This afternoon, I had a stark reminder of the choice I made 20+ years ago — to apply for a Rhetoric Ph.D., rather than one in Literary and Cultural Theory. (The programs were at the same school, and I had the course background for either area.) The text I was reading discussed the work of Federman [not, not, NOT to be confused with Federer or Feynman], who coined the term “incest-tuality” to describe the activity of:
…leaping from quotation to quotation (known as The Leap-Frog Technique — see Take It or Leave It, by Raymond Federman) and often even by quoting itself (known as inter-textuality, but which I prefer to call incest-tuality), that the Postmodern text progressed without really going anywhere, thus delaying or even at times cancelling its own end — its own eventual death. [Before Postmodernism and After]
So Federman cites himself and considers this a radical act, or a promiscuous one, or something, anything, other than ‘repeating yourself’. I understand the uses of ‘amplification’ in rhetoric, but this just strikes me as protesting a little too much. I can be intertextual, too… oooh. Invoke the Bard and then skitter away. [The music for this section could be anything from Sondheim or Lloyd-Webber, for reasons which should be obvious…]
Anyhow, back to my afternoon reading, wherein Federman is credited with describing The Postmodern as being filled with anxiety and doubt about the possibility of progress. That was what triggered the memory: there I am, back in Boyer Hall. It’s 1985, and Janice is discussing how the latest critical turn still fails to provide intellectual space for the New, for the Different.
It's a perspective test: do you first see the gate...
Just between you, me, and the Internet….I think there a few new things under the sun since then. We could argue that the iPhone is really a nexus of hegemonic activity, since it enables/requires people to carry more and more buzzing obligations around with them [calendars, to do lists, work projects], or that GPS devices are a natural extention of the Panopticon, with the diabolitcal twist that people _outside_ the jurisdiction of prison-systems voluntarily permit their motions and destinations to be tracked…. But the fact remains that iPhones are genuine new things that use real ideas and structures of meaning that didn’t exist in 1985.
Genuine new things exist. People make them. People invent, speculate, try. It seemed to me [in early 1986, when I was selecting my graduate school path] that I could either stand on the sidelines with the literary theorists who were grumbling about whether new things were possible, weaving elaborate theories to explain how we are caught by multiple webs of established meanings….
Or I could get on the damn field, learn how the game was being played right now, and start trying to score some points.
...or do you see the opportunity?
Rhetoric, to me, was all about saying something, anything, and seeing how that could affect the world. Identify opportunity. See a problem. Question something, sure, but then thought needs to change into intent, into action, reaction, people actually doing something that might change some part of the world.
So. Rhetoric it was. It seemed more hopeful, although I recognize that Acting and Understanding the Forces That Complicate All Action are sides on the same die.
As for the document that got me thinking about all this, I don’t think its saving throw was successful.
Coincidentally, the last word of Federman’s essay is, in fact, “Rhetoric.” But I think I could have just stuck with Kenneth Burke’s statement that “Rhetoric is concerned with Babel after the Fall.” [Note: much of Burke is impenetrable on first reading. Second readings can be assisted with bourbon.]
Literary/cultural theory has its usefulness. But it does remind me on occasion, about how the concept of “wrong” manages to evade many theorists in the humanities. Scientists have to deal with being wrong on a regular basis, and I think that builds character in a way that cultural critique cannot. Making a fundamental error about the way light is used in a Faulkner novel or rigorously problematizing a persistent trope does not have the same consequences as missing a decimal place and trashing a major experiment, or, worse, giving waaaaaaay too much heparin to a baby.
I’ll grant that because the humanities have the luxury of playing with ideas much longer, sometimes genuinely splendid things result. Maybe Freud hadn’t a clue about how the brain really worked, but look at how much film, drama, art was built using those ideas. On the dark side, how many people struggled with being told that the abuse or trauma they experienced was part of some fantasy ‘everybody’ is supposed to have had at some stage in their lives? Or how many people can honestly say that state control of industries is the best way to ensure happiness for all [other than Henry Poulson, I mean…]?
Ah well. Dinner appears to be ready. Hurray!
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