Theory Teacher's Blog

Orwell’s Dystopia in Composition Pedagogy

For almost eight years, I have taught college writing courses such as “freshman comp” and “first year seminar” the way I was trained to do at my two graduate institutions — the neo-Aristotelian way first advanced by Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca and later developed by people like Marie Secor, Andrea Lunsford, Jack Selzer, and Cheryl Glenn. Aristotle defined rhetoric as “the faculty of finding the available means of persuasion,” and today Aristotelians emphasize attention to the “rhetorical situation” of any argument. Among other things, this approach includes strategies for addressing particular audiences and contexts. It also includes focusing one’s rhetorical goal — whether one’s goal is to define terms, ascertain causes, predict effects, prioritise values, advocate an action or policy, or determine jurisdiction and responsibilities.  The main idea here is that students would be better prepared both for college writing and for “real world” writing if they were circumspect about the purpose and context for each and every act of writing, speaking, and behaving. In other words, what might be appropriate for a newspaper editorial might not be appropriate for a political speech, and what might be appropriate for one class might not be for another. For example, the style, tone, and organization of this blog is not the style, tone, and organization I’d usually want my students to emulate in the analytic papers they write for my class. In sum, rather than teaching a formalist one-sized-fits-all or a touchy-feely-express-yourself kind of course (two other models of writing pedagogy), Aristotelian pedagogy gives students practical skills that are useful for a range of situations, both academic and non-academic.

For a while, I was happy with this approach, but last year I grew frustrated with it, because it seemed to me to assume that writing must always be intentional and must always aim to persuade. This suggests a goal-oriented, self-interested “instrumental rationality” rather than a critical, dialectical, humanistic, or ethical concern for others and for the world. Also, I have always felt a tension between the various goals of composition pedagogy; academic writing has its own set of standards and rules for governing truth claims that differ from Aristotle’s sense of persuasive speech; similarly, although critical thinking can certainly serve the art of persuasion, critical thinking has other roles to play as well; in addition, a lot of the creative writing we most admire did not have clear rhetorical goals but instead helps us think. Now that I’m at a liberal arts college, I decided this year to do something different — something a little more liberal artsy — and so the question that I’m struggling to answer is what and how to teach writing differently.

Instead of focusing students’ attention on specific rhetorical goals and strategies for persuasive writing, I wanted to emphasize the ethics of writing and develop a more critical approach so that the students would diagnose the socio-economic and political forces that shape our world and our position as writers in that world. In other words, instead of adapting themselves to the rhetorical situation and becoming well-adjusted writers, I want students to critically assess the situation and consider the ethics of “mal-adjustment” as Martin Luther King, Jr. encouraged his audience to do in his speech, “The American Dream.” In that speech, King asks, why should we adjust ourselves to an un-just society?

Through literature, I hoped my class could come to a deeper understanding of the “rhetorical situation” than the one usually posited by the Aristotelians. (To be fair, Aristotelians often do wonderfully critical analyses of culture, but by the time it gets simplified for the writing classroom, most of this sophistication is lost.) So, I’ve divided the course into topics such as “the politics of writing,” and “representation” and “writing about violence,” and we will read literature such as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, Toni Morrison’s Bluest Eye, Josefina Lopez’s Real Women Have Curves, and Sitawa Namwalie’s Cut Off My Tongue, for example.

We just finished Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I have to admit that I’m a bit disappointed with it. I liked it a lot when I was a teenager, but I hadn’t read it since then, so I wasn’t sure how well it would work. I chose it for a couple of reaons. One thing I like about this novel is how it draws attention to how ordinary life might be political. Even sex can be political in certain situations, Orwell points out, and one of my students brilliantly observed in class that not too long ago in America sexual relations between different races was prohibited. And so I think the novel is useful for a class discussion on how there are many ways writing can be political — as Orwell also says in his essay “Why I Write”  — and not just the obvious ways such as political speeches and newspaper editorials. Another thing I like is how it draws attention to the importance of memory and writing’s relationship to memory. In the novel, the Ministry of Truth is able to manipulate memory by controlling the written record. This — along with Orwell’s invention of newspeak — was useful in class for highlighting the importance of academic citation and how academic citation was developed precisely to prevent the kind of manipulative, dishonest activity we see in Orwell’s novel.

But here’s the problem with the novel. Orwell creates a dystopia (the opposite of utopia) so extreme and far-out that most of my students could not see much connection between what Orwell is describing and what is going on in the world today even though the edition of the novel we read was published in 2003 with a new forward by the famous writer Thomas Pynchon that implies there is such a connection. Pynchon himself suggests a critique of how president George W. Bush and the mainstream media manipulated public opinion and falsified evidence to justify war against a made-up enemy, just like what happens in Nineteenh Eighty-Four. And now, in 2009, how is it possible that after six years of war with Iraq, very few Americans know anything about the history of our supposed enemy and how its relation to us has changed over the years. Perhaps we suffer from the same kind of historical amnesia that Orwell’s characters suffer from in his novel. Also in his forward to Orwell’s novel, Pynchon observes the extent to which the internet (with its cookies that track what we do and suggest more things for us to buy) has has become a much more subtle form of social control than the “telescreens” that Orwell imagined. But it’s not my students’ fault for not making that connection. I think it’s Orwell’s.

Orwell creates such a fantastic situation that the most natural reaction to his novel is “Wow, I’m glad I don’t live in that society. That would suck.” And of course the political aspect of that natural reaction is the sense that “America has freedoms and totalitarian socialism doesn’t.” It’s hard to reconcile the fact that the most vivid attack on socialism was written by a man who was himself a socialist, but Orwell’s book could in some ways be read as a rhetorical failure. Instead of presenting a cautionary tale for his fellow socialists or giving his readers some concepts for critically evaluating their own society as I believe he intended, he instead created a boogey-man that Americans define themselves against. In other words, his portrait of the society of Oceania is so totally other that when Americans read Orwell’s novel, they say to themelves, “I’m not that.” My point here is not that Americans should realize that they in fact are that, because they aren’t. Nobody is. Orwell’s Oceania is a rhetorical “topos” (or dystopia), not a real place.  It’s a symbolic figure, not a coherent picture of reality. Rather, my point is that, in a way, this novel almost gives Americans an excuse not to really try to understand what Chinese or Iraqi or Iranian culture is like, because they imagine life in those countries to be just as Orwell described daily life in his dystopian Oceania. And because this far-away, freakish other so fully captures our imagination, we seem to have an excuse for not really understanding ourselves or the historical truth of our relationship to real others.

I’m trying to think of another novel that might focus on the more subtle forms of thought control and historical amnesia that exist in the real world. Perhaps a novel that also recognizes that sometimes human beings often prefer to be ignorant rather than knowledgeable. (Albert Camus’s The Fall or Milan Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being, I suppose.) For instance, consider the recent debates about health care, which have become almost too painful to pay attention to. How is it possible that so many people in America could believe that President Obama was prescribing “death panels”? So much of the health care debate has focused on ridiculous mis-information that little energy is left for honest discussion about real solutions.

Moreover, it might be useful for us to try to understand why Americans have become so hysterical these days. I suppose it’s not surprising that with an unemployment rate over 9% (and it’s actually 20% for people who didn’t graduate from high school) people would get a little paranoid and search for freakish, non-existant things (such as death panels) to define themselves against. It feels good and self-affirming to be outraged at something, even if that something isn’t real. While Orwell shows us this outrage in the daily “two minutes hate” scheduled by Big Brother, Orwell’s idea about how the human ego can be manipulated in Oceania doesn’t seem to account for the willful ignorance we all have in our everyday lives. Nor does he account for how other social factors such as unemployment, poverty, and job stress might affect our ability to understand what’s happening around us.

This leaves me with two questions. How do we take stock of the forms of writing and representation (mainstream media, Google, FaceBook, etc.) in our world today? And how do we respond ethically to this state of affairs (including the high unemployment rate today) in our own writing?


September 18, 2009 - Posted by | teaching

1 Comment »

  1. I think it’s interesting you mention this distopia idea and the notion that Americans have this tendency to put a lot of distance between themselves and other cultures because I’m finding that out a lot in Ireland. Even for a European culture, I think a lot of my group (myself included) went in expecting to find something totally strange and totally foreign and instead found a group of college kids in the bars of Galway who were a lot like us, only with different accents and different hot button political issues.

    I understand what you’re saying about using writing to a different purpose, to use writing as a tool to advance ethical thinking, but I think given the different medias we can express ourselves in the actual power behind those words is a little diminished. Certainly you can write a blog post bringing attention to the serious maladjustment society, but does that mean anyone will read it? It seems to me that because forms of expression are now so readily available, the reaching power of these expressions is spread too thin.

    Comment by Megan G | September 18, 2009 | Reply

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