In my personal publication experience, it has not been uncommon for one reviewer to recommend a manuscript for publication, and another, to urge rejection. Because I am interested in the rhetorical criticism of critical objects that are unusual (e. g., Ouija boards), at least when compared to more common objects of criticism (e. g., political discourse), my advisor warned me many years ago that my publication career would be plagued by divided reviews. Twenty rejections later, I confess that he is right. In this essay, my primary goal is to share the larger story that I developed to explain contradictory reviews of my work.
Barring poorly constructed or wildly incoherent arguments, the story I tell myself is that the frustrating phenomenon of divided reviews can be traced to competing or incongruent idioms that are expressions of what the French philosopher and sociologist Pierre Bourdieu has termed a "habitus." A habitus refers to "dispositions," including the collective rituals, vocabularies, codes, and values of given fields of social being that each concrete individual subjectively embodies (Bourdieu, 1998, p. 6; for related ideas, see Berkenkotter & Huckin, 1995; and Polanyi, 1958). (1) Much more than a conceptual or disciplinary vocabulary ("fields" in Pierre Bourdieu's terms) or a "language game" (in Rorty's version of Wittgenstein's concept), the habitus is a somatic collection of norms, rules, economies of value, and codes of conduct that collectively, and largely unconsciously, structure material engagements with the social world. Further, because it is embodied, one's habitus is visceral, as the sometimes nauseating, stomach-churning event of reading and digesting a rejection letter is apt testament. In a qualified sense, the habitus is a kind of lived language game, a tacit normative, political, and intellectual performativity akin to what the ancient Greek rhetoricians termed doxa, but only insofar as it exists, literally, in bodily movements and practices (e. g., perserveration of any kind, such as riding a bike, holding a spoon, or writing an essay).
As I hope the title and opening of this essay demonstrate (the wording of both is deliberately conspicuous), one's dominant critical idiom, inclusive of the use of a technical vocabulary (Bourdieu's), the tone of writing (autoethnographic, expositive), compositional habits (the double-negative in the first sentence) and so on, is tacitly recognized by readers as either congruent or incongruent with their embodied idioms of disposition. Below I argue that the recognition, misrecognition, or rejection of an idiom occurs at multiple levels of social being, however, and is not reducible to adjudication with a set of linguistic codes.
Shot Down in Flames: The Politics of Rejection
Before I detail the role of habitus in scholarly review, it is important to note that, unlike most of this volume's contributing authors, I have just begun my scholarly career as an assistant professor. Consequently, I have been asked to review only a handful of articles and cannot speak from that kind of experience. In preparation for this essay, I interviewed or held long-distance discussions with a number of colleagues and mentors who have had considerable experience reviewing for journals. (2) What follows is based on my discussions with these scholars and my six years of experience as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota; for these reasons and more to follow, I think I am best described as an scholarly adolescent.
I can claim, however, to be wary of trends in scholarship and familiar with the pain of rejection. One of my recent attempts to publish a rhetorical essay highlights the centrality of the habitus, particularly as an embodied thing, and I think sharing this experience helps to better describe the relationship between embodied idiom, visceral reaction, and critical judgment, a subjective knot that is often hidden by the formalism of the publication process in communication journals. …