Productive Critical Analysis (Salvo)

Salvo, Michael J. “Rhetoric as Productive Technology: Cultural Studies in/as Technical Communication Methodology” In Scott, Longo, and Wills, Critical Power Tools: Technical Communication and Cultural Studies(218-240).

I had to read this book in a hurry, because cloaked individuals from the library were threatening to come into my house while I’m sleeping, rifle through my underwear drawer and bookshelves, and take the text back to the dusky recesses of the stacks. It’s a fine text, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in seeing how to actually get work done through cultural studies and critical analysis in technical communication. I’ll write about one or two other pieces from the collection here along with this.

Beginning with Berlin’s mapping of race/gender/class as the matrix of cultural studies, Salvo adds that technology is unmentioned in Berlin’s map (telling, though not surprising, considering Berlin’s untimely death was just before the techno-economic boom of the 1990s), pointing out that “meaningful action is not possible without accounting for technology” (220). This brief quote gets at two ways that cultural studies tends to limit itself: in not taking meaningful action and ignoring technology as it looks at other aspects of social and political change. For Salvo, rhetoric’s interest in critical and productive agency is a good meeting ground for cultural studies and meaningful action, and so he offers a revision of Berlin’s definition of postmodern cirtical literacy:

“Learning to gain some control over communication forms and the technologies that enable them, students become active agents of social, political and technical change, learning that social and technological worlds have been made and can thus be remade to serve the interests of democratic society” (220).

Salvo points out critical technical communication studies (including such writers as Johnson, User-Centered Design; Longo, Herndl, Salvo) as a place that’s already begun the work of developing cultural studies methods for pedagogy and research in TC. He describes the diverse work of cultural studies as placing “artifacts of culture” … “into the context of their production in order to account for the ‘reproduction of the conditions for production’ or the hegemony in meaning making that is ‘naturalized’” (222). Though cultural studies’ real insights come in the analytic work of “mapping discourse, institutions, and flows of power on a virtual map of culture,” this analytic work needs to be productive–it should inform action. Cultural studies has often been criticized for producing plenty of good “heretical” (221) analysis but too little action, since scholars are placed in spaces (humanities spaces) where they are unable to participate in creating communication that upsets hegemony. The discipline of technical communication–having a foot in both humanities curricula and sites where informed action can be undertaken (the workplace)–thus represents a position from which cultural studies can offer productive insights. As Salvo writes, “Employed in technical communication pedagogy, cultural studies methods can inform efforts to create not only critical but also active rhetorical agents–those communications experts whom Robert Johnson calls technical rhetoricians in his book User-Centered Technology” (223). Agents participate not only in analysis and critique but also rhetorical productive action. Technical communicators represent agents who (hopefully) have the “ability to recognize when discourse has the potential to change outcomes” (225). So, Salvo argues, “In this definition of technical communication, cultural studies is not an inert critical positioning of the technorhetorical gaze, but a mode of informing and sanctioning critical action” (224); a postmodern (but non-ludic) authority that acts and critiques based on ethics, a postmodern ethic that resists nihilism and radical subjectivity and instead takes a risk to engage and “propose an outcome different from the extant reality” (237), to “design possible futures that we would like to inhabit” (237).

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