“Radical possibilities” and the rhetorical situation

I’ve gotten really into bookbinding this week. Really into it. Like, I-went-to-Commercial-Art-Supply-and-spent-$40-on-supplies into it. I picked up an awl, some waxed thread, and bone folder and a case for my .005 fine art markers. It was prompted by an amazing workshop in my DIY Publishing class generously led by Peter Verheyen, who is not only the Head of Preservation for SU Libraries, but also one of the most active members of the international bookmaking scene. He showed me and my students various examples of art books from our Special Collections, and taught us two simple binding methods: a single-pamphlet stitch (which requires nothing more than a piece of thread, a needle, and 8 pieces of letter-sized paper) and a book cover fold (a la high school textbook days).

Thorsten Dennerline’s Real Things People Said And I Didn’t Know What To Say

As Peter was walking us through examples of various art books from SU’s collection, I wondered about how the artifact’s materiality affected its rhetoric — or perhaps how it fit into a rhetorical situation. For example, he showed us Thorsten Dennerline’s Real Things People Said And I Didn’t Know What To Say, whose cover was made from one of the very plates used to produce the pressings within its pages. In other words, by incorporating the metal plates into the text, its circulation was limited by its materiality and thus its purpose/audience. This isn’t to say these art books weren’t political. The Myth of Justice, by John Pusateri is “Dedicated to Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who was shot 19 times in a hail of 41 bullets by four NYC police officers, February 4, 1999.” The book includes 41 ink blots, of which 19 are red. Despite (or because of) this exigence, only three copies of The Myth of Justice exist.

Thus, one of the most interesting moments for me in experiencing these books was that they pushed against some of my assumptions of what a publication can mean. After all, I’m teaching a class called DIY Publishing and had been approaching the class with a traditional definition of the rhetorical situation: the publication as a response to something. As Lloyd Bitzer notes in his famous essay (1968), a rhetorical discourse is distinguished from other sorts discourses (philosophical, scientific, poetic) by the nature of its response to a situation, which is usually required and fit for the occasion, be it by tone, genre, etc. Though Bitzer notes that any situation can be simple or complex, highly structured or loosely structured, can persist or decay, ultimately he understands rhetoric as making sense of knowable, objective reality where “the world presents imperfections to be modified by means of discourse” (225).

To me, the discourse of zines — and more largely DIY publishing — fits within this version of the rhetorical situation since most embody and articulate an expressed response to imperfections they see in the world. As Stephen Duncombe argues in Notes From Underground (1998), zines are a “vernacular” response to a marginalized subject position: “…what distinguishes zinesters from garden-variety hobbyists is their political self-consciousness. Many zinesters consider what they do an alternative to and strike against commercial culture and consumer capitalism” (8). Zines, then, respond to this imperfection through complex, loosely structured situations. A foodie zine (or blog even) might promote the slow food movement, a punk zine eschews the Grammy’s, etc. That said, I assumed that in order to supply a fitting response to these situations, the zine-rhetor must circulate their work widely enough to affect, but not so widely as to jeopardize their ethos with their community (i.e. not become a commodity themselves). What happens when an artisan book circulate with three copies? Will rhetorical discourse satisfy that occasion or is that meant for poetics?

With the proliferation of digital writing, many in the underground wonder if there is a rhetorical situation for zines at all or if that situation, which began to decay (to use Bitzer’s term) in the mid-90s, is actually dead. After all, many of the zines sold now are more products of craft, influenced by book arts and driven by a new economy of cultural capital: they circulate their work via precious fabric bindings, silkscreened color pages, or handmade, letterpresses covers. And though the consumer-capitalist critique hasn’t died in the underground, it has seemingly moved from traditional photocopied zines of circulations of 100-200 to (ironically) Tumblr accounts. However, if we look at any given rhetorical situation as being product of rhetors, as Richard Vatz does (1973), and not of an a priori reality, then we might say zine-rhetors are more powerful than ever. By using the Xerox machine, the needle, the laptop, the mail-order distro, and Etsy, zine producers have more choices for communicating and translating their situation (228) than ever before. After all, we have Urban Outfitters in Syracuse now, right?

The co-optation of indie culture by right wing douchebags like Richard Hayne is partial proof that these explanations of the rhetorical situation are too stable. Barbara Biesecker’s “Rethinking the Rhetorical Situation from within the Thematic of Différance” (1989) is helpful in that it denies an origin for either event or rhetor since language itself is as Derrida tells us, all symbolic action (i.e. language) is an interweaving: “no element can function as a sign without referring to another element which itself is not simply present” (qtd in Biesecker 236). As Biesecker later notes, with différance there is no origin, only process: “neither the text’s immediate rhetorical situation not its author can be taken as simple origin or generative agent since both are underwritten by a series of historically produced displacements” (239). This opens up a space for Biesecker to discuss the role of audience in the rhetorical situation since both Bitzer and Vatz have undertheorized (or at the very least homogenized) them. Instead of looking at the rhetorical situation as an “effect-stucture” as Biesecker calls it (event–>rhetor or rhetor–>event), we should look at it through a “logic of articulation” where audiences aren’t static essences or homogenized bodies, but constructed, “temporary displacement[s] of plurality” (239). They are made up of different people whose very humanness is predicated on their différance. With articulation, identities are in flux which is how possibilities can become radical through its refusal to essentialize. From this perspective, then, print zines aren’t necessarily more authentic than Tumblr sites; they might actually signify a changing of a DIY rhetorical situation.

While I think I understand Biesecker’s argument in opposition to Bitzer and Vatz (i.e. that there simply is no origin for rhetoric), I’m not sure I fully understand the benefit of understanding the audience through a logic of articulation. Or maybe I do but I’m not appreciating its complexities enough, especially in the context of late capitalism, where anything DIY can be co-opted and then commodified by a corporation. Of course I understand audiences are different, even within the same scene: look at the various topics, forms, etc. of zines. They are the embodiment of articulation. How this links to radical possibility, though, I’m not sure. Based on Biesecker’s talk two weeks ago, I’m guessing she’s abandoned articulation in this respect. The thesis of one of the essays up for discussion at that talk was that radical political will or agency can be understood via sublimation — a concept that comes from Lacanian psychoanalysis and not Derridian post-structuralism. It’s interesting to me that she’s zoomed in even closer to the subject to see how desire and drive might help better explain radical possibilities. I’m seeing a vague but potentially important connection to the more subliminal approach to the underground rhetor. As I learn more about the histories of youth cultures like skateboarders or riot grrrls or zine writers of the 90s, I am drawn to how the relationship between their amateur rhetoric and the goals of their movements. What’s interesting to me about these movements is how they create a situation — a scene — in response to a more dominant one. Duncombe see it this way:

The powers that be do not sustain their legitimacy by convincing people that the current system is The Answer. That fiction would be too difficult to sustain in the face of so much evidence to the contrary. What they must do, and what they have done very effectively, is convince the mass of people that there is no alternative. What I want to argue in the following pages is that zines and underground culture offer up an alternative, a way of understanding and acting in the world that operates with different rules and upon different values than those of consumer capitalism.

In other words, the question for the skater in the 70s, the riot grrrl in the 90s and the contemporary radical DIY publisher is to define their alternatives via their own ecologies, their own rhetorical situations that, as Jenny Rice argues, bleed (and this bleeding is one of the reasons why these scenes have been co-opted). In any case, for my students, the questions surrounding the rhetorical situation are very real and disorienting. Write a zine? For whom? Why? Where do I circulate it? As my students ask these questions in this unit and during our conferences this week, I’ll try to resist supplying any answers. It won’t be hard, mainly because I don’t have any. And of course, it’ll be exciting to see the radical possibilities they come up with in their responses.