Sirc, English Composition as a Happening

Geoffrey. English Composition as a Happening. Logan, Utah: Utah
State University Press, 2002.

How do we make the classroom a happening space, a space "no one wants
to leave"? In English Composition as a Happening, Sirc winds through a
series of statements–a gallery crawl–contrasting,
, Modern Composition studies and the materially and
processually radical avante-garde arts
. In the figures of Marcel Duchamp
and Jackson Pollock (among others) who have gone under-examined as
, Sirc leads a full-on assault of the Modernist fortress
of disciplinarity- and professionalism-minded Composition studies
. The
or juridical spirit of Modern Composition studies as well
as its most notable proponent, David Bartholomae, the "Sherman Lee of
", have reduced writing to an enterprise of the stuffy, unreadable,
and tame
: "We purged ourselves of any trace of kookiness, growing first
suspicious, then disdainful, of the kind of homemade comp-class-as-Happening
that people like [William] Lutz tried to put together" (7). Absent the
imaginative, mystical, and passionate, comp’s de-intensification leads to the
commonplaces about despair and despondency. One glance at the narrowed
range of "bread-alone" possibilities (conventions, "rarified materials"
(11)) corresponding to Modernist Composition, and there’s no surprise in seeing
the glum faces: boredom predominates in this spiritless domain.

Sirc calls his project a "historical review"; he works from figure to
figure, both from composition in the late twentieth century and also from the
avante-garde arts to give a "re-reading of the field" (13). Marcel
Duchamp, for instance, forces us to rethink the narrowness of material
possibilities; post-process is only possible if we never consider Jackson
Pollock’s ongoing, intensely precise enactments of process and variation.
Venturi’s studies of "nonstraightforward architecture" might help us
introduce a "new urbanism" to composition studies. Change the scene:
make it more like the Vegas strip or like the "bold communication" of the A&P
parking lot’s "megatexture"
(191): feature drift as method.


Sirc’s tongue-in-cheek, rapid-fire style is, in itself, intense–a
demonstration of exciting (sweat-inducing) prose emblematic of the through-going
propositions in the monograph. As summarily as is possible, this project
advocates for radical practice, for rejuvinating the happenings
influences in the late 60’s and 70’s
that have dwindled from the scene as
the field has become a legitimate (self-defined) discipline with expanded
channels for professionalization: an Modernist outpost perpetuating essayistic
rationalism to the neglect of everything disallowed. Sirc challenges the
processual and material orthodoxies
of the field, and, in so-doing, presents
a lively, kicky set of quandaries for keeping with us on the gallery crawl

Key terms: Venturi and basic architecture (1), museums (2), self-definition
and Post-Happenings Composition (8, 35), turns and re-turns (14), gallery crawl
(20, 286), hacienda (26), juried scene (38), mathematics of accordance (42),
restricted teleintertext (56), travel narrative (65), derive
(89), choosing (113), alert waiting (113), material gesture (113), prose web
(114), basic writers (118), post-process (119), new urbanism (187, 222), "nonstraightforward
architecture" (189), A&P parking lot (191), psychogeography (195), bread-alone
composition (201), pleasure zones (223), successful writing (228),
architectonics of Composition (232), Sherman Lee (266), academic gatekeeper
(266), residual objects (272).

"Because designing spaces, I think, is what it’s all about. It’s a
matter of basic architecture:
Robert Venturi has
shown that simplified compositional programs, programs that ignore the
complexity and contradiction of everyday life, result in bland architecture;
and I think the reverse is true as well, and perhaps more relevant for
Composition: bland architecture (unless substantially detourned,
as Lutz’s) evokes simplistic programs" (1).

On Composition’s Canon and citation: "As article after article
appeared, once could trace the waxing and waning of theoretical trends:
Langer, Polanyi, Vygotsky, Odell, Emig, Berthoff, Bruffee, Bartholomae, Berlin,
Anzaldua, Foucault, and Freire. This
is curious for a discipline that trumpets the value of
linguistic richness" (7).

"Post-Happenings Composition never asks (as Comp ’68 did so often) ‘What’s
Going On?
‘ To remove any doubt about precisely what was going on,
Composition undertook the classical modernist project of self-definition"

"Strict boundaries have become maintained in Composition, a separation
of (profession-oriented) academy and life, one discipline from another, the
specific discourse from a broader lived reality. This is not Freshman English as
a Happening, this is Freshman English as a Corporate Seminar" (9).

"The reason the teaching of writing is permeated by dissatisfaction
(every CCCC presentation seems, at some level, a complaint) is that
we–bad enough–don’t really know what teaching is, but also–far worse, fatal,
in fact–we haven’t really evolved an idea of writing that fully reflects
the splendor of the medium" (9).

"Rarefying materials, as Composition does (the middle-brow preciosity
or academic aloofness that drives the reading selections we anthologize), only
makes the possibilities for Happening Composition more remote,
particularly for students" (11).

"I’d like, then, to retrace the road not taken in Composition Studies, to
re-read the elision
, in order to remember what was missed and to salvage
what can still be recovered. This, then, is a negative-space history, one
that reverses the conventional figure-ground relations to find the most fruitful
avenues of inquiry to be those untouched or abandoned by the disciplinary
mainstream. The disruptive/restorative dynamic of my project means both
rediscovering the usefulness of some materials of Composition that have faded
from our conscious screen
, and forcing a comparison of our field with
the avante-garde tradition in post-WWII American art, running that story through
our own traditional, disciplined history–or better, showing our history as
already-ruptured, permanently destabilized by our attitude toward
(really, ignorance of) the compositional avante-garde" (13).

"The cause of our current stasis? Doubtless the major influence has
been Composition’s professionalization, its self-tormented quest for
disciplinary stature
" (24).

"Just because the rest of the curriculum has banned enchantment in
favor of a narrow conception of life-as-careerism that doesn’t mean we have to
go along, does it?" (28).

"The Happenings lesson to take from Jackson’s art is (life-)
: his process fascinates not in order to discover how to
paint like Jackson (reproducing forms, reinstituting rhetorics) but to
empathize with him
, to re-enter the compositional scene as Kaprow could, to
consider how he solved problems (what he even saw as problems), how he met
limits, considered materials, tried to make a direct statement in an interesting
way–to think about what Jackson felt in the moments of composition"

"But Modernist Composition never admits it doesn’t know what’s
going on" (88).

"A prose web, then, is writing as doing things to a range of
. Composition as material gesture. It means changing the
axis of the image, supplying the (missing, now active) horizontal vector to
disable the predictability of composition’s strict verticality" (114).

"You know what our problem is? It’s a failure of nerve in our
myth-making; revealing that about the field might be Jackson’s most useful
function for CCCC" (115).

"The way students actually inhabit the writing classroom’s cityscape is very
much in keeping with the situationist notion of the derive,
the method used to chart a city’s psychogeography" (195).

"I bring in Bono because the writing classroom under the bread-alone program
resembles nothing so much as a lame parody of MTV, as seen by the TV show
designed, in effect, to be a lame parody of MTV, ‘Puttin on the Hits’: writing
in the bread-alone composition class becomes lip-syncing the standards,
and teaching becomes a question of judging the authenticity of the imitation"

"All writing courses, regardless of their ideological advocacy, become
when they close on received notions of form and function"

"All a curriculum designed to reproduce uniformity in writing empowers
is the system academic writing serves (no matter how counter-hegemonic
its ideology, there remain those ‘reformist-progressive social and industrial
aims that it could seldom achieve in reality’). Why conceal it?" (219).

"Compared with the way post-Happenings Composition defines the classroom
enterprise of college writing instruction, as a professional commitment to
do a certain kind of work with a certain set of materials

Composition as a Happening
is far less mediated, looser. It silences that
tedious, already-wrote drone of knowing, selecting, evaluating,
reporting, concluding, and arguing. It is a pedagogy
designed to un-build our field’s spaces, a standard-stoppage, a
composition theory (like Schoenberg’s) that values the eraser end of the pencil
(or the delete key)" (278).

!!: 1962 (20), rel. Fulkerson’s axiology (155), trying on academic language

Related sources:
Bartholomae, David. "What is Composition and (if you know what that is)
Why Do We Teach It?" Composition in the Twenty-First Century: Crisis and
. Ed. Lynn Z. Bloom, Donald A. Daiker, and Edward M. White.
Carbondale: SIU Press, 1996. 11-28.
Deemer, Charles. "English Composition as a Happening." College English
29 (Nov. 1967): 121-126.
Rodrigues, Raymond J. "Moving Away from Writing-Process Worship."
English Journal
Sept. 1985: 24-27.