“Composition and Cornel West: Notes toward a Deep Democracy”

Keith Gilyard

Chapter One: Flight West

Chapter One is something of a personal narrative that recounts how Gilyard first came to meet West on a flight from PSU to somewhere else.  G. notes that West is especially useful for the field of composition when he states that

It is profoundly within the purview of composition studies to address the concerns raised by  West about educating a critical citizenry who will promote democratic values and who will draw  upon a heritage of what West terms a “deep democratic tradition” to fashion humane responses  to unwarranted social misery (Democracy Matters 13).  Composition can contribute to what we  may call a deep democracy by fostering critical inspections of language (3).

This seems to be Gilyard’s overarching concern throughout the book – how do we foster critical consciousness and an engages demos through investigation and interrogation of language.  By critiquing language, Gilyard hopes that students will

engage in critical reception and production of language rather than lethargically reproducing the status quo (3).

After giving a bit more information about West’s politics with respect to religious fundamentalism and US imperialism at home and abroad, Gilyard identifies the structure that his work will follow.  In explicating West’s positions on “deep democracy” he wishes to employ a couple of frameworks central to connecting West and composition.  Gilyard identifies these as:

1.  Socratic commitment – a relentless examination of received wisdom coupled with a willingness to adopt the role of a parrhesiastes, a frank or fearless speaker in confrontation with irresponsible power.

2.  Prophetic witness – an abiding concern with justice and the plight of the less privileged – this is a prime imperative to reduce social suffering.

3.  Tragicomic hope – an indomitable, keep-on-pushing sensibility reflective of the African American freedom struggle, blues and jazz (5).

After outlining this structure, Gilyard notes that he needs to trace West’s intellectual development before moving into how his political/philosophical worldview is connected to composition.

Chapter Two: The Roots of a Deep-Democratic Project

Chapter two is primarily concerned with the evolution of West’s worldview in terms of four  intellectual influences: pragmatism, Marxism, prophetic Christianity, and African American humanism.  First to pragmatism.

Gilyard defines pragmatism as “truth is not gained through deductive reasoning but by means of inductive experimentation and rigorous assessment (8).  In this ontology, reality and truth are shaped by the certainty of experience.  [Is this a phenomenological viewpoint?]  In understanding West’s pragmatic influences, Gilyard traces his exposure to Emersonian thought  (the value of self definition and people’s perceptions, or doxa, over the presumed objectivity of philosophers’ knowledge or episteme – 8).  Yet, Emerson had a problem too.  According to West, Emerson sidestepped the problems of Cartesian reason by remaining an apologist for American imperialism and racism.

Next, Gilyard traces West’s exposure to education theorist John Dewey.  For West, Dewey’s “democratic faith in common people” and notions of “critical intelligence” were central in a democratic and just society as they were central to the “co-construction of knowledge” – or the somewhat Socratic method.  According to Gilyard, Dewey’s method consisted of:

Knowledge fashioned on previous occasions can be dispensed as information, but teachers and students must create new knowledge through inquiry and transaction.  Even a student pursuing study independently is not being given knowledge; he or she is claiming it – in the process of  becoming the model critical subject – through the active, transactional processes  that reading is (10).

After noting that West critiqued Dewey for gradualism, Gilyard moves on to West’s treatment of DuBois.  G. identifies DuBois as pragmatism’s “most important political activist” (11).  What West found particularly useful about DuBois was his concept of the “double-consciousness” revisioned.  This term, originally coined by Emerson to speak to the European/American tensions of the early republic, was revisioned by Dubois to concern the Negro/American position.  In so doing, DuBois was particularly well suited to critiquing the American system through an analysis of the wretched, oppressed peoples of the union.

While West was certainly influenced to a great degree by the pragmatists, G. notes that there are problems with their position.  Namely,

an immediate quandary is the question of how one legitimately suggests norms without appeal  to a master narrative” and “it appears obvious that although the landscape before us can be under perpetual construction, where we stand cannot be under construction, or we cannot stand at all (12-13).

In the end, West creates his own form of pragmatism he names “prophetic pragmatism.”  He calls it prophetic because it “harks back to the Jewish and Christian tradition of prophets who brought urgent and compassionate critique to bear on the evils of their day” (13).

After tracing pragmatism, Gilyard tackles West’s engagement with Marxism.  West has self-identified himself not as a Marxist, but as a socialist.  This divide is multifold.  After recapping a brief history of the evolution of Marxist thought (15-16) via Rousseau, Hobbes, etc., Gilyard notes that West found Marxism useful because it addressed the “interlocking relation between corporate, financial and political elites who had access to a disproportionate amount of resources, power, prestige and status in society” (16).  In tracing West’s engagement with Marxist thought, he identifies 6 major streams of Marxism that West has addressed in his writings.

1. – 3. Leninist – Stalinist – Trotskyist – These streams of Marxism West identifies as right-leaning and authoritarian.

4.  Gramscian – Gramscian thought was better than the previous three as it provided an “elaborate account of cultural and discursive elements, such as race, patriarchy, and religion, that are not bound in a determinate fashion to an economic base but nonetheless play a major role in dominance and the maintenance of the status quo” (17).

5.  Bernstein’s “evolutionary socialism” – A form of Marxism that works within the frameworks of electoral politics.  Good things here, but West considers him “too comfortable with the capitalist order” (18).

6.  Councilism – This form of Marxism was advocated by Pannekoek, Korsch, Luxemberg and others.  Known as the “progressive” stream of Marxism, this form recommended small, local councils in favor of larger, more oppressive bureaucratic structures.

While West found it useful to embrace Marxism for its critique of the capitalist order, he also found faults with the platform as a full explanatory tool for social ills.  His main objection lies in the fact that West sees institutions such as racism as embedded in the “cultural traditions of civilizations” rather than exclusively in economic relations surrounding the tools and ownership of production.  In addition to this critique, West also ties Marxism into a “European will to truth and power” (19).

In addition to Marxism and Pragmatism, West also relies on Prophetic Christianity as a foundation to his thought.  This is a section that I had a lot of trouble with.  In West’s work, G. identifies two interlocking strains of prophetic Christianity that explain the notion of freedom:

1.  Existential Freedom – the divine gift of grace

2.  Social Freedom – this freedom provides a rationale for progressive social activism and a quest for democracy.

In Prophetic Christianity, West notes how large leaps of faith allow human beings to transform their social situations, engage in relentless criticism and self-criticism and project visions, analyses and practices of social freedom.

West sees the Judeo-Christian tradition at its best when it “informs and emboldens the struggle against callous indifference of the plutocratic elites of the American empire about the suffering of our own poor and oppressed peoples.  It should also help to illuminate the effects of our imperialism on the poor and oppressed peoples around the world” (21-2).

The final intellectual strand that Gilyard traces in West’s philosophy comes in the form of African American Humanism and Tragicomic Hope.  According to G., West characterizes A.A. humanism as the “artistic production that promotes the vitality and vigor off A.A. life and is an exemplar of the tragicomic hope” (23).  West theororizes four distinct traditions that arose as a consequence of A.A.’s journey to the New World:

1.  Exceptionalism – a tenant that preferences African American uniqueness – largest proponents include DuBois, Malcolm X, King, and Elijah Muhammad.

2.  Assimilationism – A.A. culture is pathological – what does this mean?

3.  Marginalism – Individualism and alienation in figures like Charles Chestnutt, Richard Wright, and James Baldwin.

4.  Humanism – Reflected in the works of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Late DuBois and late Malcolm X.

Specifically, A.A humanism “makes no ontological assertions of inferiority or superiority, treats A.A. as humans like everyone else and assumes the universal content of A.A. expressive forms (24).  In creating his concept of A.A. humanism, West dismisses folks like King and preferences folks like Ralph Ellison, whom he sees as the “humanist par excellance” (25).  Tied into this idea of humanism is the idea of tragicomic hope.  This term which is the subject of a later chapter, notes that the A.A. experience is one of multiple tragedies that are dealt with through comedy and hope.  It is West’s contention that the “pervasive sense of play, laughter and ingenious humor of Blacks” is a result of the tragedy in the struggle for freedom in tragic predicaments (25).

After treating West’s intellectual history, Gilyard then turns to chapter three.

Chapter Three: Socratic Commitment and Critical Literacy

As Gilyard mentioned earlier in the book, the Socratic Commitment to parrhesia is a framing concept in how West’s work on Democracy is central to composition as a field.  In this chapter, Gilyard interprets parrhesia through the lens of “critical literacy” as advocated by folks like Friere, Giroux and Shor.  The process of “critical literacy” is one that

meant that people had to work for freedom by recognizing the causes of their oppression, a    recognition that is necessary to the task of social transformation (27).

Gilyard  finds this position of “critical literacy” especially useful when one takes into account the role of corporate media .  According to West, critical literacy, or parrhesian inquiry and speech, “affirms Lazere’s pursuit of the Emersonian mission of brining to bear on current events the longer view, the synthesizing vision needed to counteract the hurriedness, atomization, and ideological hodgepodge that debase our public discourse as well as our overdepartmentalized curricula and overspecialized scholarship” (29).

In addition to invoking Frierian analogues to West’s positions, Gilyard also notes that West (and composition) can also benefit from a couple of other useful “critical strategies” – namely, the concept of exnomination (Barthes).  This idea stipulates that “the ruling class hides behind language in the sense that their viewpoints become normalized and passed on as self-evident of natural” presumably because they are the hegemonic/normalizing force (30).  In American society the process of exnomination can be extended beyond social groups by noting the hegemony of the capitalist system.  I would imagine this makes critique and actual change especially difficult as this “ruling class” isn’t a class at all but a system.

After noting the importance of critical literacy practices for deep democracy on the theoretical level, Gilyard introduces two examples that illustrate his point.  First he discusses a letter by a one Mr. Liang.  In this letter a New York City public high school teacher makes an argument about the punitive punishment of teachers that are “set up to fail.”  Unfortunately, Mr. Liang’s grammar gets in the way of his main argument.  Gilyard quickly parlays this example into a discussion of Ebonics and other illegitimated ways of speaking that are subjected to “conservative language ideologies” that oppress populations throughout the US (32).

The second example, working under the title “Newly Critical but Not New Criticism” addresses close reading for social tension. . . or to put it another way, this section addresses how students can use close reading strategies as a way to uncover social injustice, prejudice and classism.  Gilyard’s main contention in this section seems to be that a healthy, strong, and bold questioning (parrhesiatic) is essential to uncovering the (un)neutrality of language.  In so doing, Gilyard notes that he

tried to stay in league with Lazere and West and their Emersonian vision, while trying to avoid   the ‘narration sickness’ that Friere cites as a major educational problem (57).  As West put it, ‘To  speak then of an Emersonian culture of creative democracy is to speak of a society and culture where politically adjudicated forms of knowledge are produced in which human participation is encouraged and for which human personalities are enhanced. (39).

In the second half of Chapter Three, Gilyard discusses the Odyssey project at Syracuse University as a site to invoke a critical literacy of self-memoir.  According to Gilyard, “Essential to the Odyssey approach was prodding students to become self-reflective about their literacy journey, about how they came to learn and learn through language” (41).

After tracing the Odyssey project, Gilyard notes a couple of problems with the system.  First, he thinks that they system could have made better use of the genealogical-materialist approach that is suggested by Michel Foucault and West.  In this method, students would have been asked to do more work theorizing how language is socially produced.  In so doing, the narrative approach could have been more critical.  [This was one of the major shortcomings of the section for me.  After being told how “easy” and “useless” the writing program at Syracuse was viewed until the early 2000s, I wonder how fruitful this particular program really was.  I think that the real problem, for me, lies in this methods over reliance on the personal narrative as site of critical literacy.]

Gilyard closes this section with a particularly useful example of critical literacy work in action.  A student considered the concept of majority democracy in her Odyssey work.  This section seemed infinitely more useful as it was a nice synthesis of self-reflective analysis and the theory of Guinier’s tyrannical majority rule.

Gilyard closes the chapter with the concept of the “rival hypothesis” or “Socratic Commitment Plus.”  Most utilized by Linda Flower, the rival hypothesis stance defined as an ‘important literate practice in which people explore open questions through an    analysis of multiple perspectives (49).

In so doing, Flower hoped that through rivaling the construction of ‘a representation of ‘others’ that can name social and material structures of power and domination, at the same time that it boldly acknowledges the agency of marginalized others and invokes action (49).  All of this built up to the concept that rivaling recognizes radical differences in interpretation and significance given your cultural position, as well as the possibility of incommensurate perspectives (49).  In closing Gilyard notes the importance of rivaling by stating that “as a discursive strategy, strong rivaling really is Socratic commitment plus – disputation, frank questioning of power, and a quest for action agendas” (50).

Chapter Four: Tracking Prophetic Witness

In this chapter, Gilyard traces “prophetic witness” or according to West the

human deeds of justice and kindness that attend to the unjust sources of human hurt and misery.  Prophetic witness calls attention to the causes of unjustified suffering and unnecessary social misery and highlights personal and institutional evil, including the evil of being indifferent to personal and institutional evil. (52)

In so tracing this concept, Gilyard engages with a couple of different ideas – notably the relationships among prophetic witness, race, class and the work of Foucault (52).

Before Gilyard can take up prophetic witness, he needs to situate religion as a legitimate concern in the composition classroom.  Because of the influence of what Ann Berhoff has called “new positivism” or “antifoundationalism,” postmodern theory has challenged the importance of religion in the composition of individual identity through discourses of partial selves and the impossibility of universals.  While that is the theoretical underpinning of the postmodern enterprise, Gilyard, via West, Moffett, Berthoff and others counters that religion is in fact central to many students identity.

As a way to make this relationship between Christianity and identity more legitimated, Gilyard quotes Goodburn’s exploration of Christian fundamentalism as a basis for identity construction.  Goodburn noted that while at OSU she understood that rather than simply pronouncing disengagement with aspects of the everyday world, fundamentalism constitutes a method of social criticism in that a host of social and cultural activities are evaluated with respect to a strict literal interpretive grid, not totally unlike the case with the application of other critical methods.

After noting how fundamentalist thought operates in this way, Goodburn then equates the zeal and fervor of many left-leaning compositionists with respect to postmodern pedagogy of the partial self.  She equates the two positions because they seem to mirror one another’s “born again” attitudes toward biblical redemption and the socially conditioned self.

While Gilyard seems to appreciate Goodburn’s position with respect to the dual-zeal of both fundamentalists and pomo compositionists, he eventually sides with the left-leaning agnostics when he states that

While Rand’s criticism is powerful, I doubt that high-volume creativity is going to flow from fundamentalist or evangelical students.  Their religiosity tends not to be of the prophetic, socially ameliorative type – but the conservative, George W. Bush type. (58)

All that being said, Gilyard goes on to validate liberation theology with a discussion of womanist critical consciousness.  Afterwards, Gilyard takes up on of West’s main tenants about Christianity – it’s division into Constatinian and prophetic sects.  For West, the Constatinian form of Christianity follows from the state sanctioned inclusion of Christianity  under the rule of Constantine in the 4th century.  As this was a state adoption of Christianity, elements of nationalism and imperialism were tied up in it’s very early identity.  Constantinian Christianity is the type of Xianity that permeates conservative politics and religious fundamentalist rhetoric.

In contradistinction to Constantinian Xianity, West posits the existence of prophetic Xianity.  This form is concerns with “all people of good will both here and abroad that fight for an Emersonian culture of creative democracy in which the plight of the wretched of the earth is alleviated (60).  It is this prophetic form of Christian thought that we should, as compositionists, embrace in leading our students to critical consciousness if said students identity is tied up with religion. [But what if it’s tied up with the Constantinian brand?]

In the next section, Gilyard traces West’s conception of the birth of white supremacist discourse through the rediscovery of Greek aesthetic forms during the positivist era of Descartes, Hume, Kant, Jefferson, etc. – basically what the West considers the “Enlightenment.”  This section seems to serve as a justification for the relevancy of Race as a topic or critical inquiry in the composition classroom.

Next Gilyard discusses class and it’s intrinsic ties to race, gender and sexuality as a site for prophetic witness in composition studies.  In understanding class, Gilyard notes that forms of discrimination are never completely class based – in fact, they are usually tied up with gender, sexuality, and race.  As such, West (and by extension Gilyard) cannot accept Marxism as the single paradigm through which to view the world.  In addition to providing a nice description on why radical action politics doesn’t jive with the middle class (bottom 68), Gilyard also discusses the problematic relationship between progressive white caucuses and black academics though Steve Parks’ book Class Politics.

Gilyard does a really nice job discussing Foucault and relating his appeal to compositionists in the next section.  Gilyard notes that Foucault appeals to Rhet/Comp scholars for three reasons:

1.  First, his elaborate work to demonstrate the origin and development of a variety of discourses, his attention to power relations embedded therein, and his explanation of the impact of discourses on the structuring of subjectivity line up well with comp.’s interest in social construction and critical pedagogy.

2.  Second, Foucault provides, at least on the one hand, clear political justification for radically inclined teachers of rhetorical education to pursue a radical agenda on the job.

3.  Foucault’s popularity in comp. is that his function is that of a “founder of discursivity” . . . . who wielded such rhetorical force that their writing organizes in substantial ways subsequent discourse. (71-3).

Gilyard eventually confronts F.’s concepts of individual subjectivities and their relation to power with West’s ideas that power systems must be confronted.  This is where the two scholars differ.  Foucault, famously, noted that it is a battle of “all against all.”  West, on the other hand, feels that power must be challenged, but can be challenged en masse.

The chapter ends with a nice summation that you can “pick and choose” what’s useful from both men.

Chapter Five: Tragicomic Hope in Democracy

The tragicomic, for West, is “the ability to laugh and retain a sense of life’s joy – to preserve hope even while staring in the face of hate and hypocrisy – as against falling into the nihilism of paralyzing despair” (77).

In this chapter, Gilyard traces the use of the tragicomic by soul performers and rap musicians.  In his analysis, he considers the work of Mayfield and Franklin in the vein of soul.  He also considers how the older spirituals were “remixed” into the work of these soul performers.  In this discussion, Bakhtin’s notion of the centripetal and centrifugal serve as moving metaphors for the existences of insider discourses in slave spirituals and later soul performances.

In the section on hip-hop, Gilyard spends a bit of time defining the difference between prophetic hip hop and Constantinian.  The prophetic hip hop of performers like Chuck D, KRS-One, A Tribe Called Quest, Immortal Technique and others serves as a space for language that challenges the injustices of late American capitalism and corporatism.  These performers also work to bring to light the problems of urban life.  In contradistinction, Constantinian rap is best represented by the artists that use self-aggrandizement, sexist, and homophobic themes in their work in the interest of commercial consumer success.  In the end of this section, Gilyard asks the question,

how do we – and our students – think about a soundtrack for social progress amid rap music’s prevalence?  What Socratic pose do we strike toward rap even as we celebrate it?  How do we respond to raw descriptions and pronouncements or the assertion, often attributed to Chuck D, that ‘rap music is the black folks’ CNN? (98)

Chapter Six – Landing Song

At the beginning of chapter six Gilyard lays out a strong case for composition as a critical process that engages deep democracy.  He notes,

Liberal education, it follows, with composing at the heart of it, remains central to the public good and should, therefore, be central to the work of the university. (99)

After discussing the strong influence of market logic on the academy (100-1), Gilyard notes that the goad of a rhetorical education is to play a major role in developing critical literacy practices that challenge the degradation of public discourse and the development of anti-intellectual media punditry (101).

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