Scientific and Technical Writing’s Engagement with Material Rhetorics

While reading Grabil’s chapter, I was struck by his reconsideration of the idea that the field of technical communication needs cultural studies. He argues that both spheres of intellectual practice “share the ‘problem space’ of how to understand and create possibilities for change” (151) and reminds us that cultural studies has been a field investing in interpreting cultural objects and systems while technical communication, like writing studies more broadly, is practice-oriented field. Grabil argues that by better understanding research methodologies and the methods that enact those methodologies, we can better understand how technical writing scholars and practitioners develop rhetorical agency to intervene in hegemonic practices. As such, he brings in Sullivan and Porter’s Framework for research methodology which includes three lenses: ideological, practice or lore-based, and methodological. Citing Nelson, Trichler, and Grossberg, Grabil notes that culture studies creates “a bridge between theory and material culture” and argues that our bridging work has to be about both consumption AND production of rhetorical objects. To demonstrate strong work that combines both cultural and rhetorical theory and practice, Grabil discusses Cintron’s Angel’s Town: Chero Ways, Gang Life, and the Rhetorics of the Everyday and Lindquist’s A Place to Stand: Politics and Persuasion in a Working Class Bar. These two texts made such an impression on me when I first read them in the program as examples of culturally diverse rhetorical practice, and I was glad Grabil reminded me of them for my reading list on material rhetorics and made the connection to making as social and cultural performance. As Lindquist notes, rhetoric is the mediator between individuals’ experiences and structural, and Grabil urges us to take a cultural studies approach to our work in technical communication so that we can “account for cultural production as always already taking place within the diverse contexts where technical and scientific discourse is produced and where this discourse circulates.” This is a good leverage point for discussing in my dissertation why cultural studies, particularly queer rhetorics, makes sense for studying maker spaces as places where people are making objects, making relationships, and making cultures, producing and distributing technical objects and discourses. Finally, Grabil lays out a vision for community-based research (CBR) that takes on seven issues of key concern for CBR, noting how these areas focus our attention on our cultural positions, communication protocols, and relationship building. It is through attention to research paradigms, he reminds us, that we can develop our agency to interpret, produce,and perhaps disrupt the material presence and impact of everyday rhetorics.

Similarly, I found Henry’s chapter to be a great primer on the coevolution of free market capitalism and composition studies, noting that the economic logics of Taylorism are rooted in composition’s fascination with product, even though we pay lip service to process. With a Marxist bent, he traces composition’s turn from the cognitive to the social processes of producing cultural artifacts and locates these artifacts not just in organizational or institutional cultures, but takes up Britt’s call to consider the way institutions are entangled with other institutions and ideologies that can’t be explained from a hyperlocal focus on “work place culture.” This makes so much sense as composition is now taking a bit of a “participatory turn” in a remix culture where consumption and production are so tightly linked. These understandings of what it means to compose and the new literacies that accompany processes of composition are wrapped up, Henry argues, with “fast capitalism” that devalues labor investments and the role as the technical communicator as a replaceable cog in the wheel whose job is to translate and inferface knowledge. We know from Slack, Miller, and Doak that this severely truncates a technical communicator’s role in organizations, and Henry argues that the technical communicator should instead be conceptualized as a “discourse worker” (214) using cultural criticism to interpret and intervene on behalf of users.

Finally, I appreciated Longo’s exploration of the ways technical communication legitimizes and marginalizes particular kinds of discourse and the knowledges made through those discourses arguing that institutions play the role of cultural agents who mediate and legitimate knowledge and power, excluding ways of knowing such as speculation, emotion, and intuition. As you’ll remember, Kristen Moore’s black feminist epistemology worked against the ways the academy, as institution, has failed to authorize these feminist ways of culturally producing knowledge (thinking here also of Powell et. al’s webbed knowledge making), arguing that we need more capacious and diverse, culturally-constructed ways to interpret and produce technical communication. I like her mapping of “knowledge” and the ways that erudite learning and “know how,” which might be thought of as metis or craft knowledge is marginalized through Bacon’s production of scientific rhetorics– rhetorics that were meant to intervene in Artistotelian and Christian rhetorics of what it means to know. As usual when I read Foucaultian understandings of knowledge-power, I feel uneasy as a technical writer and an academic who legitimates and illegitimates certain ways of knowing, doing, and being, particularly this quote,

“If technical writing is the mediator between technology and what we have come to term ‘users,’ technical writing practices work to conquer users’ native know-how and reformulate these uneducated practices into scientific discourse that can partake of cultural power residing in scientific knowledge” (117).

My questions then, are how can we study metis, makingor craft knowledge in maker spaces and find sites of resistance to knowledge legitimization. Where do scientific discourses fail to take hold and fail to conquer the body and the mind? How can exploring these sites help us understand syncretic tensions between knowing and doing and between legitimate and illegitimate practice? Ultimately, what might technical communicators learn from these sites of failure that can disrupt hegemonic practices and decolonize the practices of science and technology so that agency can arise from a multiplicity of embodied and webbed knowledge-making practices?


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