Holding on

Henri Cartier-Bresson Pour l’amour et contra la travail industriel (For Love and Against Industrial Work). 1931. Paper collage

This blog has stayed in a holding pattern for the last few years. It’s overdue for a change, and that will happen in the next few months. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I started blogging right before I started teaching—in 2001. I will continue to blog as I quit teaching, as of now. Perhaps “quit” is too strong of a word. It’s more like refuse to participate in a degrading system that values teachers at about the same level as Walmart greeters. My wife has secured a good job as a teacher, one that pays a worthwhile salary—most don’t. File me with the most. I was offered an adjunct post, but I feel as if the time has come for a career shift.

I am not really bitter about the situation—but as a profoundly middle class guy, I was actually looking forward to making that good “professor money.” Oddly, along the way I figured out how to make substantially more with far less effort; surrendering teaching comes easy when it only involves nearly trivial wages. In this environment, perhaps even because of it, intelligent investing pays quite well.

I won’t be deprived of anything, and my wife’s job will allow me to maintain access to research databases, good libraries, etc. without missing a beat. I plan on being one of those weird people labeled as an “independent scholar.” But I wear that label with no illusion that it is better or worse as being affiliated with an institution—each approach has its perks. This is just the situation that life has dealt me; I’m quite comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life. I plan to continue following and creating rhetorical scholarship, just not as a poorly paid “professional writing instructor.”

I’ve got seven years of being a writing instructor in, so I feel like I’ve made some contribution, but shifts in the field make me feel increasingly estranged from the educational “industry.” You see, educational institutions are at their core focused on institutional environments and practices. I have no hardcore interest in “technical writing” though I have a degree and years of coursework in it. Yes, I’m interested in technical subjects but not technical communication practices. I’m interested in communication practices, and increasingly I’ve found myself more aligned with scholars in communication studies rather than the emergent field of writing studies. But my degree path has not pointed me there, and crossover is difficult on the professional level.

At the core, what I have practiced/taught is Rhetoric (with the capital R) which is a discipline that seems to lack any specificity or exclusivity within academic departments. It wanders, passing in and out of fashion without ever really disappearing or finding a home—labeled as techné, not epistemé. Thus the containers are filled with it, e.g. communication uses rhetoric, but is not necessarily rhetoric; most if not all writing deploys rhetorical methods, but is not strictly speaking rhetoric. It is confusing to anyone outside the problem—why not call it communication, or writing? Well, because it’s different—but what is it? The modern trend is simply to pluralize the practices as rhetorics as if that resolved the definition.

Surrendering the element of teaching writing (or composition, if you prefer), what remains is my research agenda—which I have tried to place inside the container of “visual rhetorics” with little success. The fundamental problem with this, simply swept under the rug for the last several years, is the stature of visual images as propositions. The propositional nature of images, hotly contested for a time, is simply assumed without proof and endless interpretations are being spun from those propositions. But the assumption bothers me. Although I’ve made the claim myself for photographs—each photograph includes an implied verb “to be” making it implicitly a proposition that the subject “is”—I am no longer so sure that this is a sufficient explanation.

The problem of photographs as rhetoric lies in the domination of rhetorics that lie completely outside the object itself; thus the rhetorics are not at their core “visual” at all. The label itself is a red herring, an argument based simply in indirection. As W.J.T Mitchell has argued, “visual studies” may not necessarily need to exist as a self-contained discipline because cannot be mapped into a stable configuration. Just as “writing” is unstable, moving from English departments to business schools to writing studies departments, etc., visuals also migrate to where they are welcomed most. Photography first found a home in chemistry and physics departments, then art departments and journalism schools (coexistent with writing!) and now it seems to be taking up shop in communications departments (as visual rhetorics) at least to a minimal degree. My two obsessions, it seems, have no constant home.

Ultimately, I think that rhetoric and photography are intellectual twins. Both are wedded to industry, but at the risk of sounding maudlin, both can be attached to the humanities in an urgent sense. As Jim Corder once described it, “Rhetoric is love, and it must speak a commodious language, creating a world full of space and time that will hold our diversities.” Classical documentary photography began from the same premise. I started revisiting Corder today because my mentors at the University of Arkansas, when I first started this public writing project had placed him high on the reading lists for teaching composition. Perhaps it is just nostalgia, revisiting where I began as a teacher, or perhaps Corder has been lost through consistently shallow readings.

The Rogerian approach has long fallen out of fashion (both as documentary photography classically conceived from the "family of man," and expressivist composition centered on actualizing the self) but it had an influence deeper than I sometimes admit. I prefer love to industrial work.

What next? I suspect that my sidebar for this Public Address 5.0 will change from “rhetorician/photographer” to “photographer/rhetorician”—because photography is always what I have loved the most. I’ve just been away from it for a long time. It’s a large move, physically, from Minnesota to New York. But it’s a small move linguistically. As I suggested back in 2002, “It’s easy to move, hard to change.”


May 23, 2009 10:53 PM


Mike Golby said:

Sarah Greenough's curatorial, and rhetorical, juxtaposition of Frank's pair of photographs below forms a wonderful rebuttal of the "photograph as rhetoric". Yet, it remains difficult to reject the propositional nature of each and both images.

Reading these two posts as one was most rewarding. I know nothing of the subject, but appreciate your insight into and knowledge of it.

tom matrullo said:

Perhaps not useful, but for some reason I'm reminded of Walter Benjamin's notice that with the advent of the machine, the hand was removed from necessity for the image maker - it now fell back to the eye.

Good luck to you and Krista in all moves.