Berlin's "Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class"

Berlin, James. "Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class." The Norton Book of Composition Studies. Ed. Susan Miller. New York: Norton, 2009. 667-684. Print.


James Berlin argues that lately, people have come to see rhetoric "as always already ideological," suggesting that we determine how rhetoric and discourse serve to maintain existing power structures and preserve hegemony, and how our own interpretations of texts and claims come from our own ideologies (667).

Berlin argues for a social-epistemic approach to teaching composition, because the self-awareness it promotes helps ensure that students maintain a critical eye to ideology (668). Berlin takes issue with  the cognitive psychology because it ignores ideology, and takes issues with the expressionistic approach because it leaves itself "open to appropriation" from ideology even while it openly acknowledges it (668). Berlin describes ideology as unstable and pluralistic as it influences how subject interpret what is real,  which is one reason Berlin finds the social-epistemic approach compelling (668-669).

Berlin notes that cognitive psychology is a process-over-product approach, with a goal of efficiency in the process (670, 672). He responds to cognitive psychologist Linda Flower and John Haye's work in composition studies, noting that their empirical approach focused on "the task environment, . . . the writer's long-term memory, . . . and the writing processes that go on in the writer's mind" (671). None of these adequately addresses ideology for Berlin, who takes a Marxist approach to argue that this emphasis on efficiency is a practice that parallels the profit-focused  goals of the "corporate marketplace" (673).

Berlin describes expressionistic rhetoric as a composition classroom practice that promotes self-discovery and individual authenticity through processes of defamiliarization (674-676). He takes issue with this approach because, while he agrees that collectivism can be oppressive to individuals, individuals likely need to act together, not alone, to disrupt capitalistic forces (676-677). Additionally, he notes that a "private vision" of the self is a luxury of the elite, who do not need to think of the social forces that contribute to their freedom to maintain such a vision (677).

Discussing social-epistemic rhetoric, Berlin highlights the dialectical nature of rhetoric, as it involves "engaging the material, the social, and the individual writer, with the language as the agency of mediation" (678).  This requires examining the observer, the community's discourse, and the community's "material conditions" in order to answer epistemological questions about where our knowledge comes from, why we think it is true, and what power we serve by these beliefs (678). Finally, Berlin explores challenges of the social-epistemic approach: students may become disheartened as they see reification, pre-scientific thinking, and mystification at work (680). He argues that helping students switch from object to subject, while staying mindful of ideology, is a serious challenge but the only goal worth pursuing as an educator (681-682). 


Berlin writes about rhetoric as always interpretive and never a transcription (668).  This seems obvious. It’s hard for me to imagine living in a time when people thought there was a Truth with a capital T.  We can take for granted that people have their own perspectives now, that there are a plurality of truths, that what’s right for someone isn’t necessarily right for someone else.  I’m aware too that this assumption is in itself ideological, a product of my time and place.

Maybe when we all zoom out, it will look absurd to be thinking of so many truths or one Truth. Like if it is all just trying to be there for each other and forget how ridiculous someone else’s beliefs may seem, and just lend a hand where we can.

But give me another week, and I’ll find some article about how a woman was not listened to and as a consequence, her baby ends up dying unnecessarily. And I remember why I bother with the pages and pages of abstract ideas which sometimes feel so distant and exhausting until they suddenly feel like the only tool I have to explain why it is preposterous that someone wouldn’t be allowed to testify what she sees and feels and knows.

For hundreds of years, there have been women out there who stood up for the right to speak, and made it possible for other women to share their ideas. But too many women have remained unheard. 

The part of this reading that really got me is that there were women standing up for the right to speak over and over for a long, long time, but they were each siloed, separated, left to start from scratch and unable to pass their messages along to future women.  They “went out of print rapidly” (9).  So I want to give a shout out to all of the out-of-print women who stood up for what they believed in.