Skip to content

Composition Forum 20, Summer 2009

Mailloux, Steven. Disciplinary Identities: Rhetorical Paths of English, Speech, and Composition. New York: MLA, 2006. 165 pp.

Bookmark and Share

John Tinnell

Rhetorical hermeneutics, as Steven Mailloux repeatedly stresses, involves “the use of rhetoric to practice theory by doing history” (42). One admirable characteristic of Disciplinary Identities is the author’s consistent ability to foreground the broad implications of formative moments in academia during the past century, which have clearly been meticulously selected and arranged to inspire a sense of intellectual camaraderie among rhetoricians in seemingly disparate fields. Throughout the book, Mailloux performs his brand of rhetorical hermeneutics to comb the rhetorical paths of the language arts disciplines, inspecting moments which exemplify a tendency, pervasive among professionals in English studies and speech communication, to repeal from (even ignore) one another. As a rhetorical theorist, Mailloux especially laments the fragmentation of rhetoricians who, as a group, inhabit a growing number of fields across the curriculum and he theorizes interdisciplinary bridges at every turn.

The first chapter presents Mailloux’s concern for such disciplinary fragmentation as he focuses on the “burgeoning subfield” of the rhetorical study of science, particularly the writings of Dilip Gaonkar. Immediately prior to his discussion of the rhetoric of science, Mailloux warns of rhetoricians turned speech teachers who, having relocated to newly formed speech communication departments early in the twentieth-century, sought to forge a new disciplinary identity and, in doing so, “set along paths well trod by a two-thousand-year-old rhetorical tradition” (16). Strands of Gaonkar’s work in science display a similar trajectory. Mailloux gracefully illustrates that Gaonkar’s idea for a “close reading of a third kind” essentially calls for a return to the formalist approach to texts which dominated literary criticism during the middle decades of the last century. Moreover, Mailloux points out that “Gaonkar’s defense of this reading strategy perpetuates a vision of theoretical practice” which ignores the challenges raised in the 1960s by high theory and cultural studies, specifically denying “a tendency in critical theory that calls into question the distinction between the inside and the outside” of a text (30). Mailloux urges readers to consider how rhetorical projects, including Gaonkar’s, inevitably benefit from an increased awareness of all the tools and trends of the rhetorical tradition that becomes possible with a “multidisciplinary coalition of rhetoricians” (33).

Disciplinary Identities can be read alongside a recent line of numerous works which offer a historical account of disciplinary formation as a way to (re)conceive important aspects of English Studies. Some of these volumes include Graff’s Professing Literature and Beyond the Culture Wars, Salvatoi’s Pedagogy: Disturbing History, 1819-1929, and Berlin’s Rhetoric, Poetics, and Cultures. These histories display a common tendency to build their accounts (and turn their arguments) on the crux of a central opposition. This opposition for Graff becomes the formalist, canonical tradition of western literature versus contemporary inclinations towards multiculturalism and high theory. Salvatori polarizes views on teaching as a talent-based art and as a mechanical science, while Berlin chronicles power struggles over rhetoric and poetics within the hierarchy of English studies. Mailloux’s book advances Berlin’s desire to restore rhetorical study to a higher place in academia. Rather than attempting to convert literature professors into rhetoricians, Mailloux, as I alluded above, takes a more pragmatic route as he rallies together all of the already practicing rhetoricians who, because of competing disciplinary identities (English, composition, speech, etc.), “for the most part, still do not talk to each other” (32). And rather than fixing his book upon a single general opposition, Mailloux navigates between several specific oppositions such as the production and reception of texts; rhetoric in oral and written discourse; academics as professors and as public intellectuals; and rhetoric within and beyond the university.

Both Berlin and Mailloux call for the integration of modes of reception or interpretation and models of production. The second chapter of Disciplinary Identities centers around Mailloux’s critical practice, rhetorical hermeneutics, which he refers to as a “reception-oriented take on production” that “considers production and reception as complementary perspectives on rhetorical action, whether writing and reading an essay or saying and hearing a speech” (63). A key stylistic (if not ideological) difference between Berlin and Mailloux becomes especially apparent in the book's second and third chapters. Whereas Berlin does history to highlight the influence of socioeconomic factors on the disciplinary status of rhetoric within American universities, Mailloux’s use of rhetoric (to practice theory by doing history) scrapes along the paths of disciplinary formation that Berlin has outlined from a distance. These paths are paved in the theoretical questions Mailloux raises with a succession of always historicized block quotes. For instance, he spends the bulk of chapter three excerpting Gadamer’s writings on philosophical hermeneutics with two goals at stake: 1) to present a case “for including Gadamer as an important part of the rhetorical tradition; and 2) “to use the making of the case as a framework for further examining how the rhetorical tradition works in today’s interdisciplinary formation of rhetorical studies” (73). What he finds “most admirable” about Gadamer is his “dialogic rhetorical strategy” that stresses “work[ing] with rather than against the ideas of others” as opposed to “the negative eristic that is the usual tactic of most academic contexts today” (80). Clearly, Mailloux’s designs for collaboration across disciplines necessitate a default condition of wide-open dialogue and would therefore be implemented in so far as this condition becomes institutionally possible. This is a book to be read not only by professors of rhetoric, composition, English and communications, but also (if not especially) by department chairs, curriculum committees, writing program and university administrators, as well as those who organize professional conferences and faculty seminars.

Tracing the rhetorical paths of a 2001 public controversy between Stanley Fish and New York Times columnist Edward Rothstein, Mailloux’s fifth chapter extends his analysis of identity beyond academic disciplines. In this chapter, Mailloux considers Badiou’s “complex philosophy of the event” as means to better understand the communication breakdown that sometimes occurs when postmodern academics speak or write as public intellectuals addressing lay publics:

Their public thinking requires us to attend to how the rhetoric of academic theorizing travels across various cultural domains; how different kinds of intellectuals need to address not only the specific logics but also the more general rhetorical effects of their vocabularies and theories; and how passionate commitments to truths and the usefulness of universalist appeals constitute part of that rhetorical terrain. (117)

Chapter four prepares for this transition to nonacademic public spheres by qualifying identity (which he takes to mean “interpreted being”) as a rhetorical hermeneutic performance. Here, Mailloux selects “examples of performed identity by African American intellectuals at the end of the nineteenth century” that illustrate some dynamics of intellectual identification and seem to culminate as a primer for the collaborative academic reconfiguration wished for in the previous chapters.

Mailloux’s final chapter takes up a question he has been driving at all along: “Should rhet-comp be established as a separate departmentalized discipline, or should English studies be radically reconfigured in traditional English departments?” (127). This section offers more concrete recommendations than the chapters preceding it. Mailloux argues “for a rethinking of all English studies as cultural rhetoric studies” by which he means

the critical, pedagogical, historical, and theoretical consideration of the effects of trope, argument, and narrative in different cultures. This comparative cultural rhetoric study would encompass the productive and interpretive aspects of the rhetorical tradition, embracing classical and modern invention in spoken and written rhetorics and including modern and postmodern hermeneutics applied to oral, print, and digital media as well as various cultural technologies, whether aural, visual, or kinetic. (129).

In addition to reshaping departments, Mailloux recommends that rhetoricians across the curriculum establish “interdisciplinary centers . . .focused on the pedagogy, criticism, history, and theory of rhetoric as a tradition” (130). The creation of such centers would likely serve as the project’s keystone and best means to launch the intensive commitment to open, sustainable dialogue that Mailloux wants to instill. Finally, he urges all academics, especially those studying rhetoric, to own up to “an obligation —either as individual citizens or as members of a professional collective —to address the concerns of nonacademic publics, not only the specific issues but also the rhetorical conditions in which those issues are considered” (132). Using the term deconstruction as an example, Mailloux shows how academics can use rhetorical analysis to track the flow of “specialized disciplinary jargon into nonacademic public and private spheres” (137). Again, such analysis is promoted exploit all the opportunities unique to rhetorical study so as to animate its place within and beyond the university.

Just as Mailloux theorizes rhetoric as simultaneously a subject for analysis and a means of persuasion, Disciplinary Identities both critiques the separatist professional identities that encourage intellectual fragmentation and it creates a broadly conceived, multidisciplinary identity to spark collaboration among all teachers and scholars of the language arts.

Bookmark and Share

Return to Composition Forum 20 table of contents.