The Politics of Historiography—Octalog—Rhetoric Review (1998)
In this octalog from a 1988 CCCC Panel, eight scholars, considered major voices in the discipline of rhetorical studies, discuss the purpose, ideologies, and possibilities for future historiographic research. Accepting the fact that all historiographies are grounded in ideology in that methodologies and research topics can’t help but be guided and shaped by ideological frameworks, scholars explore different ways of coming at historical projects. For instance, Victor Vitanza, a post-structuralist writer, speaker, and thinker, argues that rather than try to create a better world through the work of historiography, scholars ought to be looking for ways to deconstruct homogenous methodologies of inquiry and production of texts. James Berlin claims historiographers must be concerned with the forces that shape histories and argues that scholars must scrutinize their own work to see how it might contribute to the power plays, which uphold dominant power dynamics. Crowley, perhaps the most skeptical or realistic of the panel members, theoretically agrees with the notion that historiographies are all fiction, but presents a somewhat resistant attitude about abandoning search for some unified, historical rhetorical truth, which can and should inform contemporary pedagogy. Susan Jarrat seems uninterested in discovering or employing new non-comformist methodologies and seems content with borrowing other methodologies such as hermeneutics and lit. theory to do part of the work historiographers are engaged in. Jan Swearingen, the most outspoken feminist in the group, is not concerned so much with employing new methodologies but rather with discovering, uncovering marginalized rhetorics. Similarly, Robert Connors argues for an expansion of the kinds of evidence and texts to be studied, and agrees with most everyone’s theoretical perspectives, but upon reflection wonders if it is even possible or realistic to do “history” according to these theories. Overall, through these and other avenues, these scholars offer theoretical solutions to the trappings of historiography but offer no new methodologies for enacting those theories. Therefore, the Octalog is more of what Berlin refers to as negative dialogue than the how-tos of future historiography.
In reading the Octalog for the second time, I appreciate all of the food for thought provided by the various historians perhaps even more than the first time I read this article. I feel as if this panel is creating a research ethic of sorts, outlining basic principles budding rhetorical scholars should be aware of and constantly reminded of as we embark on our own research projects. Some guidelines I was reminded are really simple notions but important to constantly keep in mind. For instance, we need to always remember writing history is a rhetorical act in and of itself that is deeply embedded in power dynamics, which need to be understood and interrogated (Berlin). We need to understand how our research and the methods we employ contribute to existing canons and constantly ask ourselves if the projects we are undertaking are upholding or reconstituting the canons that dictate what knowledge is both consumed and produced. We also need to be aware of what economic, social, and cultural trends are at work in our globalized world that are influencing our decision to employ certain methodologies and take up certain research projects. I think we forget such simple notions when we embark on and become engulfed in various research projects.
What interests me so much about this Octalog is the also simple notion that rhetorical scholars and historians are constantly reinventing the discipline of rhetoric through the research projects we conduct. Thinking about it in this way places great responsibility on budding scholar’s shoulders because we are now in positions of power to shape our entire field. Broad questions we have to ask ourselves are: what shape do we want or think our discipline needs to take? What cultural, economic, social forces are influencing our ideologies? How can we conduct research this follows the ethical guidelines described by our experienced historians and in line with our own contemporary beliefs and values about the role of research and historiography in our field? How are those different? Are they different? Should they be different?