A brief jaunt into some things classical, 5 of 5 (Whitburn)

Finalizing my slide through Essays on Classical Rhetoric and Modern Discourse (1984):

Whitburn, Merrill D. “The Ideal Orator and Literary Critic as Technical Communicators: An Emerging Revolution in English Departments” (226-247)

Whitburn, the last chapter in this text, offers me the weird connection du jour:

“The ideal technical communicator embodies the complete set of rhetorical approaches (the whole of human knowledge and experience), grasps the whole of a concrete communication situation, and through an interrrelationship between the two is free to use judgment to create an ideal coherence” (244).

So far, so good. Sounds like the standard line about technical communicator as rhetorician and not documentation software drone. Then there’s the next sentence:

“The best modern literary theory, combining as it does many of the ideas underlying neoclassicism, early science, and romanticism in a coherent and creative tension, offers a rich source of knowledge that begins to approach the requisite breadth and can be extremely fruitful for the practice of modern rhetoric.” (244).

Wait. Wha??

Oh, hell. It gets better:

“The ultimate ideals are the Renaissance humanist and Quintillian’s ideal orator, who embody the collective wisdom of humanity and apply it collectively to human affairs.” (244).

That’s okay, I guess. A bit broad, but appropriately humanistic in the tradition of Miller’s “Humanistic Rationale for Technical Writing.” All of this, however, is couched in a hearty spirit of anti-technologism:

“The scientific revolution gave a needed shock to our confidence in human capability that persists to his moment. Few people, I suspect, harbor any illusions about the frailty of human beings; life in this century has certainly been generous with its reminders. But the diminishment of human capability has gone too far. Everywhere, men and women are striving to substitute inferior instruments–pathetic little methodologies–for a superior instrument, an astute, informed, wise human being. With the advent of the information revolution, a communication revolution that focuses in large part on the human being, all that belongs to our personality is valuable–what we sense, what we imagine, what we feel, what we think. At periodic intervals in the history of creativity, men and women have had a break free of harmful constrains. IN the eighteenth century Samuel Johnson liberated drama from the constraint of the unities. In our century Wayne Booth liberated the novel from the constraint of a set of supposedly universal norms. Now, we need to liberate judgment from the constraint of inadequate technique” (245).

His major complaint is computer companies’ technical discourse focusing too much on impersonal prose and content outlines. I don’t automatically dismiss the “humanizing” of TC (if you wish to call it that), but I’m not sure if literary criticism and anti-techne is the way to do it. Invention has an important place in TC, and a reach to scholars in rhetoric and composition is obvious, and a convergence of humanities and science/technology seems a responsible synthesis. And I like literature, but invoking literary criticism in TC just seems… out of place.

I’ll have to come back to this when I revisit Miller’s “Humanistic Rationale” later this fall.


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