Faust sits translating the Bible. He is working on the beginning of the Gospel according to St. John. The troublesome word is logos, which he renders as "word," then “mind,” then “power,” then “act.” ~Scott (1967)
This post explores theoretical propositions that have potentially broad implications for researchers and practitioners in the field of Rhetoric and Writing Studies and related disciplinary and professional domains.
These propositions and speculation about their implications have developed as a result of ongoing collaboration between myself and Christa Teston as we've sought to examine how our field, writ large, understands, theorizes, enacts, and inculcates various modes of representation and rhetorical action (visual :: aural :: haptic :: spatial :: embodied :: linguistic) in both our disciplinary episteme, and when creating meaning about our discipline for broader (extra-disciplinary) audiences.
Specifically, this post is inspired by recent professional deliberations and experiences that seem to suggest that our field fails to centrally position and explicitly theorize the epistemic and ontological nature of rhetoric when investigating and articulating how various modes of representation afford knowledge-making; implications abound, then, for how the complex act of constructing knowledge with rhetoric-as-epistemic at the helm informs our discipline's theories and practices.
Following Scott's (1967) assertion that “the terms 'certainty' and 'knowledge' confront one with what has become known as epistemology,” we are interested here in what and how rhetoric means, how our disciplinary gazes should be governed, and what our philosophical and pragmatic understandings of rhetoric say about our discipline beyond academe.
Consequently, this post aims to foster theoretical discussion about the implications associated with what we're calling the atomization of rhetoric. We present here a credo of sorts, a series of propositions concerned with our desire to better understand rhetoric as object/focus/field of study, and rhetoric's role in meaningful (everyday) human activity.
Scott (1967) posits that “rhetoric may be viewed not as a matter of giving effectiveness to truth but of creating truth.”
We argue, therefore, that rhetoric is no mere tool, the dressing or art of language. It cannot simply be just the art of persuasion.
According to Enos and Lauer (1992), "Aristotle holds not that rhetoric creates all reality but rather that it creates the meaning of that reality." And yet, Scott argues that “if truth is somehow both prior and substantial, then problems need not be worked out but only classified and disposed of.” Consequently, Scott rejects “prior and enabling truth as the epistemological basis” for rhetoric; so do we.
We argue, therefore, that rhetoric is worldview; it is underlying philosophy and tacit understanding.
We argue that rhetoric is no more teleologic than time. Rhetoric makes as it goes, and defines its ends along the way. It is not circumscribed; it circumscribes. Rhetoric deploys as it is deployed.
We argue that rhetoric ought not be treated as a conduit, a dumb pipe connecting human knowledge to an a priori Reality and Truth. Rhetoric does not discover; it invents and produces.
These propositions neither invalidate nor ignore the role of human agency in the making of meaning. In fact, we argue that rhetoric is embodied and materially instantiated, and because of this, rhetoric is grounded in human agency.
Pierre Thevenaz claims that “man acts and speaks before he knows. Or, better, it is by acting and in action that he is enabled to know” (quoted in Scott 1967).
So, because rhetoric is being and knowing, because knowing and being are rhetoric (and not merely rhetoric-al), we argue that rhetoric structures, facilitates, and makes possible human agency. Human agency and rhetoric cannot be excised from one another. They are mutually constitutive.
Further, Brummett (1979) asserts that rhetoric "is epistemic in an ontological sense," and "creates all of what there is to know." He asserts that "discourse does not merely discover truth or make it effective," but that discourse "creates realities rather than truths about realities."
We argue, therefore, that rhetoric is epistemic. It is ontological.
Rhetoric is "a dimension of all activity rather than [...] an activity in its own right" (Brummett 1979).
These are not beliefs. This is not theory hope.
These are propositions that ground our theorizing about and approaches toward understanding how meaning gets made in the overlap between modes of representation, human interaction, and everyday experiences--experiences bound by space and time. But we sense that these propositions are not shared within our field. There are profound disciplinary and pragmatic implications for accepting, rejecting, or ignoring these propositions.
Our observation is that rhetoric as an academic discipline and professional practice suffers from a kind of insidious atomization—a context-stripping particularity that reduces rhetorical practice to departments, domains, specialties, sub-disciplines, colloquialisms. And yet we simultaneously recognize that such atomization has been historically productive; atomization has fostered new approaches and understandings that, for so long, have been othered or invisible. Atomization in part yields feminisms, body studies, LGBT studies, Critical Race Studies. Atomization gives us rhetorical criticism, writing studies, technical communication. Atomization is crucial to the viability of studying and doing rhetoric.
And yet atomization separates, bifurcates, siloizes. Atomization necessitates a particularized and specious division of multivalent, polymorphous, polycontexts.
Atomization comfortably compartmentalizes—culturally, philosophically, theoretically—meaning and being. It ameliorates our need to explore through the practice of exploding contexts. It assuages our uncertainty, allows us to reduce writing to this, visual to that, performance to here, orality there. Consequently, atomization draws lines, then builds fences, then erects walls, borders, and territories.
Image becomes a province, alphabetic text an imperial kingdom, orality a third-world domain, art a margin, film a continent to be conquered, digital media a competing power.
In the atomization of rhetoric, the visual in particular is seen from across the border, with suspicion—a potential threat. When atomized, the visual is simultaneously embraced and othered. It is not granted the capacity for meaning without the contextualization of alphabetic text, a decree of its (un)worthiness.
Our argument proceeds from these principles. Image and alphabetic text are not atomized domains, but mutually constitutive actors in meaning making. Yet the very atomization of rhetoric, which generously gives and insidiously takes away, will not let image stand alone, even though the image is always already rhetoric.
Similar bifurcations materialize themselves in troubling ways. News anchors claim to "get to the bottom of" or beyond a certain politician's "rhetoric." Oral presentation skills aren't taught in Business and Professional writing courses because it's a course on "writing," not "communication."
Rhetoric as a discipline suffers from failing to join the productive tensions of atomization with a kind of theoretical baseline or shared understanding among contingencies that all discourse is at once particular and holistic, situated and situating, epistemic ontologically.
Taking to be true,
(i) Scott's (1967) argument that, if there can be "truth in human affairs," it is "the result of a process of interaction at a given moment," and
(ii) Toulmin's (1958) assertion that "claim(s) to knowledge" can't always be "backed by an analytic argument," else "the future, the past, other minds, ethics, even material objects: about all of these we ought, strictly speaking, to admit that we know nothing,”
we see meaning making as always already mediated in and through rhetoric.
Instead of considering the rhetoric of images or the rhetoric of alphabetic text, therefore, we propose an approach to rhetoric, proper. We eschew the "of"--an indication that rhetoric is part rather than whole. We no longer need the "of" if we are to learn from our atomization and challenge ourselves toward holistic theorizing. We argue for is rather than of.
The visual is rhetoric. There should be no rhetoric of the visual.
Writing is rhetoric. There should be no rhetoric of writing.
Bodies are rhetoric. There should be no rhetoric of bodies.
The bricolage of visual~writing~bodies is not merely rhetoric-al, since being rhetoric-al pigeonholes rhetoric as a mere attribute, appendage, or add-on, rather than understanding rhetoric as the constitutive property of that polycontextual whole.
This is not to say that in order to know we cannot or should not first fracture and make strange previously held assumptions or understandings about our objects of study (a la Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Strauss & Corbin, 1997). What we propose is that the lines upon which those fractures take place ought not be solely dependent on mode, medium, or material form. We argue, instead, that by exploring knowledge-making holistically and in situ, rhetoric is precisely what facilitates the ontological reevaluation, reassembling, and restructuring of previously held assumptions and understandings.
We accept that our propositions are potentially troubling or problematic for a discipline that has, for years, been wedded to close textual analyses and hermeneutic approaches to understanding phenomena. We acknowledge that the arguments above are deserving of refinement; we ask you to consider this work as but a “process of interaction in a given moment.” Above all, we invite you to join us in “cooperative critical inquiry” (Scott 1967) so that we might reevaluate, reassemble, and restructure previously held assumptions and understandings about the field of Rhetoric and Writing Studies.
Our aim is to move from the above described philosophical revival of rhetoric-as-epistemic toward constructs that support more grounded investigations of rhetoric and writing practices as they occur in the world. We want to explode contexts, to make strange, and to complicate without sacrificing the holistic nature of rhetoric. Grounded, activity- and practice-based methodologies and methods, therefore, are where we turn from here. We welcome and look forward to the ongoing conversation that will develop from this and any subsequent posts.
Ball State University