From Aristotle to crime scene: A forensics of the academic essay

Another article in TEXT Journal, this one on academic writing …

Writing in the academy is almost always about making a claim, or ‘case’, based on evidence, as one does in court: its rhetoric is forensic (L. forensis ‘in open court, public’, from forum), in Aristotle’s sense. Just as forensic rhetoric takes as a given the laws of the polis and is directed at persuading a judge (Aristotle 1991: 80-82), academic writing assumes a set of rules (one must be sincere, demonstrate one’s argument using evidence, and obey a certain decorum) and is written to persuade an assessor, namely a teacher or peer. And, since the Harvard ‘forensic system’ of essay writing in the late 1870s (Russell 2002: 51-63), it has often been taught in the language of forensic rhetoric: in particular, the apocryphal ‘rhetorical triangle’ of persuasion by ethos, logos and pathos (Booth 1963; Kinneavy 1971) and the informal logic of the enthymeme (Toulmin 1958). At its best, academic writing provides a forum to animate and air ideas. As such, it is amenable to what Eyal Weizman calls forensis: ‘a critical practice’ that ‘interrogate[s] the relation between … fields and forums’ (Weizman 2014: 9; compare Braidotti 2013 on the ‘forensic turn’). For Weizman, a field is a ‘contested object or site [of investigation]’ and a forum is ‘the place where the results of an investigation are presented and contested’ (Ibid.). Where forensics allows objects like bodies, weapons and scenes to ‘speak’, forensis can give voice to sites like academic architecture (Sturm and Turner 2011), forms (McLean and Hoskin 1998) or even essays. Here I explore the academic essay as a forensic site, ‘an entry-point from which to reconstruct larger processes, events and social relations, conjunctions of actors and practices, structures and technologies’ of the academy (Weizman 2014: 18-19). The academic essay is at once a report on research, an argument, a fractal structure, a means of assessment and, as this essay will argue, an exemplar of and exercise in performativity (Sturm 2012).