Just as Marx declared he is not a Marxist…

“[My questioning of norms] has not only been made possible by but is constantly in contact with very classical, rigorous, demanding discipline in writing, in ‘demonstrating,’ in rhetoric … The fact that I’ve been trained in and that I am at some level true to this classical teaching in rhetoric is essential … whether in the sense of the art of persuasion or in the sense of logical demonstration.”

Unlike Marx, Derrida would probably be more inclined to play with his label of “deconstructionist” rather than out-and-out deny it.  But as Booth points out in The Rhetoric of Rhetoric, Derrida is just fine with being labeled a rhetorician.

“If you really understand Kenneth Burke, you don’t need Derrida as much.”

~ J. Hillis Miller, Interview, Criticism in Society, 1987

What is the vernacular avant garde?

There was a great piece in the NY Times this weekend, “Uploading the Avant Garde,” in which Virginia Heffernan considers the presence, among YouTube’s many microgenres, of what she calls “the vernacular avant-garde.” I’ve never heard this phrase before, and I dig it. What does it mean to put those words in tandem? According to the OED (of course):

Vernacular (adj)

1. That writes, uses, or speaks the native or indigenous language of a country or district.

2. a. Of a language or dialect: That is naturally spoken by the people of a particular country or district; native, indigenous.

6. Of arts, or features of these: Native or peculiar to a particular country or locality. spec. in vernacular architecture, architecture concerned with ordinary domestic and functional buildings rather than the essentially monumental.

Avant garde

1. The foremost part of an army; the vanguard or van.

2. The pioneers or innovators in any art in a particular period. Also attrib. or as adj. Hence avant-{sm}gardism, the characteristic quality of such pioneering; avant-{sm}gardist(e) (-{shti}st), such a person; also attrib.

And so this seems clear enough: we have the home-grown innovator, the local pioneer. But in our current use of vernacular, we usually mean folksy, populist, “normal” ways of communicating, whereas avant garde is all about pushing those norms to provoke and even alienate mainstream popular audiences… So, yeah, I’m still not sure I get how those work together. How can we define such a concept? ( I heart semantics.) Like porn, do we just know it when we see it? Anyone?

So of course I googled the phrase and found few results beyond a couple of uses in reference to avant garde jazz and vernacular architecture… Except, that is, for a couple of  blogs and a SNS who’d posted the same link and video:

Networked Performance

Since the latter part of the twentieth century, and especially in new media artistic practice, we have witnessed a shift from the representational idiom — where art is viewed mainly as a means to represent the world — to the performative idiom — where the practice of art is considered an active negotiation with the world it seeks to address.*

Networked Performance is real-time, embodied practice within digital environments and networks; it is, embodied transmission.

Performance involves the moment of action, its continuity, inherent temporality and relationship to the present.


DocumentaryTech is a collaborative effort to talk about what makes for the best in the art of the documentary. As a joint project by The Rhode Island Film Festival and several sponsoring universities, we’ll talk about technique, technology, distribution and funding.


Using the most advanced social software platforms and internet rich multimedia applications, dance-tech.net provides movement and new media artists, theorist, thinkers and technologists the possibility of sharing work, ideas and research, generating opportunities for interdisciplinary collaborative projects.

I don’t have much profound to say about all this. I think the phrase is fascinating and worthy of play. And I think it’s cool that there are such fascinated/ing people out there instigating such play.

Yay interwebs.

Terministic Screen

Our attention is naturally directed toward certain things and not others based on our motives; it both receives and refuses information in the meaning-making process, reflecting and deflecting sensory data, as well as models for understanding that data.  Burke’s concept of terministic screens is productive for helping us understand this process.  Concentrate on the awareness tests below and see how you fare–they’re excellent examples for showing students and friends the power of this concept and how it relates to rhetorical analysis.

(Thanks to Kay Halasek for passing these along.)

Writing and weeding

I’m working on an academic article about Harlot, and the irony does not make it a smoother process… so I was out in the backyard weeding.

I enjoy the excuse to sit around outside, but I always have qualms about weeding–in part, because I’m never quite sure I’m pulling the right ones. But even more so, because I get uncomfortable about messing with nature. (Or rather, “nature,” since this is my urban and bricked backyard, after all.) I have these funny guilty feelings about killing something that’s growing, like its an environmental sin (cue Catholic upbringing) to in any way interfere with the natural course of, well, nature. I know that this isn’t logical, that there are immense and innumerable complicating factors… but still.

Side note: My students were so put off by Gore’s rhetorical choices in An Inconvenient Truth that they seem to have found the movie less than persuasive. It sure as hell worked on me. I’ve always considered myself an environmentalist. But now, all the time, I think about these things, the tiny details of our relationship with the earth. Negotiations and love songs.

Anyway, back in the garden, I’ve found that I can pretty comfortably pull the weeds that grow up in between the bricks of the patio, or where they might adversely affect our vegetable plants. I don’t want to analyze this, but I also tend to be more lenient with the ones I like, like clover. So delicate and pretty, no harm there. Today I didn’t yank a big ugly dandelion because there was a ladybug on it. Not logical, but a system is developing.

I weed the human areas and try to let the plant areas mostly alone. Which brings me to the borders, the lines that can be drawn and redrawn, the liminal spaces, the messy areas. I thought maybe I’d take a hard line and just declare a point past which the weeds are not welcome. But that line is hard to draw–and more importantly, I thought, they place the weeds within the surrounding areas in an interesting and precarious position. They’re in contested space (in my head, at least) between human and natural environments–and again, I wonder, who am I to decide? Plus, I’ve read Anzaldua and believe in the dynamic, disruptive potential of the borderlands. Again, not necessarily the most logical thought process… But for now, I’m going to let those spaces be, just to see what happens there.

Which brings me back to that paper about Harlot, into which I now think I should work some of these ideas about the messiness and growth potential of such border spaces. That’s some good gardening.

Days of Rage (part deux)

A few days ago I posted some off the cuff, rather glib remarks about President Bush’s response to having a shoe thrown at him, at the very end of which I note Bush’s acknowledgment of protest as distinctly different than, say, Nixon’s.  Well, today I’m revisiting a really stellar article by Jodi Dean, Queen of I Cite, a blog that covers political theory the likes of Agamben, Foucault, Zizek, and so on, which brings up the topic in a more serious light; so I’d like to follow up on my post with a quote from her article, “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics,” from Digital Media and Democracy:

Even when the White House acknowledged the massive worldwide demonstrations of February 15, 2003, Bush simply reiterated the fact that a message was out there, circulating–the protestors had the right to express their opinions.  He didn’t actually respond to their message.  He didn’t treat the words and actions of the protestors as sending a message to him to which he was in some sense obligated to respond.  Rather, he acknowledged that there existed views different from his own.  There were his views and there were other views; all had the right to exist, to be expressed–but that in now way meant, or so Bush made it seem, that these views were involved with each other.  So, despite the terabytes of commentary and information, there wasn’t exactly a debate over the war.

Dean goes on to make a persuasive case for the separation of a politics that is the simple circulation of content (websites, TV pundits, blogs, RSS feeds, listservs, and so on) and the politics of the institution (activities of lawmakers and bureaucrats).  Today, she argues, these two politics operate almost entirely independent of each other.  Sure, we’d like to think the circulation of content impacts the actual decision making . . . but it doesn’t.  However, it does keep us busy.

I’ll end with one of her juicier claims:

The proliferation, distribution, acceleration, and intensification of communicative access and opportunity, far from enhancing democratic governance or resistance, results in precisely the opposite, the postpolitical formation of communicative capitalism.

There’s a distinct chance I’ll be posting on this over at Candid Candidacy if any of you are enticed by these ideas.

Reading Harlot between the lines . . .

I just came across this quote from Margaret Marshall’s 2004 monograph, Response to Reform: Composition and the Professionalization of Teaching:

[W]hether we aim to publish our scholarship directly to a public audience or to use our scholarly expertise to participate in public situations, we are not always well prepared to do so and the reward structures of higher education do not encourage such activity.  Composition, though, is particularly well suited for making such forays into public venues because its interests in literacy, language, and the cultural structures that support these activities have so many possible public connections.  Composition has a great deal to gain by considering how such public work could be represented appropriately within institutional and professional terms and structures.

When academics fail to engage public audiences outside our disciplines, when we ignore the implications of our scholarly work, or when we keep our teaching safely out of sight, we help turn universities into mere bureaucracies that use intellectual labor as a commodity, ceding our professional aspirations as the price for speaking only to ourselves.  But because this is the way things usually are in the current world of higher education, does not mean this is how things out to remain.  For me and many others who know the history of the teachers who came before us, too many years have been spent gaining the standing to speak to not now choose when and how we will do so.

More Trickster Rhetoric . . .

These quotes come from an excellent piece by Malea Powell, “Blood and Scholarship: One Mixed-Blood’s Story.”  I read the spirit of Harlot throughout these lines . . .

The only way for the mixed-blood to survive is by ‘developing a tolerance for contradictions, a tolerance for ambiguity,’ and by turning those contradictions and ambiguities into ‘something else’ (Anzaldua 79).  Anishinabe writer and theorist Gerald Vizenor would have Indian scholars/mixed-bloods play trickster, to use our knowledge of the language and structure that compose the narratives that bind us as instruments to cut away those same oppressive stories.

Vizenor celebrates the humor and play room that are made available to crossbloods (what I’ve been calling mixed-bloods) in the simultaneity of our positions on the margins of American culture combined with our iconographic centrality against which much ‘American-ness’ is imagined.  Sharp humor (yes, sharp like a weapon) and radical temporal figurings (we are always at the past and the future in the present, and visa versa) help Vizenor to posit the trickster as a space of liberation.

For me, the trickster is central to imagining a ‘mixed-blood rhetoric.’ The trickster is many things, and is no thing as well.  Ambivalent, androgynous, anti-definitional, the trickster is slippery and constantly mutable.

I find the trickster in every nook and cranny of daily life as a mixed-blood.  But, more important, I see the trickster at work outside of Indian-ness as well, in the contrarinesses that inhabit the stories that tell, and un-tell, America and the Academy.  The trickster isn’t really a person, it is a ‘communal sign,’ a ‘concordance of narrative voices’ that inhabits the ‘wild space over and between sounds, words, sentences, and narratives‘ (Vizenor 196).

Trickster discourse does ‘play tricks,’ but they aren’t malicious tricks, not the hurtful pranks of an angry child; instead, the tricks reveal the deep irony that is always present in whatever way we choose to construct reality.  Trickster discourse is deflative; it exposes the lies we tell ourselves and, at the same time, exposes the necessity of those lies to our daily material existence.  Trickster discourse asks ‘Isn’t the world a crock of shit?,’ but also answers with, ‘Well, if we didn’t have this crock of shit, what would we do for a world?’ The trickster asks us to be fully conscious to the simple inconsistencies that inhabit our reality” (9).

More trickster rhetoric to come . . .

Promiscuousness of Promiscuity

I just started going through a book called The Information Society Reader, a collection of foundational readings on the study of the Information Society, and a few pages into the editor’s introduction I had a déjà vu moment with this oddly familiar statement:

It can seem that the [concept of “Information Society”] is used with abandon, yet as such it is capable of accommodating all manner of definitions. Readers should look carefully for the definitional terms used, often tacitly, by commentators in what follows. Are they, for instance, emphasizing the economic, educational or cultural dimensions when they discuss the Information Society, or is it technology which is given the greatest weight in their accounts? One might then ask, if the conceptions are so very varied and even promiscuous, then what validity remains [. . . ]? (p. 10)

Webster, Frank (Ed). (2004). The Information Society Reader. London: Routledge.
(Or click here to see the text in Google Books)

Is this warning not incredibly similar to those we hear about the study of rhetoric? Varying definitions, an undefined scope of study, questions of validity? Lately I’ve felt lulled into a (likely) false state of security. How many times do we hear of academic programs stating with pride that they are interdisciplinarity, crossdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity? Promiscuity is a characteristic more and more fields of study display with some pride. This crossing of borders has become something of an academic movement, but all movements have a beginning and usually an end, or even if it has lifecycles and never entirely dies out, the times when it tapers out can be painful – as the history of rhetoric can attest to.

What’s interesting to me about the study of the Information Society is that its inception has been some sort of uber-manifestation of interdisciplinarity. It’s flowed and found nodes of connection in the same manner as the Network Society itself. It’s almost like the global community’s entry into the Age of Information is what has made this move toward interdisciplinarity possible in the first place (both in terms of technology and of an emerging climate that condones and even celebrates such behavior), and it’s quite fitting – if not problematic – that the field purporting to study this new age should mirror it as well.

But I can’t help but think there’s bound to be a tide building against such breadth and promiscuity. And if so, I wonder when its time will come, what it will look like, and what the alternatives may be.