Wed, 27 April 2016
Today on Mere Rhetoric, we talk about John Dewey. John Dewey was a big ol’ deal, even back in his day. Just after his death in 1952, Hilda Neaby wrote”Dewey has been to our age what Aristotle was to the later Middle Ages, not just a philosopher, but the philosopher.”
And what does a person have to do to be compared to Aristotle? I mean to be compared in a serious way to Aristotle, because I’m like Aristotle because, you know, I enjoy olive oil on occasions, not because I’m the philosopher. I think one thing Neaby means is that Dewey was involved in everything. Just like how Aristotle had huge impact in politics, theology, science and rhetoric, John Dewey seemed to have a finger in every pie. By the time he died at age 92, he had written significantly on education, politics, art, ethics and sociology. But it’s not enough to be a big freakin’ deal a hundred years ago, but Dewey is a big deal in rhetoric today. It’s rare to search too many issues back in Rhetoric Review, Rhetoric Society Quarterly or Rhetoric and Public Affairs without hitting on an article either directly about or draws on Dewey, and books about Dewey are popping up all over the map. John Dewey is hot real estate.
So because John Dewey is such an important thinker for rhetoricians today, we have to take more time than today to talk about him. That’s right-- a Mere Rhetoric two-parter. A to-be-continued. A cliffhanger. If that cliff is carefully divided, I guess and that division is this: today we’ll talk about John Dewey’s contribution to aesthetics, his book Art as Experience and responses to that book from contemporary rhetoricans. Next week we’ll talk more about his politics, the dream of his pragmatism, what he means by Individualism Old and New and the famous Dewey-Lippmann debate. So that’s what we’ll be doing the next two weeks. So let’s get started on the first part of this Dewey-twoey.
Like many great thinkers, Dewey started his career by realizing that what he thought he wanted to do, he really, really didn’t. In Dewey’s case it was education. It’s ironic that Dewey became one of the 20th century’s most important voices in education because he did not teach secondary or primary school for longer than a couple of years each. Good thing he had a back-up plan as a major philosopher. He joined the ground floor of the University of Chicago and became one of the defining voices of the University of Chicago style of thinking, although he eventually left, somewhat acrimoniously, and taught at Columbia for the rest of his career. Somewhere along the way, though, he became president of the American philosophical association and published Art as Experience.
The title kind of gives away Dewey’s claim--he situates art in the experience which you have with art. As he says “the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience” (1). But he also means the opposite, that experience can be art. Instead of thinking of art as something that happens in rarified situations behind glass and velvet ropes, Dewey opens up “art” to mean popular culture, experiences with nature and even just a way of living.
Being in the moment is a big part of this artful living. If you’re experiencing or rather, to use the particular philosophical parlance Dewey insists on “having an experience” then you are totally being in the moment: “only when the past ceases to trouble and anticipations of the future are not perturning is a being wholly united with his environment and therefore fully alive. Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reenforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what is now is” (17). In such a view, any time we live the moment artfully, in full presence of being, we’re having an artful experience.
In having an experience, you have some sort of awareness and some kind of form.
As Dewey says, “art is thus prefigured in the very processes of life” (25).
This idea may sound radical. How can sitting in a crowded bus be art the way that the Mona Lisa is art? But Dewey is insistent. He sighs, “the hostility to association of fine art with normal processes of living is a pathetic, even a tragic, commentary on life as it is ordinarily lived” (27-28).
That’s not to say that there can’t be objects of art that concentrate the sensation of having an experience. But it’s the whole experience. For example, “Reflections on Tintern Abbey” isn’t really about Tintern Abbey any more than it’s about Wordworth and evenings and homecomings and 1798 and that sycamore and all of it. It expresses a complete experience of Wordsworth. And that expression is always changing as times change.“the very meaning,” Dewey writes “of an important new movement in any art is that it expresses something new in human experience” (316). Meanwhile the art that remains after the moment passes and the movement becomes cliche. “Art is the great force in effecting [...] consolidation. The individuals who have minds pass away one by one. The works in which meanings have received objective expression endure. [...] every art in some manner is a medium of this transmission while its products are no inconsiderable part of the saturating matter” (340)
And the value of art is moral. First off, Dewey says that“The moral function of art itself is to remove prejudice, do away with the scales that keep the eye from seeing, tear away the veils due to wont and custom, perfect the power to perceive. The critic’s office is to further this work, performed by the object of art” (338).
Pretty cool stuff, huh? But wait, there’s more. The process of having an experience, that complete being, has its own moral value, or so argues Scott Stroud in John Dewy and the Artful Life: Pragmatism, aesthetics and morality. There he claims “I want to examine how art can be seen as a way of moral cultivation” (3) because“At various places, Dewey’s work provides us with tantalizing clues to his real project--the task of making more of life aesthetic or artful” (5) Put in other words: “art can show individuals how certain value schemes feel, how behaviors affect people, etc.--in other words, art can force the reflective instatement (creation) of moral values” (9)
Stroud connects the pragmatists like Dewey with mysticism in Eastern philosophy and medieval monastic Christianity. Remember how Dewey is all about having an experience, really being in the moment? So Stroud says, “The way to substantially improve our experience is not by merely waiting for the material setup of the world to change, but instead lies in the intelligent altering of our deep-seated bahits (orientations) toward activity and toward other individuals” (11).
“The important point,” writes Stroud, “is that attentiveness to the present is a vital way to cultivate the self toward the goal of progressive adjustment and it is also a vital means in the present to do so” (69)
For Stroud, as for Dewey“the art object [...] imbued with meaning partially by the actions of the artist, but also because of the crucial contributions of meaning that a common cultural background contributes to the activity of producing and receiving art objects” (97)--the way that the artistic object is received popularly and by critics. And for that aim “criticism does more than merely tell one what an important work of art is or what impression was had; instead, it gives one a possible orientation that is helpful in ordering and improving one’s past and future experiences” (122). And in that, criticism, or even appreciation, is also a moral act.
Stroud’s argument has immediate application of the artful life. He ponders “How can we render everyday communication, such as that experiences in mundane conversations with friends, cashiers, and so on, as aesthetic?” (170). To answer this, he draws on dewey to suggest that we avoid focusing on a remote goal, cultivate habits of attending to the demands of the present communication situation and fight against the idea of reified, separate self (186-7).
Wed, 20 April 2016
Welcome to MR, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I'm Mary Hedengren, Jacob is in the booth and the Humanities Media Project is making this all possible.
Quick note: this is a rebroadcast, so you might want to take the next couple of sentences with a grain of salt. That is all. Starting…now.
We’ve spent this month talking about the villains of rhetoric, but since mere rhetoric isn’t just abtout rhetoric, today we’re going to talk about one of the villains of composition. But first
Mere Rhetoric is now at your disposal for feedback! You can check us out on Twitter @mererhetoricked or you can email us at email@example.com send in suggestions, feedback, questions— and I’ll try to answer them because every question is a rhetorical question. And of course I want to shout out the University of Texas RSA student chapter for their support of this podcast. I’m, as ususal, Mary Hedengren.
Today’s villain is not one mustache-twirler, but the very most villainous type of villain: the committee. And even worse than a committee is a report written by a committee. The villans of compositions are often reports written by committee, and the first major villainous report in question goes all the way back to the 19th century Harvard Reports.
Harvard, the site of the very first frist- year composition classes, was also the place where complaints about those freshman were most acutely embattled. Because Harvard was, you know, Haaahvaaad, it pioneered an entrance exam for its applicants. Soon, preparatory schools were gleefully teaching to the test, a test which, however well it kept out the riff raff, was woefully inadequate in, well, helping students learn how to write. Soon these students entered actual classes at Harvard or any of the copycat schools that required an entrance exam, these students having learned only the minutia of grammatical correctness, pedantary and the art of the all-night cram-fest, were dismayed to discover they couldn’t in fact write.
Their instructors were the more distraught by the realization, not least because there were dreadful lot of terrible writers to be taught. The late 19th century saw a boom in educational enrollment, the likes of which are inadequately compared to increases post-WWII or in the 70s. Albert Kitzhaber reports that in 1894, more than a thousand students at Univeristy of Michage were served by a staff of 4 full time teachers and 2 part-time graduate instructors. That means not only was the writing often awful, but there was an awful lot of awful writing. So there was a crisis—Quick! To a committee!
The report that Harvard’s committee wrote compained “It is obciously absurd that the College—the institution of higher education-should be called upon to turn aside from its proper functions [those are left un specified by the way] and deovte its means ad the time of its instructors to the task of imparting elementary instruction which should be given even in ordinary grammar schools, much more in those higher academic instituions intended to prepare slect youth for a university ocourse” (44) According to Kitzhaber, it goes on in that same tone and he reports drily that “there was a good deal of sarcasm in the Report. (45).
“It is little less tha absurd to suggest ath any human being who can be taught to talk cannot likewise be taught to compose,” fumed the report “writing is merely the bait of talk with the pen instead of which the tongue!” The report grumpily pointed the finger at the lower schools for not preparing students better, and suggested raising the standard for admissions even higher. In total, three reports were issued from Harvard: 1892, 1895 and 1897. The three castigated the lower schools for “the growing illiteracy of American boys” and urged more mechanicall correctness from preparatory schools.
There’s nothing new about complaining about the awful writing of freshmen. Complaining about lazy, illiterate students is one of the oldest and most time-honored traditions of teachers, alongside wearing silly hats for official ceremonies and calling people you hate “my esteemed colleague.” What made the Harvard Reports so villainous was the immese influence they had in 19th century America.
These reports spread all over America, creating a sense of crisis in the popular press. Eventually the US government took not and in response to this crisis—wait for it—appointed a committee. This committee saught to standardize entrance exams and require more writing in the secondary schools. In the end, the Harvard reports had succeeded in creating a sense of crisis and creating action to address the crisis, lifting standards “by the hair of the head” as Fred Newton Scott said. Still, all they had done was ensure that the superficial complaints that these teachers and administrators had were the only complaints to be addressed.
A focus on mechanical correctness has dogged composition ever since. Every few decades, newspapers and magazines will find that some percentage of college graduates are dangling their participles and the education world will find itself again playing the blame game. It happened again in 1975 with NEwseeek’s incidenary article “Why Johnny can’t Write” which again highlighted “the illiuteracy of American boys” (why don’t these reports ever concern themselves with girls’ inability to diagram a sentence, I leave to the audience to deduce). “Why Johnny can’t write” led to further committes, further reports and further books all declaring a “back to bascis” curriculum, where basics meant the identification of linguistics terms. This coninutes today. While searching for a copy of the original “why Johnny can’t write” I found an article published on the nbc website in 2013 that starts with the sentence:
Can you tell a pronoun from a participle; use commas correctly in long sentences; describe the difference between its and it's?
If not, you have plenty of company in the world of job seekers. Despite stubbornly high unemployment, many employers complain that they can't find qualified candidates.
Often, the mismatch results from applicants' inadequate communication skills. In survey after survey, employers are complaining about job candidates' inability to speak and to write clearly.
The reporter seems to have made a sudden slip—can you spot it? She’s jumped from the skills of identitying a pronoun or punctuating a possessive to the “inablitiy to speak and write clearly”. Sadly, I do not believe this will be the last article to make a similar leap and for that matter, we don’t see the end of that sort of reasoning in books or committee reports.
We can’t blame the Hardard reports of the 1890s specifically—maybe these complaints are just eh easiest writing errors to identify and castigate—but whenever an English major is confronted with a horrified acquaintance who says “I better watch my grammar in front of you” we’re dealing with some of the popular fall out from the 19th Century Harvard reports.
Wed, 13 April 2016
Jeffrey Walker’s Aesthetic/Epideictic
Welcome to MR, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movement who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren, Samantha’s in the booth, Humanities Media Project is the sponsor and Jeff Walker is the subject. Jeffrey Walker is kind of my hero in life. I get weird around him, the way some people get around Natalie Portman or David Beckham. I came to the University of Texas, in part, because I so admired his work, but when I got here and saw him at parties I found that I mostly awkwardly stood four feet behind him, which—incidentally, is the exactly position the camera takes behind the protagonist in horror movies and I suspect that that didn’t help me much in meeting him. Since then I’ve taken a class from Dr. Walker, had him speak at official RSA student chapter meetings, even had a one-on-one seminar with him, where every week I would exit his office to a world where the sun shone brighter and the birds sang sweeter. That’s how much I like Jeffrey Walker. He’s a great human being, but he’s also a darn fine scholar.
Dr. Walker’s first book in 1989, Bardic Ethos and the American Epic Poem may sound on first blush like a piece of literary criticism, but it’s actually about persuasion, the very particular kind of persuasion that demands that the listener put in as much or more work than the rhetor. In this book, Walker looked at a very specific genre—the American Epic—and a specific period and school, and inquired about what kind and amount of rhetorical work being done. The main difficulty here seems to be audience. To write an American epic that can both express and inspire the nation en masse, the poet has got to speak to those masses. But to be a high literary, post-Romantic bard, the poet has to deal in the kind of textual, allusion, and thematic obscurity that is incomprehensible to the masses. In hisconcluding paragraphs, he sums up the struggle nicely: “The bard, in short, is obliged to reject the available means for effectively communicating his historical, political, and ethical vision to the public mind insofar as he wants to succeed with his tribal audience” (240, emphasis in original).
Bardic Ethos and the American Epic Poem traces the American literary attempts at prophecy without populism from its origins in Whitman’s “moral magnetism” (30). First identifying both high poetic speech (93) and “conventions and expectations” for the audience (118), as the reasons for Pound’s failure to be a “Whitman who has learned to wear a collar” (2), the book then examines Crane’s inability to “use his mythic ideal to redeem or bless the present” (136), in part because “’the popular’ in a modernist context is generally beneath respectability” (145). While William Carlos Williams what Walker on another occasion called the “good guy of the book” (15/2/2011) in trying to write Paterson for “a public at least partly comprise of actual people” (157), he, too, fails to write a work that is accepted in both popular and literary circles. Olson’s Maximus Poems seek a similar project, but in describing the few that can transform many sometimes becomes almost eugenically elitist, even to the point of justified genocide (234). In the end, it seems as though these modernist bardic writers must chose between a literary and a popular audience (240), usually coming down on the side of the literati, ultimately described as the “tribe with whom [the author] is marooned” (243).
I’m very interested in this book’s premise of irreconcilable audiences. You might see how this concept could coordinate with Wayne Booth’s image of the author sitting around waiting for an audience. While Booth dismisses this idea, this book kind of suggests that it happens, regardless of the author’s intention; these writers sought a broad and a specific audience, but only the specific audience came to the table. I always think about the hero of Nightmare Abbey, who wrote a metaphysical tome so boring that it only sold seven copies. The hero then perks up, calling his readers, in his mind, the seven golden candle sticks. If you write obscure stuff, you probably aren’t going to reach a wide audience.
The other hugely influential book Walker wrote about the rhetoric of poetics is his 2000 Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity. The book goes way beyond Whitman and his prophetic bards to ancient Greek lyric poetry. Poetry back then was always publicially performed and that, Walker argues, means that it was always public persuasion. One of the key ways this happened what through the lyric enthymeme. The Enthymeme, to refresh, is when the audience supplies part of the argument. So [shave and a haircut]. Or, to make it poetic, when Ol Yeller is, spoiler alert, put down, the 20th century American audience things “Oh, dogs are like friends and it’s sad when they die” instead of, like 14th century Aztecs, thinking, “what’s the big deal? We kill dogs every day—and eat them.” The audience supplies part of the argument of any aesthetic piece.
It seems like the main argument Walker’s making in this book is that the epideictic isn’t derivative and secondary to the other genres of rhetoric, but actually primary and of almost “pre-rhetorical” origin. In supplying many examples of ancient poets who were able to produce the best lyric enthymemes, Walker not only builds up evidence to support his over all claim, but he creates sub-categories and conditions for this kind of lyric enthymeme.. One of the most interesting of these divisions is the “Argumentation Indoors/Argumentation Outdoors” distinction Walker illustrates with Alcaeus and Sappho’s lyric poetry. So some of the public performance weren’t big publics. If Alcaeus spoke only to his hetaireia (remember them? The geisha like prostitutes like Aspasia?) or that Sappho make have written for an intimate circle of acquaintances and devotees doesn’t have to imply that their poetry could appeal only to those small groups. In fact, Walker claims that “just the opposite is true” and the poems “offer enthymematic argumentation that engages with the discourses of a wider audience” to cement their continued influence (249).
The ideal situations for this kind of poetic influence disintegrate, though. The book is, after all, called Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity and it’s understandable that the tracing of suasive lyric has to end somewhere, so Walker seem to mark the beginning of the end, in both Greece and Rome, with the literaturaization of poetry and the Aristoltization of rhetoric. The former leads to a paradigm that literature is removed from everyday life, erudite, a “decorative display” (57) that “cannot escape the rhetorical limitations of symposiastic insider discourse” (289); the latter downplays the rhetorical nature of poetry (281) while emphasizing rhetoric’s relation to the civic responsibilities of the forum and the court.
So you can see why I have so much hero-worship for Jeffrey Walker. In fact, I’m not entirely convinced this is going to be our last podcast on his work. Yeah. If you have a reason why you love Jeff Walker, or –I guess—if you want to suggest a podcast about your own rhetorical heroes, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll just be sitting here, dreading the possibility that Dr. Walker might hear this podcast, getting embarrassed and awkward for a while.
Wed, 6 April 2016
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 special thanks to the Humanities media project. This is a re-recording, so you might want to take the next sentence with a grain of salt
Last week we continued our conversation of deliberative rhetoric by talking about Saving Persuasion, a contemporary book about how rhetoric doesn’t have to be rhetortricky. Today we’re going to talk about one of the figures in political rhetoric who was really, really good at what he did and that made everyone around him very nervous. I’m talking about one of the most engaging political figures of ancient Athens: Demosthenes.
That name may sound vaguely familiar to those of you who are regular listeners because we mentioned Demosthenes as one of the great orators who got his start in logography. Logographers, as some of you might recall, were the pre-lawyer lawyers. They could be hired to write speeches for people going to court. They had to be savvy about what the jury would respond to and they had to write in a way that would represent their client. What they didn’t have to do, though, was deliver the speech.
We also mentioned that Demosthenes was all about delivery when we talked about the canons of rhetoric [canon boom] Really? Well, when we talked about the canons of rhetoric, one of the last ones was delivery, and Demosthenes reportedly thought delivery was the most important. He had an unnatural time at it, though, because he was allegedly born with a serious speech impediment. Plutarch says that Demosthenes had “a perplexed and indistinct utterance and a shortness of breath, which, by breaking and disjointing his sentences much obscured the sense and meaning of what he spoke.” More likely, Demosthenes said his “r”s like “l”s. I have a lot of sympathy for this, as someone who went to speech therapy herself until she was in junior high. I also had problems with my r’s and l’s and on top of it, I had a retainer. My mom, a writing teacher, thought this was fantastic, because Demosthenes learned to over come his speech impediment by way of—not a retainer—but pebbles in his mouth. As he learned to talk around the pebbles in his mouth, he became hyper aware of his diction and became a great orator. All of this is cold comfort to a twelve-year-old with orthodonty, but it worked out well for Demosthenes.
Really well. Demosthenes, who had been taking a sort of back-seat position as a logographer began to get more of a toehold in politics, by way of taking on “public” cases. You see, if you hated someone’s politics, you could sue them. Remember how some Republicans were going to sue Obama for abuse of power? It was like that. All. The. Time. So Demosthenes gets more into politics and begins writing public speeches like Against Androtion and Against Leptines and then Against Timocrates and Against Aristocrates Are you noticing a theme in these titles? Demosthenes was really taking to town all of the politicians who were allegedly corrupt and politics in ancient Athens were always personal. “Pretty much you try to paint the other guy as a villain beyond all villainy. Athens did smear campaigns better than anyone who ever put their opponent in grainy, slow-mo footage. Here’s a taste of Demosthenes’ accusations: “For on many occasions, men of Athens, the justice of the case has not been brought home to you, but a verdict has been wrested from you by the clamor, the violence and the shamelessness of the pleaders. Let not that be your case today, for that would be unworthy of you.” “In this court Leptines is contending with us, but within the conscience of each member of the jury humanity is arrayed against envy, justice against malice, and all that is good against all that is most base.” “do not think, gentlemen of the jury, that even Timocrates can lay the blame of the present prosecution upon anyone else: he has brought it on himself. Moved by desire to deprive the State of a large sum of money, he has most illegally introduced a law which is both inexpedient and iniquitous.”
These are awesome. But as anyone running a good campaign knows, it’s not enough just to slam the opponent; you also need to make a few campaign promises yourself. In 354 BC, Demosthenes outlined his policy of moderation and a scheme for financing in his first political oration, On the Navy, which is not to be confused with the Village People’s immortal classic, In the Navy. [sound bite, maybe]. With this speech, first of many, Demosthenes launched his political career in earnest. But what really drove Demosthenes’ career was a great opponent and that he had in Philip II of Macedon. As you might infer from the name, Philip II wasn’t an Athenian, but a Macedonian who was taking over other city states that were alarmingly proximate to Athens. Demosthenes saw Philip as a huge threat and warned the Athenians in his rousing First Phillipic. Unfortunately, Philip still conquered Athens.
This led to Demosthenes being able to give the second and third Phillipic, criticizing the attacker of his city and declaring it "better to die a thousand times than pay court to Philip." The Third Phillipic was his magnum opus in a lot of ways.
“But if some slave or superstitious bastard had wasted and squandered what he had no right to, heavens! how much more monstrous and exasperating all would have called it! Yet they have no such qualms about Philip and his present conduct, though he is not only no Greek, nor related to the Greeks, but not even a barbarian from any place that can be named with honor, but a pestilent knave from Macedonia, whence it was never yet possible to buy a decent slave.” Ooh, that’s good.
Philip did conquer Athens. But then he died. Demosthenes loved that. After Philip’s assassination, Demosthenes put a “garland on his head and white raiment on his body, and there he stood making thank-offerings, violating all decency” according to one account. In fact, after Philip was assassinated, Demosthenes’ classy rhetoric led an uprising of Athenians to finally break the Macedon army. It wasn’t successful and Philip’s son Alexander was in charge and—big surprise—Demosthenes hated him too. It was mutal. Alexander demanded the exile ofDemosthenes.
But the Athenians still loved him and he loved the people. “A project approved by the people is going forward,” he wrote in a public speech commemorating the defeat of his political enemy. Because of the way that Demosthenes had opposed kings and led the people into riot, he became vilified by all good monarchists for centuries. Here was this sneaky demagogue who could manipulate the people into rebellion.
If political types were antsy about Demosthenes, rhetoricians adored him, especially those with a republican bent. Cicero idealized Demosthenes’ orataional and political career, and Longinus and Juvenal praised him highly. Renaissance rhetoricians who were comfortable with his anti-monarach stance loved him too—John Jewel and Thomas Wilson. John Jay, Hamilton and Madison, the American founding fathers and authors of Federalist papers, also admired Demosthenes’ style. So if you like people and rhetoric, chances are, you’ll like Demosthenes.
In some ways, Demosthenes was an orator of the people all along. His style is relative plainspoken, abrupt and built on the assumption of sincerity. As Harry Thurston Peck puts it, Demosthenes "affects no learning; he aims at no elegance; he seeks no glaring ornaments; he rarely touches the heart with a soft or melting appeal, and when he does, it is only with an effect in which a third-rate speaker would have surpassed him. He had no wit, no humour, no vivacity, in our acceptance of these terms. The secret of his power is simple, for it lies essentially in the fact that his political principles were interwoven with his very spirit.” But even though Demosthenes gave the appearance of speaking out of the conviction of his soul 100% of the time, allegedly, he refused to speak off the cuff. He put a lot of work into making his words seem artless.
And that’s what our topic for next week is going to be—Sprezzatura, the art of making what you say seem artless. It’s a prime skill for politicians in our day as well as back in the Renaissance where the term was coined. We’ll talk about why the idea of pretending that you haven’t worked on your speech is so important again in this age of sincerity. If you have things that you’re sincerely interested in, why not write to us at email@example.com? You can send us ideas for podcasts, feedback or stories of your own orthodonticure. And until new week, happy political season!