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?


Why is a Posthumanist Approach to Grammar Necessary?

One of the things I have always loved about teaching is that it not only gives me the ability to learn new ideas but it also gives me the ability to experience old ideas as if I were hearing them for the first time. When selecting material for classes, I look for a few texts that I know well, others that are entirely new to me, and still others that feel a little beyond my grasp. When introducing these texts to my classes, I tend to take a step back from the texts with which I am familiar, withholding my responses or thoughts until I am able to get a greater sense of my students’ perspectives. With texts with which I’m less familiar, I tend to be more willing to throw speculative comments out there sooner. And with texts I find challenging, I throw my questions into the ring with the rest of the class, and we work on answering all our questions together. With this approach, I sometimes fear that I work myself out of the equation altogether, but in any case the approach keeps me productively off-center, i.e. it keeps me writing and thinking, and my main hope is that it does so for my students as well.

So it was a great moment for me in one of my classes when one of the more familiar texts in the field–the pair of essays that people generally refer to as the Elbow/Bartholomae debate–crashed up against a chapter out of Katherine Hayles’ How We Became Posthuman. I don’t have the exact time, place, or words, but I do know that it was Joshua Cross who observed at some point in one of my classes that the whole “writing with/writing without teachers” debate is a perfect example of the postmodern obsession with presence/absence. What happens then, if we follow Hayles’ posthumanist example and think more about the binary pattern/randomness in our teaching?

A friend of mine–I still consider him a friend, even though I haven’t contacted him in years–is both a father and a linguist. At the time, I had no children, but knowing that fatherhood was nearing my own horizon I asked him if he ever corrected his daughter’s grammar. Sensing that I wasn’t really asking an academic question (at least not entirely), he answered me simply. “There’s a lot of research on the subject, on what’s the right thing for parents to do. Some parents worry that you can correct your children too early. Some worry that you can’t correct your children early enough. But there is one possibility that seldom occurs to parents because for us it is almost unthinkable. Correcting our children’s grammar has absolutely no positive or negative effects on their language development. Correction is just a tiny bit of noise in the overall machine.”

Posthumanist Grammar 1.3

“A posthumanist approach to grammar is a grammar that humans just happen to be a part of. It is not universal. Fine, but what exactly is your definition of grammar? (And don’t you dare say that it depends on context. That’s a cop out.) And more important: why is it necessary to have a posthumanist approach?”

The definition of a posthumanist grammar does change depending on its context. That is the nature of posthumanist grammar. Grammatical rules change significantly when humans converse with each other in different contexts, and when machines, animals, and/or deities get drawn into the picture, entirely new complexities emerge. Nevertheless, your question is fair, and I sense that you have grown impatient with our discussions of posthumanism (though there is a great deal more that needs to be discussed). You would like to see the conversation turn away from the adjective posthumanist and turn toward the noun grammar. Like you, I’m a writing teacher. I’m a theorist and a practitioner, and the primary reason that I became interested in studying grammar was to help my students improve their writing.

“But the study of grammar does not improve a student’s writing. George Hillocks, James Williams, John Bean, and many others have been arguing that for years.”

Yes, but I would point out that Williams argues that it is the traditional study of grammar that does not improve a student’s writing. Many teachers have used his statement to argue (incorrectly) that grammar has no place in a writing classroom whatsoever. In fact, in The Teacher’s Grammar Book, Williams makes a compelling case as to why teachers should have an in depth knowledge of the history, form, styles, and uses of grammar in order to effectively help students understand the complexity of their communicative acts. In other words, one cannot understand rhetorical usage (and this applies to posthumanist usage as well) without understanding the grammatical principles which underlie usage. So what is my definition of grammar? Again, I would like to leave the option open for keeping that in flux as we approach new contexts, but for the most part Williams’ definition serves our approach quite well: “Grammar is the formal study of the structure of a language and describes how words fit together in meaningful constructions” (2).

Your second question–“Why is it necessary to have a posthumanist approach?”–deserves its own post. And I’m afraid I will have to take that up later. Like you, I have papers to grade this morning.

Posthumanist Grammar 1.2

After reading “First Principle of a Posthumanist Approach to Grammar,” Steven Hopkins mentioned to me that “it sounds like a posthuman grammar aims to be a universal grammar that humans just happen to also participate in.” That’s an important observation, so I wanted to address it before moving on to speculations about other principles.

One of the purposes of a posthumanist approach to grammar is to delay or move beyond the types of value judgments that we see in traditional humanist approaches (more on these later). As a radical approach, a posthumanist approach invites us to move beyond the categories of human/nonhuman. In this regard, a posthumanist approach to grammar attempts to widen the scope of communicative possibilities, even to an infinite degree. How, then, is this not a universalist approach?

This is a difficult question, one that raises an important ethical choice. Taking a universalist approach, one could begin to see all communicative acts as equal, a vision which would lead to critical powerlessness. On the other hand, taking a universalist approach, one could easily start making hegemonic value judgments based upon assumptions about what posthumanism hopes to achieve. In other words, one could use the radical category of posthumanism to attempt to create a different, but equally hegemonic, social order.

It is precisely because of these dangers that scholars taking a posthumanist approach to grammar must ground their assertions in contingency. In any given situation, how does one define grammar? What is the relationship between the users of that grammar? Are there multiple grammatical perspectives being brought to the communicative situation? What choices are available to the users of these grammars? How do these perspectives influence the quality of the relationships between speaking bodies?

In short, the ethical choice for someone using a posthumanist approach to grammar is to make a commitment to start from the ground these questions (and others, depending on the context) would provide.

First Principle of a Posthumanist Approach to Grammar

First principle: “Grammar is capable of a human interface.” To my way of thinking, this point cuts in several directions at once. First, a posthumanist approach to grammar asks us to think beyond what it means for human beings to communicate using grammar. It conceptualizes grammar as a system with complex and immeasurable origins. One is reminded of the Burroughs-circle conversation about language being a virus from outer space, and using a similar gesture a posthumanist approach to grammar does not attempt to treat grammar as an abstract system outside the human but studies instead its causes and effects once that contact with the human is made.

Nevertheless, by conceptualizing a grammatical system that goes beyond a human interface, we can imagine that grammar is capable of an unlimited number of interfaces with other forms of life. Just this week, IBM Watson illustrated a fascinating performative encounter with some basic grammatical rules, and scholars who are interested in the posthumanist possibilities of silicon-based life will no doubt be turning even more attention to the ways that machines learn and use language.

A posthumanist approach to grammar also gives us the ability to imagine that grammar is capable of nonhuman animal interfaces as well, as illustrated by recent studies showing various animals with vocabularies far more complex than previously imagined. Other practical studies—Temple Grandin’s work being a primary example—that delve into the visual nature of nonhuman animal language also speak to a posthumanist approach.

Finally, and this takes us into even more speculative territory, a posthumanist approach to grammar gives us a space to study the language of those Other nonhuman beings that I, for one, have only read about: gods, angels, demons, zombies, aliens, etc. Until I actually encounter one of these beings, I suspect any work that I do in this area will have to rely on second-hand accounts.

Toward a Posthumanist Grammar

As I’m imagining it, a posthumanist grammar would work from three basic principles:

1)      Grammar is capable of a human interface;

2)     Both communication and creativity are a result of that interface; and

3)     Communication and creativity can be at odds from a humanist perspective, but not from a posthumanist perspective.

These principles promise to move our thinking forward in the field of composition and rhetoric about grammar because they provide a new way of addressing questions about grammar and student writing. Generally speaking, one of the most controversial questions in the field is how to deal with student papers that contain grammatical errors, errors which often cause teachers, some administrators, and the general public to condemn our educational system and pronounce a strong need to get “back to basics.” A posthumanist approach to grammar invites us to focus more specifically and more dynamically on language awareness and usage.