RSA Recap

I’ve just returned a few days ago from the Rhetoric Society of American conference in beautiful Minneapolis, Mn (May28-31). I also attended the Association for the Rhetoric of Science and Technology pre-conference, Friday morning. RSA is getting big. In fact, I heard many a grumble in the hallways of the conference hotel which said “too big.” On the one hand, I was really excited to see so many rhetoricians thinking about and working with such a wide variety of engaging topics and ideas. On the other hand, I found myself in a few sessions with six papers in 90 minutes. In any event, I think next time around will be better. I was speaking with Carolyn Miller after one of the sessions and she remarked that Jack Selzer was well-aware of the issues and that the RSA planning committee would be learning some lessons for next time. Additionally, having never planned a conference—which is, I assume, a massive undertaking, I’m hesitant to criticize. I’ll confine myself to saying that the glut of presentations left me disappointed about the resulting lack of sponsored networking opportunities. It’s hard to engage in quality Q&A networking when there are six papers. It’s equally hard make lunch connections when there are so many panels that the sessions run consecutively all day. Ok, that’s enough for the organizational recap. On to the ideas.

I just want to mention a few of the papers/panels that I found particularly engaging.

C07: New Media

Coordinating Networked Knowledge: Wikipedians, Genre, and the Pursuit of Digital Community
Melanie Kill, Texas Christian University

I’m in ur head, shapin’ ur interwebz: Internet Memes, User Agency, and Rhetorical Transmission
Matt Morain, North Carolina State University

I luv chickens! W00t!: Using Rhetoric to Reread “Social Nonsense” in an Digital Writing Environment.
Stacey Pigg and Jeff Grabill, Michigan State University

Given the engaging panel title, “New Media,” I’m guessing this was a panel put together by the conference organizers, and you know what? It really worked out. Each of these presentations were thoughtful and provocative explorations of various new media environments. While my review is going to focus on Matt’s work, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note how great the rest of the papers were. Kill’s exploration of community building in the “back pages” of Wikipedia was thoughtful and well articulated. “Back pages” is my term. I vaguely remember Kill having a better one, but it was lost to my notes. As Kill reported there are far more pages in Wikipedia devoted to community management, article guidelines, and tracking encyclopedic entries than actual encyclopedic entries. As she argued this is where much of the real community building in Wikipedia occurs. This is where generic constraints get articulated and content gets rarefied. Pigg and Grabill’s paper was similarly illuminating. I was particularly struck by their musings on social nonsense as a part of the credibility-building process. Too many accounts focus on the inanity of such discourse rather than thinking about the rhetorical work being done.

Speaking of the rhetorical work of so-called inanity: Matt Morain. (Sorry, Matt. The transition was there and I had to take it.) Morain is actually doing really cool and useful work. Memes are central to the social fabric of the internet and dismissing them (as some are wont to do) as useless nonsense does little to help us understand the rhetorical dimensions of that fabric. I applaud Matt for being willing to tackle such topics. One of the major pieces of Morain’s argument was that the meme and viral metaphors used to describe internet culture elide the agency of users who actively choose to duplicate and disseminate certain bits of content and not others. This point is certainly well-taken. There are clear issues of choice and intentionality on the part of the users that are obfuscated by the dominant metaphors for such content. That being said, those who know me know I’m an ANT-inspired agency theorists, so I have difficulty with Morain’s location of agency solely on the user/rhetor. On the one hand, it’s an expert rhetorical move on Morain’s part: when studying a maligned area of discourse, praise rhetorical agency to rhetoricians. I, however, was uncomfortable with Morain’s elision of the agency of technology and socio-economics which make the user’s agency possible. Here I’m thinking about the user/rhetor’s access to technologies such as computers, the internet, and content development software. Also, the popularity of a meme must be, at some level, self-sustaining. Perhaps there is some sort of collective agency at work if one is not willing to attribute it to the meme itself.

Let me end by saying that Morain’s fundamental argument is right. Users do exercise some level of choice and intentionality over the duplication and distribution of internet memes, and my criticism probably speaks more to a fundamental problem with agency theory, viz., it’s too big. The term agency has been used to describe choice, intentionality, the ability to speak, the ability to be heard, the ability to affect change. If agency is choice and intentionality, then Morain is dead-on accurate. If agency is the ability to speak, be heard and/or affect change, then the ANT-inspired need to be taken into account. If it’s all of the above, then rhetoric needs a new grand theory of agency that accounts for these issues. (*Cough* *Cough* My first book *Cough*)

H:04 Supersession on Rethinking Modernity and Modernism for Rhetorical Studies

James Aune, Richard Graff, Joshua Gunn, Debra Hawhee, Marguerite Helmers, William Keith, Pat Gehrke (from assorted institutions too numerous to mention)

All you have to do is look at the names of the presenters to know that this was a great panel. The depth and variety of ideas were thoughtful, provocative, and engaging. As one presenter said, “this should be a book.” And it should be. And I would need a book to do this supersession any justice, so I’m going to confine myself to a few brief comments. I am consistently amazed by Gunn’s ability to fuse the deeply theoretical with the eminently entertaining. Indeed his standard conference attire (suit-and-tie on top and torn-up shorts, wacky socks, and converse on bottom) is a great (and no doubt intentional) metaphor for his manner of presentation. I highly recommend you speak with Gunn if you have any interest in the history of speech as a discipline in the US or if you’re interested in exploring the lobotomobile. (Both critical concepts to his cohesive presentation.)

Pat Gehrke of the University of South Carolina responded to the papers and his thoughts warrant special mention. Among other things he advocated a renewed attention to the rhetorical theory of Immanuel Kant. Part-and-parcel to this argument was his suggestion that rhetoricians should stop relying on philosophers for a definitive interpretation of what Kant means. (And I couldn’t agree more.) As he argued, philosophers’ sometimes myopic focus on his critical philosophy provides Kantian inquiry with only a limited perspective on a very complex thinker. There is much in Kant we can use and we should more actively pursue it, even if our insights contradict what some philosopher may say about Kant. We sure don’t readily accept the philosophical portrayal of the Sophists, Plato, Aristotle, Vico or countless others. Why would we act any differently with regards to Kant?

I really can’t say enough good things about this panel, but I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t have at least one quibble to mention. The panel coordinator began his introduction with an important point: depending on our theoretical and/or disciplinary home, “modernism” and “modernity” can mean very different time periods. This is absolutely the case and I think an issue worth interrogating. Then he seemed to dismiss a submitted paper on British banking in the 1600s for misunderstanding when modernity happened. (And I’ll admit here, I may well have misunderstood him.) This probably wouldn’t have bothered me one iota, but I was trained as a philosopher so my definition of modernism definitely begins in the 1600s with modern epistemology. If the papers in the panel were any guide, they mostly seemed to think of modernism as either post-Kant or post-war. Either way, I think the polyphony of definitions regarding modernism should prompt a disciplinary rejection of the idea of identifying specific years of modernism. Rather I think it would behoove us to focus on when modernism arose in various spheres of inquiry and/or practice rather than on specific dates.

O:04 Unsettling Questions About Bodies and Minds in the Rhetoric(s) of Health and Medicine

Pain, Pain Relief, and the Marketing of Pain Medication
Judy Segal, University of British Columbia

Wrongful Confinement in a Victorian Lunatic Asylum? Two Narratives of a Patient’s Incarceration
Carol Berkenkotter, University of Minnesota

Ethos and the Discursive Construction of Trust in Midwifery Care
Phillippa Spoel, Laurentian University

Rhetorics of Dietary Supplements: “Wellness” as Incipient Illness
Collen Derkatch, University of British Columbia

As a sometimes rhetorician of medicine, I was very excited about this panel. I have read and attended too many papers in the rhetoric of medicine with an unfortunate tendency to focus on some very limited areas of discourse: provider/patient encounters, patient narratives, professional provider discourse. As a rhetorician of technoscience, I take great issues with such limited perspectives of health and medical discourse. In contrast, this panel explored a broad array of artifacts including all of the previously mentioned, but also policy documents, administrative documents, pharmaceuticals advertising, etc. What’s even more important is that each of the panels explored an array of documents as part of the same paper or case-study. Not only that, they all did so in thoughtful and engaging ways. If these papers are representative of the current state of affairs in rhetorics of medicine (and I believe they are), then I’m very excited about this sub-discipline’s future.