- Delinking Rhetoric, or Revisiting McGee’s Fragmentation Thesis through Decoloniality
In an oft-cited 1990 essay, Michael Calvin McGee argues forcefully for the significance of fragmentation as a defining feature of the postmodern condition, suggesting that it requires a reframing of rhetorical criticism to put the emphasis on con/text construction and critical rhetorical praxis1 Writing during the same period, Fredric Jameson also appears preoccupied with the ways in which postmodernity fragments subjects and culture, delimits texts, and demands new reading and rhetorical practices.2 For McGee, “‘texts’ have disappeared altogether, leaving us with nothing but discursive fragments of context.”3 In addition, he argues that “text construction is now something done more by the consumers than by the producers of discourse.”4 But as important as McGee’s argument has been to the development of critical rhetoric and bringing rhetorical theory into congruence with postmodernism and poststructuralism, his assertion of a major historical break ushering in a new era of fragmentation is problematic. It risks reinforcing a Eurocentric perspective on history and belies a commitment to modern/coloniality, which elides global heterogeneity.5
McGee’s perspective centers the modern/colonial assertion of homogeneity (even as he simultaneously asserts its postmodern undoing) in a manner that is blind to the colonial difference. In other words, McGee unreflexively reproduces a dominating narrative of Western/American centrality from within the borders of the modern/colonial world system.6 [End Page 647] What happens to McGee’s thesis, however, if we approach fragmentation Otherwise? What happens when we approach rhetoric from, in Walter Mignolo’s words, “the exterior borders of the modern/colonial world system?”7 What does it mean for McGee or critical rhetorical studies more broadly if “texts” have not disappeared, but rather never existed cohesively in the first place?
In this essay, I seek to delink McGee’s fragmentation thesis from modern/coloniality by rethinking the problematic of text/context circulation from a global perspective attentive to coloniality. I argue that critical rhetorical theory must better address epistemic coloniality (not merely colonialism as an economic-political system) to (1) deal more productively with situated public discourses as they circulate in the world and (2) enact more robustly its antisystemic functions/aims. My desire is not to debunk McGee, but to radicalize him—to enable his well-intentioned impulse to hear and be heard by different audiences. Following Chela Sandoval, my aim is to contribute to a “decolonizing theory and method” in approaching the problems and possibilities of fragmentation Otherwise.8 Framed in this way, the question becomes how better to situate us as rhetoricians to engage in our critical rhetorical praxis in the face of fragmentation. I contend that the answer has to go beyond McGee to draw from those for whom survival itself has depended on productively and creatively negotiating fragmentation. In what follows, I briefly review McGee’s argument and examine its similarities to and differences from Jameson’s argument about fragmentation. I also expand on some of the problems with McGee’s and rhetorical studies’ position vis-à-vis fragmentation, particularly with regard to questions of modern/coloniality. Finally, I turn to a corrective that may start critical rhetorical studies on a path toward delinking from modern/coloniality. In essence, I call for rhetorical studies to practice some degree of what Mignolo calls “epistemic disobedience”9 so that we might all become decolonial rhetoricians.
Fragmentation in a (Post)modern World
McGee’s argument about fragmentation, which is an acknowledged central assumption of critical rhetoric and an implicit assumption of post-critical rhetorical praxis, rests on the idea that “the fragmentation of our American culture has resulted in a role reversal, making interpretation the primary [End Page 648] task of speakers and writers and text construction the primary task of audiences, readers, and critics.”10 Frustrated by (especially literary, but also rhetorical) criticism’s preoccupation with “the text” and concomitant decentering of “speech,” McGee implores us to “stop whining about the so-called ‘post-modern condition’ and develop realistic strategies to cope with it as a fact of life,” especially insofar as this postmodern condition has brought about the fragmentation of culture, the subject...