Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Anxiety about a Rhetoric of Scholarly Inquiry

I think that of the many pages of John Nelson, Allan Megill, and Donald McCloskey's The Rhetoric of the Human Science (University of Wisconsin Press, 1987) that I have read in the past few days, the first few pages of the first chapter are among the most thought-provoking (as introductory essays frequently are). The first sentence, "Scholarship uses argument, and argument uses rhetoric," followed shortly thereafter by "In matters from mathematical proof to literary criticism, scholars write rhetorically. Only occasionally do they reflect on that fact. The most common occasion is the manifesto, which seeks to expose the rhetoric of an earlier line of scholarship, demonstrating how ... [it has] misled us," points out the inescapable reality - and paradox - of scholarly rhetoric and the anxiety thereof: to conduct the business of the academy - scholarly inquiry - we must use argument (rhetoric); yet, when we argue against the "rhetorical devices" of the past, we must also use rhetoric.

While revealing, rhetoric may also conceal, a fact that has led to our cultural disdain of [choose your adjective: empty, mere, only, just, simple] rhetoric. As Nelson, Megill, and McCloskey point out, many scholars have realized that it is impossible to completely avoid Bacon's Idols (Cave, Tribe, Theater) when conducting inquiry. They label this the "mask of methodology," and write that to see beneath that mask "is to replace simple acceptance of their reports with insightful scrutiny of their reasons." Furthermore, by treating the claims of others as arguments rather than findings, scholars can further reveal (rather than conceal within rhetoricized claims of "objectivity") the "underlying issues and better ways to consider them responsibly."

It is easy to see why the rhetorical construct of objectivity took precedence over the rhetoric of inquiry in the study of the human sciences. We fear the mutability of language, which is at the heart of all human communication, scholarly or otherwise, because to acknowledge the absence of determinate meaning is to acknowledge that there is no such thing as "true" or "pure" objectivity. We create a structure of objectivity because within a structure we find comfort in the fact that, as Derrida reminds us in "Force and Signification," "within structure there is not only form, relation, and configuration [but] also interdependency and a totality which is always concrete" (5). If we bound the linguistic/rhetorical structure of scholarly objectivity with enough rhetorical reasoning, we create a false structure which serves as the "formal unity of form and meaning" (5).

The difficulty with the fear of rhetoric, Derrida writes, is that "anxiety about language . . . can only be an anxiety of language, within language itself" (3). Imposing a structure ignores the tautology of language, that meaning must await utterance or inscription in order to become meaning, because the structure is imposed after the fact, avoiding the realization that meaning is "always and already" occurring in a discursive artifact. To become truly objective within argument would require our stepping outside of language, which is impossible, because language is unable to "emerge from itself in order to articulate its origin" (27). Becoming freed from language - as a theoretical subject distilled into sounds or further into text - is impossible because we cannot then express our findings without "creating" a language in order to distill our ideas in a manner comprehensible to ourselves and others.

By embracing a rhetoric of inquiry, we can expand our understanding of the vagaries of discourse in the human sciences, and escape the false construct of objectivity that has - for too long, according to Nelson and his colleagues - concealed the rhetorical nature of scholarship.
Sources cited (in order of appearance)

Nelson, John S., Megill, Allan, and Donald N. McCloskey. "Rhetoric of Inquiry." The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences: Language and Argument in Scholarship and Public Affairs. Eds. John S. Nelson, Allan Megill, and Donald N. McCloskey. Madison: U of Wisconsin P, 1987. 3-18.

Derrida, Jacques. "Force and Signification." Writing and Difference. Trans. Alan Bass. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1978. 3-30.

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