Rhetoric in Postmodern America: Conversations with Michael Calvin McGee

Carol Corbin

Michael McGee is a very important and influential rhetorical scholar in the American tradition of speech communication. Provocative and iconoclastic, he was in large measure responsible for the re-articulation of rhetorical studies toward an ongoing engagement with both political theory and social praxis. Up until now, his contribution has been largely invisible to Canadian students of communication. He is an essayist and his work appears in journals and anthologies that are on the margins of the Canadian version of our field. Furthermore, his significance cannot be reduced to his written work. It is as a teacher, critic, and conversational partner that he has had the most influence. This volume, edited by Carol Corbin, offers that McGee to us. She has transformed a series of conversations with him into five extended monologues that are both accessible and thought-provoking, even if they are sometimes frustrating because of his notorious unconcern for precision and detail. We should not read McGee to find a precise summary or incisive commentary on the work of others. Rather, we will find a critical and creative soul who thinks for himself. That is to say, against the technically refined arguments of much contemporary political and social theory, we have here the thoughts of a "professor," in the strong sense, one who has studied and developed an understanding and perspective that is then "professed," explained, taught, and elaborated upon.

The text begins with a lengthy introduction by John Lucaites, one of McGee's early doctoral students. Lucaites renders McGee's ethos through his account of McGee's "outlaw" pedagogical style in the late 1970s and early 1980s at the Universities of Wisconsin and then Iowa. McGee is a rhetorician for whom performance is central, in both his thinking and his practice. Lucaites then theorizes McGee, explaining how he connects the study of rhetoric (usually but not fully rendered as public persuasive communication) to political philosophy. Lucaites terms McGee's contribution an "American poststructuralism." McGee more descriptively and modestly refers to his project as "materialist rhetoric," which focuses on the role of communication or speech in constituting collectivities and power. The American twist on poststructuralist themes is apparent: the sign is material and implicated with power, but the main focus remains contingent practical discourse and the critical task is the enhancement of human agency within the given ideological context. McGee refuses the sterile pleasures of both high theory and negative criticism. The rhetorical scholar must never lose sight of how actual speeches or communicative performances can mobilize collective action even in a "postmodern condition" of incoherence and difference.

McGee is a self-avowed "hunt-and-peck" theorist who constructs his perspective as a bricoleur. He borrows liberally from disparate traditions, often yanking concepts from their original sense-giving contexts. In the first section, "Formal Discourse Theories," he locates rhetoric in a constellation of terms including dialectic, wisdom, and representation. Rhetoric is opposed to aesthetics and philosophy. Rhetoric is not concerned with formal experimentation or with texts that are inaccessible to the vast majority of people. Its concern is the middle-brow discourse, the "lies and bullshit," that are powerful in daily life. Rhetoric is a critical and practical enterprise that offers people the means to counter-argue, to defend themselves against, and, indeed, to appropriate this power. In the second section, "The Postmodern Condition," McGee replays McLuhan and Baudrillard in order to critique the Enlightenment pretension and project of collapsing "truth" onto "knowledge" and rendering them univocal by fixing them in texts. In the oral tradition, the tradition from which rhetoric sprang, it is the saying rather than the said that conveys a truth. McGee thus concludes that we need to be more "superficial." Rather than approaching social ills and forms of injustice through an in-depth analysis that seeks to uncover root causes, we would be better served by dealing with them symptomatically, at the level of their surface workings and effects. This is a fine example of the rhetorical mind at work: problems and solutions are confronted as contingencies that rhetorical performances can prefigure and transform by eliciting action. McGee continues to be animated by this preoccupation with surfaces and contingencies in the following section, "American Liberalism." He reflects upon the importance of privacy, a legacy of the liberal tradition, even while acknowledging the difficulties that have arisen because that principle has become figured so as to authorize the arbitrary and undemocratic economic practices of corporate capital. This appreciation of complexity renders him cautious, particularly in the face of political moralism or ideological solutions. We must respond to free-market rhetoric without undermining our individual freedoms or granting too much to the state, which is always potentially oppressive. The reader can learn from the ambivalence with which McGee approaches so-called "left-wing" political issues. His commitment to both freedom and justice makes him appreciate the difficulties posed by (American) multiculturalism. As he puts it: "If I get up on the right side of the bed in the morning, I worry about multiculturalism. If I get up on the left side, I don't. Markers of difference in social formations are always potentials for oppressing that which is marked out" (p. 100).

The final two sections of edited conversations are reminiscent of McGee's graduate teaching. The two concepts that have been central to his work over the years, "the people" and "materialism," are highlighted. As such, the more theoretically inclined could begin here and then hop through the book, for no real reading order is imposed. McGee distinguishes between the "people" and the "public" to explain the brute irrational power of the former as human collectivity animated rhetorically. The "people" are sovereign, not by right but by force. The language that animates that force, which the people instantiate in their action, is material. Language is material because it is sedimented in practice. Against aesthetic literary theory, he asserts that metaphors are most powerful when they are dead, guiding understanding even as their rhetoricity is lost from view.

McGee's intuitions and style come together in the concluding "Fragments of Winter," a previously unpublished essay that incorporates his address from the pulpit of the 16th Avenue Baptist church in Birmingham, Alabama, from which Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke and a bomb had killed three Afro-American children in the 1960s. McGee "finishes the text" of King's "I Have a Dream" oration, instantiating his model of performative criticism. McGee insists that academic and popular criticism must take the form of a kind of speech-making, organizing the fragments of a disjointed and heterogeneous political culture in order to construct contingent meaning and create an occasion for action. McGee reads Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing against Martin's dream, and then Lee's association with Michael Jordan and the Nike fetish through an episode of television's Gabriel's Fire. In a fine and complex interweaving of themes, McGee's analysis raises the question of representational politics in a clear and striking way, in order to ask Lee to "do the right thing" and stop making Nike ads, which are complicit in the callous exploitation of racial and cultural identity.

This last essay in itself renders this volume worthwhile. That which precedes it, through the excellent and discrete editorial work of Carol Corbin, provides the uninitiated reader with the means to appreciate what the rhetorical imagination and McGee's "Fragments of Winter" offer.

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We wish to acknowledge the financial support of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council for their financial support through theAid to Scholarly Journals Program.

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