On the Uselessness of a Posthumanist Approach to Grammar

The other day, a casual acquaintance asked me what I do for a living. I’m never entirely sure how to answer this question, but I responded, “I teach English at Oklahoma State.”

“English?” my friend answered. “Why would you need to teach that in college? Haven’t most of those kids been speaking English their entire lives?”

My friend’s quip makes an important point about language: we use it without necessarily knowing the finer points about the rules of it. Language is a game that we are thrown into (some say even before we are born), and the truth of the matter is that we don’t get the rules from books. We generally figure them out as we go along.

So it is important, as Martha Kolln points out in her introduction to _Rhetorical Grammar_, to consider where the rules of grammar come from and where they exist. She asks us to consider this:

that YOU are the repository of the rules. You–not a book. It might help you to understand this sense of grammar if you think of a grammar rule not as a rule of law created by an authority but rather as a description of language structure. Stored within you, then, in your computer-like brain, is a system of rules, a system that enables you to create the sentences of your native language. The fact that you have such an internalized system means that when you study grammar you are studying what you already “know.” (1)

In this light, both Kolln and my friend share a similar belief, but where my good-natured friend uses this claim to argue that “you” don’t need to study language at all, Kolln uses this claim to make a case that the study of grammar will be neither dull nor difficult but that it will empower “you” to create “sentences appropriate for the rhetorical situations you encounter” (5).

From a practical standpoint, I understand her approach. Students often need to be persuaded to study language, and telling them that “this is something you already know” will certainly open doors for some. Furthermore, the promise that studying the structure of language can help you get something you want is very alluring.

The posthumanist in me, though, finds the “you” (and even more so the “YOU”) disconcerting. At most, I might be able to consider myself “a repository” of “some” rules of grammar, but if I am able to choose to exist at all, it is not to be a repository. For what is a repository if not a location for safe storage, for preservation? All metaphors fail, of course, but to what degree does Kolln’s opening promise keep students from utilizing the full complexity of grammatical systems and the complexity of grammatical possibilities?

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