39). Plato’s Socrates attacked representative sophists in Gorgias for suggesting that rhetoric is “about everything” (47). If rhetoric is, in fact, everything, perhaps its opposite is true: that it is also useful for nothing. Socrates labeled such persuasive speech “that’s good at guessing, brave, and clever by nature at dealing with people…pandering” (47). Socrates promoted, instead, Plato’s philosophy that dialogue “in pursuit of the good” should be the goal of rhetoric (52). Content from this dialectic tradition seems to develop from definition, argumentation, and consensus through language.

The notion of rhetorical content being tied to character was later picked up by Quintilian in his work Institutes of Oratory and then by Cicero in his work On the Orator; in both cases Quintilian and Cicero describe in detail characteristics that constitute the best moral attitudes and ethical responsibilities of effective rhetors. Quintilian, for instance, states that “A great orator must be a good man” and equates “eloquent speech” with moral rectitude (Quintilian Book 12, Chapter 1). Content, in this case, seems to conflate with the speaker who knows which actions to take for the public good.

I make this connection because I see a similar debate in the argument that cultural studies constitutes the content for composition studies, particularly in the concepts of “the public turn,” “civic action,” and the vast array of cultural perspectives that situate composition as a discipline among the migrations, mitigations, and marginalizations of rhetorical and human inequities. In terms of its philosophical mission, I find myself asking, can cultural studies claim content for composition? Can an ethical position constitute a body of knowledge? If so, what role does composition play in mediating that content? Furthermore, is it over ambitious to suggest that “student writers” can be “producers of culture”?

Perhaps these questions imply a broader contemplation about the potential of communication media: Can rhetoric or writing (even when morally or ethically charged) truly constitute a subject matter? Or, is oral and written texts merely methods of content delivery?


Cicero. On the Ideal Orator. Trans. James M. and Jakob Wise. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Sachs, Joe, Ed. Plato Gorgias and Aristotle Rhetoric. Newburyport, MA: Focus Publishing, 2009. Print.


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