Higher Education new materialism realist rhetoric

Part Three: the university of a tiny rhetoric

The last part of a three part essay. Here are parts one and two.

This brings me momentarily to the Stover article, but Latour’s interview ends with some remarks about the university (and rhetoric). Latour notes that rhetoric, from the start, is fundamentally a way to teach people:

It means that you can take someone who has no rhetoric coming out of school, doesn’t know how to speak, doesn’t know how to address people, doesn’t know how to speak well of things, and then after [a rhetorical education], he or she knows. Right? This is the basic idea. So, there is a sense in which rhetoric is the equivalent of what we expect from the university. You go from day one, and then at the end, you are Jefferson… So rhetoric is the university in the negative sense and in the positive sense.

I think this fits in well, though also oddly, with Stover’s argument for the humanities. I won’t rehearse the entire (quite long) article, but basically, although he clearly suggests “there is no case for the humanities,” he is really arguing that the humanities don’t need a defense per se. As he writes,

The confusion over the purpose of the humanities has nothing to do with their relevance. The humanities are no more or less relevant now than they ever were. It is not the humanities that we have lost faith in, but the economic, political, and social order that they have been made to serve. Perhaps we only demand a case for the humanities because we cannot fathom having to make a case for anything else.

And then as he concludes

The humanities and the university do need defenders, and the arts have had advocates as long as they have existed. The way to defend the arts is to practice them. Vast expanses of humanistic inquiry are still in need of scholars and scholarship. Whole fields remain untilled. We do not need to spend our time trying to come up with reasons. All we need to do is put our hand to the plow. Scholarship has built institutions before, and will do so again. Universities have declined, and come to flourish once more. The humanities, which predate the university and may well survive it, will endure—even if there is no case to defend them.

I think one must agree that we have lost faith in the economic, political and social order that the humanities was made to serve. I’m thinking that started some time around the Holocaust. And humanists were among the first to lose that faith. Still there’s a certain charm in Stover’s Nikean suggestion that we should “just do it.”

However, as rhetoricians we should remember Latour’s European perspective on rhetoric and how it might inform Stover’s. Classical, modern rhetoric-as-practice belongs among the seven liberal arts that found Stover’s humanities. And yet rhetoric doesn’t quite fit. Stover writes “The humanities have always been, just as their critics complain, self-contained, self-referential, and self-serving. Those tendencies are exactly what enabled the humanities to create a class that continued to demand them.” But rhetoric-as-practice has always been about the agora and about the skills that associate rhetoric with “the most maligned mode of politics” (to quote Latour again). Unlike the rest of the humanities, teaching rhetoric has never primarily been about reproducing the class of people who study rhetoric.

Personally I think Stover’s argument is either naïve, privileged, or both. As he notes, “The reality is that the humanities have always been about courtoisie, a constellation of interests, tastes, and prejudices which marks one as a member of a particular class. That class does not have to be crudely imagined solely in economic terms. Indeed, the humanities have sometimes done a good job of producing a class with some socioeconomic diversity.” How nice for us; let’s all offer up a courteous golf clap. Will the version of humanities Stover describes continue to thrive in the Ivy League and other hedge funds that use classrooms as tax shelters? I think so. Those 1% institutions still have faith in “the economic, political, and social order that [the humanities] have been made to serve.” Elsewhere I think it’s a toss up. As he noted, in the nineteenth century many land grant institutions added the humanities in an effort to be viewed as full universities. He seems to suspect that it is “the lingering presence of the humanities that allows the modern university to think better of itself, and to imagine itself to be above commercial or political vulgarity. This ‘case’ for the humanities is implicit in every glossy flier produced by a university development office, but no one could state it without blushing.” Let’s hope that the graying members of the MLA don’t throw out their necks while vigorously nodding along. If Stover thinks the humanities are above political vulgarity (or just straight out vulgarity) then his department (and department listserv) are quite different from any in which I’ve participated since entering grad school.

But I digress. I really don’t want to talk (yet again) about “saving the humanities that does not need saving.” I’m just interested in the two models of the university offered by Latour and Stover, and the role a tiny new materialist rhetoric (as opposed to a big rhetoric-as-practice) might play in it. One of the common complaints about new materialist rhetorics is that they don’t come, pre-installed, with an ideological operating system—whether that be indoctrinating students in the courtoisie of a scholarly class, overturning transnational capitalism, fighting for justice, or whatever. In my view, they’re too tiny for that, though you can certainly add one on, and maybe you can’t help but do so (a topic for another time). When Latour says that “rhetoric is the equivalent of what we expect from the university,” I think he means it’s an education in courtoisie. Both positive and negative.

One can use a tiny, new materialist rhetoric to investigate how that happens and describe the capacities that arise in various pedagogical encounters within academic ecologies. A good a place as any to study things. And a tiny rhetoric won’t predetermine what a university or university education should be. It can, however, be a tool for describing the matters of concern that arise in the diplomatic effort to decide the future of the humanities or the university. It can describe the capacities available and speculate about their significance. As Delanda suggests of a realist ontology, a tiny rhetoric might be better poised to take advantage of such inventions and discoveries of know-how. As Latour concludes the interview with Walsh, “I think the moment it would become really interesting is when we know how to assemble the diversity of these other modes, and the diversity of the collectives. For that we need many different people, probably” (424). I’ll take that one step further and say definitely. In this a tiny new materialist rhetoric does not see to cover it all but simply to be one of many. And for my money, the humanities (regardless of whether or not it needs saving) might also engage in that goal. Here’s where I can agree with Stover: that’s the plow to which the humanities might put its hand.

2 replies on “Part Three: the university of a tiny rhetoric”

[…] This morning I’m writing about the place of rhetoric in a new materialist, plural ontology (starting with some comments from Latour) and moving into rhetoric’s place in the humanities (starting with a recent article in American Affairs, “There is no case for the humanities” by Justin Stover). I’ve divided this into three posts, so here are parts two and three. […]


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