Academic journal article Composition Studies

"Rhetoric 2001" in 2001

Academic journal article Composition Studies

"Rhetoric 2001" in 2001

Article excerpt

It was still the tail end of "the sixties," when "the times [had been] a-- changin',"1 that an unusual essay, "Rhetoric 2001," won the 1974 Freshman English News prize and attracted a fair bit of attention. "Rhetoric 2001" asserted that teachers of writing underestimate their role in the discursive construction and reconstruction of cultural structures and processes-and therefore underestimate the crucial, powerful role they can play.

The essay opened with an observation even truer in 2001 than it was then: "Amazingly, the assertion that we live in a century of major technological and social transformation is already a cliche. Even the assertion that the proportions and velocity of this transformation are unrivaled in the history of our species begins to grow trite" (1). The quality, emphases, and directions of change have shifted considerably,2 and its velocity has accelerated dizzyingly. Not surprisingly, rereading the essay makes me cringe at my own youthful naivete, but the major claims of "Rhetoric 2001" seem to me still pertinent, useful, and even radical, particularly those about a) the role of rhetoric and composition studies in changing times and those about b) rhetorical form and ideology. Because of significant advances in theory and research, these implications can be understood better now than then. Significant shifts in technology, communication, and the structure of work (and play) make these implications at least as important in 2001 as they were in 1974.

The crux of "Rhetoric 2001," especially if taken in tandem with two articles I published the following year ("Eco-Logic for the Composition Classroom" and "Closed System Composition"), lay in the following assertions:

Human survival and well-being depends upon changes in human consciousness that help us both influence and adapt to change.

When change is radical, our most basic thought patterns, those we have come to think of as "natural," should be questioned.

In times of radical change, artists, rhetoricians, and critical intellectuals too often underestimate our importance and our powers.

Rhetorical forms and tropes shape not only speaking and writing, but also thinking and feeling, values, subject positions, and subjectivities.

Thirty years ago, at the 1971 NCTE convention, "the popular futurist, Alvin Toeffler, [had already] asserted the special potential of certain aspects of 'English' for helping people understand, cope with, and even control the technological and social changes of our times" ("Rhetoric 2001" 1). With so much changing so quickly, the survival and well-being of our species (as well as other species) depends upon how we modify, supplement and reframe traditional ways of thinking, feeling, valuing, being, and doing while retaining what makes us human.

Although I did not know it at the time, Kenneth Burke had made a similar argument, most importantly in relation to the Great Depression and the Cold War nuclear arms race. As Burke asserted during the 1950s, such situations are qualitatively more dangerous now that human beings have the power to destroy ourselves, our well-being, and even our world.3 Although many of the radical changes among which we live are scientific, technological, economic, social, and ecological, they ultimately lie in our domain, for radical "changes in human culture, however material their bases, [are] also a revolution in consciousness" ("Rhetoric 2001" 1). For Burke, "the task is to develop a peaceful, co-operative order through the resources of rhetoric . . . , [to develop] motivational terminologies to transcend the divisions among people" (Overington 139; see also Burke: "Ideology," Philosophy 321, 234-235; Buckley, Counter-Statement 67, 113, 189).

In 1974, I used Gregory Bateson's relatively simple model of ecological crises to illustrate this point and in a sense anticipated what is now called eco-composition (albeit with a difference). …

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