In our previous installment we found RoS fractionation being resisted, in part by distinguishing RoS as an intellectual pursuit independent in principle from the interests and practices of an academic association, and in larger part by advocating a rhetorical core of methodology. In this, our third and final installment, we encounter Alan G. Gross and return to Alex William Morales’s question. Why didn’t he pick a fight with me? Also, there is talk of sunsets … [please read below the rest of the article].
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.
🔹 The PDF of the article gives specific page numbers.
Once More around the Block with Alan G. Gross
In his second contribution to this exchange, Morales puts the spotlight back on Alan G. Gross; Pietrucci and Gruber mention him as well. Morales ponders his impact, parallels, distinctive scholarly trajectory, and his endemic controversiality; Gruber and Pietrucci to use him as a gauge for the representativeness of the Landmark Essays volumes and their vision of the RoS field.
Gross is, of course, all over both Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science, with a case study in one volume, two articles in the other, extensive commentary in both introductions, and an utterly tenacious presence in the citations of all the other articles of both volumes. I did a very loose search of the books and his name occurs 341 times (as one might expect, 73 were in Case Studies, which has overwhelmingly the earlier articles, and 268 in Issues and Methods, which has many more articles downstream from, for instance, The Rhetoric of Science). No one else even comes close; not other established rhetoricians of science or rhetorical theorists, not even Aristotle, and Aristotle has his own adjective.
It is hard to be definitive about this, because I’m not sophisticated enough to figure out something like an h-index or an i10 for Gross. Nor am I obsessive enough to build a corpus of RoS research and run some analyses (even then of course, as this discussion indicates, how would I identify RoS research in a way that satisfied everyone?), and we certainly have to face the complication that I am the one who curated the articles in the two books. But it’s a good bet that the name Gross is so ubiquitous in the books because the scholar with that name was (and continues to be) so influential in the field. He is certainly among the most representative and trail-blazing of case-studies scholars. He was absolutely the most insistent radical-rhetoric-of-science voice. And he was definitely at the forefront of opening up visual RoS. That accounts for the three article inclusions, about which I have few reservations (I have some reservations about every inclusion, and about many exclusions). We can add the stage-managing of the Gaonkar affair to those reasons and get more fully at his massive citational presence.
Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar, you may not know, wasn’t just some random desperado who wandered past the RoS Corral and decided to throw down on the local constabulary. Gaonkar was well known for his efforts to put the skids on the rhetorical turn (1990a, 1990b), so Gross (and John Lyne) invited him to turn his gaze directly on RoS at the 1991 Annual National Communication Association Convention. Then Gross invited him to write up those arguments to be featured in a special RoS issue of the Southern Speech Communication journal (#4 of volume 58). Then Gross (and William Keith) gave those arguments the starring role in a book along with assorted RoS luminaries and invited Gaonkar to write another essay for that book refuting those luminaries. Oh, we might also mention his founding role in what has become known as the ARTSM, and I wouldn’t want to count the number of panels and special sessions he engineered. I am convinced my curations have not skewed Gross’s significance in any marked way.
So, Gross was influential and productive, and his portfolio was widely diversified in methods, objects of study, and theoretical frameworks. That doesn’t mean his ubiquity might not also serve as a measuring stick for the shallowness of the books under discussion and/or the RoS pond. “I had the unshakable feeling,” Gruber says about encountering Gross all over the place, “that RoS is … shown to be quite small.” He elaborates:
No one doubts that Gross contributed much, yet it is difficult to examine the volume[s] without seeing how narrow the field’s marching band has been and how specific its concerns became (Gruber 2022, 5).
Gruber and Pietrucci have a point, not so much about Gross specifically, but about the cast of characters overall. There are other repeat appearances: Fahnestock has an article in each volume, Miller is a co-author in one volume, a full author in the other, Ashley Rose Mehlenbacher has two co-authorships, as does John Lyne, and Ceccarelli has an article in each. There are, as I have mentioned frequently enough to court tedium, other conditions that lead to inclusions than the sheer stardom of the authors and the brilliance of the essays (costs, coverage, themes, methods, category representation, and so on), but these are certainly our leading stars, and the essays are brilliant.
Morales’s discussion of Gross is fuller and more thoughtful. Morales is interested in the lessons he might take for himself from Gross’s scholarly trajectory. After citing my observations about Gross’s about-face in the later 1990s, the Radical Gross spinning on his heel to become the Conservative Gross, Morales asks “So, how might we explain this change?” noting that “Harris’s response leaves me in suspense” (Morales 2022, 5). I don’t know if I can relieve the suspense here, because I don’t have an answer beyond what I said initially; namely, that Gross appears always to have felt that rhetoric was a thin discipline full of second-rate scholars and weak instruments (Harris 2021, 65). That’s why he drew on philosophy and other disciplines so heavily. This suggests that the rallying cry of the Radical-RoS Gross was really some kind of Radical RoS+ rallying cry. Rhetoric was only epistemically potent when bolstered by other fields. This alone, by the way, might make him the patron saint of scholars like Gruber, Pietrucci, and Graham, who feel so strongly the methodological pull of other disciplines.
Gross was pushed to become ‘more rhetorical’ by the kind of prodding that I gave him with my acerbic review of The Rhetoric of Science (Harris 1991) and that Dilip Parameshwar Gaonkar put on steroids (1997/1993), and Gross took that prodding to heart. He reexamined his RoS research project from the ground up and came to the conclusion that ‘more rhetorical’ entailed ‘more epistemically conservative.’ The lesson here for Morales’s scholarship, and mine—yours too, Dear Reader—is that we should follow our convictions, examine our own first principles when we are pushed, and never be afraid to break out of a groove if we find it to be a rut. Gross was flexible—not so much in the moment; he was dogmatically radical and then dogmatically conservative. But the fact that he could shift his values and his methods so completely is a remarkable testament to an openness that we should all emulate. Whatever else the future demands of us, it will demand flexibility.
Morales’s chief focus on Gross, however, after a thoughtful survey of his work on Newton, is summed up in the question he uses as one of his section headers, “What Does Alan Gross Teach Us About Controversy?” (Morales 2022, 5). My overview of the Gaonkar perturbations helps to answer that question, I think, but it only scratched the surface. Gross not only invited Gaonkar into the RoS Corral, he also made sure the RoS constabulary knew where he was, and he stirred up the RoS townsfolk, and then he took the show on the road.
For the field, as John Angus Campbell noted, this was “clearly good for business … so little are Gaonkar’s charges against us believed, and so useful are they in garnering us attention, that we boast of an impressive array of new recruits particularly among younger faculty and graduate students” (Campbell, 1999, 10 ; Harris 2018/1997, 18). In his own work, the episode was also highly generative. As much as I disagree with Gross’s late-career epistemic position and its stunted view of rhetoric, it is hard to dispute that his contributions in the 2000s, including his books with Joseph Harmon, are among his most valuable and lasting bequests to science studies.
Morales also makes the intriguing suggestion that Gross’s path was similar to David Hume’s, who might be viewed as “a radical skeptic” for his opposition to dogma and to socially conferred authority, including Church dogma and Church authority, an opposition especially apparent in his earlier writings. His later philosophy is notable on the other hand, Morales says, for a “moderate and restrained form of skepticism” (Morales 2022, 5-6). I don’t know Hume’s catalogue well enough to respond to this suggestion except in the most cursory way, and Morales didn’t have the time to lay out the comparison in much detail (he has a dissertation to write!). But on the surface, it doesn’t look to me like Hume flipped his position. Rather, he refined it, or possibly just clarified it. I have no doubt that Gross flipped his position (within the RoS+ parameters I outlined above). Gross was also much more of a showman than Hume. His Radical RoS arguments were meant to stir things up, not only in the emerging field (check out the exchange in Issues and Methods—Harris 2020, 101-122) but in Science Studies more broadly (check out Ravetz 1991, Durant 1991, or Agassis 1999 for some howling about The Rhetoric of Science). When he was de-radicalizing, Gross took his show on the road it, and implied the rest of us were a little slow for not also endorsing the ‘thinness’ of rhetoric; if the Goankar episode was a bit of a circus, there can be no doubt that Gross was the ringmaster.
That episode, which as I note in the Case Studies introduction preoccupied the decade (Harris 2018/1997, 18) and carried well into this century, was very largely Gross’s doing. In retrospect, we can see that perhaps Gaonkar was saying out loud what Gross had worried about privately. Once it was out in the open, Gross dropped what must have been a kind of (unconscious?) epistemic bluster. But that rallying cry—most succinctly captured in the slogan that ‘science is rhetoric without remainder’—was an important and inspiring one for the growth of the field. “Both teachers and learners go to sleep at the post,” John Stuart Mill said, “as soon as there is no enemy in the field” (1867, 25). When Gross was in his hay days, he did everything he could to ensure that RoS was anything but a sleepy field. So, Gross’s trajectory was not particularly Hume-like in my understanding. But I will be an eager audience for Morales if he develops the comparison further at some point.
Speaking of Gross, Dear Reader, I beg your indulgence, please, as I digress briefly to unburden myself, and then we can get to our conclusion. I feel a bit like I’ve put on Alan G. Gross’s shoes in this response, or at least one pair of them. As I noted in my first SERRC response to Morales, the Good Doctor Gross was very gracious in his reception of my poke-in-the-nose review of his Rhetoric of Science, not only endorsing my complaints but adding some of his own in the bargain. Those aren’t the shoes. I haven’t been especially gracious to Pietrucci and Gruber, certainly not in the vein of Gross in any case. That’s not because I begrudge their efforts in any way, nor because I disagree with all of their critiques of the volumes, or their aspirations for the field. I appreciate Pamela Pietrucci and David R. Gruber hugely—as scholars but also as professional colleagues who took the time (during a f*cking pandemic!) to pay so much attention to the Landmark Essays volumes and to use them in exactly the way they were intended, to further the RoS conversation and look toward its future.
I think they are wrong about some fundamental aspects of the field, and those are important aspects so I have been very clear about my take on them. But that does not diminish in any way my admiration for them or my deep gratitude for their arguments. (I have of course been gracious to Morales, to whom I am also hugely grateful, but Morales makes it easy to be gracious.)
No, not Gross’s gracious shoes. But anyone who knew Alan is familiar with his frank hostility about some colleagues and developments. Those shoes. Or, if not Alan’s shoes, then Richard Feynman’s shoes, the quantum theorist. “I have noticed when I was younger,” Feynman said,
that lots of old men in the field couldn’t understand new ideas very well, and resisted them with one method or another, and that they were very foolish in saying these ideas were wrong — such as Einstein not being able to take quantum mechanics. I’m an old man now, and these are new ideas [he’s talking about string theory—rah], and they look crazy to me, and they look like they’re on the wrong track. Now I know that other old men have been very foolish in saying things like this, and, therefore, I would be very foolish to say this is nonsense. I am going to be very foolish, because I do feel strongly that this is nonsense! … I don’t like that they’re not calculating anything. I don’t like that they don’t check their ideas. I don’t like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation—a fix-up to say “Well, it still might be true” (Davies and Brown 1992, 193-194).
Feynman being Feynman, he embraced the opportunity to, as he put it, “entertain future historians” by railing against something that could later become orthodoxy. So, maybe that’s my role in this exchange. In many ways Rhetoric of Science Without the Rhetoric may already be orthodox (Pietrucci and Gruber’s title, after all, is “Where did the rhetoric of science go?”). So, perhaps my entertainment value does not await the future. Perhaps you’re chuckling at me right now.
Whether you’re chuckling or not, allow me to be clear about this one point: I don’t disparage these lines of research; lines that, for instance, deploy New Materialism in the absence of any relevant rhetorical methodologies (unlike, say Condit 2020/2008, which deploys them side by side). I don’t think such work is nonsense. I profit from much of it. As I mentioned, I have the great good fortune to review the ARSTM proposals. I do often find myself asking “Where’s the rhetoric?” and I will often make suggestions for links to Fahnestock or Segal or Hassian or Burke or Booth or Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca. But if the work is good I certainly never reject it for a low rhetorical quotient, because it belongs at ARSTM.
I won’t name names here because I have already pissed off enough people, but it nevertheless does remain unclear to me (and, I confess, somewhat irritating as well) why scholars want to call their work rhetoric if they have no use for the tradition labelled by that word.
(Finally, the) Conclusion
“Surely,” Morales muses about his guiding question (“Why didn’t I decide to pick a fight with Harris?”), “there was something in these two volumes worth my scorn” (Morales 2022, 1). There had to be something worth taking up the cudgels about! As we can see, Pietrucci and Gruber (2022) had no trouble finding targets for their cudgels in the two volumes, nor in wielding them frankly and forcefully. I said at the outset of the first installment that Gruber and Pietrucci put a thumb on the scale with the loaded question in their title, “Where did the rhetoric of science go?” It might be more accurate to say they put a thumb in my eye. They hold up my two volumes entitled Landmark Essays on Rhetoric of Science and ask “Where did rhetoric of science go?,” implying that they are instant relics. But Pietrucci and Gruber do so with great generosity, not only recurrently complimenting my efforts but also acknowledging the inherent value of the articles and the role they have played in both defining the field and informing their own research. That’s how you argue, and arguing is important for a field, not just to ensure we don’t all fall asleep, but for refinement, calibration, and renewal.
If two or more positions are aligned against each other with strong and honest advocates, the outcome is surely going to be epistemically more robust than either position would be coming out of a simple, frictionless pipeline. Strong advocates force each other to buttress their claims and to accommodate the facts more rigorously; honest advocates force themselves to concede that the soft parts of their case are soft and to repudiate the mistaken or incompatible parts.
It is for you to decide if I met standards of strength and honesty here; I have certainly tried. I am however entirely confident that Pietrucci and Gruber meet these standards (and, while he is not fighting with anyone, Morales too has met those standards). I sincerely hope, Reader, that you have taken something of value from the exchange.
In one last quibble, I confess to not liking the movie analogy that Gruber and Pietrucci weave into their review article(s) (“[Landmark Essays is] a road trip movie,” Gruber begins, “about a hand-full of awkward scholars setting out on a rebellious adventure”), but it does set up a lovely closing by Pietrucci. If there is “an ending” to this road trip movie, she says, “then for us, it is the suspended no-end ending; nobody walks off into the sunset; everybody stands ready for the next adventure in a new world.” To be frank, the sunset is looking pretty sweet about now and I’m thinking seriously of slipping away as the credits role. But nothing could make that slipping away more welcome than knowing there are rhetoricians like Morales, Gruber, and Pietrucci standing ready to extend and reimagine the RoSEtc adventure.
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 By loose, I mean I didn’t control for redundancy factors such as appearance in headers, nor for non-nominal references, such as dashes in Works Cited lists or pronominal references. As long as I have gathered the numbers to test Gross’s presence/influence anyway, I might as well pass them along: Carolyn R. Miller was next, with 126 appearances; Dilip Parameshwar Goankar had 72; Jeanne D. Fahnestock, 70; Celeste M. Condit, 47. Kenneth Burke had 45, Chaïm Perelman (with and without Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca) 34, Aristotle 84. I didn’t run the numbers for folks like Thomas S. Kuhn, Paul Feyerabend, or Bruno Latour.
 It was called the Speech Communication Association at the time, one of its several labels over the years (this one running from 1970 to 1996).
 Pietrucci and Gruber also suggest further repetitions in their armchair anthologizing, by the way: additional papers authored or co-authored by Fahnestock, Ceccarelli, and Walsh, as well as multiple papers authored or co-authored by Graham and by Pietrucci. I don’t know if they were trying to reinforce their shallow-pool argument about the field with these repetitions, but of course that’s just what they do, though it does mitigate their indictment of the volumes on that basis.
 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).