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Historicizing (Rhetorical) History

Examining history is not the straightforward, linear endeavor once conceptualized, where one might simply “observe the facts” of the past in order to reconstruct a narrative of “what really happened.” Rather, we become more and more aware of the absences within these narratives where those who were not permitted to speak still, nevertheless, held a place within these systems of power. Reminded of the words of Foucault, historical methodologies call for examining the sites of “rupture, of discontinuity” in these master narratives noting “the distances, the discontinuities, and the thresholds that appear within it” (Foucault Archeology 4, 41). In reading the works of the contemporary rhetorical historians examined – Lunsford, Glenn, Bizzell, Berlin, Welch, etc. – all appear to be working toward this goal, seeking those voices which were not (or were under) represented in the Western Rhetorical Tradition despite their various (often unrecognized) contributions to it.

White guys, being rhetorical

One aspect that I note when reading these discussions of methodologies is the reminders that these historical narratives are not meant to replace other classical narratives (e.g. Conners, Kennedy, Corbett, etc.) but rather be put in relationship with these versions of history. I think that the authors examined make a strong case for the need for more inclusive examinations of rhetorical histories, and rather than attempting to create a “complete map,” an exercise recognized as futile by writers such as James Berlin, the goal is to offer more sites of historical inquiry in order to “fill in the gaps” in the classical (or as Berlin would have it, “official”) approaches. Welch calls for a “dialectical juxtaposition” (38) that echoes Berlin’s encouragement of “a dialectical reading of past and present that will encourage a variety of conflicting readings” (122). Glen, likewise, notes an interplay between what is studied and what is written about it, claiming that “the text of history writing, then, initiates a play between the object under study and the discourse performing the analysis,” noting how these sites constitute separate, though overlapping, domains rather than one unproblematically representing the other (6).

These dialectic/dialogic approaches ideologically contrasts with more traditional approaches which may have taken for granted the ultimate “knowability” of history from an objective perspective, whereas a more postmodern approach recognizes and embraces the situatedness and positionality of the speaker as (at least partially) constructing the narrative presented. This recognition influences the ways in which historic research is conducted and presented, marking a change in research methodologies owing largely to the ideologies underlying feminism and postmodernism. Through these ways of knowing, and ways of researching, voices that were formerly excluded may now be “written into” the history of rhetoric. This serves to both “fill in the gaps” of this history, and also to create ruptures and discontinuities within the master narrative of specific lines of rhetorical traditions long privileged within the discourse of and about this field of study.

It is interesting to note the pains that each writer takes in explaining and justifying these methodologies. This foregrounds the methods used as part of the ideological stance of the scholar producing it, making the “how” nearly as important as the “what” or at least explicating the relationship between the two. Many of these works, then, echo what Andrea Lunsford says, in that the goal “is not unity, therefore, but diversity and inclusivity” (7). Rather than ignoring or overlooking a person, rhetorical approach, text, or demographic because it does not “fit in” with dominant narratives, these ways of approaching history eschew the illusory seamlessness of a narratives in order for more diverse but “messy” stories to arise. While one piece of this history may not fit neatly with those that came before or after, this approach offers a more inclusive means of uncovering and understanding history that is not dependent upon conformity with hegemonic trends, values, and power relations.

The saying goes that it is the winners who always write history. To me, postmodern and feminist approaches attempt to hear what those who did not “win” had to say, what commentary they might offer, and to give those voices a place within and alongside the culturally “louder” narratives that have prevailed for so much of history. However, these approaches do not seek to silence the dominant strains of history either, but rather to put them into dialog with other versions and sites of rhetorical history that are not (fully) represented within them. In this conversation, a different history and method of approaching history can be seen, one which may not be as simple and easy to read, but is richer, more inclusive, and offers a wider perspective of what was, and thus what might be.


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