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

The Rhetorical Limits of Participatory Culture

A few weeks ago  I reflected on the radical possibilities of zine (and other youth) subcultures by exploring texts about the rhetorical situation (i.e. Bitzer, Vatz, and Biesecker). I ended by raising a more recent argument by Biesecker that concerned the role of sublimation in radical political agency, considering how DIY cultures and amateur rhetorics use more affective approaches in scene-building in order to create alternative spaces — large-scale movements that widen the scope of the so-called rhetorical situation. I ended by citing Stephen Duncombe’s book, Zines: Notes from Underground, where he argues that zines — as politically conscious DIY publications — are radical simply because they “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” (10). Mass media outlets, on the other hand, are very effective at negating the very possibility of alternative spaces.

But alas, the Internets! The Internets with their majestic, never-ending, completely democratic ones and zeros. Everyone has an alternative space in the digital era. Right? I’m being a little sarcastic here because I think it might be tempting to dismiss this week’s “Rhetoric in the Mass Media” readings from Contemporary Rhetorical Theory since not one of them was published after 1991. Yet, perhaps because of this, I found the tensions vetted in this set — between rhetor/audience, structure/agency, symbolist/materialist, psychological/cultural/economic perspectives — helpful in considering the various scenes of DIY publishing in the 21st century; of course, I’d also wager these tensions are messier than ever.

My go-to praxis this semester has been the course of that same name and since writing the post I referenced above, my students have moved from producing print zines in Unit 1 to experimenting with various web platforms in Unit 2. This unit, dubbed “Participatory Culture,” asks students to blog and tweet regularly (#WRTDIY) while also dabbling in seemingly less-agentive spaces like Yelp, Amazon, or Wikipedia as well as those that require them to compose with sound (e.g. Audacity) or motion (e.g. iMovie). It’s a quickly-paced unit so even though Twitter conversations bookend our meetings, we only spend on 80 minutes on each platform or mode. Still, it’s enough time to touch upon the major advantages and disadvantages of each space and provide students with enough information to decide if they want to explore that space further in the unit or in their final projects. We’ve also dedicated some time to evaluating the space’s independence or DIY ethos.

As with the last unit, I’m learning a ton. Either I force myself to experiment in order to have better insight into the spaces/platforms/tools we’re using or my students introduce me to them. Last week for example, while discussing wikis, one of my students mentioned TV Tropes, a site that catalogues the “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” TV Tropes allows users to describe or read about common — but not cliche — tropes used in various mass-mediated narratives: comic books, films, literature, TV, video games, etc. (in other words, the site isn’t limited to TV). The site is searchable and browse-able, linked through specific media, and its tropes are nested. For example, there’s a page called “Pregnancy Tropes” that has two pages dedicated to abortion tropes: “Good Girls Avoid Abortion” and “Magical Abortion.” Under each of these are numerous folders of various media that contain instances of the trope by way of plot summary. As if the site itself isn’t mind blowing enough, the list of contributors (“tropers” in the parlance of the site) tops out at more than 1,000.

Of course Barry Brummett’s essay, “Burke’s Representative Anecdote as a Method in Media Criticism” comes to mind as one looks at both the list of tropes and their examples to the point of objectification. Brummett borrows from Burke to argue that dramatic discourse as “widely used symbolic strategies” may serve to support audiences through the particular exigencies of their time. Exaggerated narratives — like both versions of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers — would help audiences deal with the technological shifts, economic instability, or big brother jeremiads pervading their pschye (to borrow from Rushing and Frentz).

So this argument goes, the tropes listed on TV Tropes, then, might “serve as better equipment for living” so long as the rhetorical critic can help others make the connection (480). While this assumes the public actually listens to critics, Brummett’s article has a forgiveness to it that allows the reader to not feel so bad about having recently watched yet another episode of Workaholics. For your health, as Dr. Brule would say.

A similarly optimistic perspective on mass media has been taken up by numerous cultural studies scholars and critical audience analysts since at least the 1980s and Celeste Michelle Condit references several of them in “The Rhetorical Limits of Polysemy.” She accuses John Fiske, Janice Radway, and others of being overly generous in their assertion that popular media allows for pleasurable, productive, and liberating polysemous readings. Condit then uses two case studies to show how an episode of Cagney and Lacey requires more work for a resistant reading — a decoding — depending on the viewer’s subject position.

Such additional work can preclude resistance because of its ability to silence viewers, qualify their pleasure, or suppress already limited or barely visible counter-rhetorics. Moreover, the elite public at the time influences the possibilities of kinds of abortion narratives aired or told (TV Tropes further supports this claim) so that the third personae must do “double work– deconstructing the dominant code and reconstructing their own” (504).

Condit does not want to guilt intellectuals into feeling bad about taking pleasure in decoding or simply viewing TV shows like Cagney and Lacey or reading romance novels; however, claims that polysemous readings lead to liberation must be qualified by considering “collectivized (group, internally organized through communication production) action and pleasure” (507). Without collectivization, social change is not possible by way of mass media. In this sense, zinesters in the 80s and 90s provided an important site for the possibilities of social change in pushing back against consumerist culture through mail-order circulation of their print zines that simultaneously adored mass media (think: sic-fi zines) and also rejected it. I believe their contributions have been unfortunately overshadowed by terms like “participatory culture” which have magically appeared once the internet became widespread. Before the web, we had zines and other small presses.

But that’s a historical take. I find Condit’s analysis compelling and wonder how it might be applied to more contemporary scenes of DIY production, namely by participatory cultures writing for sites like TV Tropes, or larger sites like Wikipedia, where ideally audiences are simultaneously positioned as rhetors — rhetors as coders and decoders. On one hand a powerful collectivization occurs when a reader witnesses hundreds of users exposing culture industry tropes — and the problems that occur when those tropes appease certain audiences’ expectations. On the other hand, one can watch the collective air leave the room when your average group of students — regular Wikipedia consumers — see how much effort goes into contributing to these sites, and how said contributions are a privilege in and of themselves.

For example, in an effort to demonstrate to my students some of what I’ve only read about re:Wikipedia, I made my first contribution to the site last week by adding one simple, seemingly-innocuous sentence about zine fests to the Fanzine page. To the benefit of my education I ended up in a minor editing war about my sentence’s weight and neutral point of view that took about 1-2 hours of my time. I won’t get into it here, because I’m running out of room. But that’s also my point: peep the Revision History and you’ll understand what went down only if you are literate in Mediawiki code and the revision interface. In other words, while Conidt applies terms of de/coding to mass-mediated narratives, the technological determinist mindset is quickly checked when one is asked to actually contribute to certain sites like Wikipedia.

Alas, this makes me wonder if code — HTML, java, AJAX, and hundreds more — is the way we must reconsider the encoding/decoding a world of 21st century composers and if print is in some way a more accessible space for the third personae — or even the privileged elite. Even to many professors at a private university, 21st century interfaces like WordPress and Twitter (never mind code), can be an intimidating space. Because, let’s face it, most of us in comp/rhet work within code, not with code. That is, we write within already mediated spaces: WordPress, Twitter, Facebook are all containers that we have some, but certainly not total agency over (and let’s not even talk about BlackBoard). So perhaps the current state of mass media isn’t so much negating alternatives, as Duncombe argued in 1998, but structuring/writing them for us. I’m not suggesting we avoid teaching with interfaces, but only that we consider their boundaries and not dismiss print wholesale just because our conception of it is the Times New Roman, double-spaced academic paper.

Concurrent session titles as ideographs?

Just getting back into the week after being at my 4th CCCC last week in Las Vegas. This was my first time actually presenting and I’m pleased to say that it went pretty well, despite having gone dead last (#N.08). I’m intending to post something more extensive on our talk sometime soon, but in the meantime I want to reflect briefly on some of the common terms that were used, explored, critiqued this year by way of a tag cloud of the titles of concurrent sessions.

Yes, the methodology is crude, can’t touch the depth of the individual panels, and lacks any sort of comparison, but here’s what’s revealed when I dump the titles into TagCrowd and limit the frequency to ten.

Screen Shot 2013-03-18 at 7.00.12 PM








Nothing too surprising here. “Writing” and “composition” makes sense given the field’s teleos, and “public” is up there because of the conference theme (“The Public Work of Composition”). But as we read Michael Calvin McGee’s “The ‘Ideograph’: A Link Between Rhetoric and Ideology” this week in Contemporary Rhetorical Theory, I wonder if I can consider these terms as ideographs, “the basic structural elements, the building blocks, of ideology” (428). Ideographs are assuming, abstract terms like “liberty” or “rule of law,” “representing collective commitment to a particular but equivocal and ill-defined normative goal” that “guides behavior and beliefs into channels easily recognized by a community as acceptable and laudable” (435). Ideographs are necessary, argues McGee, because of the materiality they may provide for the symbolist critique that overly relies on myth to explain hegemony. In short, McGee borrows a symbolic unit of analysis in order to develop a Marxist critique that goes beyond materialism.

In treating the above words as ideographs, we might understand the use of “public” or “literacy” or “community” or even “student” as givens for our work that require more critical reflection. As Raymie McKerrow notes in “Critical Rhetoric,” a “permanent criticism” might be our only means to understanding freedom in the context of social movements. That is, by using ideographs to understand common terms at CCCC, it might reveal assumption, or what McGee calls the “interpenetrating systems or ‘structures’ of [our] public motives” (427). In short, ideographs hold vast symbolic ideals of consensus, where community members will “inflict penalties on those who use ideographs in heretical ways and on those who refuse to respond appropriately to claims on their behavior warranted through the agency of ideographs  (436).

Of course while those heretics and refusers have likely already been denied access to the program by one of two stages of readers, McGee tells us we can read the words from the tag cloud as developing via two different ideologies: one diachronically and one synchronically. Ideographs develop diachronically, “expanding and contracting” throughout a term’s history; by understanding its subsequent applications, we begin to understand a particular grammar or logic to the term. At the same time, the ideology can be viewed as synchronic , as horizontal, rhetorical and context-bound. A synchronic structure allows us to consider how certain ideographs clash to create what McGee calls “synchronic confrontations” (433). Moreover, “[n]o ideology can be divorced from past commitments, if only because the very words used to express present dislocations have a history that establishes the category of their meaning” (434).  Kathi Yancey’s keynote at Qualitative Research Network Forum last Wednesday provided an interesting example of such dislocations as she traced the uses of “transfer” throughout the last 10 or so years. She didn’t, however, appear to expose any ideology embedded in the term; I wonder, then, what we’d understand of “transfer” if she treated like an ideograph.

Perhaps the most relevant ideograph for my work, however, is “digital,” especially, if I follow up on the last post, when we think of it in opposition to print. A quick search of the CCCC program app this year reveals that while “digital” received 30 hits, “print” received none. At the same time, print might be receiving a revival in  the term “multimodality,” but one has to wonder how that term gets conflated. As Jody Shipka and Jason Palmeri can attest, there is a gross equivocality given to “digital” and “multimodal” composition. And as Chris Anson noted in his chair’s address this years, MOOCs might also complicate ideographs like “access” or “public.” This post is too brief to experiment with the use of McGee’s framework, but I do wonder how a diachronic and synchronic view of any one of these terms might help reveal some of the ideologies that circulated last week in Vegas.

Burke and the Late Age of Print

As we transition from print communities to digital, participatory cultures in my DIY Publishing class this week, I’ve been of course trying to theorize some of the important differences between these various technologies and/or scenes. The concept of a participatory culture was first articulated by Henry Jenkins in his famous 2006 MacArthur white paper about media education. From the executive summary:

“A participatory culture is a culture with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).” (3; emphasis mine)

In this sense, any DIY community is participatory; political pamphlets, zines, art books, and independent journalism match these same general properties: anyone can cut and paste, learn from the more experienced members of the scene, and of course feel socially connected with one another. Most importantly, in any DIY publishing community, the work circulates among audiences who also produce the content. This begs the question, if participatory cultures have existed with us since the beginning of mass literacy, why has the digital privliged DIY now more than ever. The obvious answer might be located in Jenkins’s first characteristic where contemporary participatory cultures have “relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement.” That is, anyone with a smartphone or access to a library computer can technically self-publish. You don’t have to spend $50 at Kinko’s to circulate your ideas on Facebook. I don’t want to contest that common sense response as much as I want to think more critically about how the field of comp/rhet has been perhaps eager to claim the digital as the dominant narrative for the imagined future of writing.

While Jody Shipka, Jay David Bolter or Ted Striphas might be more useful for exploring this question, I turn to Burke’s Rhetoric of Motives (ROM) not only because it’s our required reading in 631 this week, but because his concept of identification might allow us to better understand the new status of print inside and outside the classroom.

By the time Burke reaches his section on identification in ROM he’s discussed, among another things, the poems of Milton and Coleridge as they evoke the complexities of death in their work. In the case of both authors murder/suicide resists being reduced to a single motive. As such, no term can capture the motives in these cases, which is a purposeful move of the poet so as to employ image as transformation more generally. Burke chooses death/killing as topoi in ROM in order to illustrate the complexity of motive — as “proportions of a motivational recipe” (17) — but also to argue that depictions of death also identify a thing’s essence through its transformation. This is important for the concept of identification since “transformation involves the ideas and imagery of identification. That is: the killing of something is the changing of it, and the statement of the thing’s nature before and after the change is an identifying of it” (20). I may be perverting Burke here, but I wonder what the essence of print becomes when we declare its death. In a Burkean Burkeian sense, what is it transformed to?

I suppose, per usual, it depends on the context. When Kathleen Fitzpatrick describes the scholarly monograph in Planned Obsolescence, she calls it undead: “not viable, but still required” in the humanities. That is, while “the book” is indisputably the “gold standard for tenure” and promotion, the presses that publish the bound codex cannot support the number of academics writing them. As the title may suggest, Fitzpatrick argues that networked technologies such as Commentpress – which was used throughout the review process of Planned Obsolescence – are necessarily changing the way texts are born. Necessarily because ultimately Fitzpatrick’s argument is that the more grave obsolescence is not technological at all, but institutional: the process by which we produce, circulate, vet, and value the print monograph in the humanities is unsustainable. By declaring the scholarly monograph undead, Fitzpatrick is able to essentialize print, via the image of the zombie, as obsolete. What’s more, Fitzpatrick uses a material consubstantiation of the peer-to-peer network to propose a new way of doing peer review that is more in line with the academy’s needs in the 21st century.

According to Burke, consubstantiality occurs when two identities join as one:

“A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself (sic) with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded to believe so… In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself. Yet at the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is both joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another… To identify A with B is to make A ‘consubstantial’ with B.” (20-21)

He goes on later in the section to argue that “[a] doctrine of consubstantiality … may be necessary to any way of life. For substance, in the old philosophies, was an act; and a way of life is an acting-together; and in acting together, men have common sensations, concepts, images, ideas, attitudes that make them consubstantial” (21). Fitzpatrick’s suggestion in Planned Obsolescence, then, is to increase the chances and frequency of consubstantiation via networked technologies. In doing so, our academic communities will limit the role of the monologic reviewer, but permit themselves to create something she calls “peer-to-peer review,” networked spaces such as blog-based platforms that “not only brings in more voices (which may identify more potential issues), and not only provides some ‘review of reviews’ (with reviewers weighing in on the issues raised by others), but is also crucially, a conversation.”

Through the process of conversation where rhetoric is at its center, identification and division compete. As Burke writes: “…put identification and division ambiguously together, so that you cannot know for certain just where one ends and the other begins, and you have the characteristic invitation to rhetoric” (25). Peer review, then becomes a contact zone for consubstantiality — and eventually as identifications takes hold, consensus and truth.

I think Fitzpatrick makes a fascinating and important case for how and why digital publishing networks can help bring the humanities into the 21st century. I’m on board. Yet, as my posts have asserted this semester, context is key. Again: how might the rush to declare print dead or undead transform it for other communities of practice? As Burke writes in Part II of ROM, how one uses rhetoric to gain advantage is dependent on audience: “The same rhetorical act could vary in its effectiveness, according to shifts in the situation of in the attitude of audiences” (62). Advantage, in other words, is defined by its context. Burke uses Aristotle, La Rochefoucauld and others to explain the different fruits that result form the concept of advantage: “happiness,” “love of glory,” “envy of others,” “desire for money,” etc. For Burke, the 21st century’s screen saturation might give print’s death a new meaning. For book makers, zine writers, and others who are involved in various DIY print communities, cool become that transcendent term. Advantage is gained through cultural capital (and obviously material capital since distinction in this context costs money). Yet as some would argue, DIY print texts are fundamentally detached from corporate networks, free from privacy compromises, terms of service agreements, and the like.

Aside from this, this semester is teaching me more than ever that print’s death can help defamiliarize visual rhetoric for “digitally native” students. That is, by asking students to put together booklets or zines, they literally see how form affects function and that they must think about audience in perhaps more experimental, riskier ways. In Burkean Burkeian terms, it helps students think that consubstantiation isn’t always intentional, but incidental.

Riot Grrrl & the Second and Third Persona

Re-immersing myself in the past and present of zines has allowed me to reconsider the larger network of youth sub/cultures that have used them for their own action and activism. For instance in Girls to the Front, Sara Marcus’s excellent book, feminist punk bands Bratmobile and Bikini Kill circulated their own zines, like Riot Grrrl, to promote their shows in DC, argue against Clarence Thomas’s justice nomination, and advance a DIY cut-n-paste aesthetic to contest glossy, teen-girl magazines like Seventeen. Another example: skateboarding culture in California in the 70s and 80s were helped by zines like Skateboarding Magazine and Thrasher, which featured overviews of skate spots, new tricks, profiles of skaters, and the visual rhetoric within: stunning photography of skaters and the designs of their boards. In many cases these zine scenes were made up of rhetors and audiences who reciprocated roles. The friends who were reading Riot Grrrl or Skateboarding were also in the bands, showcased in the pictures, etc.

While DIY communities exist across and within every age from carpenters to scrapbookers to micro brewers, I imagine that youth subcultures in particular present important affordances to rhetorical inquiry. For one, as teachers, it might help us to draw from examples that our students can relate to; perhaps more importantly for rhetorical theory is how such young rhetors negotiate being simultaneously vulnerable and emerging (that is, powerless but invigorated). This is especially interesting since so often youth subcultures are presented as flipping the script of the traditional rhetoric-action paradigm as action-first, rhetoric-later: the music came before the zines and the skating preceded the photos. Even if this is only a mirage (itself a rhetorical construction) or just a reduction of the rhetorical situation, I wonder why it seems this way? Probably more accurate is to say the action itself posits a certain kind of rhetoric. Certainly tricking rail slides and grinds at a local mall or playing a punk show in a bra has a certain effect on an audience.

In terms of audience, three concepts seem to dominate rhetorical theory: the First, Second, and Third Persona. The First Persona is the implied author, a self-constructed author. According to Philip Wander, the First Persona includes “a speaker and a speaker’s intent,” “the ‘I'” (369). The Second Persona is the listener(s), and conceives of the audience as auditors. Wander defines the Third Persona as “audiences not present, audiences rejected or negated through the speech and/or the speaking situation.” It is what’s negated by the Second Persona: “[t]he potentiality of language to commend being [the Second Persona] carries with it the potential to spell out being unacceptable, undesirable, insignificant” (370). The Third Persona functions as alienation, but also silence to prevent beings from producing texts or discourse that would circulate in public spaces.

Sara Marcus’s book might give readers a sense of this Third Persona as it existed for women of the late 80s/early 90s punk scene, who struggled to be visible both in and out of that scene. Even within feminist discourses of the early 90s, pioneers like Kathleen Hannah of Bikini Kill felt alienated by anti-pornography advocates like Andrea Dworkin. As a stripper who also worked as a counselor at a women’s shelter, Hannah felt the effects of the Third Persona running through feminist discourse. That said, after several attempts at writing an starting bands she met Tobi Vail and started Bikini Kill, thus starting a movement and engaging what Edwin Black calls the Second Persona.

According to Black the Second Persona occurs when rhetors use stylistic, idiomatic tokens — metaphors, topos — to tap into an ideology that influences the auditor: “auditors look to the discourse they are attending for cues that tell them how they are to view the world even beyond the expressed concerns, the overt propositional sense, of the discourse” (334). As Black sees it, the modern teleology is a “quest for identity” and as such auditors continually look for tokens that reinforce their imagined life (335). We are encouraged “not simply to believe something, but to be something” (339). As Wander puts it, the Second Persona reveals itself when the audience is “commended through discourse” (369). It “exists as a fact and an invitation” (369). A zine like Riot Grrrl, then, asked its readers to not just become part of the revolution, but to be it as the Hannah/Vail coined slogan was Revolution Girl Style Now.

As Sara Marcus reports, the first issue’s centerfold included a manifesto-like list of imperatives (which she says could be seen as Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hannah’s notes-to-self):

Recognize that you are not the center of the universe.
Figure out how the idea of winning and losing fits into your relationships.
Be as vulnerable as you possibly can.
Recognize vulnerability and empathy as strengths.
Don’t allow the fact that other people have been assholes to you make you into a bitter and abusive person.
Commit to the revolution as a method of psychological and physical survival. (85)

As Black would see it, the syntax, diction and second-person point of view of the imperatives serve as cues for readers to help picture an imagined life among a very small (at the time) riot grrrl movement that was working its voice into an already politically committed youth subculture of punk and underground music. Perhaps more interesting to me is how the visual rhetoric of cut-n-paste — the appropriated Superwoman iconography and potato chip logos — also serve as stylized tokens to export an ideology. In other words, while the content is fairly banal, the form of the zine is what made the riot grrrl movement persuasive to audiences.

For a time, anyway. As grunge became popular and rock stars like Courtney Love re-appropriated riot grrrl aesthetic in 1993, the original stylized tokens lost their potency. I’m not even mid-way through Marcus’s book but I’ll be curious to see how this narrative plays out. Regardless, the relationship between action and rhetoric may be slightly better understood through theories of audience that make room for more fluidity. Under what conditions, for instance, would an alienated youth subculture, which is born out of a necessity of talking to itself, break free and begin to reach other listeners? In terms of rhetorical theory, perhaps the question goes like this: what theories might account for how the rhetoric of youth subculture use the Second Persona to move away from its status of the Third? And how does this movement, paradoxically, risk sublimating itself back to a status of the Third (that is, via its subsequent appropriation)? Mid-way through my contemporary rhetorics course, I’m seeing rhetorical ecologies as the most useful approach to these sorts of questions.

Public morality & the darkside of DIY

A few months ago I came across a retweet by Henry Jenkins about a blog theme (dubbed a “Hotspot”) by Civic Paths focused on the Dark Side(s) of DIY. I was planning my DIY Publishing course at the time and was intrigued that someone was trying undo some of the romanticism the term professes even in the most critical research. Civic Paths includes a group of scholars and activists at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism invested in the effects of participatory culture; the group was started in part by Jenkins whose books and white papers on digital media’s effects on participatory culture are foundational.

The range of issues covered in this Hotspot included some of DIY’s more obvious problems –the creation of audience/community, struggling to fund projects, and sorting through the various stacks of aesthetic failures — but a few of the pieces looked at how a DIY framework can harm what’s defined as legitimate political knowledge. Neta Kligler-Vilenchik, for example, looked at Kony 2012 and the internet memes that made fun of the people (i.e. youth culture) for not understanding the full implications of their support of Invisible Children — and inadvertently propagating its misleading campaign in the process. Such memes painted them as gullible, hypocritical, or simply ignorant. Kligler-Vilenchi’s concern is that although we want knowledgeable citizens, the Kony memes served to discourage political participation by setting up a standard for the “informed citizen ideal” instead of striving for a more “collective intelligence model,” where the cumulative affect of Kony was more knowledge about Uganda. Don’t participate, the memes imply, unless you are willing to understand the full capacity of your participation.

In another brief-but-insightful post, Kjerstin Thorson compares the slogans of news programs of today and yesterday. Contemporary news taglines, which boast of reporting facts and letting viewers decide, significantly differ from Walter Cronkite’s “And that’s the way it is.” Cronkite’s slogan is obviously problematic because it “cuts off debate about alternative interpretations of the news, and closes down the possibility that the news agenda is larger than the artificial container of a TV show.” But Thorson’s essential point in the piece is that the we-report-you-decide rhetoric of contemporary broadcast news interpellates audiences as wholly responsible for the formation of their opinions (or in the context of this week’s readings, their morality). Thorson’s problem with such interpellation is similar to Kligler-Vilenchi’s: it leads to an informed citizen ideal that positions the audience as timeless, endless researchers:

“DIY-powered notions of informed citizenship imply that this kind of information consumption—across multiple sources, always seeking out the story behind the story, never trusting, getting there first, doing it not only yourself but by yourself, on your own is the only right way to arrive at a “real” opinion, one that qualifies citizens to vote or to take other political action.”

In terms of rhetoric, this leads to an endless rabbit hole of inquiry in search of a nebulous truth. An honest example: I am perhaps as guilty as the next citizen of engaging in a political debate online and using a recently-googled source — usually from Pew, the government, or something from a hazy memory — to establish a fact that provides some public capital but faithfully attests to my lived experience. For example, in a recent gun control debate with my cousin on Facebook, I was invited to research gun-related crimes in states with strict gun regulations. Instead, I pointed him to the AAP’s statement on guns in the home to explain, statistically and rationally, why I don’t have one in my house. Later, in a separate post, another family member pointed me to this. From what I observed after Newtown, this kind of discussion — where “rational” arguments and data fly past users at record speeds — went on in several online discussions on FB. While there are plenty of disadvantages of this kind of civic discourse, the benefit is that users — whether they admit it or not — have a better understanding of how gun control debates generally flow (providing they are actually reading each other’s “proof”). Nevertheless, as I mentioned to my cousin, I would rather have the discussion at a bar — what Goodnight calls the private sphere — instead of FB. Because the truth is, I often run out of time in the endless forum of social media. This is a variation of Thorsen’s point: who has time to be an ideally informed citizen? Moreover, can we embrace Kligler-Vilenchi’s collective intelligence model if the 21st century expectation of an informed citizen overwhelms us to the point of disengaging from the political process entirely (or at least discursively).

Of the four articles we read this week in 631, all but one were published before the social web. G Thomas Goodnight’s “The Personal, Technical and Public Sphere of Argument” is the exception (1999); it circulated era where two-way website communication was increasing, but blogs were still in their infancy. That said, because of her insistence on a model of public morality centered on active craft by humans — “daily and locally” — Celeste Michelle Condit’s “Crafting Virtue” (1987) initially feels most compatible with contemporary, networked public discourse. My larger question this week is how networks have impacted this set of readings and if it is ever possible to participate in the crafting of public morality given some of the limitations raised by the Civic Paths bloggers. Do these networks and ecologies simply overwhelm us and, thus, our responsibilities to a public morality?

In that case, perhaps some of the other authors in this set — Goognight, Thomas Frentz, or Walter Fisher — have significant points, and public morality is now more than ever necessarily “privatized,” to borrow from Condit’s characterization. That is, Condit posits Fisher and Frentz especially as making a case for the privatization of morality through three assumptions: (1) a generally pessimistic view of the state of public morality and (2) employing a “conversational” model of moral discourse, which (3) emphasizing individual moral growth over the collective. These assumptions, according to Condit, subvert the fundamental functions of public discourse where “[p]ublic advocates rarely convince each other, but given a rhetorical model, they do not have to do so.” Instead she argues, “[c]ompeting rhetors persuade third parties–audiences–and create a ‘public consensus’ that does not require the approval of every individual on every point–although it requires a general minimal satisfaction” (308). Condit, in effect, supports the sort of collective intelligence model touched upon by Kligler-Vilenchi where public participation in moral argumentation can be limited so long as people — many people — do it. Though our participation is imperfect, in other words, we are morally obligated to do it.

Although Condit positions herself as incompatible with Frentz, I wonder if what Frentz is advocating, the practice of rhetorical conversation, can add up to Condit’s view of public morality as collective craft. That is, the millions of FB conversations about gun control add up to a collective clarification of our moral imperatives. For Frentz, a rhetorical conversation is “a narrative episode in which a conflict over opposing moral viewpoint re-unites the agents with their own moral histories, with the moral traditions of which they are a part, and–perhaps mod important–with an awareness of the virtues” (291-92). Rhetorical conversation, then, requires participants to evaluate their own moral histories which (perhaps) leads to a stronger awareness of their individual telos. In a social system, of course, such telos are not unique. Perhaps for me it is a pacific existence (or at least a resistance to rhetorical fear), but for others it might be the rights of the individual (and I’m trying to be generous here).

Finally, I think Goodnight’s various spheres are useful in understanding the difficulty Thorton is trying to describe in her blog post. Goodnight argues that as social(ized) rhetors, we participate in various superstructures called spheres, constructed by discourse practices, in order to deal with uncertainty. According to Goodnight, within the personal sphere rhetors make unpreserved oral, impromptu, time-bound arguments using evidence from memory or whatever is immediately available. The technical sphere on the other hand consists of a requisite, professional community that communicates discursively through refereed platforms. This is, of course, the court of law, the world of academia, etc. The public sphere transcends both the personal and technical spheres to apply to the entire community or citizenry. The problem for Goodnight, and for Fisher as well, is that the public sphere has been diminished by two forces: a dominant technical sphere (Fisher might call this the rational paradigm) where “specialization is necessary to make knowledgeable decisions” (258-259) and a narcissistic private sphere, where the “celebration of personal lifestyle” which inspires politicians to offer only “personalities” and “false intimacy” (259). This “decline of deliberative practice” is only more depressing to Goodnight with the advent of the web technologies where said deliberation if “replaced by consumption” (260). Goodnight ends his piece suggesting that “[i]f the public sphere is to be revitalized, then those practices which replace deliberative rhetoric by substituting alternative modes of invention and restricting subject matter need to be uncovered and critiqued.” By whom? By none other than “the theorist of argument” — the professor — who “could contribute significantly to the perfection of pubic forms and forums of argument” (261).

As elitist as Goodnight’s conclusion sounds, I actually agree that one of the most promising solutions for a reassertion of deliberative practice would be schooling (and the humanities more specifically); however, his goal of perfection is what reminds me that the informed ideal citizen often comes from academia in the first place, whether its from arrogance or complex self-righteousness. So what responsibility do we as teachers and scholars have for suggesting to students (and even ourselves) manageable ways to think critically without asking for an endless pursuit to truth? When is closure necessary and productive? Finally, what responsibility do we have as theorists and teachers of argument to empower students to become more than consumers without being consumed by the responsibility of that pursuit?

“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.

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.

What Can Rhetoric Be?

As I read the first section of Contemporary Rhetorical Theory, What Can Rhetoric Be?, it seems to me that the anthologized works from the late 80s and 90s were still coming to terms with the influence of Aristotle and neo-Aristotelianism’s propagation of objective constructions of rhetoric. Although I’d like to hear more about how the authors define neo-Aristotelianism, it seems epitomized as worshipping singular texts and their intrinsic, constricted, monocultural features. In some cases, the theorists in this section used other eras of classical rhetoric to respond to said tradition (Poulakos), while others took more experimental, feminist, postmodern approaches to rhetoric, deconstructing the term via various historical tropes for women (Sutton). As the intro to this section points out, what these essays share is their approach to rhetoric as praxis; that is, as concurrently performed or embodied “theory and action” (<– tentative definition). Related to that, what I noticed in at least four of the six was a definition of rhetoric that had to similarly comes to terms with shifting contexts, an idea I explored while reading the introduction last week. While I don’t intend to anchor my definition of rhetoric to context this entire semester, I do think it’s appropriate to examine how these articles engage the idea of context.

For instance in three of the articles — John Poulakos’s “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric,” Michael Leff’s “The Habitation of Rhetoric,” and Thomas Farrell’s “Knowledge, Consensus, and Rhetorical Theory” — appropriateness plays a significant role in their definitions. For Poulakos an examination of doers (Sophists) over thinkers (philosophers) leads us to understand rhetoric as an art (techne) “which seeks to capture in opportune moments that which is appropriate and attempts to suggest that which is possible” (26). Key to this understanding are the Sophists’ concepts of kairos and to prepon so that the rhetorician says the right thing at the right time. How do we know if s/he succeeds? If the audience can imagine themselves as other — if they can consider what’s possible, moving away from actuality — or if they don’t (and I’m a little confused by this), they at least critically understand their stasis as more authentic than the possibility of something else (this would describe a hipster watching American Idol, I suspect).

In seeking to negotiate the restrained rhetoric of neo-aristotelianism and the liberated rhetoric of neo-sophism that Poulakos advocated, Leff settles on a definition of rhetoric that accepts it as a form of action, but requires some kind of substance for analysis. In this way, then, decorum works as the rubric for rhetoric since it essentially requires a understanding of the context and process, but uses the product as the test: “It is the principle of decorum that allows us to comprehend a situation as a whole, to locate its meaning within a context, and to translate this understanding into a discursive form that becomes an incentive to action” (62). Using decorum to understand rhetoric is useful thanks to its flexibility.

Thomas Farrell seeks a similar flexibility to deal with what he calls a “widening circle of acquaintance”; he thus sketches the idea of a rhetorical forum, a specific location “where types of reasoning and argument are practiced” (88) and to some extent ordered. Rhetorical practice in the forum are regulated in some way. Similar to Leff, Farrell believes that rhetoric can be understood in the context of the forum so that “rhetorical practice enacts the norms of propriety collaboratively with interested collective others” (91). These norms, he notes, are always changing and difficult to pin down.

Of all the writers in the first section Michael Calvin McGee’s has been cited far more than the others — and probably for good reason. Although written in 1990, “Text, Context, and the Fragmentation of Contemporary Culture” attempts to get at the essence of the 90s and the end of the 20th century by calling out speech discourse as existing as fragments where “rhetors make discourses from scraps and pieces of evidence” (70). He lays out three structural elements — sources, culture and influence — and requires all three to be present in rhetoric in order for critics claim they understand its meaning. Such an approach to context is necessary because we now live in a heterogeneous culture. In this way, the structural elements are necessary just as Farrell’s forum is necessary to his theory. Evidence of such homogeneity is contrived, however, as one wonders that although the suffrage gave women a voice and Brown v BOE mixed the races, it’s not like women or African Americans didn’t develop their own discourse systems. In others words, McGee’s call for such a new theory is suspiciously WASPy. That said, he does acknowledge more instantaneous media and the “knowledge explosion” it engendered (this sounds similar to Farrell’s “widening circle”). This line, in particular, got my attention: “text construction is now something done more by the consumers than by the producers of discourse” (76). In other words, as readers or listeners we need to be prepared (or prepare our students) to be critical enough to fill in the blanks, to know how to find good information, and to understand the fragments of texts, especially their sources. The problem with McGee, however, is that he seeks to limit rhetorical criticism to speech — and increasing problem in the digital age.

While all of these manifestations of rhetoric and context seem more accurate in the 21st century, one still wonders how to develop the tools to gauge these various and shifting contexts in order to better understand them. What happens, for instance, when the context shifts but the people do not? I’m thinking here of how zine communities move from various print and digital platforms, or how someone who produced print-only publications in the 1990s explains print subcultures to students raised on Facebook. Speaking of which, can rhetoric theory anticipate contexts? Is part of their job to predict? In McGee’s case, the answer seems obvious.

I also wonder about some of the terminology in these pieces. What is the difference, for instance, between decorum and propriety? Forum and context?

And what elements of formalist study do we need to retain so that everything does not seem so relative, as one of my peers pointed out. Or is relativism and theory and rhetoric compatible?

Intro to Lucaites, Condit, and Caudill

In the first meeting of my contemporary rhetorics class this week, Kevin asked us to (1) describe rhetoric and illustrate our definition (as in literally draw it), and (2) describe our major limitations as rhetorical theorists and how we imagine negotiating them. For the first prompt I concluded (rather simply) that rhetoric is discourse in context. While unsure about the term “discourse” (fearing that a term like “knowledge,” “language” or even “literacy” might serve equally) I wanted to hang my definition especially on context because, as I put it, “it’s about who says what, where, when and why. Context is important for us if we want to respect the ability of knowledge to escape us, to shift, to reflect and awe.”

More on this drawing below.
More on this drawing below.

This was an ok start without having any foundation or reading to lean on, I thought, but as I mentioned in my response to the second prompt, I tend to be reductive in both my understanding and application of theory, feeling as though I sometimes selectively or deterministically use ideas for whatever agenda I’m pursuing. I tend to negotiate my misunderstanding by reading lots of head notes and secondary sources (which sometimes is the symptom and not the cause of such reduction). I attribute part of the problem to exposure — not actively reaching for theory in my own time and having a difficult time sustaining my attention as I slog through it.

It was comforting, then, to read the introduction to our course text — Lucaites, Condit and Caudill’s Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader — and know that perhaps I’ve retained more about rhetorical theory over the years than I realize. The introduction suggests that the most basic meaning of rhetoric would include “problems and possibilities of human communication” (1), a persecutive compatible with the volume’s disciplinary perspective, which comes from communication studies. Here’s a basic summary of the intro:

  • The intro starts at the beginning — with a discussion of the role classical rhetoric has played in shaping contemporary theory, arguing that “rhetoric typically emphasized the public, persuasive, and contextual characteristics of human discourse in situations governed by the problems of contingency” (2; emphasis in original). This aligns with the theories and histories we read in the fall for Ancient Rhetorics, especially the idea of contingency, that rhetoric helps us understand reality in terms of probabilities and not certainties. As the authors point out, however, classical rhetoric’s focus on public communication has meant the most to contemporary theory since “once a public or the citizenry is persuaded to endorse and act upon communally shared goals that history moves forward (or backward) in significant ways” (4). After discussing context and persuasiveness further and applying it (in typical comm studies fashion) to a famous speech (Churchill’s “War Situation I”), the introduction summarizes post-antiquity rhetorical study as having been replaced by more positivist approaches. While rhetoric still existed as “the Harlot of the Arts,” dominant thinkers did not consider rhetoric’s role on the thinking they were doing; in other words, rhetoric was as Plato had originally defined it, as dressing. In other words, rhetoric was too complex for the kinds of thinking that valued universal, grand narratives.
  • By the time the 1960s arrived, the authors argue, two events began to move rhetorical theory from its historical and pedagogical restrictions to accommodate more disruptive, refractive publics: television and grassroots social movements. This new focus became interested in “understanding the relationships between rhetoric and social theory” (8). A more social view of rhetoric helped question the knowledge/language problem in the field. For example, Robert Scott’s essay, “On Viewing Rhetoric as Epistemic” argued that rhetoric is not simply a means of making the truth effective, but it is quite literally a way of knowing, a means of production of truth and knowledge in a world where certainty is rare and yet action must be taken” (9). We’ll read this essay in a few weeks. His work and others in the late 60s helped pave the way for additional social perspectives, such as Lloyd Bitzer’s concept of the rhetorical situation (which has more recently been updated with rhetorical ecologies) and arguably rhetoric’s larger place in the humanities where “to be to rhetorical was a central and substantial dimension of many facets of the human social experience” (10).
  • Following this rhetorical turn in the 70s, our introduction notes, a debate between modernist and postmodernist perspectives ensued. Modernists were essentially neoclassicists who believed in knowable truths, while postmodernists believed that “struggle, not consensus is the defining characteristic of social life” (11). Rhetorical theory at this point was still concrete, not performative and thus, applied neo-Aristotelianism principles to rhetorical situations instead of calling into question the reliability of the reality being studied. Interestingly, however, the book notes that one of contemporary rhetorical theory’s major projects is to figure out what replaces modernist perspectives of rhetoric. Thus, theorists in the late 70s aimed at constructing more reflexive approaches to rhetoric, seeing, for example, audiences as “rhetorically material.” In short, postmodernity made rhetorical study theoretical by default.

When Kevin asked us to illustrate our definition of rhetoric I came up with that flow chart of sorts, which placed a generic subject in the center with arrows coming in and moving out, which represented rhetoric. Part of what’s valuable about this intro for me, then, is seeing just how my definition and perspective has been shaped by contemporary theory (regardless of how crude or reductive that perspective might be). Although I was trying to illustrate the role context plays in meaning by placing a generic subject at the center and placing basic influences on one side (parents, school, media) and tools, channels and audiences on the other (computer, friends, clothes), I was trying to get at the chaos of rhetoric. And in reflecting on my definition further here, I wonder what contemporary rhetorical theory offers us for dealing with that chaos, whether our goals are to foster social change, or to help our students understand when to talk and when to listen. More than anything, I’m looking forward to continuing to better understand a discipline I still feel outside of.