Searching for truth in rhetoric

This semester I’m pumped to be teaching a pilot course called DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Publishing. This is one of several of the Writing Program’s 200-level courses designed to offer an elective among the lower-division (as opposed to the compulsory, lower-division service classes that teach academic writing). Someone once described these classes as gateways for our Writing major, which thrives, but is always in competition with either one of the other writing-intensive programs on campus (the Newhouse School of Journalism, English and Textual Studies, or Communication and Rhetorical Studies) or (more likely) content-driven majors like Psychology or Marketing. Planning and teaching this course has been an absolute blast considering I attribute my interest in comp/rhet to producing both print and digital zines throughout my youth. Yet, one of the questions we have struggled with early on is defining DIY. What does it mean? What does it look like? How can we know it? If we replace “publishing” with “rhetoric” our questions inevitably bring us to concerns with agency and authorship. Are zine producers, for instance, totally free to circulate whatever ideas they want? To what extent can cut-n-paste aesthetics or CSS’d blogs claim to be original? In applying the expression “DIY” to publications or performances throughout history — as I’ve asked them to do in the first unit — who or what are the selves doing the doing? What are they are doing and why? For whom? What are the limits and boundaries to their actions and effects?

For me these are fun, theoretical and rhetorical (which is to say natural) questions to ask, but for some of my students who have are charged with practical and accountable tasks (like trying to find examples of DIY publications from our library’s vast Special Collections) the questions can be frustrating. The root of that frustration — and this is true of any class that puts rhetoric at its center — is that is at odds with a long pedagogical history that posits knowledge as an objective (i.e. testable) reality.

Several of the readings in 631 this week challenge or nuance this traditional definition of truth, though the discipline clearly is fuzzy when it comes to the relationship between rhetoric and epistemology, which I’m defining as the philosophical tradition concerned with knowledge and truth. The question of “How do I know?” is complicated, bringing out the fundamental disagreements between philosophy and rhetoric, but also rhetoric and the sciences. Of the five pieces we read this week from Part II of CRT, I found myself agreeing vehemently with two — Robert Scott’s “On Viewing Rhetoric As Epistemic” and Barry Brummett’s “Some Implications of ‘Process’ or ‘Intersubjecitvity'” — and challenged by one (Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar’s “Rhetoric and Its Double”).

Scott’s piece is the oldest (1967) and most cited of the bunch and argues that rhetoric is epistemic so long as truth is conceived of as meeting “the demands of the precepts one adheres to and the demands of the circumstances in which one must act” (138). Structures and philosophies may guide us, but truth is also something “created moment by moment.” Rhetoric as argument or persuasion thus helps us to predict those moments as they unfold in front of us and require action. It is through the action that we begin to know and shape truth. In the context of my class, then, we may have certain ideals of what DIY should look like — amateur in aesthetic, noncommercial in purpose, minimally mediated — but that knowledge is only as good as the occasion when we need to make arguments about the significance or consequences of a DIY approach to publishing, such as the extent to which corporate conglomerates control 90% of the media.

Admittedly, a more accessible version of this argument surfaces in Brummett’s piece almost ten years later. Borrowing from a different essay by Scott, Brummett argues that intersubjectivity is a view of reality that understands others as the source of meaning (e.g. truth), while objectivity sees it as objective reality and subjectivity as solipsism (159). (At scale in the realm of social knowledge, Thomas Farrell calls this consensus, or common sense, which is the MO of hegemony.) According to Brummett, the problem with objectivity is that in the realm of science — via the tradition of Newtonian mechanics — parts are singled out from the whole and thus reduced. The tools, lens and frames used to isolate parts essentially distort the truth of that phenomenon, yet the conclusions are often passed off as truth. Intersubjectivity is thus more real because it exists within a system of a whole where meanings shift because of happenings within that whole. Rhetoric is necessary for sorting out these meanings:

“Humans are necessarily involved in sharing and manipulating messages to give and gain meanings about experience. But what experience means is not by any means agreed upon. This ambiguity is a feature of the essentially rhetorical nature of reality. Ambiguity generates conflict and disagreement about meaning and a constant striving to resolve these divisions. This striving is rhetoric; while rhetoric may be defined in many ways and on many levels, it is in the deepest and most fundamental sense the advocacy of realities.” (160)

In other words, rhetoric is necessary for reaching some kind of agreement, which the authors call truth. In some ways, this is what I’m aiming for in my refusal to settle for one definition of DIY. I’m interested in seeing how my students’ research or experiences might help us define it. And rather than start the conversation completely ignorant, I can suggest or volley certain utterances to get us going — histories of zines, documentaries on small presses, reports on contemporary indie publishers. The hope is that their own research will contribute to a conversation that leads us to certain classroom-constructed truths about DIY, especially with regard to what works, what doesn’t, etc. The problem I’ve found with this approach is that students sometimes have trouble accepting this shift. As a colleague put it to me recently, they think it’s a trap.

This is something that became more real to me in reading Gaonkar’s “Rhetoric and Its Double,” which argues that rhetoric — as the search for the available means of persuasion — is always the supplement to knowledge and truth. Recent conceptualizations of rhetoric, epitomized perhaps by Scott and Brummett’s arguments, deny this role for rhetoric and thus, unendingly defers to a more dramatic role than perhaps it ought to. While I’m tempted to evoke Robert Hariman’s essay, “Status, Marginality, and Rhetorical Theory,” from last week to question some of Gaonkar’s framing for this essay, I’m at least partially convinced that our departments across campus consistently have to make the case for our legitimacy; yet, ironically, if we look at the market for comp/rhet folks, there are comparatively more jobs available for us than other sectors of the humanities. While the cynic might argue this has more to do with history of the academy than the any real need for teachers of writing (hey, anyone can do it!), surely we teach something in our classes (though intersubjectivity helps make a strong case that we do it better in the writing center). In the field of power that is the academy, Gaonkar’s arguments are consensus. The writing center serves the classroom, not the student. A long history of graded work hardens students to the expectation that the purpose of your classroom is to teach knowable truths — whether that knowledge is a process, a formula, or a text. This is what rhetoric, the discipline, is up against.