Marxist rhetorical theory and DIY print cultures

Buffalo Small Press Fair
Buffalo Small Press Fair: view from upstairs

A bit exhausted this weekend after travelling to WNY to attend the Buffalo Small Press Book Fair (more on that below) and to catch up with some great friends in the Queen City. At the expense of having deep engagement with the other readings this week, I spent some quality time with James Aune’s “Cultures of Discourse: Marxism and Rhetorical Theory” trying to tag it with detailed marginalia since it’s one of the few pieces from Contemporary Rhetorical Theory that are on my exam list for comps. Being a neophyte when it comes to Marxist histories and theories, I’m sure I gleaned less than 10% of the text; nevertheless, I found it interesting and potentially and unexpectedly helpful.

The piece is pulled from (as far as I can tell) an unremarkable 1990 edited collection called Argumentative Theory and the Rhetoric of Assent. Aune begins by plotting “a map of [Marxism’s] research program,” leaning heavily on Alvin Gouldner’s synthesis, and pulling a productive dialectic from a key tension between structure and struggle. By structure Aune means Marxism as a science, stressing “a deterministic view of ideology,” where capitalism’s fall is inevitable (citing Lenin and Althusser as key figures). By struggle Aune imagines the version of Marxism that foregrounds critique, and requires some form of organizing, resistance — and ultimately persuasion — in order to engender revolution (he cites Gramsci, Horkheimer and Adorno, and Eagleton as key figures in the second). He then sketches four ways that Marxism has traditionally attended to this tension, arguing that Marxism has only tangentially dealt with rhetorical theory, while rhetorical theory has only tangentially dealt with Marxism.

Aune’s hope, then, is to begin a conversation in the field that retains the ongoing critique of ideology while promoting some sort of material political and social change. To do so, he focuses on one of three levels of abstraction — the mode of production — in social analysis as articulated by Erik Olin Wright in Classes (1985).

Researchers focusing on the mode of production examine “the way in which dominant forms of argument relate to forces and relations of production in the most abstract way” (545; emphasis in original). For Aune, focusing on the mode of production helps dodge rhetorical studies’ “privileging of symbol-use over labor as the constitutive activity of human beings” which “risks being coopted by larger forces of domination in our culture” (546). Aune would have us pay attention to rhetoric’s dominant forms of argument — as cultures of discourse — as products of labor, “as material as a factory or a Hitler speech” (546). He describes these cultures of discourses in detail as traditional, critical, and poststructural and then proceeds to offer four takeaways on developing a Marxist rhetorical theory, including foregrounding the role of labor and class struggle in our theorizing, but also revisiting certain helpful aspects of the cultures of discourse that might contribute to Marxist theory, such as using common sense as the origin of enthymeme or thinking more broadly about oppression in terms of race, sexuality, or via the status of professionalized/specialized (and thus authorized) discourses.

As I returned from the Small Press Book Fair this weekend, of course, modes of production — specifically material ones — are front an center in my mind, especially since the purpose of the trip was to see how (1) I might propose a similar fest/fair here in Syracuse and (2) to think about potential sites for dissertation research. Zine and small press fairs exist all over the US. And although they are largely white, they are diverse in other ways and bring together a mix of working class/artistic subjectivities. What Aune’s piece does for me then, is help me think through “Do It Yourself” articulations from the perspective of Marxist rhetorical theory. The very phrasing of DIY emphasizes labor (“do it!”), but for much of my class and my blogging this semester I’ve been framing it via ecologic rhetorical theory — emphasizing the “yourself” part of the phrase, the part that considers the self as a node in a network. And while Aune also helps address co-optation, a Marxist rhetorical theory could help think critically about the craft of print culture and potentially address the question of why print still hold a special place in our hearts. Perhaps it’s because our labor is still marked, inscribed, and circulated though the paper, the binding, and the edges of the book. It’s maybe a reminder that writing is work.

Booty from Buffalo Small Press Book Fair 2013
Booty from Buffalo Small Press Book Fair 2013