AL 805 Reading Responses

Response #1

The question that has been at the front of my mind while working my way through this week’s readings is somewhat tangential to the idea of historiography, but if external forces are trying to make history a science, and if we are doing the history of rhetoric, and rhetoric is the opposite of science…that is to say, I am not convinced that science is the opposite of rhetoric. The idea echoed in several of our readings that the definition of science is a kind of communication where you present unadorned, arhetorical logical data and the pure value of your data instantly convinces your audience that you are right makes me cock an eyebrow. Certainly, scientific papers are written this way, but at various points scientists have to persuade someone of something—science is full of ambiguity as much as no one would like to admit it (see Gödel or any singulatarian for examples…) and at various points people doing science will use something other than the “dissertative” mode of address. I had a thought that science rhetoric lives in the space between the PowerPoint presentation and the ear, when the contemporary scientist actually has to explain why her theory is better than someone else’s to a hostile crowd. B&W address “The New Rhetoric of Science” (p. 28) but the examples provided in that portion of the article are either from very old science (Galileo) or based around Kuhn. I am more curious about the acts of persuasion done by scientists rather than the rhetorical “procedures of legitimation” done by whole communities. I appreciated the point in B&W (p. 23) that 20th century science was paradoxical and weird enough to re-invite rhetoric to the table, but I would contend that all earlier science (i.e. from the “rhetoric is banished” Enlightenment/Romantic period) had a rhetorical aspect as well—perhaps (as White says about a bad narrative showing you more about what a narrative is than a good one) it is most easily found in the discredited sciences of the era (I am mostly thinking of “racial science” here but antique scientific thought about the inferiority of women would also work).

White’s engagement of Hegel’s ideas of history raised many questions for me regarding the history of rhetoric. He invokes “Hegel’s remark that periods of human happiness and security are blank pages in history” (11). What is the rhetoric of contentment? He also invokes that “the reality that lends itself to narrative representation is the conflict between desire and the law” (12). What legal system is in place for the history of rhetoric? If I’m understanding DeCerteau correctly, he’s accusing this idea of conflict of being a fiction. “The historiographer depends on ‘the prince in fact’ and he produces ‘the virtual prince’ (8). Where White invoking Hegel says that the writing of history comes from the tension caused by the existence of the rule of law, DeCerteau says that the writing of history upholds the law and the “prince”—the prince is the one who “makes history” and the historian just gets to take direction without holding power.

All of these articles presuppose that the creation of a history is done through writing. What about weaving a history? What about sculpting a history? The various models of historical writing left me wondering about memorials and historical hyper-texts (and memory as well)—are objects that refer and help remember events of the past a mode of doing history as well as the annals and the chronicle?

Response #6

The Aristotelian categorizing impulse is clearly at work in Book II of Francis Bacon’s “The Advancement of Learning”, while at the same time grappling with Aristotelian philosophy in regards to science . Paraphrasing the end of the introduction, Bacon says, one man cannot remove all of these obstacles to learning—he can only point the way. But, one man can write a survey of how the university as an institution might be improved. He can’t change the world himself, but is approaching his task out of love, and asks forgiveness for impertinence. “For as it asketh some knowledge to demand a question not impertinent, so it required some sense to make a wish not absurd.” (i.15)

Bacon’s work is framed as a direct address to King James in regard to how to best reform the University system, but is really a treatise categorizing all the different kinds of human knowledge and study. This is in a way similar to Cicero’s structure of “On Oratory” as embedded in a letter to his brother. As discussed in Abbot’s article, Cicero was if not the only model for discourse, he was considered one of the best people to imitate.

What are the affordances of indirect address? Perhaps it works to be a more effective treatise by avoiding a direct rebuke of the people who are not studying the things he thinks ought to be studied—as in parliamentary debate, where all criticisms of others get directed to the chair, perhaps directing criticisms of other people as a petition to the king is a less antagonistic method than addressing scholars themselves.

Patterns of thought emerge in this set of readings regarding how the authors relate to the Ancient Greeks and Romans. It seems like at this point in history, the ancient forms are still being idolized and emulated but the content of the Greek philosophers is being used differently. While the philosophers were put to work by Augustine and the scholastics to make Christianity logical, Renaissance thought (at least in the case of Bacon and Locke) grapples with their ideas about the world. Locke believes Platonic ideas about forms and essences, and innate knowledge, are wrong and that there is no such thing as innate knowledge. It makes me wonder, is Locke arguing against Plato’s ideas as a rhetorical strategy, or because he has to? I think I just answered my own question, but really, what would these texts be like if they did not constantly refer back to Ancient Greek and Roman texts? Bacon is constantly quoting the sayings of others about the areas of thought and knowledge he uses—but this is how the elite were taught to write, by keeping a commonplace book of pithy quotable bits that suit different arguments. Locke’s analysis would make sense on its own, but a connection to Greek thought about the nature of the mind and knowledge is a legitimating device—would his philosophical ideas been dismissed outright if he did not situate himself as such? And rhetoricians are still putting themselves in relation to Greek and Roman thought as a legitimating device.

It is interesting as well at this point in history to see how the principles of effective speech are put to work as principles for writing. Written and oral communication are not the same thing, although writing can transcribe speech. Is it intuitive to think that the ideas one would use to create a persuasive spoken document would be the same as those for a written document? With the massive intellectual fetish for antiquity, rhetoric is the closest available field of knowledge to apply to the art of writing, but I would contest that it is as much about finding the closest suitable thing from Greek and Roman tradition to apply as the inherent relationship between writing and speaking.

Response #7

One of my own intellectual assumptions that drives my scholarship is that there is a meaningful connection on many different axes between indigenous Mesoamerican forms of writing and contemporary comics. As we’ve seen from parsing the fictions of the continuity of the classical tradition in Europe, you don’t actually have to have a genealogical connection to an intellectual tradition to jump on board. The readings on Afrocentric theory in relation to African-American rhetoric were really helpful in conceptualizing a rationale for this, but at the same time my project is different. The tradition I imagine is morphological—a tradition of forms. Specifically, an alternative visual rhetorical tradition that has classical roots on this continent, the principles of which can be applied to the creation and analysis of visual rhetorical media now, specifically comics.

Comics history has this big emphasis on who drew what, and when, but I am concerned with who was drawing in what eras and to what significance? As far as significance goes, I’m more inclined to want to look at pictoral writing systems that consisted the entire writing system for a civilization rather than individual 19th century British political cartoonists. This makes me seem crazy and weird. Especially because I’m white and I care about this, which complicates things. (An issue I related to in the work of Castillo…)

The contention over what counts as writing and what counts as a book that Mignolo investigates is very familiar to me in a totally different context. The struggle for legitimization of comics as a literary form, in my opinion, desperately needs to be historicized. I feel like the canon of comics is being established in the wrong way—what is happening is that some “good” comics are being elevated to worthiness of study, rather than the form itself becoming more highly valued. Now, this is all rapidly changing anyway and people are bound to disagree with me (there’s actually a panel on this topic at one of the regional MLAs in the spring in Boston) but I still contend that the application of Mignolo’s work and others’ to my own field of research would be transformative. I do fantasize about transforming a field of study through my scholarship. That is why people go to grad school, right? (On a semi-related note, Castillo’s application of the idea of polyphony is also really interesting to me in relation to comics (hello word bubbles) but I’m not sure to what degree Bakhtinian ideas have been applied in the field. I feel like someone has probably already done it but I just haven’t read it.)

On a different note, I think it’s really interesting to see a historical analysis of the colonial ideology of language and how it comes into conflict with the practicality of teaching language. The idea that you can decide or change what language people are going to speak in a territory by signing a law seems mighty familiar… I can also see the trajectory of Latin through scholastic education, into humanistic education and into the enforcement of “civility”. The Greco-Roman/Euro-appropriated rhetorical tradition as a weapon of colonization, an intellectual tool to re-educate and enculturate—in answering the question, what structures, forms, and patterns of thought are established here, the legacy of “civilization” through coerced education, but also survivance through appropriation of the dominant language and form (ie. the Badianus Codex).

Response #8

Last week in class, I brought up how the ways we have imagined continents and nations that map onto real geography affects how we imagine virtual worlds, and replay colonial narratives. Julie chimed in with, “Like World of Warcraft”. But, that’s not the only virtual world I was thinking of in bringing up a virtual colonial imaginary—I was actually thinking of the series of games called “Civilization”. They are one of the more highly-problematic kinds of fun that I have had in my life but the game mechanics are a great example of the imagined teleology of technology.

Part of the game is developing new technologies, that each allow you to either make a new kind of warrior/soldier unit, or a development for your cities (like aqueducts) or build a different Wonder of the World, with its own benefits; there is a branching tree of technologies with direct developmental pathways from early inventions like writing and ceremonial burial to later inventions like Communism and electricity. In the latest version of the game, the tree goes from alphabet to writing to literacy to the printing press, and if you have the printing press and corporations, you can invent mass media. Universities are somewhere in there, and so is the Library of Alexandria.

I think that the patterns of thought that emerge from this week’s readings is evident from their revisionary purpose—the idea of a universal developmental path that leads every “civilization” from cave-dwelling to the western idea of a city and technology is false, even when applied to European history. Eisenstein’s work shows us that our fantasy narrative of European print-literate culture doesn’t even reflect on how that culture developed. It’s like we’re playing Civ—an onscreen menu pops up telling us we have invented the printing press. Great! We instantaneously have it everywhere. Then we invent literacy. Poof! Everyone is literate.

The colonial fantasy is not only that we have the best culture, we have the only culture worth having, the only “real” culture. From that perspective, our form of writing is the only kind of writing worth having, and the definition of writing itself should come from our imagined history. The imaginary history of rhetoric also sets up the field as being the heirs to the only culture worth having, classical Greece and Rome, falling into the same patterns of thought as non-Greek, non-Roman Europeans.

Being “technologically advanced” in this mindset means being far along the evolutionary path. Now, I believe people blame Charles Darwin for too much, so I would prefer to name this as a Malthusian mindset. (I think I’m jumping ahead in history a little.) It is hierarchical. It is the great chain of being operationalized into a technological ladder that people have to climb to become civilized. It is a way of ranking people and putting the nation of the person doing the ranking at the top. A decolonial view of rhetorical technologies would recognize that they don’t all aim toward alphabetic representation, and they develop from the material situation of a people.

The idea that we can turn “civilization” into a winnable game with a score, with a randomly drawn world map of continents and randomly placed and selected peoples shows a lot about how the west views our own history. We could not make a game like this if we didn’t think of ourselves as the winners already. Now that we’ve won, we can start over virtually and see how things might have happened differently, if only the Aztecs were the ones to develop the Manhattan Project. What a silly game.

Response #11

“On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense” strongly brings to my mind the rhetorical style of trolling, outrageous internet discourse intended to provoke a strong reaction from an audience. Perhaps I spend too much time on the internet, but I see the troll as a metaphor or critical lens for looking at many forms of discourse, Socrates included. I might have felt silly calling Socrates and Nietzsche trolls before taking this course; however, if it is appropriate for us to look back at the past through our contemporary definition of “rhetoric”, then I do not feel so weird applying a concept that has arisen through internet discourse to print and oral discourses. It has certainly helped me understand the conversational patterns of some people I have encountered through my first semester of grad school.

The troll is not a persuasive rhetor. He is convinced he is right, but instead of trying to persuade others with his rhetorical skills he challenges deeply held convictions and beliefs of his audience in a defiant and often mocking or condescending way, thus baiting people into arguing with him. The troll wants to argue. The troll wants to show you mad, and then how silly and wrong you are, and the provocation is the gauntlet dropped on the floor. This is a strong impression I got when reading Plato early in the semester, and at the same time I came across a Fark discussion thread by someone who claimed to be a “Socratic troll”, someone who baited people into arguing with him so he could prove them wrong by examining them with questions.

There isn’t a dialectic approach within the Nietzsche texts we read for this week but my first reaction to the shorter piece was still, “OMG, Amy, Nietzsche is such a troll.” It is a style that is not persuasive usually to people who don’t agree with you, but is often quite agreeable to people who agree with you already. So too, I do not mean at all to dismiss him by using this term to describe him. I think it is a useful category to think about when looking at the rhetoric of controversial ideas.

I suppose that is why I found myself smiling at “On Truth and Lies…”—many of these ideas are things I have heard before but from much later people. The connection between the turn to modernity and the postmodern era is very evident here in Nietzsche’s examination of the arbitrariness of language. I think it is also very interesting that he at the same time examines exactness in language and the opinions of “the ancients” while generating the idea that language is arbitrary. Can you hold both of those ideas in your head at the same time?

Still, the transition from talking about taste in language to talking about what language really is is also clear here. Nietzsche is in the mode of classical philology here, still grappling with what Ancient Greece and Rome had to say about rhetoric and language while at the same time inserting his own philosophical framework. If all language is metaphor, if all language is inherently rhetorical, and if rhetoric is by extension related to what the human language does naturally, that is, represent images and experiences and try to transfer them to someone else’s head via speech, then rhetoric can’t be morally deficient. If all speech is a lie, then it doesn’t matter that rhetoric can lie. Our contemporary conception of rhetoric has something in common with this idea—rhetoric is everywhere within speech and writing.

Response #12 (the Ball Pit essay)

In which I zoom right past the point and into a ball pit…

Ahhhhhhhhhhh terministic screens. I have come across this term in the past, and probably a lot of Burkean language, but never actually read any Burke. As I have mentioned previously, a fair amount of my experience in this class has to do with progressive light bulbs going on over my head. The exhortation as this course commenced was to bob gently in a big sea of ideas. But I think my problem is that I have been bobbing for a long time, and what I really needed to know was, how the hell did this sea get here?

Maybe a better metaphor than a sea is a giant ball-pit, like at Chuck E Cheese, and the balls are ideas and theories, and I’m constantly navigating them and batting them out of my way, without realizing that you can also throw them at people as convenient weapons.

Maybe that metaphor doesn’t work at all.

What I want to get at is: what is the basin for the sea of theories? Or: how to contain multiple and conflicting knowledges in one mind. Or, perhaps, just to know the origins of things.

I recently looked back at some old files on my hard drive, trying to figure out if I had actually read Spivak as a freshman in college. I think the answer is, we were assigned to but I got a few paragraphs in and gave up. But, I found an old study sheet with an enormous list of theories I was supposed to be able to define on the spot and apply to the dawn of modernity in a global context (including glocalization, subaltern, structural adjustment, hollow state, cumulative and circular causation, hybridization…the list goes on). No context, no narrative, an alphabetical list. (Then again, in the history of writing, can alphabeticity be a narrative in itself? Major digression.)

Transcribing my notes from this class to generate text for my final project, I came again to the question: “Where is the place of memory?” This question came up again last week in the context of Freud, and the distinction between remembering and repeating, specifically in our field. What constitutes remembering versus repeating? Everything is stories and the language of the story matters. The terministic screen of “The Rhetorical Tradition” and canonicity cuts off what we can talk about as rhetoricians, even with a “new rhetoric” definition in the first place.

I’m coming to the end of this semester feeling like I have a memory palace to organize all theories I have been swimming in. I think the place of memory in the history of rhetoric is to give context to all the theories we explicitly use, and the assumptions and practices and affordances that we often use without a critical thought. We need origin storieS for our theories and practices. One story is only enough for a homogeneous field, which is what I want to work against.

Does the language of storytelling have a terministic screen too? This question leads me back to the gaming metaphor. A text-adventure game, where you have to type commands for your character to explore and interact with the world, only has so many words that it can parse—it limits what you can do at all. Go left. Go north. Look up. Get lamp. By virtue of what game (world) you are in, there is a defined set of what you can do at all. So, the idea that a terminological question defines what you are going to do in the first place or the answers you are going to find is a familiar problem for me.

But what is determined by a story? That things happen. There is a beginning, a middle, and an end; and that there is a storyteller. A story has to come from somebody, right?

So. Along with the turn to modernity comes the distancing of the arts and the sciences. Is this the location of humans within the humanities? I think we can see this in Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (and also some of how Burke talks about critics). With this approach, rhetoric is not about a scientific logical method for pure minds to communicate—it’s not about having the most self-evident logic that instantly turns a switch on in someone else’s perfectly logical mind, it’s about persuasion and communicating with diverse individuals. There’s people in it, and not just proofs!

Maybe rather than a memory palace I am developing a rhetorical storybook. And with these stories, the imperative is on the reader/hearer to learn something from them, rather than from the teller to teach something with them. They’re symbols of something bigger and our puny human brains have the task of figuring that out.

Response #13

I don’t think I need to sit here and explain Derrida to anyone but myself. Any essay that ends with an assertion that writing does not exist…well, I’m surprised to say that I think I know what he means. My amateur’s interpretation tells me that it’s not that there is not a thing that we call writing, but writing is not a thing that is separate or definitonally different from speech acts, and that everything we utter as humans is a quote of something else in some way, and that all words don’t necessarily have a referent or a predicate. I do see where he is breaking up the sign/signifier/signified relationship as well. We don’t always speak/write in order to “communicate” an idea or to perform a speech act. The move he makes here is looking at a system to see where it breaks. The places where the rules fail or where things don’t work or break apart are not to be exiled, they can be seen as a new place to center analysis. I am not sure how I feel about placing myself in a dialectic with the great brain trust of the 20th century, but centering analysis at a troubled place in a theory seems like a good place to start.

What I got from Gates is that you don’t have to take a path through the French philosophers to arrive at a postmodern destination. Where Derrida is building theory out of the weaknesses of other theories, which I suppose is dialectic, Gates is building theory out of stories and traditions. Gates is responding to the existence of other theories in a sense, but he is critiquing dialectic on several levels. He isn’t arguing other critical theories point by point or disproving anything by arguing with it but going back before the existence of these theories to enumerate the origins of a new/old theory. He talks about how Esu embodies the multiplicity of meanings and the story of the two friends shows the contradictions of binary thinking, but his writing embodies that critique by multiplying the available means of criticism for African and disasporic studies.

What can I do with this as a rhetorician? Just because meaning is not fixed does not mean that meaning does not exist. Hypothetically, the postmodern debunking of true meaning or fixed reference should open (have opened) up a multiplicity of spaces to elaborate meaning(s). Instead of arguing over the “real” meaning of something, we are charged with holding in our heads the many contradictory and coexisting meanings of any given thing. I think the imperative that comes from Gates is to make meaning at the site of interpretation. This takes some of the power away from canonical texts—even if they do hold secret mysteries that we are tasked with deciphering, the power of meaning making lies with the theorists and interpreters, not with the holders of the canon itself.

I was struck by the assertion Gates references that reading is a form of life, which can then also be read (25). This seems like a weird place where Derridean instability loops around historically—writing isn’t a special thing we do, it’s just a thing we do like many other things. I think both Gates and Derrida are critiquing logocentrism, if I understand the meaning of this word correctly, but from different angles. This also cloverleafs with the definition of rhetoric that centralizes meaning-making practices. To colloquialize my lens on Derrida, there are too many people getting hung up on what words mean, and on words in the first place, when we are floating in a ball pit of units that may or may not have any connection to anything else. To put Gates in the ball pit, these units don’t have any necessary connection unless/until we, interpreters, put it all together, over and over.

email me at howesfra at msu dot edu