Grounding Empiricism with a Rhetorical Epistemology (part 1)

I’ve mentioned this passage before: Haas (1995) speculates on how writers develop “memories” of their texts as they compose on word processors:

Clearly, writers interact constantly, closely, and in complex ways with their own texts. Through these interactions, they develop some understanding—some representation—of the text they have created or are creating . . . As the text gets longer and more ideas are introduced and developed, it becomes more difficult to hold an adequate representation in memory of that text, which is out of sight.

How do writers develop, during composition, a representation of their texts in their short and long term memories? An interesting area of research. However, Haas speculated on this idea nearly twenty years ago, and the field is no closer to understanding how the material, cognitive process described by Haas works. It was only last year that a proponent of Replicable, Aggregable, Data Supported (RAD) research, Chris Anson (2012), reported on an empirical and replicable method—the use of eye-tracking devices—that could allow researchers to begin exploring the operation of writers’ vision, and how it influences the creation of textual memory during the composing process. That this research is only now going forward suggests that the field needs persuading when it comes to RAD research and quantitative methods.

One thing RAD researchers need to accomplish toward that persuasive goal is to theorize an “empiricism” that is acceptable to a field whose epistemological commitments are largely informed by non-empirical (or outright anti-empirical) discourses about social construction and intersubjectivity. The lack of RAD research in rhetoric and composition is, I believe, an issue of epistemology rather than method. If we want a substantial space for RAD methods, we first need to build a persuasive case for the epistemology on which those methods operate. One excellent example of this work is Johanna Drucker’s (2011) reframing of “data” as “capta,” or data that has been purposefully selected and captured, and thus remains observer-dependent. Cherwitz and Hikins’ (1999) “Rhetorical Perspectivism” also provides valuable ideas and frameworks for grounding quantitative, empirical work in a thoroughly rhetorical epistemology.

Cherwitz and Hikins describe two opposing epistemologies found in rhetorical theory—objectivist and subjectivist. These terms refer to what you’d expect, and clearly, they exist on a continuum; they are nearly binaries. To rehabilitate empirical research in rhetoric and composition, we needn’t abandon subjectivism for objectivism. We need only abandon epistemological commitments that exist at either extreme endpoint. Is that a tall order to fill? I tend to believe that few scholars are committed to either extreme, and that navigation between the two will be relatively straightforward. After all, the scientific method—ostensibly the objectivist method par excellence—exists precisely because scientists long ago realized that the “facts of reality” (objectivity) can only ever be apprehended through our peculiarly human lenses (subjectivity). Arriving at the most accurate description of those facts depends, not on a mere collection of facts that speak for themselves—facts never do—but on a collaborative, distributed process of checking, re-checking, replicating, falsifying, and coming to consensus about those facts, so that any partial view of them is never taken as the final word.

It will be easy enough, therefore, to demonstrate that objectivist methodologies have already conceded certain subjectivist points. Likewise, I’ve come to appreciate that even the most extreme social constructionist statements are often made with ethical rather than epistemological commitments in mind. For example, the “gender is a social construct” meme is not really deployed as a statement of scientific fact. It is merely a shorthand way of arguing that the ways people talk about gender are too simple and binary, and fail to acknowledge that reality is sometimes more complex than boxes for Male/Female would indicate (e.g., the case of hermaphroditism). So, insofar as “X is a social construct” means “the way humans talk about X is too simple,” then the subjectivist, social constructionist position does not foreclose on a more empirical or objectivist epistemology. On the contrary, it encourages researchers to constantly collect more details and refine their theories about how things operate.

Cherwitz and Hikins’ “perspectivist” epistemology presents a possible third way between the subjectivist and objectivist positions. The first postulate of perspectivism is “The Independence of Reality” (pp. 177), and clearly an empirical way-of-knowing must grant material reality its radical alterity—in other words, reality must exist independently of humankind’s discourse about it. As Cherwitz and Hikins put it, “in existence, there is presented to us, directly, a world of phenomena largely independent of our attitudes, beliefs, and values.” I might quibble with the insertion of the adverb “directly” in their description—X-rays, for instance, are not experienced directly, and we can only verify their existence with technologies that allow us to experience them at a remove from how human bodies actually experience them. Nevertheless, their point, broadly construed, is essential to an empirical epistemology.

But I wonder how smoothly it can be inserted into the field’s epistemological discourse? If contemporary rhetoricians cannot concede that the world is composed of material phenomena that exist regardless of our attitudes toward them, our valuations of them, or our discourses about them, then the subjectivist, social constructivist worldview is more extreme and pervasive than I thought. If a scholar says “gender is a social construct” and means quite literally that “biological sex is an invalid framework for understanding human bodies and actions,” then it will remain forever impossible to persuade her of the value of an empirical epistemology. However, I believe that most contemporary rhetoricians are not denying the entire field of biology when they take subjectivist stances on gender, or race, or sexuality. In order to secure a foothold for an empirical epistemology in rhetoric, we need only admit that certain elements of reality exist regardless of how we think or talk about them, which, I hope, is an easy concession to make. Philip K. Dick famously defined reality as “that which continues to exist once I stop believing in it.” This definition of reality—largely shed of Lockean, Empirical with a capital E baggage—is enough for the purpose of theorizing a rhetorically acceptable empirical epistemology.


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