Disciplines, Rationality, and the “Nate” Case:  Rhetoric as Sociology of Knowledge 

“Style, design, one's interest in these areas that engage the imagination are the ways that we talk to one another. Language comes second. The first ways we communicate are through this empathy formed by the sense of where we locate ourselves in the world.”

                                                                                                Brian Eno, 1993

This paper is interested in two ideas:

  1. How do individuals, as represented textually, ‘speak’ to one another?
  2. How do disciplines act and constitute themselves as rational/normative?

Though these questions are inter-related to a certain degree, they will each be presented separately within the text as if they stand individually.  Each section will answer one of the two questions posed above.  Each section will try for autonomy.


My interest in entertaining these questions arose mainly through much of my previous reading (especially Bill Readings’ The University in Ruins published posthumously in 1996) and in many  discussions both with professors during my MA course work (Tom Gage, Mary Ann Creadon, and  David Stacey) and with John Ackerman, Patti Dunmire, and Frank Rosen during my first semester of doctoral work in a rhetoric program.  The questions raised above are important not only for understanding rhetoric as a discipline—especially one that professes to ‘produce knowledge’—but also to understand how disciplines in general, organizationally/institutionally speaking, are constructed, how they gain power, and how they eventually become rhetorically static.  The intention of this paper is to present these ideas first through the discussion and exegesis of an intellectual conversation, a regional literature so to speak, that occurred in the discipline between 1988 and 1997.  This investigation will show the intertextual discussion between one article (and its writers) and another article (and its writer). The first was a ground breaking piece that went on to become canonical within the discipline.  The second is a re-visitation of that piece by another author and her critique of the original piece.  The first set-up the playing field.  The second showed the flaws of the game by attacking and critiquing the rules of the game that the first article constructed.

The second part of the paper will focus on the increasing rationalization of the discipline of rhetoric and its power to induce those who wish to remain on the margins into ‘playing the game.’  This section will mainly concentrate on how a discipline achieves a sense of autonomy and becomes acontextual—that is, not socially constructed to the degree that many in the field would like it and think it to be.  The program in this area will be rather abstract and will rely on work done in the sociology of knowledge (Durkheim, Weber, Habermas) and will remain at a purely speculative level.  This is where the paper will go out on a limb.

The final part of this paper will conjecture as to whether things have changed in rhetoric since the original piece that this paper is centered on was published in 1988. This will be my story, my narrative of what I have experienced this, my first semester, in a doctoral program.  The paper will, at this point, leave the conventions of social scientific writing and will enter in to the realm of expository/first-person discussion.  Again, this section will not specifically conform to the discourse standards that are generally expected for this type of final project, but I feel as though this section is necessary to validate the previous two sections. I take full responsibility of its unconformity and its blunt realism in depicting my experience. 

The conclusion of this text will loosely ally these three sections under the guise of the subtitle of this paper: rhetoric as sociology of knowledge.  My assertion in this section will revolve around the idea that since the early 1980’s rhetoric has, in certain academic institutions, tried to pull itself out of not only disciplinary confines—English departments—but out of it traditional combination with ‘composition.’  This movement is necessary to give rhetoric an authentic legitimacy within the compartmentalized university structure.  As long as rhetoric is tied down disciplinarily to English and composition, it will not achieve the legitimacy its research programs (as varied and diverse as they are) need to be seen as a bonafide ‘social science’—or, more specifically, as a ‘knowledge producer.’  The more rhetoric is seen as an autonomous discipline and subject worthy in itself of study, the more rhetoricians will give up claims to “marginality” or “inferiority” within the university.  I see this program coming to fruition as rhetoric becomes more closely allied with the sociology of knowledge, as a discursive arena that has its two epistemological poles evenly distributed throughout the field—one being qualitative-hermeneutic-historical pole, the other being the quantitative-empirical-data driven science pole.  The bringing together and the marriage of these two worldviews will, as Linda Flower has stated[1], reconcile both epistemologies and their offspring—cognitivism (subject-centered) and social constructionism (context-centered). 

Charles Taylor argues that “language is a central concern of the twentieth century,” suggesting that the century’s emphasis on language (the so-called ‘linguistic turn’) reflects a search for meaning—the tenuous feeling that language itself is “puzzling, even enigmatic.”[2]  Taylor conceives of language as involving both the concept of activity and the production of meaning, while simultaneously constituting public space and facilitates discrimination within foundational human concerns.  In short, rhetoric is ideally suited to be one of the more important disciplines in our attempt to grasp this linguistic situation within knowledge production.  The use of rhetoric, of rhetorical tropes, and rhetorical criticism within various disciplines (both ‘hard’ and ‘soft’) upholds Taylor’s observation.

Part I


In 1988, Carol Berkenkotter, Thomas Huckin, and John Ackerman published a research piece entitled “Conventions, Conversations, and the Writer: Case Study of a Student in a Rhetoric Ph.D. Program,” in Research in the Teaching of English.[3]  This text followed the development and the inculcation of a first-year doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University into the conventions and systematic rules of social scientific writing.  The authors rely on writing that this student, whom they call “Nate,” produced prior to matriculating at CMU and then his writing as he completed assignments for seminars in his first two semesters.  These texts were often accompanied by supplementary texts that talked about what he was doing while he was writing.  These secondary texts revealed the thoughts going through Nate’s mind as he witnessed himself dealing with and working through the arcane rules and systemic functions of social scientific writing.  The meta-dialogues allowed him to frame his own development and the frustrations Nate encountered as he became more and more aware and conscious of the discursive framework that was required of him at CMU.  These texts were sociolinguistically analyzed by trained rhetoricians (experts) who were knowledgeable about the written discursive conventions of scientific writing.  They compared his writings to the writings of those he incorporated into his texts citationally—more experts—and then noted discrepancies between the two groups.  These discrepancies were considered problems within Nate’s writing—things he was doing wrong, things he needed to fix in order to converse with everyone else at CMU (especially those professors who would be sponsoring him within the field and making sure that Nate lived up to the CMU name and represented CMU and the program well) and within the field of rhetoric/composition.  These prescriptive results were very important to Nate.  He desperately wanted to be a part of the group, to be taken legitimately, and to be seen as being a member of an organization that was not only institutionally bound (CMU) but was also virtually organized through the language and research programs of other rhetoric/comp. departments and through the journals/conferences where networking and knowledge trading occurred.  In short, Nate needed to be heard, he need to be seen, and he need to be confirmed that his identity was valid and legitimate within the framework he had chosen to be seen through.  As this passage shows, Nate understood this and was working hard to ramify the situation, though he saw this initiation process, on the surface, as corruptive and “Frankensteinian”:

I always intended to be sensitized to the scientific canon, something I accept like a father’s lectures on handshakes, something I just need to do if for no other reason than you have to know something from the inside before you can ever fairly criticize it. […] But the line that chilled me was Young’s conclusion that our training and experience will be reflected by our writing which will be the index of our assimilation of the scientific habit of mind.[4]

Nate is worried that he will lose that autonomous, humanistic, and expository voice and style that he had worked so long to cultivate and develop.  His writing for these seminars was replete with the conventions of expressivist writing—writing that allows the writer to be the center of the world, so to speak, and allows the writer to construct the world according to their point of view.  This is antithetical to social scientific writing, and Nate knew this; his reflexive resistance is duly noted throughout BHA, to the point where it seems that this type of reflection is almost a horrible malady, one that needs to be purged through the purifying force of empirico-rationalistic methodology. 

The initiation ritual continues for Nate as he progresses through his work in his seminars with luminaries of the field (Young, Simons, Enos, Flower).  The difficulty at this point, and this is not mentioned explicitly in the text, is the fact that Nate wants desperately to be recognized as valuable by those who not only construct the discipline he wants to be a member of, but of those who judge his worth according to the criteria that are accepted by the totality of the collective.  These disciplinary issues become salient with the recognition that, as Michel de Certeau notes, knowledge is always located.  Knowledge is either in a negotiated, contested space or a routine, practiced one.[5]  Nate is negotiating and routinely doing what is necessary to get through the day, to get through the seminars, to legitimize what he does to himself.[6]  This purely pragmatic notion of “getting through the day” is admirable in admission—but this is only accorded critical reflection in hindsight.  The thick of day-to-day academic activities, especially at a highly-regarded, elite institution, is daunting in itself.  Critical reflection is hard to come by when one is trying very hard to legitimize identity and their intellectual currency.  This again upholds Taylor’s idea that understanding in the human sciences (following Hans-Georg Gadamer’s work in hermeneutics) is based on an understanding of ourselves—self-understanding—even as the ‘hard’ social sciences seek to “identify and then neutralize” such idiosyncratic projects, basing themselves on quantification and ‘apparent’ objectivity.[7]  Nate wants that self-understanding to occur—he seems to even need it.  This self-understanding though, under the influence of the discipline and the material community, seems now based on self-preservation and validity:

…I feel like I’m butting heads finally with ACADEMIC WRITING—and it is monstrous and unfathomable.  Young, Waller, and Flower write differently than me[…]—and [I know] that I should not compare myself with people—but I feel that they have access to a code and I do not.[8]

Nate must try to force into himself, into his intersubjective abilities, this ‘domain knowledge’ that is required of him.  He must reconcile his expressivist romanticism with the ideological truth of the social scientific sphere is intends to enter into.  This split, as if one were private and one were public, is difficult to achieve for even the most seasoned and trained social scientists.  The split reflects the contrived nature of dualisms in general, but specifically in disciplinary contexts—practical/theoretical, soft/hard sciences, mind/body, etc.

As Nate continues, he becomes more and more able to control the urge to individualize his expressions within the conversations of the community according to the norms that community exerts, quite powerfully as it seems.  He mixes an expressivist style with the linguistic devices of social scientific writing.  Indeed, as the authors argue,

The findings from this study suggest that Nate did make substantial progress in developing a command over the conventions of the academic writing that was required of him in the rhetoric program. […] The findings also suggest that, as a learner, Nate uses various strategic procedures for reframing new information to make it personally meaningful.  When unable to write clearly using the conventions of the academic critique, he temporarily abandons these conventions and draws upon familiar (expressive) discourse schemata to get his ideas down on paper. […] Data such as these lead us to infer that Nate was an active and constructive reader and writer who could employ various strategies to gain a mastery over new material.[9]

I want to close this discussion of the first piece by mentioning the hidden reality behind this text:  the subject of this research, Nate, was also one of the writer of the research paper, John Ackerman.  This ‘shocking’ revelation was revealed in 1991 by Carol Berkenkotter.  This extra-dimensional drama, if one could call it that, leads to some issues raised in Part II of this paper, namely, what does a discipline ‘allow’?  What does it reject?  The interesting nature of this revelation leads one to ask questions of Ackerman, AKA Nate: why hide identity in research reports?  What forces in the discipline dissuaded BHA from openly admitting that they were trying something new?  That they were approaching in from the margins methodologically speaking?  Again, more questions that Part II will discuss.


In 1997, Catherine Prendergast published “Catching up with Professor Nate: The Problem with Sociolinguistics in Composition Research” in the Journal of Advanced Composition.[10]  Prendergast’s piece was published nine years after the initial publication of the BHA piece, and six years after Berkenkotter revealed the identity of Nate, our protagonist in the first section of Part I.  CP was published two years after BHA was reprinted--all of this activity almost ten years after the first study was published.  

Prendergast’s piece aimed to legitimately critique the sociolinguistic methodology used in BHA which, according to Prendergast, is “trapped in a particular dichotomy”—namely between the “accommodation/resistance” theory that BHA utilized as its theoretical foundation.  Prendergast utilizes this theoretical bias as the foundation for her critique of sociolinguistics, which she says must consider reassessing “the kinds of linguistic scrutiny that have traditionally been employed and the kinds of texts which have been examined”[11] so that this theoretical foundation will not ossify and reify.  Prendergast asserts that as researchers, especially when we construct initiation studies, we must be cognizant of the either/or role we place the subject of the study in.  This preventive-reflexive move must occur so that researchers do not place the subject in a position where their identity within a discipline is functionally bounded and determined.  This type of functional analysis of identity formation leaves many intangible motivations, moves, and cognitive states left out of the qualitative conclusions a researcher might draw from a less rigid and less deterministic methodology.  She points to the common failing of most sociolinguistic studies in that they rely on a Parsonian foundation for the functional analysis of language and its use by an actor within a system to ‘play the part.’  Functionalism was the dominant methodology in American sociology for much of the century after Talcott Parsons introduced the system works of Max Weber to the American intellectual scene.  Parsons’ thorough translations of Weber’s work into English were crucial moments in the development of American sociology.  Parsons’ seminal work, The Structure of Social Action (2 Vols.) was Weber’s introduction to American academic circles.  According to Parsons,

Action, [Weber] says may be oriented in terms of a) usage, b) interest, or c) legitimate order.  The concept of legitimate order involves the orientation of action to the idea on the part of the actors of the existence  of such an order as a norm.  The stability of regularities of action based on interest of the others in his action thereby calls forth their resistance, which becomes and obstacle to the attainment of his own ends.  Also, orientation to a legitimate order is not limited to the extent to which its rules are lived up to, but also includes their evasion and defiance.  The point is, of course, that the existence of the order makes a difference to the action and that this difference may be imputed to understandable motives.  The normative character of these two elements of regularity is thus clear:  With respect to one it is attributed to a norm of rationality in the pursuit of given ends; with respect to the other it is attributable to rules involving an element of legitimacy, or obligation.[12]

Given this predilection of actors within rational and legitimate orders, they are assumed to act according to a priori rules of action that are deemed normative by likewise rational organizations (graduate school for example).  Sociolinguistics, according to Prendergast, uses this type of functionalism to ground its acceptance/deviance theory and it incorporation in studies that look at initiation of actors within rational and normative frameworks—which the university exemplifies par excellence.  This diagnosis of sociolinguistics works perfectly for Prendergast as she wants to show that BHA’s use of sociolinguistics as a methodology limits the extent to which the research can show anything at all of individual agency within the monolithic framework of social scientific discourse.  Her denial of sociolinguistics as a feasible epistemological position allows her to then enter in with a varied reading which includes a more hermeneutic deciphering of Nate the accomplished professor, now ten years later.  She has the added advantage of having carried on a conversation with Ackerman whereby he himself has revealed and shared more documents, more textual evidence that shows clear cut indoctrination/initiation into the social scientific discourse community is less clear cut than BHA make it out to be.  As Prendergast states (quoting Ackerman), “It is one thing to equate rhetorical process with product, in the way that a text can be read for the presence or absence of planning or of an appropriate register.  It is something else to attempt to locate a writer according to his or her affiliations, epistemological preferences, or ideology.”[13]  The functionalist sociolinguistic model, in looking only at the data of textual construction, neglects to see what lies behind linguistic competency; it forgets that the subjective mind is also at work solipsistically constructing a view as well.  In a sense, these larger issues remain hidden and covered over by sociolinguistic methodology.  It only constructs what it can perceive through material text and socially constructed context—it cannot enter into the subjective mind and understand how one understands, and how one turns from the process of understanding to a process of action within a framework.  Sociolinguistics only sees the results and tracks them down categorically based upon previous textual material.  It has predictive powers, but only to the extent that it understands volition and intent—which, as Prendergast and Ackerman point out, it does not. 

Nate is a subjective entity.  His subjectivity is based on the fact that he has intent and volition.  The assumption is that he is “free and rational and seeking to establish understanding with a particular community: he ‘elects’ to use an extended metaphor that allows him to ‘crystallize his thinking about the topic without completely abandoning the linguistic conventions of his discipline.’”[14]  Accordingly, his use of expressivist metaphor is seen as adaptation to the confines and boundaries of the legitimate discourse community—the legitimate order in Weber’s terminology.  Prendergast is showing us the fault of functional analysis in assuming the rationality of Nate in his initiation.  Anomalies are not taken into account. Nate is “comfortable enough” with the words and the techniques he utilizes to act according to the accepted norms of the community.  Prendergast wants to criticize the qualification of “enough.”  She is interested in its definition and its normative value.  When is “enough” really “enough”? When does initiation really show that there has been an authentic worldview change that can categorize Nate as having mastered the techniques of social scientific writing?  These are problematic issues that BHA do not account for, and that, according to Prendergast, is a “presupposition challenged by poststructuralism, but one which is congruent with structural functionalism.”[15]

In this conversation back and forth between Prendergast and BHA, as readers, we are caught between two very interesting phenomena:  first, there is the factor of time that has elapsed from the original work (BHA) and the Prendergast piece, almost ten years later, and secondly, we also have the notion that strong conclusions based on structural formations and actors’ actions within them is a sound device for monitoring and gauging the extent to which Nate was initiated and inculcated into the CMU discourse community.  Assumptions take the place of detaching oneself from the institutional confines of research and looking in at not only Nate but the rhetoric program at CMU.  The frame might have much more to say than any content inside it.  Once we take away involvement within the frame, we get a clearer picture as to the dynamics which instruct what action occurs inside.  Sociolinguistics only looks at the data inside and presupposes the stability and rational/normative function of the frame. This is a dead give away for loose sand under one’s methodological foundation.

Prendergast, in keeping the dialogue between her piece and BHA novel, imports notions of parody, “contact zones,” carnivalesque, and other post-modern tools of discourse analysis.  These allow her to continue her critique of sociolinguistics, while at the same time validating her construction of Nate.  This move on Prendergast’s part is important because it not only shows the normative power of the discipline to regulate and gate-keep, but it also shows to what extent the original BHA piece was being “radical” or “novel.”  These differentiations are important to note.  The original study conducted in 1985 (Nate’s first year in doctoral study) was done during a period of time when empirical-rationalistic epistemologies were still the vogue, especially within the social sciences, which the CMU rhetoric program was using as its foundational starting point.  This made it very difficult for BHA to be “radical” or “novel,” even though Kuhn had already shown us that revolutions and changes in epistemologies occur from the margins, and they occur through the overthrow of the previously accepted paradigm.  Though I do not want to bring Kuhn in specifically here, it is important to note the conservative nature of rhetoric at the time, especially at an elite technical university.  This zeitgeist was prevalent and powerful.  In contrast, in 1997 (at the time of Prendergast’s article) the strong continental currents that influenced literary studies had permeated rhetoric as well.  We clearly see this throughout Prendergast’s piece with her use of key terms—“poststructuralism,” “contact zones,” “carnivalesque,” “play,” “parody,”—all of which carry strong poststructuralist connotations.  Prendergast’s invocation of the multivocality of Nate, of a “virtual Nate” (according to Ackerman), of the free-floating signifier formerly-known-as-Nate, all lead down the same path.  Language is not a good gauge in assessing the initiation of a subject within a normative system.  The play inherent in systems is that the rules allow the system to stand autonomously, necessarily relying on the malleability of those rules.  Hence the contradiction and the “ribbing” that Nate enjoys engaging in with structures.  Prendergast’s use of Bourdieu as a theoretical basis for her continued assault on sociolinguistics also gives us an impression that currents from far and away places are infiltrating and have become normalized as methodologies and epistemologies.  Although poststructuralism problematizes notions of the connection between language and it use in grounding identity, we still receive a coherentist approach to identity in the sense that the rhetoric of poststructuralism itself has been normatized within the critique that Prendergast provides for us.  So the paradox arises: how do notions that claim ‘radicality’ and ‘novelty,’ in turn, become old hat themselves? 

Part II

So far I have entertained question 1 from above.  My interest now is to turn to question 2:  How do disciplines act and constitute themselves as rational/normative?

My main focus here will concentrate on how and why, possibly, do disciplines, and in this case, rhetoric, construct themselves as rational and normative?  Where do they get their power from and how do disciplines tend to become, after sometime, autonomous?—seemingly free from any necessary intervention from individual actors or agents?

We enter into one major problem before we can even entertain a discussion on the normatizing influence of sanctioned, bureaucratic, and in terms of English departments, ideologically entrenched disciplines:  the problem of definitions.  In order to understand the compromises made be rhetoricians in tentatively declaring their independence and autonomy as a individual discipline, we need to figure out what exactly “rationalizing” and “normatizing” mean.

Rationality: A Vulgar Pragmatist’s Version

Rationalizing is equated with the force exerted on the frame of a system by the intersubjective communicative actions of contextually based individuals.  This force exerts its pressure by producing knowledge—technically-pragmatically useable information—that can be transferred and appropriated in whatever fashion allowable by the system in which it exists.  Knowledge is produced by default within the academy because at least since Kant’s ideal of education based around reason, we have been ever more impressed by the university with a “mission”—and in the current capitalist economic structure, reason equates with accountability, and this in turn has an intimate relationship with classic Marxian models of production and labor reproductive forces.  I am accepting the economic model without criticizing it because I feel that an economic reductivism defeats the purpose of trying to get definitions that work—currently and pragmatically.  Social change is not my interest here.  And current attempts to define terms with a social agenda attached to them are subject to long, intense, and drawn out trials that pit one context against another, neither of which have the ability to move past the stalemate of constructionism vs. external, grounded validity claims (pure logical rationality).[16]  The knowledge produced acts as both the force of exertion on the frame and also buffers the frame from change—knowledge seems to be both negative and positive—canceling out discrepancies in the balance of the system.  But once discrepancies gain enough inertia, the frame buckles a bit, for a limited length of time, and then absorbs the force back into itself, again normalizing operation. 

As technical as this sounds, it is easier to think of the frame as a malleable piece of glass under a very hot fire.  Glass blowers easily shape glass into what ever form is necessary for the piece they are making.  Thus there is plan and premeditation on the part of the artisan or the worker. There is the understanding that there are, at least in the short term, goals that have to be achieved.  These goals are continuous and are self-reflexive--they know when more goals are needed and when the current applications provides enough problems for interest and imagination to coexist. I am not arguing for a teleological determinism within system.  I am arguing for a self-controllable environment that is synthetic and constructs itself when needed according to inputs and stimuli.  This can be transferred over to disciplines as well:  when there is a status quo among ideas and knowledge production in a discipline, this tends to be archival in nature.  The discipline knows that it has enough data and materials to work from, and that it has enough problems to deal with technically-pragmatically for the time being.  The discipline has plateaued.  But this can change quickly; as new information, new inputs, and new forces exert themselves on the disciplinary matrix, these forces induce a discipline into understanding and accommodating the situation regardless of its truth or falsity. That occurs later when a discipline has readjusted and can investigate discrepancies and either allow them or not allow them currency or legitimacy.

This can be said of the Nate study as well:  what informal, cognitive dimensions were are play within the discipline that allowed Nate to rationally understand his way through the initiation process?  Was it out of a pure pragmatic impulse to achieve a desired status?  Was it to be acknowledged intellectually?  Was it to be identified, to literally be? Or was there, again, a rational appraisal of the situation, and based on this appraisal/diagnosis, a move towards the long view?  The long view tends to be thinking, planning, and designing over long periods of time which induces longer, more sustained investigations into how things might be in the future.  Maybe Nate had a vision of himself like his professors, but at the same time, he might have been still very attached to his own conception of his identity.  These two can always work back and forth with each other negotiating and compromising and picking the best possible paths for the problems at hand.  Of course, these questions are purely speculative and rely only on conjecture and contextual judging.  But we can at least entertain these questions as plausabilities.   Nate was one individual case.  His contextualization and his currency at the right place and the right time allowed him with opportunities to construct his frame, to a certain degree.  As Catherine Prendergast mentions late in her essay, very few graduate students form authentic, collaborative working relationships with the more authoritative and “knowledgeable” frame controllers of a discipline.

Normatizing:  The Rules of the Game

Normatizing induces laboratory imagery and diabolical procedures upon those members of systems deemed deviant or otherwise, irrational.  Rationality seems only to be achieved through communication. The ability to intersubjectively weave one’s way through the world of facts and experience necessitates some type of guidance and communication system: knowledge and language.  These are the usual moorings for sociology of knowledge.  Normatizing occurs when a system accepts the discursive codes of new and “novel” ideas within the framework of accepted  truths, what is accepted as rational, and what is accepted as arguable communicatively.  Academic disciplines tend to veer toward the last normative criterion—communication.  Disciplines exist because of the rational ability to communicate within different systems of knowledge production and to negotiate between them.  The subject must be able to utilize what knowledge is present at hand to interact within formal groupings.  These grouping might be malleable, again, like the frame in which the action occurs, but they must retain identity, even if the identification of a group is misconstrued or distorted (for example, as in rhetoric).  Definitionally, normatization might be negative and it might cause problems in reception—for example, Nate was very adamant about retaining an identity that he once relied heavily on for his legitimacy.  Now, legitimacy resides someplace, systemically, that is not amenable to his viewpoints.  In this situation, Nate had to, for whatever reason,  construct a new public version of himself for the stage.  This does not mean that he has to give up his own cognitive wants and desires in terms of identity—he just now has to understand the complexity of the system and how to utilize the malleability of the discipline.  The doctoral period in a an academic’s life is, for many, one of the most trying experiences they will encounter.  The formal institutional constraints placed on new initiates requires devotion, motivation, and responsibility—in short, it requires complexity of thought within a pragmatic frame.  This allows the initiate to validate the trying experience under the guise of “following the directions.”  This public persona is useful and necessary.  But the individual, unaffected or unhinged by the pressures of the environment, may be able to construct an identity that lies behind the scene, that gives the individual new options, more useful options in negotiating the public realms of normative rule following.  Thus Nate can honestly and authentically learn the methods of social scientific objectivism, while planning and designing for the longer view of a more personal project once Nate has been initiated.  Learning, if this procedure purports to it, must and will remain grounded because of the necessity to define epistemological presuppositions before engaging in any construction of self—private or public.

The rules of disciplines seem to be clear cut once one enters into the game and understands family relationships, relationships of kind, actions and motivations, and the ability to understand the game as just another possibility one might utilize to construct a portion of their identity—if need be or if warranted.  These decisions then return into the realm of the subjective—where the social constructionist reality remains at bay.  These moments allow the subject to plan ideally, to conceptualize, and create through imagination, through will, or desire.  Whether these will manifest themselves in the rule-driven and rule-organized game within the public sphere, and in what fashion, is the empirical portion of disciplinarity.  The empirical rests as a tool to be utilized by a subject either personally or intersubjectively.  I can gather the bits and pieces of understanding from the world around me—both objectively and intersubjectively—through the choice and method of empiricism I choose.  I can be conservative or I can be liberal/experimental; I can be historical or I can be subject centered; I can be hermeneutically-oriented or I can be logically discreet.  These choices, and the ability to make these choices come from a period of normatization necessary for these basic a tools to be available at hand.  These tools seem instrumentally-at-hand, but they work in the same manner as communicative interactions.  A situation presents itself on the scene (a rhetorical situation for example).  This situation requires some action, be it passive or active (or some combination of both), in response.  With a rhetorical situation, we act within the boundaries of communication.   We utilize the understanding of rhetorically-mediated moments (cf. Frank Rosen) through an understanding of the system we operate in.  If, for example, Steven Witte presents an opportunity for me to publish a piece of writing I have worked on, received criticism on, reworked, and redesigned, and then resubmitted, I would see that moment as rhetorical-material, normatizing (the influence of Written Communication as rational journal within the discipline) in its scope, and pragmatic within the long view of design and implementation of subjective, private planning.  The contextual arrangement created by Witte’s opportunity then becomes the socially constructed moment—it provides the reason for me to apply myself, it becomes a goal.  Inversely, if Steven Witte did not offer me the opportunity to publish within Written Communication, then I would know that there is something not normative or rational about the rhetorical situation I’ve created;  my private planning procedures and my public manifestation of them, however socially constructed in response by Witte, remains my problem to deal with.  Now, Witte could suggest and prescribe empirical avenues for me to take to reconcile a situation so that it becomes viable again, and in that case he would be investing long term planning motivations to the possible reoccurrence of the rhetorical situation.  Witte allows the frame to bend accordingly (hypothetically, of course).  Whether I agree with his public discourse, his reclaiming of the mantle in frame construction, is irregardless.  What matters is the perpetuation of a frame that binds a view of the discipline.  And again, this disciplinary binding remains outside of purely Witte’s control.  The fragmented and variously networked frame references have mutual and balanced control over disciplinary motivations and trajectories.  These are negotiable. These are malleable and they expand and contract according to disciplinary need—an intersubjectively collective process.

An Example:  Nate Returns to the Scene of a Crime

n Ackerman’s Postscript (1995), we find Nate grown-up, tenure-track in a research institution (surprise, surprise—he did get what he wanted after all), and enjoying the fruits of being a part of an article that has become canonical not only in rhetoric, but in other disciplines as well.    It seems as if Nate has not only learned the disciplinary game, but that he has become one of the network reference points that continues to keep the disciplinary system perpetuating.  This is not a negative comment, I think, but a realistic one.  The point of the educational system, the research system, is not to find any hard, objective, reality-as-it-really-is-out-there truths, but to create and produce more knowledge.  Intellectuals tend to be the most perverse packrats, bringing in things from different dimensions all in the service of continuing a trajectory—of the ever rising and falling progression of novelty and normatization:

De Certeau uses the term “tactic” to refer to the actions and devices of the less powerful in cultural spaces, and as I look back on those three writings [textual evidence from the original BHA study], they are equally examples of the subterranean activities of graduate school as they are prime examples of conforming to the strictures of professional life.[17]

Ackerman acknowledges the implicit understanding that he had, even in his doctoral days, that what he was doing was meant to be the way it was.  Initiation into a discursive community means being like everyone else until one learns and negotiates what everyone else is doing, independently of their own private plannings, and can present an identifiable public persona that is generally stable within the community.  Thus when Ackerman says that “Simon’s course was one of my favorites because it taught me another epistemology,” he maintains an openness, publicly to the possibilities inherent in general knowledge construction of all types.  But as he continues  further, he qualifies this epistemological understanding/uncovering because he “could tactically learn from on the way to declining it as a dominating method and belief system” (italics mine).[18]  The pragmatic-goal oriented demeanor is strong, but is not vulgar or feigned—Ackerman, I believe, can honestly see value even in epistemologies he does not agree with.  Inherently, if, as academics, we did not disagree, we would not have any structure at all.  Everything would be Platonically ideal, ephemerally signified ad absurdum.  Consensus is good in theory, but in practice, at some level, operatives such as deceit, betrayal, selfishness, egotism, and solipsism do exist and do so necessarily. 

 Does Nate represent an indoctrinated soul?—an initiated disciple?  Yes and no.  He is an indoctrinated soul in two important ways:

1.      Nate is fully a researcher in his professional life.  This “banging heads” metaphor in his informal work in BHA was possibly the result of frustration with normative values and constructions of identity by others.  He is fully grounded and understands normative regulations within his sphere and community:

 We call someone rational [grounded] not only if he is able to put forward an assertion and, when criticized, to provide grounds for it by pointing to appropriate evidence, but also if he is following an established norm and is able, when criticized, to justify his action by explicating the given situation in light of the legitimate expectations.  We even call someone rational if he makes known a desire or an intention, expresses a feeling or a mood, shares a secret, confesses a deed, etc., and is then able to reassure critics in regard to the revealed experience by drawing practical consequences from it and behaving consistently thereafter.[19]

    2.       Nate himself is in a position of power, whereby other initiates will now assume de Certeau’s “tactics” in direct propagation of the identical disciplinary experience that BHA studied.  This dialectical process presents itself as normative,  as if the fraternity/sorority hierarchy had vestiges and historical currency by being mimicked by disciplinary institutions:

The concept of dramaturgical action refers primarily neither to the solitary actor nor to the member of a social group, but to participants in interaction constituting a public for one another, before whom they present themselves.  Thus the central concept of presentation of self does not signify spontaneous expressive behavior but stylizing the expression of one’s own experiences with a view to the audience.[20]

These two criteria allow Nate to assume the position he once feared entering into.  This reversal of roles continues, at least disciplinarily, through research networks, colleague networks, generational-genealogical relationships, institutional allegiances, etc.  The self-perpetuation of systemic rationality seems natural, or at least naturalized through the process of differentiation, specialization and professionalization of the discipline.  The doctoral stage only trains our public persona to play and to accept publicly the normative values of social action:

[Weber] conceived social action as behavior that is subjectively meaningful, that is, oriented to a subjectively intended meaning, and thus also motivated.  It can be appropriately understood only with reference to the goals and values to which the acting subject is oriented.  The methodological rule that results from this was established by W. I. Thomas as the principle of subjective interpretation of social facts:  only the meaning intended by the acting subject provides adequate access to behavior performed in a situation that he himself has interpreted.  Social action is not independent of a socially binding definition of the situation.  For this reason, observable social action must be grasped from the perspective of the acting subject himself, a perspective that is removed from direct observation; that is it must be understood.[21]

The private remains concealed--planning and designing public manifestations within the limits of the mind.

Nate, Plato, Induction, and the Place of Disciplinary Rationality

Diogenes Laertius, in his epic Lives of the Philosophers,[22] places great emphasis and historical acumen upon the figure of Plato as the first person to really ask questions that philosophically led to no answers and only led to more questions.  We all remember Aristophanes in his great comedic satire of philosophers—Clouds—accusing Socrates and his toad stool Plato of not only vacuous buffoonery, but of proposing to impressionable young Greek men worlds and thoughts confirming the difficulty of rectifying the paradoxical nature of inquiry with the daily and natural pragmatism that was necessary to conform to the wants and needs of self and the wants of needs of the Greek polis.  Aristophanes reminded the populace that Socrates and Plato were important men in the negative—they imposed upon minds the fact that to not know certainty is a good thing.  And later, Plato’s ideal and theistic idealism led to him denounce the Greek polis as inherently corrupt and inherently un-philosophical, thereby confirming his distrust in all those who pose as leaders, all those who pose superficially the ability to obtain knowledge and disseminate it.  But we must also remember that many of the problems I have been dealing with currently (disciplinarity, rationalization, and the normatizing power of institutional constraints) stem from a hidden notion of Platonism within the original BHA piece, whether the authors might acknowledge it or not, while at the same time saying that they were opening new doors towards a social constructionist version of inculcation and knowledge-gaining. 

Laertius, after recounting and confirming different accounts of Plato’s life, heads straight into a very lucid and rather transparent excursus on Plato’s style of philosophizing and on the questions that Plato’s philosophy raised in relation to his predecessors and his contemporaries.  Plato, according to Laertius, was the true master of the form of knowledge construction that Plato was well-known for:  dialogues.  Though attributed to Socrates, what we see in Laertius is his idea that it was actually Plato who constructed and mastered the philosophical dialogue, and much of what is attributed to Socrates was in fact the direct philosophy of Plato himself.  Indeed, Socrates once said, after reading one of Plato’s dialogues, “By Heracles, what a number of lies this young man is telling about me!” due to the fact that Plato has inserted a number of lies and attributed them to Socrates.[23]  So if the philosophical doctrines are actually Plato’s himself (and let’s here go with Laertius and assume they are) we are in for an interesting surprise, returning to Aristophanes’ sarcastic and caustic view of Plato and Socrates. 

According to Laertius, Plato’s philosophy and methodology (if one were to call it that—style or genre might be a better word choice here) relied heavily and exclusively on induction—both negative and positive—to bring together doctrines that would seem paradoxical if seen out of context.  Plato induced the generalities of physics, logic, mathematics, epistemology, and metaphysics out of the conception that the particular cases of experience, or empirical data, could indeed lead one to make valid and arguable generalizations about phenomena.  Inducing one’s way towards certainty is bound for trouble, and inducing one’s way towards generalization leads to ideas that stand on untenable ground (as we all can agree upon, generalities only lead to vacuous clichés, though clichés themselves seem useful in our contemporary time, i.e.: moral foundationalism, empirical certainty, “stand together in resolve,” “smoke them out,” etc.).  Negative induction resolves itself within contradiction.  For example, once can answer specific questions by inducing different hypotheses contrary to the questioner’s original question: if men are animals, then they are not rockets.  If men are not rockets, then they are animals.  Horses are animals too, then men are horses.  Plato used this type of induction to dispute and to lay bare the logical fallacies of one’s opposite viewpoint (for example, Plato uses negative induction in disputing rhetoric in the Gorgias—rhetoric as cookery).  Positive induction, or induction through agreement, was used when Plato wanted to specify points of view or philosophical positions that were not only tenable, but were found to be the case in all situations.  Thus, positive induction from one particular to generalize all cases was used rhetorically—and used consistently and often by Plato—for example, in Book VII of the Republic (cave allegory). To induce positively from a number of particulars to one grand generalization also was well-suited to Plato in his quest to rid stupidity and rhetoric from the polis—he used these cases dialectically, to show change or to show growth, especially in disposition and character—see for example the Apology or the Phaedrus (where he specifically induces the famous dichotomy between written texts and oration, between memory and true knowledge).

The point of this aside is this:  following Plato, most empirical investigations necessarily relied on induction at first and then moved, after the solidifying of theories coming through induction, to deduction as a second-order rationalization.  Induction must come first.  Induction is necessary for conclusive theories that stand on their own, especially generalizations about institutional structures and roles within them.  Since we cannot induce true mental motivations objectively—objectivity can only be reductively argued through a subjective position (the famous Observer’s Paradox)—we can only infer conclusions and come to tentative arguments based on observation and conversation—still stuck within the Heidegger’s prison house of language.  Induction can only proceed through a denial of subjectivity and through a positing of truth and certainty, methodologically, by implementing the practice of observing, describing and categorizing phenomena (which is why Aristotle is said to be the father of all disciplinary matrices).  We get this in our times through the methodology of phenomenology, for example (Husserl’s psychological brand, not Heidegger’s, which had its foundations in theological hermeneutics and ramblings of the Nietzsche-obsessed). 

Connecting the notion of an uncertain induction (either negative or positive) with the task at hand remains bound up in the certainty that BHA seemingly profess in their observations of Nate.  Though Nate professes a difficulty with normalizing his own discourse (butting heads) with the ones in fashion at CMU, what is actually occurring with Nate is that, through being induced (his subjectivity), he is setting himself up for the critique that CP presents to us ten years or so later.  CP herself makes the same mistake by critiquing induction with induction, thus doubly moving her conclusions away from any substantive and authentic understanding of the experience of being Nate—first-year graduate student, par excellence.  The cliché arises when we think about what is occurring with the Nate example, what is actually being presented to the reader: reassertion and recognition of the normative powers of disciplines, by necessity.  Nate must be who he is in the text because he has no choice—by accepting his position as the studied, Ackerman (and this is rightfully the John Ackerman of today), is setting himself up for the possibility of  maximum acceptance within the discursive community of CMU and R/C at large.  Nate though, on the other hand, must remain locked temporally in 1987 (apologies).  He must remain a victim of his positive circumstance and within this horizon, he must remain ‘available’ for all to induce whatever else they might see inducible  from the personage of Nate—again, the free floating signifier now left to the ominous world of disciplinary intertextuality and citational references within library databases at large mid-western research institutions.

But all is not lost in vulgar inductive inferences:  what we do get with the BHA piece and its responses is the validity and legitimacy of a discipline.  As much as we are seeing the social construction of identity (and a superficial one at that), we are also witnessing the fact that the initial impetus, the initial want to engage in research validates that research itself.  Whether it “gets anywhere” or has “goals” remains irrelevant at this level of cognition.  The purposive-rational action associated with decision-making is guaranteed by the institutional and disciplinary norms at the time.  Thus for Nate at CMU, his subjectivity is not only sanctioned by the research, it exemplifies it and presents to the reader a helpless, yet heroic personage that rises out of the ashes in CP’s critique of sociolinguistics, which is a critique-at-large of the daily day-to-day representations of graduate work within large, illustrious research institutions.  Nate is saved by the fact that he has become published (further legitimization), his work is deemed important by a community, and a further development of research has occurred as an outgrowth of the initial research and publication of the BHA piece. 

What we also witness within this disciplinary conversation is the salient fact that R/C itself is still having difficulties in placing itself geographically within the institutions of higher education.  As a hermeneutic science, it relies on textual analysis and exegesis of cultural signs and productions, safely placing it within the sphere of the humanities.  But what it also deems itself doing, in its use of quantitative methods and in its scietization, is becoming a bona fide social science.  And if Habermas is correct, the social sciences are the prime place of battle between the analytic world of the hard sciences and the hermeneutic exegeses of the humanities:

Whereas the natural and the cultural or hermeneutic sciences are capable of living in a mutually indifferent, albeit more hostile than peaceful coexistence, the social sciences must bear the tension of divergent approaches under one roof, for in them the very practice of research compels reflection on the relationship between analytic and hermeneutic methodologies.[24]

Habermas presents not only the salient problematic within the social sciences, but he is also eluding to the fact that we must, in all disciplines of research be reflective of what we do and how we do it.  It seems that R/C is takes this to an extreme—we have becomes so self-conscious of what we do, we bear the risk of tearing our own studies and research programs apart by uncertainty in our own legitimacy as a discipline.  Thus, I get my call to abandon our disciplinary home in English and pursue our own legitimate home within our own making, creating the legitimacy on our own through a positive research horizon (though bound to be disparate) and a view towards training scholars to interact with the widest possible range of subject matter (and of course, not to inductively generalize theories that purport to some certain conclusion based upon empirical observation).

Rhetoric as Sociology of Knowledge

Though I have concentrated on presenting the BHA piece as problematic in its appropriation of induction for generalized theories of action, what I have relied on has been purely speculative.  Considering that this piece itself only sustains its argument with the understanding that the argument itself is only at the beginning inceptive stages.  What I would like to focus now, for the remainder of Part II is a return to my title: “Rhetoric as Sociology of Knowledge.”  I felt sure of its thesis that what we do when we do rhetoric is a form of sociology.  This type of sociology though is immature, at least in the methods we have appropriated for ourselves from various other disciplines.  This only reinforces our self-consciousness and our uncertainty of our standing as a discipline.  As a response to this, I want to bring forth a few points that might alleviate our self-consciousness and in doing so, might point towards future possibilities when seen through the lens of the long view.  First our discipline must accommodate both opposing viewpoints of the hermeneutic (social constructionist) brand and of the empirical brand (analytic).  Recognizing and understanding the importance of a holistic bringing-together of these methodologies will be essential in constructing for rhetoric a sustainable and tenable base from which it can gain legitimacy as a discipline of its own accord, and not be compared inductively with “cookery” or some sort of superficial study of how people coerce other people into doing “bad” things—i.e., mere rhetoric.  Though this will take time, it is important to get the groundwork and the excavation going immediately and to bring together as many researchers of language, culture, society, and institutions as possible towards a view of seeing rhetoric as a useful area of study within the university.  But this must be done with caution:

We have to admit that objectivistic self-understanding [i.e., the Nate case] is not without consequences: it sterilizes knowledge, removing from the reflective appropriation of working traditions, and ensures that history as such is relegated to the archives. […] Given such a scientifically legitimated suppression of history, the objective illusion may arise that with the help of the nomological sciences life-praxis can be relegated exclusively to the functional sphere of instrumental action.  Systems of research that produce technologically exploitable knowledge have in fact become forces of production in industrial society.  But precisely because they produce only technologies, they are incapable of orienting action [italics mine; cf. Bill Readings’ University in Ruins].[25]

If rhetoric proposes to “change minds” to use Miles Myers phrase, we must not see ourselves as just a productive organ of research and verbiage.  We must see ourselves as helping or ameliorating specific conditions that arise out of the societal factors that influence people within the life world—especially students in universities, where rhetoric is first holistically prepared and presented as a course of study.  If rhetoric does not take heed of Habermas’s warnings, we are bound to be relegated, as philosophy itself has, to the dustbin of history and we will have no friends, save our colleagues down at the other end of the dusty hallway.  We must not join countless other academic disciplines into what Schlesky has called “the new self-estrangement” based within the technocratic and instrumentally driven institutionalized framework of research.[26]

As well, rhetoric must understand its limitations in inductive and rationalizing generalizations of social phenomena.  Our expertise is within language, and as such we should remain devoted to language and its use.  That does not mean that we should not be fully interdisciplinary; on the contrary, since language, of one type or another is used universally within the academy and within society/institutions, our tasks should be even greater and even more diverse than ever before.  Marginalization should cease to be the issue—the salient issue should become what can we feasibly concentrate on at any one time, at any one institutional place, or within any one recognized research program.  Thus the researcher in Russian psychology, cognitive development, and game theory can have equal luster in the discipline as the discourse analyst or the person studying how community organizations navigate notions of space, power, and solidarity (for example).  All of these and more can easily be accommodated within the general legitimacy of rhetoric.  And yet, this inclusiveness must keep in mind that by bringing in postmodern notions of subjectivity, for example, or the Greek notion of ekstasis, or the scientific methodology of ‘groundedness,’ or the rhetorical usage of ‘intertextuality—all of these will become normatized and rationalized through the inherent work of the institutional and community constraints of the historical moment, the systemic values placed upon individuals and upon ideas.  Weber, one of the first to postulate a general theory of action within sociology, conceived,

Social action is not independent of a socially binding definition of the situation.  For this reason, observable social action must be grasped from the perspective of the acting subject himself, a perspective that is removed from direct [empirical] observation.  […] Orienting meaning takes the form of an obligatory group expectation of situation-specific ways of behaving.  Social action is adherence to norms.  Norms that determine action are collective behavioral expectations. These expectations area a facet of cultural tradition that is relevant to institutionalized action.  Cultural tradition is a symbolic context that defines the worldview of a social group, articulated in ordinary-language form, and therewith the framework of possible communications within the group.  Thus social action exists with reference to the system of traditional cultural patterns in which the self-understanding of social groups is articulated.[27]

Articulated in this fashion, abstract as it is, rhetoric is still normative/rational while at the same time includes rather than excluding.  It takes into account extremes while at the same time retreating to more useful positions when necessary.   Doing this will allow rhetoric to take into account the long view and will extend itself—now—into useful research that adheres to the rules of the institution/discipline while at the same time allows these rules to be malleable, again returning to the glass blowing example from earlier in Part II.

Part III

Now I would like, for the rest of this essay, to concentrate wholly on my own experiences within a rhetoric department as a first-year graduate student with no intentions of making any conclusions.  My intentions is purely to illustrate a couple of important episodes that still remain with me as a reminder of the role I am in—a very tenuous and ambivalent one. 

We only received Nate’s subjective commentary in the BHA piece through Nate himself, and only in bits and pieces.  We never really get an extended discourse by Nate, expressively, about his intentions, about his ideas about what was happening (of course, him letting it happen) while it was happening.  To see full documentation of someone’s inculcation into a discipline might be revealing—to capture a specific historical moment—but in the end, the act of writing one’s experience for a public audience, for a community whose task is to critique and revise and recommend becomes itself vague and questionable: what were the motivations besides the ones set up by the research program?  What were the thoughts Ackerman was feeling and thinking about in lonely moments of subjective reflection?  How were these comparable to what he ended up presenting of his subjectivity?  These are questions that can never really have public answers, can never really have a revealing session, as if to a psychoanalyst who is trying to cure neuroses or other mental ailments.  We only receive Nate through the ample shield of the what they choose to tell us about Nate.  And this in itself says much about the presentation of self through research programs and texts for public dissemination.

I myself hope to never have that experience [nothing against the importance of the work John]. 

But I will share two experiences this past semester, Fall 2001 here at Kent State University.  I, like Nate, was in my first semester of a graduate program in Rhetoric albeit not at CMU, but still with top notch scholars who are respected in the field and whose reputations we underlings hang our own formative subjectivities on.  Though I am not as mature as Nate was in his program at CMU nor do I have the experience that he had, I do feel that I came into KSU with a real good idea of what was expected of me so that I wouldn’t have to butt heads—though this is bound to happen as newbies spend considerable amounts of time positioning themselves as best as possible in front of powerful figures, who in the end will determine much of the fate of us underlings.  This in itself is scary—but not unexpected, and I have prepared myself well enough, I feel, that I can quickly move away from having to have to rely on others to perpetuate my own recognition.  But like Nate, this indoctrination period is necessary so that newbies can at least understand the conversations of the field and can at least agree or disagree with them.  This is utterly necessary—the clichéd dictum goes, one must be able to speak the speak and walk the walk before they can even consider thinking of new ways of speaking and walking.  Bad cliché, but I think very useful for getting through graduate school.  If the faculty at KSU do believe in the necessity of graduate students quickly making a niche for themselves and not just be clones of their professors, it will be essential for the graduate students to assume positions of self-certainty, at least at the superficial and public level.

11 September 2001

The funny thing is that while large transcontinental jets were flying into landmarks around the country, I was writing a paper for Ackerman that I had not finished yet and really wanted to do well on it—early in the semester, I needed to work hard to justify, seemingly, my existence and the department's funding of my education.  I was hard at work critiquing and taking apart Greene’s article on authenticity—I believe the exercise was genre analysis.  I was typing fast, I was typing furiously to finish the work.  I ran to school, unshaven and unshowered, and I walk into give talk to Ackerman and in haste he tells me to sit and with a grave look of seriousness tells me of the events that morning.  And all I could do was laugh to myself—how ironic that the only time didn’t engage with some news source the entire shit house goes up in flames.  To say the least, I was shocked and did not really know how to reply to Ackerman—I could only think of Karim Sabet, my friend from college who works in the WTC and my father who, though not in the WTC, had an office very near by.  But I knew, or at least felt that he was ok—he had been in Boston on Monday and knew that he hadn’t returned yet, hopefully.  Walking away from Ackerman—feeling quite dumb and stupid—I walked outside and tried to watch people; every one was on a cell phone and even in Kent, OH there seemed to be some controlled chaos, as if people didn’t know what to do or how to react.  Unfortunately, anyone who knows world history, anyone who has been a tireless observer of the events of the past fifty years in the world would have expected something to occur against the United States eventually—all great powers soon have their borders knocked on by those who do not understand nor whom what to understand a specific culture or worldview. This works equally in the other direction.  Though September 11, 2001 was a tragic day, I do not think that it changed much of world culture or even American culture for that matter. American, it seems to me, are famous and very adept at superficially and vacuously celebrating, mourning, fighting, conversing, socially interacting.  By our cultural design it seems, we can never take anything seriously.  And, looking back now with a few months of hindsight, irony has returned and is even stronger than before—we are god at ironic deliberation and moral uncertainty.  Though religion and its powerful opiates are strong here in the United States, we in the academy pride ourselves on our ironic detachment from religion, from the covering power and the problematics of organized faith.  I do feel that we are in a very uncertain time—as all millennial turns have been.  And we will continue to be so for a generation, if not more.

Finals Week

I have talked a lot about some pretty abstract stuff in this paper.  And I enjoy the abstractness of it, of constructing interpretations and systems of ideas, making connections between differing opinions and thoughts, between disparate positions and methodologies.  This gets me going—I know, weird but it does.  Finals week in December was interesting for two reasons:  how quickly it came and how unworried I was about what I was doing.  In the past, finals week threw me into panic.  But this year, I seemed to take it with stride, made lots of coffee, bought a carton of cigarettes (Basic, Full Flavor, soft pack) and continually made sure I checked my email and the news just in case something else occurred in the world.   But the overall feeling, at the end of finals week was not a sense of relief that things were finished or at some finality, but that things were over—I was having a grad time learning, which is really what I was doing this semester for the first time in many.  I was mainly influenced very much by Frank Rosen’s comments towards me and towards my ideas—even though we are two very different people ideologically, we share many concerns and share many of the same favorite books, usually differing in our interpretations and usages of these authors and texts.  For example, I love Kant—I find him amazing and I do feel as though the ability to think of the idea of a “critique of pure reason” is not only awe-inspiring, it is purely mad.  Frank thinks he is impressive, but negatively.  Kant did more to screw us up than any other philosopher or thinker of the modern period.  Without Kant we would have no Hegel writing in response; without Kant we would have no Nietzsche decrying the reign of reason throughout the Enlightenment; without Kant we would have no Heidegger proposing a return to the pre-Socratic notions of being and of Being (and maybe this is a bad thing, considering Heidegger was a card carrying Nazi).  In any event, I guess what I am trying to say is that through the late nights (which are a blast) and the long days I have come to some understanding of the intellectual enterprise itself—it require devotion and love of reading and writing.  I can safely say that I have seem to come to a position quite similar to Kant’s own when, at the end of the first critique he says that for reason to exist as the limits of human cognition, we must be willing to put aside reason to make room for faith. Though Kant himself was talking about God, I have found myself putting my faith into reading and writing more now than ever before.  A good move considering that for the next four years I will be engaged in nothing but.  Lucky me.


Coming across the country, meandering my way across the topographic manifestations of my memories, I ran across a beautiful lake in eastern Oregon—high desert plateaus ringed by medium mountain ranges, and the road making its way through the geography and geology.  The road seems to take over much of the time, as if I was never driving.  The car, assuming I still wanted to go east, seemed to just take over for me, as my eyes and mind were far away.

I constructed syllabi on this trip and I constructed visions of grandeur that were only eclipsed by the wonderful sunsets I would stop to view behind me, to the west, peeking below the buttes of north central Wyoming.  The plateau came down lower and met suspiciously at the road again, endless, stretching until the end of America. Baudrillard’s postmodern trek across America was on my dashboard—going to California and coming back.  That books ravishing images and Technicolor dreamscapes escaped my view while I lived in California—I never read him while I was a resident for some strange reason.  Only on the journeys back and forth across the expanse did I understand Baudrillard and his sun-drenched, scotch-induced, semiotic trips criss crossing America—a much smaller version that de Tocqueville experienced two hundred years earlier.  But the vision has remained the same.  Endless contradictions and endless paradoxes, proxies for anything authentic or real.  The deserts stay their course, slowly, beyond the scope of human mental capabilities, through the long view, constructing the long view as it entertains ideas of where to move next.  Someday all of North America, as well as all of Africa will again be consumed by the whisper of sand blazing through the cold crisp nights and the unfathomable days.

The freedom to compose when one is mentally unaware or aloof remains bound by their own ability to construct  for themselves versions of reality that really do exist. Descartes tried to doubt that he was doubting while he was doubting, only to find that doubt remains and is an engine.  For Descartes, what saved him was his piety, his ability to cognize the necessary relationship between him, science and God.  The God head loomed over him, as it loom over us today, five hundred years later.  Science still has not been able to destroy God.  Nietzsche tried and was considered insane.  Wittgenstein tried but witnessed horrible pain and suffering;  Bataille fetishized the death of god and the deliverance of hedonist memories of the Greeks and the pagans;  Heidegger tried, only to find out that he was a very bad poet indeed.  And many after have tried to construct a reality that was singularly their own—sol ipse.

Research methods today seem to construct validity out of nothingness which is disturbing.  Grounding seems to be a priori and qualitative material is abundant enough that no argument against empiricism can seem to be made.  All poor poets become rhetoricians.  But rhetoricians can be anything else they want to be.  They surprise people because they are sometimes right, whereas science is right, in theory. Always in theory.

The social construction of reality, of course based within time and space--just like Kant’s range of reason—is determined not universally, but regionally: it behooves us rhetoricians to find moments that can be determined to be not socially constructed.  The problem becomes and acknowledgement of  the obvious, which is not enjoyable and leaves us feeling unfulfilled.  This feeling, like the sun setting away behind the mountains in the late summer, almost near ten p.m., tells us something: we rely on the passive social construction of reality.  We want it to be done for us.  We enjoy laziness.

[1] Linda Flower, “Cognition, Context, and Theory Building,” CCC, Vol. 40, No. 3, Oct. 1989.  As Flower states in her conclusion, the point of her bringing these two poles together is “to create, on the one hand, a meaningful interpretation of the world and, on the other, to test that constructed reality in clear and careful ways, against the rich and contrary data of experience” (p. 309).

[2] Charles Taylor, Human Agency and Language: Philosophical Papers I, New York: Cambridge UP, 1985, pp. 215-16.

[3] Carol Berkenkotter, Thomas Huckin, John Ackerman, “Conventions, Conversations, and the Writer: Case Study of a Student in a Rhetoric Ph.D. Program,” RTE, Vol. 22, No. 1, February 1988.  All subsequent references to this text will appear as BHA (referring to the three authors).

[4] Ibid., p. 18.

[5] Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, Trans. Steven F. Rendall, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984, p. 139.

[6] John Ackerman, Postscript: The Assimilation and “Tactics” of Nate, email document from Ackerman, November 2001.  Previously published in Berkenkotter and Huckin, Genre Knowledge in Disciplinary Communication, Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1995, pp. 145-50.

[7] Charles Taylor, Philosophical Arguments, Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995, p. 146.  Taylor’s use of this notion of ‘self-understanding’, as mentioned, is appropriated from Gadamer’s re-invigorating interpretation of rhetoric and the human sciences in general as useful and enriching both practically and theoretically.  He sees no reason to separate these two areas, as Dilthey did in denoting geisteswissenschaften  (human sciences) and naturwissenschaften (natural sciences).  Gadamer’s holistic account has influenced a major re-emergence of reconciliatory moves between both of the ‘two cultures’. Linda  Flower is a perfect child of this movement. 

[8] BHA, p. 21.  Again, Nate seems bewildered, yet cognizant—the awkward time when one is half-asleep and half-awake—that he must achieve some balance and understanding of the codes he deems necessary for him to succeed.  Nate does, obviously, want to succeed.  His self-reflections would have been different otherwise. 

[9] Ibid., pp.36-7.  BHA go on to say that Nate’s use of informal writing, secondary writing in conjunction with his primary public texts, allowed him to assimilate and grasp new material through the his ability to “playfully” interact with new knowledge. 

[10] Catherine Prendergast, “Catching up with Professor Nate: The Problem with Sociolinguistics in Composition Research,” JAC,  Vol. 17, No. 1, 1997.  All subsequent references to this text will be as CP.

[11] Ibid., p. 1.


[12] Talcott Parsons, The Structure of Social Action, Vol. II, New York: The Free Press, 1937 (1968), p. 650.  Parsons here is paraphrasing Weber’s tripartite structure of actor agency within rational bounds—Weber always assumes that rationality is the normative structure within which human subjects engage in the world.  Though this seems idealistic, Weber is dealing with society at the most abstract and general level, thus leaving out anomalies such as irrationalism.

[13] CP, p. 5.

[14] Ibid., p. 7.

[15] Ibid., p. 8.

[16] See, for example, the ‘seriousness’ of the Sokal Hoax (http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/) or the hilarious offshoot, the “postmodern generator,” which produces “postmodern” texts that mimic the real thing (http://www.elsewhere.org/cgi-bin/postmodern/).  These ironic/funny yet dramatic indictments of the human sciences threatens not only the public belief in a liberal education, but threatens the ‘balance of power’ between the “two cultures.”

[17]Postscript, p. 4.

[18] Ibid., p. 5.

[19] Jürgen Habermas, Theory of Communicative Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of Society, trans. Thomas McCarthy, Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984, p. 15.

[20] Ibid., pp. 85-6.  Habermas is trying to set-up the critical foundations for his theory of social action, which for him is a theory of communicative action.  He catalogs and critiques one by one each position that is a potential critic of his notion of universal communicative validity and situational purity.  He critiques the functional notion of social action—rational and useful within a specific social/role setting (Weber/Parsons); he critiques the dramaturgical notion of social action—actors on a stage with an audience conceived cognitively-socially (Goffman) and then presents his communicative social action (75-102).

[21] Jürgen Habermas, On the Logic of the Social Sciences, trans. Shierry Weber Nicholsen, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1988 (1970), pp.53-4.

[22] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, trans. A. Robert Caponigri, Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1969, pp. 91-124.

[23] Ibid., p. 103.  Laertius is actually quite a comedic writer himself, especially in his expose style of writing.  He seems to relish in the ability to recount differing and conflicting reports of many of his philosophers.  Thus, again we come back to the point that whether the true Socrates and the true Plato said and did the things they did, remains up for discussion and philological inquiry ad infinitum.

[24] Jügen Habermas, On the Logic of the Social Sciences, trans. By Shierry Weber Nicholsen and Jerry A. Stark, Cambridge, MA: MIT UP, 1988, (original pub. 1967), p. 3.

[25] Ibid., pp. 19-20.

[26] H. Schlesky, Der Mensch in der wissenschaftlichen Zivilisation, [my trans., Man in Scientific Civilization], Cologne, Westfalle, No. 96, 1961, p. 299.

[27] Habermas, pp. 53-56.