Jim Phelan’s Response: What’s at Stake between Historical and Rhetorical Approaches

Well, there’s gratitude for you.  You give a colleague a copy of your new book and then he goes and publicly trashes it—while you’re sitting next to him.  Still, I have no one to blame but myself—not only did I give Aman the book but I also noted in my inscription that it would provide ammunition for him in this debate.  So, who’s my real opponent here?

I think I better leave that as, well, a rhetorical question and express my  sincere gratitude.  I’m grateful to you for coming out, even if you’re more interested in the spectacle of a possible Non-Celebrity Death Match than in what’s at stake in the differences between historicist and rhetorical approaches to narrative.  And I’m deeply to Aman for suggesting this debate in the first place, for his willingness to make the first statement, and especially for his clear articulation of his historicist-oriented quarrels with rhetorical theory, and his identification of the larger stakes of those quarrels.  Since those matters are so important to this debate, let me begin by summarizing them.  Aman has two related quarrels: (1) rhetorical theory’s efforts to talk about the experience of reading are deeply flawed because rhetorical theory inevitably flattens out that experience and ends up working with what Aman calls “a kind of stunted affective response,”  (2) This flattening out is inevitable because of the particular historical situation in which rhetorical theory operates. In our situation, “academia’s particular institutional pressures . . . force one to make affect marginal in an effort to be attentive, to be smart, and to have all the answers.”  One can see the power of these institutional pressures in the rhetorical theory’s characteristic mode of expression—its use of diagrams and taxonomies, which give it affinities to the bureaucratic memo.  As he moves to what’s at stake in his preference for an historicist approach, Aman contends that the advantage of historicist criticism is not that it is any less bureaucratic but that it is more open to critical self-reflexivity, more likely to be aware of how our institutional situation constrains our accounts of reading and thus more highly attuned to the differences between our practices and those of audiences in the past.  Because rhetorical criticism denies “the particularity of professional reading” and declares “its affective vagueness as a universal norm,” rhetorical criticism actually “prevents such self-reflexive knowledge.”  Consequently, the choice for the historicist approach over the rhetorical approach is relatively easy.

Now if I believed all that, I’d be a historicist too.

  But of course I don’t, and so I will spend some of my time trying to articulate what I do believe and why I believe it. However, I do not want to proceed in either of the two most common modes of response in a debate like this, that is, by insisting that the other party has seriously misunderstood my position or by going on the attack against his.    Adopting either of modes would likely lock us into opposing stances that exaggerate the differences between the approaches, when I see them as sometimes complementary and sometimes conflictual.  In addition, one of my goals as a rhetorician is to seek to reduce unnecessary conflict by seeking better mutual understanding.  Sorry about that, those of you who are here primarily for the spectacle. Consequently, my strategy will be to start with complementarity and then move to conflict.Aman begins by declaring that “historicist criticism assumes that the critic has a relationship of otherness to a literary text’s perspectives, references, and value judgments.”  It’s striking to me that Aman does not explicitly contrast historicist and rhetorical theory on the basis of their relationship to otherness. Instead, he implies that rhetorical theory cannot have a relationship to otherness because its lack of critical self-reflexivity prevents it from recognizing that it is shaped by its own institutional situatedness.   But guess what? Rhetorical theory also assumes “that the critic has a relationship of otherness to a literary text’s perspectives, references, and value judgments.” I suspect we may ultimately attach different meanings to the term otherness, but let me say more about rhetorical theory’s relation to otherness.

I am not Elizabeth Bennet nor was meant to be. Or to put it another way, I ought not to make Elizabeth Bennet—or Jane Austen–over in my image.  Instead, I ought to recognize their otherness and do as much as I can to understand it.  Accomplishing that goal means being aware of both historical and cultural differences between their age and ours and paying attention to the internal mechanisms of characterization, narrative technique, structure, and purpose that help reveal that otherness.  When Aman says “internal features of texts play a large part in determining readers’ judgments and responses” and “no historical discoveries about Austen’s life and times could validate a reading of Pride and Prejudice in which Collins is more attractive and heroic than Darcy,” then I actually hear him singing the Halleluiah chorus of rhetorical theory.  Come into the fold, brother Aman.

Two related consequences follow from this characterization of the complementarity between the approaches. First, rhetorical theory looks more ahistorical than it actually is. Rhetorical theory’s concept of the authorial audience, which identifies the hypothetical audience for whom the author is writing, automatically acknowledges that someone like Austen is writing for an audience with certain historical and cultural understandings that are different from ours.  If I read about Lydia running off with Wickham and ask, as I might from the perspective of secular Twenty-first-Century sexual morality, why should Elizabeth get all exercised about that?,  then I’m failing to recognize the otherness of the text and in that way doing a flawed rhetorical reading.  In this sense, rhetorical theory regards history as essential to its efforts to read across differences in time, space, and culture. To put the point another way, historical knowledge of otherness provides important parameters within which rhetorical theory’s focus on the internal mechanisms of texts operates.  

But let’s go further with differences, building on Aman’s observation about rhetorical theory’s interest in the internal features of texts and historicism’s interest in relationships that move across the boundaries of the text to other elements of their cultural and historical situation.  Won’t these different interests come into conflict at some point?  It seems to me that they might but that they don’t have to.  Because texts are historically situated and because they are filled with signification, their relations to their situations—to contemporaneous discourses, to historical events, to general cultural issues such as nationalism or gender–are going to be multiple, and studying those relations can give us very valuable knowledge about their otherness.  Similarly, because texts are also structures with rhetorical purposes that are reflected in their construction, studying those constructions can also give us valuable knowledge about their otherness.  Furthermore, the rhetorician can learn things about what is reflected in the text’s construction from the historicist, and the historicist can learn things about a text’s specific take on a historical event or cultural discourse from the rhetorician. In short, happy complementarity.  Where, then, might the conflict arise? It can of course arise in local disputes about the exact interrelation between historicist knowledge and rhetorical knowledge in particular cases, but it can also arise from competing assumptions about the roles of different entities in the meaning-making process.  And I think we have such a conflict between Aman’s historicism and my rhetorical approach—and I think that this conflict is not restricted to our versions of these general approaches.

I locate the conflict in our assumptions about the relation between history and agency in the meaning-making process.  Aman’s argument, I submit, assumes that history trumps individual agency and becomes the prime determiner of why texts are one way and not another.  In Aman’s account, my effort to talk about experience is so lame not because I’m an insensitive boor capable of only stunted affective response—though I may very well be that—but because of “academia’s institutional pressures,” or, as he puts it in another place, because of Experiencing Fiction’s total identification “with circumstances particular to today’s academy.”  And what’s true for Experiencing Fiction presumably is true for Pride and Prejudice: Austen’s novel is the way it is because the forces of its historical moment acting through her have made it so.  Consequently, the historicist project should be to identify the forces that govern its writing and its reading. Rhetorical theory, by contrast, contends that abstractions such as history are not so powerful as to be the prime determiners of something as complex as the shape of a literary text. History shapes the conditions of textual production but it does not have the agency to determine textual design. To put it another way, rhetorical theory’s competing assumption is that literary texts are written by historically situated human beings, whether they are working individually, collaboratively, or serially, or in some other way. The assumption also includes the following corollaries: Authors are always situated in multiple contexts, the constraints of those contexts vary across different acts of textual construction, and, indeed, that the relation of the individuals to textual construction itself can vary across situations.  

Not surprisingly I think rhetorical theory’s assumption is better, and I think it’s better because it has greater explanatory power in our efforts to understand why texts are the way they are and not some other way.  To take one example, rhetorical theory’s principle gives us a better account of what we know about many cases of revision.  Why did Austen cancel the chapter in which she gave her first account of Anne Elliot’s engagement to Frederick Wentworth in Persuasion?  Not because the forces of history governing writing in England in 1814 dictated a change but because Austen recognized that the affective, ethical, and aesthetic power of her novel would be much greater if she gave Anne a more active role in bringing about the engagement than Austen had done in the first version.  To take another example, rhetorical theory’s principle gives us a better account of formal innovation. If the forces of history act through individuals with such power as Aman posits acting in my case, then all texts in a given period should be roughly similar in most of their salient characteristics.  Notice that this reasoning is operating in Aman’s case for the fundamental similarity of rhetorical theory and historicism in their relation to bureaucratic memos.  The only distinction he claims for historicism is a greater critical self-reflexivity.  But if that’s what governs the writing of literary texts, how do we explain Wuthering Heights, Ulysses, The Waves, and, well, choose your own favorite exemplars of formal innovation?  But if we assume in each case that a historically situated writer was able to recognize that past practice actually created a space for a particular kind of innovation, then we have an account of innovation that draws on both history and individual agency.

It has not escaped me that in arguing for the superiority of rhetorical theory’s assumption about the relation between history and agency that I have argued against my excuse for what Aman regards as my lame effort to talk about affect.  His explanation, remember, allows me to blame my attention to stunted affective responses on the forces of the academy, but, I’ve just argued that that move won’t really cut it. (Again I ask, who’s my opponent?)  More seriously, what IS my excuse?  Well, first, I don’t want his characterization of my effort to go unchallenged, but I also don’t want simply to stand here—fun as it would be—and quote a series of passage from the book, belligerently asking after each one,  “oh, yeah, what about this? And this? And this one over here on p. 43?”   Indeed, since I recognize that I can’t be the final arbiter of whether it’s lame and, if so, just how lame it is, I want to focus, first on correcting the idea that rhetorical theory equates the experience of fiction with our affective response to it, and, second, on why it sometimes uses “diagrams, numbered classifications, and conceptual lists.”  And to do that, I will find it helpful to quote one passage from Experiencing Fiction; it’s taken from my discussion of Robert Frost’s “Home Burial.”

Because the progression [of the poem] requires us to see the situation from each character’s perspective and because that progression also underlines the merit of each view, Frost, in effect, asks us to dwell inside each character’s perspective. The result is an ethical and aesthetic challenge: to participate in each character’s attitude while recognizing the fundamental incompatibility of those attitudes and the way in which that incompatibility, now more powerful than the prior bond between the characters, is driving them apart. Frost’s intertwined ethical and aesthetic purpose, in other words, is to make us feel validity, incompatibility, and consequence without seeking to resolve the conflict among these responses. He takes us deep inside the complexity of the relation between death and mourning, on the one hand, and life and love, on the other, without providing us with any clear way out, any particular answer to the question of what are the true and the good here. His ethical challenge to us is to see whether—and perhaps how long—we can stay inside that complexity.

Again I leave it to you to decide how lame this is as an account of affective response. What I’d like you to notice is two things (1) that the passage seeks to link the affective dimension of the reading experience to the ethical and aesthetic dimensions of that experience—in other words, that the concept of experience includes much more than affect; and (2) the passage seeks to identify the sources of these responses in the internal mechanisms of the text, in this case an account of the poem’s progression and the judgments it invites of its characters.  My larger point is that the goal of rhetorical theory is to give us articulate knowledge of the multilayered but often inchoate quality of our experience and thereby to give us better access to and increased appreciation for that experience.  Rhetorical theory’s form of expression, then, follows from that goal. It doesn’t want to mimic the intensity of experience—though I have occasionally experimented with such a mode—but it rather to account for the sources of that experience.  That’s what motivates the occasional diagram, the more frequent taxonomies, and the many distinctions. To put this in more concrete terms, if our experience of some fiction involves our engagement with unreliable narrators, then it makes sense to identify the internal mechanisms of their unreliable narration, and if that effort leads to distinctions among kinds and effects of unreliability, then that’s a happy side effect.

What, then, are the larger stakes of rhetorical theory in relation to historicist approaches?  Even as rhetorical theory values historicism’s attention to texts as historical objects with multiple relations to other historical discourses and events, it pursues the different kinds of knowledge opened up by viewing texts as communicative acts that have multiple designs on their audiences, designs that depend on their authors’ abilities to use the internal mechanisms of their texts to engage us affectively, cognitively, ethically, and aesthetically.  Furthermore, rhetorical theory values the possibility of our connecting with those authorial designs across differences of time and culture by drawing on our knowledge of history and our analysis of their internal dynamics.  This work of connection, while valuable and rewarding in itself, can also lead to at least three broader kinds of knowledge: (1) the development of generalizations about the general dynamics of texts, including the interrelations of form, ethics, and aesthetics—this is the project of Experiencing Fiction;  (2) the development of a conceptual toolkit for enhancing our understanding of the various components that go into a textual design and of the various effects that different uses of those components can generate; and (3) the construction of some new and vital chapters of literary history focused on the history of form and technique. Such chapters would analyze the ways in which authors during one time period developed technical means to accomplish particular ends and in so doing created opportunities for other authors to adapt and even transform those means in the accomplishment of different ends.  In addition, these chapters would seek to specify the dialectical relation between means and ends, the ways in which the development of each allowed for further innovation in the other.  Finally, all of this work, which contributes toward a broad understanding of literature as an art of rhetorical action, can also deepen our knowledge of the possibilities of human achievement.

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