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  • The Archival Turn in Rhetorical Studies; Or, the Archive's Rhetorical (Re)turn
  • Charles E. Morris III (bio)

To announce an "archival turn" in rhetorical studies might rightly strike some veterans of the nation's various repositories as grossly revisionist, and just a bit opportunistic. After all, any cursory survey of the field's best scholarship, particularly in public address studies, reveals the archive as a long-standing habitat of the rhetorical critic and theorist. Especially in the past decade or so, the mandate of "primary" research has become fixed, as the emergent bevy of book-length studies and articles in this journal and others richly attest. I do think it accurate to claim that the disciplinary relationship with the archive has deepened recently, and as such one impetus for this forum is to engage in reflection on some of the important topoi related to archival research on rhetorical history, particularly questions of method and their relation to scholarly production and professional success.

More appropriately, and perhaps provocatively, such an announcement enacts a "rhetorical (re)turn" of the archive, a rhetorical construction that calls attention to the archive as a rhetorical construction. Of course, such a rhetorical turn has already been effectively made regarding the history of rhetoric, rhetorical history, and historiography. Surprisingly, however, the archive itself, chief among the inventional sites of rhetorical pasts, has yet to be subjected to sustained critical-rhetorical reflection by scholars in this discipline. Contributors to this forum here aim to facilitate that (re)turn by exploring the archive, understood both traditionally and more broadly to include, for [End Page 113] instance, anthologies and Web holdings, as a spatial and temporal rhetorical embodiment, crucible of cultural debate, and source and arbiter of historical production and public memory. Drawing on diverse experiences in multiple archives, these gathered scholars reflect on archival space, holdings, policy, process, scholarship, and circulation that broadly or specifically can be considered rhetorical, which is also to say ideological and political.

Cara A. Finnegan relates her experience responding to the challenges of classification of photographs in the Farm Security Administration archive at the Library of Congress. One elusive image in particular, ultimately discovered to be filed under the category "Shacks," inspired Finnegan to ask, "What is this a picture of?" In answering that question, Finnegan reflects on what she calls the agency of the archive, the ways in which an archive functions as terministic screen by means of the "connotations masked as denotations" its various operations entail. In recognizing this, Finnegan suggests that we engage in "rhetorical negotiations" of the archive by reading it as a rhetorical critic in order to enhance our research and scholarship.

Barbara A. Biesecker responds to the "revival of the archive" with important suspicions about this alluring site of presumed discovery, of its presumed "referential plentitude," and the presumption of the archival object as material, given, able to speak for itself with the authority of evidentiary status. Against these presumptions, Biesecker asserts the radical indeterminacy of the archive, its historicity, as an always ongoing site and source of rhetorical mediation, or "scene of invention," and as an invitation not to recovery or authentication, but rather to the art of persuasion. To illustrate, Biesecker revisits the 1995 controversy over the Enola Gay exhibition at the National Air and Space Museum, and the 2002 NBC documentary Price for Peace. The lesson Biesecker derives from her archival engagement is that we must deconstruct the "material presence of the past" and write rhetorical histories of the archive.

Davis W. Houck charts the archival turn in public address studies from Martin Medhurst's significant call for enhanced research at the first Public Address Conference in 1988. The aftermath of that call has resulted in consequential encounters with the archive. In assessing those consequences, for his part discovered in the presidential libraries of FDR and Hoover and in amassing a civil rights anthology, Houck highlights the various ways in which archives are "preferred sites of memory," and the strategies we might deploy in managing them. Houck also considers how the archive has been transformed by the Internet revolution, including unprecedented access to holdings and the efficiency with which scholars can now traverse them...


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pp. 113-115
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