A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

A Review of Inside the Subject

Sánchez, Raúl. Inside the Subject: A Theory of Identity for the Study of Writing. CCCC Studies in Writing & Rhetoric Series, 2017.

Matthew Halm, North Carolina State University

(Published November 7, 2018) 

Composition theory is built on a paradox. Writing cannot transcend itself, but written theories of writing imply that it can by presuming a vantage point outside of writing.  Rather than attempt to resolve the paradox, Raúl Sánchez’s new book Inside the Subject argues that it is a necessary component of what writing is. Sánchez challenges composition studies to fully embrace a post-representational paradigm by offering terminology for describing the writing process in a way which acknowledges and incorporates the paradoxical nature of theorizing writing. Within composition the move post-representation has preoccupied theorists and practitioners alike. The insufficiency of a representational model of writing to respond to the complex and rapidly-circulating writing situations exemplified by digital writing technologies demands a move beyond the representational. Some like Sidney Dobrin call for more comprehensive theories of writing to account for its ecological and complex capacities while others like Jody Shipka create pedagogies that embody a post-representational mentality. Sánchez’s book focuses on the moment of writing itself, when the boundary between the “inside” of the writer and the “outside” of the world is traversed. He sees the relationship between writing and the world as “what defines writing itself” (1). Focusing on the moment of a writer writing affords Sánchez a way to describe writing in both theoretical and functional terms.

Sánchez identified previously in The Function of Theory in Composition Studies an inherent paradox in using writing to address writing’s difficulty (or inability) to provide a “good” description of anything. Much of the problem, his previous book argued, has to do with assuming that writing is a technology of representation. While Sánchez was formerly content simply to point out the paradox, in Inside the Subject he attempts to move the concept forward by positing that “a major part of what defines writing is its ability to function as if it represented something exterior to it” (4). His new event-based approach focuses on “the functional aspect of exteriority,” or “the idea that every act of writing depends upon and proceeds from the notion that there is something beyond or outside of it” despite the fact that such a notion is a fiction (4). Exteriority is thus “a function of writing” because the act of writing is what creates the idea that an exterior exists at all (9). The writer’s identity is the site of this manifestation of exteriority, as it describes “the relationship between the inside and the outside of writing at the moment of a text’s creation” (9). The act of writing draws upon the writer’s identity to imply a perceived boundary between some version of reality and the written text, all of which are functions of writing.

The first chapter describes the inside/outside dichotomy as a contrast between materiality and discursivity. Sánchez seeks to reconcile the apparent paradox between the ideas “that an act of writing can be understood as something other than the bringing forth of a pretextual intention” (that is, that writing is complex and ecological enough that there is no linear path between the mind of a writer and a written text), and “that in order to remain a viable concept, writing as such depends precisely upon the idea of a pretextual intention” (22). Essentially, Sánchez doesn’t want to throw the writerly baby out with the post-representational bathwater. Clearly there must be a writer for texts to exist, but it remains the case that the act of writing is not a simple transfer of content. The material embodiment of the writer and the discursive acting-as-if-representational written text are interdependent.

Many approaches to materiality characterize it as an effect of representation, but Sánchez instead describes materiality as a component of writing more fundamental than representation (29). When external concepts or entities are conceptualized or named they become “subject to the vicissitudes of representation” but “their imperfect fit . . . implies their exterior origins” (33). Writing is thus defined by a “fleeting and ill-fitting relationship between the outside and the inside” (33). Writing is an imperfect attempt at representation, a process which we treat as if it can represent but which never can. Writing is therefore the “[applying], or perhaps [setting] in motion, particular manifestations of the relationship between words and things” (33). It is precisely the disjunction between what we think writing can do and what it actually does that drives the writer’s act of writing. We write, at least in part, to wrestle with the paradox. Described in this way, agency is composition’s “reason for being” (33), and identity, which Sánchez sees as central to writing, is “a result of the fact that things happen to people and the fact that people try to make sense of these things” (34).

In chapter 2 Sánchez shows how his “event-based theory of writing can participate in and contribute to our field’s ongoing redefinition of writing” (38). He traces several such redefinitions, including cognitive, communicative, and informatic models of writing, all of which retain a persistent belief within composition of writing as representational. Sánchez’s goal in pointing this out is not to argue for a “nonrepresentational theory of writing” but instead “to claim that the very ideas of representation and communication are overwhelmed by contemporary scenes of writing” (46). The idea of writing as a linear “conduit” treats issues like “ambiguity and indeterminacy” as “problems to be solved rather than necessary and even generative features” of writing (49). All of this culminates in Sánchez’s claim that the real problem with these theories of writing is that they ignore the inherently written nature of theorization: “the problem with the conduit metaphor and the idea of information is a problem of language: that is, we forget -- or never realize -- that these are in fact metaphors, not direct perspectives on reality” (51). Any theorization works in the realm of words rather than things, and so theories of writing perpetually attempt to reconcile an instability that is inherently irreconcilable. 

Sánchez’s solution is to “adopt a strategy of continual deferment or obstruction” (54). This deferral, Sánchez says, suggests that what he “has been calling the ‘act of writing’ or the ‘moment of inscription’ is inadequate” for theorizing writing but it is nevertheless “necessary” because without a “god-term” to propel further theorizations “our ongoing discourses on writing . . . cannot proceed” (54-5). Since a god-term cannot be studied as such Sánchez suggests that what the field of rhetoric and composition actually studies is the idea of such a god-term existing. Writing, under this formulation, does not “exist” but the idea of writing (which Sánchez refers to as “writing as such”) does (55). This paradox recalls Sánchez’s earlier assertion that writing is a technology which acts like it is capable of representation. In a sense both moves require a suspension of disbelief, a sort of cognitive doublethink. One must acknowledge the task is impossible and then do it anyway.

Sánchez focuses explicitly on identity in chapter 3, beginning with the postmodern position of identity as performative. For Sánchez, a theory of identity as performative does not account for “the relation between textuality (the inside) and exteriority (the outside)” because it treats identity as philosophical rather than functional (58). Because of this, the critique equally invalidates what Sánchez refers to as “identity-as-concept” and “identity-as-experience” despite the fact that only the former is the real target of the postmodern critique (60). The latter is functional and more in line with composition’s focus on writers. Sánchez wants to recover identity while acknowledging the performative position.

To do so Sánchez concludes that identity “names a site of emergence, a place where exteriority (the outside) appears in or through language (the inside)” (66). Identity is an action, an event, “a new element erupting into a situation that then transforms the situation” (69). By conceiving of identity as an event, Sánchez suggests that “we might begin to conceptualize acts of writing as moments in which a writer’s agency is neither sovereign nor constricted but, rather, functional or symptomatic” (72). Identity is a “function” of writing, “a symptom of every act of inscription” (72). As before, writing creates something which we apprehend as reality but which is actually a function of writing.

For chapters 4 and 5 Sánchez turns his theory of writing toward the rhetorical canons of invention and style. Despite noting earlier that “the need to retain the terminology of classical rhetoric, particularly that of its canons” is often unclear in discussions of current compositional scenes which may have little in common with “those of ‘the Greeks’” (46), exploring invention and style provides Sánchez an opportunity to contrast the first chapter’s focus on the outside of texts with a focus on the inside because “invention deals with origins and interiority” (74) and style focuses on interiority “unambiguously” (98). Style is ever-present at the moment of a text’s invention, when writing bridges the gap (if there is such a thing) between inside and outside. Sánchez proceeds from the notion that new technologies have not created new features of writing and rhetoric but have instead highlighted features “that, until now, have been obscured by print’s technological dominance” (75). The complexity we see today in writing and rhetoric was there all along.

Once again a paradox lies at the center of Sánchez’s discussion of invention and style, this time having to do with writerly agency. Sánchez contrasts the notion of “an empirically available writer who is also a sovereign agent” with “thoroughly ecological metaphors for writing” within which “a subject who writes is one component among many others” (76). Sánchez’s event-based theory of writing is a way to reconcile this paradox by “[considering] carefully the relationship between exteriority (the outside) and representation (the inside)” to “get outside of agency” as a way of theorizing invention and writing (77). Sánchez casts invention as an exploration of possibilities, a “process whereby novelty will have been produced” but only in retrospect (84, 89). Unlike rigid heuristics or linear processes, invention is a “participating element in a rhetorical ecology” which “regularly calls invention itself back into question” (92, 95). Writing and language more broadly are the only ways we have to understand any subject “as such” and so one must continually remember that writing is a sort of transubstantiation -- a process which merely behaves as though it creates something somehow more real than itself.

In the end Sánchez argues that all of the paradoxes presented in the book are integral to writing (98). The question which has occupied the book -- where do texts come from? -- is shown to be “one that we cannot answer empirically,” but for Sánchez the functional answer is more important (111). We are “compelled to ask” the question by “the structure of writing itself” and this reveals the methodological nature of the process of “trying to get at the truth about writing” (111, 112). Sánchez proposes a method of continually having one’s “fundamental suppositions regularly questioned” so that they can be “revised or overturned” if necessary (112). In a sense the technology of writing itself is the source of this questioning. Rather than a teleological advance toward an anticipated endpoint, Sánchez’s vision of composition studies instead constantly reminds itself that it “cannot move forward in any conventional sense” and comes to terms with that truth (112).

Throughout Inside the Subject Sánchez works through the theories of others to illuminate how his book develops our ability to theorize writing rather than identify problems or inadequacies in what the field is doing. Sánchez views all activity in composition as productive toward the activity of theory-making. Inherent in this view is writing’s function in the process of deconstructing binaries. And yet for all the blurring of inside and outside it seems possible to describe a version of reality which does not rely on a binary opposition to discursive representation. In Deleuze and Guattari's terms, for example, representations are as real as anything else; there is no need to oppose them to something supposedly more real. Sánchez’s identification of the central feature of writing as “its ability to function as if it represented something exterior to it” (4) is a particularly useful development toward the move post-representation, but it serves to entrench the binary between reality and representation even as it negotiates it. By further reducing the importance of this binary we might leave representation as a concern behind altogether.