Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Where's Rhetoric?

The above question was at the heart of last Thursday's C.15 session in New Orleans. It was a full session--packed to the walls after being bumped from one rather large space, Grand Ballroom D, to one of the smaller salons in the adjacent hallway. After a curmudgeonly attendee in the back grumped "Microphone?", the first speaker, Michael Bernard-Donals, described a needful relationship between composition and rhetoric (i.e., one in which composition needs rhetoric). Bernard Donals observed that, judging by the conference program, rhetoric appears to have been banished; it is invisible; it has been marginalized, at the very least. The decline of "rhetoric" in the program served as evidence for Bernard-Donals' claim about its compromised, fading status. He suggested, as well, that rhetoric might threaten composition's disciplinary thrust toward stability. Variations on this idea turned up on the talks shared by Thomas Rickert and Rosa Eberly, also. Rickert's "Rhetoric Beyond Critique: Grappling with Institutionality After Kant" thoughtfully considered the institutional inertia reflected in rhetoric's lowly status in the today's academy. His concern was less the relationship between composition and rhetoric than the tolerable limits of critique and, as well, the ways rationalism's powerful residue is deeply implicated in prevailing institutional norms. Neither my memory nor my notes serve me very well in saying more. Eberly echoed a slight variation on Bernard-Donals' suggestion that rhetoric threatens stability: "Rhetoric via Crowley brings the possibility that we change our minds." Up to that point, she worked--via performative flair and personal anecdote--at the idea that there are certain advantages in CCCClosets, walls that sequester and seal off, and so we need not hasten to dissolve divides where they linger.

This was an engaging panel all in all, perhaps all the more so for the sense I had leaving it that the question--"Where's Rhetoric?"--was answerable in a hundred different ways (not that the panelists presumed their work to offer any final word, of course). So, where is rhetoric at CCCC? As Bernard-Donals explained, it is less pronounced in the titles of sessions. And, because its omission from titles does not prove its omission from the conference program, he went on to say that in his methods of sifting the conference program for "rhetoric" he relied on tacit knowledge (familiarity with presenters, topics, and institutional affiliations, I would guess) to trace "rhetoric's fingerprints in the papers." By these methods, if he is right, "rhetoric" is fading at the CCCC.

It seemed to me to be a question of ground-truthing, the technique used by cartographers when they venture out, GPS in hand, to corroborate what's on the map with what's on the ground--what's real, that is, or evidential. But the very idea of finding rhetoric in the conference program (as opposed to the conference) also depends upon how rhetoric is defined and how generous or flexible the manner enacted in the process of looking. In other words, if you are not finding "rhetoric" where you are looking, is it a matter of how you look or where you look? Both, I suppose.

Maybe I can get at this a different way--by looking for "rhetoric" in two other panels I attended, first by glancing their titles and then by thinking about what happened in those sessions. First, consider E.34 Writing Pictures, Changing Writing. No mention of "rhetoric" in the titles. It is listed under "Practices of Teaching Writing." Is this a rhetoric panel? I don't know. Elsewhere: F.11 Visual Rhetoric of Comics, 'Spectacle', and Mail Art. This was a panel organized by the conference, so the title, I would imagine, was assigned somewhere in the selection process. One of the papers listed mentioned "rhetoric" explicitly, but that panelist was not on hand to present. Still, with "rhetoric" in the session title, and with "Theory" as its area cluster, I suppose it is more likely F.11 is a hit than a miss.

So, then, E.34, no mentions of "rhetoric", and F.11, explicit mentions of "rhetoric". Both concerned art, comics, and visual "rhetoric," to varying degrees. E.34 did so with far more examples of student-created comics; F.11, in so far as the papers concerned comics, dealt more with reading them, interpreting them, and analyzing them (rhetoric as a synonym for rhetorical criticism). McCloud's work was invoked by presenters on both panels. In E.34, the complete series from Understanding to Reinventing to Making Comics came up. In F.11, the discussion of comics stuck to Understanding Comics--McCloud's more analytical, critical (rather than productive) project. With this I am not trying to say that rhetoric was more or less present in one or the other of these panels, but I am trying to come to terms with the sense I have that rhetoric is potentially more or less present in the conference depending on how we as conference-goers listen for it, ask questions inflected with rhetorical concepts, and how our own uneven training in rhetoric positions us to expect that all writing activity is immersed in it. I am trying to come to terms with my own hunches (both Qs&As) about the C.15 question--"Where's Rhetoric?": What if it is here?

There are ninety-nine or more other ways to turn it, and it's a fun, evocative question.
Where's rhetoric? Eating at Evelyn's Place (and, thus, ditching all D.sessions).
Where's rhetoric? What do I look like, rhetoric's mom?
Where's rhetoric? Touring.
Where's rhetoric? Getting schnockered on Bedford St. Martin's wine over at the aquarium.
Where's rhetoric? If you are not finding it where you are looking, why are you looking for it there?
Where's rhetoric? Last I saw, rhetoric was on the third floor, by the pool, listening to an iPod and wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt with a tag cloud on the front of it.

Bookmark and Share Posted by at April 9, 2008 3:00 PM to Academe

Rhetoric's budget is such that with _SA in Seattle this year it cannot afford the other conference you mention.

Posted by: Technolinttrap at April 9, 2008 4:34 PM

--"Excuse me, you do have a microphone, don't you?"
--"No, we don't."

Well-handled by MB-D. And then the grump failed to move up front. And left early.

Posted by: cbd at April 13, 2008 6:58 PM

Yeah, that was a memorable interchange. I have started to see the back row near the door as the kind of luxury suite of CCCC: unimpeded line of site, easy access to the exit, and, what was that? no microphone? All the more luxurious when you the presenters are loud and clear, of course.

Posted by: Derek at April 15, 2008 4:00 PM