Wednesday, October 21, 2009

96. Introduction to the Modern Rhetoric Colloquium (10/22/2009)

About the Modern Rhetoric Project

The Modern Rhetoric Project begins, officially, today. But its real origins are shrouded in mystery. Did it begin in David Gore’s office in Spring 2006, when Elizabeth Nelson, Michael Pfau and I read David’s dissertation together? Did it begin over pizza at Pfau’s house in Lakeside in Summer 2005? Or when that core, plus Ken Marunowski and Willie Henderson, met over dinner at Elizabeth Nelson’s house? Did it begin when Joshua Gunn, Richard Graff, Marguerite Helmers, William Keith, James Aune, Tim Behme, Mark Huglen and many others come to Duluth, funded by the Institute for Advanced Study, to share their research? Or did it begin in 2002, when I attended an NCA in which my colleague and friend, Jim Pratt, was honored by a speech by Jim Aune, reminding me that the world is much smaller than I thought? Or when Pratt encouraged me to read the International Journal of Listening, where James Floyd had placed an article on Modern Rhetoricians and listening? Or when, in conversations with gifted students like Beth Schoborg, Joe Erickson, Eden Leone, and Anne Davis, I tried to articulate what I think about for a living -- conversations that both sharpen and enliven any scholar? Or did it begin when Art Walzer and Alan Gross taught me to think systematically (about I. A. Richards) in the first place? Did it begin when I heard Roger Graves talk about the state and tradition of rhetoric and writing studies in Canada (and I discovered that to be Modern in Canada was more different than I thought)? Or when I met Kirsti Cole and Debtra Hawhee and Liz Kalbfleisch at RSA this summer?

Here‘s the strongest contender: it started at the Lake Avenue Cafe. In 2007-2008, the Institute for Advanced Study funded visitors to UMD to talk about rhetoric. Among them was Elizabeth Birmingham. I met Dr. Birmingham again later in Duluth, and she gave me this bit of advice: “when reapplying for the grant, think about a configuration that would be useful to you.” And what would be useful to me, it seemed, was an event to think through what seems to me to be the great gap in our knowledge of the history and theory and pedagogy of rhetoric: rhetoric’s relationship to modernity. We have a history of rhetoric as it passes through the modern era (as rhetoric moves from Campbell to Whately, from Blair to Fred Newton Scott, from the elocutionists to Wichelns, from the Cornell School to R. L. Scott. But we have yet to systematically think through rhetoric’s relationship to modernity as a complex cultural phenomenon (or as some social theorists have called it, a distinct form of civilization).

What does it mean to be modern? In developing this colloquium, I have found that every paper has its own starting point. Is it a way of understanding the nature of the person, the nature of human social institutions, of human relationships to the natural world? Is it about the certainty of science, about the efficiency of technology? Is it about a rejection of tradition, about a transformation of it? Is it about the new experience of a world shrunk by transportation technologies, new media, and global trade? Is it about interdisciplinarity (certainly the excellent work engaging the exegesis of Burke makes that point), about fragmentation (as bits and pieces of rhetoric slide into literary, composition, communication, philosophical and cultural studies). Most puzzlingly, is it about a transformation is our experience of time (from a millennialist to an open-ended view)? And, as we will see, a major question is whether modernity, as it both shapes and is itself inflected by rhetoric, is just one thing.

(Those of you who know me well enough know that I think that, when we have parsed out the answer to this question, we will have found the rightful place of I. A. Richards at the center of the curriculum and tradition.)

But there is a conceit in colloquia like these: a misperception that they are about an idea, investigated by people. In fact, this colloquium is as much about the people whose paths have crossed (at UMD, through the kindness of the Institute) and the common work they do and have done. At this event, we have invited participation by MA and PhD students from four programs at three universities, and we want them to recognize the paradox of the profession: that scholarship is a solitary activity, done within a community.

An administrative note: This event is being audio recorded, because Rhetoric Review may be interested in parts of our discussion , and video recorded for the Institute’s online archive of activities. (Perhaps this started when Mark Huglen and I had a beer in Crookston and talked about future grant work together.) If you are comfortable with these activities, please sign one of the Institute’s releases.

Tonight, we will hear two presentations by William Keith and by James Aune (next), we will eat, and we will hear more from Roger Graves, our guest from Canada. The configuration is intentionally interdisciplinary (composition and communication) and international (the United States and Canada). There are other schedules of events available as you entered the room, and there are pre-cedings (copies of drafts, excerpts, or PowerPoints) of the papers delivered designed to facilitate note-taking at this event -- they are not to be quoted from. Please treat them like you would a naked picture of your adult child, because each of the authors would be surely as nervous or embarrassed (as your adult child might) if these works in progress were seen outside this event.

With that, I turn now to my friend and colleague and mentor, Jim Pratt, who will introduce Jim Aune.

1 comment:

Krista said...

This is just about the coolest thing ever. I'm so sorry I'm not there.