Mere Rhetoric (education)

 

Weclome to mere rhetoric, a podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, terms and movement who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and today we’re talking about two influencial chapters from one book: Richard Weavers’ “The Ethics of Rhetoric”

 

The Ethics of rhetoric was written in 1953, and it definitely feels like it and Weaver was Southern and definitely feels like it. Even though he spent most of his career at the University of Chicago, with Wayne Booth, he kept his summers free to go down to a farm that he kept where he lived an agrarian dream of plowing the family vegetable garden with a mule. He definitely believed in the Jeffersonian ideal of the gentleman farmer, connected to the earth.

Somehow in the middle of all that plowing, Weaver was able to be one of the most important of the “new conservative” branch of thinkers and the leading neo-platonist rhetorician of the 20th century. Weaver believed also somewhat idealistically about rhetoric. He said, “Rhetoric “instills belief and action” through “intersect[ing] possibility with the plan of actuality and hences of the imperative” (28). Rhetoric is “a process of coordination and subordination […] very close to the essential thought process” (210). Thought and rhetoric were interwoven and rhetoric couldn’t be ignored.

 

There are two chapters in The Ethics of Rhetoric which have had especially lasting influence. The first is a reading of Phaedrus, because Weaver loved him some Plato. Remember when we talked about the Phaedrus? For those of you who weren’t here, it’s a story about Plato giving two opposite speeches about love: in the first, he tweaks an existing speech about the importance of choosing someone who doesn’t love you as your lover, in the second, he repents of the first and gives a speech about how it is good to have a lover who loves you, and at the end, he ends up talking about rhetoric. Some people may say, “what? what’s the connection?” Not Weaver. Weaver says tthat“beginning with something simple” Plato’s dialogue “pass to more general levels of application” and then end up in allegory (4). The lovers are like rhetoric—you can have good, bad and impotent rhetoric. The non-lover is a lie, like “semantically purified speech” (7). Bad rhetoric, like bad lover, seeks to keep recipient weak and passive (11). If we have impure motives towards our audience, we’ll keep them dependent on us, week and passive, instead of empowering them the way that a true lover would. Ulitmately, Weaver believed in an ideal of rhetoric, rhetoric that would make people "better versions of themselves" (Young 135)

 

Another one of Weavers’ chapters to have lasting influence classifies the very words we use, most famously, “god terms” and “devil terms.” “God terms are those words that, for a specific audience, are so positive and influential that they can overpower a lot of other language or ideas. For Weaver, writing in 1953, he uses “American” as one fo the key political god terms. In contrast to god terms are devil termns and for weaver, writing in 1953, the ultimate devil term is “communist.’ From here, he can set up the language of the McCarthy era nicely, right? The committee on Unamerican activities uses a powerful god term. Most famously, Weaver introduces “god-terms” and “devil-terms” as ultimate terms that are either “imoart to the other [terms] their lesser degree of force and fixes the scale by which degrees of comparison are understood” (212), either positively or negatively (222). When you hear a god or devil term, the defensive rhetorician must “"hold a dialectic with himself" to see if he buys the word as it’s being used.

 

 

But additionally Charismatic terms= those terms who have “broken loose [from] referential connetions” which will that “they shall mean something” (eg: “freedom”) (227-8). These terms don’t mean something in particular just “happy feeling.”While, Uncontested term= seems to invite a contest, but not in its context (eg: appealing to “illustrious Rome”) (166). They aren’t really disputed with. Ultimate terms like these are often “a single term [awaits] coupling with another term” (211).

 

 

Weaver was also influencial in the rhetoric of poetics because he saw that “Like poetry, rhetoric relies on the connotation of words as well as their denotation.” That is to say, not just what the words mean in the dictionary, but what they mean to a community—communist to a group of 1953 american politicians is a far more fearful thing than its dictionary definition. Like poetry, too, there must be an enthemyme, a truncated syllogism, where the audience fills in the blanks, or as Weaver puts it “The missing propsition […] ‘in their hearts’” (174)

 

 

Good rhetoricians, he claimed, use poetic analogies to relate abstract ideas directly to the listeners (Young 132). Specifically focusing on metaphor, he found that comparison should be an essential part of the rhetorical process (Johannesen 23).

 

 

Weaver didn’t produce more than a handful of books, possibly also because he died quite suddenly in his fifties, but he had a lasting influence in the Chicago school and elsewhere. Weaver certainly wasn’t a perfect person—for instance, he disliked jazz and that is just plain wrong—and he’s kind of gone out of favor, but reading The Ethics of Rhetoric, you see how crucial his ideas have been to the 20th century revival of rhetoric.

 

 

Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Richard_Weaver.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

Paulo Freire 

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren, we have Samantha and Morgan in the booth and today we get to talk about one of the most influencial figures in the so-called “social turn” of composition.

 

 

Paulo Freire was born into a middle-class family, but the Depression hit them hard, and soon he was familiar enough with the very worst of poverty. He noted, later in life, that his poverty, his hunger impacted the way that he learned: "I didn't understand anything because of my hunger. I wasn't dumb. It wasn't lack of interest. My social condition didn't allow me to have an education. Experience showed me once again the relationship between social class and knowledge" (Freire as quoted in Stevens, 2002). Eventually, things got better: the Freire’s got money, got food and young Paulo got a good education, eventually becoming a state director of the department of education. In this position, though, he didn’t forget the lessons of his hungry childhood—the relationship between education and poverty haunted him. His political work taught hundreds of people to read and became the basis of one of Brasil’s successful education programs.

 

But it wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops for Freire—nope, the governemental tides shifted and Freire was exiled, living in Boliva and Chile. And if the examples of Cicero, Ovid and Machiavelli have taught us anything, it’s that there’s nothing like a sudden collapse of political position and forced vacation to inspire great minds to produce great works. So Freire, the ultimate doer, mover and shaker became a writer and thinker. He wrote Education as a Practice of Freedom and then his most famous work Pedagogy of the Oppressed, published in 1968. The book is dedicated to “the oppressed, and to those who suffer with them and fight at their side.” Strong stuff.

 

 

The book itself is strongly influenced by Marx—of course— as well as Hegel, Gramsci and Sartre. The key idea, according to Richard Schaull, is that “Man’s ontological vocation […] is to be a Subject who acts upon and transforms his world” (Shaull, Forward 32).

 

This would be a good time to describe Freire’s definition of “subject.” By this, he doesn’t mean like “subject to the king” but rather “subject of the sentence,” the thing that is making the action, not being acted on. Only human beings “exist”—are deeply involved in becoming (98), and it’s the goal of the educator to maintain that dignity.

 

Another key term from Pedagogy of the Oppressed is “praxis” which Freire here defines as an application through action: the action, reflection and the word. “Reflection,” says Freire, “is essential to action” (53).

 

Okay, but getting back to Pedagogy of the Oppressed-- what is all of this in opposition to? In a phrase, the banking principle of teaching. This idea, elaborated in the second chapter of PEdaogy of the Oppreessed, is the traditional way of teaching: you “deposit” information with your students, have them carry it around and bit and then you demand it parroted back to you in the form of tests or essays. You can see how this is directly against the agency of the student. Instead, the education should always be mutual, a process Freire calls—get ready for another term-- conscientization, A type of political consciousness, conscientization has also been translated as raising critical consciousness. How does one do this? Well, there’s two parts:

 

The goal of the educator, the politician, the social worker is two fold: 1- unveil the world of oppression and, through the praxis, the thoughtful action, to “commit to its transformation” And when the reality is transformed, is the work done? No, then “this pedagogy ceases to belong to the oppressed and becomes a pedagogy of all people in the process of permanent liberation,” and educators “expulse[e] the mtyhs created and developed in the old order, which like spectors haunt the new structor emerging from the revolutionary transformation” (54-5).

 

Methods to do this include educators who must present the problem to the people through photographs or drawings and questions to “develop their power to perceive critically the way they exist in the world with which and in which they find themselves” (83-4). There must be a showing of the oppression, an “unveiling” as Freire put it. But the most important method of pedagogy of the oppressed isn’t what you do with one or another lesson plan, but the way that you live. Remember Freire’s dedication at the beginning of Pedagogy of the Oppressed? To the oppresses and to those who suffer with them and fight at their side. For Freire, it’s crucial that these liberators live with the people, to suffer with them if they are to fight with them. Because, as he put it, “to carry out the revolution for the people” is “equivalent to carrying out a revolution without the people” (127).

 

Teachers of any sort must be united with those they teach. “The role of revolutionary leadership […] is to consider seriously […] the reasons for any attitude of mistrust on the part of the people and to seek out true avenues of communion with them” (166).

 

Only in this way can the teachers Freire proposes truly help their students” to over come the situations which limit them: the limit situations” (99).This term is actually borrowed by Viera Pinto, his fellow Brasillian intellectual exile. Consciousness of these limits leads to acts of rebellion, or “limit acts” which only human beings are able to do, real, empowered human beings.

 

As a sidebar, this might seem a little confusing: “limit siutations”=bad “limit acts”= good. Some of Frere’s terms kind of do this. For example when someone “lives” that’s just the basic biological state while the ideal is to finally “exist” to enjoy the deep teological process of becoming something significant.Also, activism isn’t necessarily a positive term here: Freiere defines activism as a sacrifice of reflection while sacrifice of action = verbalism (87.) I imagine that some of the confusion here comes from the translation from the Portuguese, but also, this is philosophy of rhetoric, so definitions of words are whatever we want them to be, right? Let’s celebrate that freedom.

 

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The work of Freire became very popular in the world of composition in the 1980s. Everyone wanted a bit of Freire and some scholars like Donaldo Macedo, bell hooks, Peter McLaren and Henry Giroux were especially inspired. They were the leaders of this new “critical pedagogy” as it developed in the United States. The anti-apratheid protests of the 70s and 80s fueled the pedagogy and Freier’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed was banned in South Africa. Of course, that didn’t keep the revolutionary types of distributing photocopies of it illegally.

 

But although the text was championed by many Marxist thinkers and progressive educators, some critics responded with a little more hesitancy. Gregory Jay and Gerald Graff were concerned that educators always have the potential to be colonizers and, the text implies that “we know from the outset the identity of the ‘oppressed’ and their ‘oppressors.’ Who the oppressors and the oppressed are is conceived not as an open question teachers and students might disagree about, but as a given of Freirean pedagogy” (A criteque of critical pedaogy”). This is a legitimate concern: when an outsider comes in to liberate, how can they prevent themselves from being oppressors themselves? In a related sense, when is someone just one thing? In her 1988 article “Why doesn’t this feel empowering?” Elizabeth Ellsworth points out that everyone has multiple identities and someone who may be oppressed in one sense (for example as a woman) may be privileged in another (for example as a white woman.)

 

 

But whatever people thought of critical pedagogy, they had to engage with it. all of this attention to Friere’s work helped gain support for him. He was a professor and advisor at Harvard, for the World Council of Churches, and finally in 1979 he was able to return to Brasil and continue his work with adult literacy. In 1988, with a change in Brazil’s political structure, Freier was appointed Secretary of Education. The remarkable ups and downs of his life had shown Feeire the very real consequences of poverty and oppression as well as given him the education and opportunity to reach out and help others around him, others who have been just like him.

Direct download: 15-08-12_-_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Paulo.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren, we have Samantha and Morgan in the booth and we’re all three of us different people—why?

 

Who determines who you are? Why do you pursuit the things that are important to you, whther they be published articles, a thin and athletic physique or a reputation of being a decent human being? Michael Foucault addresses the idea of forming “docile bodies” in Discipline and Punish.

This book starts with a graphic, contemporary description of someone being drawn and quartered and ends with the declaration that “The judges of normality are present everywhere [...] and each individual, where ever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements” (304). It’s a chilling progression. But if you think about it, there are things that we do because of “judges of normality” that we couldn’t be forced into by a tortuter. Can you imagine a prison where it would be moral to force you to wake up at 4:30 and run 10 miles and then lift weights, and then to relax with a glass of mysterious green smoothie? But if you think you need to look a certain way then you might do these unpleasant things to satisfy the “judges of normality.” The link between old-style torture and contemporary judgemental attitudes trace through this text.

Here are the highlights along the way: torture as public spectacle (7). body as intermediary between people and sovereign (11). But a change occurs: punishment stops being about whether or not the accused commiteed the crime and more about whther the accused is guilty. That sounds like teh same thing, but really it’s a little different because justie began to consider “to what extent the subject’s will was involved in the crime’ (17). Accordingly, punishment became to be about straightening out taht will “the expiation that once rained down up on the body must be replace by a punishment that acts in depth on the heart, the thoughts, the will, the inclinations” (16) and “a general process has led judges to judge something other than crims; they ahve been led in their sentencing to do soemthing other than jsut and the power of judging has been transferred, in part, to other autorities than the jduges of the offence” as sociologists, preachers and other just eh will and the inclination of the accused (22).

Soverign maintains “right to punish” like the “right ot make war” (48) but “the role of the people was an ambigous one” as they also “caimed the right to conserve the execution” and “had the right to take part” of the specacle (58). This made executions a battle between the power of the soverign and the power of the people: “In these executions, whih out to show only the terrorizing power of the prince, there was a whole aspect of the carnival, in which rules were inverted, authority mocked and criminals transformed inot heroes” (61). So, “this hand-to-hand fight ebtwen the vengence of the princ aand the contained anger of the people, through the mediation of the victim and the executioner, must be concluded” (73). So reformers had to “define new tactis in order to reach a target that is now more subtle but also more widely spread in the social body” (89) not just committing a certain crime. ‘A stupid despot may constrain his slaves with iron chains; but a true politician binds them even more strongly by the chain of (102) their own ideas; it is at the stable point of reason that he secures the end of the chain” (103).

So bodies in prisons are made docile, “subjected, used, transformed and improved” (136) as “working [the body] retail indivdually, of exercising upon it a subtle coercion, of obtaining holds up on it at the level of the mechanism itself—movements, gestures attitudes, rapidity: an infinitesimal power over the active body” (137). And this is by no means restricted to the prison: the classroom, the military camp and the hospital all begin to prescribe this level of control over the bodies to be made docile. “Like surveillance and with it, normalization becomes one of the great instruments of power at the end of the classical age” (184) “In a system of discipline, the child is more individualized that the adult, the patient more than the healthy man, the madman and the delinquent more than the normal and non-delinquent” (193).

The panopticon, of course, features heavily. DESCRIBE “In short, it reverse the principle of the duneon; or rather of its three functions—to enclose, to deprive of light and to hide—the preserves only the first and eliminates to other two” (200). “There are two images, then, of discipline. At one extreme, the discipline-blockage, the enclosed institutions, established on the edges of society, turned inwards towards negative functions: arresting evil, breaking communications, suspending time. At the toher extreme, with panopticism, is the discipline-mechanism: a functional mechanism that must improve tehe xercise of power b making it lighter, more rapid, more effective, a design of subtle coercion for a society to come” (209). “At first they were expected to neutralize dangers, to fix useless or disturbed poulations, to avoid the inconveniences of over-large assemblesi; now they were being asked to play a positive role, for they were bceoming able to do so, to increase the possible utility of individuals” (210).

“‘Discipline’ may be identified neither with an institution nor with an apparatus; it is a type of power, a modality for its exercise, comprising a whole set of instruments, techniques, prcedures, levels of application, targes; it is a ‘physics’ [...] of power” (215).

Difference between illegality and delinquencies—a delinquent is subset of illegal: defines and specifies the delinquent, which can be used by prison and authority forever afterwards. It creates a three-fold system—prison, police, delinquent (282)

Eventually, the prison mentality escpaed the prison. “As a result, a cetain signifcant generality moved between the least irregularty and the greatest crime; it was no longer th offense, the attack on the common interest, it was the school, the court, the asulum or the prison. It geeralise in teh sphere of meaning the function of carceral generalized in the sphere of tactics’ (299) “The carceral network does not cast the unassimilable into a confused hell; there is no outisde. it takes back with one hand what it seems to exclude witht he other” (301) prison continues, on those who are enslaved to it, a work begun elsewhere, which the whole of society pursues on (302)each individual through innumerable mechanisms of discipline (303). “We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the ‘social-worker’-judge; it it on them that the universal reign of the normalitve is based, and each individual, whereever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his beavior, his aptttudes, his acheivements” (304).

 

 

So what does all of this mean for rhetoric? Some theorists, like Edward Said and Richard Miller despair at ever standing outside of the panopticon, that the power relations are too deeply entwined and too dispersed to be opposed. Instead of just stickin’ it to the man, or rescuing Robin Hood from the corrupt Sherriff of Nottingham, would-be revolutionaries have to change the entire system. And what makes the revolutionaries think that they have a better perspective when they, too, are implicated in the self-policing power structure?

 

In 1992, Barbara Beisecker examined Foucault’s influence for rhetoricians. Initially she was skeptically inclined (especially in the early 90s!) to say that Foucault was just being invoked in order to embrace the fashion for post-modernism without losing our traditional perspectives on power dynamics. However, foucault’s focus on theways that communities construct individual positions opens up new views of rhetoric. Biesecker concludes that because of Foucault, “We might say, then, that a critical rhetoric is a timely discourse whose task is not, as we have heretofor thought, one of changing what’s in people’s heads.” Instead it is about turning the grid of intelligibility that organizes the present in such a way that it becomes possible to transform the crituqe conducted in the form of necessary limitation into a practical crituqe that takes the form of a possible transgression out of which new forms of community, co-existence, pleasure” will emerge” (362). Rhetoric becomes less about individuals than the whole community, all focused on creating docile bodies, prioritizes.

It may be daunting to think about changing an entire community with rhetoric instead of one person., but as young John Muckelbauer in 2000 argued, there are still ways to effect change even in Foucault’s self-policing view of culture, as long as we “debundle what we mean by resistence his articulation of resistanceis clearly something quite differentfrom a traditional understandingof resistancewith its connection to “agency”. […] the concept of power functions differently(as primarily productive),and the relationshipbetween power and resistanceis not one of binary opposition. On a more practical level,anothermajordistinction isthat this versionprovidesno central concept, no preexisting category—such as identity—around which to mobilize collective action. Instead, political action is itself transfigured, emphasizing strategic local ac- tivity and transitory alliances as opposed to traditionalconceptions of mass collective movements.”

So we’re not entirely subsumed by predetermined roles because of the judges of normalicy all around us, but neither are we free when we are unfettered.

 

Direct download: 15-08-12_-_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Discipline_and_Punishment.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. We have Samantha in the booth and I’m Mary Hedengren. Today

 

I want you to do a little experiment for me. Think back to what you were writing five years ago. If you happen to be at your computer or the scrapbook of everything you’ve ever written, you can even pull up your writing. If not, just go ahead and meditate. Do you need a moment? It’s okay, I’ll wait. Now then—has your writing gotten better? Have you become a better writer?

 

If you’re like me, you probably look at the things you were writing five years, or even a year ago, you might say, “yes” in very enthusiastic tones. If you’re like me, you might, in fact, have a hard time reading the work you did five years ago. How could I have been so stupid? How was I such a bad writer?

 

Lee Ann Carroll, in her book Rehearsing New Roles has a shocking proposition for you: maybe you weren’t a bad writer, maybe you were just inexpert in writing the sort of things you write today. Carroll gathered up some college students and performed a longitudinal study, which means that she followed the same subjects around through their entire time at school and beyond. She had them sit down in interviews with her and fill out time logs detailing how much studying they do outside of class (in case you’re curious, the amount ranged from five hours a week to forty). They brought in their writing assignments, and their outside writing to talk about. It was very thorough. And do you want to know her take away?

 

First off that “students in college do not necessarily learn to write ‘better,’ but that they learn to write differently—to produce new more complicated forms addressing challenging topics with greater depth, complexity and rhetorical sophistication” (xiv) “Wait a moment,” you might say, “great depth, complexity and rhetorical sophistication? Isn’t that just a fancy way of saying “better writing?” Maybe it is, but it’s not that they’re getting better at this vague genre of “academic writing. As Carroll puts it “Their writing gets better in that they do learn to write differently but the do not fulfill the fantasy of mastering one kind of literacy, an idealized version of academic writing” (60).

 

This is the real-life writing changes of writing in the disciplines. A student gets into one class, learns the genres and expectations of that class and then, right when she gets the hang of it, heads into another class. “Students’ literacy develops because students must take on new and difficult roles that challenge their abilities as writers. In fact, student writing may sometimes need to get ‘worse’ befor it can become ‘better.’ Because many college writing tasks are essentially new to students, they will need repeated practice to become proficient.” (9). How much do professors take this into consideration? Not very much.

 

 

 

The writing assignments that Carroll’s participants navigated were complex and sophisticated, but also, very, very different from each other. She claims that “Faculty are likely to underestimate how much writing tasks differ from course to course, from discipline to discipline, and from professor to professor” (9) Put another way, “students must learn to write differently but have few opportunities to develop one particular type of writng over any extended period of time” (55).

 

 

 

And where does this leave first year composition? Carroll writes that we should take the work of first year composition seriously, but not “too seriously. A first-year composition course can serve students by helping them make connections between what they have already learned about writing in their k-12 education and ways they might learn to write differently both in the academy and as citizens of the larger society. On the other hand, first-year composition cannot succed as a source that will teach students how to write for contexts they have no yet encountered A one-semester writing course is bet viewed as ust one step in a long process of development that extends from children’s first encounters with literacy on through their adult lives” (27-28).

 

Carroll does have some practical recommendations. She suggests that first year composition focus on metacognitive awareness and students own writing as much as possible. You know asking students things like “what do you do when you get an assignment prompt?” and discussing their own writing practice. She also recommends focusing on portfolios—in classes as well as in departments and programs. As much as possible, those portfolios should provide opportunities to return to similar genres as well as challendging students to try new things—remembering that the results will be less than perfect and that students will need plenty of specific feedback.

 

I find Carroll’s argument very persuasive, and as I’ve written and recorded more of these podcasts, I’ve noticed that this weird literary genre is becoming more comfortable for me. But it’s been more than a year! How many literacy projects do average undergraduates get to revisit over and over again? Is there a project you’ve mastered or a project you thought you mastered (like the so called reading response) only to discover that a different teacher had a different expectation? If so drop us a line at mererhtoricpodcast@gmail.com I’d love to hear about it. Now go back and check out your writing from five years again, because if it’s anything like mine, it’s pretty darn amusing and well worth a reread

 

 

Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Lee_Ann.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

 

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movement that have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengre and I’m grateful for the University of Texas’ Humanities Media Project for supporting the podcast.

 

 

MOST mornings, I wake up, put on some stretchy pants and very bright t-shirt and strap on my phone for a run, because for some reason you need a phone to go running. Why do I do that? Is it because I am a master of my fate, and I choose my fate to be sweaty and singing along to Shakira through the wilderness trails near my home? Or is it because I am being influenced by the institutions of the beauty industry, the fitness industry, the nature industry and the Spandex industry to conform to a certain predictable type, which happens to include skipping over rocks and dirt while a GPS tracks my every step?

 

Pierre Broudieu—not to be confused with bourdoux—is convinced that it’s not about just my free will nor entirely just society structures that makes me go for a run, but continuous give-and-take between them. What I think I want to do are shaped by past events and institutions that in turn are influenced by what I choose to do. Because choosing to wake up and run, I get feedback from structures that reinforce what I think of as my choice to wake up and run. This combination of choice and society stricture, Bourdieu calls habitus and it’s his most famous contribution to rhetoric and to sociology.

 

Habitus is a combination of deep-rooted, even unconscious, desires and what we choose to desire, which has been formed from childhood. It is, as Bourdieu often described it, “the feel for the game.” I don’t know how to articulate how and why I run, but I know it’s something I do, because it’s also something that my society does.

 

Sometimes it’s hard to see how institutions support a habitus unless you see the opposite, something that happened to my sister when she was doing medical surveys in a very remote village in Tanzania. She woke up one morning and went for a run—and flummoxed the villagers. “What are you running from?” said one person, huffing up beside her. “Nothing,” she said. “I’m just running.” “Why?” “I don’t know—to burn calories maybe?” The villager, who had been working with her on, among other things, questions of nutrition, paused a moment and then asked incredulously, “You want to burn calories?”

 

The feel for the game that my sister had was for a totally different game than the one that made sense in a small fishing village struggling to get and keep calories rather than burn them. The feel for the game wasn’t something that my sister conscious set out to learn, and it was somewhat only when she bumped against a different rule that she noticed that she was doing something wrong. Habitus is created and reproduced unconsciously, ‘without any deliberate pursuit of coherence,” as Bourdieu says “without any conscious concentration’ (ibid: 170).

 

Although our habitus can cause embarrassing mismatches when we’re in a different culture, it adept at taking us through our native environments, as we play the game around us like insiders.

 

Playing the game like an insider was a really important thing for young Pierre Bourdieu, who came from a working class family in southern France. Southern France is like, the sticks, for French people, and his family had a strong accent, both in the lilt to their speech and the things that they believed were important. Going to study in Paris certainly would have highlighted the differences between his home culture and the elite intellectual world. The Elite intellectual world became a sociological phenom to Bourdieu as exotic and interesting as the Algerian tribes he did his field work with. The ways that elite intellectual used language, used taste, used culture became the basis of his landmark book Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste, which was published in 1979. Distinction highlights the way that the elite create an insider habitus. As B says, “symbolic goods, especially those regarded as the attributes of excellence, [are] the ideal weapon in strategies of distinction.” If you do or don’t like opera, if you do or don’t see running as recreation, if you do or don’t value certain food, cultures, presentation or any other type of distinction, creates the social class fracture that distinguishes the upper class from the middle, or the very upper. Are snails a pest or a delicacy? That sort of thing. People don’t even ask why they think opera is just good music or snails are just plain tastey, because it’s deeply engrained in their lives since almost birth.

 

This so-called social capital is learned from a very young age as part of your habitus, and if you grow up thinking that You don't kick a dressage horse after a failed pas de deux, you live in a very different world than where you don’t kick a man when he’s done.

 

But none of this is to say that once you’re in (or out) you’re stuck. According to one commentator on Bourdieu, habitus “is not fixed or permanent, and can be changed under unexpected situations or over a long historical period” (Navarro). Somewhere along the way, for example, the elite picked up jazz as the preferred music to opera, and snails gave way to craft beer and high end cupcakes and—going for runs? Not only can the cultures and institutions switch, but people can switch, too—Bourdieu, for all of his criticism of the elite, ended up in the in-group of often cited scholars in rhetoric, philosophy and sociology. And I used to hate running. But here I am, waking up most mornings to put on some stretchy pants and very bright t-shirt and strap on my phone for a run, because for some reason you need a phone to go running.

 

If you have a deeply engrained habitus, why not tell us about it at mererhetoricpodcast@gmail.com? We’d love to hear from you and any other comments or ideas you may have, including distance running tips, because there seem to be a disproportionate number of distance runners in higher education. Must be something about the habitus…

Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Habitus.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

Erasmus

 

Mere rhetoric a podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movements that have shaped the rhetorical world.

 

Erasmus was born in Holland, probably in 1466, and was orphaned by the time he was twenty. This meant that instead of getting to go to university, he was shuttled off to monk school, which, while he was ordained, was really not his cup of tea. Instead, he became a “wandering scholar” eventually wandering to England where he became chummy with the likes of Thomas More and the other humanists.

 

 

Wandering through Italy, France, the Low Countries and England, he tried to replace medieval learning with a Greek and Latin style, called New Learning, all the while engaging and inspiring some of the most important thinkers of his age. It’s only natural that Erasmus would have been involved in rhetoric because rhetoric was a controversial topic in the Renaissance, as we’ll discuss in depth later.

 

In Praise of Folly set out to criticize what Erasmus saw a excesses and hypocrisy within in the church, but it’s also just good language fun. For one thing, the Latin title,” Morias Encomium" may have been a pun on his friend Thomas More’s name. the tone is always a little hard to read, as Erasmus says “toys are not without their serious matter” The whole book is written in the voice of Folly, who is depicted as a goddess who keeps a court of vices like self-love, laziness and flattery. Sometimes Folly’s virtues seem sincere, like when she points out that children are happier than grown adults and that so-called folly is behind good nature, altruism and true love, but elsewhere in the book, the satire more directly castigates priests and scholars, especially rhetoricians. Folly complains that “we have as many grammars as grammarians” (41) and that they only write to each other in an echo chamber “more prattling than an echo” (43) and their works lack “the least coherence with the rest of the argument, that the admiring audience may in the meanwhile whisper to themselves, ‘what will he be at now?’” (52)

 

De copia was one of Erasmus’ greatest successes. In his lifetime it was published more than 85 times by publishers all over the Western world. By the end of the century it had been published more than 150 times, and worked its way into many other textbooks and handbooks.

 

Copia means simply abundance, and the Romans were so fond of it that there was even a goddess named Copia—so take that, Folly. Quintilian wrote a chapter where he touches on the idea of the abundant style, and that’s where Erasmus really takes off. He suggests that abundance doesn’t have to mean you drag on and on, but that abundance comes in what we might call the pre-writing stage. Erasmus says “who could speak more tersely than he who has ready at hand an extensive array or words and figure from which he can immediately select what is most suitable for conciseness?” Erasmus proposes a copia of ideas and of words, which will prepare the student for extemporaneous speaking under any circumstance. And then, to show off, Erasmus demonstrates how very, very many ways he can say “thank you for your letter”—if you have a chance to see this in print, I recommend you pick it up, because it’s dizzying. Here are some examples:

 

[we go back and forth]

 

In the second part of De copia, Erasmus talks about copia of thought, which includes embellishment through describing the thing in depth, its circumstances, its causes, its consequences and other ways to go in more depth on a topic. The amplification of what you can say about any topic is similarly dizzying, but again Erasmus emphasizes that copia is useful for even concise speech because “Let the lover of brevity see to it that he not only say few things, but let him say the best possible things in the fewest words” granted that “in our zeal for brevity we do no omit thins that should be said” (105).

 

De copia is remarkable for me as a compositionist for two reasons. First because it represents the way that thinking about language leads to thinking about ideas. Sometimes students want to add “fluff” to a paper to get it to a page limit, but Erasmus demonstrates that coming up with a lot of ways of discussing a topic—its past and its present and its characteristics—can add substance as well. Second, I love de copia because it acknowledges that there’s a difference between the prewriting phase of brainstorming and coming up with dozens—or hundreds—of ideas and the final, polished piece. Copia is based on the concept that many or most of your ideas are going out the window anyway, but the process of coming up with ideas is itself a valuable step in the writing process.

 

 

 

Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Erasmus.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

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. This week we celebrate Thanksgiving, which is a time for food, family and remembering that this land was forcibly occupied from a variety of disenfranchised indigenous people. So in honor of that tradition, today we’ll be talking about a book called American Indian Rhetorics of Survivance, edited by Ernest Stromberg.

 

First off, we might have to define a couple of the words in the title, which is actually the same step that Stromberg makes in his introduction. He acknowledges that “American Indian” is a pretty broad title to encompass a spectrum of people whose boundaries were and are constantly shifting as questions of heritage, culture, genetics and geography are redefined over and over again. Similarly, the title makes use of ‘rhetorics’ instead of ‘rhetoric’ because there is no singular, Western European-influence rhetoric, but a variety of methods to create symbolic understanding. And now for the kicker--what does “survivance” mean? Survivance, a term coined by Gerald Vizenor, “goes beyond mere survival to acknowledge the dynamic and creative nature of Indigenous rhetoric” (1). Vizenor himself defines it as “Survivance is an active sense of presence, the continuance of native stories, not a mere reaction, or a survivable name. Native survivance stories are renunciations of dominance, tragedy and victimry.” This means that instead of hanging on white knuckled, you thrive, turning your position of oppression into one of resistance.

 

Over all, the chapters in the book all highlight the way that native american rhetors were able to reappropriate the tropes and stereotypes of their different eras into strategies of persuasion. This includes what Stromberg calls an “acute awareness of [an] audience” (6)that frequently includes white people who may hold their own preconceptions about a Native American speaker. Karen A Redfield provides a term for this when she says “The attempt to find ways to commynicate with non-Native people taht I am calling external rhetoric” (151). External rhetoric is important for rhetors who are “astute enough to tell stories so that white people can hear them” (154).

 

Let me give you a couple of examples from the book.In Matthew Dennis’ chapter on the 18th century diplomat Red Jacket, he points out that “Red Jacket was capable of deploying to good effect teh conventions of the Vanishing Indian, a white discourse taht imagined various individual Indians as the ‘last of their race.’ In 1797 in Hartford, Connecticut, the Seneca orator says: ‘we stand on a small island in the bosom of the great waters. We are encircles--we are encompassed. The evil spirit rides upon the blast and the waters are disturbed. They rise, they press upon us, and the waves once settled over us, we disappear forever. Who then lives to mourn us? None. What marks our extinction? Nothing. We are mingled with the common elements’” (23). Whoo. Chills. One of the great things about this book is the recovery of such rhetoric, which presents powerful arguments which are also acutely aware of the conventions in which they are made. Another rhetor who played off of white expectations is Sarah Winnemucca Hopkins, who Malea D. Powell describes as creating a “deliberate performance of the kind of Indianness that would have appealed to her late nineteenth-century reformist audiences” (69) as she fashioned herself as the ‘nobel Indian princess’ who could speak in behalf of her people.

 

These native american orators blend the rhetorics of their borderlands together in what Patrica Bizzell in this volume calls “mixed blood rhetoric” (41). These borderlands can be boarding schools where Native Americans were stripped of their cultural heritage, as the authors Ernest Stromberg studies describe, or the fringes of American and indigenous legal cultures as Janna Knittel and Peter d’Errico describe. These borderlands have existed since Western Europe met the Western Hemisphere, for sure, but they are not a thing of the cowboys-and-indians past. Anthony G. Murphy describes how the documentaries made for PBS in the 1990s about cowboys-and-indians--or rather, about Custer and the battle of little bighorn--highlights how questions about the past, and whose sources of the past we use, are under continual debate. Murphy’s historiography of the battle and the ways that “assumptions of  historical authenticity [have been] long held by the imperial center of American society that has until now attempted to maintain hegemonic control over the Custer Myth” (204). The past keeps meaning new things.

 

This text also encompasses a variety of genres. Contemporary Native American author Leslie Marmon Silko  is the focus of Ellen L. Arnold’s literary analysis, while Holly L Baumgartner examines an anthology of Native American autobiographies. Karen A Redfield looks at newspapers and Others like Angela Pully Hudson look at political speeches. The last peice in the antholgoy, is piece of ficto-criticism by Richard Clark Eckert, which begins with the question “Who symbolizes a ‘real Indian?”’”

 

This is a great book to open up a lot of new rhetorical study about native american rhetoric in many time periods and genres, but, as any anthology, it’s more generative than exhaustive. As Ernest Stromberg points out, “the purpose of this text is not aimed at achieving the closure of a conclusion; rather, it suggests future directions for the study of American Indian rhetoric.”

 

If you’d like to suggest future directions for the podcast or have feedback, drop us a line at mererhetoricpodcast@gmail.com. Until then, have a great Thanksgiving, and remind your friends and loved ones of the words of Red Jacket “At the treates held for the purchase of our lands, the white man with sweet voices and smiling faces told us they loved us and theat they would not cheat us [...] these things puzzle our heads and we beleive that the Indians must take care of themselves and not trust either in your people or in the king’s children” (qtd pg 28).

Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Survivance.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 8:58am CDT

Courtly political rhetoric

 

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements that have shaped rhetorical history. Today we continue our month-long celebration of deliberative rhetoric by looking back half a millennium to the European Renaissance.

 

Back in the European Renaissance, politics looked different. There were no brightly colored billboards along the side of the freeway on-ramp, no official newspaper endorsements of candidates, no candidate debates. There were, in fact, no candidates. That is not to say that there was no politics. Instead of working to get the vote of the average Joe, those who aspired to political power had to work another angle—they had to work the court.

 

Royal courts were the nexis of political life in the Renaissance. There were smaller courts for smaller authorities, but the courts of say, the king of France or the Queen of England might include thousands of people. Courtiers, these court members, could have their fortunes made because of the favorable impressions they made at court. There were offices of the court, including such fantastic positions as Gentleman of the Bedchamber, Doorward, and Groom of the Stool, which did, in fact, mean “stool” in two senses of the word. These were important positions that could secure your family’s influence for generations. Everyone was competing for these positions, so it became brutally important to make the right impression. You didn’t want to lose your chance to be Groom of the Stool. On the other hand, say or do the wrong thing and you could be exiled from court or from the country or worse. Many of the monarchs who were insecure had reasons to distrust the insubordinate at court and could punish absolutely anyone who undermined their authority at court. You don’t want to make a major social gaffe when you could literally lose your head for it.

 

In the context of the high stakes of court living, handbooks of behavior began to appear so that social climbers could politic their way to the top without doing anything stupid. These handbooks could be subtitled “How to Win Friends and Ingratiate People.” Giovanni Della Casa’s courtusie book, for example, gives the gentle reader the advice that it’s an “unmannerly part, for a man to lay his nose upon the cup where another must drink, or upon the meate another must eate, to the end to smell unto it” because, in a horrifying gaffe, “it may chance there might fall some droppe from his nose, that would make a man loath to it.” (qtd Richards 479). Ew. That would be so embarrassing.

 

But the master of masters of the hunt, the main man of gentle men was Baldassare Castiglione. Besides having an embarrassing first name, Castiglione was a courtier at the court of the Duke of Urbino, in Italy, where he was a poet, religious leader, soldier and all-around man around court. He wrote the most famous handbook of the Renaissance “The Courtier.” The Courtier is a dialogue, like the other text that it most resembles, Cicero’s De Oratore. It addresses the question of what makes the ideal Renaissance gentleman and the dialogues in it take place over several days, with multiple figures putting in their two cents, changing their minds and coining new terms to describe how to best do polite politics at court.

 

One of the most important of these terms was Sprezzatura. Sprezztura refers to making something difficult seem easy. As Castiglione’s character puts it, “I have found quite a universal rule which in this matter seems to me valid above all other, and in all human affairs whether in word or deed: and that is to avoid affectation in every way possible as though it were some rough and dangerous reef; and (to pronounce a new word perhaps) to practice in all things a certain sprezzatura [nonchalance], so as to conceal all art and make whatever is done or said appear to be without effort and almost without any thought about it.”

 

This idea, to make whatever is done or said to appear as if it took no effort and no thought is one that has been valued in rhetoric for years. Cicero, in De Oratore, points out the values of “orations [that] were composed very simply” as if they sprang up from “nature and truth [rather] than from study and art.” (1.26).

 

For Castiglione and his fellow courtiers, sprezzatura, or nonchalance, was able to conceal

the art, the work that went into appearing witty, or poetic. One translation describes it as “an art without art, a negligent diligence, an inattentive attention” (Saccone 57). It’s the rhetorical equivalent of “oh this old thing?” Daniel Javitch, a 20th century scholar, defines Sprezzatura as “at once artifice made to seem natural and a seemingly effortless resolution of difficult. (56). If your excellent speech looks like it took a lot of time and effort, then you look like someone who takes a lot of time and effort, but if your excellent speech looks like you took no time at all, then you look like a genius.

 

One figure in the Courtier, Canossa, describes how this nonchalance can improve the practice of rhetoric: “I remember having read of some excellent orators … who endeavored to make everyone believe that they were ignorant of letters and, dissembling their knowledge, gave the impression that their speeches were made very simply, as if they had been prompted by nature and truth rather than study or artifice” (53).

 

Junior high kids get this. Remember the archetype of the slacker genius? We all knew one, or aspired to be one. The kid who sits in the back of class, playing tetris on her phone, until the most difficult math problem stumps the whole class and she’s the only one who solves it, or the guy who cuts class every day, but then turns in a final paper that wows the teacher into giving him an A. There’s something mystical about the idea that some people can skip all the work and still succeed.

 

This idea was all the more important in rhetoric, because if you labored over your work, not only did it look like you were not just naturally brilliant, but it might look like you weren’t sincere. We still kind of dislike the idea of the speechwriter in politics, who is crafting just the right words to make the voters feel outrage or sympathy on behalf of the politician. But if the politician appears to be speaking words that flow out naturally from the power of the moment filtered through a great and sensitive mind, we feel inspired rather than manipulated.

 

There is, perhaps, something dishonest in the idea of sprezzatura, but the figure of Canossa insists that it’s something that can’t be taught. Much like in De Oratore, there is a question in the courtier about how much any of this can be taught and how much is just something that you’re born with, a natural grace that accompanies everything you do.

 

The book of the courtier itself seemed to be charmed with natural grace. It was translated widely, most notably for English speakers, by Thomas Hoby, where it came to define manners and ideals in the age of Elizabeth and Shakespeare.

 

In fact, you can find traces of Castiglione in several of Shakespeare’s plays, especially those that take place in court, like Pericles who was, himself, a remarkable example of a courtier who sings, jousts, writes love poetry, and negotiates treacherous courts. Pericles’ daughter, Marina, is even more so the naturally talented courtier: she almost can’t help it how artistic, beautiful and smart she is, and though it gets her into trouble, it gets her out again. The talent that saves Marina, actually, is her rhetorical prowess. When she is sold to a brothel, She financially ruins the pimps when time and time again, she persuades the men who would take advantage of her to choose virtue over vice. This includes, as it would for a true courtier, when she must gently persuade those in positions of power. “Let not authority, which teaches you to govern others, be the means to make you misgovern much yourself,” she says to a lusty governor named Lysimachus, “If you were born to honor, show it now; If put upon you, make the judgment good that thought you worthy of it.”

 

Whether skill of the courtier comes from training or from inborn ability, it is crucial for courtiers like Pericles and Marina. This is the politics of the royal court, which seeks to cajole and charm those in power, so that they will say as Lysimachus did to Marina, “Thou art a piece of virtue, the best wrought up that ever nature made and I doubt not thy training hath been noble […] Hold, here’s more gold. If thou dost hear from me, it shall be for thy good.”

 

If you hear from me, in the future, I hope that it’s for your good as well. I’d love to hear from you. Contact us through our email mererhetoricpodcast, or check out on Twitter at mererhetoricked to make comments or suggestions for future podcasts. As a matter of fact, today’s podcast was the suggestion of an old friend Vincent Robert-Nicoud, who is not only a heck of a great Renaissance scholar, but he also always opened the door for me, which is an awful gentlemanly thing to do. He can have any office at my court that he wants—Grand Squire, Master of the Hunt. Only not the Gentleman of the Stool.

Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Courtly_Political.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

Remember when you were a freshman and you took first year critical reasoning? Or in high school, when you took the AP thinking exam?

 

Of course not, because we don’t really teach philosophy or critical thinking. What we do teach is writing.

 

[intro]

 

Welcome to MR the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, movements and people who have shaped rhetorical history. today we’ll be talking about the mid nineties text “Rhetoric of Reason,” winner of the 1997 MLA Mina Shannassy book prize.

 

Titles one chapter “The end of Philosophy and the Resurgence of Rhetoric” Provocative idea. but can rhetoric and writing classes take over the millenia of philosophy and logic instruction that have long been cornerstones of a liberal education?

 

Crosswhite conceives his own book to be “a challenge to teachers of writing… to become much more philosophical about the teaching and theory of argumentation” (8).Motivated by “a social hope that people will be able to reason together” (17) in a civil responsibly taught in FYC classes the nation over.  Because “The teaching of writing is nothing less than the teaching of reasoning” (4). Purpose of university education is to write reasoned argumentation, “about conflicts that are matters of concerns to many different kinds of people, to fellow citizens who may not share their specialized knowledge” (296).

 

Rhetoric is philosophy without absolutes (“including negative absolutism”) (35).  If there is an end of philosophy in the 1990s as the influence of deconstructionists like Derrida is splashing over departments of English, can writing and rhetoric fill the gap in teaching the new good reasoning?As one review put it, “Crosswhite clearly moves away from the static view of formal logic in which propositions are measured against internally consistent rules rather than the more complex and shifty criteria articulated by live audiences” (Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, Reed Way Dasenbrock, Andreea Deciu, Christopher Diller & Colleen Connolly).

 

In this, he is highly indebted to the work of new rhetorics like the kind you’ll find in Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca’s The New Rhetoric, which I promise we’ll talk about one of these days. For our purposes the key thing Crosswhite adopts is the idea of a universal audience. The term “universal” can be misleading. Crosswhite points out that “Unviersiality … depvelops along different lines; there are different and sometimes incompatiable ways of achieveing more universal standpoints. Universality is an achievement of particular people at particular times for particular purposes” (215). But another way, he says “Even if argumentation is a relatively universal practice, the occasions on which one argues, what one argues about, the requency with which one argues, the people with whom one argues, how explicitly one argues, how far one carries and argument--all these things may vary strongly from culture to culture” (218). It sounds a lot like rhetoric, doesn’t it, all this considering the audience and kairos and stases? Rhetorically specific communities, though, all will detirmine what is good reasoning and reflect that back to their interlocutors.Reasoning “is dependant on a background of deep competences, moods, abilities, assumptions, beliefs, ways of being and understanding” (254). “Argumentation is a “relatively universal practice” but how, where, why and for what of argumentation “may vary strongly from culture to culture” (218). Fundamentally, “People can argue only concerning those things about which they are willing to learn, and change their minds” (283).

 

Imagine an audience that is broadly conceived yet culturally dependant. An audience of good reasoners.With such an audience, good reasoning is “a matter not simply of what is true, but of the measure of the truth yielded by argumentation" (153). Audiences are crucial, because “there are those occasion on which an audience repsonds in ways we had not anticipated and in fact goes beyond our own reasoning and our own ideas. sometimes, and audience evaluates our reasoning  and in ways we could not have foreseen--but which we nevertheless recognize as legitimate” (152). Contradiction is important, becoming “powerful enablers of discovery” (263) and as such “contradictions should be cherished, nurtured developed” (264)

 

Other key influences come from philosophy, notably Levinas and Cavell, because the ordinary, the acknowledgement of other people are important, builds”mutual trust and respect [to] make possible rather extraordinary uses of the ordinary possibilities of communication” (31).

                       

                       

Mutual respect does not, though, mean consensus. In fact, Crosswhite is  bullish on dissent in general "Where there is no conflict of any kind,” he says, “there is no reason" (72). “We don’t need courses in ‘critical thinking’ nearly as much as we need course in suspending critical thought in order to read deeper understandings” (201), focusing more on questions than consensus (199). This proves a problem when looking at a significant third of traditoinal rhetoric: the epideictic. As Karlyn Kohrs Campbell and co-authors observe, this “view, however, forces Crosswhite to quickly pass over how both aesthetic discourse (he cites fiction, poetry, and plays) and, less quickly, how epideictic rhetoric complicate the way that rationality and argumentation be- come embodied and therefore persuasive.” Instead, the epideictic for crosswhite “seems to lack the connectio with social conflict and looks more like a struggle with nature” (104) and the only way is to “try to show how epideictic, too, is a form of social conflict” (105)--a proposition he invokes but doesn’t develop.

 

But let’s get back to what he does get to, which is surprisingly pragmatic for a book that cites so much Gadamer and Heidegger. He says That students simply “need more familiaryt with more diverse and more universal audience, with audiences which demand more explicit reasoning” (273) Crosswhite gives an extended example of what this looks like in his own classes.

 

Here’s the useful, wheels-on-the-road stuff: “ writing courses and textbooks often lack focus and purpose; they simply try to cover too much” (189); and he recommends more workshops with student-to-student audiences because “writers need real interlocutors and audiences—a real rhetorical community” (281). Crosswhite’s writtena  pretty brainy and philosophical text here, but he’s also made an argument for bringing questions of reasoning and philosophy into the writing class as key to what we do and key to what philosophy should do. What do you think? Should we be responsible for teaching reasoning in the university? How do we fit it in when we have so much to cover? Drop us a line at mererhetoricpodcast@gmail.com and let me know. Should first year composition be retitled first-year reasoning and writing?

 

Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Crosswhite.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT

Ekphrasis

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 mererhetoricpodcast@gmail.com? Until then, I’ll be enjoying my nicely redecorated research cube. Maybe.

 

Direct download: Mere_Rhetoric_-_Ekpraisis.mp3
Category:Education -- posted at: 12:00pm CDT