I’m reading a book by my colleague, Mel Gregg, called Cultural Studies’ Affective Voices (2006). As a novice to the field of cultural studies (up until now, my institutional affiliations have been with historians), the book demonstrates to me exactly what Gregg wants it to: that is, that cultural studies has something special to offer the humanities in the impassioned, unconventional voices of its key practitioners. I’m really enjoying the attention she gives to the formalistic aspects of these people’s work – Meaghan Morris’ reliance on anecdote to elucidate a point, for example – and to show how such things are significant to the force and appeal of their ideas. Her sustained interest in the tone of certain critics’ work is also new for me, accompanied by a contemplation of what this brings to the political project of cultural studies. Morris’ tone is presented in a wonderfully apt way, for example: she appears in this book as a difficult, ever-provocative friend, now personable and anecdotal, now spiky and intractable, given to outbursts of aggressively direct and personal criticism – difficult, but valuable because of it.
Reading this book made me think about the inept way so much scholarly work is judged within the academic community. The attention is usually on the arguments or ideas themselves: do they make ‘a significant contribution to the field’? Can they possibly be said to be ‘groundbreaking’? Certainly groundbreaking is a good thing: who would not want that in every work they read, were it possible? But what is also of value is the way an idea is put, the way a writer approaches or expresses it, and the extent to which her tone or style ignites her readers.
I am about to do a huge temporal shift here, as this point makes me think of another book I’m reading at the moment – something worlds away from the new-millennial intensity of Cultural Studies’ Affective Voices – this being American historian Richard Wightman Fox’s Trials of Intimacy (1999). The book itself is an instance of how a scholar’s voice can hook you in – I’m reading it in part for the pleasure of Fox’s lush, gorgeously descriptive prose. But he also talks about the significance of oratory and rhetoric to nineteenth-century Protestant American culture. Victorian Americans would sit for hours at a stretch listening to speakers teach, inspire or entertain them. We need to think of these audiences as ‘fundamentally different’ to audiences today, Fox says. ‘They were informed critics of rhetoric, gesture and voice… Whole vocabularies were available to describe the “timbre” and “register” and “method” of orators whose words could not be mechanically recorded’.
Fox cites one commentator at the end of the century who talked about the value of really good oratory. What made good oratory was the mode of delivery even more than the ideas being expressed, he said. ‘The test of oratory’ was ‘the power of the speaker to impart to his audience his life, to impress on them his conviction, animate them with his purpose’. This is rather too masterful a description for my liking, but it emphasises what most nineteenth-century audiences would have recognised: the power of the affective voice.