Monday, February 11, 2008

Reading :: The Rhetoric of Cool

The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media
by Jeff Rice

I've been meaning to read this book for a while, but a positive review from one of my grad students pushed it to the top of my reading list. This student, who is pretty smart in his own right, used Rice's framework (which I'll describe in a moment) to analyze issues such as plagiarism. Personally, I'm a sucker for well-articulated and tightly integrated analysis frameworks, and from the student's description, I could see some real potential for discussing issues such as multiplicity (see Law, Latour, Mol) and dialogism (Bakhtin) in the context of knowledge work.

So does this book fit the bill? Honestly, I'm still trying to figure that out. I am still enamored with the analytical framework, but I'm not entirely sure how Rice is positioning it.

Let me explain. Rice outlines a "rhetoric of cool," an alternate way to analyze texts and particularly new media texts, and argues that this rhetoric of cool highlights a path not taken: "these meanings already exist within a specific moment that runs parallel to a composition studies' history that begins in 1963" (p.3). Most of the book performs this rhetoric of cool; Rice discusses composition theory and pedagogy, mostly pedagogy, contrasting its current state as emerging around 1963 with what it might have looked like if different choices had been made. Those choices are articulated around the points of his framework: chora, appropriation, juxtaposition, commutation, nonlinearity, and imagery. As he reminds us a couple of times, this theoretical argument is paralleled by a composition textbook that puts these notions into practice in the classroom.

So what is "cool" anyway? Rice explains that cool can be understand in terms of chora: an argumentative strategy in which different meanings are associated and placed in tension in order to produce discourse. Rather than choosing one meaning, the practitioner of chora uses all of them. Rice performs that here, discussing and describing various meanings of "cool," drawing from sources as diverse as McLuhan, Burroughs, and texts on jazz, hip-hop, and anthropology. Cool, therefore, is defined through association across several different and sometimes conflicting meanings. Rice does something similar with the date 1963, which functions as a touchstone across the entire book: 1963 is seen as the year that composition studies "earns its capital C" by extending beyond teaching lore to research and theory (p.12), but it is also the year that John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the March on Washington took place, as well as a seemingly endless list of other events in technology, culture, politics, and the arts. Like "cool," "1963" is defined associationally. On the one hand, this allows Rice to really demonstrate this notion of chora and provides a really interesting approach for laminating an associational argument. On the other hand, it means that the two tentpoles of the argument, "cool" and "1963," are forever indeterminate. I had trouble determining whether this framework actually constituted a rhetoric of cool, or whether "cool" just happened to be a term that is well analyzed through the rhetorical analysis afforded by approach; similarly, especially in the later chapters, it sometimes seemed to me that Rice was reaching when picking out still more events and examples from 1963, events and examples that could have been replaced by those pulled from earlier or later years.

Whatever you call it, Rice's framework has some real potential for analyzing new media texts, particularly highly collaborative and internetworked ones. At the same time, Rice tends to orient again and again to the composition classroom, and this is where I think he gets into some real trouble. For instance, he's very interested in examples such as Sprite's ReMix ad campaign and album covers, and he claims that a rhetoric of cool sheds new light on these practices -- practices that should be, but are not, examined in composition textbooks (p.107). But it's not like Sprite's ad campaign evolved in some dark cave and burst out on the scene fully-formed. Advertising, marketing, creative writing, music, and graphic design are separate fields, each with their own theorists, their own frameworks, and their own practices. This stuff isn't new, it's just traditionally been opaque to composition, and I'm not entirely convinced that compositionists should be expanding their field to cover these other fields. One, they're simply not equipped to do it in terms of theoretical and analytical tools or in terms of a deep disciplinary history, the way that these other fields and disciplines are. Two, doing so without a road map or clear linkage leads to a diffusion of the field, making composition more interdisciplinary than self-contained, and that destabilizes the field's arguments for separate standing and value. When Rice indicts the field for not focusing on images --

I make the distinction [between traditional rhetorical analysis and visual rhetorical analysis] because the pedagogical decision to not teach students how to work with imagery reflects not only an anti-visual ideological position but also a desire to use print in order to de-emphasize the existence of nonconventional or disruptive subject matter along with perceived nonconventional forms of writing (like images) (p.149)

-- he indicts composition teachers, who are spectacularly unequipped and untrained in performing such analyses, for not performing them, and ignores the well-equipped and well-trained instructors in graphic design whose students perform this sort of work routinely. Encouraging interdisciplinary partnerships or promoting more general courses in graphic design, marketing, and other areas might be more productive than trying to annex big unwieldy chunks of pedagogical territory from those fields.

Rice doesn't clearly articulate the limits of composition, but what he describes sounds like cultural studies rather than composition per se.

I'm also not convinced by Rice's characterization of composition theory. He tends to characterize it through examinations of textbooks -- and textbooks in any field or discipline tend to simplify theory to provide "training wheels" for new students. Just as an introductory physics textbook tends to focus on Newtonian physics rather than quantum physics, introductory comp textbooks tend to focus on rhetorical appeals, fallacies, and Toulmin structure; that doesn't mean that composition studies are forever stuck on these analytical terms. Quite the opposite!

Again, despite these criticisms, I encourage computers and writing folks to read the book. As I said, the framework of chora, appropriation, juxtaposition, commutation, nonlinearity, and imagery makes for a productive and interesting analytical framework for examining new media texts -- and, I think, other texts as well. As for the book's framing and pedagogical application, you've heard my piece; try it out and see what you think.

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Jeff said...

Thanks for the read, Clay. I didn't think I'd make your reading list.

A point:
"I'm also not convinced by Rice's characterization of composition theory. He tends to characterize it through examinations of textbooks"

Not entirely true regarding the book. The theoretical legacy is in the texts circulated as 1963 composition legacy (Kitzhaber, Braddock, et al). The exception is McCrimmon, but he's not my exception. He is included by others in the '63 legacy (Connors, Faigley).

The theoretical legacy has effects regarding contemporary pedagogy (thus, the mentioning of textbooks today).

Cool is the part of that legacy never noted (McLuhan, Baraka, Farris Thompson). That lack is as much ideological as it is pedagogical.

The rhetoric of cool is both the writing not realized (as another approach was favored, an approach which materializes in textbooks, among other places) and a contemporary new media logic/methodology (the book's organization and own method).

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Thanks for the clarifications, Jeff. I think that when I wrote that passage, I was looking at or around p.149, where you're focusing on visual rhetoric emphasis in modern textbooks (see the block quote). In writing my review I applied that critique to the rest of the book, and that was overbroad -- as you say, you also cite and discuss Faigley, Berlin, North, etc. etc.