Wednesday, October 14, 2009

When Everything is Rhetorical, Nothing Is

Inspired by Pixar's The Incredibles: When everything is rhetorical, nothing is.

Being on the academic job market, I am realizing there are several trends that we might want to question. Hopefully, raising the questions is enough to engender some discussion. First a list of statements from various department and program Web sites:

Set 1:
  • Rhetoric is central to all topics, all knowledge, all human interactions.
  • All discourse falls within the field of Rhetoric.
  • Texts can be words, pictures, audio, or any other form of communication.
  • "Author" is an outdated concept.
  • We teach that no one owns ideas.
Set 2:
  • We are in the Department of Social Justice and Peace.
  • Our program is housed within the Department of Social Research and Justice Studies.
  • Our cross-disciplinary program stresses women and minority studies.
  • Faculty members are actively engaged in formulating progressive change within society.
Everything is Rhetorical
Actually, this is along the lines of "All choices are political." I do agree that all human interactions are "persuasive" in some way, even if they are trying to persuade you that the story is entertaining. It has been argued that entertainment exists to persuade viewers to adopt or reject various social norms. I have no issue with such an inclusive view of rhetoric.

Where I start to have problems with "everything" being rhetorical is that you end up unable to define what is studied. Everything? I suppose that's like cultural studies. It certainly confuses the public and our students if we use "rhetoric" broadly. For most people, rhetoric is associated with manipulation. Rhetoric is a pejorative we might not be able to reclaim.

Using the word "text" in place of "communication" is a personal peeve. It's another way of claiming that "genre analysis" and "textual analysis" can be applied to all things. It risks missing the differences between media by stressing the similarities. We should be careful about calling all things "texts" -- we wouldn't call all things film or all things music.

The final two quotes in Set 1 imply a collectivism that is further evidenced in Set 2. I don't think authors work in isolation, but there is still an author, a composer, an artist behind various works. We should teach students that creativity evolves, based on past works, but to dismiss all notions of ownership and originality seems extreme.


Justice (and Progressive Politics)
Is there any question why moderate, libertarian, and conservative educators are rare? From the department names to their missions, you might as well have a huge sign over the entrances declaring, "Progressives and Neo-Marxists Only." That's probably an exaggeration, but it is clear that the departments and the institutions housing them assume a certain political homogeneity. So much for challenging orthodoxies: "left" is the orthodoxy.

It is an interesting job hunt.