There is a unique aspect of social-epistemic that Berlin highlights which I believe is worth exploring for the pedagogical implications it assumes. Berlin writes, “Social-epistemic rhetoric is the study and critique of signifying practices in their relation to subject formation within the framework of economic, social, and political conditions” (Rhetorics, Poetics, and Cultures 83). The interesting point that stands out to me as I reread this self-admitted “dense formulation” (ibid) is the detail about “subject formation.” As I stop and think about this idea in relation to teaching first-year composition, I have come to see social-epistemic rhetoric in a new light—one that informs a classroom practice that I did not at first see.
Ideology and Subjects
In chapter 5, Berlin sets up his discussion of social-epistemic by first describing the function of ideology within discourse by outlining the work of Goran Therborn’s The Ideology of Power and the Power of Ideology. Berlin writes, “From this perspective, ideology interpellates [brings into being] subjects—that is, addresses and shapes them—through discourses that offer directives about three important domains of experience: what exists, what is good, and what is possible” (84). In other words, ideology influences every person’s perception of reality as well as their own place within this reality, and who they are in relation to this reality. Of course, the three “domains of experience” are methods of interpretation (more complicated than mentioned here) that allows a critic to observe this influence of ideology on the subject. The important point to observe here is how individuals are situated within a wide range of significations, but that individuals also retain a level of agency to make change happen. As Berlin explains, we are not just “unwitting product[s] of external discursive and material forces. The subject negotiates and resists codes rather than simply accommodating them” (85).
There are some interesting pedagogical implications that social-epistemic rhetoric assumes with this focus on “subject formation” and the recognition of agency (or being agents of change) within the ideological influence of discourse. Berlin writes, “Most important, it [social-epistemic] has maintained a commitment to preparing students for citizenship in a democratic society” (87). My purpose with this discussion is not to herald the development of “democratic citizens,” but to focus in on the implications of seeing our students as malleable subjects within a sea of significations that require our students to negotiate their own subjectivity (whether consciously or performatively). In this way, my role as a writing instructor is more than just increasing literacy and critical thinking skills; we are tasked with the duty of awakening our students in a way that is analogous to the Matrix, when Morpheus presents Neo with two pills (one to stay asleep and the other to wake up from the dream that is the matrix). My one concern is that instead of waking “the one,” our students are more like the “Dude” from the Big Lebowski: