Watchoo (Not) Talkin’ ‘Bout, Willis?

I’ve gotten accustomed to checking out Blogora recently, and a link posted there recently find a nice dovetail with a passing comment in conversation yesterday with Jessica Rivait.  I had mentioned, briefly, my own recent realization/discovery that the Communications discipline has its field of rhetorical study, focusing primarily (from my limited knowledge at least) on spoken rhetoric.

I don’t have much to say about this, but I do have a few questions.  At what point–and why–did the English studies version of rhetoric lose or at least lose focus on the spoken, performative side of rhetoric?  Of course, this notion of performativity is one of the questions that drives Pruchnic’s 7007 in the fall (find the link under Bodies of Persuasion in the sidebar), so this question might at least be the beginning of a potential research project.  I find this also to be a question of pedagogical interest, at least in so far as I typically ask students to do oral presentations of their final projects, and I assume many of my fellow GTAs and senior faculty members do the same.  Admittedly, I often append these as sort of an afterthought–the goal of the course is writing, not speaking, and the presentations are not held to the same standards of rigor as the written work.  The pedagogical question then might be why ask students to present orally if the presentations are conducted under the light of diminished expectations?  And how are those diminished expectations related to a move away from performativity in English studies rhetoric?  If they are in the first place, of course.

I wonder–and here is where my thinking sort of falls apart–what role (pun only semi-intended) questions of subjectivity plays in this schism.  It would seem that emphasizing perfomative rhetoric–as in orally delivered–creates a substantially different ethos than written rhetoric . . . one that maybe, through its emphasis on the physical presence (so here comes Derrida) of the speaker, almost suggests a reliance on essentialized subjectivity: Here I am speaking to you!  A rational subject among rational subjects!  Where perhaps written ethos–given the deferred, differed presence (written under erasure) of the speaker–becomes a discursive trompe l’oeil, an absent presence (and, of course, a present absence, under erasure): I am not here!  But/And I am speaking to you!  A rational subject not among subjects!  Of course, post-structuralism and postmodernism have given ways–or shown us ways, maybe–to write into the discursivity of that subjectivity.  We might write a mystory, for example, but can we perform one?  (And here I admit the assumption that reading aloud is not performance.)

So maybe the question I’m circling is one of definition: what is/are the distinction(s) between written and performative ethos?  Hmm . . . .


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