Why I Read Seth a Lot

In the last post I went into how much the Doom Patrol has been a part of my transition into comics studies; they’ve been important to me, as I said, since I was a kid. One other comics artist who has been a big deal to me — but one that I was introduced to much later — is Seth.

I first found out about Seth when I was watching this television program that used to show on TVO (Ontario’s public station): Big Ideas, which featured lectures by academics across the disciplines and across the province. It billed itself as the only TV show devoted to the art of the lecture; since it went off the air several years ago, I suppose there are none. Anyway, I happened to catch a lecture by my colleague at U of T’s St. George English department, Nick Mount, who was talking about Seth’s It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken in a lecture for his large class of first-year students. I’d never heard of this artist before, but I was intrigued. I got a copy of the book, and in a couple of years it was front and centre in the comics course I was newly teaching. Since then I’ve acquired a lot more of Seth’s works (all of his books and many though not all back issues of Palookaville), as well as a couple of books about his work and a collection of interviews with him, not to mention a personal copy of the National Film Board’s documentary Seth’s Dominion. I also had a chance to meet him; he was somewhat amused at my first name, as it’s also the name of his best friend the great graphic novelist Chester Brown.

What I’m saying here is, Seth has become a pretty important artist in my personal and mental libraries.

I suppose there are any number of reasons his work appeals to me, the most important of which is simply that it is very very good; in any account of comics artists working today he is at the very top of the form. But there are also more specific reasons.

For one thing, his interest in the formalities of narrative is fascinating to me; few other artists in any medium pay such close attention to the fine, even trivial details of place and of time. When I was in high school, I did a photography project in which I documented small details of a single neighbourhood. As it turned out what most interested me was not the houses or the populated, busy spaces; what I filled my camera roll with was images of small, abandoned, forgotten things and places. Seth’s books are full of such places.

For another, the kind of anxieties that he speaks to are very much the sort that I often feel in my own life. There’s a recurring motif in Seth’s work of people having moments of clarity, but too late to do anything about them. In his monumental Geo. Sprott, for example, the title character has a sudden epiphanic realization about the person with whom he should have spent his life — but it is decades too late, and she is long dead. In Seth’s Dominion, he performs a puppet show with a similar theme, in which a man suddenly understands what he should have been doing with his life, the moment before he dies. And in Clyde Fans, the reclusive Simon Matchcard spends decades carefully researching and writing a definitive book about an obscure topic, only to find himself scooped by a hastier author before he can go to press.

Small, almost unnoticed failures that undermine our need to live meaningful lives; the quiet cruelty of time and the melancholy of still, forgotten places — these are among the central themes in Seth’s work, and to me they speak very loudly indeed.

The Doom Patrol and Me

I probably first came across the Doom Patrol when I was about seven years old, which would have been 1975. Of course the original Silver Age comics had been cancelled years before (the year I was born, in fact, 1968), but I suppose I must have come across some reprints. If I remember correctly, they were reprinted along with some Challengers of the Unknown stories.

The story I remember first reading had originally been printed in Doom Patrol 87 (May 1964); in the first scene of this story the team stops an airplane from crashing. It was apparent to me from the moment of their arrival that the Doom Patrol are not like most superhero teams. For one thing, they come rolling up onto the airport tarmac in a … car. Just a regular car; they don’t have a special DP-mobile or a cool superjet. They don’t look like much either: no spectacular physical specimens here. They are a guy made out of clunky metal who is always getting banged up, a guy in bandages whose only superpower consists of collapsing while the spirit that possesses him does all the heroics, and an ordinary-looking woman whose power is to suddenly become a giant and send civilians scattering in panic. Their original uniforms are nothing special, just plain utilitarian green, like the colour that a public works labourer wears. When they first appear, no one goes “Oh thank goodness, it’s the heroes!” The control tower yells at them to get off the runway, and the crowd asks, “How can they help?” Of course they save the day anyhow, and go off without much in the way of thanks.

They were weird. They were unsettling. The general public, and other superheroes, never seemed to respect them much. They weren’t, as Grant Morrison later observed, the kind of heroes a kid ever daydreamed about being.

I loved them instantly and forever.

What is it that I loved about them? I think it’s simply that they are a team of heroes for people who can’t really imagine themselves as heroes. Morrison said that no one ever dreamed about being Cliff, Rita, or Larry (or Jane, or Niles); and he’s right. But the fact is, even as a child I had a hard time imagining myself as a hero, and as an adult I simply can’t; I’ve been battered around too much for that. The Doom Patrol was a team I understood as a scared, unsettled seven-year-old; I was feeling fairly broken in my life, a feeling that has never really left me. They were broken heroes who got up every day and did what they could to save the indifferent world anyhow, and that made a deep impression.

It was hard to find other Silver Age Doom Patrol stories in the 70s (it’s possible that I never read another one until they all got reprinted over the past couple of years), but I remained fond of them in a way that I was fond of no other superheroes. Even after I stopped reading comics altogether, they stayed there in the back of my mind. Later, when I heard that the team was back in action in the late 80s and early 90s, I eagerly bought and read the complete Morrison run; I started with issue 46 (August 1991) — I had been away from comics for a while and hadn’t known that the group was back until then — and just kept going in both directions until I’d caught up. My friends who were still into comics were — surprised, I guess you could say? — at my enthusiasm for this one weird supergroup out of all the supergroups out there. I guess you could say that it was the Doom Patrol that got me back into comics again, and I’ve been in ever since.

At this point in my career, I’m more or less refashioning myself from a medievalist (which I started out as) into a comics scholar, which, to be honest, is a field I find much more congenial. My last few forays into the medieval left me fairly unsatisfied, both with the experience and with the quality of what I ended up doing; I’m much happier working with graphic novels. But despite the sophistication of comics theory and the richness of the field in general, I’m nearly positive that I wouldn’t have found my way in if it hadn’t been for my favourite super-team. I owe Arnold Drake and Bruno Premiani, the team’s original creators, a lot.

On Experiencing Space

I’ve always had a sort of desultory interest in how we experience space. Not outer space, although I’ve also always liked science fiction, but the everyday spaces around us: the streets we walk, the shops we frequent, the rooms in which we work, play, think, read, teach, learn.

That interest has followed me around in a number of different ways. Most obviously in my line of work, it led me to an interest in teaching spaces, and in exploring ways to use the physical resources of the classroom. I’ve been particularly lucky in being able to use some pilot Active Learning Classrooms in my work over the past few years, and in being able to contribute through experience to the creation of more of them on my campus.

As a graduate student, I wasn’t really consciously thinking about space as a factor in my work, but it was there. My thesis on medieval plays — which were performed in all kinds of different spaces — played a role in shaping my thinking, as did my focus on rhetoric, which, I’ve come to understand, uses spatial metaphors as a way of organizing many of its basic principles. Over the years since then, I’ve started to read more about space and how we experience it; writers like Bachelard and Lefebvre, urbanists like Sudjic and Jacobs, troublemakers like Debord, creators like Calvino.

I suppose the problem I’ve always had is that, as I say, my interest is a desultory one. I’ve never really been able to figure out what I want to do with all of this. The pleasure of spaces is for me a meandering one, not an argumentative one, despite rhetoric’s use of spatial metaphors. Many of the writers I’ve mentioned above work meandering right into their work. Bachelard’s Poetics of Space is a lyrical, often confusing wander through the phenomenology of houses and what can be found within; Calvino’s Invisible Cities is a mythopoeic ramble through emblematic, symbolic cities of Kublai Khan’s empire; Debord and his Situationist colleagues turned the aimless dérive through city streets into a political and creative act.

But in the world as we have it, we want direction. The rambling intellectual journey to and from nowhere in particular has never exactly been recommended. Today, it is even less valued; you need a project, a direction, a goal. You need, if you wish to be a paid thinker, to be able to explain in an elevator pitch what you’re doing, where you’re going, what you expect to find when you get there.

I sometimes wonder if the intellectual world itself needs a dérive. Perhaps that would do it some good.

On Daydreaming

The more time passes, the more I begin to understand the importance of being a daydreamer. This is not the same as being an idler, nor the same as being a loafer. An idler is one who spends the day doing nothing, often pointedly so, while a loafer is one who does so where people can see him. A daydreamer does not care about being noticed, and is frequently very busy. A daydreamer may spend a great deal of time reading books, pondering pictures, listening to music. A daydreamer may peruse the open spaces of the city, or may intently study the workings of the small places of small towns. A daydreamer may create art, or not; talk to others, or not; live actively; or not. What marks a daydreamer is not what she does but how.

Imagine two people both lounging without purpose, perhaps twenty feet from each other, in a park on a Sunday afternoon, neither one aware of the other. The first one sits on a blanket, sunglasses over his eyes, earbuds in his ears, listening to music. Once in a while he looks at a person passing by, but only for a while. He has no aim at the moment. He is not thinking of anything in particular. He is loafing and idling the afternoon away. There is nothing wrong with what he is doing.

The second person also sits on a blanket, sunglasses over her eyes, earbuds in her ears, listening to music. Once in a while she looks at a person passing by, but only for a while. She has no aim at the moment. But her mind is full of thoughts: she notes the shape of that tree and wonders whether it might be mistaken for a very tall man, then whether it might become one under the right conditions. Letting the thought develop she begins to imagine a blurring between tree and person, the slow time of arboreal decades and human days. Are there two cities instead of one? Do we speak with each other? What might that mean for us? Can we be treelike? She is daydreaming the afternoon away.

A daydreamer lives mythopoeically. The mind of a daydreamer creates bespoke, fleeting mythologies out of the stuff of everyday life. To a daydreamer, moments of stillness and out-of-the-way corners echo with significance that arises, manifests itself, then melts away again.

The artists of daydreaming are surprisingly few. That is to say, while it is true that much art and creativity comes from daydreams, relatively few artists in any medium capture the daydream itself. The daydream is as volatile as its nocturnal counterpart, a momentary vision that eludes memory. A few artists in various fields do manage to capture some of the quality. But, while frequently (though not always) quite popular and of undoubted skill, such arists are often denigrated or overlooked by critics and fall into the category of guilty pleasure for many — a function, I suspect, of the general disrepute of the daydream among modern Westerners. Life and art, we are told, ought to be about more serious stuff than this.

But why must that be the case? In what is the insistence on seriousness grounded? For some, I suppose, it is a matter of morality. It is wrong, somehow, to daydream, to raise one’s own personal imagination above the greater and more urgent realities of the world; egotistical, to attend to one’s own impossible thoughts rather than to the living reality of the many people around us. These are thoughtful objections, not lightly dismissed. If one also believes in a god, and therefore in a high morality encoded directly into life itself, then certainly it might seem that time spent imposing one’s thoughts on the world can only be wrong, even idolatrous.

The genre of fantasy fiction, which in some versions is at its best a formalized way of daydreaming, has often been attacked on such grounds. “Escapism” is the usual epithet. As J. R. R. Tolkien once pointed out, though, there are different kinds of escape: the flight of the unjustly imprisoned is not the same as that of the shirker or deserter. How we see our escape, our daydreaming, is likewise dependent on how we see our mundanity: is it our duty to be confined only to the real world as it is, or are we entitled to more?

In Waiting for Godot, Vladimir berates Estragon for dreaming and wishing to speak of his dreams; Estragon, in anguish and frustration, gestures at the world around them and asks, “This one is enough for you?” If you are a daydreamer, then the answer to Estragon’s question is both no and yes. It is no, because the daydreamer is always adding to the world, always embellishing and imagining, the mythopoeic imagination always creating new things. But the answer is also yes, because without the things of everyday life, the daydreamer has nothing. This world is enough, because it gives us endless occasions to daydream about it, to add to it, to see it anew.

Let us seek out times to daydream and not be ashamed.

Where I’ve Been, Where I’m Going

Over the summer I’ve been working on some things, as I noted in the previous post; some of these have been professional and some personal.

To begin with the personal. I found out, basically by accident, two things about my family: first, that the central branch on my mother’s side is Dutch; I had never known this. Second, that they first arrived in North America (in what is now Brooklyn) much earlier than I had ever realized; in the mid-1600s, in fact. Furthermore, the house that the original arrivals built still exists, now as a part of the Brooklyn Museum. I’m making up for lost time here: I’m learning Dutch on Duolingo (and it’s so far my favourite language I’ve ever studied), and I’m reading about the Netherlands and also about Brooklyn. I’m not sure if this is ever going to lead in a scholarly/professional direction, but at this time that’s not the point.

Professionally, I’m working on several projects: for the first, I’m working with a team of other researchers on how students self-present in academic integrity cases. We’re trying to discover what frameworks students use both to understand and to explain their situations in this stressful context; we hope to use what we find to help foster an environment in the classroom and at the university that makes it easier for students to avoid getting into such messes in the first place. For the second, I’m taking a course through my university’s Centre for Teaching Support and Innovation on excellence in post-secondary teaching. For the third, I’m working on several writing projects: an essay on the character of Rita Farr in the early-60s Doom Patrol comics, and an essay on the narrative motifs of space, the body, and knowledge in Tamaki and Tamaki’s YA graphic novel This One Summer. I also have a few other writing projects on the back burner.

And of course I’m resurrecting this blog. Like other people I’ve been on social media a lot over the past few years, but I’m becoming pretty tired of it. The short-form blasts of Twitter are pretty much endless annoyance; I miss the longer form of the blog. Even though neither of these posts are what anyone might call true long-form writing, I’m looking forward to stretching myself out a little bit again.

Beginning Leave in Earnest

Technically, I’ve been on my first academic leave since the beginning of July, and I taught my last class in April. Yet somehow it doesn’t really seem to have kicked in mentally until today, the first day of classes in twenty years that I have not been on campus getting ready to teach.

It’s been a productive few months in their way: I made some progress on various projects, did a lot of intellectual and physical re-organization and housecleaning, came to terms with some limitations and past mistakes, and learned some things about myself. But those months have had the shapelessness that summer often does; it’s not really until now that I’m beginning to see a more organized schedule beginning to form. Force of habit, perhaps.

This is all by means of stating that I’m going to be writing things here as the time continues. I’m not sure what form that will all take, but we’ll see.

On the Rhetorical/Pedagogical Triangle Part 2

In the previous post, we discussed the rhetorical triangle, and came to the tentative conclusion that we can think of rhetoric as the exchange of power in the act of communication. We also thought of the distinction between rhetorical communication proper, in which such exchanges of power take place, and forms of communication which seem in principle to be impersonal or one-sided, namely communicator-based and content-based acts. We also bracketed for the time being the idea of the audience-based communicative act. Finally, we linked the rhetorical triangle to a possible pedagogical triangle, and introduced the idea that teaching and learning are a rhetorical communicative act. That is where we are taking things up at this point.

If teaching and learning are rhetorical, then, by the definition we have posited, they are about an exchange of power among the three poles of the triangle: teacher, learner, and lesson. All three elements bring a different form of power to the pedagogical situation: the teacher brings expertise in the lesson (both in its content and in effective ways of teaching it); the learner brings expertise and willingness in their own learning process; and the lesson itself brings its own inherent importance simply by virtue of being something worth learning. There is much more to be said about each of these, of course, but for now let us take this as a starting point.

Now, in a teaching situation, all three of these elements should be able to use their power effectively. The teacher should be able to employ their expertise in order to help the learner with the lesson; the learner should be able to employ their own skills to meet the teacher’s unpacking of the lesson; and the lesson should be able to stand forth in its own significance and meaning to both of them. In an effective teaching situation, this is surely what happens. A teaching situation like this allows for dynamic exchange among communicators, attentiveness to the lesson and its elements, and ethical scholarly discussion in the classroom.

In an ineffective situation, one or more of these elements is unable to use their power. Either the teacher cannot effectively use their skills; or the learner is not able to effectively use theirs; or the lesson itself appears opaque or insignificant. In the worst scenarios, all three fail. Once can easily see how these situations would be ineffective; they would also be unethical, because one pole would dominate in power over the other two, and in practice, in the classroom, that dominant pole will rarely be the learner.

We can see, moreover, that versions of these failures also map onto the non-rhetorical acts of communication we mentioned in part one. A learner or a lesson, or both, may be stifled by a teacher-weighted scenario, in which the teacher works by diktat; a teacher may fail in effectiveness because of an inappropriate lesson, or because of unengaged or hostile learners; a lesson may appear trivial because of the failure of the people involved.

In all of these scenarios, the responsibility is most clearly with the teacher to get things right, just as in other rhetorical situations it is the rhetor who must shape the act of communication to the moment. Yet the other two poles have active roles to play, again, as with other rhetorical situations. Everyone involved has an ethical role to play, but most especially the teacher, who should not overly weight themselves.

At this point, one might wonder whether, when we speak of a teacher-weighted scenario, one that stifles the lesson and the learners, we are speaking simply the traditional lecture. One would be excused for thinking so; the lecture has gotten a terrible reputation lately, not just for being ineffective, but for being unethical. Much of the literature on active learning, when it speaks of lectures, would lead us to think that these two situations — the lecture and the diktat — are just the same as each other. A common definition of lecturing in active-learning discourse is “continuous exposition by the teacher,” which is rather unambiguous in its negative attitude about lecturing. The by-now-cliched active-learning expression, “don’t be the sage on the stage; be the guide on the side,” similarly posits the lecturer as acting out of ego rather than helpfulness.

As a person who has spent a great deal of time and energy exploring and practicing active learning, and the development of active learning spaces, I am a firm believer in the efficacy of active learning, and am well aware of the limitations of the lecture. But must this polarity between the two always necessarily be the case? Is it possible, at least in principle, for a lecture to represent a rhetorical, active and equitable exchange of power among the three poles of the triangle? And is it also possible for active learning techniques, instead to represent a distortion and failure of such exchange? Or, is the latter always to be preferred to the former all other things being equal, as much of the literature seems to indicate?

On the Rhetorical/Pedagogical Triangle (Part One)

A while ago I presented a session at STLHE, in which I suggested that there was a parallel between the somewhat standard idea of the rhetorical triangle and what happens in the classroom. I’d like at this point to ramble on a bit about what those connections are and how they might work. None of this is particularly original, but please bear with me. This will take a few posts to shake out.

So: the model of the rhetorical triangle, as many have seen it, looks like this.

In essence, any form of communication has these three poles or apexes: the person creating the communication (writing, speaking, painting, etc.); the person(s) receiving it; and the content. The rhetorical aspect of this triangle — the area in which questions of power and agency come in — has to do with therelationship between the three apexes and how authority and activity shift between them.

Take for example a scientific research paper. In principle, the only source of authority therein is the content: the quality and quantity of the data, the soundness of the methodology, and so on. In science, so we are told, only the evidence itself has authority; neither the title of the scientist nor the whims of the public matter. This would be an example of a content-weighted act of communication.

By contrast, take a public statement by a dominating or dictatorial figure: a Stalin or a Putin. The authority in such a statement, backed up by the power of the state, belongs to that figure alone. This would be communicator-weighted communication and this would seem to be the most straightforward kind.

Finally, of course, we have the question of an audience-weighted act of communication, and here is where things begin to get strange. What exactly would that look like? The problem is more complex than it seems. One might at first think of something like the boos of a crowd at a baseball game, or the decision of a crowd to take over an assembly from a speaker of whom they disapprove. But that would not be accurate way of describing such an act of communication. When a crowd of people or a small group of people begin to articulate its will, vocally or otherwise, then that crowd ceases for the moment to be an audience and becomes instead a communicator in its own right. The concept of “audience” presumes the presence of a communicator – a different person or persons – who is articulating the message received. So, what would an audience-weighted act of communication be? One is hard-pressed to imagine anything other than a mere articulation of boredom.

Leaving this question aside, we can say that neither the content-weighted act of communication nor the communicator-weighted act of communication is truly rhetorical. This is because in principle there is no persuasion to be done in either case. If it is true that in scientific discourse the data and methodology are all, then acceptance of the truth of the scientific paper should come as a matter of course. The fact that neither human party in the act of communication has any role to play, or even a necessary presence or relationship with the other, demonstrates that this form of communication is meant to be purely impersonal. If the facts speak for themselves then rhetoric is unnecessary.

In second instance of communicator-weighted discourse, there is also no rhetoric. Rhetoric is in effect an alternative to force. The words of the dictator are backed up by the violence of the state; whether an audience is persuaded or not is irrelevant. The dictator is interested only in their obedience, not their assent.

The audience, then, is the essential element of rhetoric; not only its presence but its capacity to be affected, to talk back and respond, to exercise power in some fashion, is the sine qua non of a rhetorical situation. And in the rhetorical situation, it is precisely the exchanges of power among the three apexes that is at stake. Without this dynamic exchange, as we have said, there is no rhetoric. In fact, we can go so far as to posit a definition in which rhetoric is the process of exchanging power in the act of communication.

Again, this is not surprising; Bitzer said or implied as much in 1968, and the earliest rhetorical texts such as Gorgias’s Encomium make explicit appeals to an audience whose active response is expected or anticipated. This point is reiterated here merely for the sake of emphasis.

Now, consider a quite different situation from either the scientific paper or the despotic diktat: a teacher and students in a classroom.

The parallel structure should not really be surprising; teaching after all is a form of commnication, and any form of communication has these elements. But it is not merely the elements that are parallel; the structure/relationship of them is also. For just the rhetorical triangle is marked by the exchange of power among its three apexes, so also is the pedagogical triangle. And that has several implications for how we think about pedagogy, especially the often-spoken of distinction between lecturing and active learning.

End of Part One. Part Two will follow.

Thoughts on the End of Term

Looking back as the academic year winds down, it seems as if the past twelve months have been particularly hard on a lot of people. Everyone in higher ed is always a little wiped out at this time of year, of course; and here in Ontario a record cold month (ice storms in April!) certainly didn’t help. But there’s more than that this time.

(NB: If this post seems a little vague at times, it’s because I can’t and won’t breach the confidential information of people I know and know about.)

Without getting into details, I know or know of a fair number of people — significantly more than usual — who have really struggled personally and emotionally this year. The politics of backlash that are swirling around us, the frustrations and disappointments of Canada’s reconciliation process, an increasingly difficult economy, all these and more seem to be conspiring against the ability of people to teach and learn in relative quiet. What makes matters worse is the attitude of far too many discourse-influencers towards young people, especially students: that they should not expect to be able to do so. Our campuses, we are increasingly told, are the only workplaces that should be regularly disrupted by hostile outsiders, whether they be political opportunists, technological interlopers, or merely troublemakers. And those who work and study on campuses are the only people, we are regularly told, whose work should be disrupted by regular challenges to their identities.

Even if, like me, your identity is one of the few that don’t get regularly challenged, it can all get pretty wearying. If not, I can only imagine the exhaustion that could set in.

Compound all that with the usual work overload that comes this time of year as a result of the way we schedule things, and it’s no wonder that a larger number of people this year seem to be struggling.

An important part of teaching and learning, and a crucial but increasingly embattled part of life, it seems to me, is kindness. In difficult times, it’s an ethical duty to hold each other up, to give ground and grant leeway when we can, whether it comes to giving extensions on assignments or making other forms of allowances where we can. This isn’t a matter of abandoning standards, but of recognizing that, as my old supervisor once put it, sometimes life gets in the way. When we’re facing difficulties, it’s important to at least try to give people the chance to work to their potential, so that external, non-academic factors don’t end up hampering their work too much.

Again, this has all been unspecific on my part, but I’m sure that many academics can recognize the general lines of what I’m saying here. So, in brief conclusion, be kind to each other this spring, and may this summer treat us better.

On Fish’s Winning Arguments

The arguments and perspectives of Stanley Fish’s book Winning Arguments: What Works and Doesn’t Work in Politics, the Bedroom, the Courtroom, and the Classroom (Harper, 2016) will come as no surprise to those who are familiar with Fish’s more formal academic work. Here, he takes his longstanding antifoundationalism in literary, legal, and cultural interpretation to a popular audience, in a companion piece to his previous How to Write a Sentence. Between them, the two books constitute an engaging introductory rhetoric for contemporary non-academic readers.

This book also represents a kind of popular summation of many of the positions and arguments, both published and pedagogical, of much of the past half-century’s rhetorical scholarship. The ideas of Burke, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca, and Toulmin all appear herein, as does the by now familiar figure of Rhetorica from the 15th-century Mantegna Tarot — interpreted in a way that will appear familiar to pretty much any teacher of rhetoric in higher education. Similarly, such popular textbooks as Lunsford and Ruszkiewitz’s Everything’s an Argument appear, along with such familiar literary and classroom texts as Antony’s funeral oration from Julius Caesar, numerous passages from Milton (certainly no surprise in a book by Fish), and Monty Python’s “Argument Clinic.” And of course Fish brings in much of his own past work, such as his concept of “Interpretive Communities.”

To say that there is nothing particularly original in the book’s central ideas is not a critique of it, however: the point of Winning Arguments is not to blaze new scholarly ground but to operate as popular communication of a kind that the humanities could, frankly, use more of. It brings much of the conventional practice and theory of rhetoric as it is currently taught into the public realm, and does so with an eye to helping move the public conversation forward. If the book has a purpose, it is to persuade its nonacademic readers that “argument is the medium we swim in” (2) and that in “a world bereft of transcendence, argument cannot achieve certainty; it can only achieve persuasion” (12). Contra Orwell and Habermas, two thinkers with whom Fish takes specific issue, we cannot achieve pure truth in our thinking either by simplifying our language or purifying our intentions; all we can do is keep arguing, keep negotiating, keep moving, keep muddling through.

This perspective allows Fish to mount some salient and interesting critiques, for example of the erroneous logic of denialism, whether of the harms of tobacco, climate change, or acid rain. The structure of denialism, Fish argues, goes like this: first, note that science’s conclusions are always provisional; second, note that scientific consensus is always just consensus among people; third, claim that action should only be taken when all the evidence is in; and fourth, conclude that therefore nothing should be done at present. The error in this sequence, Fish notes, comes in the fact that step three not only does not follow from but actually contradicts step one: for if it is the case that science is always provisional (and it is), then there is no such thing as all the evidence being in. Step three, which looks as if it is recommending caution, is actually asking for an impossibility in principle. Worse, it is a logical violation of the premises that the denialist himself started out by accepting.

Fish’s logic in such moments is both elegant and, one would hope, useful: if you want to know clearly just why denialism doesn’t make sense, this is why. Similarly cogent is Fish’s explanation of why fringe theories such as Holocaust denial and Oxfordianism don’t wash in the academy: because they are just procedurally and in principle at odds with what the academy does and how it conducts its work. Also impressive is Fish’s thinking on what Nyhan and Reifler call the backfire effect: the way in which contrary evidence can actually reinforce instead of weaken a strongly-held belief. This happens, Fish says, because the evidence always comes in for evaluation in terms of those already-existing beliefs; so that “Rather than listening to and weighing what your opponent says, you hear his words as the surface issue of deep ideological commitments you fear and despise.” (61) The problem, for Fish, always comes down to the uncomfortable reality that there is no objective, godlike neutral ground from which to evaluate evidence or counterclaims. By the time those claims arrive, you can already predict how they will be received if you know the predisposition of the receiver. In an amusing aside, he also points out that this is why alleged revolutions in academic thinking, such as the postmodern project, ended up leaving departmental structures largely unchanged half a century later: if the academy’s institutions are conservative, that is because its ideological predisposition is centred upon self-legitimation, and there is little that can be done about that.

This, however, is also where some of the limitations of Fish’s public communications project come in. Having made his theoretical positions clear early, he then reiterates them in separate chapters on specific areas of argument such as law, academic criticism, and, oddly, marriage. After a while, although it is a short book, repetition does begin to be an issue, which can be a problem for public communication. More problematic can be the way in which Fish downplays or undermines the very utility of his own project. When, for example, he notes correctly that hate speech is a real phenomenon, and that words “can eviscerate you” (23) and should therefore be taken seriously, he offers little in the way of understanding what, if anything, we can do about that. If it is really the case that we are always merely going to be muddling through, and that in a highly ideological and mostly conservative social reality, then what exactly are the public, now given understanding of these rhetorical matters, supposed to do with them? His major piece of advice here is, in essence, hang in there and give yourself a break:

[I]f there is any lesson in this book, it is the lesson that the hope of rationality — the hope that we can master the contingencies of our lives by assessing and cataloging the dangers we would like to avoid — is unlikely to be realized….chances are that the next time you stumble into a crisis…you will perform no better than you did when you were eighteen years old. And if you do perform better (as I hope to do) it will not be because you have mastered an art by reading about it or theorizing it or taking a course in it, but because you’ve been around the track a few times and are finally beginning to get the hang of it. (128)

In a much earlier book, Self-Consuming Artifacts (U of California P, 1972), Fish gives a reading of Augustine’s De doctrina christiana which argues that, in telling the Christian speaker to rely on God for inspiration, Augustine effectively erases the very basis for writing a Christian rhetoric, submitting himself to divine guidance to the point that “the subject — the art of preaching — has been shown not to exist” (Self-Consuming 34). There is an odd way in which Fish’s perspective in this new book mirrors the charge that Fish once levelled against Augustine; for if it is really the case that reading a book about rhetoric won’t help you much with it, then what in the end is the point of Winning Arguments? Fish is well known for his belief (repeated in this book as well) that academic arguments have no point beyond themselves; but surely a popular book such as this is not supposed to function according to that protocol.

Fortunately, Fish’s book is in fact more useful than that (and incidentally, he was wrong about Augustine, who constantly emphasizes the importance of work, not merely prayer, in the mastering of rhetoric). Although his argument is in some danger of itself becoming a self-consuming artifact, eaten by its own insistence on provisionality and the inevitability of ideology, its overall perspective and cogent analyses of contemporary cultural situations from a rhetorical point of view provide a fine and even admirable example of public humanities communication. It should at the least provide a model for more such books by more such scholars.