Joining the Conversation

I want to talk a little bit about a favorite metaphor—one that will drive a good deal of what we do in this class: the conversation metaphor. This metaphor has firm grounding in reality, of course: we strategically enter conversations–familiar or not–all the time.  The well-regarded rhetorician and American critic Kenneth Burke used this as a figure in his book The Philosophy of Literary Form (1941) to describe more specifically what happens when you start learning about a new discipline.

Imagine you enter a parlor. You come late. When you arrive, others have long proceeded you, and they are engaged in a heated discussion, a discussion too heated for them to pause and tell you exactly what it is all about. In fact, the discussion had already begun long before any of them got there, so that no one present is qualified to retrace for you all the steps that have gone before. You listen for awhile, until you decide that you have caught the tenor of the argument; then you put in your oar. Someone answers; you answer him; another comes to your defense; another aligns himself against you, to either the embarrassment or gratification of your opponents, depending on the quality of your ally’s assistance. However the discussion is interminable. The hour grows late, you must depart. And you do depart, with the discussion still vigorously in progress

I love the metaphor, even if I’m not totally crazy about the way in which the folks having this conversation are too self-involved to stop and give the new entrant a clue!  But Burke’s scenario here has its values: it is true that you can’t grasp the whole of something—a discipline, its conventions, what’s come before you in that conversation—all at once.  You just need to enter it.  Put that oar in.  Join the conversation. Ask a question. Try answering one.  Things don’t have to devolve into the kind of bitter contest described above—with allies, defenses, opponents, and so forth (perhaps the WWII context of his comments offer a historical explanation for such rhetoric). Most conversations, as you likely know from chance meetings in the Cougar Mall or a party on Saturday night, are more congenial than that. I hope our conversations in here will be that way too.

The good news is that we have already entered the conversation. We’ve all got some English under out belts, we’re familiar with certain modes of interpretation, we can fill up the chalk board with the names of other disciplines, modes, genres, and literary time periods and movements.  We’ve already dipped our oar in.  I want you to think of that model—conversation minus contention—as you proceed in this class.  I hope it gives you confidence as we enter what will be, at times, some thick thinking, some thick theory, some thick methodological engagement. We’ll begin this conversation in earnest next week.

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