What Is "Good Criticism"? A Conversation in Progress

Article excerpt

Where does the drama get its materials? From the "unending conversation" that is going on at the point in history when we are born. Imagine that you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long preceded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before. You listen for a while, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him [or her]; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself [or herself] against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponent, depending upon the quality of your ally's assistance. However, the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress. It is from this "unending conversation" ... that the materials of your drama arise.

(Kenneth Burke, The Philosophy of Literary Form 110-11)

Some forty-two years after Kenneth Burke described history, from a dramatistic perspective, as an unending conversation, Sonja Foss offered "conversation" as a metaphor for rhetorical criticism's process of knowledge development ("Criteria" 288). In rhetorical scholarship, "knowledge and progress cannot be measured in terms of linear accumulation, which assumes that a single vocabulary or metaphor is used by all critics so that pieces of knowledge are built on previous ones.... Given that data cannot be verified objectively, our aim becomes to continue the conversation about the data rather than to discover the truth about them" (Foss, "Criteria" 288). The topic of what constitutes good rhetorical scholarship is one for which an unending conversation is, indeed, in progress, a conversation into which Editor Mike Allen has asked this volume's contributors to dip their oars.

Therein lies the challenge. As I enter this ongoing conversation I face the twin risks that I will say too much, repeating what others have already said, and that I will say too little, failing to remember what others have said. Aware of this, I still want to provide a (recognizably incomplete) summary of what I have heard in the conversation (while constantly reminding myself that I am not "qualified to retrace for you all the steps that had gone before" especially since much of it transpired before "the point in history when [I was] born" either as a body or as a scholar.)

Beginning with the Spring 1957 special issue of what was then called Western Speech (edited by Ernest Wrage), rhetorical scholars sought to define and clarify what constituted "good" rhetorical scholarship. In 1957, the main problem was the uniformity of critical method and the concomitant search for more diverse approaches. The renamed Western Journal of Speech Communication revisited rhetorical criticism in its Fall 1980 special issue, devoted to the "State of the Art" (edited by Michael Leff. By this point in time, a diversity of approaches to criticism existed: neo-Aristotelian, movement criticism, critical models, genre analysis, and dramaturgical (later called dramatistic).

Writing elsewhere, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell celebrated the diversity available to scholars on the eve of the 1980s, arguing it was "not a sign of chaotic instability but evidence of the health and maturity of our discipline" ("The Nature" 9). However, Leff still worried that, with the proliferation of theoretical approaches, "critics lack perspectives that enable them to make adequate connections between theoretical constructs and the concrete data of rhetorical experience. The rise of pluralism has broken us loose from old constraints and encouraged fresh activity in the field, but the multiplication of theories does not resolve the tension between theory and practice" ("Interpretation" 342). …