A Journal of Rhetoric, Writing, and Culture

An Argument for the Third Wo/Man: A Review of Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric

Review of Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric edited by Michelle Ballif 2013; Southern Illinois University Press

John J. MarinanGeorgia Gwinnett College

Enculturation: http://www.enculturation.net/theorizing-histories (Published: June 25, 2015)

Michelle Ballif opens Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric by reflecting on the “Octalog” of 1988, a famous discussion between rhetoric professionals engaging in discussions of the politics of historiography. At that conference, angry discussions broke out with respect to feminist historiography, and even over the nature of sophistic rhetoric itself. Following that, in 1989, Victor Vitanza brought together numerous scholars in Arlington, Texas, focusing on the practice of writing histories of rhetoric, which became 1994’s Writing Histories of Rhetoric. The Octalog created space for discussion not only for historiography but also theory. Fast forward 20 years later, and Balliff wonders aloud where all the theory went that generated the heated discussions of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Since many scholars left these conferences armed with the desire to write history, Ballif’s concern is that theorizing would go dormant once again, and thus the current volume.

Besides the introduction from Ballif and afterword from Sharon Crowley, each of the eleven chapters focuses on a specific re-theorization of the histories of rhetoric, all from scholars well-placed to do so. The list of contributors is large and impressive, either representing some of the original contributors to Vitanza’s collection mentioned above or in some cases their students. These scholars dot the pages with new formulations, excoriations, and reminders of obligations to search for “the third man” or “third woman” that has been “systematically excluded” from “The History of Rhetoric” (Baliff 3). As an autistic individual in higher education, I relate to the notion of the “excluded third,” and I therefore appreciate the works contained in these pages dealing with women, non-Europeans, gay rhetors, and the like. Scholars in rhetoric need to remember the exigency that Baliff confronts us with: accounting for the third man creates more third men (3), and thus she invites us to “envision alternative methodologies to attend to ‘the Forgotten’” (4).

Although all of the chapters were insightful, some stand out for their interpretations of historiography. One such chapter is LuMing Mao’s “Writing the Other into Histories of Rhetorics: Theorizing the Art of Recontextualization.” Mao’s work extends to that of indigenous, Latino and non-Greek rhetors. He states that the significant developments in these fields “have further illustrated how power dynamics and issues of location and authenticity directly influence and complicate the ways in which these other discursive practices and traditions are being recognized and represented” (42). Mao brings up an interesting point and one that I am struggling with in analyzing neurotypical interpretations of autism: What right, for example, do scholars have to represent this or that particular culture and its rhetorics? (42) His solution is called the art of recontextualization, or a move away from dominant Western rhetorics and epistemology as frames of reference. But how do we move away from these rhetorics when we must begin with something familiar to us, and how do we “cultivate and indeed demand an intersubjective, interdependent ethos so that our historically privileged dispositions can be consistently challenged and made manifest throughout the entire process of representation?” (44).

Mao presents this methodological paradox and his solution is the art of recontextualization. He cites Linda Alcoff’s work and the resulting four-step process for speaking for and about others:

  1. Analyzing and questioning the impetus to speak.
  2. Interrogating the bearing of one’s location and context on one’s representation.
  3. Holding oneself accountable to what one says.
  4. Recognizing and examining the consequences of one’s claims or representations on the discursive context. (Alcoff 24-27)

Mao utilizes the works of philosopher David Hall and sinologist Roger Ames who describe the focus/field perspective of the art of recontextualization. Mao believes that this focus allows for mutual interdependence. Mao also infuses a “necessary sense of dialogism into the act of contextualization” (46), meaning that each act of contextualization represents a response to previous acts of contextualization (46). As a result, scholars need to critically reflect on their own beliefs and practices, as well as those of the “other.” Perhaps most importantly, Mao argues that practicing the art of recontextualization in today’s world “means negotiating between developing a localized narrative and searching for its new and broader significance within and outside its own tradition” (48).   

Another excellent selection is from Debra Hawhee and Christa J. Olson, entitled “Pan-Historiography: The Challenges of Writing History Across Time and Space.” Their definition of pan-historiography is “writing histories whose temporal scope extends well beyond the span of individual generations” (90). One of their principal contentions is that history writers usually “go small,” (92) seeking to manage content in a microcosm as opposed to taking on an expansive time frame. However, and I think rightly, they state:

The decision to span depends on and responds to the aspects of rhetorical history or theory that the study hopes to illuminate and the contributions a rhetorical perspective might make to clarifying the broad themes under consideration. (92)

They utilize the Saussurian synchronic and diachronic historical frames, describing the function of “the synchronic to attend to political and cultural specificities in a particular moment, and the diachronic to attend to long-view history” (92-93). Both approaches are valuable.

Hawhee and Olson describe their own work in terms of the expansive approach. Olson’s work attempts to “uncover the connections between indigenous visibility and indigenous marginality” (94) through examination of themes as rhetorical topoi (94), while Hawhee’s work utilizes “time-slicing techniques” (94) in animal use in rhetoric’s traditional texts. I relate heavily with the time-slicing approach, which I also imagine as “rhetorical moments.” I am examining these rhetorical moments myself in tracing how the representations of autism changed at various times throughout the 20th century. They also discuss the idea of the archive, a significant aspect of rhetorical study. The archive, or rather, archives, bespeak an incongruity due to different time periods and locations. While Hawhee’s visual dislocations in her research helped her tweak her research questions, it also effectively aided her in avoiding what she and Olson call “the sweep,” or the “context-blurring, sweeping conclusions” (101) from unified perspectives that do not really exist. Pan-historiography at its best avoids these characteristics.Finally, they discuss the idea of movement. They state:

Move, motive, and motif all invoke a sense of action, and their centrality to the theory and practice of rhetoric urges rhetoricians to be sure that our historical studies keep an ear on for and an eye on the live and the lived. (101)

For Hawhee and Olson, they seek to resurrect the archives that are silent, that leave a residue of activity that differs from the “official” records, many of which ignore the third wo/Man. It is their hope that we as rhetoricians read against the grain, seek meaning in omissions, and study and pinpoint areas of resistance.

Byron Hawk, in his fascinating chapter, “Stitching Together Events: Of Joints, Folds, and Assemblages,” acknowledges the fundamental rhetorical nature of historiography (107) while stitching together an analysis of what he calls “history (as) an assemblage of events grounded in methods of finding, selecting, evaluating, and reassembling events judged from current rhetorical needs” (107). These assemblages start with the Burkean comical or farcical attitude toward history (107) because of the necessary drudgery of historical work, and the effect it has on the imagination. This crooked history takes a subversive stance, involving language play and skepticism. It also involves new ways of reading, as he cites Hans Kellner (109). Also, the goal is to see history as a myriad of interpretations with a rhetorical bent.

Hawk examines Hayden White’s ideas in “The Burden of History,” making the case for a “more rhetorically inventive approach to historical methods” (110). Historians are in the double bind: not scientific enough for social scientists, not contemporary enough for literary scholars (111). White argues for historiography to take on a 21st century dimension by utilizing multiple methodologies outside of the comfort zones. This might mean rejecting the narrative, story-telling mode of history and replacing it with opening names and events to multiple perspectives and potential futures (112).

An extremely productive analysis is Hawk’s look at complexity theory and jazz improvisation as a potential model for historiography. According to his source, David Borgo, improvisation

starts with basic rules of music and performance--keys, song structures, player cues. An individual player recognizes in the musical environment the opportunity for a new musical idea, drops the riff into the mix, leaving a cue for other musicians to follow. (114-115)

Other musicians follow and a song develops, the nature of which is unseen and unknown until the time approaches for the notes to sound. Hawk sees historiography this way—an intermingling of the musical, social, cultural, and historical that cannot be predicted (115).   

Hawk explains Borgo’s idea further, what the latter calls “the predominant patterns of self-organization that operate within historical events” (115). Borgo names these degrees of freedom (assemblages), strange attractors (joints), feedback (folds), and bifurcations (lines of flight). Hawk links history with the idea of insects, swarm-like in nature. History does not represent a paradigm shift or a great man theory. Those old ideas both have drawbacks. He indicates the success of the bottom-up approach, similar to Borgo’s improvisational model. According to Hawk:

A history might: find key nodes or joints, moments or events, within a historical phase space; model their networks, feedback, and bifurcations; and fold that model back into the current disciplinary system or set of histories. (121)

Degrees of freedom could utilize networked maps “of conditions of possibility for moments of convergence between communication and composition” (121). They could look at large scale and small scale phenomena. Attractors (people, texts, ideas) represent the pulls and pushes, the weight and intensity of force in historical interactions. Feedback could represent the “directionality of relationships among attractors by marking the moments of feedback in each event” (122). Bifurcation is the shifting between communication and composition, and a networked historiography, according to Hawk, “asks, in each event, how difference is incorporated into the discursive, disciplinary, or institutional system” (123). Hawk believes that a networked historiography based on complexity and improvisation involves a break with the simple or causal chains of narration and story (124). As opposed to the anxiety of influence and control, history can produce “new lines of flight, producing collective, collaborative possibilities for more histories and historical enactments” (125).

The final selection, from G.L. Ercolini and Pat J. Gehrke, called “Writing Future Rhetoric,” signals attention to the past and the future. The authors believe, like Foucault, that

patterns of history are formed, articulated, re-formed, and re-articulated ad infinitum in a process that calls into question the unity of history and hence the unity of self and metaphysics implicit in theories of history grounded in either nature or reason. (154)

Their future is relational; it reflects back to the past and to the future. An interesting component of Ercolini’s and Gehrke’s argument is their set of predictions made by mid-century academics about the field of rhetoric. Looking toward 1989, scholars predicted the extinction of the print book, the computerization of records, and the non-necessity of linking criticism to some sort of rhetorical theory. While some predictions were amazingly accurate, many were predictably off.

Ercolini and Gehrke analyze the nature of historical prediction. They state that “predictive studies largely rely either upon historical-transcendental or empirical-psychological interpretations” (158). They believe that

prediction reflects upon the past to lay out trends, trajectories, and logics that lead the now present to the threshold of the new future: a future that might finally yield to us what we have toiled for so long to achieve, a future that might promise the culmination of our collective efforts as a species (as humans or as scholars). (160)

Ercolini and Gehrke employ Foucault by saying that “genealogy mobilizes history to intervene into our present and possible futures by putting at risk our assumptions about the naturalness or necessity of what we are, do, think, and know” (161). This idea is especially meaningful to me—putting at risk my assumptions about issues of autism and identity may mean questioning how I think about myself as a stable entity. Another great observation they make is on the nature of claiming:

What is at stake in making such predictive claims—especially predictions grounded on scientific arguments or on progressive histories—is the possibility for thinking about the future as a site of mutation or upheaval. (163)

They are correct in challenging the notions of reality as just another version of euro-centric reality. As they comment, Writing the future may be put to the purposes of the dissociation of identity:

the unsettling of stable bases for subjectivity. In writing the future we might be able to discover some of what Foucault sought in genealogy: “distinct and multiple elements, unable to be mastered by the power of synthesis.” (166)

The term they promote is ficture, or picturing fictional futures that fissure (167). This view of the future aims towards what they call “self-experimentation” (168), self-writing, and ultimately what Foucault called a “care of the self” (168). It is an establishment of an identity and stance towards the future, one which will “open possibility, rather than colonizing the future by making it an object of present knowledge” (170). I think their project is a successful one as we look forward to the future of rhetoric.   

The main argument in the entire volume is a promotion of theorizing on historiography, and I think this is a valuable task. As a graduate student, I constantly hear about the “death of theory” and yet lean on theory as support for my contentions. In addition, traditional theorizing leaves the scholar somewhat predictably limited because of the lack of unique intersections between object and subject. Given the fact that traditional scholarship does not necessarily speak to my subject position, the selections in this volume have been helpful in clarifying positions about how to do historiography as a “third man.” Another significant strength of the volume is the various viewpoints of the scholars, from queer scholarship to Aristotelian rhetoric. The breadth of topics and perspectives leaves the reader with interesting connecting points.

All in all, Ballif’s text has the opportunity to make a lasting imprint on the scholarship of rhetorical theory, just as the previous work, Writing Histories of Rhetoric has done for rhetorical history. In many ways, it marks the significant evolution of the field, starting with dialogue in 1988 and culminating in text in 1994 and 2012.  The scholars offer intriguing suggestions for re-theorizing history, and make a strong case for accounting for the “third wo/Man.”

Works Cited

Alcoff, Linda. “The Problem of Speaking for Others.” Cultural Critique 20 (Winter 1991-92): 5-32. Print.

Ballif, Michelle. Theorizing Histories of Rhetoric. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2013. Print.