- Near Collisions: Rhetorical Cultural Studies or a Cultural Rhetorical Studies?
The thirteen essays in Thomas Rosteck’s At the Intersection: Cultural Studies and Rhetorical Studies discuss connections between the practices that constitute rhetorical studies and those that constitute cultural studies. Like any convergence of pathways, this book offers a place where travelers with different agendas and histories can meet and exchange ideas, but true to its metaphor, the intersection is also a locus of accidents, collisions, and wrong turns.
Of course, to begin such an enterprise, we would need to articulate not only a working definition of “rhetorical studies,” but also one of “cultural studies.” Working definitions of rhetoric are, at best, contingent upon rhetoric’s uses and the particular communities that claim its rich tradition and various branches of knowledge.1 Rhetoric has been envisioned as an artful skill and a means of persuasion. It has also been conceived in terms of its dialectic counterpart: as an epistemological tool, as a means of knowing. A range of definitions emerges not only from the classical tradition, but also from the newer conceptions of rhetoric that position it in a postmodern age. Edward P. J. Corbett defines rhetoric as traditional “instances of formal, premeditated, sustained, monologue in which a person seeks to exert an effect on an audience” (3), whereas Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg offer the following possibilities for rhetoric: “the practice of oratory; the study of the strategies of effective oratory; the use of language, written or spoken, to inform or persuade; the study of the persuasive effects of language; the study of the relation between language and knowledge; the classification and use of tropes and figures; and, of course, the use of empty promises and half truths as a form of propaganda” (i). Among academics, as among the general public, rhetoric continues to mean any number of things. But while At the Intersection allows for this slippage in the term, it establishes some constraints by directing most of its discursive traffic toward those conceptions of rhetoric that have most relevance to communication studies.
But if rhetorical studies represents an uncertain or unstable sort of “discipline,” cultural studies often seems to escape the notion of discipline altogether. Perhaps this is its strength. According to Cary Nelson, Paula A. Treichler, and Lawrence Grossberg, cultural studies is more than an interdisciplinary enterprise: it is “actively and aggressively anti-disciplinary.... Cultural studies draws from whatever fields are necessary to produce the knowledge required for a particular project” (2). There is more to cultural studies than mere disciplinary mobility, however. Cultural studies is often self-reflexive, radically political, subversive of dominant institutions, and transnational in loyalties. With clear methodological attention to local conditions and particular contexts, cultural studies does not discriminate as to its object of study: in its most inclusive conceptions, it treats everything as a potential text to be read within the confines and discourses of various contextual configurations. While rhetoric pretends to hold court over any facet of existence that involves language and persuasion, cultural studies seems to claim all dimensions of being in the world as fair game for analysis, interpretation, and critique. Clearly, any discussion that brings rhetoric and cultural studies into play is bound to be messy: the intersection is busy, and traffic from both directions has the green light, so to speak.
Given these considerable difficulties, At the Intersection holds together with a surprisingly clear progression and conceptual unity. Fortunately, Rosteck acknowledges the particular scope of the essays, stating that the collection “emphasizes ‘textual’ approaches rather than either production-based studies or more anthropological perspectives on ‘lived culture’” (ix). Moreover, he asserts that At the Intersection aims to instigate discussions about rhetorical studies and cultural studies, rather than to lead to definitive conclusions or offer the final word on either project (or their possible combinations). He highlights the difficulties of bringing rhetoric and cultural studies into focus, but suggests common ground between them:
both aiming to reveal the relationship between expressive forms and the social order; both existing within the field of discursive practices; both sharing an interest in...