Carolyn Miller, in her essay “Learning From History: World War II and the Culture of High Technology,” attempts to summarize the changes that have been made in rhetorical situations in the second half of the twentieth century. At one point she says “The management changes [introduced by the Kennedy-Johnson administration in 1961] created new rhetors and buried them under layers of bureaucracy, created new interests that in turn provided new exigences and constraints, and altered the means of persuasion” (297).
Who are the new rhetors? According to Miller, the new rhetors are the people who influence the distribution of governmental funds into and the scope of governmental oversight of scientific projects. People like Vannevar Bush who headed the Office of Scientific Research and Development and who Miller credits with having been extremely instrumental in shaping postwar government policy with regard to science. Bush and others like him argued for a policy whereby the government invested in scientific research while allowing private corporations to retain control over the technology (products) created by that research.
It is just this science-centered public policy that has resulted in the “reverse-hierarchal” model that Miller attributes to Jean-Francois Lyotard. In this reverse hierarchy, it is the technology, driven by the profit motive, that is the driving force behind scientific research. Certainly one can see this in fields such as the pharmaceutical industry, the defense industry, telecommunications, etc., where most, if not all, scientific research is undertaken, often paid for with government funds, with the technological product in mind. It is the new rhetors, a class of bureaucrat that has come into existence since world war II, who affect society by determining , through the investment of government money, the direction of scientific research which is in turn driven by the technology, by products, by Burke’s cult of commodities.
If we explore technology as a space for rhetoric, we can benefit from considering Kenneth Burke’s view on the subject. In A Rhetoric of Motives, Burke refers to technology as a cult of commodity. He says “([T]he doctrine that might be summed up: ‘It’s culture if it’s something you can buy’)” (192). Burke goes on to say that since human beings are symbol-using (rational) animals, and since a symbol is in part an attempt to transcend the thing symbolized, then technology can be seen as a mode of transcendence, albeit an inferior one.
If we accept Burke’s ideas on the how technology might fit into an ultimate order (indeed this assumes we accept Burke’s concept of order but that is surely a topic for a different essay than this), and we look at technology in light of Lyotard’s theory of a reverse hierarchy (as described in the Miller article), we arrive at a really interesting view of the rhetorical situation concerning postwar technology. In an inferior attempt to transcend the things symbolized by technological products, consumers are driving scientific research.
These two features of the rhetorical situation of postwar technology can probably be most clearly seen in the example of the pharmaceutical industry of today. Some of the most profitable drugs today are drugs designed to correct erectile dysfunction or produce “male enhancement.” Through the use of these drugs (with or without FDA approval) people are trying to make sexual intercourse either more enjoyable or at least possible, sex being a primary way that humans attempt to transcend the inherent separate nature of their condition and achieve a sense of what Burke calls identity. The product (sexual dysfunction drugs) then drives the scientific sector to come up with something that will work even better.
In this rhetorical situation, Miller’s “new rhetors” can be seen in a somewhat nefarious light. By allowing the technology of sex drugs to drive the science of pharmaceutical research, the new rhetors are perpetuating an inferior order of transcendence, (either the cult of commodity, the mystery religion of sex, or both) which prevents American society from looking for a higher level in Burke’s order of transcendence.
Given Miller’s short history of how scientific research has become government controlled and centralized, and given Burke’s claim that “sexual revolution” in a society can diminish that society’s fervor for political revolution, one can’t help but wonder at the fact that new rhetors of central governmental/scientific bureaucracy seem to be making choices designed to perpetuate that bureaucracy.