Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Death:Intention :: Author:Rhetor

We're discussing rhetoric, and talking about intentionality and such.  (We're looking at James A. Herrick's "An Overview of Rhetoric.")   The speaker is insisting that something that isn't purposeful isn't "rhetoric."   The example was a lazy email from a student, the "hey, did I miss anything in class yesterday?" sort of email.  But it's still a text, and I'm not sure it's not rhetoric, since it's communicative.

I'm having trouble resolving the focus on purposeful and intentional "rhetors" and my literary training in reading and thinking about what might not be intentionally done by an author, but is still there.

Let me give a simple example:  X tells a joke.  Y reads the joke as racist, and calls X on it.  X says it wasn't the intention.

Now X might not have been highly aware of the intention, but the joke may well be racist.  And there may be a sort of unacknowledged intention of trying to get Y (or other audience folks) to accept and adopt the racist point of view, no?

As a lit person, I step back from intentionality, and look for effects and multiple meanings.   That doesn't mean that I don't recognize that people do have intentions and try to achieve those, but that I don't think I can always know those intentions (nor do I think people are always deeply aware of their intentions) and that I think people can express really important stuff without intending to.

The way lit folks read tends to look at authors as cultural products and producers; the way we (here in this room) read tends to look as rhetors as highly individualized, independent, and not as products, but only producers.

I don't think it would really be productive to bring this all up in discussion here in this room, but I do think it's worth thinking more about for me.  Even though I think Freud is wrong about lots of stuff (mostly because he thought his culture was "universal" and "real" and not just one of many possibilities, so was way too essentialist)  I'm influenced by his thinking about intentionality.  I'm also influenced by Barthes, obviously.  And De Saussure!  And Lacan!  (Again, wrong on so many levels but thought provoking.)  (An aside: I sometimes like thinkers who are wrong but thought provoking, you know?  Being wrong in really interesting ways is weirdly good.)


  1. Interesting thoughts. I agree that the conversation may not fit well into the workshop you're attending right now, but I think it's increasingly one lit and rhet/comp scholars are going to have to have, especially as the rhet/comp field continues to expand (assuming the predictions my department made when it recently argued for an expanded program in the field are correct), English stays stable (if we're lucky; shrinks if we're not), and we all try to coexist, often in the same department, and often with those of us trained primarily in lit finding ourselves teaching partly or primarily intro rhet/comp courses (actually, I think one of the questions that will -- and should -- come up is whether English 101 *should* be an intro to rhetoric, any more than it is an intro. to lit. I'd argue not, on both counts; it needs to be an intro to college/scholarly writing, which is a different animal altogether. Some of the attempts to map classical rhetorical devices onto modern genres require more than a bit of stretching, if one stops and looks closely).

    I also have the sense (admittedly from only a bit of reading/attending conferences) that there's quite a range of rhet/comp scholarship (as well as practice) out there. I've attended a few pedagogically-oriented "composition" conferences, and generally come away quite frustrated (though I can't remember exactly why at the moment). I've also attended one conference of writing scholars (it was local, and I was curious), and found myself in much more familiar waters. I don't remember too much conversation around the subject of the author/rhetor, but there was definitely a lot of analysis of how various communities of writers (including/especially scholars) *actually* write, as opposed to how the common wisdom says they should/do write. On the basis of that admittedly limited experience, I think the concept of genre (and the reality that genres are in fact more flexible/evolving than the communities that make statements about them often realize/admit) might be one site where the discussion of how the rhetor/author fits into (emerges from/interacts with/acts on) a larger culture might take place.

    But I haven't read Herrick (though I probably should), so I'm not sure where the conversations I've seen intersect (if at all) with his ideas.

  2. I haven't read Herrick either....I guess my take on the supposedly-lazy student email is that it isn't particularly effective rhetoric, and might not be very thoughtful rhetoric, but it's still rhetoric, albeit a text that might be improved with a bit more attention to audience evaluation and consideration of purpose (in a writing class, I think the issue of authorial intent does need to be foregrounded more--after all, we're trying to get people to make choices about texts they are producing). But understanding that those texts also have unintended consequences is something that rhet/comp workshops might well explore.