Apr 13, 2016
Jeffrey Walker’s Aesthetic/Epideictic
Welcome to MR, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movement who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren, Samantha’s in the booth, Humanities Media Project is the sponsor and Jeff Walker is the subject. Jeffrey Walker is kind of my hero in life. I get weird around him, the way some people get around Natalie Portman or David Beckham. I came to the University of Texas, in part, because I so admired his work, but when I got here and saw him at parties I found that I mostly awkwardly stood four feet behind him, which—incidentally, is the exactly position the camera takes behind the protagonist in horror movies and I suspect that that didn’t help me much in meeting him. Since then I’ve taken a class from Dr. Walker, had him speak at official RSA student chapter meetings, even had a one-on-one seminar with him, where every week I would exit his office to a world where the sun shone brighter and the birds sang sweeter. That’s how much I like Jeffrey Walker. He’s a great human being, but he’s also a darn fine scholar.
Dr. Walker’s first book in 1989, Bardic Ethos and the American Epic Poem may sound on first blush like a piece of literary criticism, but it’s actually about persuasion, the very particular kind of persuasion that demands that the listener put in as much or more work than the rhetor. In this book, Walker looked at a very specific genre—the American Epic—and a specific period and school, and inquired about what kind and amount of rhetorical work being done. The main difficulty here seems to be audience. To write an American epic that can both express and inspire the nation en masse, the poet has got to speak to those masses. But to be a high literary, post-Romantic bard, the poet has to deal in the kind of textual, allusion, and thematic obscurity that is incomprehensible to the masses. In hisconcluding paragraphs, he sums up the struggle nicely: “The bard, in short, is obliged to reject the available means for effectively communicating his historical, political, and ethical vision to the public mind insofar as he wants to succeed with his tribal audience” (240, emphasis in original).
Bardic Ethos and the American Epic Poem traces the American literary attempts at prophecy without populism from its origins in Whitman’s “moral magnetism” (30). First identifying both high poetic speech (93) and “conventions and expectations” for the audience (118), as the reasons for Pound’s failure to be a “Whitman who has learned to wear a collar” (2), the book then examines Crane’s inability to “use his mythic ideal to redeem or bless the present” (136), in part because “’the popular’ in a modernist context is generally beneath respectability” (145). While William Carlos Williams what Walker on another occasion called the “good guy of the book” (15/2/2011) in trying to write Paterson for “a public at least partly comprise of actual people” (157), he, too, fails to write a work that is accepted in both popular and literary circles. Olson’s Maximus Poems seek a similar project, but in describing the few that can transform many sometimes becomes almost eugenically elitist, even to the point of justified genocide (234). In the end, it seems as though these modernist bardic writers must chose between a literary and a popular audience (240), usually coming down on the side of the literati, ultimately described as the “tribe with whom [the author] is marooned” (243).
I’m very interested in this book’s premise of irreconcilable audiences. You might see how this concept could coordinate with Wayne Booth’s image of the author sitting around waiting for an audience. While Booth dismisses this idea, this book kind of suggests that it happens, regardless of the author’s intention; these writers sought a broad and a specific audience, but only the specific audience came to the table. I always think about the hero of Nightmare Abbey, who wrote a metaphysical tome so boring that it only sold seven copies. The hero then perks up, calling his readers, in his mind, the seven golden candle sticks. If you write obscure stuff, you probably aren’t going to reach a wide audience.
The other hugely influential book Walker wrote about the rhetoric of poetics is his 2000 Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity. The book goes way beyond Whitman and his prophetic bards to ancient Greek lyric poetry. Poetry back then was always publicially performed and that, Walker argues, means that it was always public persuasion. One of the key ways this happened what through the lyric enthymeme. The Enthymeme, to refresh, is when the audience supplies part of the argument. So [shave and a haircut]. Or, to make it poetic, when Ol Yeller is, spoiler alert, put down, the 20th century American audience things “Oh, dogs are like friends and it’s sad when they die” instead of, like 14th century Aztecs, thinking, “what’s the big deal? We kill dogs every day—and eat them.” The audience supplies part of the argument of any aesthetic piece.
It seems like the main argument Walker’s making in this book is that the epideictic isn’t derivative and secondary to the other genres of rhetoric, but actually primary and of almost “pre-rhetorical” origin. In supplying many examples of ancient poets who were able to produce the best lyric enthymemes, Walker not only builds up evidence to support his over all claim, but he creates sub-categories and conditions for this kind of lyric enthymeme.. One of the most interesting of these divisions is the “Argumentation Indoors/Argumentation Outdoors” distinction Walker illustrates with Alcaeus and Sappho’s lyric poetry. So some of the public performance weren’t big publics. If Alcaeus spoke only to his hetaireia (remember them? The geisha like prostitutes like Aspasia?) or that Sappho make have written for an intimate circle of acquaintances and devotees doesn’t have to imply that their poetry could appeal only to those small groups. In fact, Walker claims that “just the opposite is true” and the poems “offer enthymematic argumentation that engages with the discourses of a wider audience” to cement their continued influence (249).
The ideal situations for this kind of poetic influence disintegrate, though. The book is, after all, called Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity and it’s understandable that the tracing of suasive lyric has to end somewhere, so Walker seem to mark the beginning of the end, in both Greece and Rome, with the literaturaization of poetry and the Aristoltization of rhetoric. The former leads to a paradigm that literature is removed from everyday life, erudite, a “decorative display” (57) that “cannot escape the rhetorical limitations of symposiastic insider discourse” (289); the latter downplays the rhetorical nature of poetry (281) while emphasizing rhetoric’s relation to the civic responsibilities of the forum and the court.
So you can see why I have so much hero-worship for Jeffrey Walker. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced this is going to be our last podcast on his work. Yeah. If you have a reason why you love Jeff Walker, or –I guess—if you want to suggest a podcast about your own rhetorical heroes, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll just be sitting here, dreading the possibility that Dr. Walker might hear this podcast, getting embarrassed and awkward for a while.