Tuesday, September 11, 2007

The State of the Cluster

To get discussions started this year, I thought we might reflect on the meaning of our new "cluster status" and the meaning of an interdisciplinary program in "Rhetoric and Public Culture."

For example, many scholarly articles deal with the things "rhetoric" can bring to other disciplines and modes of understanding. Among them would be a sharpened toolkit for the analysis of power and action (especially as it appears in texts), an expanded appreciation for argument and civic debate, a study of the inherently unstable and contingent meanings produced in language, and a problematic stance toward objective language in all fields.

On the other hand, "public culture" remains undertheorized. The department website offers one summary that breaks the scholarly "value-added" of the term into three categories: the analysis of publics, of public identity as performed and understood in shared performances and style, and of public agency (especially as it operates in global and marginalized practice).

Any more ideas on what "public culture" might mean for our department? Is this a necessary supplement to "rhetoric" for our cluster, or could we continue in the same manner without the newer title? Finally, what would be the advantage of "public culture" for our cluster program--what could the study of "public culture" bring to fields outside of communication and cultural studies?

1 comment:

t-buckets said...

This comment addresses questions 2 and 3 of the post concerning the necessity of the term "public culture" and the advantages or added value that the term brings.

The "public culture" moniker isn't necessary, since we're a pretty resilient bunch and would in any case continue our thinking and various projects under a different name. The idea driving the name is that there are many scholars and scholarly communities that work under the name "Public Culture," and that these communities would advance inquiry by exploiting their shared productive possibilities. This question-- couldn't we just call it Rhetoric?-- embeds an assumption worth scrutiny. Would the name "Rhetoric" suffice to mark a field of inquiry and is its value exclusive to its name (otherwise why add "Public Culture")? The name "Rhetoric" likely would suffice to get the gist of the work across, but the idea that working under that term would demarcate certain disciplinary boundaries is problematic and troubling.

Problematic: rhetoric is tough to work as a stand-alone discipline. It needs an "and" after the "Rhetoric" because it needs instantiations in order to make its points; no Demosthenes or Lincoln or Martin Luther King, no rhetoric. Because of its parasitic nature, it is always driven to make broader claims than its case studies can bear out. By this I mean that most criticism in the field is interpretive in nature, and makes its larger arguments through interpretations of texts. If excluding the term "Public Culture" means that we could go it alone, I would have to disagree. After all, much strong work in the field relies on (either as support or as foil) work done in history, political thought, philosophy, theology, science, and the like.

Troubling: if we were to labor under the sole sign of "Rhetoric," we make this choice because of our confidence in Rhetoric as a tradition of inquiry. Unfortunately, many of those who have contributed strongly to this tradition have done so without laboring under that sign-- Foucault (power and action as it appears in texts), Kuhn (contingent meanings), Habermas, and others have advanced knowledge in areas of rhetorical concern. Lest we think of these contributions solely in terms of "theory" instead of "practice," a flip through the pages of Public Culture or other work would reveal myriad case studies as well-- Geertz's essay on the Balinese cockfights, Barthes on wrestling, Appadurai on the slum dwellers of Mumbai name just a few examples.

The test of the value added of a given name or term should not be limited to what the new term means in some objective sense, but should include the meanings taken on by those terms over time, the citation practices of the scholars who identify with those terms as disciplines, and the objects of critical inquiry of these groups. Certainty of definition has a time and a place-- it's great for instrumental tasks, delineating responsibilities and generally maintaining order. I think this is one relevant consideration but not the only one. Take Martha Nussbaum as an example. Her work does not often mention Aristotle's Rhetoric, relying more heavily on Politics and Ethics. Nevertheless, The Fragility of Goodness has some wonderful and worthwhile essays, and her work in general has some place in our program (even if we called it "Rhetoric").

The term "Public Culture" adds value. To pick just one source, consider the hypothesis that a "mass public" has replaced (or supplemented) the term "audience" as a critical term in the passage to modern times, coinciding with the decline of rhetoric as traditionally understood as a practice (I'm commenting on a blog, not addressing a small group in a theater) and in educational focus (Ramus being public enemy #1 in the atrophying of rhetoric). This hypothesis, if true, is a problem to be thought through theoretically, through case studies, etymologies of terms, aesthetic performances and the like, and our department is an excellent home for such work.

In the end, I am suggesting that the name "Rhetoric and Public Culture" may not pass a definitional exclusivity test, but this failure is cause more for celebration of the possibilities than hand-wringing over disciplinary anxieties. It brings the study of rhetoric a modern salience, while simultaneously introducing to rhetorical scholars attention to forms of address and a broader field of inquiry that will benefit those who take part.