Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Book Report: The Rhetoric of Cool by Jeff Rice

If you were cool in high school 
you didn't ask too many questions.
You could tell who'd been to last night's
big metal concert by the new t-shirts in the hallway.
You didn't have to askand that's what cool was:
the ability to deduct 
to know without asking.
And the pressure to simulate coolness
means not asking when you don't know,
which is why kids grow ever more stupid.
                                                                --David Berman, Self Portrait at 28

I've been doing a little bit of reading from a lot of different books this winter break, which feels unproductive because I'm not really finishing any books. (Which is a sort of effect the book has on the reader, right?  "Cover-to-cover" is the only way to completely read something, so the materiality of the book defines when a reader can say he's done with it.  I'll leave that line of thought alone for now.)  Well, anyway, I just finished Jeff Rice's The Rhetoric of Cool: Composition Studies and New Media, and I liked it quite a bit.

It's written about Rice's analystic framework, using Rice's analytic framework--which privileges the three cool rhetorical principles of chora, appropriation, juxtaposition, commutation, nonlinearity, and imagery--to analyze the term cool and the year 1963--an important year for composition studies.  Chora seems like the central principle to Rice's theory of digital composition.  He borrows it from Gregory Ulmer's "chorography" in Heuretics, explained thusly: "choral writing organizes any manner of information by means of the writer's specific position in the time and space of a culture"; and, put a little more simply, chorographers "do not choose between the different meanings of key terms, but compose by using all meanings" (qtd. in Rice 34).

So The Rhetoric of Cool is a chorographic analysis of cool and of 1963.  Rice glosses canonical examples of each--James Dean, Jack Kerouac, and DJ Spooky are all obvious examples of cool; and James McCrimmon's Writing With a Purpose and the essays by Wayne Booth and Richard Weaver that appeared in a 1963 issue of CCC certainly belong to the canon of early 1960s composition studies texts.  But, in chorographic fashion, he appropriates other usages of cool--such as Baudrillard's, Alan Liu's, and that of an ancient West African Yoruban "ancient"--to expand and complicate any fixed notion of cool.  He does the same with the year 1963 by bringing in the writing of Amiri Baraka, the music of James Brown, and movies such as American Graffiti, Scorpio Rising, and Flaming Creatures, that are not really typically considered salient to histories of composition studies.  All of these examples I've mentioned are just a minor few.  Rice's chora is large and, indeed, cool.  It all comes together to make a sort of mosaic/collage/mix/mess of coolness and composition theory that becomes more clear as you pull back from it and unfocus your eyes a little.

I'm never sure how I feel about composition theories that call for readers to supply connections.  Like the speaker in the David Berman poem above, I am wary of simulated coolness.  Taken to its extremes in practice, a cool theory of writing could produce some really shitty products lazily masquerading as cool compositions.  The hard, un-fakable part is knowing which connections need to be made, so that's the part the writer should strive for.  More often than not, as a reader (especially as a scholarly reader), I want to be given connections; I think that's a big part of the writer's job.  And, as a writer (especially as a scholarly writer), I am compelled to supply those connections and hammer them home.  But Rice has me thinking differently.  The Rhetoric of Cool is a chorography, and it primarily functions associatively (according to what Geoffrey Sirc might call "box logic"), but that doesn't mean it gets out of hand or is unpleasant to read or is simply a bunch of stuff piled on more stuff without any real substance.  In fact, it makes compelling, definitive arguments that build and develop through layering and smart repetition.

I'm using one of Rice's lessons I'd read about elsewhere in my freshman comp classes this Spring.  The students are asked to create a sort of textual museum of a single year--any year--using primary sources from that year and secondary sources about the year and/or the primary sources.  They will find and assemble all sorts of texts and objects from that year in a meaningful, interesting way.  Hopefully, arguments will develop organically from the chorographic practice of looking at these years from the different dimensions the texts will provide, but they (the arguments) won't--they can't, really--be pinned down at the outset by a definitive, limited/ing thesis.  We'll see how that goes, and I'll report back.  I think it'll be cool.

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