Monthly Archives: October 2007

the rhetoric of inquiry in the long eighteenth

Because I understand everything 20 years too late, I’ve really been enjoying a volume called The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences (ed. Nelson, Megill, McCloskey) (Wisconsin, 1987) for its essays on the “rhetoric of inquiry,” because it offers a really impressive example of the kind of interdisciplinary scholarship we are always being urged to practice. 

The consistency of this volume’s essays, the high calibre of the contributors (Richard Rorty, Renato Rosaldo, James Boyd White, Jean Bethke Elshtain, etc.), and the remarkable degree of focus achieved by its varied group of contributors make this an outstanding collection.  What lends the volume its coherence is its convincing depiction of the university as a place where persuasion is always happening, all the time, in every research discipline, no matter what method or methods it supposedly relies upon.  So despite the protestations of the social sciences and their rhetorical reliance on method, the diverse scholarly practices and inquiries of the university can be seen as a whole, if and when we see their common reliance on social, disciplinary, and institutional mechanisms of persuasion.

Of course, the bright future promised by this kind of volume–think about what could happen, what vistas would open up, the kinds of community and conferences we could create, etc. etc., if we just followed this research agenda–has not quite worked out.  This is the only benefit of reading something important 20 years too late, the latecomer’s modest advantage of being able to gauge the accuracy of an author’s predictions, or, really, to assess the acuity of an author’s historical self-awareness.  I have some thoughts about why the future didn’t work out the way the contributors hoped or expected, but I’ll address that in another post.

For the practicing 18th century scholar, I’d say that there are two major take-aways from this volume: the first is the historical, transdisciplinary, transdiscursive importance of the seventeenth century denigration of rhetoric, which helped to produce an alliance of scientific and philosophic method that continues unabated to this day, for all the embarassments that both the hard and soft sciences have experienced since the turn of the twentieth century.  As the editors note, this discursive alliance remains with us still as part of the modernity that we all “suffer,” and whose “dichotomies of subject and object” “gave fresh force to opposing truth and rationality on the one side to conversation and rhetoric on the other” (6).  (This convergence of modernizing and anti-rhetorical thought is also evident in the Sprat volume we discussed over the summer, and Habermas himself may not be free of such modernizing suspicions of rhetoric.) 

When I look at writing in our period, I see a three-way tension between the epistemological impulses of 17th and 18th century systems of knowledge-production, the still-powerful Ciceronian or Humanist elements of elite discourse, and the more diffuse energies of populism and the out-of-doors “public.”  The push-pull of these mutually antagonistic elements creates a lot of the generic and discursive instabilities and contingent opportunisms found throughout the Long Eighteenth.  Witness, for example Wollstonecraft’s distrust of the feminizing ornaments of Burke’s rhetoric in her Vindication, and her own embrace of a rationalist yet recognizably Protestant, dissenting discourse of conviction and demonstration in her political writings.

The large-scale historical and discursive stakes of the Enlightenment rejection of rhetoric is something that Bender and Wellbery’s essay on “Rhetoricality” treats very well, but it is also a major turning-point in every history of rhetoric I’ve encountered.  And yet how much do we discuss this turn against rhetoric in our undergraduate or graduate courses?  For all that, I think this topic of the decline of rhetoric deserves at least as much multidisciplinary emphasis as all the other “rise” narratives we routinely discuss in our respective fields, including the rise of the public sphere, –of the novel, –of the middle class, and so on.

The second takeaway from this volume would be the difficulty of conducting genuinely interdisciplinary research without an underlying assumption about the rhetorical or conversational nature of scholarship.  This is something that understandably came up during our NEASECS panel, but I’ve also been thinking about it in the context of my work on SACS accreditation and QEPs for my university and college.  What I have discovered is that while some disciplines encourage such scholarly conversations, and others do not, we all nonetheless receive considerable intitutional pressures to claim interdisciplinarity for our scholarship and research, even while many of the local and quotidian incentives go in the other, more safely specialized, direction. 

This set of tensions institutionalized within the modern university, which I regard as one of the historical legacies of the Enlightenment rejection of rhetoric, is also responsible for many of the ambiguities surrounding the “rhetoric of inquiry” since 1987, which resulted in the establishment of Rhetoric as a specialized field of inquiry adjacent to (and often competing with) literary studies, and the continued rejection of rhetoric by the other human sciences.



UPDATE: Since this book existed pre-internet, I had to hunt for links, but I did find two link for those not inclined to walk over to a real library.  Here’s a heated debate (via JSTOR, registration req.) between Peter Munz and one of the volume’s editors, in the Journal of the History of Ideas (1990).  And, as usual, Bruce Robbins has a nice take on these issues in his own piece on Interdisciplinarity from the same year.


Humanities Research Network and the crisis in academic publishing

The Valve has just passed along an announcement from the Chronicle of Higher Ed (sorry, link’s not working) about the appearance of a Humanities Research Network modeled on the successful Social Science Research Network, with papers posted in PDF form for others to download and/or comment upon.  The new Humanities network will initally include papers in Philosophy, Classics, and English and American literature, broken down into sub-categories.  For detailed information, see the Valve post or click here.

Networks like these have the potential to minimize humanities scholars’ dependence upon a journal, research library, and academic press arrangement that has received steadily decreasing support over the past 20 years.  In response, our colleagues in the sciences have been turning to these networks because of the extortionate increases in the cost of journals in their disciplines; perhaps humanities scholars should follow their lead in setting up and supporting these networks.



Carnivalesque #24 at Serendipities

Kristine at Serendipities (now featured on our blogroll) has a terrific new group of Carnivalesque offerings here, centered around the topic of commonplace books.  Plenty of thoughtful connections here for those interested in the early modern end of the longish eighteenth. 

 From my point of view, some of the most interesting stuff here was the gathered material about the historical resemblances between blogs and early modern practices of interactive reading.  I was interested to see that our own Miriam Jones (Miriam, are you still there?) did her own NEASECS talk (subsequently posted to the Valve) about scholarly blogging and technology in 2005, and talked about the competing metaphors of blogs as commonplace books vs. blogs as coffeehouses.  I was also relieved to find that, although there was some overlap, that we didn’t simply replicate the discussion from 2005 (though it would be interesting to hear whether there has been much change in audience experience/interest/receptivity since 2005).

Since at least one part of the audience is still wondering whether to make the technological plunge, while the other part merrily joins in the conversation, I’m curious about how this kind of discussion could move forward.  Any ideas?

And it seems to me that these kinds of rolling scholarly conversations/compilations, particularly events like Carnivalesque or Teaching Carnival, make some of the best arguments we could find for the value of scholarly blogging.



NEASECS interim report, from the Milltowne Grill, Manchester Airport

Hello everyone,

Carrie, I think, is still at the conference, but I had to head out this morning to catch my plane out of Manchester.

This was an interesting conference for me, because first of all this was my first opportunity to meet Carrie face-to-face, after communicating online with her, and collaborating on this blog,  for well over a year.  I still find the differences between virtual and face-to-face communication disconcerting, especially when it involves the same person, but I think it went OK.  Incidentally, I learned that Hanover, like many college towns, is not a great eating town.  (please correct me if I’m wrong)

The Blogging the Eighteenth panel went well, and provoked some good discussion.  Anna Battigelli (Hi Anna!), who was kind enough to invite us to NEASECS, turned up, as did some old and new friends of the Long 18th.  I’m hoping we can figure out an effective way to put the talks out, and perhaps see if others who were not there might be interested in chiming in and responding. 

Carrie will probably give her own impressions, but I was struck by the technological divide reflected in the audience’s questions: some were familiar with the mechanics of blogging and the internet, and others were not.  Some used technology in their teaching already, others were receptive to the idea but nervous about the investment of time, and some seemed pretty familiar with the whole enterprise, and were ready to start reflecting and generalizing about the impact of blogging on scholarly communications. 

One of the interesting topics that came up was the whole phenomenon of trolls, and the challenge that they present to the blogs’ self-image of free and self-regulated discussion.  Another question was the perennial question of “Should grad students blog?”  (Answer: only in moderation, and perhaps only with pseudonyms).   A third topic was the value of book events, and how different these reviews were from conventional journal reviews. 

Speaking of book events, a number of people at NEASECS asked me when we would do our next collaborative reading.  I think it’s time for us to gear up to do another one.  Any suggestions for the next candidate?  Susan Staves’s latest was mentioned again, and I’m looking to see if there are other books that might also attract some good contributors/readers.  If you have any ideas for candidates, or are interested in joining in, contact me at and we’ll try to set it up for the next semester.

I heard some good papers at a Libertinism and an Equiano panel, which I might blog about if I have the time/others seem interested.  And keep looking for our followup to the blogging panel.



Blogging at NEASECS

In about an hour, Dave Mazella and I will be presenting on this blog and academic blogging in general. If you’re here at the conference, please join us in Haldeman 125 at Dartmouth! If you’re not, Dave and I will probably be posting our impressions of what happened here in lovely foggy New Hampshire soon.


Antiquarians on display at the Royal Academy of Arts

[h/t to Cliopatria for noting these]

Ferdinand Mount, in “The Thinginess of History,” (TLS, 10/10/07) provides a tantalizing review of an RAA exhibit, “Making History: Antiquarians in Britain 1707-2007” that I am unlikely ever to see.    Instead, I will have to content myself with Mount’s review and the gift-shop souvenir book, which will only set me back 22 pounds in soft cover.  That’s not as much thinginess as I would have liked.  And is it ever as satisfying to read about antiquarians as it is to examine the collections that they themselves assembled?  Their lives and their thoughts are on display on those shelves, and we are supposed to know it, a spectatorial experience very different from the ordinary museum walk-through.  Even in an exhibition as careful as this, the routinized contact with the past enforced by museum culture has almost entirely wiped out our understanding of this oddly affectionate, private, proprietary attitude towards “antiquity” and its “remains.”


The historical value of 18th century autobiographies?

Like many others, I’ve been thinking for some time about the historical value of autobiographies, and why this genre seems to open out to historical and cultural studies in ways that other genres do not.  For one thing, after telling my undergraduate students over and over again that novels, poems, and even plays are not necessarily autobiographical, it’s a relief to say that, yes, autobiographies are indeed autobiographical.  Then again, we also enjoy saying that autobiographies are not really autobiographical at all, but are actually filled with all sorts of strategic gaps, misrepresentations, and artificial connections that an astute critic needs to see through. 

At the same time, one of my hobbyhorses is to focus upon the artfulness of autobiography, the degree to which novelists, memoirists, essayists, and various kinds of life-writers (including pamphleteers) are absorbing and imitating each others’ conventions, which are most easily recognized when we read vertically, looking at contemporaneous genres rather than horizontally, through diachronic, linear histories of a single genre.  But I am convinced that certain kinds of literary or anti-literary material makes its way into this genre that gets excluded from other genres, as I have argued about Rousseau.

Because of my own research and teaching interests in autobiography and life-writing, I was interested to see that Caroline Wigginton has a nice post here regarding Franklin’s Autobiography, which thoughtfully narrates her own repeated encounters with this text over many years, from her first reading in junior high school to her difficult decision not to include Franklin in her first intro to lit course.

Wigginton’s essay really focuses upon the power that our first, unreflective readings of canonical texts still exert over us, regardless of how many other approaches we learn, and how many critical discourses we master.  Should we, then, transmit those canonical texts, along with our own ambivalences, to our own students, or try to break the circuit?  This is a tough question, and really depends on what we want to accomplish in a particular course. 

In this instance, Wigginton argues that the received interpretation of Franklin as “self-made man” and hero of American individualism is so seductive that it would overpower anything else she could offer to her first-year students: 

 I don’t want to imply that Franklin’s Autobiography is not complex, only about individualism, and not an important text for students of American literature to read. I do want to question how we as teachers escape repeating our earliest lessons in literature when we no longer agree with them, but they are so deeply embedded in how we approach literature. For me, my earliest lessons appear to be an unavoidable lens through which to read a text for the first time. They are interpretations that I worry my students will be unable to avoid when they are so obvious within dominant U.S. cultural ideology (whether or not they are the “correct” interpretations).

By offering us this narrative of her own intellectual formation, Wigginton has bravely captured something of her own ambivalence toward–and fascination with–the “unavoidable lens” of “individualism,” a personal history that she hesitates to reenact with her students.  Even if she does not teach Franklin in Intro to Lit, I think she has the makings of a very interesting course on the ideology of individualism in early American literary culture.  And I suspect that autobiographies would play a prominent role in such a course.