Post-Process Theory, ed. Thomas Kent

This little green book (well, it is not little, it has 12 essays and took most of a day to read) has been stubborn about finishing. Part of the problem, I think, is that many of the essays cover the same ground, rather than engaging each other (a common problem with anthologies). Nevertheless, I think I’ve triangulated an understanding of what post-process means as a disciplinary term, at least as of 1999.

Post-process seems to be a wholesale rejection of the process paradigm of writing, which displaced the current-traditional paradigm. Writing may be a process, it admits, but it is not a process that is classifiable, predictable, or even teachable. The required contextualization is too many variables to consider. Process theory, in this view, with its mandatory drafts, peer review, etc, is yet another artifical constraint on an endlessly complex system beyond the reach of quantitative means.

I can’t help thinking of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, where the position of electrons cannot be measured accurately without moving them, and the only way to determine exactly where they are (within certain bounds) is probability. I wonder if this connection to post-process has been made before in comp, as I didn’t see it in the book. Rhetoric fits easily into probabilistic terms, of course, as any rhetorical act, however skilled or tuned for kairos, has no guarantees.

This idea that writing cannot be taught, though… I’m not sure this is a useful proposition, even if it is true. Claiming that one knows nothing, as Socrates, is useful, as it removes ego from the formation of knowledge. Saying “I think, therefore I am,” as Descartes, is useful, for it, similarly, lays down a productive epistemological foundation.

I don’t see, at least immediately, where “writing cannot be taught” leads anywhere productive. For one, it is defeatist and offers a crutch – if students aren’t learning anything about writing, hey, it’s not anyone’s fault – writing cannot be taught, y’know.

Applying the HUP from before, there seems to be an undercurrent in post-process that the very attempt of teaching writing to students requires a model or process of writing that then becomes an aggressive imposition that leads to anything but the desired result. In other words, teaching writing is unavoidably oppressive.

In retrospect, I was circling around these issues in that paragraph article in CE without having the terminology. One point I was trying to make (poorly) is that you can offer alternatives and strategies to approaching paragraph-level structures without being prescriptive or unnecessarily confusing, an approach Angus seemed to be using just fine in 1862. This is a possible way to escape the process/post-process divide.

The main compliant of post-process seems to be, indeed, that process became the monster it sought to destroy, by settling in as an institutional assumption; and that the solution is to throw out assumptions about writing, which is an unpredictable entity, governed by ‘paralogic heurmeutic guesswork’, to paraphrase Kent.

I can’t seem to find a dictionary entry for ‘paralogic’. I assume, with my terrible Greek, that it means ‘alongside logic’, ‘beside words’ – some alternative to logic/discourse. Hermeneutic is an interesting choice; all writing is contextualized and requires interpetation, sure, but doesn’t hermeneutics, with all its exegesis baggage, imply a system of interpetation, with the hermeneutic circle an approach more likely of success? If there is a system, there there is a process after all. Maybe not a perfect or universal process, but a useful one?

Also, I am also suspecious of how many of these post-process essays are eager to cast writing entirely into the qualitative void. That’s too romantic for my blood. I think those minds will change once the first reasonable AI appears. I think of writing as sitting in both camps, capable of predictable, quantifiable moves (like some kinds of topic sentences, for example) and yet containing unpredictable rhetorical moves and effects.

3 thoughts on “Post-Process Theory, ed. Thomas Kent

  1. And the “writing can’t be taught” bit isn’t exactly a post-process invention. Someone like Peter Elbow or Don Murray (process!) basically argued the same thing: it can’t be taught, but maybe a teacher could set up conditions that, in some nearly-untraceable sense, allowed students to improve.

    You could tie it into the concepts of “learning” and “acquisition” (James Gee): learning can happen in the classroom, but it only leads to meta-knowledge; acquisition happens on its own (via social practice) and leads to fluency in a discourse. So all Murray could do was set up conditions for “learning” and hope a little “acquisition” happened along the way.

    Paul Matsuda’s article on “discursive construction” (in JSLW, I think) claims that the green book ignores the historically complex views of the process movements — e.g. Faigley’s classifications of expressive, cognitive and social theories of process — and instead mostly addresses the handful of cognitivists and expressivists who attempted to make their process schemas teachable (i.e. cognitivists Flower and Hayes).

    As for your last paragraph, I think I agree to a point. Sirc says that academia tends to encourage “already-written” writing — the kind that makes predictable moves that AI could not only easily replicate, but also (in Sirc’s opinion) might as well. Let the mechanical process of academic circulation become truly mechanical.

  2. Murray always made teaching sound so easy, like running a garage sale. Put some prices on things, watch the invisible hand go to work, sit back, profit. If we’re supposed to be encouraging our students to be subjects, actors, agents, whatnot, though, it seems strange to go about teaching in such an indirect manner, as if I were trying to show them how to avoid RICO predicates.

    And I, for one, welcome our new AI overlords. They can write my articles. And I can… write more articles. Dammit.

  3. Yeah, I dunno. I talked to him a couple of times, and he did seem to express doubt as to whether he’d done any good with a lot of his students (this was in his last couple of years, though, so maybe he was feeling introspective). He seemed to regret that he’d never learned much about learning (i.e. learning theory); he felt reasonably certain that he’d made his students much more comfortable with writing. But better? Who knows…

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