Gatekeeping Rhetoric

When a veteran rhetorical scholar chooses to make a case you’d expect it to be very difficult to critique, or at least very well constructed, using all of the arts that they study in such a way to make the criticism of it difficult or tricky. But in this case perhaps the mechanisms of gatekeeping are so well embedded in the field that merely pointing at them as obvious goods is enough for those who believe in them.

The recent editorial by Martin Medhurst who edits Rhetoric & Public Affairs (for now) wrote an editorial that I won’t reprint here. It’s been pasted all over rhetoric social media. I can do no better than this critique of Medhurst’s comments by Mohan J. Dutta, so I’m not going to try. If you want to read Medhurst’s post it’s here, and Dutta does an excellent job of indicating the problems with the essay. Suffice it to say that it’s embarrassing that a rhetorician would use such obvious equivocations to make an argument that is purportedly so vital to them. You would think that the argument would be so much better assembled by someone in such a distinguished position.

Two things I will add to the growing critique. First is that it’s no straw person that people believe that strong individual will is all one needs to achieve excellence. Here a scholar with a great record and the power of editing one of the top journals in rhetoric clearly believes that individual accomplishments are the only way to measure excellence, are clearly discernible and measurable, and only those who have these accomplishments enumerated are in a position to determine who else has them. This is disturbing enough. To add to it, it is the graduate committees of what he calls “diverse” scholars who are in the best positions to evaluate their merit and accomplishments. Such certainty is quite good for maintaining systems of power, and absolutely terrible for those interested in advancing communities based on inquiry. Looking back to determine what innovations count is not advisable or healthy. It’s a system that relies on replication in order to determine value. That’s not good for scholarship.

We must recognize the structural and community debts toward and about knowledge and scholarship if we hope to keep advancing thought, which I was under the impression we were supposed to be doing. I believe we need to always be at the ready with argumentative resources about the value of communities that are focused on engaging questions and being critical over the value of the individual genius slaving away in his study (deliberate pronoun choice here, in case you were wondering). This editorial, however narrow-minded it is in its capacity, does do us the valuable service of starkly showing how little critical thinking is employed in determining the slipperiness of terms. “Distinguished” could never be a neutrally arbitrated designation, nor could a place of pure judgement be recovered for such a designation. These things are determined contextually. A rhetorician should know better. We should know better. If we have such designations, they should fully reflect what our ideas teach us. Advancement of thought and scholarship seems to me to be opposed to maintenance of a system of doing scholarship. Diversity of method, diversity of object of study, diversity of scholar, diversity of evaluation - all seem to be givens if one’s aspiration is to advance thinking.

My second thought about this editorial is that it is important to keep the uncertainty about what it means to be distinguished alive and in play. The decision of NCA to open up the process is a good one. This is the right direction, as now we get to ask this question, argue about it, decide what counts and what doesn’t, and most importantly it stays open. An open and direct encounter with the meaning of the term is one of the better ways to prevent the word from being used to curtail the involvement of those who do not have access for historical reasons to the massive resources that most distinguished scholars have had. We, the practitioners of rhetoric, should be engaged on what it means to produce excellent work. It should never be a given - the category itself is value-laden. I think we have ample resources in the field to see how ideology gets us all and how much we need to question and reconsider our judgements and especially our reconsiderations. I do not understand how a flexible and ever-present, ever-rearticulated model of being “distinguished” in scholarship harms the quality of the designation. The consistency comes by the only way rhetoric has remained consistent over time, by adapting itself to the people and places that need and use it to work out meaning. It makes little sense to hold to a hard and fast designation of permanence across time in a field that rightly identifies such beliefs as contingent and historical.

This editorial is nothing short of a gatekeeper pulling off the cover of the machine, showing us the complex and rusty gears, and admonishing us to “be careful with the precious machine! It’s fragile!” Deciding what distinguished means, and who should get that designation, is not a mechanical process and should not be. It should adapt to the ever-changing conditions that we all face in scholarship and in life. This is supposedly the nature of the art we study. Setting up what it means to be distinguished, important, and valuable should be something we all discuss and ask questions about. It goes without saying how weird it is that a rhetorician doesn’t want that discussion.