Sunday, September 27, 2009

74. repost from the Blogora discussion on Cultural Studies

I'm going to push at this 1992 analogy...
Submitted by syntaxfactory on September 27, 2009 - 6:16am.
...because one of the editors of that set of proceedings was my advisor, Art Walzer, and he was still, I think, inflected by the experience of that conference theme when I started grad school three years later. The 1994 conference, themed "Rhetoric, Cultural Studies, and Literacy," seems to share the same dynamic; the "problem" did not go away.

In 1992, RSA was, I'd bet, a conference with 300 attendees, and already (I'd bet) people were complaining that it was too big. At the same time, there was a clear sense that cultural studies was going to take over the realm or at least the terms of rhetoric. At Minnesota, the introductory course in undergraduate cultural studies was called "the rhetoric of everyday life," a rhetoric that had no connection to the Rhetorical Tradition.

Hipsters interested in "tropes" did so via reference to de Man without reference to the tradition that came before. Indeed, this is why Brian Vickers was so important, at least to me, for cutting de Man off at the knees for his efforts to 3,000 years of a tradition to a system of tropes. Visual communication was the realm of the Barthesian rhetoric of the image -- a rhetoric that was really a semiotic of the image, because it was made without reference to the tradition. And even when someone did acknowledge the tradition, they did, as Barthes did: in an "Aide Memoire" to something that has passed on, to be replaced by semiotics or by cultural studies approaches.

Rhetoric was everywhere, but rhetoric, as understood by scholars in composition and communication, was lost in this plethora of other uses of the term. Does this account resonate?

The Rosteck anthology, read as a response to this climate of anxiety, seems to me a sideways response (I'll admit, I've not read all of it): It seems to answer the questions of the type posed by these two conference themes by claiming "rhetoricians can do cultural studies work, too." Rather than correcting the impoverished work of the rhetoric in cultural studies by demonstrating that the classical toolbox (and this classical toolbox is not simply Aristotle; it includes the reinvention of that toolkit by generations of later writers) "does work in rhetoric better," it seems also to say that "we can use their tools, too." Which is an answer, but not the answer anyone planning these RSA events was looking for. (At best, I think, the hope might have been something like Burke's marriage of Aristotle and Freud.)

Which goes, I think, to the measure of the success of Cultural Studies. We can't go back to the and/or of the 1992/1994 RSAs. Having picked up the hammer, the discipline found so many nails, it couldn't stop until it talked NCA into starting a journal, until SIUP had printed three or four anthologies of interviews from JAC on critical theory and cultural studies, and so on.

Can someone who lived through these early 1990s gimme a better account?


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