Sanchez, Raul.  The Function of Theory in Composition Studies.  Albany: SUNY Press. 2005.

Chapter One:  The Current State of Composition Theory

  • S. starts with a fairly straightforward claim, “The function of theory in composition studies is to provide generalized accounts of what writing is and how it works” (1).  It is based on empirical study and pedagogical practice.  Theory must also have a “mutually informing relationship” with empirical research.
  • Sanchez recognizes the importance of empirical research while also noting that most charges against it in writing studies occur when empiricism is substituted for positivism (scientific method and data are the only way to explain anything – being, substances, causes, metaphysics are all hooey – universal social realities are observable and social relationships are always reducible to observable, physical environmental conditions).
  • Empirical research (study writing methodically and analyze instances of it) and theory (making warranted, general, and possibly predictive statements about it) (1).
  • Main Claim:  The period of composition theory’s ascendance coincides with its having stopped making trenchant theoretical statements about writing (3).  Most comp theory published post early 1990s was informed from theory outside of composition and didn’t offer many new theoretical perspectives on composition.  Therefore, writing was subjected to other philosophical theories – it became merely a manifestation of knowledge, discourse, culture, etc. instead of being constitutive of it.
  • Sanchez claims that interpretation and representation limit composition theory’s ability to describe writing in an era of increased circulation.  Sanchez claims that the “hermeneutic disposition” is problematic because it understands writing only as a medium of representation and interpretation.  Sanchez aims to demonstrate how the “hermeneutic disposition” structures the discipline’s understanding of terms like knowledge, ideology, and culture.  In the final chapter Sanchez will demonstrate how the traditional conceptual tuools for thinking about writing are actually the products and functions of writing (How?).
  • Sanchez believes that writing does more than merely represent the world through language.  He claims that it is a structural component within systems of dissemination and circulation (4).  For Sanchez ur-terms like knowledge, ideology, and culture aren’t independent of writing or represented in writing; rather, they are the effects and products of writing.  In this sense writing structures reality.  Said differently, Sanchez is theorizing something of an anti-epistemology – there is nothing else beyond the writing except more writing.  Sanchez is irritated that composition theory has used writing as a research subject merely to unveil the interesting things that lie beyond it. . . when, in fact, nothing lies beyond it.
  • Sanchez adopts the grammatological approach (Derrida) to writing that argues that writing itself underlies all the conceptual, theoretical, philosophical, and rhetorical activity that compose such terms as knowledge, language, and discourse (7).  This grammatological perspective – according to Sanchez – allows the empirical project to revision itself as a form of writing also.
  • According to Sanchez, the most prominent method in composition studies today goes like this: 1) select a theory from another discipline – let’s say A-N-T; 2) apply said theory to composition practice/artifacts to learn something new (13).
  • Sanchez leans heavily on Flower as a way to revision empirical inquiry in the service of writing theory.  He notes that, “Once observation (the empirical activity) is understood to be a tool for building arguments rather than as justification of preexisting orientations – once it is articulated as a form of writing – then it becomes not simply necessary but perhaps indispensible to inquiry” (14).

Chapter Two:  The Discourse of Knowledge in Composition Theory

  • In this chapter Sanchez attempts to demonstrate that epistemology is the “something else” that writing has long tried to engage and connect when in fact it is writing that constitutes that knowledge of the world.  Instead of the “Platonically inspired” idea that writing is a system of representation Sanchez argues that knowledge is a “honorific” that describes systems and collections of writing.
  • Sanchez works back to Kant to discover where it was that epistemology developed a distinctly nonempirical hue.  It was Kant who – trying to reconcile the Rationalists and Empiricists – posited the existence of a priori synthetic statements (statements that were necessarily true but also depended on context to understand their meaning – in other words, the Platonic forms or geometrics.  So, if there is knowledge that exists independent of experience but also structures experience then it must not be empirical?!?  Whew!
  • Epistemic rhetoric – a la Scott’s 1967 article – is a contestation of the classical formulation of epistemology (just read your exam proposal!).  S. notes that this term – and the other term Scott later invoked (the rhetoric of inquiry) are still looking for something else. . .  Sanchez claims that the rhetoric-as-epistemic thesis was adopted by composition at the time because it provided some theoretical ethos that the discipline needed in light of English Studies uptake of poststructuralism (25).
  • Two perspectives on knowledge: 1) the impersonal result of humans’ direct observation of the world; 2) the personal result of humans’ active engagement with the world as presented to them by their sense perceptions (22).  An interesting social-epistemic definition of knowledge: “to designate something as knowledge is to perform an epistemologically contingent, culture-historico-political act that cannot be adjudicated through recourse to an impartial, disinterested, or objective standard” (26).
  • Two ways that composition studied deals with knowledge: 1) constructs knowledge; 2) deals in knowledges (26).
  • In Kent’s post-process theory writing is the “substance of communication” while composition is the “means by which such substance is rendered” (29).  That being said, both are still at the mercy of the “something else” that is knowledge arrived at as an end-product post-process.
  • S. finds problems with D. Diane Davis’ articulation of a “pedagogy of laughter” because it merely recasts itself as another “countertradition” to tradition; further, he isn’t comfortable with it’s methodology because it lacks empirical dimensions.
  • Sanchez is proposing that writing be place where some sentences or statements are produced and later identified as knowledge rather than writing serving as the transmittal side of the discourse of knowledge.  In other words, writing becomes the generative site to which classification schemes and “honorifics” are later applied (rather than vice-versa) (32).  To achieve this Sanchez turns to Derrida who argued that writing authorizes the existence of terms like “knowing” and “culture.”  He does this because D.’s theory of writing 1) understands writing as the “paradigmatic” human activity; 2) questions the hermeneutical function of communication as a send-receive process; and 3) in Derrida’s theory writing is epistemological (35) in that even the idea of being able to know is actually a “discursive effect or product of writing” (ibid.).
  • Sanchez describes a particularly vexing problem for composition studies when he discusses agency in composition theory and research.  The fundamental problem with a lot of poststructuralist articulations of the subject as something other than the Romantic, Platonic subject is it’s (the agent’s) ability to recognize a scene or system of utterances (37).  How can this be?  In Fragments of Rationality Faigley recognizes just this problem as does Trimbur’s “Agency and the Death of the Author.”
  • Sanchez seems to fall on the side of Susan Miller’s articulation of the subject in Rescuing the Subject.  Miller claims that the subject isn’t the autonomous author of the Modernist kind but also isn’t the completely non-acting agent of postmodern discourse; rather, the subject in this alternative formulation is an agent that “stabilizes fluidity” by inscribing language – by writing (38-9).  So, again, we have writing as the a priori for any discourses of agency, knowledge, or ideology.

Chapter Three:  Composition’s Ideology Apparatus

  • Sanchez begins by recapping Berlin’s theory of ideology in writing studies – to recap:  Berlin situates the interpretive act of writing in the service of a total, ontological theory of ideology.  Sanchez hopes to argue against this position by claiming that both Berlin and Althusser theorize ideology as nondiscursive.  In this understanding writing operates as a representational medium that pushes against or disseminates ideology (41).  As S. puts it, “they sanction a theory of writing as the notation system of thought and culture rather than the production of sentences and statements that come to be identified, retrospectively, as thought and culture” (41).
  • Sanchez wants to theorize subjectivity as a function of textual activity – an affect.  As he notes, “So theorized, writing subjects would be understood as organizations of writing” (


  • Berline: ideologies are “competing discursive interpretations” of the world (42) that are “inscribed in language practices” (43).  Rhetoric is inscribed with “ideological perspective(s)” that determine its function – rhetoric is an effect of ideology.  The three presuppositions of Berlin’s rhetoric: 1) there must be something: ideology the social, material conditions, the individual, individual rights, freedom, the dialectic, and 2) it must be able to be known (thus rational), and 3) it must be able to be communicated (thus language and subjects are already presupposed to be rational). (156)
  • Sanchez claims that Berlin’s explanation of the power of power/ideology is problematic in that the subject is negotiating the different discursive regimes that coalesce around it’s being; however, in this state of affairs writing merely functions as the “notation system of experience” the subject uses to negotioate the codes/discourses of power/ideology.  The enlightened subject is the subject that recognizes and understands the codes of power/ideology and can rail against them.  The space between discourse and lived experience in this theorization is what Sanchez has a problem with.  Berlin’s pedagogy provides students with a way to “read” the cultural codes of the world; however, it doesn’t necessarily allow for a way to write it (49).
  • Althusser’s definition of ideology:  Ideology represents ‘the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live” (50).  Sanchez wants to confront ideology’s relationship to writing – he notes that composition theory should be asking, “How does the act of generating discourse – specifically the act of writing – produce and circulate effects that, always and only in retrospect, come to be termed ideological?  And what are the features of a subject that generates this activity?” (51).
  • Sanchez uses Butler’s work to point out a weakness in Althusser’s (and by extension Berlin’s) theory of interpellation: How do we describe or distinguish the soon-to-be-subject in the pre-hailing?  Said differently, how do we describe the subject before it is discursively called into being?  Of course, the answer is that you can’t do this without a “grammartical” explanation of the subject – you can’t do this without writing.  Writing becomes the very site of subject-formation (55).
  • Sanchez proposes a “general theory of the surface” to describe this grammatical explanation of the subject – ideology and writing both occur on the discursive surface in the act of writing – not in the “epistemic depths” of knowledge or ideology pre-writing (58).  This means that writing doesn’t “communicate ideas” or ideology – both ideas and ideology are part of the “terminological residues of writing” (60).

Chapter Four:  Theories of Culture in Composition Theory

  • In this chapter Sanchez considers how composition’s borrowing of cultural theory typically leads to overly narrow representational understandings of writing/texts.
  • Sanchez begins by claiming that cultural theory has been used in composition as a means to decode or unpack existing texts.  Instead, Sanchez argues for considering culture and writing as action, not as artifacts left behind.
  • Sanchez again takes Berlin to task in this chapter by charging that his cultural decoding model of composition is merely a rearticulation of the hermeneutic process encouraged by traditional English studies; however, with the influx of cultural theory the body of texts to be interpreted is larger. . . but this pedagogy is still a hermeneutic and representational enterprise – not generative.
  • Sanchez’s consideration of textbooks and scholarly publications on curriculum call compositionist’s to task for merely using writing to teach other interpretive skills.  In other words, these writing classes teach reflection and interpretation but don’t attend to genre, rhetorical purpose, etc. (68).  S. calls this representational writing technologies because writing is used to convey meaning/thoughts or other abstract, interiorized concepts.
  • Sanchez lets us in on his new vision for writing in this chapter: “if one were to fuse comp. theory’s interest in understanding writing to cultural theory’s concern with explaining how ideological formulations are rooted in uneven power relations, one would prepare the ground for empirical studies that might, in time, provide a more comprehensive account of writing as, rather than in, culture (71).  Said differently, Sanchez wants comp. theory to attend to cultural theory’s analytics in order to better understand the theory of composing artifacts that produce the conditions for representation.
  • The arc of theorizing the writing subject: 1) Emig – Composing Process – enacts a study that begins and stays with the writing student – not the reading student or the finished text – to understand what happens when folks write.  Her book underscores the importance of writing as instrumental to the development of thought – not it’s mere replication in material form.  2) Shaughnessy’s Errors and Expectations starts with written products and works back the “act of writing” by speculating on fulfilled and unfulfilled writer intentions.  Shaughnessy’s text is instrumental in pushing literary studies to recognize the writing subject as a subject position.  3)  Bartholomae’s “Inventing the University” took the writing-subject as it’s focus and positioned her within networks of institutional power by a close analysis of written texts and acts of writing.  This broadened understandings of the composing process to account for a larger networks of connections and significations than had ever been considered before.
  • Sanchez leans on Bhaba in this chapter to argue that culture – like writing – are effects or functions of production – not representations in productions.  In a move toward the dynamic, Sanchez adopts Bhaba’s “culture-as-enunciation” thesis that considers specific acts and places rather than particular things and ideas.  This is an attention to the rhetorical and speaks to the generative potential of H/N’s singularities as much as the actions of writing-subjects (79-80).  In this act the location of culture is in the “signifying activity” itself, not the artifacts that are supposed to convey it’s meaning.

Chapter Five:  Writing Without Subjects

  • Sanchez begins the chapter by recapping his argument:  I have argued [that knowledge, ideology, and culture] are better seen as particular effects of writings apparently systemic function of invoking something else, which nonetheless and invariably turns out, upon examination, to be more writing.  The most salient feature of writing is therefore not its representational function but its ability to proceed as if it has a representational function (85).
  • Sanchez first takes up the issue of modern rhetoric in this chapter.  He questions the relevancy of retrofitting ancient rhetorical theory for modern contexts (didn’t he rely on Davis earlier?!?) and, more pointedly, excoriates rhetoric for adopting the hermeneutic discourse.  This means that a hermeneutic theory of rhetoric (what is that again?) will yield hermeneutic theories of writing . . . which are representational (88).  So, Sanchez proposes abandoning rhetoric because of its preoccupation with things – the effects of writing.
  • A ‘hermeneutic’ theory of writing places the hermeneutic act at the beginning of any chain of discursive activity or signification (91-2).  This occurs during the “invention” phase and means that the process of interpretation is instrumental/core to any theory of rhetoric.  This is because experience happens first – later it is reinterpreted and put into language – it is written.
  • So, in this articulation of a rhetorical hermeneutics or a hermeneutic rhetoric meaning – whether generated or transmitted – is the essential aim of writing; however, writing still remains representational, always pointing to something else.  Both hermeneutical and representational understandings of writing still yearn for meaning – something that exists outside the range of the textual rhetorics of existence.
  • The grand unveiling: there is only writing (96) – the grammatological perspective.  But what’s the point?  Is this contention so total that you can’t actually do anything with it?  Put differently, “At the level of the individual body, how does the socially and culturally embedded (f)act of writing occur and what can be said about it?” (97-8).
  • If we accept the “subject” as prediscursive entity we can: 1) assume that writing is a meaningful activity; and 2) use our empirical and theoretical equipment to make general and specific statements about patterns of meaning as well as the nature of meaning itself (99).
  • On Sanchez’s new theory: 1) Agency is not a problem to be addressed by a theory of writing because the study of writing is the study of production and reception without subjects – a grammar of writing.


1.     It seems like Sanchez might have something of a chicken and egg problem here:  Which came first philosophical ur-terms like knowledge and ideology that manifest through writing or writing that structures the existence of philosophical ur-terms like knowledge and ideology?  In the first chapter Sanchez notes that “By redefining concepts as discursive tactics within a general framework of writing, composition theory can move closer toward explaining what writing is and how writing works in the world” (9).  What is this “general framework of writing”?  Is it the “arche-writing” that describes all human activity?  Is it the “vulgar” writing that we see inscribed on computers, screens, papers?  Or a blend? (If a blend, doesn’t it become interchangeable with ontology?  Again, I don’t necessarily see an escape from this form of dialectic that Sanchez is painting – perhaps they’re mutually constitutive and co-structuring rather than one or the other. . .

2.     It would seem that this is one of the first times I’ve read an argument against interdisciplinarity.  Locating writing as the ur-term turns our disciplinary gaze back unto ourselves only.  Is this ever a good idea?  While I certainly agree that the potpourri approach to theory is typically a bad idea, I wonder about the value of strict conformity to a single methodological approach.

3.     How can Sanchez claim that epistemic rhetoric looks for something else?  (20)  This occurs at the point where Sanchez hints at leaving rhetoric behind as well – another mere construct of writing.  Sanchez notes that a discussion of this sort happens in communications circles (21); however, he doesn’t go into it.  It’d be great if his book was a tad longer and he could take in some of those other critiques of Berlin/social-epistemic rhetoric.

4.     I think there are connections to be drawn between Sanchez’s generative, grammatological theory of writing and the approach(es) advocated by Hawk to understand writing subjects as singularity(ies).  This is perhaps most clearly articulated by Sanchez on 79-81 when he sketches the contours of enunciative writing theory.  Thoughts?

5.     The difference between ideology and hegemony: is hegemony just a far larger-scale operation that is coercive rather than imaginative – or both?  Gramsci’s cultural hegemony and Althusser’s ideological state apparatus’ seem similar; however, Althusser’s ISAs seem a little more short-sighted than Gramsci’s articulation of multi-layered hegemony.

6.     Sanchez constantly excoriates Berlin for teaching the interpretation of signs rather than the production of them; however, I wonder what else there is (supposedly he’ll tell me in the last chapter).  What I mean is if writing – in the grammatalogical sense – is a priori to knowledge, culture, and ideology then isn’t the teaching of written reception just as important as teaching written production. . . I know that reception means interpretation which is a big no-no; however, how can you teach production without an attendance to reception?  Chicken-Egg problem again I think, maybe?!?  According to Sanchez, “composition theory should examine the acts of control, resistance, adaptation, and accommodation that composing subjects who are both producers and products of discourse carry out” (71).  Doesn’t this mean you must interpret the symbol systems and power codes that writing is constantly in the act of critiquing and producing?

One Response to “Sanchez – The Function of Theory in Composition Studies”

  1. Sanchez, Raul. The Function of Theory in Composition Studies. Albany: SUNY Press, 2005. « New Seeds

    […] Raul. The Function of Theory in Composition Studies. Albany: SUNY Press, 2005. My colleague JL tends to think that Sanchez is suffering from a chicken/egg problem in this book. That is, […]

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