How to Write Literature Reviews

Who to Cite & When (How to Write Literature Reviews)

One writing process question that keeps resurfacing for me is:  How “far back” do I go?  Last weekend, I spent a lot of time working on my “Affrilachia” manuscript, revising especially the beginning, where I foreground my argument by making explanatory references to the theorists who shaped my perspective on Affrilachian art.  In my second paragraph, I explain:  “Drawing on postcolonial theorist Homi Bhabha and rhetorical theorist Jenny Edbauer Rice, I offer the framework of performative rhetorical ecologies as a way of recognizing, conceiving, and valuing groups who live within the liminal, or “in-between” spaces of culture.”  Even before diving into Hauser, I started feeling nervous.  Who else has expressed conceptions of “rhetorical ecologies” and “performative rhetorics”?  Beyond Bhabha there is Bellah.  Butler.  Cushman.  Debray.  Hartigan.  Rice.  Squires.  Warner.  Now Hauser.  Do I footnote them?  Do I incorporate them into my narrative framework?  How many of them?  Where do I draw the line?  When will my reader get frustrated and want to hear what I have to say—my contribution?  How “far back” in theoretical/scholarly time do I go?

As I read Hauser, I got more and more excited.  He begins by extending Habermas’ ideal bourgeois public sphere into a multiplicity of public spheres, wherein the discourse of “social actors who are attempting to appropriate their own historicity” (55) makes a public emerge.  For him, discourse is essential to the emergence of publics, and our discourses are always multifaceted, contradictory, active, and interactive—or what other theorists might call “networked” (Cushman; Foster; Galloway).  When I arrived five pages later at Hauser’s first reference to “environmental” scenes of discourse, I stopped right quick.  Environmental!?  Rhetorical ecologies?!  “The communicative ecology shapes our public spheres” (60)!?

Who came up with this first?  For my Affrilachia manuscript, I imagine Edbauer Rice as the mother ship from which I spring.  In her 2006 essay, “Unframing Models of Public Distribution:  From Rhetorical Situation to Rhetorical Ecologies,” she explains that language is constantly shaped into a multiplicity of pathways that resemble an active, ecological system.  “The rhetorical situation,” she claims, “should become a verb rather than a fixed noun” (13).  In other words, rhetoric is active and this activity takes place within a space of “movements and processes” (11) rather than within material- and time-constructed borders.  Identity is performed in an interactive, social process that depends upon language.  For Rice, rhetoric occurs in the realm of the public:  it is not a single voice, but a “concatenation” of voices that occur in an “ongoing space of encounter” (5-6).

Seven years earlier, Hauser’s saying the same thing!  We should “conceptualize publics as processes” (55).  Scholars should “engage in analyses of the rhetorical ecology as well as the rhetorical acts, including their own, by which they evolve” (110 emphasis his).  There it is!  Bright as day:  “rhetorical ecology.”  Yet when I look at Rice’s bibliography, there is no reference to Hauser.  Doesn’t this happen quite frequently in this “dappled discipline” of ours?  Shouldn’t somebody make a chart of the hereditary lines of our field?  While discussing Debray, someone in our class exclaimed:  “It doesn’t seem like his guy’s read any rhetorical theory.”  Why hasn’t he?  Or has he, but he doesn’t see its value in his argument?  Has Rice read Hauser?  If so, why not mention him?  How “far back” should we go?  How many times have I asked this?

I reframed my question:  Where do I stand on this issue?  As I answer, of course I’ll have to “go back” and give credit where it’s due (even if I’m unsure of who or how many whos I’ll give credit to).  Still, the most valuable moment of my revising this weekend occurred when I stood and articulated my thoughts aloud to my husband—said them in my own words rather than through the words of others.  For the first time, I had confidence in my ability to revise this manuscript.  It came as a huge relief to a writer just starting to enter a very overlapping, intimidating “concatenation of voices”—to know I have a voice of my own among them.

Comments 2

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    My notion about that question is to go back to your “mother ship” — i.e., the person who introduced you to the idea — and check who they have cited to see their background. My gut instinct is always to cite the people who make you excited and footnote the rest with one of the usual “Other thinkers on the topic such as Dr. Blank argue” or “Alternate perspectives are presented by” lines. (Isn’t it scary that I have internalized the genre conventions of the academic footnote to the point where I have a canned introduction set for them?)

    1. Avatar

      I think those canned intros are smart tricks of the trade. Similar to the templates offered in They Say/I Say, which are so helpful to demystifying the murky, overwhelming waters of academic writing!

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