thesis “proposal” for MAWG

Cross-posted on MAWG:

Polemics and Irenics in Argument – it’s a start?

In her essay “The Womanization of Rhetoric,“ Sally Miller Gearhart writes that she believes “that any intent to persuade is an act of violence“ because the persuader has an intention of changing someone (53), and proposes that instead we should “forsake all this and think of ourselves not as bearers of great messages but as vessels out of whose variety messages will emerge“ (60). I think this is an interesting position, and the reason I bring it up isn’t because I completely agree with her. In fact, I strong believe that everything is an argument, as is often argued, which makes Gearhart’s position problematic (isn’t everything violent if these two ideas merge?). (However, if the dominant metaphor, “Argument is war,“ is a subtext to our lives [Lakoff and Johnson, right?], then perhaps this idea of everything being violent is something to pursue?) I am interested in this because I feel it gets at a very important question about arguments, and that is how aggressive or violent should they be? Perhaps another way to look at this might be how much is the arguer collaborating with the audience and those with different opinions, and how much is the arguer working against the audience and those who disagree.

In Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness, Walter J. Ong writes:

Contest is a part of human life everywhere that human life is found. In war and in games, in work and in play, physically, intellectually, and morally, human beings match themselves with or against one another. Struggle appears inseparable from human life, and contest is a particular focus or mode of interpersonal struggle, an opposition that can be hostile but need not be, for certain kinds of contest may serve to sublimate and dissolve hostilities and to build friendship and cooperation. (15)

Johan Huizinga adds, “All knowledge…is polemical by nature“ (qtd. in Ong 45). At this time, I am inclined to agree, that all of our knowledge is created out of struggle and conflict. However, to what degree can this struggle be too aggressive or violent? I know this feels vague at this time, and I’m looking for some sort of guidance (both from myself by writing this out, and from you).

Another valid concern is how we might become too irenic. Ong believes that we have become “unabashed irenicists“ (24). Here I am inclined to agree. Americans tend to fear conflict, viewing it as something that must cause separation. While we often value differences (or is this merely lip service), we don’t really value differences in ideas. This is true from the introspective (how many people struggle to dispel conflicts within themselves?) to the large scale (you’re either with us or against us – a minimization of choices, of differences). In groups, we try to dispel conflict through means such as voting, consensus, and compromise, all of which I believe just serve to mask conflict (voting hides the needs/wants of the minority who has lost; consensus is more a contest of who can last the longest; compromise masks the fact that neither party actually got what they wanted).

Which brings me to polyphony (multivocality) and collage in texts, including hypertexts and multigenre essays. I like these texts because they don’t mask conflict – in fact, it is usually right there, in multiple voices and from multiple pints of view. In fact, an author can be upfront about his/her/hir own conflict within the self; the author doesn’t have to take a singular view on an issue, but can rather express all the voices in his/her/hir head. Additionally, I like these texts because of their potential to be, in my own made up phrase, “texts that listen.“ By creating this term, I am drawing on my belief that we often do not listen to texts or to people, but rather wait impatiently to “counter-argue.“ If a text has multiple viewpoints, perhaps it can quell this urge to “read“ with an eye for what you can attack in a counterargument.

Some ideas that I would like to intersect as I research and write include gender, aggression, verbal and psychological violence, polyphony, polemics, irenicism, collage/montage/bricolage (sp?), hypertext, texts that “listen,“ and the metaphor “argument is war“ (Lakoff and Johnson). Questions I have at this time include:
1. Does this make sense at this time?
2. I know this is a huge topic – does anyone have suggestions for ways to focus?
3. What suggestions do people have for sources? I am considering Barthes and Bakhtin, but would love more ideas.

Works Cited

Gearhart, Sally Miller. “The Womanization of Rhetoric.“ Feminism and Composition: A Critical Sourcebook. Eds. Gesa E. Kirsch, Faye Spencer Maor, Lance Massey, Lee Nickoson-Massey, and Mary P. Sheridan-Rabideau. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2003.

Ong, Walter J. Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1981.

This entry was posted in Agonism in Display, Brainstorming, Collage, Gender, Hyptertexts, Irenicism, Polyphony, Thesis work, Voice, Walter Ong. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to thesis “proposal” for MAWG

  1. Lisa Ede says:

    Hi Michael,
    I got on your blog and couldn’t resist seeing what your most current entry is. This is very interesting, and I have a few comments. One is that there is a huge amount of work in feminist theory on this question; I would think you would want to include this in your research. Most feminists consider Ong’s work on argument to be very much overgeneralized. Bob Connors wrote an argument on the feminization of rhetoric in American colleges that was very controversial and got lots of comments. He relies a good deal on Ong.

    My own take is that when we look at the diversity of texts that exist–a diversity that you clearly want to honor–that Ong’s take seems too highly generalized and too dependent on a decontextualized view of human capabilities. But that’s just my take.


  2. Kevin Brooks says:

    Hi Michael,

    I found your k-log when I was looking for a good k-log to show my graduate students, and you continue to set a wonderful example!

    Two thoughts:

    1. check Kenneth Burke on “identification” as an alternative to agonistic notions of argumentation.

    2. the focus problem: can you settle on a model multi-genre / polyvocal text that has been particularly influential as argument / or site of identification? Can you show us a text that draws readers / listeners in and adjusts or tunes their world view in a gentle, massaging fashion? I wonder if B. J. Fogg’s work would be useful to you?

    Good luck–I’ll keep watching!

  3. Michael says:


    I am beginning to agree with you that Ong’s take is a little generalized, but I like some of the views that he takes. I’ve read some Connors, and used him for both a paper last quarter and one I just turned into Tolar Burton today. Ong does write that there are a variety of different modes of communication to chose from, not just agonistic, but he doesn’t really focus on that at all, so it does seem to be a “I’ll cover my butt with this statement while not really discussing it.” Thanks for the suggestions!


    Thanks for the suggestions and support! I’ve only read Burke’s “Terministic Screens” – I’ll have to check him out some more. I’ll take a look at Fogg’s work as well.

  4. Lisa Ede says:

    Hi again, Michael,
    I want to second Kevin Brooks’ suggestion that you consider Kenneth Burke on identification as an alternative to agonistic notions of argument. Burke has been very important to me–especially the essays in Language as Symbolic Action.


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