A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

Deleuze: (Neo)Expressivism in Composition

Joshua Hilst, Utah Valley State University

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/deleuze-neoexpressivism
(Published May 16, 2012)

Apparently, Peter Elbow is cool again.1

An intense if ephemeral conversation on the WPA listserv in 2009 pertained to a Facebook quiz entitled “Which Comp Theorist Are You?” The quiz asked a series of questions about the user’s personality, interests, etc. The answers designated the quiz-taker as one important composition theorist or another (Robert J. Connors, Peter Elbow, and others) based on the answers. Reactions to the quiz from those on the listserv were highly unfavorable, as the descriptions of many of the given theorists ranged from merely disrespectful to insulting and even libelous (if you were a “Robert Connors,” the quiz suggested you were likely having an affair with a graduate student). Nevertheless, the ensuing discussion on the WPA listserv involved conversations about the relevance of Elbow and the school of expressionistic rhetoric as a whole. The conversation, while meant in jest, of course, also seems to suggest that expressionism has fallen out of favor—that it is a hopelessly naïve school of thought, thoroughly discredited in our field. And yet, the conversation also indicated that there remains something in those ideals of authenticity, honesty, and individual voice espoused by the major expressionists that keeps composition coming back—something that still draws us in as writing and rhetoric teachers. One responder on the listserv expressed of Elbow, “The humanity that is embedded in his writing is ultimately something to cherish no matter what one thinks, and if people call that naive, who cares” (Ewing). The comment seems to suggest that expressionism remains fundamentally affirmative, which is something to be cherished. Expressionism—a term that it is worth noting Elbow has historically rejected—has traditionally referred to a particular school of thought in rhetoric and composition dedicated to allowing students the freedom and room to express themselves through an authentic voice. While I will have more to say about the expressionism later, for now, I am focusing on it as a school of thought that encourages students to express a central self in discourse—a self that emerges through an authenticity of voice.

Here, I want to focus on a particular idea of rhetoric and rhetorical invention which is expressive (and may preserve, in some form or another, some of the commitments of the expressionists), but works from a wholly different conceptual starting place than an authentic voice or self.2 Gilles Deleuze, in two essential works for my argument—Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza and especially Bergsonism—formulates expression not as the discovery of a pre-existent and true self, but as something wholly different: “To be is to express oneself, to express something else, or to be expressed” (Expressionism in Philosophy 253). I want to focus here on the concept of such an expressivism--a Deleuzian expressivism3 that will work out of his concepts of expression and memory. While the concept of an expressive self, and a modernist self, in composition has been a theme of other scholars, I hope that the major contribution of my argument will be the specific focus on memory and how it is conceived by Deleuze. Commonly, we think of memory—the material of experience—as a valuable starting place from which to invent material. We commonly conceive of that memory as being stored in the mind. Memory, for Deleuze, is a powerfully expressive and inventive force that is not located in any one particular individual. Memory is a force that expresses itself through the individual—it is not an inert deposit of images lodged in the brain. I wish to focus on that memory and show its relation to invention (specifically as a source of invention) in rhetoric and composition. To focus on such expression, I will begin by examining the concept of memory and how Deleuze conceives of it. My purpose will be to move from this concept of memory toward concepts of invention that lend themselves to such an idea of memory. The purpose of the experiment, an expressive experiment, is to expand the concepts of inventive possibility.4 However, by working out of Deleuze, we locate expression and invention not in a transcendent self but in the virtual field of memory. The goal is not to reveal or discover a true self, but to see what emerges, what might be trying to express itself—a concept that will, I hope, become more clear through this argument.

After a brief overview of the role of memory in invention, I will sketch out Deleuze’s conception of expression, a complex and fundamental term in Deleuze’s thinking. I will then move on to his idea of the virtual and the actual, also looking at ontological and psychological memory, and bring these concepts to bear on writing. I will discuss specific compositions and methods from David Bartholomae and Robert Ray that highlight the possibilities of playing with memory. My aim is to highlight the importance of these concepts for rhetorical invention—a neo-expressivism that rethinks the idea of expression.

Memory and Expression

One immediate question that springs to mind is, “Why memory if the goal is invention?” Memory is, after all, the fourth of the rhetorical canons as they are typically arranged.5 The most basic reason is that memory, from antiquity, is seen as being linked with, and in some ways prior to, invention. Consider that the author of the Ad Herennium considers memory to be a “storehouse” (thesaurum) of ideas invented, as well as the “custodian” (custodem) of the other parts of rhetoric (Book III, XVI). We might think of memory as the wellspring of the other parts of rhetoric, but especially invention. Moreover, memory has precisely such an intimate linkage to invention in the works of the expressionists. Ken Macrorie suggests, “Go back to your rooms and try harder than ever before in your life to write truths—not the truth—whatever that is, but your truthful memory of an event in your life you can’t forget” (5). Memory here can be regarded as the starting place of invention. That is to say, one must work from one’s own personal memory in order to write in an authentic and personal voice, distinct from anyone else. Similarly, Elbow argues, in Writing with Power, that the writer might begin with first thoughts, asking us to write from memory: “Do it even before you have done any reading, research, planning, or new thinking about your topic . . . You will discover much more material than you expected. And not just feelings and memories either: there are probably solid facts and ideas you forgot you had” (61). In other words, one must delve into the realm of memory to mine the material that will become the stuff of invention. The material exists within the memory of the individual. It is the responsibility of the composing process to yield that material. Again, Elbow writes in Embracing Contraries, “Perceiving is not so much like a camera’s taking into itself an image of what is outside; it is more nearly like constructing or sculpting or drawing something from fragments of a view (or fragments of many views, since the eyes refuse to remain still)” (240). Elbow proposes that perception and memory form the basis from which an expressive invention works. Although the concept of memory as prior to invention might be another argument for another day, let us recognize that here, as elsewhere, I am wholly sympathetic to Elbow’s view about the invention of memory. If the previously mentioned listserv conversation is any indication, many people are sympathetic to this idea as well. The idea that we can express from out of memory might account for much of what seems so “human” about their writing. However, if we are to address that humanity, then we must also look at the naiveté, as Elbow and Macrorie’s views on the origins of that memory draw criticism.

James Berlin’s attempts at mapping the field of composition produced some of the major critiques of expressionism. In “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class,” he ties the lineage of expressionism to an elitist 19th century rhetoric. Expressionism, he claims, locates its emphasis in the individual subject, a Cartesian cogito, par excellence. Expressionistic writing both discovers and creates a true, core self that lies behind everything else, a “self discovered and expressed” (484). Elsewhere, Berlin6 ties the lineage of expressionistic rhetoric clear back to Plato, for its emphasis on a subjectively ascertained (or for Elbow, constructed) truth: knowable but not necessarily communicable. Victor J. Vitanza challenged rhetoric and composition to critique such an ideal in his “Three Countertheses: A Critical In(ter)vention into Composition Theories and Pedagogies.” In the second counterthesis, Vitanza most clearly challenges a traditional expressionism: “The second counterthesis centers on the Nietzschean-Freudian question Who speaks when something is spoken? (It’s a question of author[ship].) For Habermas and the rest of the humanist tradition, human beings speak” (152). For Elbow, Macrorie, and others, Vitanza says, human beings speak. In speaking, the assumption is that students (indeed, all writers) express themselves through an authentic voice. We, as instructors of rhetoric and writing, can help them to find such a voice. For those who regard the self as a constructed and not a received concept, the idea that only humans speak (for Vitanza) or that the self is behind other things and not socially constructed (for Berlin) can prove to be a limiting one. From another perspective, much more than human beings can speak, and much more can speak through human beings.

To see how something else can be expressed through the writer, and how that fits in with this idea of memory, I turn to Deleuze’s concept of memory, and how it unfolds and can be, of itself, a creative force.

Expression, Virtuality, and Actuality7

Expression is a fundamental concept for Deleuze. Still, to express oneself is only one aspect of expression--one can be expressed, and one can express something else altogether. Deleuze’s fullest treatment of expression is found in Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza. Traditionally, philosophy has divided existence into two or more substances (mind and body, matter and spirit, etc.). Typically, when this happens, one substance must designated as superior to another, meaning that it transcends the lesser substance. Deleuze draws on the concept of “univocity” from Spinoza, who suggests that all substance is of a single kind (there is only one kind of being), but that substance expresses itself in different attributes (for our purposes here, mental and physical—or “thought” and “extension” to use the technical terms). These attributes then express themselves in various modes (such as this or that thought, or this or that body). A particular body or thought is a modulation of an attribute, and that attribute is an expression of substance. Deleuze remarks, “[W]e conceive [an attribute] as attributing its essence to something that remains identical for all attributes, that is, to necessarily existing substance” (Expressionism in Philosophy 45). Todd May expounds Deleuze’s point when he says, “Attributes attribute, or express, an essence. Substance expresses itself through its attributes” (37). Deleuze reverses a traditionally received concept: that existence is composed of more than a single kind. If we stay with the claim that there are multiple kinds of being (mind, body, spirit, matter, etc.), then we fall into the dilemma of having to explain how those different substances interact. We could think here of Descartes’ famous proclamation that mind and body interact in the pineal gland. Instead, Deleuze would have us see all being as one kind—substance—and that substance expressing itself in attributes (thought and extension, although the attributes are actually infinite, says Spinoza). A particular thought that I have is a mode. Throughout this process, we must remember that substance remains immanent to particular modes. A certain thought is a mode of an attribute, in which substance is expressed.

Thus expression takes place through the folding and refolding of that substance. Deleuze’s favored terms are explication and implication. He writes, “Expression is on the one hand an explication, and unfolding of what expresses itself, the One manifesting itself in the Many (substance manifesting itself in its attributes, and these attributes manifesting themselves in their modes)” (Expressionism in Philosophy 16). So substance expresses itself in attributes, and attributes express in modes (e.g., specific bodies or thoughts). However, expression does not imply a sense of hierarchy or transcendence, which would have more in common with the Platonic forms. Rather, we must understand “multiple expression...involves Unity. The One remains involved in what expresses it, imprinted in what unfolds it, immanent in whatever manifests it: expression is in this respect an involvement” (Expressionism in Philosophy 16). Substance explicates—it unfolds, expressing itself in attributes—by evolving. However, substance remains immanent to those attributes and modes, rather than transcendent. It remains implicated, involved with the phenomena, rather than in another place. Substance is always one, but a one that expresses itself in infinite ways. For this reason, Byron Hawk, in A Counter-History of Composition, can rightly claim that “expression is not of a subjective mind but of a whole social, textual, and material field” (200). More than humans express themselves: the virtual expresses itself, and does so through particular bodies and thoughts. The movement or unfolding through which this expression takes place is between two additional key concepts, the virtual and the actual.

Deleuze explains that the virtual is, in a word, difference. Difference, for Deleuze, remains primary to everything. One would normally think of difference as the “whatever-it-is” that comes between two identities. In looking at the “difference” between a car and a computer, I might identify any number of things that are different between them. These would be the differences between identities, the identities being “car” and “computer.” However, Deleuze asks us to consider things in another way. He asks us to consider a difference not in the interstices between things that are, but instead a primary difference, prior to any conceptual framing. All things that come to be unfold from difference. For Deleuze, “Difference is behind everything, but behind difference there is nothing” (Difference and Repetition 57). We might say that the things which come to be might come to be in any number of ways, with no necessary reason for them to become in one way and not in another. If the difference were “different” enough, we can say that there are infinite ways that difference actualizes.8

Deleuze posits such a difference as a virtual field. The virtual is a field (or a realm) of pure difference. We might say it is composed of “elements,” but not elements in the sense that they are identical to themselves as elements. The virtual has no identity. In fact, when we speak of the virtual, Deleuze would argue that we aren’t representing it in any way. Instead, May uses the term “palpating” (Gilles Deleuze 20). Traditionally a medical term, palpating refers to the act of pressing down on the skin to detect a subsurface injury. Rather than rip open the skin to find something (doing more harm than good), a doctor palpates an injury, feeling the epidermis to determine the damage underneath. In the same way, we can palpate the virtual, seeing where it is at work, even if the virtual is not something that can itself be “seen.”

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. The virtual (difference) is that from which things become. The things that we see, the phenomena of our experience are differentiated from the virtual: actualized. Still, we must remember that they are of a common substance (as I have shown). An analogy (given by May) from biology might help to clarify:

Think of genetic information. Our genes store information about us. They contribute that information in the process of our growth. But the information itself is not in the genes in any actual way. One cannot look at someone’s genes under a microscope and find it lying there on the slide, available to vision. As the genes unfold, the information becomes apparent in the actual world; the person becomes what the information formatted that person to become. But the information itself, even though it exists, does not exist in actuality. It exists virtually in the structure of the genes. (Gilles Deleuze 48)

Likewise, the virtual is different in kind from the actual, but it is very real.9 The process is one by which the virtual differentiates itself along certain lines. Moreover, these actualizations are not stable entities. The virtual continuously unfolds and then refolds itself. Hence, there are always processes of becoming: being is never stable.

For Deleuze, the past and memory are a virtual field, and particular memories are expressions (modes) of this field. The past is always with us, and so distinct from abstract ideals such as Plato’s forms. Not a transcendent ideal in which our memory participates, Deleuze terms the virtual field of the past “ontological memory.” At this level (the virtual one), each of our pasts contain the entire past. There is no “your past,” “my past,” “her past,” “it’s past”--there is only the past. When we recall a memory (which Deleuze, after Bergson, calls the “recollection-image”), it involves a leap into ontological (virtual) memory. From the virtual field of the past, of ontological memory, a recollection-image is differentiated into an actual psychological memory. When I have a psychological memory, unfolded from ontological memory, I have a recollection-image.

Recollection precedes perception, according to Deleuze and Bergson. We move from a recollection—actualized from out of the virtual field of memory—to a perception. Memory is the virtual field from which recollections unfold. This distinction is key for making a separation between traditional expressionism and a Deleuzian expressivism: when anything is remembered, and expressed, it is always far more than just “I” who expresses. Something emerges through me. This body and these thoughts are modes of expression. We can best see that virtual at work when thinking departs from its normal trajectories and into newer and different ways of thinking to which we are unaccustomed.

With this view of expression in mind, we are uninterested in locating a stable subject from which expression emerges. We don’t have a stable being who expresses. Instead we look for what wants to be expressed. More to the point, we are eventually looking for language, since we are discussing composition, after all. Here, the idea of palpating becomes especially valuable. Language can help us to catch a glimpse of a fuller concept of memory. We can see the virtual at work in the language, but that palpation usually takes place when we disrupt the normal “image of thought”—the idea that thinking must work in a particular way. In writing, so the argument goes—we must demonstrate that good, commonsense way of thinking. Our language does not “represent” the virtual, but it can help us to palpate it. I will show, in just a bit, how backing away from an authorial and authoritative “I” can be used advantageously. Nevertheless, we can find not a unique voice, but multiple unique voices (and non-voices) that might emerge through us. This is a memory that precedes and is actively involved in invention. Not only does it precede invention, memory is itself inventive. It creates and it expresses itself. I (inasmuch as I can refer to myself as a whole in such a way) am something through which this creative force can express itself. While we will not represent that expression in language, there are times and places where we palpate that memory. To get there, I will look at other forms and methods of invention. However, I will first go back to traditional expressionism in an effort to differentiate neo-expressivism from the more customary form.

Expression and Experimentation

I will now turn to some discussion of the expressionist school of thought.10 My purpose in the discussion is to see how the commitments of expressionism translate (or do not translate) to the Deleuzian expressivism I am advocating.

The expressionist school of rhetoric grew out of a number of needs, but according to Christopher Burnham’s overview, a predominant need was a response to current-traditional rhetoric (21-2). Macrorie pronounces it most succinctly: “Most English teachers have been trained to correct students’ writing, not to read it; so they put down those bloody correction marks in the margins” (11). If drilling in grammar and learning the “rules” of good English are constitutive of good writing, then it stands to reason that simple corrective procedures and marks ought to get the job done. However, many compositions found such methods produced only a stilted discourse that Macrorie famously called “Engfish.”11 A better way, which came to be known as expressionism, was a focus on writing in a more natural voice, to use experiences, to try to get at “deeper truths” that simple instruction in orthography could not get at.

Rather than encouraging students to write stilted if grammatically correct prose, the project of expressionism sought to aid students in writing well through more personal discourse. For Macrorie, to help students write well is to develop the ability tell the truth, to write with a degree of honesty. It stands in contradistinction to current-traditional rhetoric, which more often than not goads students into producing what they think the teacher wants to hear--an inauthentic prose. Rather, in authentic, personal prose, an authentic self might be discovered. As James L. Kinneavy writes, “This carrying out of a project is the essence of the act of expression. Expression is therefore the structuring of a field of reality in order to realize a project, and this realization gives self-hood to the For-Itself” (401). As one discovers the self through writing, one establishes a central term for much of expressionist rhetoric: voice.

Peter Elbow’s career project has been, in many senses, to help students to write with a distinctive and personal voice. The argument is that when writing is distinct, it is better, and when it is personal, it is connected to something that is outside the strict confines of the classroom. For Elbow, voice is the distinctive aspect of the writing. Writing with voice means command and control over the language: “What made these writers skilled was their superior control: their ability to produce just the effect they wanted upon readers” (Writing with Power 285). Additionally, Elbow seeks to connect writing with a number of pursuits in life, not simply those confined to a classroom.12 Among his earliest works was Writing without Teachers, in which he enjoins composition to produce the teacherless writing class: a group of people who come together to share and respond to one another’s writing. The value of such a class is the connection the writer makes with other like-minded individuals: “Writing is a string you send out to connect yourself with other consciousnesses” (Writing without Teachers 77). Through the teacherless writing class, writers can understand what sorts of connections their writing has with other people. In this sense, Elbow connects writing with Mary Carruthers’ work in The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture, where she suggests that the composition process is not complete until the composition has been read by others. The fullness of composition exists in the connection that the writing makes with other people (contrary to the reductive view that expressionism is solipsistic). Sharon Crowley argues by way of Carruthers: “In medieval memorial culture, to ‘read’ meant to store in memory, to rework, and to comment on the productions of other memories” (40). The composing process that Carruthers and Crowley illuminate is one of connection between memories. If something like an expressive self is to emerge, it is only within the context of other writers that such a self comes about at all. Such is the composing process of the teacherless writing class—a self, but one that comes about through the sharing and co-relation of texts.

However, it is worth noting that the simplistic sense of voice as subject is incorrect. Elbow does not necessarily make a simple equation between voice and subjectivity. In his introduction to Landmark Essays on Voice and Writing, he delineates several models of voice, preferring “that none of these senses of voice imply or require any particular theory of identity or self. We can have whatever ideological position we want and still agree with others in using the term voice” (“Introduction” xlii). Moreover, he establishes that there are a myriad of voices that “feel” (Elbow’s term) like something “I” would say. Nevertheless, situations arise when “we experience our writing or speaking or thinking somehow not like us--somehow artificial or pretended or distanced or stilted” (“Introduction” xliii). He then goes on to discuss two positions on voice that most writers negotiate: the “sentimental” position and the “sophisticated voice.” In the former we find a “true voice” that “will conquer all difficulties” (“Introduction” xliv). This is the voice of authority, the voice that reveals the self underneath. In the latter, we find what he calls “sophisticated voice,” or the voice that says there is no true “person” underneath all the smoke and mirrors: “Your sense of ‘you’ is just an illusion of late Romantic, bourgeois, capitalism. Forget it. You have no self. There is no such thing. You are nothing but roles.” Elbow indicates that writers negotiate between these positions, rarely (if ever) choosing only one in practice. So then, one of the common interpretations (see Berlin here) of expressionism as positing a solipsistic subject untouched by the social realm is perhaps especially simplistic. Elbow counters by saying voice and subjectivity are not necessarily the same. There are many voices that speak—approaching the dialogism of Bakhtin—and the writer negotiates these. Yet we should still consider that for Elbow, he maintains a commitment to a more authentic voice. He is ultimately in favor of a voice that feels like something I would say.

Like Elbow, I am interested in voice. However, I would like to see the possibility for a number of voices, even possibly those that don’t feel natural and ones that feel distinctly artificial. Indeed, we might seek voices that revel in concept of artifice. 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. Remember that for Deleuze, to be means that I express, I am expressed, or that something expresses itself through me. Expression, then, experiments with selves, with forces, and with voice. For Deleuze, expression is not to express a prior self, nor a transcendent consciousness, but rather a self is expressed as it unfolds. Moreover, it is involved in what it expresses, immanent to it. It is not that the self is invented in expression; if anything, the “self” as an autonomous unit is lost in recognizing expression. Forces intersect at the point we call the self, memory being one of those forces. In realizing expression, we recognize that other forces always express themselves through what I call “myself.” Thus, we are always in flux; writing can help us to see (to palpate) such a flux. In “Literature and Life”—and here I would closely relate Deleuze’s word “literature” with writing and composition—Deleuze attests, “Literature rather moves in the direction of the ill-formed or the incomplete. . . . Writing is a question of becoming, always incomplete, always in the midst of being formed, and goes beyond the matter of any livable or lived experience” (1). Deleuze advocates moving beyond our experience, and beyond any sense of natural voice, and towards becoming something else. Looking to the artifice of voice, Deleuze asks us to experiment with voices and find ways to see that flux. So where traditional expressionism focuses on our experience, a Deleuzian neo-expressivism would try to move past it: past a distinct self (even if it is the authentic self that emerges through community with others), past our lived experiences, towards a more fluid voice-non-voice.

Deleuze continues, “Writing is inseparable from becoming: in writing, one becomes-woman, becomes-animal or vegetable, becomes-molecule to the point of becoming-imperceptible” (“Literature and Life” 1). Here might be his most fundamental challenge to expressionism: becoming-imperceptible. We might take him to mean something other than voice, an anti-voice. For Elbow, voice is a fundamental means of writing with power, of expressing oneself or one’s identity. But a lack of voice can be an asset. Again, Deleuze avers:

To become is not to attain a form (identification, imitation, Mimesis) but to find a zone of proximity, indiscernibility, or indifferentiation where one can no longer be distinguished from a woman, an animal, or a molecule--neither imprecise nor general, but unforeseen and nonpreexistent, singularized out of a population rather than determined in a form. (“Literature and Life” 1)

The point Deleuze makes here (and rhetoric and composition should take his lead) is not to find what I think I want, but rather to experiment and to ask, with Vitanza, “What is it that writing wants? I suspect that ‘writing’ does not want what either the uni-versity thinks it needs nor what ‘we’ think we want” (“Abandoned to Writing” par.8). The question here remains appropriate, because as we have seen, memory expresses itself; memory creates. So then, if memory is creative, it must then want something for itself. In asking what writing wants, Vitanza recognizes that he is expressed, and that it is not only he that expresses.

The point is to experiment, to see what might happen. In so doing, we respond to the question of life: how might living happen? Writing provides a tool for precisely the experimentation I seek, because it can bring together various metonymic fragments of life and memory that re-work into new forms and possibly even allow for new lines of flight to develop. Through thinking we invent new possibilities of life, as Deleuze once remarked in Nietzsche and Philosophy (101). Writing provides a tremendous means for inventing those possibilities by allowing us to palpate difference. The framework of Deleuzian neo-expressivism calls for writing that allows for much more than proclaiming a truth, establishing a voice, and telling personal experience. However, it does trek with expressionism in some ways. Like expressionism, Deleuzian expressivism seeks a writing that is far more than classroom practice, and that does open up room for experimentation. It also looks for, not voice, but non-voice. Remember that if the virtual can actualize in multiple ways, then we can always experiment to see what comes about. I seek a writing that challenges voice in favor of memory and expression. Examples of such writing can be found, and I will turn to them now.

In “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum,” David Bartholomae describes one of the most significant student essays he ever received as a young teacher. Asking the students to respond to a question about Sartre, existence, and essence, one student named Quentin Pierce, submitted the following:

Man will not survive, he is a[n] asshole.


The stories in the books [are] mean[ing]less stories and I will not

elaborate on them[.] This paper is mean[ing]less, just like the book, But I know the paper will

not make it.


. . .

I don’t care.

I don’t care.

about man and good and evil I don’t care about this shit fuck this shit, trash and should be put in the trash can with this shit

Thank you very much

I lose again. (qtd. in Bartholomae 313-14)

I’m hardly the first to write about the Pierce paper, as both Thomas Rickert and Geoffrey Sirc have focused on it since David Bartholomae first published it.13 Nevertheless, it has become a source of fascination to a number of scholars. Like Rickert, I don’t mean to tout the essay as a masterpiece of first year writing, neither do I want to make the student into any sort of liberating antihero. But there seems to be something about the response that this essay represents that keeps rhetoric and composition coming back. Perhaps, like expressionism itself, it is affirmative. Bartholomae is obviously intrigued as well, hence his choosing to write about it not immediately, but some years after its initial receipt. He says, “I was not prepared for such a paper. In a sense, I did not know how to read it” (“The Tidy House” 314). Bartholomae intimates the remarkable power of this paper in indicating that he chose to keep it for 18 years before realizing better how he might read it. I don’t meant to imply that I could read it better—far from it, in fact. However, I too am intrigued by its potential. It enacts a writing that questions pedagogy, and in so doing challenges conceptions of authenticity and voice. For Deleuze, experimentation serves as the means of discovering other possibilities. I see the potential in the writing as an experiment, an experiment in voice—Bartholomae notably admits he did not take it as “an expression of who Quentin Pierce ‘really was’” (314)—by which the student embraces a lack of voice, and a lack of empowerment as a means of resisting the game of knowledge. He instead experiments, introducing what Vitanza has called “postmodern theatricks” (“Three Countertheses” 158), cutting up his answer into fragments, and answering back with what Bartholomae calls a “fuck you.”

The choice against voice as a means of allowing certain other forces to flow embodies what Deleuze calls “becoming-imperceptible” (“Literature and Life” 1). Ian Buchanan illuminates this concept well, reasoning that becoming-imperceptible has little if anything to do with invisibility, but is much more like “an externalisation of an impulse which, when released into the world, takes on an exuberant life and existence of its own” (52). If anything, becoming-imperceptible refers to the self moving out of the way so that these forces can flow freely. Where the focus of expression is to write with a degree of power in order to express oneself, here the student has chosen to work within such a context, but has found an experiment with the form—an “impulse to . . . get outside of and beyond one’s self” (Buchanan 52)—in a way not easy for expressionism to assimilate. It persists as a difficult text precisely because it seems to so actively lack a student subject. If the goal is to establish an authentic voice on the way to a kind of mastery of discourse (Vitanza calls it, after Nietzsche, the will-to-knowledge), then the student has certainly not met those goals. The voice—which I again would argue is a becoming-imperceptible—is neither Engfish, nor is it a bold writing with authority. The student acknowledges at the end, “I lose again.” Here he makes his lack of power a site for resistance. He challenges it not as a doer, but by refusing to accept the position of student engaged in the game of knowledge, and instead gives a response outside the possibilities for pedagogy. It speaks a truth, but most likely one closer to Vitanza’s three countertheses: a refusal, a resistance, an in(ter)vention into the game of knowledge. The student simply refuses to play. But his refusal stumbles upon a mode of expression that is far more interesting.

I would argue that the response lies outside the purview of self-expression as advocated by Macrorie and Elbow. It expresses something, but it refuses to play the game of knowledge. However, in the sense of expressivism, advocated by Deleuze, it might provide an interesting beginning to an experiment that questions pedagogy itself. The student will not take on the mantle of voice, will not be “empowered,” will not write with authority. He even beats the instructor to the punch with his final line: “I lose again.” Before he can be failed, he’ll declare it himself.

Film Expresses Itself14

It may be an odd thing to consider that film can express itself in writing, and I’m not talking about screenplays. Specifically, students might express a film, rather than a self. Film might express itself in my own writing. Robert Ray’s use of cinematic technique in the study of film and, more specifically, writing about film represents an attempt to change the trajectory and the nature of film studies. Ray works out of surrealist technique, utilizing some Surrealist methods and means to write and think with film. Like others who work in aleatory methods (methods that rely on chance), Ray seeks methods that have a way of re-enchanting older methods. Ray writes,

The desire for a transformed everyday life, the faith in chance, the reliance on automatism and collaboration, the delight in provocation, the taste for a mechanized eroticism, the belief in procedures rooted in “the arbitrary” and accomplished in distraction--these features of the movement have proved abidingly seductive. (44-5)

Ray sets about making such techniques and features of avant-garde art not only seductive, not only enchanting, but also useful for the work of film studies. The use of aleatory methods help to make such a move possible.

From Andres Breton, he takes what the Surrealists called the “exquisite corpse” game. The exquisite corpse was, for Breton and others, a means of using an old parlor game as an inventive tool.15 In Ray’s version of this game, we work in a group of three people. We begin with a question, such as “What is a ______?” and an answer, “A ______, ______, and ______.” The object after which the question asks is an object chosen from the film--it can be just about anything. We then work in a group to fill in answers to the blanks, using words chosen at random. The point is to take oneself out of an intentional position with regards to choosing the words directly. They should be pulled into the sentence in blind fashion. This process should be repeated about 25 times or so. The best questions and answers—and the “best” could be interpreted loosely—are then chosen as conceptual starting places for writing a paragraph or even brief essay about the film (Ray 49-58).

In his particular example, Ray uses The Maltese Falcon, a film in which the main character’s name is Sam Spade. We then select “spade” as an object from the film. So the question to answer becomes, “What is a spade?” The answers, in Ray’s example, are three random words: virus, icy, perfect. So the answer to the question is, “A virus, icy, and perfect.” This would be a particularly useful example, because we could envision how such an essay might work: Spade is a viral character, who infects the other characters from the film with aggression and paranoia. He is a cold character who sends Mary Astor off to her fate at the end without the slightest hint of sentimentality. His viral and icy nature are perfect, showing not the least bit of weakness or flaw in that cold exterior. Ray’s method is an aleatory one, seeking an open ended means of writing. It invents writing as a game, as a series of open puzzles. They are not designed to be solved in any traditional sense, but parsed. The particular questions and answers that can be used are whatever ones appeal most to the writers. Performing the method 25 times may yield several interesting results, or very few. The point is to see what comes about, and in what ways it can be used to make interesting commentaries about the films. Although hermeneutics are used (we do end up interpreting the film), we do not begin with methods or key words that will predetermine the results. We throw the dice in an effort to see what happens. Ray comments:

As a research method, the Exquisite Corpse game is typically Surrealist, working by fragmentation (the isolated detail), automatism (players producing elements only on the basis of their grammatical value), and recombination (the juxtaposition with unexpected adjectives). As a procedure, the game mimics photography, perhaps intentionally: as I have mentioned, Breton once described automatic writing, a similar game, as a “true photography of thought.” (52-3)

The way in which Ray’s method works with and through film becomes its value. It is not so much a stream-of-consciousness technique as a technique that tries to avoid locating itself in a specific consciousness by opening up invention to a world outside of the conscious self. In utilizing his method, we can back away from the concept of expression as the expression of a self, and we instead seek a way for something else to be expressed in writing: other memories, other films, and other expressions.


What writing can offer us, then, (and specifically these writings) is a means for experimentation and for invention. What rhetoric and composition needs are Deleuzian concepts: expression (in the renewed sense) and experimentation. I am interested in student writings that explore how they might exploit flaws in pedagogy: the misdirected ways in which we try to “help” students discover voice and gain power in their writing. Rather I am interested in discovering and reveling in the interstices and gutters.16

An ontological memory, being a field of pure difference, and actualizing differently, presents a more experimental model than traditional expressivism, if, and only if, we can create new forms of testimony and expression. When we actualize new forms of memory from the virtual, we find infinite new possibilities for undoing that ground and to find, still, always more memory to work and re-work. In so doing, we find far more than the expression of a prior self, and more than finding an “authentic voice.” We find new ways of living, and new ways of seeing the world that open up to us when we palpate difference. Ontological memory unfolds—expresses—itself, differently within each of us. (It isn’t necessarily even an individual that we must speak of. Deleuze posits no transcendent subject perceiving all things. Deleuze is interested in groups, in movements, in societies and in proliferating forms of life). We can open up and see that memory when we experiment with different forms—to break up the common image of thinking.

Rickert argues that pedagogy presents a “forced choice” to students, those choices function dictating in advance what is possible and eliminating, among other things, surprise. The examples I have looked at seek to transgress this model. Working in favor of the virtual, the unexpected, surprise, generates an endlessly renewable model, since the virtual can actualize in infinite ways. I see the beginnings of such a potential in the essay by Bartholomae’s student and Ray’s method. Both of these represent attempts not at expressing the self, but expressing something else. In the first case, the student works at a becoming-imperceptible, playing with the falsehood in “choosing” an academic voice, and playing with the artifice of creating another voice. In the second case, we play with different memories, and different expressions.

As mentioned before, much of this argument hinges on the second of Vitanza’s three countertheses: “Who speaks when something is spoken?” (152). If it is a stable ego, a human subject, that speaks, then the logical corollary of this idea is to find the most natural voice appropriate so that I can speak as honestly as possible. If, however, it is not an I, or rather if that I is expressed just as much and as often as it expresses, then writing becomes about much more. Writing becomes a quest to find what it is that is trying to be expressed, and trying to become-imperceptible to whatever is expressing itself. It becomes a bold experiment, to try and construct other voices and non-voices. Writing becomes about finding new ways to look at and think about the world. This is what Deleuze offers expressionism, and what he offers to composition. In the end, I find many things to want to preserve about expressionism (voice and connectedness among them). I find a strong connection with memory, especially as it is traditionally conceived not in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but rather how it has been conceived throughout the past. Sharon Crowley affirms, “If memory and invention are as closely associated as I think they are, it follows that a rhetoric that occults the role of memory will give less attention to invention than one that does not” (39). Memory is a custodian of invention, but because memory is itself creative (rather than constituted by individual bits of data “stored” in the brain), it can create in different ways. It is not constrained by this or that individual, but can reach out across individuals and explore different means of connection.


1 My great thanks to Christa Albrecht-Crane and Cynthia Haynes, as well as Mykle Law for their assistance in editing this article and their valuable insights.

2 Much has been written on the idea of the modernist subject in composition, so I do not wish to suggest that this line of critique is absolutely new. For some examples of other lines of critique, see Davis, “Finitude’s Clamor; Or, Notes Toward a Communitarian Literacy” and Rickert’s Acts of Enjoyment: Rhetoric Žižek and the Return of the Subject, in addition to many of the other works cited here, such as Vitanza’s “Three Countertheses” and Hawk’s A Counterhistory of Composition.

3 Although the terms often vacillate between expressionism and expressivism, I will (wherever possible) use the term expressionism to refer to the traditional rhetorical school associated with Elbow, Donald Murray, Ken Macrorie, and others. This is the term employed by Berlin in “Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class,” although he does use “expressivism” in Rhetoric and Reality and elsewhere. I will use expressivism to the Deleuzian theory I am outlining here.

4 On the subject of pedagogy as experiment, see also John Muckelbauer’s The Future of Invention, especially chapter 7, where he enjoins us “with a single, unambiguous piece of practical teaching advice: experiment (because you already are)!” (122).

5 For an expansive overview of memory in rhetoric and composition, see Rhetorical Memory and Delivery: Classical Concepts for Contemporary Composition and Communication, John Frederick Reynolds (ed.).

6 See Rhetoric and Reality (11)

7 My own interpretation of Deleuze is indebted to Todd May and his book on Gilles Deleuze. Although I have used his book in addition to Deleuze’s works and cited May throughout, any unforeseen lapses in reading and interpretation are purely my own.

8 For more on this concept of the virtual and its applicability to rhetoric, see Alex Reid’s superb book, The Two Virtuals:New Media and Composition (West Lafayette: Parlor Press, 2007).

9 On one level, it may sound as though the virtual is another rehashing of Plato’s forms, but recognizing the distinction here is crucial. Deleuze tells us that the virtual is Platonic in inspiration (Bergsonism 44), but it differs with Plato’s description of the forms. For Plato, the things are more real depending upon the degree to which they participate in the forms, more true to the extent that they participate in the forms. A chair is more real to the degree that it participates in the form of chairness. Chairness serves as a form transcendent to the chair, above it or outside of it. But the virtual is not transcendent to the actual or to the phenomena of experience. For Deleuze, the virtual is just as real as the actual and always present (remember, being is univocal). That is, the virtual is immanent, not a transcendent form. As such, the virtual is very much immanent to the actual. Throughout Expressionism in Philosophy: Spinoza, Deleuze lays out his thought of immanence, an “expressive immanence [which] cannot be sustained unless it is accompanied by a thoroughgoing conception of univocity . . . of univocal Being” (34). The virtual field is not above somewhere, but here with us—a One both implicated and explicated in phenomena.

10 Time does not permit an exhaustive (or even especially thorough) discussion of expressionism. Obviously, expressionism is a broad term referring to a number of composition theorists. Nevertheless, the point is to focus on certain general commitments of expressionism and especially, what is expressed when something is expressing.

11 The term is most often associated with his book Telling Writing, where he calls “Engfish” a false, hollow, and arid prose that students learn to write in the academy.

12 It is perhaps in this sense that he is most different from scholars such as David Bartholomae, who claim that our job as writing instructors is to help students learn the rhetorics of the academy. See the Bartholomae-Elbow exchange in “Writing with Teachers: A Conversation with Peter Elbow” CCC 46.1 (Feb. 1995): 62-71.

13 Bartholomae originally printed the essay in “The Tidy House: Basic Writing in the American Curriculum,” while Sirc discusses the essay in “Never Mind the Tagmemics, Where’s the Sex Pistols?” and Rickert in the final chapter of Acts of Enjoyment.

14 While it may seem somewhat unusual to discuss film expressing itself with respect to memory, Deleuze is quite enthusiastic about the relation between memory and the cinematic. See Cinema 1: The Movement-Image and Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 1986 and 1989) for the full treatment. For an accessible overview, see Gregory Flaxman’s excellent introduction to his edited collection, The Brain Is the Screen (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press, 2000: 1-60) or chapters 4 and 5 from Ronald Bogue’s outstanding Deleuze on Cinema (New York: Routledge, 2003: 107-164).

15 For more on the history and other uses of this game (and similar games) see The Exquisite Corpse: Chance and Collaboration in Surrealism's Parlor Game, eds. Kanta Kochhar-Lindgren, Davis Schneiderman, Tom Denlinger (Lincoln: U of Nebraska Press, 2009).

16 For the uninitiated, the “gutter” is a term from comics and graphic novels, and refers to the space between two panels: an interstitial space. In this space, a reader must imagine for herself what is happening in between panels. For more on the gutter, see Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993). See also, my “Gutter Talk: (An)Other Idiom of Rhetoric” (JAC 31.1-2, 2011: 153-176).

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