Monday, February 22, 2010

185. From the Blogora

On the Atomization of Rhetoric: A Response

disciplinarity rhetoric
Submitted by Jim Brown on February 19, 2010 - 11:27am

In a recent collaborative blog post, Brian McNely and Christa Teston have kicked off a discussion of which I think Blogora should be a part. That discussion is one that I have touched on previously, and I’d like to offer a response to their discussion in the interest of, in their words (though, they are channeling Robert Scott), “cooperative critical inquiry.” I want to offer a three-pronged response.

In the course of that response, I will offer a gloss of their various arguments, but I would encourage you to read their entire post.

1. Rhetoric as epistemic
McNely and Teston argue that the “atomization” of rhetoric is both a blessing and a curse. That atomization means that

“rhetoric as an academic discipline and professional practices suffers from… a context-stripping particularity that reduces rhetorical practice to departments, domains, specialties, sub-disciplines, colloquialisms. And yet we simultaneously recognize that such atomization has been historically productive; atomization has fostered new approaches and understandings that, for so long, have been othered or invisible.”

But there is one more “and yet”: “And yet…atomization separates, bifurcates, siloizes.” I think most would agree that this is an accurate depiction of our inter-discipline's current situation. Steve Mailloux’s Discipilinary Identities has a good bit to say about the history of this predicament, and I think we can take it as commonplace that rhetoric is “atomized” and that the situation has its advantages and disadvantages.

However, where McNely and Teston head from here is a bit curious. For while I see rhetoric is atomized, I don’t think I think I see that atomization in the same way. Let me explain.

McNely and Teston offer a set of aphorisms in an attempt to reset this conversation, and that reset returns to Robert Scott’s argument that rhetoric is epistemic, that it is performative and not constative, that it “does not discover, it invents and produces.” They offer Scott’s work because they “these propositions are not shared within our field. There are profound disciplinary and pragmatic implications for accepting, rejecting, or ignoring these propositions.”

This is one place where I think I’d have part ways with McNely and Teston, because when I read CCC or RSQ (and maybe I should read QSJ and others more often), I don’t see many who would not accept Scott’s assertion. It may be that there are other “atoms” of rhetoric that do not take the “rhetoric as epistemic” position as commonplace, and maybe that’s where this disussion needs to head. I would need to see some evidence of McNely and Teston’s sense of the situation. The books and journals I’m thinking of don’t cite Scott, but that’s because Scott (and the textual constellation surrounding his seminal text) is assumed. So, I’m just not certain about this attempt to reset the conversation by returning to an argument that has, in many circles, been a platform (and not a point of argument) for quite some time. Then again, I am willing to admit that I am not plugged in to all of rhetoric’s “atoms” – I’m open to a discussion on this topic.

2.) “Human Agency”
Upon offering the premises from which they argue—that rhetoric is epistemic, that it is not a “mere tool” or linguistic “dressing,” that rhetoric is a worldview, that rhetoric “makes as it goes and defines its ends along the way,” that rhetoric is not a mere conduit—McNely and Teston offer this:

“These propositions neither invalidate nor ignore the role of human agency in the making of meaning. In fact, we argue that rhetoric is embodied and materially instantiated, and because of this, rhetoric is grounded in human agency. Pierre Thevenaz claims that “man acts and speaks before he knows. Or, better, it is by acting and in action that he is enabled to know” (quoted in Scott 1967). So, because rhetoric is being and knowing, because knowing and being are rhetoric (and not merely rhetoric-al), we argue that rhetoric structures, facilitates, and makes possible human agency. Human agency and rhetoric cannot be excised from one another. They are mutually constitutive.”

In this statement, I would argue that McNely and Teston’s attempt to reset the discussion has offered what I (and I think others) would see as a somewhat exclusionary discussion of rhetoric’s relationship to agency. That is, they are concerned that the field(s) of rhetoric do not share an important assumption—that rhetoric is epistemic—but in their discussion of agency they have assumed a particular theorization of rhetoric and agency. I am not arguing that there is not human agency (nobody that I know of argues this), and I am not arguing that humans don’t make things happen in the world. But I do think that reducing agency to the “human” leaves out a whole number of important questions about agency. I am not comfortable with the statement that “rhetoric is grounded in human agency,” because it would seem to suggest that other loci of agency (technologies, for instance) are some how secondary to considerations of human agency.

There is much more to say here, but I would only offer a brief example from my own research. I’m interested in how software helps to shape rhetorical situations. This means that software has agency, and it means that computer programs interact with humans in complex ways. Software doesn't dictate the rhetorical situation. Rather, it is part of a complex "media ecology." By privileging human agency, we run the risk of disregarding a complex ecology of agencies—that ecology does not obliterate human agency, but it certainly complicates it. In fact, McNely and Teston’s concern that rhetoric is considered a “mere tool” is the exact concern that I would raise here. I am not the first to argue that technology is not “mere tool,” but I am happy to repeat the argument here in the interest of complicating our notion of agency. As I see it, McNely and Teston have offered a discussion that seems too quick to put the human agent at the center of the rhetorical situation. Humans are accompanied by technologies, texts, etc—all of which have “agencies”—and this complicated situation, as I see it, is reduced to something much simpler if we focus too much on “human agency.”

3.) “Writing practices as they occur in the world”

I also have some questions about one of their concluding passages:

“Our aim is to move from the above described philosophical revival of rhetoric-as-epistemic toward constructs that support more grounded investigations of rhetoric and writing practices as they occur in the world. We want to explode contexts, to make strange, and to complicate without sacrificing the holistic nature of rhetoric. Grounded, activity- and practice-based methodologies and methods, therefore, are where we turn from here.” (emphasis in original)

I’m not quite sure what this passage is getting at. It seems that they’re putting forth an argument that certain qualitiative methods (such as grounded theory?) are their “way forward,” and I wonder how this fits with their attempt at a more inclusive (less atomized) version of rhetorical studies. Such qualitative methods are but one part of our methodological landscape, and I would hope that McNely and Teston are open to a broad range of methods. I do not study writing qualitatively, but I do study “writing practices as they occur in the world.” I’m not sure who in rhetoric and writing studies does not study writing in this way.
McNely and Teston are clearly interested in these issues, and their discussion of how new media should play a part in this conversation shows this. They argue that “text” should not be prior to “image” in rhetorical studies, and they are clearly concerned with some of the issues I raise here. However, their framing of the question of method seems to leave out certain theoretical approaches.

By way of conclusion…
My aim here is not to say that anyone is wrong. If anything, I only want to upset a bit of McNely and Teston’s set up (if I might channel Samuel Weber for a moment) in the interest of furthering discussion. McNely and Teston acknowledge that their aphoristic blog post is “deserving of refinement” and they have asked us to “consider this work as but a ‘process of interaction in a given moment.’” And it may be that I have misread their aphoristic “constitution” for rhetoric and writing studies. My hope is that they (and some Blogora readers) will set me straight if this has happened. I offer my thoughts in the interest of continuing this discussion.

Jim Brown's blog Add new comment
companion post to "On the Atomization of Rhetoric"
Submitted by Jim Brown on February 22, 2010 - 1:50pm.
Just wanted to provide a link to Christa Teston's recent companion post:

[Update/Correction: This is another collaborative blog post written by McNely and Teston]

» delete edit reply
Submitted by syntaxfactory on February 22, 2010 - 8:43pm.
...and yet, I feel like a guy who showed up to the game wearing a handball glove, while his partners showed up with a catcher's mitt.

It may be hard to see, once in a while, but we are a friendly bunch, and I hope McNely and Teston will move into the dialogue genre to advance their work and our community.

» delete edit reply
the magisterial gesture
Submitted by slewfoot on February 20, 2010 - 10:38am.
I am running behind schedule and regret I don't have time to responsibly engage, however, the root "response" here is key. I very much appreciate the commentary of Dave and Jim, with whom I am in agreement.

I disagree with the fundamental moves of McNely and Teston for five reasons:

1. The conflation of ontology and rhetoric. Oh boy, where does one begin? Huge swaths of literature take up this move as a problem. Let's start with the critique of the transcendental subject? We begin with Hegel . . . .

2. The productive misreading reinvents a spare tire. In (partial) sympathy with Brummett, in the speech tradition the equivocation of how and the what led Cherwitz and Hikins to posit a new literature. As Dave suggests, to continue down this road, the philosophical particulars need to be rehearsed so we can better understand how new media makes a return novel (and productive). In what ways does this "new old" perspective differ from Cherwitz? I know the answer immediately, but still one must engage . . . .

3. The choice of metaphor. As I learn more and more about rhetoric's institutional history, I'd replace atomization with the blob. Folks would like things to be discrete, and there were many squabbles over finding differences, but "we rhetoricians" have more in common than not.

4. On not defining rhetoric. Cf. Robert L. Scott

5. Regarding four: all we have is our institutional history, which is---knock on Hayden White---rhetorical. But it's the best way to make sense of the Blob. Certainly it's my preference over ontologizing.

6. Scott's essays on epistemic rhetoric are routinely misread. As I have argued tirelessly whenever they come up in discussion, the temptation to slide into ontological claims obscures the ethical implications of his argument. The claim is not "if rhetorical practice constitutes reality, then reality is X," but rather, "if rhetorical practice is constitutive of meaningful reality, then it entails a responsibility." At the time of Scott's writing, everyone was reading +Being and Time+ and +Existentialism is a Humanism+ . . . 60s tumult. Vietnam. What was at stake in the epistemic debate--from years of personal conversation with the man---was the killing of people. Pat Gehrke argues similarly in his THE ETHICS AND POLITICS OF SPEECH. (Good read, highly recommended.)

Sorry to be the grumpus who says, "but it's more complicated than that." As I continue to wrestle with teaching the pedagogy of un-mastery or anti-mastery---and all the contradictions that necessarily come with that---I am increasingly hysteriptical of the magisterial genres.

» delete edit reply
Submitted by syntaxfactory on February 20, 2010 - 11:22am.
...there any discipline worse at metaphors for self-understanding? "Atoms," "blobs," and of course, "size matters"?

» delete edit reply
I'll pick this up... [edited & revised]
Submitted by syntaxfactory on February 20, 2010 - 4:29am.
...though from angles different from yours, Jim. [I've eliminated digressions about philosophy and some other stuff that enters into writing at 4:30am.]


Below, I respond more or less to the claims of this other blog, as they arise, based on Jim Brown’s suggestions for engagement. Their work in quotes, mine not.

“This post explores theoretical propositions that have potentially broad implications for researchers and practitioners in the field of Rhetoric and Writing Studies and related disciplinary and professional domains.”

There is much to be made right in this first paragraph: the selection of rhetoric and writing studies locates our authors on one half of an American disciplinary divide (composition and communication as the locations where rhetoric is done). We could even suggest that there is a sub-fracture between scholars who identify as "rhet/ws" differentiate from "rhet/comp" -- Ball State changed the name of its curricular emphasis to reflect that identification, I think.

Great strides are being made every day to heal this divide, to bridge this divide. But we start on one half of the map, in this polemic. When the bloggers say:

“our field fails to centrally position and explicitly theorize the epistemic and ontological nature of rhetoric when investigating and articulating how various modes of representation afford knowledge-making… Scott argues that “if truth is somehow both prior and substantial, then problems need not be worked out but only classified and disposed of.” Consequently, Scott rejects “prior and enabling truth as the epistemological basis” for rhetoric; so do we….”

…we know that this failure is true, moreso, of composition-rhetoric, perhaps, than speech-rhetoric. In speech rhetoric, the epistemic question spawned multiple articles by Scott (in which he struggled to clarify misconceptions), rejoinders by Cherwitz, Hikins and Harpine (that, I think, sometimes magnify misunderstandings), and extensions from scholars like Brummett, Bineham, and Zarefsky. Some 30 years later, scholars met and conferences and journal fora to discuss epistemic rhetoric. Relatively few scholars located in the English tradition have addressed Scott directly: Theresa Enos included Scott’s work in her anthologies of the New Rhetoric; Alan Gross addressed Scott directly in establishing a lineage for work in the rhetoric of science.

The rediscovery of RL Scott by these scholars is a heartening sign of the breakdown of the divide between these disciplines. (One of the key insights from the "epistemic" discourse, for example, is that Scott is not establishing a rhetorical epistemology; he is establishing an ethics of rhetoric by clarifying its epistemic character. That is an insight that could strengthen the case of the bloggers.)

“We argue, therefore, that rhetoric is no mere tool, the dressing or art of language. It cannot simply be just the art of persuasion…. We argue, therefore, that rhetoric is worldview; it is underlying philosophy and tacit understanding. Rhetoric makes as it goes, and defines its ends along the way. It is not circumscribed; it circumscribes. Rhetoric deploys as it is deployed.”

These claims are welcome, and they carry with them the enthusiasm that we long to see for innovative new work in rhetoric. They do, however, run the risk of rediscovery.

In ethnic studies, there is a paradigm, constantly being challenged, even as each challenge reifies the model, for relationships among ethnic communities across generations. The first generation relocates to the US. The second generation rejects the first in the name of assimilation. The third generation recovers the first. Even as these bloggers rediscover Scott, I wonder whether they have overlooked the advances of the generation between, a generation that mapped the relationship between rhetoric and ideology in interesting and exciting ways that overlap their claims.

For example, James Berlin articulated the role of rhetoric at any historical period: "A Rhetoric is a social invention," writes James Berlin. "It arises out of a time and place, a peculiar social context, establishing for a period the conditions that make a peculiar kind of communication possible, and then it is altered or replaced by another scheme" ("Rhetoric and Reality" 1). Berlin calls these changing rhetorical schemes noetic fields. He says that noetic fields have their own distinctive concepts of reality, human nature and language. A noetic field is "a closed system defining what can, and cannot, be known; the nature of the knower, the nature of the relationship between the knower, the known, and the audience; and the nature of language" (2). Berlin offers a complex rethinking of rhetoric as worldview.

Ideology is Berlin’s keyword, a symptom perhaps of the era in which he wrote. He claims that “Conceived from the perspective of rhetoric, ideology provides the language to define the subject (the self), other subjects, the material world, and the relation of all of these to each other. Ideology is thus inscribed in language practices, entering all features of our experience.”

That rhetoric “deploys as it is deployed” is a central tenet of ideological criticism, whether Berlin or Wander or even the less obviously Marxist claims like Ratcliffe’s claims that “the study of rhetoric is the study of how we use language and language uses us.” I hope that these scholars will consider these previous maps to the territory they want to explore to buttress their argument.

“Rhetoric is "a dimension of all activity rather than [...] an activity in its own right" (Brummett 1979)… These are propositions that ground our theorizing about and approaches toward understanding how meaning gets made in the overlap between modes of representation, human interaction, and everyday experiences--experiences bound by space and time. But we sense that these propositions are not shared within our field. There are profound disciplinary and pragmatic implications for accepting, rejecting, or ignoring these propositions.“

Some historical perspective, here, again. At at least one point, substantial argument was made that the Old Rhetoric (the one about which Barthes wrote his “Aide-Memoire”) should be replaced with the new semiosis. In part, this was symptomatic of the Great Genuflection to all varieties of French critical theory (a time when Burke was lauded as much for being Burke as for appearing compatible with these theories). But surely part of this was also because folks like Barthes used the rhetoric terminology so seductively when writing about semiosis (the “rhetoric of the image”).

Eventually, we gave to semiotics what was semiotics’ and to rhetoric what was rhetoric’s. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t test the waters once in a while, as these bloggers suggest. But it should be with a sense of historical consciousness.

Why? I have an anecdotal story. One of Dr. McNely’s doctoral committee members and I were at a paper workshop together in 2004. To me, it was triply memorable. First, it was memorable because ASHR VP Janet Atwill had experimented with a new format: a longer panel format where we traded papers in advances with senior colleagues and discussed them at length (instead of 20 minutes of reciting followed by 5 minutes of talk). [Janet, this was innovative and I regret that ASHR never did it again.] The senior colleague in my session was Wayne Booth. I will never forget the feeling that Wayne Booth had read and thought critically about something I had written.

The faculty member who would later serve on Dr. McNely’s doctoral committee gave a paper arguing that there were no resources for the study of the visual in the rhetorical tradition. Dr. Booth offered a rundown of the importance of the visual in the historical tradition: in the elocutionists, in the classical discussions of ethos, even in a certain way in classical discussions of visualization as key to memory. In short, to recognize what was there (the baby) before dismissing it (the bathwater).

It’s clear: I fixate in antiquarian ways that diminish my ability to make profound contributions to the discipline, while others make sweeping generalizations to frame exciting new work. Probably, those sweeping generalizations enable innovation. But rhetoric is defined, more than any other field, by its history. Our sense of tradition has been our anxiety and our strength. Plumb that tradition, young bloggers, including the recent tradition of contact with semiotics and cultural studies.

“Atomization is crucial to the viability of studying and doing rhetoric. And yet atomization separates, bifurcates, siloizes. Atomization necessitates a particularized and specious division of multivalent, polymorphous, polycontexts. Atomization comfortably compartmentalizes—culturally, philosophically, theoretically—meaning and being. It ameliorates our need to explore through the practice of exploding contexts. It assuages our uncertainty, allows us to reduce writing to this, visual to that, performance to here, orality there. Consequently, atomization draws lines, then builds fences, then erects walls, borders, and territories. Image becomes a province, alphabetic text an imperial kingdom, orality a third-world domain, art a margin, film a continent to be conquered, digital media a competing power.”

You will find no one who agree more with you on these issues than me. Both for the productivity of atomization and the need to develop tools to bridge it.

“In the atomization of rhetoric, the visual in particular is seen from across the border, with suspicion—a potential threat. When atomized, the visual is simultaneously embraced and othered. It is not granted the capacity for meaning without the contextualization of alphabetic text, a decree of its (un)worthiness.”

I am seeing a continuity of position from teacher to student. The visual has been subject to a rich program of rhetorical research.

“Our argument proceeds from these principles. Image and alphabetic text are not atomized domains, but mutually constitutive actors in meaning making. Yet the very atomization of rhetoric, which generously gives and insidiously takes away, will not let image stand alone, even though the image is always already rhetoric.”

Here, I would point to a stack of work on the rhetoric of the image that is counter to this principle. Because I like to “shout out” to scholars I admire:
Alan Gross on the rhetoric of the image in science, in collections like Ways of Seeing, Ways of Speaking: The Integration of Rhetoric and Vision in Constructing the Real, Edited by Kristie S. Fleckenstein, Sue Hum, and Linda T. Calendrillo
Kenneth Marunowski on the rhetoric of the image on the euro and of the artistic image (derived from his own work as a painter)
And anything every written by Marguerite Helmers, perhaps the most sensitive critic of the visual image who was ever trained in rhetoric and composition. (See for the special issue on Burke and her article on the visual)

These scholars could be doing the work you want to announce, already, or help sharpen your claims for what must be done.

“Oral presentation skills aren't taught in Business and Professional writing courses because it's a course on "writing," not "communication."“

Here, it seems to me, our bloggers are generalizing from local curricular conditions. There are tons of BPComm courses that do both, and these are the foundational arguments for technical communication (as opposed to technical writing) majors in English departments. Can you help me see what you are up to here?

“We eschew the "of"--an indication that rhetoric is part rather than whole. We no longer need the "of" if we are to learn from our atomization and challenge ourselves toward holistic theorizing. We argue for is rather than of.
The visual is rhetoric. There should be no rhetoric of the visual.
Writing is rhetoric. There should be no rhetoric of writing.
Bodies are rhetoric. There should be no rhetoric of bodies.
The bricolage of visual~writing~bodies is not merely rhetoric-al, since being rhetoric-al pigeonholes rhetoric as a mere attribute, appendage, or add-on, rather than understanding rhetoric as the constitutive property of that polycontextual whole.”

This is a good and useful insight, one that would be enhanced by that very ideological turn I talked about earlier. To the extent that “a rhetoric” is a component of an ideology that reinstantiates that ideology, we can talk about “the rhetoric of the visual” at any given moment in time. That in no way diminishes your claim that the visual is rhetoric.

Here, we are just engaging the polysemy of the term. In Berlin’s terms, we can have a historically grounded rhetoric of the visual (just as we can in Barthes terms, though with vastly different starting points). That is rhetoric1.

That the visual is rhetoric depends on a different meaning of rhetoric -- one which might be paraphrased as “discourse” or “meaning-laden symbols” or… rhetoric2.

That we can have rhetoric1 of the visual does not contradict the claim that the visual is rhetoric2, any more than the fact that I have a glass coffee table contradicts my ownership of a Philip Glass cd.

“What we propose is that the lines upon which those fractures take place ought not be solely dependent on mode, medium, or material form.”

I feel a straw man coming on here. Current definitions of Writing Studies, by their very Latourian bent, pull all manner of inscription into play, regardless of medium or material form. And I sometimes think that the required public speaking course is all that remains of the oral in some work in Communication Studies -- the written has been assimilated into their disciplinary self-conception. There may be some local politics behind this polemic, but they are not necessarily generalizable.

“Our aim is to move from the above described philosophical revival of rhetoric-as-epistemic…”

I’m not sure you’ve revived it as Scott originally imagined it. Although I don’t know that that’s a crime. Scott always used to say that we grind the bones of previous scholars to make our bread. Your bread is promising.

“…toward constructs that support more grounded investigations of rhetoric and writing practices as they occur in the world. We want to explode contexts, to make strange, and to complicate without sacrificing the holistic nature of rhetoric. Grounded, activity- and practice-based methodologies and methods, therefore, are where we turn from here. We welcome and look forward to the ongoing conversation that will develop from this and any subsequent posts.”

I want to reply to this, but it’s more provocative than argumentative, so I’ll wait to see more. Jim has good arguments here.

Perhaps the whole piece is more provocative than argumentative, and I have responded inappropriately. I have responded like Booth did, though I am less than half his age: “there is more to read before you sweep the room clean.”

I am not trying to shut down your efforts, but to improve them by appeal to the tradition that makes our work unique.

--David Beard, UM Duluth
[edited at 7:49 am to eliminate excesses posted at 4:55 am]

» delete edit reply

No comments: