Octalogs, I-III

The Octalogs are both provocative and engaging, and at times incredibly reflective of the way our personal selves shine through onto our work as professionals and scholars. I found the Octalogs to be just as much a reflection of values and belief as they were narratives about rhetorical history. The events of each Octalog was an important one for our field: each moment was a projection of these disciplinary values and beliefs, moments when histories are contested, reexamined, and redrawn.

In their introduction to Octalog III, Agnew, Gries, and Stuckey note that “Octalog I sparked new scholarship by asking us to uncover and recover histories that have been neglected or hidden” (109). Beginning in 1988 – the year I was born – each Octalog (II, 1997; III, 2011) serves as a moment to highlight evolutions in nearly three decades of doing and writing history. Octalog III is noted as emphasizing the “importance of local, contested, and marginalized histories and rhetorical practices and encouraging us to listen for the silences that have been left out of well-known historical accounts” (109). The movement from one Octalog to the next was telling of how the canons have been slowly contested and reread in our discipline, further and further situated in their historical contexts. Discussions of gender, culture, disability, power, and privilege are threaded into pieces of Octalog II and throughout Octalog III, when western-centric rhetorical history is problematized and reexamined. As a reader of these texts in succession, jumping from each decade to the next, I quickly saw a growing complexity and increased cultural, ethical, and methodological responsibility to rhetorical history. In Octolag III, there was an incredible energy for creating new paths for the study of rhetoric.

I once thought that histories were fragmented. Perhaps theoretically this holds some weight—the bits and pieces (time, texts, stories, people, places, and things) we choose for import to rhetorical studies is a rhetorical process, after all. But the sense that histories can only be told through texts, through classical Athenian fragments, through some belief that those fragments hold the guiding principles of our field – is one that must be seriously looked beyond to include the rich and complex communicative practices of meaning making.

This may be a bit of a rant, and maybe an unrelated one, but the discussion of “armchair” historians in Octalog I was both amusing and unsettling. It was insightful in the sense that rhetoricians were calling attention to their own tendencies of relying on texts (rather, translations of translations of texts) as their sources for critical inquiry instead of doing the hard work of investigating, situating, and questioning the role of those texts in their historical and cultural contexts. The supposed solution to the “armchair”, which was presented as a metaphor of “getting one’s hands dirty” and working as an archeologist at a “dig,” struck a strange chord with me. I’d rather not think of history as a dig or excavation of artifacts, cultures, texts, and so-called “undiscovered” meanings. I wholly acknowledge the ethical considerations of archeologists and anthropologists—and those disciplines surely have much to tell us about how to do humane, active, critical, hands-on, and often culturally-contested work—but these sort of considerations weren’t further explored during the conversation of Octalog I, and I was left with a taste of history as an enterprise of gathering, excavating, and digging.

According to Powell, “Our discipline’s inclination to fetishize the text above the body, combined with a narrowness of vision that insists on connecting every rhetorical practice on the planet to Big Daddy A and the one true Greco-Roman way does not exactly build a sustainable platform for the continued vibrance of our disciplinary community” (121). In Octalog III, LuMing Mao makes a call for turning to non-Western and indigenous communicative practices as vital for doing and writing history in the 21st century:

“[…] practicing the art of recontextualization means negotiating, both dialectically and perpetually […] between looking for rhetoric where it has been categorically ruled non-existent and rejecting a concomitant temptation to reduce experiences into facts and equate heterogeneous resonance with either sameness or difference” (120).

A movement to study marginalized histories and practices, then, comes with a great deal of responsibility. This work is vital, though, and seeing the evolution of this discussion from the first to the third Octolag gives me hope that discussions of rhetorical history will evolve to enrich and reflect that vibrance that is sure to forever mark the discipline. For every word said, there were many unsaid—and if there will be another Octolag in the future, this will undoubtedly be a theme as well. It is also my hope that rhetorical history will be further reconceived to encompass the complex, constellative nature of rhetoricity in cultures and communities. I believe this is a vision that must be embraced to move beyond the uncontested authority of mere fragments and texts.