Everybody Stands Ready for eXcetera: Rhetoric of Science Meets the Pickwick Papers; or A Humble Reply to Morales (and Gruber and Pietrucci), Installment II, Randy Allen Harris

Installment II

In our first Pickwickian installment, we reconnected with Alex William Morales and met Pamela Pietrucci and David R. Gruber, hearing some of their allegations of a crisis-riddled, fractionating Rhetoric of Science and their (muted, courteous) suggestions that the Landmark Essays volumes are pre-fractionation scholarly relics, allegations to which your Humble Narrator was starting to respond before he got distracted by reading suggestions. In this, our second installment, he finally gets down to addressing that fractionation, where we will find him, as often we do, engaging in a little history. We will also see him blundering about, looking behind curtains and under rocks trying to find out, Where’s the rhetoric? … [please read below the rest of the article].

Image credit: Tatiana Johnson via Flickr / Creative Commons

Article Citation:

Harris, Randy Allen. 2022. “Everybody Stands Ready for eXcetera: Rhetoric of Science meets the Pickwick Papers; or A Humble Reply to Morales (and Gruber and Pietrucci).” Social Epistemology Review and Reply Collective 11 (4): 26-50. https://wp.me/p1Bfg0-6H0.

• Please refer to Installment I and Installment III.

🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.

Alphabet Soup

The short answer that Pietrucci and Gruber offer to their titular question—”Where did the rhetoric of science go?”—might be rendered as ‘into a bowl of alphabet soup.’ “[C]onsider the extended name RSTHM,” they ask us early on, where the extra magiscules stand for Technology, Health, and Medicine (Pietrucci and Gruber 2022, 4). Even this extension rapidly proves unsatisfactory for them, however, as other fields and methods quickly accrete. Gruber and Pietrucci wisely never tack on any more letters, but they note the ways in which the studies I anchor with the term RoS bleed off in all directions. They suggest that “the complex exigencies of our current time” might be best served by an approach that rejects such labels and “is instead oriented towards going beyond disciplinary barriers” (Pietrucci and Gruber 2022, 12). The virtue of current work, they feels, “looking at contemporary scholars in ARSTM, is that we are productively stepping beyond those barriers” (2022, 12-13). In many ways they are echoing the sentiments of S. Scott Graham’s important (2020) Where’s the rhetoric?, which is motivated by a sense of crisis and fractionation.

If they were to tack on more letters, they would certainly need to include E, for Environmental Rhetoric, which is at least as significant as HM Rhetoric, AI for Artificial Intelligence, or another suitable letter/subdiscipline pairing for the rhetoric of computational activities, perhaps D or DS for Data or Data Science, maybe something to distinctly signal Science Policy rhetoric; who knows? But Gruber and Pietrucci’s point is clear: we start running out of letters pretty quickly. More alarmingly, we see a discomfiting and confusing fractionation of a purportedly (by Harris!) solid, anchoring RoS centre.

The Issues and Methods introduction begins with the story of rhetoricians realizing their methods were equally revealing about modes and genres beyond oratory and literature— politics, cinema, music, religion, protest, advertising, graffiti, …—culminating, because it’s telling an unabashedly Whiggish history, in that realization for science. And now, Pietrucci and Gruber tell us, the science half of RoS is splintering into all sorts of other bits and pieces too. “[T]he rhetoric of this and that and that and this is starting to be a bit embarrassing,” they complain. “Do you feel it too?” (Pietrucci and Gruber 2022, 4). Their solution, however, is not inspiring.

They envision—in fact, they urge “for a future that will make labelling areas in RoS totally impractical and infeasible” (Pietrucci and Gruber 2022, 4). I’m not at all sure why they find such a future desirable, beyond its amorphously mystical expression of, in the words of Dirk Gently, “the fundamental interconnectedness of all things” (Adams 2014/1987, 121). Most of us believe, sticking just to the interconnectedness of scholarly things, that the study of mind, communication, culture, society, matter, life, and so on—certainly, of rhetoric, which pervades all of these areas—must be open to a range of framings, commitments, and phenomenal interests, and that specialists in one area should listen carefully to specialists in another area. Many of us also believe that work at the intersections of specialties can often be the most productive. Fundamental interconnectedness: yay! But none of that interconnectedness requires the utter diffusion of scholarship, the complete flattening of distinctions, that Gruber and Pietrucci appear to desire.

However interconnected scholarship in RoSEtc is, no one proceeds, or can proceed, as if it is all one big schmoosh. One of the aspects of the Case Studies volume that made the first edition so successful is that it came out in the wake of what Richard Rorty called “the rhetorical turn” in philosophy, history, and sociology of science, a turn that was in part at the time also sponsoring the emergence of Science and Technology Studies (STS). (See Simons 1990, vii; also Campbell and Benson 1996; Harris 2018/1997, 2-7). Everybody who was talking about science, it seems, was talking about persuasion, inscription, style, genre, appeals. Most of them were talking about these rhetorical notions in partially digested and largely intuitive ways, marginally beyond a High School English teacher. Their use of rhetorical frequently served as little more than a synonym for literary or political, or a lever for introducing some generalized notion of “metaphor,” or as an all-purpose antonym for logical or rational. They wouldn’t know kairos if it bit them in the ass.

The work was certainly not without rhetorical insight here and there, some of it was highly inspiring for rhetoricians, and much of it moved the needle noticeably towards issues of suasion, context, and non-deductive argumentation within its own compass (history, philosophy, sociology). But few of those scholars had more than an inkling about what sort of creature a rhetorician might be or even that one or two of them might still be stalking an academic hallway somewhere; less yet about what might constitute rhetorical criticism. What the Case Studies introduction insisted upon was that putting the rhetoric in the rhetorical turn was a job for rhetoricians: that scholars with a primary allegiance to the rhetorical tradition had a distinctive and vital contribution to make towards understanding the symbolic machinery of science and its impact on society.

That is the defining criterion of both these Landmark Essays volumes, established in the 1997 Case Studies edition: Rhetoric of Science is the investigation of science by rhetoricians (Harris 2018/1997, 15-17). The criterion was frankly imperialistic, but the imperialism is a Bizarro World kind of imperialism where the imperialists are staking claim to their own homeland. The criterion was also, as I confessed, and as it certainly remains, somewhat arbitrary, because there are rhetoricians who rely more heavily on the machinery of other disciplines than on the rhetorical tradition, and there are sociologists and historians who productively deploy rhetorical concepts with admirable precision. But it does provide a principled way to avoid the big, bleeding schmoosh. The whole point of a ‘globalized’ rhetoric in the first place was to simultaneously acknowledge the fundamental suasiveness of all things while avoid such schmooshes. Richard McKeon outlines this especially with an eye on technology and science in “The Uses of Rhetoric in a Technological Age,” where he identifies rhetoric as “an architectonic productive art” (1987/1971, 11); that is, “an art of structuring all principles and products of knowing, doing, and making” (3) Structuring.

Whether or not a schmoosh is desirable (and, if not, whether rhetoric provides the best way to structure the analysis of all the principles and products of knowing, doing, and making) is for you to decide in your own work. But Pietrucci and Gruber’s argument for the schmoosh is based on an awkward flaw, the unfortunate conflation of RoS, the field, and ARSTM, a scholarly association.

Everyone was aware back in the day, just as everyone is aware now, here in this day, that the focus of study in RoS is not  ‘science,’ in some pure and antiseptic mode, outside politics, culture, and economics, or beyond materiality, neurocognition, and embodiment, but the ramified and entangled set of symbolic practices better labelled technoscience (Harris 2020a, 1-8), a blend but not a schmoosh. Still, technology and science provide different terministic circumferences on those practices, two different x’s, two ways of structuring analyses of those practices. Their rhetorical study grew out of distinct traditions.

Rhetoric of Technology (RoT) arose organically as rhetoricians started (1) to work in the technology sector on the creation, arranging, and stylizing of information in the technical genres, and (2) to teach new generations of English students looking for good paying jobs in that sector. As documentation went increasingly online, digital rhetoric also emerged from this synergy. Rhetoric of Science, however, developed as the architectonic and Burkean gaze of rhetoricians turned toward the history, philosophy, and sociology of science, which was still largely oriented toward abstract theorizing (Harris 2018/1997, 3-8). There was a lot of cross pollination, of course, with a few scholars starring on both stages (most prominently, Carolyn R. Miller; compare, e.g., Miller 2020/1992 and 1994). But the fields also had distinct interests and distinct exemplars.

Please let us pause as well Dear Reader, to note that the two books under consideration by Pietrucci and Gruber (2022) are entitled Landmark Essays on the Rhetoric of Science, not Landmark Essays in the Rhetoric of Science and Technology.

Both of these overlapping pursuits, RoT and RoS, wanted to strike a new course in disciplinary terms, but neither apparently felt sturdy enough to go it on their own and they were pals anyway, so a new association was born, the (American) Association for the Rhetoric of Science and Technology (Harris 2018/1997, 19). Later an M for Medicine showed up (and the parochial A for American thankfully dropped out, making space for scholars like Pietrucci, Gruber, and me; they work out of Denmark, me out of Canada). But that M was added not because medicine couldn’t be framed in technoscientific terms, not because neither the T nor the S nor their combination applied to medicine. It was, er, rhetorical: added simply to advertise that the association had a special welcome for such work. It doesn’t signal some kind of splintering, as if neither technology or science is relevant. Nor would it if the ARSTM started tacking on other magiscules.

Pietrucci and Gruber (2022) use the term ARSTM a dozen times in their tandem articles, most frequently as the name of a field—there are “ARSTM scholars” (3, 9), “ARSTM theories” (9), and “ARSTM disciplinary conversations” (13), in “the ARSTM landscape” (22)—with only occasional indications that the string also names an academic association (11, 19). Gruber titles his contribution, in fact, like a promise to sketch out a new constitution for the association: “Rethinking ARSTM’s rhetorical adventure.”[1]

The Association for Rhetoric of Science, Technology and Medicine is a very worthy society, one of my favourites. I regularly review proposals for its preconferences and have participated a half dozen times in them myself, including a delightful Old-dude/Young-dude session with Gruber (Gruber and Harris 2018). But the ARSTM is not the field. If it adds (or deletes) a letter here and there that does not signal an existential crisis.

Where’s the Rhetoric?

Gruber and Pietrucci’s diffusionary schmooshness move, however, is not confined to just domains of interest (Science, Technology, Health and Medicine, Environmental Science, Etc.). They advocate a doubly diffusionist rhetorical study of science; or, rather, a doubly diffusionist rhetorical study of science: not just a complete dissolution of the boundaries among the symbolic practices under study, but also of the disciplinary boundaries from whence come the methodologies of study. They aren’t even boundaries for Pietrucci and Gruber, which contain and define approaches. They are barriers (12-13) in their terms, whose purposes are to exclude and entrap.

My aim in the two Landmark Essays of Rhetoric of Science volumes was not to erect Trumpian border walls, certainly not to keep other science-study scholars out, nor even to pen rhetoricians in. But neither was it to randomly sample from the big wide world science studies that might somehow impinge upon persuasion or symbol use. My aim was to set up landmarks by which rhetoricians could chart their course; or, lay a foundation on which they could build their research; or, curate an exhibit of templates on which they could pattern in their work. Pick your metaphor. The definitional strategies I applied in the two books were exercises in circumscription, not entrapment or exclusion.

I have, in fact, spent most of my own career scrambling over boundaries and throwing stuff back over them that I can use, and leaving notes behind. Rhetoric and Incommensurability (Harris 2005) is a direct and explicit engagement with issues that preoccupied much of late 20th century history, philosophy, and sociology of science, from a range of rhetorical perspectives. My current research programme (e.g., Harris 2020b, to appear) borrows significantly from cognitive neuroscience and computational modelling. I have published in linguistics, psychology, literary studies, technical communication, interaction design, and a couple of different rhetorical subfields. The last thing I would want these volumes to do is hold back scholars from integrating exogenous methods into their research. Several of the landmarks in both volumes in fact do just that—Condit’s (2020/2008) and Mehlenbacher and Maddalena’s (2020/2016) materialist incorporations, for instance, Myers’s (2018/1985) use of social construction, Bazerman’s (2018/1988) corpus methods, and Gross’s (2020/2009) integration of dual-coding theory, among others. It’s just that the hand at the tiller is always a distinctly rhetorical one.

It is important to note, however, that the second part of Pietrucci and Gruber’s double diffusion, the diffusion of methods, can and sometimes does leave rhetoric behind, and one can end up with wouldn’t-know-kairos-if-it-bit-them-on-the-ass sorts of articles flying the RoS flag. Research of this sort leads to Leah Ceccarelli’s famous question, “Where’s the rhetoric?,” which Pietrucci and Gruber raise in order to dismiss in some ill-defined way:

We want to say something close to what Scott Graham (2020) says when he responds to fellow scholars asking him about his work with a snide, “Where’s the rhetoric?” He says it is right there. For Graham, there is “a rhetorical core” that unifies, a thread in forms of inquiry concerned with diagnosing modern obsessions with substance, with overturning unreflective claims of objectivity, with looking around at environments and practices to notice the change and recursivity (2). We thus want to say, where is RoS today? Well, if it is rhetoric, then it’s right there. To the point: Landmark Essays certainly shows us how much work has been done to establish the field area and allow rhetorical scholars to confidently deconstruct science, yet the volume[s] also appear … right at the very moment that RoS, as itself a rhetoric, “bleeds,” as Jenny Edbauer (2005) says, across all kinds of concerns and environments (Pietrucci and Gruber 2022, 22-23).

Edbauer’s argument is lovely and compelling, that ecology is a revealing, productive analogy in which to frame the suasive episodes that came to be known, after Bitzer (1968) as rhetorical situations, though I have to say that Gruber and Pietrucci’s image of bleeding methodologies right next to their “rhetorical core” image (replicating Graham’s similar move) borders on the oxymoronic. Is there a core defining RoS or is the field hemorrhaging?

Fifty years ago, Bitzer’s model enriched the context of a linear, monologic conception of rhetoric (x persuades y of z), but it has become increasingly banal and far too rigid for the riot of genres, modes, platforms, agencies, and symbolic practices that characterize the rhetorical activities cascading out of some allegedly singular exigence in the contemporary world. As I read Edbauer’s argument, the analogy is to help us stop the methodological bleeding she identifies; or, more specifically, to reframe situations, whose Bitzerian elements she diagnoses as hemorrhaging (2005, 9), in terms of delicate and balanced interdependence. I am with Pietrucci and Gruber that this is a good way to make sense of the RoS landscape. Where we diverge is in seeing how this compromises the Landmark Essays approach, in which we can easily figure the categories I invoke (e.g., “Giants” and “Controversies,” “NeoClassical” and “NeoModern”) as niches in the RoS ecosystem, and the articles as biotic nodes.

As for Graham’s wonderful (2020) book, which is too rich to engage with meaningfully here, I would not slight it for a moment (I have put it on our comprehensive exam list at the University of Waterloo; it is a text in one of my courses; much of it beats closely with my own heart). But “it’s right there” is an entirely insufficient answer to “Where’s the rhetoric?” The book does a very nice job of tracing intimations of New Materialism in Burke and Miller and Condit, and also of rhetoric’s fascination with computational methods, and it nicely articulates some new futures for rhetoric. But to point at something and say, ‘Lo, rhetoric is right there’ butters no parsnips. Of course rhetoric is right there. Of course, there is a rhetorical core wherever we look. That’s what McKeon and Burke were on about: all symbolic activity has a rhetorical quotient. In RoS, some of us still subscribe to the slogan Alan Gross abandoned, that science is rhetorical without remainder (Harris 2020a, 15).[2]

But just because rhetoric “is right there” does not mean one is performing a rhetorical analysis now matter how one investigates the situation and the symbols where it resides. One of my self-appointed roles on search committees as our department expanded in the early 2000s was to listen patiently to my literary colleagues outline how some applicant (inevitably out of a Cultural Studies mold) for an advertised position in rhetoric engaged with non-literary texts and peppered their work with citations to Lakoff and Johnson (1980) and relentlessly deployed the word trope, and, look, they even put rhetoric in their title, … to listen patiently and say, as you have probably guessed, “Yeah, but they wouldn’t know kairos if it bit them on the ass.” We got a lot of good hires out of those years and the department is now a rich and vibrant collection of faculty in literature, media theory, writing studies, and rhetoric. Each of them is strong in their areas and ecumenical in their embrace of one another’s research because we didn’t accept shallow signifiers when hiring in rhetoric (media, …). Rhetoric is not ghettoized in the department, as it once was, and our rhetoricians are rhetoricians.

For me, in other words, the rhetorical core that RoS needs is a (non-exclusive) methodological allegiance to the rhetorical tradition, not the fact that the symbolic practices of science all have suasive dimensions. “Where did the rhetoric of science go?” Gruber and Pietrucci want to know. If it has gone anywhere at all, a claim I don’t find wholly compelling, it has gone away in the work of scholars who can’t answer the bigger question, “Where’s the rhetoric?,” except by pointing at the generalized suasions of scientific symbolic practices.

And with that, Patient Reader, we find ourselves at the end of another installment. We found the rhetoric, and we found who misplaced it. In our next and final installment, perhaps we will find out where it is going and if your Humble Narrator has an entertainment role for future historians of the field.

Installment I and Installment III: “Everybody Stands Ready for eXcetera: Rhetoric of Science Meets the Pickwick Papers; or A Humble Reply to Morales (and Gruber and Pietrucci).”

Author Information:

Randy Allen Harris, raha@uwaterloo.ca, University of Waterloo.


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[1] The confusion is quite rampant. “[T]he field only later adopted ‘Technology,’“ they say, apparently meaning after the 1997 publication of Case Studies, “and then much later [adopted] ‘Health and Medicine’“ (Pietrucci and Gruber 2022, 6). But RoT emerged coextensively with RoS, well before the book, and ground-breaking (landmark!) work in the Rhetoric of Health and Medicine was appearing before Case Studies (Smith and Pettegrew 1986, Schryer 1993, Segal 1994). It is the Association that put the T with the S and later added the M, not the ‘field.’

[2] I have always taken the expression to mean not that science is nothing but rhetoric; rather, that there is no corner of science where rhetoric is eliminable. I really am not sure what Gross originally meant by it, possibly the former, which would indeed be a reason to abandon it.

[3] Reprinted in Humanistic Aspects of Technical Communication (Paul Dombrowski, editor; Baywood, 1994), and in Teaching Argument in the Composition Course: Background Readings (Timothy Barnett, editor; Bedford/St.Martin’s Press, 2002).

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