Grasping at Totality and Defying Genre: Toward Spectral Thinking in Humanities Scholarship

There I was, a rhetorician reading poetry.

I found this amusing given the disciplinary history of rhetoric and poetry. Aristotle wrote a treatise called The Rhetoric and another called The Poetics because those were separate fields for him. However, the two exist between the same covers on my shelf as The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle with an introduction that reads:

“The distinctions between the provinces of rhetoric and poetics have been especially liable to being confused” (Corbett v).

For example, Gideon Burton, a BYU rhetorician, has multiple poems in the anthology Fire in the Pasture: 21st Century Mormon Poets. Meanwhile, Lance Larsen has a poem called “Rhetoric Summer” in his first book Erasable Walls.

In his new critical anthology, The Heart of American Poetry, Edward Hirsch writes, “There is a conversation in American poetry that is also a colloquial about American life. Each individual poet, wittingly or unwittingly, consciously or unconsciously, contributes to this exchange and discussion” (xvii). Hirsch compares poetic conversation to a family quarrel that can get heated or even violent. He writes this summative paragraph that further dissolves the line between rhetoric and poetry:

“… our poetry moves fluently between speech and song, the casual comment and the determined prophecy; it rises almost imperceptibly from the sometimes expressive, sometimes blighted colloquial to something loftier, a higher rhetoric… and this eloquence is part of the unsung wonderment of our poetry” (xxvi).

Speech and song, comment and prophecy, rhetoric and eloquence. These lines are blurry indeed, these points of connection strong.

Speaking of genre, Chris Crowe said the following:

“Nowadays, it appears that traditional genre rules no longer apply, and trying to contain the creative evolution of [a genre] is like trying to draw boundaries on water. The traits are fluid and ever-evolving. And sometimes it seems that as soon as someone redefines what a [genre] is or must be, some author takes that as a challenge to write a book that blurs or obliterates those boundaries.” (8:33-8:55)

The poetry/rhetoric relationship is, for me, personal. My father is a poet who was a student of Lance Larsen and then a student of Ed Hirsch at the University of Houston. When Hirsch visited BYU for the English Reading Series last fall, we snapped a pedigree photo. Looking at it was a realization—it made me feel that I had broken some powerful poetic line.

When I expressed these regrets to my father, he replied that the picture traced generations of “literary influence.” He widened the scope from a pedigree of genre to a pedigree of humanities scholarship in general.

The question is only ever one of size and scope, never truly one of type.

Let us pause here.

In my estimation, novice and limited though it may be, I have just performed one of the major moves that I consistently observe in contemporary humanities scholarship: the erecting and subsequent blurring of boundaries, the separation and subsequent troubling of binaries, the division and subsequent complication of distinctions.

To me, however, this trope of scholarly discourse appears to be intellectually reductive and predictable. The categorization/recategorization game relies on definitional constructs that are always liable to limitation and revision. Definitions are like boxes—they necessarily contain some things and exclude others. Any definition, or box of assemblages, is easily critiqued based on what is inside or what is missing. The result is little production of knowledge and abundant wrangling of terms.

Genre theory provides ways of thinking about categories and their complications. Devitt argues that the field of composition is “riddled with dichotomies” such as form/content, product/process, individual/society, but that recent theories of genre can unify these ostensible dualities (573). Thus, Devitt first critiques the early definition of genre as an “infinitely modifiable classification scheme” (574). She writes:

“Other writers propose broader or narrower schemes of text types: literature and nonliterature; narrative and nonnarrative; narrative, exposition, argument, description; the lyric, the sonnet; the Petrarchan sonnet. Whether called genres, subgenres, or modes, whether comprehensive or selective, whether generally accepted or disputed, these systems for classifying texts focus attention on static products” (574).

While Devitt acknowledges that classification schemes can be useful for some purposes, her new definition views genre as “response to recurring rhetorical situation” (575). This rhetorical and social theory of genre sees genres everywhere, from the breakup text to the Christmas card.

Thus, Devitt makes a similar move of acknowledging dichotomies and then trying to collapse them. However, Devitt dismissively ignores the issue of scope when she groups “genres, subgenres, or modes” as all belonging to the same static classification system (574). Per my observation, even the rhetorical theory of genre relies on the principle of scope to guide its boundary lines.

Scope is defined as “the extent of the area or subject matter that something deals with” (Oxford Languages). This is an appropriate concern for humanities disciplines—our “fields of study.” We frequently define and redefine the limits of our subject matter and sometimes exhibit disciplinary anxiety over the scope of our artifacts and methods.

Greetham writes of “guarding disciplinary territorial rights” in the many subfields of textual scholarship (2). Gaonkar traces “anxiety about the critical object” in the field of rhetoric (290). Jasinski writes that constant efforts to expand rhetoric’s domain have caused a “globalization of rhetoric” (xxii-xxiii). Both literature and rhetoric struggle to limit their realms of relevant subject matter; English departments eat up film and cultural studies even as they turn away from traditionally defined “literature” for more and more diverse cultural texts.

In short, the issue of scope is at the heart of disciplinary turf wars and interdisciplinary impulses.

The issue of scope is at the heart of disciplinary turf wars and interdisciplinary impulses.

Chabon provides a powerful way of thinking about scholarship, scope, and the humanities in his 1,265-word Introduction to the Wes Anderson Collection. Because “the world has been broken for as long as anyone can remember,” writes Chabon, an “ache of cosmic nostalgia… arises” (21). So, “The question becomes: What to do with the pieces?” (Chabon 21). Like putting together a jigsaw puzzle when pieces are missing, all we can do with our bits of life experience “is to build a little world of our own. A scale model of that mysterious original, unbroken, half-remembered” (Chabon 21-22). Chabon concludes, “We call these scale-models, ‘works of art’” (22).

Chabon compares Wes Anderson films to Joseph Cornell’s pioneer boxes of assemblage art. For Cornell, the box “draws a boundary around the things it contains and forces them into a defined relationship” (Chabon 23). Like a magician, artists “put the world into a box” which, when you peer into, “you see something dark and glittering, an orderly mess of shards, refuse, bits of junk and feather and butterfly wing, tokens and totems of memory, maps of exile, documentation of loss. And you say, leaning in, ‘The world!’” (Chabon 23).

Chabon captures “the magic of art, which renders beauty out of brokenness” (23). The box analogy is apt for definition and genre. Works of art as scale models of the world is also a rich analogy. Both raise the issue of scope, for humanities scholars study the small to understand the big. Scope is so indigenous to the humanities that our metaphors for scholarship reflect it; the equation of text with artifact, theory with a lens, conjures a magnifying glass or microscope that looks at bits of human life to understand its totality. The notion of artifacts as cultural informants comes from archaeology, a discipline that reconstructs historical epochs from pottery shards and toppled stones.

In this way, imperfect scale models mirror the brokenness of the imperfect world, just as the “academic futility” of the humanities attempts to grasp what it means to be human from analyzing mere fragments of humanity (Groom 15).

British Romanticism was similarly defined by the impulse to grasp at totality and simultaneously defy genre. According to the Norton Anthology for that period, “Percy Shelley’s phrase, ‘the desire of the moth for a star’—came to be revalued as the glory of human nature” (Lynch and Stilllinger 19). So too with Blake’s assertion that “Less than everything cannot satisfy man” (Lynch and Stillinger 19). The editors write, “This defiant attitude towards limits also made many writers impatient with the conceptions of literary genre they inherited from the past” and led to “an astonishing variety of hybrid forms” (Lynch and Stillinger 19). These blended forms, elegiac sonnets, lyrical ballads, historical novels, were works “of cosmic reach” (Lynch and Stillinger 20).

If genre difference is one of scope, then categories exist along continuums.

Here’s my personal takeaway: scope may provide a way of thinking about scholarship in more sophisticated and nuanced ways. Rather than defining a concept as this or that, and then muddling the very definition, what if we were to adopt a more spectral kind of thinking? What would happen if we looked for differences of degree rather than differences of kind, and that too for a host of individual qualities. If genre difference is one of scope, then categories exist along continuums. These continuums need not be hierarchies; in fact, they may even be cyclical. Extremity in one quality is the dramatic lack of another.

I’m suggesting a scholarship based on terms of “more than” or “less than” estimations and evaluations of the scope of a given quality, rather than categorizations of “is” or “is not” followed by dissolution of those definitions in turn. For is a poem a genre? Or an elegy? A couplet is—then what of a thesis sentence? Surely parts of speech are nothing but genres of words, and film lies on a spectrum alongside art and music. For any given value, element, feature, or criteria, one could proceed along a spectrum of variation.

Spectral thinking allows for a widening or narrowing of scope. In fact, research is taught as an iterative process of expansion and contraction—periodical zooming out and then homing in to fine-tune a narrow insight that contributes to major issues.

This is my invitation to you, and to myself, in the new year. Read widely. Publish narrowly. Switch. If you feel you have been laser-focused on something, perhaps transcend your current boundaries. If you have been fleeting wildly, reduce your range to a very specific target. This is a nonlinear process, and the temporal time periods between scope-shifting can be short or long. This tendency is as natural as it is human, as essential to the work of the humanities as the expanding and contracting of a pulsing heart.

Say, are not states of matter but genres? Do not ice, water, and air blur due to the expansion and contraction of atoms? The question is only ever one of size and scope, never truly one of type. The microbe and the mammoth both fall under the category of “living things.” Sure, if the scope is narrow enough it can fixate on two ideas, and they will appear to be dichotomous—polar opposites. But I have a feeling, that if the circle of scope gets wide enough, all truths will fit within it like one great whole.

This blog post was written by Isaac Richards, Humanities Center Intern. 

Works Cited

Chabon, Michael. “The 1,265-Word Introduction.” The Wes Anderson Collection by Matt Zoller Seitz. New York: Abrams, 2013.

Corbett, Edward P. J. “Introduction.” The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle. Translated by W. Rhys Roberts and Ingram Bywater, with an introduction by Edward P. J. Corbett, Modern Library, 1984.

Crowe, Chris. “A Novel Idea.” Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecture, 26 May 2021,

Devitt, Amy. “Generalizing About Genre: New Conceptions of an Old Concept.” College Composition and Communication, vol. 44, no. 4, 1993, pp. 573-586.

Gaonkar, Dilip Parameshwar. “Object and Method in Rhetorical Criticism: From Wichelns to Leff and McGee.” Western Journal of Communication, vol. 54, no. 3, 1990, pp. 290-316.

Greetham, D.C. Textual Scholarship: An Introduction. New York and London: Garland Publishing Inc. 1992.

Groom, Nick. The Making of Percy’s Reliques. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

Hirsch, Edward. The Heart of American Poetry. Library of America, 2022.

Jasinski, James L. “Introduction: On Defining Rhetoric as an Object of Intellectual Inquiry.” Sourcebook on Rhetoric: Key Concepts in Rhetorical Studies, SAGE, 2001.

Lynch, Deidre Shauna and Stillinger, Jack. The Norton Anthology of English Literature 9th Edition: The Romantic Period, Volume D. New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2019.

“Scope.” Oxford Languages, 2023, web.

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