Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Connectivism and Ideology

I'm reading James A. Berlin's essay Rhetoric and Ideology in the Writing Class (College English. Vol. 50, No. 5 (Sep., 1988), pp. 477-494) in which Berlin explores the relationships between rhetoric and ideology. Berlin says that three main rhetorics are at work today:
  1. cognitive,
  2. expressionistic, and
  3. social-epistimic.
He asserts that each of these rhetorics is imbricated with ideology in a reflexive relationship in which both affect and are affected by the other to the point that one does not–perhaps cannot–exist without the other, and he finds deficient any rhetoric, such as the cognitive and expressionistic, which ignores or mishandles ideology.

Berlin carefully defines his terms, beginning with ideology, which Berlin (following Göran Therborn) says is how we structure and inform our worldview and which is "inscribed in language practices, entering all features of our experience" (479). He quotes Therborn as saying that ideology "involves the constitution and patterning of how human beings live their lives as conscious, reflecting initiators of acts in a structured, meaningful world" and that "ideology operates as discourse, addressing or, as Althusser puts it, interpellating human beings as subjects" (The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology. London: Verso, 1980. 15). For Berlin, ideology structures how we answer three main questions: what is real (epistemology), what is good (ethics & aesthetics), and what is possible. Ideology, then, has much to do with how power is distributed in a society, determining as it does who holds what power and how they can use it. Thus, language is also always implicated in the distribution and exercise of power in society in any given historical context.

If I understand Berlin, then, ideology is how we structure reality, and language is the primary tool for this structuring. As we learn a language, we shape our world in certain, learned ways, or ideologically. For the rest of our lives, ideology shapes our language and our language in turn shapes our ideology and both shape the kind of world that we see, though I think Berlin suggests that ideology is the senior partner, for he says early in his essay that:
Ideology is here foregrounded and problematized in a way that situates rhetoric within ideology, rather than ideology within rhetoric. In other words, instead of rhetoric acting as the transcendental recorder or arbiter of competing ideological claims, rhetoric is regarded as always already ideological.
After defining ideology, Berlin then defines rhetoric broadly as "the ways discourse is generated" (489), and he distinguishes the three rhetorics under consideration mostly in terms of their relationship to ideology.

First, cognitive rhetoric denies any ideological framework, insisting instead on "a disinterested scientism" (477) that assumes that "the real is the rational" (482) and that "the existent, the good, and the possible are inscribed in the very nature of things as indisputable scientific facts, rather than being seen as humanly devised social constructions always remaining open to discussion" (484). Cognitive rhetoricians engage in empirical studies of the writing process to uncover the heuristics used by successful writers to achieve their goals, and they see the purpose of writing as defining goals and solving problems. However, according to Berlin, because they ignore any consideration of ideology, their insights are easily hijacked by "the technocratic science characteristic of late capitalism" (483).

Second, expressionistic rhetoric fully recognizes its ideological framework, which locates the existent "within the individual subject" (484), charges rhetoric with the creative task of discovering and expressing the "true self" (484), and denounces "economic, political, and social pressures to conform … [and] indirectly but unmistakably decrying the dehumanizing effects of industrial capitalism" (486). Because expressionistic rhetoric so thoroughly rejects any collective efforts, it deprives itself of any power to resist the forces it denounces. Therefore, says Berlin, "expressionistic rhetoric is easily co-opted by the very capitalist forces it opposes [as it can be] used to reinforce the entrepreneurial virtues capitalism most values: individualism, private initiative, the confidence for risk taking, the right to be contentious with authority (especially the state)" (487).

Last, social-epistimic rhetoric fully embraces its ideological framework, recognizing "rhetoric as a political act involving a dialectical interaction engaging the material, the social, and the individual writer, with language as the agency of mediation" (488). In this rhetoric, reality is located in the interactive relationships, realized through language, among the observer, the social group, and material reality.

By my reading, Berlin sees the relationship between rhetoric and ideology as one of the defining characteristics of any given rhetoric and a strong indicator of the relative value of that rhetoric. That rhetoric is poorer which has a truncated understanding of and incorrect relationship with ideology. This is an assertion worth investigating.

First, Berlin uses more terms than the two he defines: ideology and rhetoric. He also mentions power, language, and knowledge, and he implicates them with each other, so let's explore the relationships among all these terms. Berlin, strongly connects ideology to rhetoric. Ideology works out its view of reality through rhetoric, and rhetoric always expresses an ideology. If I understand Berlin correctly, then there is no rhetoric without an ideology, but is there an ideology without rhetoric? Berlin seems to suggest not when he says that ideology "is inscribed in language practices" and that "ideology provides the language to define the subject (the self), other subjects, the material world, and the relation of all of these to each other" (479). Note that when he connects rhetoric and ideology, Berlin switches fluidly between rhetoric and language. He can do this because he says that rhetoric is "the ways discourse is generated." So language is rhetoric is ideology? Perhaps.

But then Berlin seems to say that knowledge is language:
The observer, the discourse community, and the material conditions of existence are all verbal constructs. This does not mean that the three do not exist apart from language: they do. This does mean that we cannot talk and write about them-indeed, we cannot know them-apart from language.
So then Knowledge is Language is Rhetoric is Ideology? And since K = L = R = I, then K = I, or knowledge is ideology and ideology is knowledge? I'm beginning to have trouble with this jumble of terms, and if I throw in the notion of Power, as Berlin does, then I'm troubled even a bit more. I'll have to think on this a bit.

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