The Ideological Turn

(for ENGL 5362 Roundtable, April 5, 2011)

The Readings

Wander: “The Ideological Turn in Modern Criticism” (1983)

Wander describes what he sees as a serious problem with the nature of criticism, particularly the separation of criticism from ideological concerns. He summarizes two very different approaches to criticism and their roots in a commitment to an engaged disciplinary ideology: Wichelns’ neo-Aristotelianism and Burke’s rhetorical project.

Wichelns’ neo-Aristotelian perspective “tended to narrow the public space, to celebrate the ‘instructed element in the state,'” but it was also “unambiguous about the importance of politics in the study of public address” (79).  Though not an ideological critic (like Cloud or Nakayama and Krizek), Wichelns does argue that rhetorical criticism is vitally important to understanding “the public mind.” He emphasized that “a full understanding of a text cannot be achieved without situating it in historical context” (80); the job of the critic was to engage with human struggle in history.  Burke saw rhetorical and cultural study as a way to “secur[e] an intuitive sense of community among all Americans” (80) and was interested in the ways texts obscure political motivation; his program (not limited to dramatism) was committed to collectivist critique of texts. Wander argues that in the cases of both Wichelns and Burke, the watered-down methodologies that evolved from their approaches became little more than sets of analytical categories that could be applied to texts without sociopolitical commitment. The goals of the original critics have been abandoned (with Hill and Rosenfeld as examples).

Wander’s essay points out that criticism intended to “prevent the critic from making judgments outside the success or failure of a particular framework in meeting audience expectations” (82) makes critical omissions of reality. It recapitulates views and allows them to go uncriticized—whether in the name of “scholarly restraint” or in the name of “appreciation” (82, 85).

Wander argues that criticism must recognize “the existence of powerful vested interests” that show up in texts and worldviews, and must reflect the reality of those worldviews and the actions that come from them. This is the impetus of his analysis of Heidegger: to show how ideological worldviews informed both Heidegger and the Nazi regime, and to show the responsibility of critics to find that connection—a responsibility to “recogniz[e] good reasons and engag[e] in right action” (92). Good and right are historically situated, and are indeed at stake in criticism.

McKerrow: “Critical Rhetoric: Theory and Praxis” (1989)

Concerned with rhetoric’s subordination to reason by figures such as Habermas, Perlman, and Toulmin and the “sterile forms of criticism” (106) that stem from their universalist perspectives, McKerrow summarizes the notion of critical rhetoric, which “examines the dimensions of domination and freedom as these are exercised in a relativized world” (96). Critical rhetoric “seeks to unmask or demystify the discourse of power” and see possibilities for change. Central ideas include:

Critique of Domination: an emancipatory criticism, concerned with “demystifying” the process of domination. CoD tries to understand “how the discourse is mobilized to legitimate the sectional interests of hegemonic groups” (Giddens qtd in McKerrow 98). Domination is a repressive “structuring of the discursive order” (98) and occurs in discourse through restrictions on who can and cannot speak, the ways speech happens, when, how much, and on what subjects, etcetera. We can see the interests of dominant and dominated inscribed in discourse (or “social practices”).

Critique of Freedom: a permanent criticism, concerned with critiquing power and critiquing itself as it examines social relations. CoF is perpetually skeptical. Transformation occurs only “in an atmosphere which is free and always agitated by permanent criticism” (Foucault qtd in McKerrow 101). Discourse brings power into existence and expresses ideology—it makes power material (in “normal discourse”), and in doing so makes it fragile and thwartable (103). The rhetorical critic’s job is to “undermine and expose” the ways power produces social relations in discourse–this production always happens anonymously, at deep structure and historical levels. The critic is to describe what is, and in doing so, to describe possibilities for freedom: thus creating a new normal.

Orientation/Principles of praxis: CR is interested in the fragmented “symbolism which addresses publics” (much like we saw in ideographic analysis) (106). It is creative, an act of invention and interpretation, to construct texts out of the many messages that come to the public.

  1. CR is practice, not method–it’s a set of principles, not a set of steps.
  2. Discourse of power is material. CR looks not at an ideal life-style but at phronesis–at “real” social relations.
  3. CR is doxastic, not epistemic. It’s focused on what’s known in society (and thus focused on power in symbols) rather than what’s true in an epistemic (Platonic) sense (or what symbols might/should mean).
  4. CR names, an act of power. As labels shift, subjects and subjectivities shift. Terms are contingent—this has implications both for what CR critiques as well as the realities CR formulates.
  5. Symbols and power have “potentiality” not “actuality” (111). That is, there aren’t “necessary” construction—symbols have impact, but it may not be deterministic. CR attempts to mediate, to “invent” (not quite the same as ‘make up’) the connections between ideology and practice.
  6. Absence is just as important as presence; CR looks for ideology in what’s not in a text, too.
  7. Fragments (texts) can have multiple interpretations. Polysemic critique uncovers alternative readings, sowing “the seeds of subversion or rejection of authority” (113).
  8. CR is performance; the critic is an advocate, a counter to “excesses of a society’s own enabling actions” (113).

Overall, critical rhetoric tries to see the potential for future discourses and thus the potential for realizing future societies.

The Artifacts

My central artifact is a video of Stephen Colbert performing a version of Rebecca Black’s viral hit “Friday” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. It includes a host of other performers, including The Roots, Jimmy Fallon, Taylor Hicks, the Knicks City Dancers, and a spate of other figures, including a man holding up a QR code linking to this “Easter egg” video. The main video is a curious mixture of pop culture parody (along with the Black video, Colbert and Fallon have been lampooning the concept “BFF”) with charitable giving. Colbert had challenged Fallon to give $26,000 to; when Fallon, his fans, and NBC raised that amount and more, Colbert—because he was Fallon’s BFFSM[1]—had to perform the song live on Fallon’s show.

If you have somehow managed to avoid seeing it, first of all: congratulations. Second of all: my apologies for breaking your winning streak. Here’s the original video for Rebecca Black’s “Friday.” The song has been critically panned since its release on March 14, mostly for its inane lyrics and near-sacrilegious abuse of Auto-Tune. It has also been covered and parodied widely on YouTube. One example is the video “Death Metal Friday”; another version, “Friday (IN HELL),” is especially frightening[2].  Ark Music Factory—the company name refers to Noah’s Ark—is a vanity record label (they categorize themselves as “indie”), and have been criticized for “exploiting rich kids and their parents”(Pop & Hiss, March 29).  The rapper in the video is Patrice Wilson, founder of Ark and cowriter of “Friday.”

The Questions

  1. What is the difference between Booth’s claim that “the world is at stake” for rhetoric and Wanders’ claim that the same is true for criticism? Are there different stakes? Different reactions that the critic (or rhetorologist) should have to those stakes?
  2. What role does parody play in the discursive inscription of ideology?
  3. Does the Colbert/Fallon video “legitimate the sectional interests of hegemonic groups”? Does the video participate in the production of power? What role might the Easter egg video play in this? What about the other parody/cover videos?
  4. What is the rhetorical effect of combining pop culture parody with charitable giving? What critical judgment might we offer in the interest of “bring[ing] about social change, correct[ing] inequalities, and promot[ing] democracy”? (633)
  5. What symbols, hegemonies, or ideologies are perpetuated in my own choice of these artifacts? In my description of them? In my questions about them?

[1] “Best Friend for Six Months”

[2] WARNING: “Friday (IN HELL)” is an industrial-style remix and includes images and audio of a frightening nature that may not be suitable for children. “Death Metal Friday” is a death metal-style remix and includes audio of a frightening nature that may not be suitable for children. Neither version contains explicit language.



2 thoughts on “The Ideological Turn

  1. Hi: I am the Wander quoted above. Good questions. Nice work. I am on the verge of publishing a book, Shadow Songs, with the entire debate surrounding the ideological turn essay is included. The claims of professionalism still weigh heavily on the young who might like to do criticism instead of talking about it and identifying the various schools of thought reflected in tier one journals in one’s field of study. Only now, in the absence of a strong civil rights, human rights, and anti-war movement, such choices are difficult to discern let alone act upon.


  2. Thank you for your comments; I look forward to seeing your book soon. I find myself struggling often with disciplinary tendencies for self-analysis in–as you’ve pointed out–the absence of strong social critical movements.

    It seems that there is ever so much navel-gazing in criticism, and I play at it as much as any other…

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