Thu, 17 December 2015
Welcome back 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 today we continue our exploration of the baddies of rhetoric.
Last week we talked about Thomas Hobbes and his rhetoric-hating ways for our first villain of rhetoric. Next in our series of the badnicks of rhetoric is Peter Ramus, or, if you will, Petrus Ramus. Ramus came before Hobbes, and he’s definitely one of the people that rhetoricians point to as a villain
As James Jasinski once said, "the range of rhetoric began to be narrowed during the 16th century, thanks in part to the works of Peter Ramus.”
And who was this villain?
Ramus was born in Cuts, France. His father was a farmer and his grandfather a charcoal-burner. He became a servant to a rich scholar at the College de Navarre. Ramus was educated at home until he was 12 at which time he entered the Collège de Navarre in Paris. He graduated with a Master's Degree in 1536, defending a thesis on Aristotle. After graduation Ramus taught, first at the Collège de Mans, then at the Collège de l'Ave Maria in Paris where he taught until 1572.”
Walter Ong chonroicled the way in which Ramus kicked rhetoric down off in the trivium in his Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason The title of this book gives away pretty clearly what Ramus did: ramus wanted to decrease the importances of discourse to what he called reason. Remember when we talkeda bout the canons of rhetoric? In case you’re just joining us or you’ve forgotten: It’s what the Pirate says I alwys state my demands Invention, arrangement, style memory delivery. Ramus proposed moving the invention, arrangement and memory out of the rhelm of rhetoric into logic, under a new name: iudicium (judgment).
He redefined the trivium of grammar dialectic and rhetoric
“Grammar’s two parts are etymology and syntax; dialectic’s two parts are invention and arrangement; and the two parts of rhetoric are style and delivery.”
Ramus's goal is to show that many of the categories that Aristotle came up with regarding rhetoric, which Cicero and Quintilian and others followed, are either arbitrary or actually false, because the divisions divide the subject at the wrong joints. I think Ramus is, for the most part, right, though he is being a little more strict than the subject matter allows [per Aristotle].
Ramus says: Quintilian has added all kinds of things to rhetoric that do not belong to it. Rather, these things might be necessary in rhetoric, e.g., grammar, or must exist in the good orator, e.g., virtue, but these are not what rhetoric itself is about, as an art. Ramus identifies rhetoric with what earlier writers call eloquence, limiting its scope to style and delivery. Invention, order, and memory, he says, belong more properly to dialectic (which ends up being very similar to philosophy). In this way, rhetoric seems to be separated from both the audience and the pisteis of the argument. This makes sense, but only so long as it is remembered that rhetoric [eloquence] is nothing without dialectic as its counterpart [per Aristotle]. Ramus evidently believes that rhetoric can be taught apart from dialectic, even though speeches and even literature and poetry are constructed out of both. Dialectic and rhetoric work together in "stirring the emotions and causing delight" (Newlands 124), but training in ethics is the better place to go to learn about the emotions properly.
As walter Ong says
Prime inditement against Ramus as one whose work “could in no real sense be considered an advance or even a reform in logic” (5) because he was “living off the increment of intellectual capital belonging to others” (7)
“Ramist rhetoric […] is not a dialogue rhetoric at all, and Ramist dialectic has lost all sense of Socratic dialogue” (287), because, as Ramus says, “The art of dialectic is the teaching of how to discourse” (qtd. 160) and as for rhetoric “Ramist rhetoric relies more on ornamentation theory than perhaps any other rhetoric ever has “ (277).
In the place of rhetoric, Ramus recommended a type of logic that depends on what he called “Method”—“orderly pedagogical presentation of any subject by reputedly scientific descent from ‘general principles’ to ‘specials’” in bifurcated charts (11). These charts are familiar to us now, especially when we thinking about flow charts and technology branches. It’s also very familiar to those of us who grew up reading Choose Your Own Adcentures. It’s about splitting all of your options in to. For example Ramus creates a tree of cicero’s life. At the beginning, you have the two choices: life and death. Death is a dead end, but if you follow life, that splits into his birth and his parents on one hand and his learning on the other. Follow learning and you haveanother split between old age and youth. Follow old age and you’ll find his public career and his retirement. Following these branches, you can follow a yes or a no throughout Cicero’s life. This is a great sort of organization for computers to follow because of its bifurcation and it’s handy also when you’re following a taxonomy, but it isn’t the most useful for coming up with ideas that exists in non dialectical order. Still this method could be used for invention and memory, just as Ramus wanted.
According to Yeates (1966):
"...one of the chief aims of the Ramist movement for the reform and simplification of education was to provide a new and better way of memorising all subjects. This was to be done by a new method whereby every subject was to be arranged in ‘dialectical order’. This order was set out in schematic form in which the ‘general’ or inclusive aspects of the subject came first, descending thence through a series of dichotomised classifications to the ‘specials’ or individual aspects. Once a subject was set out in its dialectical order it was memorised in this order from the schematic presentation – the famous Ramist epitome." (p.232
“Ramus became a convert to Calvinism in the 1550s and in so doing became caught up in the politics associated with the French Wars of Religion between the Roman Catholics and the Calvinistic Huguenots. The Duc de Guise, a Catholic, took control of the royal family in Paris. This resulted in uprisings by the Calvinist Huguenots throughout France and a ruthless response by Duc de Guise. Near the end of 1562, the Calvinists were forced to leave Paris, and Ramus left with them.
In 1572, after spending time both in and out of Paris, Ramus planned to return permanently to Paris under protection of the King. Despite this protection, during the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in which a Roman Catholic mob attacked and murdered Protestant Huguenots, Ramus was assassinated. Following his death he became regarded by Protestants as a martyr.“
Ong argues that it was in part because of Ramus’ martyrdom that he became so popular in England and other Protestant
Ramus was incredibly influential for centuries, first in the Protestant continent, and then in England and America (47). Most importantly, perhaps, “Ramism assimilated logic to imagery and imagery to locig by reducing intelligence itself, more or less unconsciously, in terms for rather exclusively visual, spatial analogies” (286).
Ramus was influencial, but he also limited the role of rhetoric to eloquence, to the style and delivery of ideas rather than the invention of them. It would take centuries for rhetoricians to wrestle these elements of the canon back to the rhelm of rhetoric but the idea that rhetoric equals style is still with us. Just think of how often we hear politicians say their opponents have lots of hollow rhetoric without any good ideas.
Next week we’ll go even earlier to talk about the renaissance debates about rhetoric, so we’ll have a whole super team of rhetoric villains, all plotting to limit the scope or influence of rhetoric. If you have an idea for a series you’d like to hear on Mere Rhetoric, why not drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org? I’ll listen respectfully, because I am not personally a super villain.
Mon, 14 December 2015
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
The original recording of this podcast in 2014 was especially timely because we’re going to talk about an important article that came out in College English 30 years ago this year: Stephen North’s Idea of a Writing Center
This essay has been hugely influencial in the rapidly growin and professionalizing field of writing center studies. Back in 1984, though, writing centers couldn’t get no respect. “Writing Labs” of the early 20th century were often responses to a defitioncy model of writing education—the students who were coming in were seen as remedial, and thus in need of one-on-one attention from tutors. This was a response of the same crises we talked about in the podcast on the Harvard Reports. By the 80s, writing center were becoming more abundant on campuses, but that doesn’t mean they were popular: often shunted to the literal basements of buildings, with creaky, leaky facilities and an underpaid non-tenure track director, writing centers were somehow expected to “fix” student writing. But even under such terrible circumstances, writing center theory was beging to develop, aided by such scholars as Muriel Harris and Stephen North.
Stephen North was a good candidate to have written such a manifesto as “The Idea of a Writing Center.” In the 1980s, North was a discipline-maker. His thorough taxonomy of composition research The Making of Knowledge in Composition has sometimes been tapped as the foundational manifesto for research in composition. We’ll probably talk about it later, but “The Idea of a Writing Center” was no less of a manifesto for writing center studies.
The first line of the article reads “This is an essay that began out of frustration.” The frustration is palpable as North addresses some of the complaints that writing centers have from—and he means this in a nice way—ignorant colleagues. Everyone is ignorant—everyone in the profession, even people in composition, are ignorant “They do not understand what does happen, what can happen in a writing center” (32). It’s not just that North feels misunderstood; it’s that this misunderstanding affects the students who come through his door day-by-day: “You cannot parcel out some portion of a given student for us to deal with,” he fumes against his colleagues in writing classes, “’you take care of editing, I’ll deal with invention”) Nor should you require that all of your students drop by with an early draft of a research paper to get a reading from a fresh audience. You should not scrawl, at the bottom of a failing paper ‘go to the writing center.’ Even those of you who, out of genine concenrn, bring students to a writing center, almost by the hand, to make sure they know we won’t hurt them—even you are essentially out of line.” Ow. Seems like a pretty long list of ways to misuse the writing center and even to modern audiences all of these techniques seem innocent enough. The main problem, North points out, is that “we are not here to serve, supplement, back up, complement, reinforce, or otherwise be defined by any expernal curriculm. (40). Unless you think North has it out for his colleagues, he admits that even his own writing center includes in its mission statement the description of the center as “a tutorial facility for those with special problems in composition” (34). If it’s possible to spit something out in a written article, North faily spits the words out in self-loathing. And the loathing is “the idea that a writing center can only be some sort of skills center, a fix-it shop” (35).
So if writing centers AREN’T just a support for composition, what is the “idea” of te writing center anyway? “We are here to talk to writers” (40). This definition makes the writing center an independent entity with its own purpose in the university, not just an appendage or fix-it shop for the composition classes. What a writing center is can be much larger. North sets out the definition for writing center that persists to this day : at a writing center “the object to to make sure that writer, not necessarily their texts, are what get changed by instruction. In axiom form it goes like this: our job is to produce better writers, not better writing” (38). Whhhoooo, I almost get chills. It’s a phrase you’ll hear a lot in writing cneters, “better writers, not better writing.” What it often means is that writing centers aren’t editing services or a way to improve an assignment or get an A in a class, but an educational cite themselves that hope to teach writing skills and processes that students can take with them in any class and even after graduation. In this sense, the writing center, as North says, “is going to be student-centers in the strictest sense of that term” (39). It will “being from where the student is, and move where the student moves” (39).
North suggests that writing centers are uniquely qualified to do this work, since the teaching of writing can take “place as much as possible during writing, during the acticity being learned” instead of before or after the writing (39). “The fact is,” North continues “not everyon’s interest in writing, their need or desire to write or learn to write coincides with the fifteen or thirty weeks they spend in writing courses—especially when, as is currently the case at so many institutions, those weeks are required” (42). Anyone who’s taught composition can attest that students sometimes have a hard time seeing the point of skills that their teachers immediately identify as critical for future writing, but with only the imperative of finishing the class, it can be hard for students to understand. At the writing center, North suggests, this is not the case, because the motivations become real. “Any given project” is the material that brings students in “that particular text, its success or failure” (38) motivates students. Students who are motivated by applying to law school or understanding a lab report are often suddenly willing to see the importance of writing skills. These students, “are suddenly willing—sometimes overwhelming so—to concern themselves with audience, purpose and persona and to revise over and over again” because “suddenly writing is a vehicle, a means to an end” (43).
The ideas from North’s “Idea of a writing center” have become commonplaces, both because they resonated with what was already happening in the Writing Lab Newsletter and other periodicals as , in North’s words, “writing center folk general are becoming more research-oriented” (44). That tradition has expanded, as peer-reviewed articles in writing centers studies supports a half-dozen journals as well as frequent publication in College English and College composition and communication. When North saw that writing center directors were meeting “as a recognized National Assembly” at the National Council of Teachers of English, he might have foreseen that writing center studies would balloon into the International Writing Center Association, a biennial conference that draws participants in hundreds, and all of the regional conferences affiliated with the IWCA…which reminds me.
One such conference is the south cettral (waazzup?) writing center association conference, which we hosted here at the Uniersity of Texas at Austin last February. I confess that my interest in this topic was partially inspired by the call for papers in this conference, which invoked the 30-yr anniversary of “the idea of a Writing Center.”
If you have a conference that you’re organizing in rhetoric and composition, send me an email over at email@example.com and I’d love to give you a shout out on a future podcast.
Direct download: 15-08-12_-_Mere_Rhetoric_-_Ideas_of_Writing_Centers.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 12:00pm CST
Fri, 11 December 2015
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.
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.
Mon, 7 December 2015
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.
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 CST
Sat, 5 December 2015
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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
Wed, 2 December 2015
Welcome to Mere Rhetoric the podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, ideas and movement that have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and the University of Texas’ Humanities Media Project supports the podcast and
A few weeks ago I was at an excellent lecture by Collin Brooke here at the university of Texas and he was talking about applying the master tropes to different models of networks. Then I thought--by Jove, the Master Tropes! What a brilliant idea for a podcast! So with all deference to Dr. Brooke, let’s dive into these four beauties of the world of tropes.
A trope, you may or not know, is a way of presenting thought in language. A trope is different from what’s called a figure because it doesn’t deal with arranging words, but rather arranging thought. For example, a figure might be something like hyperbaton, which is the the way that Yoda talks: “Patience you must have” just means “you must have patience” there’s not change in the thought behind the words, but the refiguring of the words creates interest, so Yoda says things like “Miss them do not” instead of do not miss them, but the ideas aren’t changed at all. That’s figures.
Occasionally, though, Yoda will use a trope. For example, once he said ““In a dark place we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way.” This is, as it turns out, a metaphor: knowledge doesn’t actually cast a glow, but it does make things metaphorically clear. The words transform the ideas: light equals knowledge. It’s not that Yoda changed the words around--all considered this is pretty syntactically straight-forward for the sage-green sage--but he’s presented the ideas in a different way. This is a trope, not a figure.
It is, as a matter of fact, one of the four master tropes: Metaphor, Synecdoche, Metonymy and Irony. It’s possible that these terms aren’t familiar to you, or only in a vague, AP English sort of way, so let me provide examples and definitions. Metaphor is the trope that is most familiar to us: knowledge is light, the Force is a river, many Storm troupers are a wall. So I’m going to skip over that. Synecdoche is--aside from being difficult to pronounce, using the part to represent the whole. I always think of that movie Synecdoche New York, where the guy builds a replica of New York for a movie. The standard examples include things like “earning your bread and butter” when you’re hopefully earning much more than that or “putting boots on the ground” when the military often needs soldiers, too, to fill those boots. I used to joke with my Mormon comedy group since everyone prays to “bless the hands that prepared this food,” if there was a terrible accident in the kitchen and everyone died, at least the hands would be preserved. So you get the idea. Metonymy can sometimes be a little more confusing, because it, like Synecdoche, involves using a word associated with the idea to stand in for the idea itself. We say things like “the White House has issued a statement” when the building itself has done no such thing, or “Hollywood is corrupt” to represent the movie business generally. Some people will say that synecdoche is just a specific kind of metonymy, like how simile is a specific kind of metaphor. Finally, irony may seem like a simple, straightforward trope, but it can be notoriously complex, as Wayne Booth describes in greater detail in The Rhetoric of Irony. How we we know when someone is being ironic? How much is irony dependent on understanding cultural cues? Why do we say the opposite of what we mean as a way to say what we want? Tricky stuff all around.
The four master tropes are probably most familiar to rhetoricians as the essay found way in the back of Kenneth Burke’s Grammar of Methods, way way back as an appendix. There, Burke equates these over-arching tropes with different epistemic perspectives: metaphor correlates with perspective, metonymy with reduction, synecdoche with representation, and irony with dialectic. The way that we construct thought depends on how we use these four master tropes.
Remember when we talked about the Metaphors we live by? Well, Burke says that we don’t just live by metaphors individually, but also by the idea of metaphor, or by reduction, representation or dialectic. The tropes, instead of just being a way to make your writing more flowery, can be a critical part of invention, and how you see the world more generally. Are you inclined to think inductively, looking at a couple of examples of Sith lords and there after making generalizations about the group as a whole and their capacity to run a competent daycare? It’s possible to think in terms of irony, transpositioning one view of truth with an anti-thetical perspective: can Anikin be both on the dark side and not on the dark side? Can you both do and do not if you only try? These master tropes are not just ways of expressing ideas about the world, but coming to make ideas as well.
I’m a huge fan of Burke, but I’m afraid that I can’t give him credit for coming up with the idea of four master tropes that encompass other ways of figuring ideas. I’m sorry to say that that distinction goes to--ew--Petrus Ramus. Yes, Ramus, the mustache-twirling villain of rhetoric himself. Back when we did our series on the villains of rhetoric, Ramus was public enemy number one, removing invention from rhetoric and diminishing the whole affair to a series of branching “yes and no” questions and needless ornamentation. And yet it was Ramus, in his eagerness to classify everything into categories and subcategories who coined the idea of the master tropes back in 1549. Fortunately the idea was taken up by a more palatable figure of rhetorical history, Giambattista Vico, who in the 18th century, identified the master tropes as basic tropes, or fundamental tropes, being those to which all others are reducible.
Since Burke, though, others have taken up the idea that these tropes of arranging ideas might become ways to think about the world in general. Hayden White, for instance, saw the master tropes as representing something about literature.
He constructed a table where each trope has its own genre, worldview and ideology. Metaphor, for instance, was about romance--or we might say fantasy--and was associated with formism and an ideology of anarchism because anything might apply as a metaphor. Metonymy was associated with comedy, organicism and conservatism--presumably because if you assume that “the White House” speaks for the country, you’re putting a lot of stock in the traditional power that dominates. Conversely, synecdoche was associated with tragedy, mechanism and radicalism. Irony, naturally enough, was the trope of satire and its world view of contextualism and liberalism. Once White had come up with this tidy table, he because to think about the tropes not just statically, but how they might evolve temporally, both in terms of an individual child’s development and in a civilization.
Metaphor was the earliest stage, corresponding to infants up to two years old and aligned with Foucault’s conceptualization of the Renaissance. Then metaphor gives way to metonymy, the domain of children from 2-7, which White lines up with the Classical period and the Enlightenment--very conservative and fond of straight-forward comedy. Next comes synecdoche of tweens and the modernist period--radically breaking from the past and finally, in crowning achievement, irony, the stage of teenagers and adults, corresponding to the post-modernist era, with its love of counterintuitive and contradictory thought.
Others have highlighted the philosophical or historiographical possibilities of the mastertropes, including Jakobson and Foucault himself. Which brings me back to this fascinating, exploratory lecture by Collin Brooke.
Brooke suggested another correlation for the master tropes: not ways of thinking or periods of time, but networks of connection. Networks are a big stinking deal for digital humanists and new media rhetoricians like Brooke, and some of the different types of networks, brooke proposes, may correlate to the master tropes: hierarchies, for instance, are like metaphors, which correspond across groups--the padowan learner doesn’t really tell us much about the Jedi master who trains her, but you expect the role of that padowan learner to be similar to the role of another padowan who studies under another master. Synecdoche, though, can be seen in truly random networks. A network of 200 that is truly random, is representative of a network of 2000, or of 2 million. Some networks are neither analogous like metaphor or random like synecdoche. In situations that produce what’s been called the long tail--citations for example, some groups or people are more popular because they are more popular. the more people who fear Jabba the hut--peons, bounty hunters-- the more he is feared. It creates a snowball effect that is similar to metonymy. Brooke’s ideas are inchoate and he admits that he’s not sure what network might correlate to irony--it’s all a work in progress, afterall, but it goes to show that the organization appeal of the master tropes continues. The idea of tropes that rule all the other tropes and say something meaningful about the ways in which we construct and understand the world around us is a timeless appeal that goes all the way back to Vico--er, let’s just say Vico, okay. Until next week--miss us you must not because patience you must have.
Sat, 28 November 2015
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 email@example.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…
Fri, 27 November 2015
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.
Mon, 23 November 2015
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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).
Fri, 20 November 2015
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.