Mere Rhetoric






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Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and, ah, here I am in my newly redecorated research cube. I’ve taped grey and yellow chevron wrapping paper over the old horrific 90s wallpaper and the books that completely fill my bookshelf are organized—somewhat. The tiny red and green Loeb editions look like Christmas decorations among the others and one whole shelf of books is tattooed with library barcodes. My door is propped open by the extra hard wood chair and is scrubbed clean—you almost can’t see the faint traces of pen from all of the strange graffiti, including one sloppy invitation for a previous occupant to get sushi. I’ve hung an orange-and-white abstract painting on the outside of the door and you can just see the corner of it from my seat. Why am I telling you about my cube in such detail? Because today we’re talking about Ekphrasis. Ekphrasis is the Greek term for description, a rich description that makes you see a scene before you in such detail that you feel like you’re actually there. Did it work? Did you imagine yourself in my cozy little cube?


Last week I talked about a how there was a sculpture of kairos that someone had written a poem about and I called it ekphrasis, but I may have given a very short definition of just what ekphrasis is. I’ve been thinking about ekphrasis for a long time, largely because of a 2009 book called Ekphrasis, Imagination and Persuasion in Ancient Rhetorical Theory and Practice. In this book, Ruth Webb seeks to rehabilitate ekphrasis from its long misuse. We think of ekphrasis as a describing a subject matter—art—in poetic practice rather than a method—bringing something “vividly before the eyes”—used for a variety of rhetorical purposes (1). When I first learned of ekphrasis, it was in a poetry class. The teacher showed us several poems that were written to describe pictures and then challenged us to find works of art that we could transfer into words. There are several famous poems that are ekphrasis. For example, do you remember Keats’ Ode to a Grecian Urn? Or William Carlos Williams’ poem about Landscape with Fall of Icarus ? Perhaps one of the most famous examples of ekphrasis, for ancient and modern students, is the description of the achilles’ shield in Homer. In fact, Webb figures that shield led to this confusion of describing an artifact rather than just describing something.


Webb doesn’t just tell us what ekphrasis is not; she describes how Progymnasmata  series of educational practices and other student handbooks influenced use and understanding of this tool that permeated rhetorical life from the arts (168) to the law courts (89) to the forum (131). Ekphrasis, then, isn’t just an ornament or a figure of speech—Webb claims that it is a “quality of language” (105), something that allows listeners and readers to become what she calls “virtual witnesses” of people, places, and events (95). You can imagine how it would be useful to bring your listeners in to become “virtual witnesses” if you were, say, a lawyer painting a picture of the crime, or if you were a politician petitioning for more military spending by describing a pitiful defeat. Through ekphrasis, your listeners become shared participants in an experience. You recreate an experience so we’re all together for a moment, seeing the same thing, feeling—maybe—the same way. Ekphrasis brings people in with you.


Because ekphrasis is more than just an occasional strategy, Webb has to cover a lot of ground in her book. She begins by describing the context in which ekphrasis was named, admired and taught, back in ancient Greece where memory was always connected with imagery (25). “Seeing” something was critically connecting with how you think and remember. For example, do you remember in a previous episode on canons, where we talked about how classical rhetors would create a place, say a palace, and then place facts around that palace so that they could visualize walking around to encounter the facts? It’s the same practice that popped up recently in an episode of the BBC series Sherlock. When you have a clear visual reminder of a place, an object, you can better remember the abstract principles or facts.  Another reason why ekphrasis was central to the Greeks was because of the way people encountered composition: whether or not a speech was written down, it was almost always spoken aloud (26). When you’re listening rather than reading, it can be difficult to pay attention to long abstracts, but being invited into a visual scene is refreshing and entertaining. No TV, remember? This understanding of literacy may seem alien to modern readers, so Webb has to explain them explicitly


 Then she introduces ekphrasis to us the same way it was introduced to Greeks and Romans: through the Progymnasmata and other handbooks of instruction. In the pedagogical explanation, Webb emphasized that ekphrasis was seen as formative for young learners, a tool to advance socially, and as an absolutely transferable skill (47-51).   Remember when we talked about the progymnasmata? The exercises that young Greek students went through? Well, ephrasis was part of the progymnasmata exercises and Webb sais it was “the exercise which taught students how to use vivid evocation and imagery in their speeches” as “an effect which transcents categories and normal expectations oflangauge” (53). She then gives readers a complete chapter discussing the subjects of ekphrasis that go beyond just descriptions of works of art, and, in fact, often focus on narrative aspects (68-70). She really has to define the term because we have several hundred years of misdefinition of the term as only associated with art.


Webb also introduces us to two versions of ekphrasis: Enargia which makes “absent things present” and Phantasia which she links to “memory, imagination and the gallery of the mind” (v). Here’s an example of enargia  from Theon: “When I am lamenting a murdered man will I not have before my eyes all the things which might believably have happened in the case under consideration? […] Will I not see the blow and the citicm falling to the ground? Will his blood, his pallor, his dying groans not be impressed on my mind. This gives rise to eneragia,[…] by which we seem to show what happened rather than to tell it and this gives rise to the same emotions as if we were present at the event itself” (qtd 94). Phantaias on the other hand, is creation, which might include “mythical and fantastic beats […] imagines through a process of synthesis, putting together man dna horse” (119) for example, or it might just be creatively expanding on the details of what we aren’t told. Quintilian describes this in terms of a quote from Cicero: “Is there anyone so incapable of forming images of things that, when he read the passace in [Cicero’s] Verrines ‘the praetor of the Roman people stood on the shoes dressed in slippers, wearing a purple cloak and long tunic, leaning on this worthless woman’ he does not only seem to see them, the place [..] but even imagines for himself some of those things which are not mentioned. I for my part certainly seem to see his face, his eyes, the unseemly caresses of both” (qtd 108). So there you have it. Ekphrasis can be about things that were or things that can be imagined To use an example, enargia would describe a scene that was distant, like a visit to Disneyland, while Phantaisa would create a scene that was fictional, like developing a new Disney movie adaption.




            Webb’s book is certainly readable and her argument is very thorough, taking in a very large range of Classical civilization, spanning several hundred years and including both Eastern and Western Roman Empires. She’s also made the convincing argument that ekphrasis was a little bit of the sublime that could be made an effective argument in almost any situation. Many texts that talk about rhetoric of poetics make the “audacious” claim that poetics can be rhetorical; Webb’s book seems to be claim that the rhetorical was often, poetic.


            I’m especially interested in this ancient idea that one thing a rhetor needs to do is make the audience see it, to be there and experience the event or object—existing, historical, hypothetical, or fantastic—to be “virtual witnesses” of it for themselves. This seems to be an interesting link between a logos-centered viewpoint that admits only one clear interpretation of objective facts and the obvious realization that the audience was being brought into “worlds […] not real” (169). The audience readily give themselves up to the “willing suspension of disbelief” to order to feel, and experience, the fictive ( and no matter its veracity, the ekphrasis is always fictive, even when the object is before the audience) world the rhetor carefully creates through word choice and selective description. There’s something potentially deceptive about ekphrasis. And to make a clean breast of it, I’ve bamboozled you, because when I’m writing this, I’m not actually in my cube—I’m flying in a window seat with an orange sunset lighting up the cabin from over the north Pacific Ocean. Even worse, I haven’t even redecorated my research cube—yet.  And I’m not sure where I’ll be when I actually record this episode. Right now, the scene I described so convincingly was a bald-faced…phantasia. But I made you a witness with me. Ekphrasis is so immersive that it can be hard to challenge it It’s too bad that we don’t know more about how audiences were trained to read these ekphrasis: the handbook information is wonderful for describing the theory and practice from the rhetor’s side, but what might be the equivalent for readers? How does an audience respond to ekphrasis? Should they be skeptical or allow themselves to be swept away in the description and become willing witnesses? Hey, I don’t have the answer to this question. If you have thoughts on the proper way to respond to the ways that words create worlds, drop us a line a Until then, I’ll be enjoying my nicely redecorated research cube. Maybe.




Direct download: Ekphrasis.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 3:56 PM





Remember back when we talked about kairos? Just to remind you, here’s a poem, a Greek poem, translated by Jeffrey Walker,  explain. This poem is ekphersis, a piece of writing that describes a piece of art, in this case a sculpture of Kairos done by Lysippos of Sicyon. The rest explains itself.




From where is your sculptor? Sicyon. What is his name?


Lysippos. And who are you? Kairos the all-subduer.


Why do you go on tiptoes? I’m always running. Why do you have


Double wings on your feet? I fly like the wind.


Why do you have a razor in your right hand? As a sign to men


That I’m sharper than any razor’s edge.


Why does your hair hang down in front? For him that meets me to grab,


By God. Why is the back part bald?


None that I have once passed by on my winged feet


May seize me, even if he wishes to.


Thus the artist fashioned me, for your sake,


Stranger, and placed me at the entrance as a lesson.




So here we have this figure of kairos, with a haircut that is party in the front and business in the back ad if you don’t grab him, too bad. It’s done. Game over, chance lost.




But then what? when you’ve missed your chance, what’s even left? Are you all alone as Kairos flits away?




Not really. The ancient Greeks created another figure, named Metanoia to describe the deep regret that comes when there’s something you could have done and you missed the chance.  MEtanoia literally means after thought, or after mind, I guess if you want to get picky about it. It’s similar to regret. As Kelly A Myers put it in her rhetoric society quarterly article, Metanoia was a figure that “resides in the wake of opportunity, sowing regret and inspiring repentance in the missed moment” (1).  It is “a reflective act in which a person returns to a past event in order to see it anew” (8)




In Roman poetry, metanoia accompanies the god of opportunity in Ausonius’s epigrams. The first part of the epigram sounds very similar to the ekphrasis of kairos poem “who are you” “I’m opportunity” “why do you look so weird?” “seize the moment” etc. etc. but then the questioner turns to metanoia “please tell me who you are.” “I am a goddess to whom even Cicero himself did not give a name. I am the goddess who exacts punishment for what has and has not been done, so that people regret it. Hence my name is Metanoea.”




There’s something weirdly compensatory in this accusation against Cicero. Metanoia is a such an important concept, Ausonius seems to say, that Cicero must have known, must have felt, but neglected to name. Metanoia is out there, but under studied and ignored.




But we’ve all felt that regret, haven’t we? Me, personally, I get that feeling in the shower, when dumb things I’ve said, or witty comebacks I should have said come sweeping in on me. I’ve also heard people getting hit with metanoia when they’re trying to sleep or when they’re driving or when they’re staring into a beautiful tropical sunset. It makes you want to stab your eyes out.








So what was the purpose of metanoia? What did it accomplish to feel such crippling regret? Hopefully such reflection and regret means that next time around you doing something different. Hopefully you change. This became a big deal as Christianity burst onto the scene. Metanoia became associated as a step of repentance, reflecting on the mistake you made before you can move forward. The New Testament uses matanoia as an “act of repentance that lead to spiritual conversion.” (9).


As kittel et al describe it “affects the whole man,” not just the brain.




It’s important that this emotional aspect of metanoia exists. Some sources point out that metanoia is always emotional as well as mental it is a “change of mind ad heart” (Liddell and Scott 1115) a “profound transformation of the epistemic orientation of the whole person” (Torrance 10). Myers points out that “metanoia ia the affective dimension of kairos” (2)






Metanoia as a rhetorical figure really hit its stride in the middle ages and beyond. Visual representations of metanoia became as common as kairos. Metanoia stuck with kairos, showing up in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, sometimes as a beautiful young woman and sometimes as a vengeful hag. Here’s the thing: there’s a moment of indecision, a Schrödinger's Cat  moment where you don’t know whether you will seize the moment or live to regret it.As Myers says ‘once a descion has been made or missed, the two part ways, but before that crucial moment they stand together” (4).




So when you think of kairos, think of the inverse as well, the potential for deep abiding regret that makes you want to burn your high school yearbook. But remember metamoia in the moment that comes, not just regretting what is past, but looking at where you are now and making sure you make the right choice right now, so that you don’t have to regret it later.




Direct download: metanoia.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 6:02 PM

Happy one-year anniversary!


  Welcome to mere rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insighters about the people, terms, and movement that have defined the history of rhetoric. Sponsored by the University of Texas Student Chapter of the Rhetoric Society of America. I'm Mary Hedengren at the University of Texas Austin and thank your for joining us on our inaugural podcast. Today we are going to talk a little bit about what is rhetoric? No more rhetoric says a politician or lets stop the empty rhetoric, it is time to cut the rhetoric and get to action. These are expressions that we hear all the time, rhetoric is one of the only fields that is consistently used as a pejorative. We know better than that though, we know that rhetoric is a dynamic field with really important thinkers and a lot of contributions to a lot of other disciplines, but do we actually know what rhetoric is? It is hard for us to define what rhetoric is when everybody seems to think that it is something like rhetricory to use Wayne Booth's term. So what is it? How do we explain to our potential fathers in law, aunts at family reunions, or hairdressers, what it is that we are doing with our time and our money? Well actually the history of defining rhetoric, is the history of rhetoric. This is a question that has been plaguing people for a really long time and trying to figure out what it is that we are doing and how to describe it becomes an obsession of a lot of the greatest thinkers. Today we are going to talk a little bit about some of these thinkers some of the ways that rhetoric has been defined historically and some things that might be useful for us now as we seek to find an answer to that pesky question, what is it that your doing? One of the biggest ways to sort of think about rhetoric is through metaphors and we will talk more about metaphors and the powers that they have in a later podcast. We might think about some of the ones that Plato brings up when he is talking about in the Gorgias. Is rhetoric sugar for medicine? Spoon full of sugar that makes medicine go down, that its able to sort of lighten the load of the hard truths of philosophical or scientific inquiry? Is rhetoric like fighting and boxing, and when we teach people rhetoric we are only giving them a neutral skill that can be used for positive purposes or negative purposes? These are the few of the many metaphors that come up to sort of try to describe what it is that rhetoric is about. Now some of the different definitions that have come up have been sort of through the western tradition. Plato for example called rhetoric, the art of winning the soul by discourse and we sort of think of plato as being sort of back and forth on how he felt about rhetoric. Sometimes he seems to think that rhetoric is a really bad idea, other times he is more concerned about how it can be done well and defining rhetoric in something that can be useful. So when he says winning the soul through discourse, he is really concerned a lot about how you can talk to somebody who you really love, and care for, and know a lot about them, and sort of have responsible good rhetoric. Aristotle on the other hand, instead of thinking about winning the soul by discourse, is more about finding the available means of persuasion. This is kind of a different switch from Plato were instead of rhetoric being something you use as an instrument, you have what could really be called defensive rhetoric. Just discovering its an act of invention, you sort of see what could be possible. This is going to be important for a lot of rhetorical history especially with pedagogs where people are starting to think about well how do we do exercises where people try to find all of the available means of persuasion? What could be done, what could be effective? Instead of thinking as purely its something that is practical. You may get this a lot when you are talking to people at parties, is rhetoric something that you just teach people so that they can use, so that they can give a good speech or give a good presentation or is rhetoric also something that you want to study so that people aren't taken in by huxtors, or are able to weigh an argument and be more balanced about it. This is a pretty big definition and it bears more conversation then we have time for here, but we'll probably talk about that in a later podcast and if not I encourage you to go through and sort of think about how that definition is going to impact the way that you give an answer and the way that you direct your own work. Now Cicero did a lot of different definitions of rhetoric and he is one of the guys who is most famous for sort of breaking up this one big art, rhetoric, into these several different sort of sub purposes or canons. So we have things like invention as being part of rhetoric and all the way back to memorizing the speech and giving a good delivery pronunciating the words that you say. All of these things Cicero says are part of rhetoric. These distinctions can be important for us as we try to define our own definition of what rhetoric is, are we going to say that rhetoric is about finding the information? Does it include the research that we go through? Does it include the things that impact the way that we do the research we do? What kinds of inquiry are appropriate for the kind of product that we want to produce? On the other side of things how much of rhetoric is delivery, the performace of it? In recent times we have sort of stepped away from thinking about performance to much as apposed to sort of what Cicero was thinking about where it was actually an oral performance where you stand up and entertain people and sort of get at many different sort of public speaking elements that you can to sort of hold their interest. This becomes something that we can really think about, especially this one with whether invention is part of rhetoric. Again back in history this is going to be a big question to sort of define what our field is some people are going to put Peter Ramos as sort of the bad guy in this story as somebody who says maybe rhetoric doesn't have to do with invention. Maybe rhetoric is just this other half, this delivery, how you polish it up, is rhetoric just a pretty face that we put on a good piece of philosophy. This definition may remind you a little bit about Plato idea that this is the spoon full of sugar that makes the medicine go down, but in another sense it is really taking out any sort of invention and putting that more in sort of the business of science as apposed to philosophy which I think is where some of these other Bacon and Ramos where sort of taking it. Now this starts to become a little bit more upended at mostly in the 18th century. We have people like George Campbell who all say that rhetoric is an art or talent by which discourse is adapted to its end. The four ends of discourse are; enlightening the understanding, pleasing the imagination, moving the passion, and influencing the will. These four ends of discourse become really important and they sort of trickle down a lot through textbooks during this period, is rhetoric something that is going to be involved with literature, and fiction in pleasing the imagination? Is it going to be something that moves our passions, changes our emotions, like a passionate appeal for a political change? Is it going to be something that enlightens the understanding? Do textbooks have rhetoric? These are some questions that sort of Campbell, his definition, are really going to influence with us. Now lets move finally to the 20th century and some of the definitions here. Kenneth Burk sort of changes our idea of what is rhetoric, he sort of says rhetoric is rooted in an essential function of language itself. A function that is holey realistic and continually born a new the use of language as a symbolic means of injected, inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols. This is kind of a step away from some of the things that even George Campbell was saying, what if rhetoric isn't just about persuasion? What if it isn't just about getting people to think the way you do? What if it has to do with any sort of cooperation based on symbols? This is a huge break it sort of breaks away from this idea that it has to be linguistic, or that it have to be about achieving some end, like George Campbell said. Its an exciting development and we will talk a lot more probably in an upcoming podcast about Kenneth Burk. This is a really cool place to sort of push rhetoric in another direction. Now we are finally moving into people who live today, this is not like we've settled the question of what is rhetoric. There are still a lot people who are trying to figure this out and put different definitions of it, the great leader and composition Andrea Lunsford says that rhetoric is the art, practice, and study of human communication. This is an interesting definition that might come up when you are talking with people, this is really hard problem because sometimes we are really good at the study of human communication but as rhetoricians are we responsible to think about the practice of human communications? How well does rhetorician do standing up in front of an audience, talking about their research. This is something that is making me super self-conscious, as somebody who is putting together a podcast, but how much of what we do is sort of divorced from this level where Cicero is talking about it as a performance, a practice, something that sort of happens out there as delivery. Another major trend that seems to pop up with a lot of these modern definitions of rhetoric is thinking about what the goal is for example Charles Chuck Bazerman talks about how rhetoric is the study of how people use language and other symbols to realize human goals and carry our human activities. There is something about getting it done, another definition that sort of focuses on this is, Gerald or Gerry Hosier's definition where he says rhetoric is an instrumental use of language. One person engages another person in an exchange of symbols to accomplish some goal, it is not communication for communication sake. Rhetoric is communication that attempts to coordinate social action, for this reason rhetorical communication is explicitly pragmatic. Its goal is to influence human choices on specific matters that require immediate attention. This is a really interesting idea and its one that Bears thinking about when your defining rhetoric for your friends and for yourself. Do you see rhetoric as something that accomplishes goals? Can good rhetoric be ineffective? A lot of times people think about this in terms of Edmund Burke, who was this great thinker and a fantastic writer. Someday we will talk about him I would like to think so and if not go online and check out some of his speeches because this guy is on fire, he is like one of the best speakers to ever come out of England and he gave one of his crem de la crem speeches, really strong one, saying hey England lets not go to war with America. Wooh! But what happened right? So here is a guy who is really good at what he does and really one of the top retorts, but when he speaks he doesn't bring about change. So was that good rhetoric or bad rhetoric? Does rhetoric depend on its efficiency with audience? Is it all about the ends or can there be good rhetoric that does everything that rhetoric should do, and is a shining beckon, but non the less fails to convince its audience? Another way to sort of think about this, one of my favorite examples is Eminem's song Mosh. Do you remember that? This was from the election, the second election, of George W. Bush, it was this awesome impassioned rap song that sort of tells people to go out and lets not re-elect Bush, and lets show him how angry we are, and its such an awesome piece of music, but you know what Bush didn't win and me I still think Eminem's a great rapper. So in some we have talked about a lot of good questions that you can think about in making your own definition of rhetoric. Is rhetoric something that you practice or is it something that is studied? Does it include invention and coming up with ideas? Does it include delivery and how those ideas are actually presented? Is rhetoric dependent on being language or does it work with any symbol? Does rhetoric always have to involve persuasion and if so does it depend on whether or not the goal is achieved? Whether or not that was good rhetoric? Well, as we continue to define, find sort of a definition of rhetoric the purpose of this podcast is going to be to sort of expand on some of these questions about what rhetoric is doing. We are going to talk about some of the most important ideas, some of the most important figures and some of the most important theories and movements that have shaped the rhetorical field. Decide for yourself what is rhetoric? Why is rhetoric important to you? What sort of advances in rhetoric are going to be the ones that you want to contribute? You can think for yourself, but one sort of one liney piffy definition of what rhetoric is may be coming from some of these theorists. Practice it for yourself a few times and that way next time when somebody at a party asks you what it is your study, you can have a good comeback, instead of just staring at your punch glass for a few more minutes. Well thank your for joining me today. Our first episode of mere rhetoric and if you have any questions or suggestions or things that you really would like to hear more about, feel free to email me. My email is and I will try to take listener questions sometimes, thanks for joining us and remember rhetoric is not just a pejorative.   

Direct download: what_is_rhetoric_rebroadcast.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 5:59 PM

A rebroadcast of my favorite rhetorician.

Direct download: rebroadcast_isocrates.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 2:15 PM

Transcription forthcoming!

Direct download: tyca.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 9:55 PM

Mary: Welcome to mayor rhetoric a podcast for beginners and inspirers that got ideas of people and movement who shape historical history today we have two great surprises one is the topic. We’re going to start our new series on people you didn’t know were rhetoricians, and were going to talk about Adam Smith in particular who was actually a rhetorician despite most people knowing him as an economist and because of that we have a second surprise which is our guest today, which is my own brother my favorite economist, Dave Hedengren.




Dave Hedengren: Hi Mary thanks for letting me be on the podcast, I’m a big fan.




Mary: Oh shucks, your just saying that because you’re my brother




Dave Hedengren: Well I’m listening to the podcast because I’m your brother, I’m saying that because I’m a big fan... anyway so I was shocked when you said Adam Smith worked in rhetoric.




Mary: Yea he did in fact it was his first job coming out of college was his equivalent of a star buck’s job in many ways,




Dave Hedengren: So what did they ask? so you told me he worked at rhetoric but I was like yea but it is like he had to teach fresh men writing his first year as a professor, like what do you mean he worked at rhetoric?




Mary: Well it was actually pretty prestigious, he was a lecturer, because back in the eighteen century they didn’t have Xbox so they didn’t have much to do, so they would have these societies where people would study things and they would hire somebody to come in and teach them about something Adam Smith was actually they hired to come and teach them about rhetoric.




Dave Hedengren: That’s cool, what kind of gig is that is it like a single off speaking fee where you like come in and you get to have some refreshments with some interested locals or is it like every week your there and people like keep talking to you.




Mary: The ladder they were societies and in fact the society that we think sponsored, Adam Smith was originally a medical society it was called the philosophical society of embrown. Which doesn’t really sound like it would be a medical society, but it was it started as a group of medical people learning more about medicine, doctors and then it eventually expanded to include science and literature and all of those things and they needed somebody to in and talk about rhetoric so they got Adam Smith to be the one to do it.




Dave Hedengren: That’s cool so he’s kind of younger guy's starting out his career and he does that.




Mary: Yea fresh out of college.




Dave Hedengren: And it’ the expectation that you’re expecting new ideas in these seminars, or you just kind of re-hashing, are you teaching that’s already known or are you expressing your original opinion on the topic.




Mary: Well what happens when a professor teaches a class.




Dave Hedengren: For undergrads I just assume they just teach what they already know what to read upon and then when you’re talking to lawmen, I assume it would be even more of the case you just get to the real basics of what the discipline teaches.




Mary: Well it’s kind of your interpretation of it right, so you start with what is generally accepted but you give sort of your commentary in your interpretation which is actually what Adam Smith has in these lectures so you will hear things like his opinion on the classics, so you can think about a long time to classics were a really big deal and people would go back and sort of extol especially Cicero and Adam Smith he does think highly of Earald Stotle and Cicero and Quintilian, but he wasn’t married to their ideas so he was willing to accept they had good ideas but only as much as it could be backed up with things that could be found, deductively from first principles that were important to him, propriety and what was the other one I was thinking about,[Dave Hedengren: Sympathy]yea propriety and sympathy.




Dave Hedengren: Yea so in your lecture notes, I feel like you’re going to go all stirred up, but the lecture notes you sent me he describes the classics as a very silly set of books and not of all instructive, I feel like you’re kind of soft pedaling it when you say it like Quintilian and Cicero, but you called the rest silly like was that.




Mary: But yea he did he thought it was silly and not instructive because it didn’t seem to match up with what he saw as the basic principle and in fact his ideas of what those basic principles were, were a little bit different from how we interpret the classics, so we’re use to thinking of Earald Stotle and Cicero and especially Quintilian as being really heavily invested in invention and spending a lot of time talking about how do you find topics that’s one of the common places things like that, but Sniff doesn’t really interpret it that way, so he does this quote where he says Cicero, Quintilian and all the best authors of rhetorical composition, treat the invention of arguments or topics and the composition or arrangement of them as very slight matters and of no great difficulty and never seem to be in earnest, unless they give directions concerning the ornaments of language and expression so you listen to the podcast [Dave Hedengren: Yea] does that sound like there classics








Dave Hedengren: No, it doesn’t sound like the classics.




Mary: Because that sounds like, I don’t know Petrous Raymous.




Dave Hedengren: That silly Petrous Raymous, oh my goodness, Petrous Raymous is a time traveler. [Mary: No] well if you’ll explain it




Mary: It could just mean that Adam Smith just had a misinterpretation of the classics because that’s certainly not how we see it is a little bit fuddling to hear that [Dave Hedengren: Yea] it’s possible that no... he probably.




Dave Hedengren: But so now okay let’s take a step back here, because we’re talking about what Adam Smith said about rhetoric but his final wish he was reaching out with his dying breath and said "You know those lectures I did on rhetoric ".




Mary: Don’t give away the end Dave




Dave Hedengren: Let’s talk about sympathy and propriety




Mary: So what did you actually did pick , so he was skeptical of some of the what he saw, classical emphasis on forms, instead of what we think of as rhetorical flourishes the kind that makes people mad when you’re talking about rhetoric he was very focused on clarity, and conciseness and a lot of the things we really see as a part of the angle American style and so he would say that the perfection of style consist in expressing in the most concise, proper and precise manner the thought of the author and not the manner which best convey is the sentiment passions or affection with which it affects him in which he design to communicate to his reader. So you have, it sounds a lot like common sense right, listen to this, this is another part that Smith says: When the sentiment of the speaker is expressed in a neat, plain and clever manner and the passion or affection he is possessed of and intended by sympathy to communicate to his hearer is plainly and cleverly hid off, then and only then the expressions have all the force and beauty that language can give it.




Dave Hedengren: Yea, which I totally dig, I think that’s a nice way to, I mean maybe this is just my simplistic not of the tradition reading of it, but it seems like yea that’s exactly what rhetoric should be going for say what you want to say but make it said.




Mary: Would you say that its common sense.




Dave Hedengren: it is common sense, did he create did Adam Smith invented common sense.




Mary: Well let’s not get carried away, I mean there was a whole social mehu here of common sense the Scottish philosophers were really digging this idea [Dave Hedengren: yea] so yea this was capital c capital s  common sense and it sounds a lot like Hugh Blair who was actually one of the people who listen to these lectures.




Dave Hedengren: Hey speaking of Hugh Blair another part of Adam Smith’s kind of two ideas of rhetoric propriety and sympathy and I wanted to read the sympathy quote that you sent me over in the show notes that says the man that keep sympathy keep time with to my grief cannot but admit the reasonableness, or propriety of my sorrow he who admires the same poem or same picture or admires them exactly as I do must surely allow the justness of my admiration. He who laughs at the same joke and laughs along with me cannot well deny me the propriety of my laughter and that also struck me as a very Hugh Blarian idea. Is that right?




Mary: Yea, sure. It also reminds me a lot about how your one of the only people who laugh at my jokes.




Dave Hedengren: Also true, but that’s because we share a brotherly, a sibling sympathy, right.




Mary: Yea, so sympathy is sort of the idea that you can trace back to Cicero as a matter of fact as this idea that I feel something and you with me start to feel the same thing, and me as a writer its my responsibility to make sure were on the same page emotionally, so you can see in both proprietary and in sympathy, this real, all these threads that come from the general philosophical view of the Scottish enlightenment period.




Dave Hedengren: Yea, so now sympathy is also come in and you can decide whether or not to add this part in the rhetoric podcast, but sympathy comes up a lot in the theory of moral sentiments. Talking about the way we need to relate to one and other, and it’s kind of his idea of the basic fundamental motivating enterprise of humanity is that we have sympathy towards one and other and towards ourselves.








Mary: Yea absolutely and you can trace some of the threads from his early work into his later work and then there’s going to be some continuity there.




Dave Hedengren: Which we can see, that it seems like he didn’t want us to see can we go there now.




Mary: Not yet.




Dave Hedengren: We should have written an outline.




Mary: No this is going great, what are you talking about.[Dave Hedengren: Okay] well because what your describing talking about sympathy emotions is not something that a lot of our rhetoric viewers really associate with Adam Smith, so a lot of people they think about Adam Smith as they think sort of like social Darwinism and they think sort of like, I think about what’s important for me, you think about what’s important for you, we hate watch other, were sort of strictly hughtilyterian, that kind of stuff, and that might be an unfair stereo type.




Dave Hedengren: No that’s a hundred percent of an unfair sterio type and I’m shock is that what people really think, I’ve been in the disciplin so long I forgot people really feel that way about Adam Smith. Like we think of him as a heartless calculating hughlilaterian.




Mary: Yea some people might think that Adam Smith was a little heartless and you can sort of think about these characters like, Grad Grind in hard times, sort of like strictly hughlilaterian, who cares about beauty and art but actually Adam Smith did care about beauty and art.




Dave Hedengren: Hugely, so this is something that really bothers me about the interpretation of Adam Smith in the modern era so I've heard of a German expression and as soon as its brought up in intro philosophy classes that they call, Adam Smith problems, I don’t know why they don’t translate the rest of it, but that’s what the intro teacher say they say how could the same man who wrote the theory of moral sentiments with all of its inclinations towards beauty and art and the soul of man also write the wealth of nation which is so cold and calculating. That drives me nuts, because there’s no contradiction there if you read either or both of them you see that their both talking about the same ideas they both have the same underlying view of humanity in fact the wealth of nations was written in between the theory of moral sentiments that he wrote he did one edition of the theory of moral sentiments, then wrote the wealth of nations, then the revised theory of moral sentiment and there all part of the sentimental prize of trying to understand how humans behave and why.




Mary: Yea and Adam Smith at least in his early rhetoric lectures he kind of has that same thread the sort of continuity and connections between all types of beauty and in his rhetoric lectures he talks about the important of beauty everywhere including the beauty of moral act a liter scholar will put out that he speaks of ethical judgment in hysteric terms and he like his contemporaries relate to beauty so in some ways Adam Smith is sort of prefiguring the arch romantics like, keets in the idea of truth is beauty and beauty truth.




Dave Hedengren: I totally agree with that it’s a great line in the moral sentiments that says that it is the objective the object of man is to be loved and to be lovely and I don’t really thinks that captures a lot about what I’m about and I think humans are about.




Mary: Oh well I think you’re a lovely human.




Dave Hedengren: Oh thanks Mary I think that you’re a lovely too.




Mary: So you want to talk about  berthing




Dave Hedengren: So much, oh my gosh I've even chopped up the bit they call podcast so okay we’ve been talking about this continuity of thought that you can kind of see in choate ideas that pop up later in the moral sentiments in these early rhetoric lectures but it seems like Adam Smith doesn’t want us to see that view his dying wish is that they burnt sixteen volumes of his work that he’s just, that other stuff besides the theory of world sentiments the moral of a nation, burn it to the ground and it seems like he felt like he must it seems like, and I can't speak for him because he's dead and I’ve never met him but it sounds like he's doing what I somewhat of wish I could do with some of my freshmen papers and I'm like so embarrassed and its like high school papers and that left poem is clearly about so and so, boy I'm embarrassed that I wrote that and he wanted to burn them and you think that’s he was going for was he embarrassed by him did he think that these were simplifications of his ideas that he didn’t want propagating.




Mary: Well I can kind of speak for him, because he did tell two of his friends sort of what he wanted and he was worried that they would detract from his other works that people would sort of [Dave Hedengren: Okay] either they were stupid they did not want people to know about it or it wouldn’t be as important as the stuff that he did multiple revisions on over and over again I just wanted to get rid of them these rhetoric lectures, they were important to his early career i always thought and he did the lectures first as sort of this, community group kind of thing and later he had a share in Glasscock as a rhetoric professor and he thought there too so even though he burnt it he thought a lot of students. You see a lot of Adam Smith ideas from these lectures showing up in Hugh Blair and George Campbell too. You can sort of say his proprietary on these ideas because it was sort of in the air in Edin Berough at the time, but there pretty important ideas and it would have been lost to us if it had been burnt as Adam Smith wanted.








Dave Hedengren: So how do we get a copy of these things.




Mary: Well, sometimes when teachers teach students take notes [Dave Hedengren: I've heard of that] yea and it wasn’t until 1957. That there was a professor that was going through and old country house library and he finds this manuscript like literally manuscript in two volumes with notes and it turns out it was students notes from when Adam smith was teaching in Glasco, and it was like people took notes then like its sort of hard for us to remember but the professor would stand up there and sort of talk out of book and students would write it down so you could assume to write it down so if you remember how episode how we talked about  Hugh Blair it was a similar thing he didn’t write the lectures on bell lectures to be like a book he wrote them because students were taking notes and then selling those notes that they had it copied so he sort of had to make sure that they were fixed and under his name. Well Adam Smith had sort of a opposite thing happen where he was trying to destroy everything and here was somebody who verbatim what his notes were from his lecture, so he would talk it  and people would write it and.




Dave Hedengren: none of my students write down what i say people just faster writer, slower speakers had better things to things to say back then.




Mary: Yea, I mean like it wasn’t now a days you take notes of whatever you think is going to be on the test some short snippets the main idea, back then it was really about capturing full sentences and complete ideas and the professor would stand up there and essentially read a book out loud slowly and clearly and the students would take notes and write them all down. So that’s how we ended up with it and again that being said there’s plenty of room for human error it’s possible that this student, got something’s wrong or didn’t show up for class one day or something like that but it’s impossible no, because again Adam Smith burnt them.




Dave Hedengren: No oh Adam and let this be a lesson to all of us don’t erase those freshmen papers they might be embarrassing to you but don’t worry we won’t read them until your dead.


Mary: Yea let us be the ones to decide what’s important and what’s not important, because I don’t think this detracts from Adam Smith for me it opens him up as a rhetorician as a guy who's interested in writing


and thoughts and beauty a lot of things that we don’t associate with Adam Smith generally, so if you have a story about things that you burnt and wish you didn’t or things that you wished you burnt, why not drop us a line at thanks about coming Dave.




Dave Hedengren: Great to be here I’m going to stick around to the ending music.




Direct download: adam_smith_episode.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 8:10 AM


Aspasia is one of the most historically elusive, even mythical rhetoricians. As with Socrates, we only have second-hand accounts of her life and work, but unlike Socrates, she was a woman, which meant that much of the accounts we have of her are fragmented and often disparaging.




Aspasia is one of the few women from classical Athens who is listed by name and certainly one of the first female rhetoricians we have record of. What kind of rhetorician she was and how she was able to leave such a legacy is shrouded in jealousy, lies, and accusations. Anything we think we know about Aspasia has to be tempered by the historical circumstances of 5th century bc Athens.




And these were the circumstances for women in Classical Athenian life. If you were an upper-class woman, your life was circumscribe from birth. You were living cloistered in your father’s home until you married, quite young, to an older man. There was no real expectation for passion in marriage, and no sense of equal partnership. Your education was entirely within the home and your whole life was to be “daughter of a citizen and a citizen’s daughter.” Things were difference, however, if you were on the fringes of Athenian society, as Aspasia was.




Aspasia was a foreigner, the daughter of neither a citizen or a citizen’s daughter, and as such, she was outside of the restrictions of typical Athenian women. In someways, this may have aided her education and development. She became a hetaera, which is sometimes translated as prostitute, but that’s doesn’t do the position justice. Hetaera were women who entertained men intellectually, socially and sexually. They were capable of witty conversation and knowledgeable. To get an idea of who the hetaerea were, you’d have something like a prostitute mixed with a well-trained geisha. You can imagine that although Greek men had to marry an upper-class citizen for a wife, they more interested in actually spending time with women who were educated and could spend time with them and their friends, instead of being secreted away in the women’s quarters.




One Greek man, Pericles, certainly thought a hetaera could be more interesting than a whife.  Pericles thought Aspasia was tops, and spent all of his time with her instead of with his wife. As a matter of fact, in a move that was shocking to the Athenians, Pericles wasn’t just content to have Aspasia as his mistress—he had to go and make her his wife. He divorced his proper, home-kept Greek wife and lived with this foreigner, whom he loved so audaciously that he kissed her at the doorstep every time he went in and out of the home.  Now that’s just sweet. And that made many of the comic writers nervous.




It’s possible that Aspasia was so close to Pericles because she was his intellectual equal and some of the fragmented stories we have about her say that Pericles loved her for her brain. Really. Plutarch’s biography of Pericles relates ““Aspasia, some say, was courted and caressed by Pericles upon account of her knowledge and skill in politics.” (qtd 183)




 Aspasia may have been one of Pericles’ logographers. If you recall, logographers were the speech writers of ancient Greece, and having a female logographer may be considered an insult to Pericles. For example, the lengthy argument made in Plato’s Menexenus (men-uh-zeen-us) that Aspasia wrote the famous funeral oration. There’s no reason why Aspasia couldn’t had written it, especially if she was as well-educated and cultural astute as the stories about her suggest. But Socrates makes the logographer woman analogous to the whore. Just as a logographer will write any one who pays a speech, regardless of their clients’ political or legal position, Aspasia the prostitute has, in scholar Madeleine Henry’s words “Aspasia made speakers of many men. The fact that one is names and that this one is a man with whom she had a sexual relationship, delicately suggests that she had sexual relationships with the others as well and that they all speak with words she taught them” (35).  The connection between the rhetor and the prostitute does not go unnoticed in Cheryl Glenn’s 1994 article recovering Aspasia’s contribution to rhetoric. ““the ideal woman,” she writes “has been disciplined by cultural codes that require a closed mouth (silence) and closed body (chastity) and an enclosed life (domestic confinement).” (180). Glenn sees that Pericles saw—that Aspasia was very different from the Greek wife in all these ways, even breaking domestic confinement to write and teach.




The rhetoric teacher is a hussy because she teaches others. And it wasn’t just Pericles who went to Aspasia. From Plutarch, again “Socrates himself would sometimes go to visit her, and some of his acquaintances with him; and those who frequented her company would carry their wives with them to listen to her” because she “has the repute of being resorted to by many of the Athenians for instruction in the art of speaking” (qtd on 183). If this is accurate, Aspasia had her own school, the same way the Sophists like Isocrates did.






For all of the Socratic irony in the Menexenus that tears her down, you may have noticed that the Romans connected Aspasia with Socrates. Henry says that in some ways it wasn’t that Aspasia was a female Socrates, but, since she came first, Socrates was a male Aspasia. Aspasia also could out-socratic method Socrates and some people think that she taught Socrates how to be socratic. Listen to this dialoge  quoted by Cicero in On Invention:






Aspasia reasoned thus with Xenophon's wife and Xenophon himself: "Please tell me madam, if your neighbor had a better gold ornament than you have, would you prefer that one or your own?" "That one." "Well, now, if she had a better husband than you have, would you prefer your husband or hers?" At this the woman blushed. "I wish you would tell me Xenophon, if your neighbor had a better horse than yours, would you prefer your horse or his?" "His." "Now, if he had a better wife than you have, would you prefer yours or his?" And at this Xenophon, too, was himself silent. . . . "Therefore, unless you can contrive that there be no better man or finer woman on earth you will certainly always be in dire want of what you consider best, namely, that you be the husband of the very best of wives, and that she be wedded to the very best of men." (I. xxxxi.51-53)




Sounds an awful lot like the socratic method, doesn’t it? Some scholars think, incidentally, that this dialog is sincerely advocating that both spouses in a marriage should be equally engaged in the relationship, but after reading the Menexenus, it seems to me that there is an equally compelling argument here that Aspasia is saying, “go ahead and covet your neighbor’s wife or husband because you could probably do better.” So you see how Aspasia’s rhetorical contributions are always being read through the lens of her sexuality.




According to the later Greek text Deipnosophists—or, as I like to call them, “Insufferable Foodies of the Second Sophistic”—it was Aspasia that also taught Socrates how to find, pursue and win love.



So if Aspasia was all this, why did she fade from the rhetorical tradition? The easiest answer is to say that as a foreigner and a woman it was very difficult for her to remain in the tradition. During the 1990s, feminist rhetoricians like Cheryl Glenn and C. Jan Swearingen, Susan Jarratt and Rory Ong all set out to “recover” Aspasia from the fragments and jealousy of the classical sources. Strangely, though, interest in Aspasia seems to have waned. There hasn’t been much written on her lately, maybe because it’s hard to say anything about her than what the unreliable, male classical sources have said. Madeleine Henry’s book, for instance, sets out to create not Aspasia’s history, but her historiography, how she has been invoked since the earliest western tradition through the renaissance, Enlightenment and up to the 20th century. In someways, then, we can’t ever know Aspasia, but only know about her. She remains stubbor

Direct download: aspasia.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:42 AM

Metaphors We Live By


Lakoff and Johnson




Welcome to Mere Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and outsiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. Send us feedback or suggestions at Jeremy Smyczek is joining us today, Hi Jeremy. And I’m Mary Hedengren and I was an English major.




We English majors are always being accused of loving metaphors. “We write clearly,” our science friends say smugly. “We don’t use any of that flowery language.” We, because we love our science friends, refrain from pointing out that “clear” writing and “flowery language” are, in fact, metaphors. Metaphors are often seen as deliberate and poetic in the hands of our greatest literary minds: from “It is the east and Juliet is the sun”, to “Love is a battle field” we think that metaphors are purposeful and avoidable and exclusively for poets or English majors.




Not so! Say conceptual metaphor scholars George Lakoff and Mark Johnson. In Lakoff and Johnson’s highly influential 1980 text Metaphors We Live By, they argue that Metaphors used by poets are just reformulations of conventional conceptual metaphors (267).  We discover the power of metaphors in all kinds of language in this book, not just “clear” writing and “flowery language,” but even daily greetings like “what’s up?” or “What do you have going on?” These metaphors are grounded in everyday life and make abstract ideas concrete.




Think about it: abstract thought is largely metaphorical, and the more abstract, the more we try to ground it (and there’s another metaphor). If you want to talk about abstracts, you almost always fall into metaphorical thought. It’s unavoidable and unconscious. In this sense, the title of the book Metaphors we Live By demonstrates how pervasive these patterns of thinking really are. Metaphors rely on understanding the world through the experience from “the perspective of man as part of his environment” (229).




It’s granted though, that “part of a metaphorical concept does not and cannot fit” (13). Love may be a battlefield because of the high stakes and opposition, but it certainly isn’t a battlefield because there are canons, bayonets and eventually historical markers. Lakoff and Johnson acknowledge the limits of the metaphor because “when we say that a concept is structure by a metaphor, we mean that it is partially structure and that it can be extended in someways but not in others” (13). Exactly what it is that does get highlighted points out something about the author or community that created the metaphor. The phrase “love is a battlefield” is shocking and expressive because it highlights the violence and pain of love. Saying love is like a red, red rose highlights another aspect of love. The metaphor of love as a gift highlights something else. Love as a tyrant highlights get another thing. Love as a shock, as magic, as a hole into which one falls, or an armed, naked child all fit and don’t fit love and they all highlight some aspect of what the author or community is trying to say about love. The structure of a metaphor highlights somethings and hide others. The structure extends beyond a single metaphor, though, to families of metaphors.




Lakoff and Johnson point out that there are some general metaphors that connect many smaller metaphors into a big, over arching metaphor. Some of these master metaphors include social groups as plants or life as a journey. Think about it: We might have a friend who has “lost all direction” and is “wandering” and “stalled out,” while another is a “go-getter” who is always on the “fast track” “getting ahead” along a “career path.” We ourselves  talk about “back when I was in high school” or “I’m looking forward to Tuesday,” or say “I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it” like life is a path that takes us from one physical spot to another.  All of these little one-word metaphors belong under the larger umbrella of “life is a journey.” Similarly, we might say the same thing about LOVE IS WAR: We speak of romantic conquests, misalliences, being won over and fighting for a beloved’s affection. They all circle around this idea of war, which our culture has connected, weirdly, with romance.




And when these metaphors become part of our lives, we begin to extrapolate that the metaphors we’ve used in our society begin to have an impact back on our society again. If our society is invested in the idea that life is a journey, we may see the past as distant and unapproachable, something you can’t return to, once you’ve left. The metaphor comes from our culture and the metaphor comes back and changes our metaphor. It’s a process that reinforces itself so that cultural assumptions are backed up by tiny language choices. We can see this easily in overtly sexist, racist or ablest metaphors in language: “man up,” “red-headed stepchild,” “strong argument,” “a black day,” “lame idea.” People are used to using the pejorative metaphors so much that they seem natural and innocuous, while they reinforce ideas of which groups are powerful and which are subjected. It’s not just minority groups that are kept in subjection by the pervasive use of unexamined metaphoric language. An entire culture can be limited from seeing alternative narratives of power because of a block of metaphors that reinforces one perspective.




Let me give an example that Lakoff and Johnson give. We often use war metaphors to talk about discussions and debate. We say that we will either “win” or “lose” an argument. That we argue “against” an “opponent.” We can “attack a weak argument” or “make a good point” and if we do, they might respond, “touché.” Or an idea might “lose ground” or be “indefensible.” What if, instead, we thought of discussions as dances instead? Suddenly our opponents become “partners” and we move through a discussion in a non-combative sense.




You may point out, “Sometimes arguments are dances—what about when we ‘dance around’ an idea?” You’re absolutely right. While metaphors used to reason about concepts may be inconsistent, we live our lives on the basis of inferences we derive via metaphor (272-3).




Because metaphors are both formed by a society and influence the society, Lakoff and Johnson argue that they provides a philosophical middle ground between objective and subjective myths (184-225). This understanding is situated in neither an objective world outside of human experience nor in an entirely internal state; metaphors are constructed culturally in “the way we understand the world through our interactions with it” (194). These ideas mean that much of the history of thought is actually a history of trying to come up with better metaphors. Lakoff has written about how metaphors have influenced decisions like who to vote for and whether to go to war, with the assumption that this influence was, in some way, a tainting of rational thought. I’m not sure what correct thought would look like, partially because I have a hard time imagining anything breaking away from metaphorical conceptualization.




This book has had lasting influence since it was published more than 40 years ago. Look it up on Google Scholar and you’ll find it cited well over 30,000 times in everything from business to linguistics to computer programming. For instance, Peter Novig has pointed out how useful this kind of thinking may be for those in AI. Because those robots are always so literal—I’m looking at you, Data!








If you have a favorite metaphor, why not drop us a line at  And don’t forget, whether you’re an airy poet or the most hard-nosed scientist, there’s no escaping the power of metaphors.


Direct download: Metaphors_we_Live_By.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 6:00 PM



Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movemnts who have shaped rhetorical history. special thanks to the rhetoric society of america student chatper at the university of texas at Austin.  I’m Mary Hedengren and today I’m joined by Laura Thain.


Have you spent much time thinking about coffee? If you’re a grad student, the answer is probably yes, but really do you spend much time thinking about what coffee did, especially coffee shops, especially in Europe? Coffee houses were an integral part of the Ottoman Empire in the late 15th century and they spread quickly throughout all of Europe. By the 17th century, coffeehouses, not taverns, were the places to gather in your neighborhood. And if you think about how caffeine-fueled coffeehouses differed from the sloppy drunkenness of taverns, it’s little surprise that coffeehouses quickly gained a reputation as being a place of open political and intellectual discussion. 15th century Ottomans and 20th century Seattleites alike saw the coffeeshop as a place to open up dangerous conversation. The Spanish king Charles II even tried to restrict coffee houses on the grounds that there were places where “the disaffected met and spread scandalous reports concerning the conduct of His Majesty and his Ministers” (qtd Times 23 Feb 2008). Gathering around a cup of Joe seemed to set everyone to riotous conversation, to the public discussion that led to revolutions in America and France in the 18th century, and because of this the coffeehouse became the place of obsession for 20th century philosopher Jurgen Habermas.


Habermas noted an 18th century seachange in the relationship between people and sovereign. Earlier, people supported (or didn’t) their sovereign as a symbol for them: France is the king and the king is France, therefore it’s to the benefit of France for the king of France to be as rich and grand as possible, regardless of how this impacts the everyday peasant on the street. But in the 18th century, a rise in coffeehouses and the conversations they engender accompanied an increase in newspapers reading clubs, journals, salons and other groups of public political conversation. This Habermas calls the öffentlichkeit, or the public sphere. The public sphere was a dialogue, a conversation of opinions. “Is the king France? Should the king be France? Let’s hear the pros and cons, then!” Habermas drew a direct line between the increase of coffeehouses and their conversations and the toppling of the French monarchy.


This public sphere isn’t a given and not every coffeehouse, town hall meeting etc. is going automatically be a public sphere. In fact, Habermas identified some of the identifying characteristics and requirements for a public sphere.

1-    First, the public sphere requires a temporary disregard of public status, according to Habermas. He believed in “a kind of social intercourse that, far from presupposing the equality of status, disregarded status altogether” () . It doesn’t work if only the princes of France get their say and the merchants don’t. Everyone needs a place at the coffee table.


In many ways, our conception of a “public sphere” as ordinary citizens in the US is so pervasive that we have trouble imagining a world without one.  But what Habermas points out is that before the birth of a public sphere in the eighteenth century, there was little linking the private sphere (the discourse of ordinary subjects of the sovereign) to the bureaucratic sphere (the discourse of the sovereign to his subjects).  Imagine if laws and edicts were all that existed to communicate between king and subject. Habermas argues that the public sphere emerged as a unique space for what were once private murmurings to have real and legitimate impact upon bureaucratic procedure under certain rhetorical constraints.  This was no pitchforks-and-barn-burning kind of conversation, but rather, the emergence of a new rhetorical practice that rapidly came to be dominated by a nascent middle class of people: the bourgeois.  


2-    Talking about private and bureaucratic coming together is tricky, though.  “Private” doesn’t mean what we might think today.  In the public sphere, there needed to be some sort of common issue, a public issue of common concern. Before the emergence of a public sphere, according to Habermas, the kinds of things we think about as very public were private conversations among citizens, if they were articulated at all.  For instance, the question of whether France needs a king is a question that everyone in France is concerned about. The question of whether wine dealers in the northwest of Paris should ration a particularly good vintage is not. The question of whether Pierre ought to marry Margarite is definitely not. Often these common concerns were rarely discussed—they were given. The civic or religious authorities told the people that France needs a king and that’s that. Until the people begin sitting around in coffeehouses started asking the questions about things that they all had an interest in.


The idea that the coffee house became a new space for people who previously had no visible platform to communicate with existing power structures is really important because it signals the emergence of not just a new place to talk but a new center of institutional authority.  Habermas argues that the public sphere is an important and new site of power in the 18th century.  This might sound familiar to you if you’ve heard talk about “public discourse” in the things you read and discuss in your own life.  Public discourse and a space to have that discourse in is really important, but it’s important to understand how that space happened to read how we might read what the public sphere means as a concept today.


3-    Habermas argues that the public sphere is a public good, but in order to do so he claims that once-private-now-public issues had to be open for anyone to discuss. As Habermas said “The issues discussed became ‘general’ not merely in their significance, but also in their accessibility: everyone had to be able to participate” In coffee houses and salons, there were no rules about who was allowed to open their mouths.  


The coffeehouse seems to fulfill these expectations, which is probably why Habermas was so keen on the example. But the coffeehouse wasn’t perfect and these imperfections highlight some of the problems of the public sphere in general.


For instance, there were rules about who could get in the coffeehouse. While Germany made some exceptions for silent baristas, in France and Germany, women were personae non gratae in these vibrant spaces of public debate. It’s all very well to say coffeehouses were inclusive, except where they weren’t.


And for that reason, Habermas’s dreamy ideal of the public sphere is seen by some as just a dream, a bourgeois dream that pretends to be inclusive but actually excludes voices of women and other minorities. The scholar who is mostly closely associated with a criticism of Habermas’s public sphere is American scholar Nancy Fraser.


Nancy Fraser’s Rethinking the Public Sphere makes her three points about the public sphere to challenge Habermas’. While Habermas emphasizes disregard of public status, common issues and the freedom to open your mouth and speak, Fraser refutes these same points.


1.     When Habermas says that everyone is equal in the coffeehouse, Fraser contends that this is actually a “bracketing [of] inequalities of status” and far from removing these differences of status, “such bracketing usually works to the advantage of dominant groups in society and to the disadvantage of subordinates.” Instead of saying—inauthentically—that there is equality in the public sphere, Fraser recommends instead that we “unbracket inequalities in the sense of explicitly thematizing them.” Instead of saying that a prince and a merchant are the same in the coffeehouse, some of the conversation should be about the fact that they aren’t and why.

2.     Fraser also challenges the idea that there are common issues in the public sphere. She says that there “no naturally given … boundaries” between public issues (or “common concern”) and private ones. So remember the example about how the question of whether France needs a king being a public one while Pierre marrying Margarite is a private one? Well, what if the names were instead Louie XV and Marie of Poland? Is that a public issue or a private one? Fraser points out that many issues that were once personal issues like domestic abuse, have become public issues. As she says, "Eventually, after sustained discursive contestation we succeeded in making it a common concern".

3.     Finally, Fraser points out that not everyone is welcome to the table. Women were excluded everywhere—in clubs and associations—philanthropic, civic professional and cultural—was anything by accessible to everyone. On the contrary, it was the arena, the training ground and eventually the powerbase of a stratum of bourgeois men who were coming to see themselves as a ‘universal class’” The deception that such spheres were truly public justified the male, middle classes in making decisions that were for ‘all of France’ when, in actuality, hegemonic dominance had excluded many participants.

Instead, Frase suggests that theses marginalized groups form their own public spheres, which she called Counterpublics. These counterpublics are “parallel discursive arenas where members of subordinated social groups invent and circulate counterdiscourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests, and needs"


Another site of vibrant research in public sphere theory is in the field of spatial rhetorics.  While Habermas arguably saw the public sphere as an ideological shift that just happened to be housed in Europe’s coffee house and salon culture, scholars like Henri LeFebvre, Edward Soja, David Fleming, and UT Austin’s own Casey Boyle are increasingly interested in talking about, to quote Dr. Boyle, “how spaces affect our shared practices and sense of identity.”  To these scholars, the coffee shop as a physical, embodied space is as important to the structural transformation of the public sphere as the folks who inhabited it.

    So the next time you visit your favorite cafe and order yourself a hot beverage, think about what kind of public you’re a part of. What, if anything, do you have in common with the people around you? What are some power differentials between you? What “common concerns” do you have? And what do you think about the king of France?




Direct download: Habermas.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 6:00 PM

It was 1985. As Bowling for Soup would later describe the year, “there was U2 and Blondie, and Music still on MTV” And in the pages of College English a debate was raging. Two scholars, careful and smart, battling over a question that still haunts beginning composition instructors: should we teach punctuation to first year writing students? The debate between Martha Kolln and Patrick Hartwell describes some of the difficulties in navigating the question of teaching grammar and punctuation, but it doesn’t begin with the Hartwell-Kolln debate of the 80s: it begins with the Braddock Report of 1963.


            The Braddock report, or, more properly, “Research in Written Composition" by Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer was commissed by the National Council of Teachers of English to answer the question of whether grammar instruction had any impact on improving student writing. And what they found was that, using one- and three-year studies, instructing in grammar  was “useless if not harmful” to the teaching of writing. And for many instructors, that sealed the deal. Grammar fell deeply out of favor. But the Braddock report wasn’t carefully applied: its full argument was that: "The teaching of formal grammar has a negligible or, because it usually displaces some instruction and practice in actual composition, even a harmful effect on the improvement of writing" (Braddock, Lloyd-Jones, and Schoer, 1963). The way grammar was being taught could be faulty without the practice of teaching grammar being problematic. In other words, to cite the 1960 Encyclopedia of Education Research “Diagramming sentences …teaching nothing beyond the ability to diagram.” Still, grammar was out.


            For Patrick Hartwell, that sealed the deal. In “Grammar, Grammars and the Teaching of Grammars,” he makes some strong claims against the teaching of grammar in composition. For one thing, he says that most errors don’t matter and those errors that do matter can usually be “caught” without knowing if they’re a predicate or a verbal adverb or whatever. Some of these errors will be caught ‘naturally,” Hartwell says, without anyone teaching explicitly. As he says, “If we think seriously about error and its relationship to the worship of forma l grammar study, we need to attempt some massive dislocation of our traditional thinking ,to shuck off our hyperliterate perception of the value of formal rules, and to regain the confidence in the tacit power of unconscious knowledge that our theory of language gives us. Most students, reading their writing aloud, will correct in essence all errors of spelling, grammar, and, by intonation, punctuation, but usually without noticing that what they read departs from what they wrote.” If you can speak it, you can get it. Hartwell does admit that people who are coming at English from another language tradition may need more explicit help, but grammar can be cut from most classes without much harm being done. Hartwell cites research that spending time on grammar is useless and claims that “It is time that we, as teachers, formulate theories of language and literacy and let those theories guide our teaching, and it is time that we, as researchers,  move on to more interesting areas of inquiry.”  




Martha Kolln was not ready to move on. Kolln read Hartwell’s argument and gave it a big ol’ nu-uh. Students don’t just have an inborn sense of grammar because they don’t have an inborn sense of rhetoric.  She doesn’t think composition should be exclusively a grammar class, but she does believe in what she calls “rhetorical grammar.” In her book of the same name, Martha Kolln tells us that punctuation is part of our voice, not just a “final, added-on step” (279). Some of these consequences are more delicate (“will that semi-colon create a more formal air than that dash?”), while others are more blunt (“if you use all caps here, your academic paper will look like an eight-grader’s text-message”). Kolln does a good job of not saying that certain things are off-limits—sentence fragments, passive voice, ellipsis.  Overall, these are choices, just like any rhetorical choice. So when Hartwell says that grammar shouldn’t be researched or taught in composition, she read his argument as saying “a subset of rhetorical choices shouldn’t be taught in composition.” And So she wrote a comment in to College English.




In this comment she agrees that composition shouldn’t be just about grammar and she’sshe agrees with the Braddock report that “formal grammar is not the best way to teach grammar” but “rhetorical grammar has a place in our composition class, because of course grammar is there” (877). And if the grammar is there, then it ought to be talked about intelligently. Kolln sees a lot of throwing the baby out with the proverbial bathwater in getting rid of all grammar instruction. When people claim “ Our students should learn to write by writing-only by writing, by letting it all hang out. Let's not in-hibit their creativity by calling unnecessary attention to the structures they use; and we're certainly to have no "lessons" on sentence structure or parts of speech, on "formal gram-mar."


How foolish. How harmful. The result is a generation (or more) of students who have no language for discussing their language. We teach them terminology in every other field-in science and math and history and geography and computer science and physical education, in literature, and in French. But not in their own language.”




Well, Hartwell read Kolln’s argument and made the snappy reply “ther’s little to be caccomplished by talking about paradigms” Zing! I mean, is it okay if I take a sidebar and say that passions here are remarkably high? Both Kolln and Hartwell have deep-rooted passions about the teaching and study of grammar, calling each other’s perspectives “foolish”  and sniping at each other. It’s rare to find such academic vitriol, so when ever it comes up, you know there’s some intense feelings going on.




Anyway, Hartwell says that not teaching grammar doesn’t keep student from talking about grammar because, of course, they will do so naturally, because “every culure develops a remarkable rich metalinguistics vocabulary for discussion language” and current students are no exception. He also says that it’s better to err on his side of thigns because if, hypothetically, he and Kolln were to take a tour of writing instruction among practioners, “ we’d find it dripping with a kind of grammar instruction we both deplore.”






Okay, so after the furver of these grammar debates, where does that leave us? Strangely, the answer to that question depends on which generation “us” is. The Braddock reports did eventually filter down into the classrooms and for a while it looked that Hartwell won this one. During that while was when I went through high school, actually. I had a totally of 3 days of grammar instruction in high school, which came in a creative writing class, of all things. But I was never expected to know any grammar vocabulary beyond what it takes to fillout a MadLibs. But that’s changed. Yesterday my mom—also a writing teacher—texted me to say that she had been helping her 12-year-old grandson diagram sentences. Diagram sentences! I didn’t know that had been happening since the fifties: bowling leagues, Tupperware parties and diagramming sentences and here’s my nephew, in a generally progressive school, diagramming sentences! I shouldn’t be too surprised, though—I’ve noticed that each year my freshmen student enter with more and more background in grammar. This has led to the odd situation where sometimes my students know more about formal grammar than I do. So to talk about their use of grammar in the classroom, Jeremy and Eric are going to present their own perspectives on the matter.






Direct download: Kolln_Hartwell_and_grammar.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 9:16 PM