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A Q&A with Scott Sundvall

05 February 2019 Written by   Scott Sundvall

University Press of Colorado Blog Q&As share the perspectives of scholars working within their disciplines, bringing readers closer to their knowledge, research, and voices. Join us today as we talk with Scott Sundvall, assistant professor in the Department of English and director of the Center for Writing and Communication at the University of Memphis.

What outcomes do you hope will spring from your research?

I hope that the discipline of rhetoric and writing studies (RWS) can begin to respond to technological innovation and invention proactively rather than reactively. Considering the rate of speed at which technological innovation and invention now emerges, RWS is always behind the eight ball: by the time we appropriate and utilize one technology (medium, software, platform, etc.), another has already come about. In this sense, we’re too often recursively reproducing our own obsolescence.

With my new book, Rhetorical Speculations, I call for a speculative model of thought for RWS (theoretically, pedagogically, and institutionally) that enables the discipline to think with and through emerging technologies. I like to use the following analogy for thinking about/around our current technological condition, particularly as it relates to RWS: in baseball, in order for a batter to hit a home run off a fastball, the batter typically has to guess that a fastball is coming—and then commit to it. There is no time to think about a fastball after it releases the hand; you must speculate beforehand. If you speculate and commit to the fastball, you still might swing and miss (or strike out), but at least you had some shot at hitting a home run. And emerging technology is not throwing us any changeups. So we need to be willing to swing and miss (and strike out) in order to hit some home runs.

Have you observed that your discipline has had an impact on current events, or vice versa? If so, how?

We can’t ignore the “post-truth” condition of our times. A lot of work in RWS has responded to this condition with despair, looking for ways to provide some kind of corrective to the “post-truth” malady. But I see things a bit differently. The increasingly wholesale evacuation of truth is troubling, but when it comes to RWS, we can also place too much (of a Platonic) emphasis on truth. This is a question of doxa and episteme, or of the division of rhetoric and philosophy in the first place, though we don’t need to get into all that. As James Berlin pointed out, drawing from Louis Althusser, the truth is that much of our reality is structured by non-truths (i.e., ideology). Gregory Ulmer’s coinage of electracy called this long ago: from the true/false of literacy to the joy/sadness of electracy.

To see how affect rhetorically informs conceptions of (otherwise) truth, just look at the political landscape (and the current president). It’s no accident that celebrities started running for office after the revelation of what television could do for campaigns (i.e., the 1960 Nixon v. Kennedy debate). And so for me, it becomes a question of means rather than ends. When Michelle Obama declared that “when they go low, we go high,” one must wonder if the means are more important than the ends, insofar as rhetoric is concerned. In the face of extinction-level predictions for the future of our world, we should remember that scientific truth is not the only way to persuade people to save the world. In fact, scientific truth is rhetorically failing. For better or worse, we need to take an electrate c(l)ue from people like Trump—we need to appropriate that rhetorical logic. For better or worse, the Sophists did have that much right.

If you had to pick a question for everyone in your field to attempt to answer going forward, what would it be?

What are we doing and why are we doing it? I think this is a good question for any humanities discipline to ask itself these days. It keeps us on our toes in terms of ethos and ethics, principles and values, virtues and concepts. It’s when we start believing that the answer is self-evident that we end up producing poor questions with equally poor concepts (see Deleuze and Guattari’s What Is Philosophy?). In a more institutional sense, we could ask, Are we doing it in the best way possible? At least for RWS, the answer is a resounding no. The job market reflects this. But the resolution to such a problem is one that we need to more seriously engage.

What are the most critical current ideological divides in your field?

I think identity politics creates the biggest divide right now—and for good reason. I think we’re at a unique moment where many of us who thought we were rather “progressive” are learning that we perhaps aren’t as “progressive” as we once thought we were—and people can get defensive about that. A lot of us are making mistakes, and I hope that such mistakes produce dialogue for learning and change. A colleague shared a Facebook status today that asked, “When did I have my first black male teacher?” Such a question forces a lot of reflection. In other words, I don’t think identity politics creates the biggest “ideological divide,” per se, but I think it creates the most ideological tension, whether or not we want to admit. But again, I think this is a good thing.

Scott Sundvall is assistant professor in the Department of English and director of the Center for Writing and Communication at the University of Memphis. His work has appeared in Philosophy and Rhetoric, Composition Forum, Enculturation, Media Fields, Textshop Experiments, Itineration, Interstitial, Politics of Place, Rhizomes, and the edited collection Cybercultures: Mediations of Community, Culture, Politics. He is also the editor of the forthcoming collection Rhetorical Speculations: The Future of Rhetoric, Writing, and Technology.