Originality, Conversation and Reviewing Rhetorical Criticism

By Berkowitz, Sandra J. | Communication Studies, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Originality, Conversation and Reviewing Rhetorical Criticism


Berkowitz, Sandra J., Communication Studies


What is good rhetorical criticism? While there is no single answer, we can find responses sprinkled throughout the literatures of the field, in textbooks, in statements by editors, and in articles. We outline for our students what we consider to be good criticism, what we want to see in their work. But, do we discuss what makes a publishable piece of rhetorical criticism? This forum is an opportunity to discuss anew and unpack the issues and norms that influence decisions in the review process. Blair, Brown and Baxter (1994) provide a starting point, "Academic writing of the kind published in this or any other professional journal is regulated by clear norms, usually among them the demand for a refined, ahistorical, smoothly finished univocality" (p. 383). They note what is typically missing in these works includes conviction, enthusiasm, and anger; meaningful recognition of the essay's history and evolution; and,

any overt signs, except perhaps in a note crediting them, of the "extra" voices of those who provided suggestions or sanctions for revision, in particular the voices of journal editors and referees. These voices are accommodated in such a way as to subsume them, to make them inaudible, to render them part and parcel of the unitary, uncomplicated speech of the author. (p. 383)

Yet, if we listen to reviewers' voices we can learn not only how they review, but also gain insight into what makes a piece worthy of publication.

In this essay I argue that two issues--originality and significance--are important as we discuss the review process. I am certainly not prescribing a way in which these issues must be addressed. To do so would undermine the very nature of critical, interpretive rhetorical scholarship. Rather, by focusing on originality and significance, answers emerge to questions such as: Must criticism be new? What is the threshold for "new"? Must rhetorical criticism make theoretical contributions? What are the goals of rhetorical scholarship?

Competent Rhetorical Criticism

Most critics agree that in the beginning, one needs to learn how to craft a competent piece of rhetorical criticism. So, what is a competent rhetorical criticism? Numerous textbooks and articles list several characteristics that can be divided into three broad categories: what critics do, what criticisms should/can do, and what critics should do in producing good criticisms.

Perhaps we should begin not with what critics do, but with what we are. Rod Hart's (1994) self-description applies to many:

Criticism is not something I do; it is something I am. I am a critic because I often do not like the language my contemporaries speak nor the policy options they endorse. I am a critic because I feel that rhetoric should move a society forward rather than backward, that it should open and not close the public sphere, and that it should make people generous and not craven. I am a critic, ultimately, because I am a citizen. (p. 72)

Critics are (or ought to be) invested in their communities, local, national, international, political, social, religious, and academic. Rhetorical critics critique the discourses and practices of real people living real lives and that commitment needs to be evident in a competent criticism. (1) Critics are also skeptical, discerning, focused and imaginative (Brock, Scott, & Chesebro, 1990; Hart, 1997). Skepticism is not merely focused externally (e.g., being skeptical of the meaning of particular rhetorical practices or the power of particular institutions). For critics, skepticism requires us to be self-reflexive, to recognize and consider political, epistemological, and procedural assumptions (Hart, 1994). To be engaged and self-reflexive is a first step in recognizing that rhetorical critics can become moral actors (Klumpp & Hollihan, 1989) capable of producing competent and socially aware criticism.

Criticism is an action. Criticism is not based merely on who we are, but on what criticism should/can do. …

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