Double Binds in Publishing Rhetorical Studies

By Brummett, Barry | Communication Studies, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Double Binds in Publishing Rhetorical Studies


Brummett, Barry, Communication Studies


When I review a rhetorical essay for publication, I look to see whether the purpose is clearly stated and whether the essay fulfills the promises and intentions made in the statement of purpose. I look to see whether the essay is likely to tell the audience anything that it didn't know before (I have read and have declined to support essays that announce with great fanfare and flourish the discovery of racism in talk radio, or the bare possibility of analyzing metaphors in discourse--who knew?). I look for significance of the essay's conclusions, which usually lie in the power and novelty of the theories and methods proposed, but on rare occasions lie in the importance of a newly discovered rhetorical text or rhetor.

What do I mean by theory and method? I have explained this in more detail some years ago (1984) and I refer the reader to that essay. Briefly, a rhetorical theory is a way to look at rhetorical events so as to understand how they work. A rhetorical method is a set of guidelines for how to look at rhetorical events in ways suggested by a theory. My main standard for both theory and method is whether it can help people to see the rhetorical dimensions of their everyday experiences more richly; my view (which is not universally shared) is that rhetorical theory and method are and should be inseparable from the understanding of everyday living. In that way I described their functions as "heuristic" and "moral." That in a nutshell is what I look for, but sometimes the things that one looks for seem contradictory and difficult to keep in balance; they may even create double binds.

Back in the dawn of time, when the world was fresh and I was in graduate school, I took a course in Interpersonal Communication. One of the things I recall from that useful learning experience was that double binds can make you go crazy. A double bind is a contradiction that people put you in: "Be more self-disclosive" and then punishing self-disclosure--"Let's be intimate" and then keeping at arm's length--"Be honest with me" as long as it's flattering--and so forth.

I think that standards for academic publishing, especially in scholarly journals, inherently entail some double binds. I do not believe that publication in rhetorical studies involves any more or fewer double binds than do any other fields, but since that is my specialty and I have been asked to comment on standards for publishing in rhetoric, that is my focus in this paper. I will explain some double binds, or if you prefer contradictions, in the standards that I (and I think most other reviewers of essays submitted for publication) use in judging whether a paper should become a journal article. I do a fair bit of such reviewing--I am on nine editorial boards as of this writing, not to mention occasional reviewing for other journals and publishers--so I think I am a good index of how rhetorical reviewers make their decisions.

Clearly, the use of such a pejorative term as double bind carries some negative connotations. By such usage I mean to indicate that preparing a publishable essay can be a difficult, even grueling process (although not as bad as working third shift in factories or mucking out stables, let us remember). The publication of knowledge is a tricky process, involving the balancing of conflicting values. Walking the thin line between the two sides of a double bind is difficult, but as is true in even the most difficult of interpersonal relationships, balance can be achieved. How to achieve that balance and get published is, I hope, the "news" that I have to share with you in this essay.

Be specific but generalize (the grand double bind)

I call this the "grand" double bind because it follows a sort of tree model, with one double bind leading to another, fractals of anguish unfolding before the despairing scholar as we go deeper and deeper into standards to be applied. The basic dichotomy here is between a need to be specific about a clear object of study and a need to generalize beyond that object of study through theory or method.

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