CCR 611: Materiality, Medium, and Voice(s) of History

Reading Gold’s Rhetoric at the Margins and Mailloux’s “Reception Histories” proved to be a somewhat refreshing contrast to the big picture histories of Berlin, Harris, and Gold et al. Considering these readings, I was thinking harder about the way medium, materiality, and genre affects the telling of history, drawing somewhat from my last response on the subject. Regarding this, I was somewhat inspired by Gold’s framing of the narrative, Mailloux’s use of quotes, and a recent project with Vani regarding a timeline with SWR. 

First, what I mean. I’m thinking about the way a particular medium and materiality affects the telling of a history. For example, the largely oral tradition of the early Pali canon of Buddhism prized repetition, leading to chant-like, sing-song narratives, which shifted somewhat as Tibetan, Sanskrit, and Pali’s written form came to replace orality. Or one wonders what the pictographs on buffalo hide and adobe did to the telling of history. Or what print–particularly as a book–has done to the telling of history, and how more multimodal, born-digital texts might change the telling, like interactive timelines and community-authored histories. Or histories them employ space, as well as time. These questions regarding more multimodal, participatory histories are something I’ve been thinking about in regards to my project with Vani.

But this materiality also shows up in the crafting of the text itself. First, the framing of archive and artifacts both in the gathering and the arrangement of the narrative. Mailloux often used lengthy quotes–like the excerpted memos–alongside his own analysis. Though these often serve a purpose and get framed by his own story, the use of more extensive excerpts seems to offer a potentially more patchy piece. I think Mailloux veers on the more traditional side, using the pieces in a more evidence-based or rejoinder fashion. But one wonders how a more choral or “mosaic” pattern, to use Brummet’s word, might operate, in which the author or narrative exerts less control and lets artifacts hang more as they are.

Part of this tension may occur in the tension between the micro and the micro, of the local and the grand, which is why Gold’s explicit framing of this struck me as helpful, as well as his inclusion of the archive as a discussion point. I worry, at times, about the way that archives and sources can get submerged by narrative, yet archive and source are the building blocks of narrative. History does happen, but it doesn’t become capital-H history or narrative until one steps back and arranges the lived-out stories and artifacts of the everyday. Mundane objects are the materiality–or matereality, if you will–that becomes the narrative. Here, I’m struck by a potential contrast of Menovich’s insistence on the unnarrative form of the database and the traditional ways that we tell history.

Gold’s self-conscious treatment of these material concerns, like his voiced difficulty in veering toward hagiography when discussing Tolson due to his praise-filled sources, gives both credibility and exposure to the alchemy of history telling. So does the gentle navigation of the changed reception of his rhetoric, like the challenges his poetry faced during the Black Arts movement. And the framing of these more localized narratives as part of–but not replacement too–larger narratives. All of these reflections on the process itself proved illuminating for me.

In a similarly self-conscious move, Mailloux recognizes the multiple spheres of discourse one trammels through while in academia. Pertaining to his particular story, it also connects to the telling of history more generally. As he writes, “technical academic discussions have· multiple and complex interconnections to debates. n the mass media outside the university” (175). Different spheres have different goals, values, and understandings of terms and debates. The critique of the left and right, in both popular and academic press, for example, highlights how different people understand the same terms. The same with Tolson’s complex poetics.

As Mailloux notes, he largely approached rhetoric with politics in mind, but the English-heavy faculty he approached saw textuality as central. And my understanding of rhetoric differs from either, though I see elements of both. As  I noted in my first response, this messy terminology can prove difficult, and I see these similar debates coming up through these histories. I suppose it is the difficulties of a discipline that tries to be current but also draw from its rich history and complex background.


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