Seminar in the History of Global Rhetorics

We’ve revised our graduate seminar in the history of rhetoric away from its focus on classical rhetoric. (Here’s a version from ten years ago.) I’m very happy with the revisions: it’s now a course very different from what my generational cohort would have recognized as a history of rhetoric graduate seminar. The driving tension throughout operates between rhetoric’s reach toward engaging alterity (Wayne Booth, Kenneth Burke, Krista Ratcliffe) and the complex alterity-denying move toward coercive agreement (Shadi Bartsch, Achille Mbembe, Tacitus).1

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An Oration

(via Jacobin)

AN ORATION delivered at Greenville, Headquarters of the Western Army, North-West of the Ohio, July 4th, 1795, by the Reverend Morgan J. Rhees.

Illustrious Americans! Noble Patriots! You commemorate a glorious day—the Birthday of Freedom in the New World! Yes, Columbia, thou art free. The twentieth year of thy independence commences this day. Thou has taken the lead in regenerating the world. Look back, look forward; think of the past, anticipate the future and behold with astonishment the transactions of the present time!

The globe revolves on the axis of Liberty; the new world has put the old in motion; the light of truth, running rapid like lightning, flashes convictions in the heart of every civilized nation. Yes, the thunder of American remonstrance has fallen so heavy on the lead of the tyrant that other nations, encouraged by her example, will extirpate all despots from the earth!

. . .

Citizens of the United States: Be not frightened in beholding so many emigrants flocking to your territory. If all the inhabitants of the world were to pay you a visit, you can compliment each of them with half an acre of land. But, sirs, look forward and behold with transports of joy this vast continent from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Pacific to the Atlantic, forming one grand Republic of Brethren.

At present it is impossible to calculate on the rapidity of revolutions. What formerly took a century to accomplish is brought to pass in a day. If the snow ball as it rolls, multiplies its magnitude, the torrent being checked for a season, runs with greater rapidity. So the cause of truth and liberty, being opposed by despots, will gain greater energy, and will eventually, like a mighty deluge, sweep every refuge of his from the earth.

. . .

Citizens of United States: Whilst you commemorate a glorious resolution, call to mind your first principles of action — never forget them nor those who assisted you to put your principles in practice.

. . .

Citizens and Soldiers of America—Sons of Liberty: It is you I address. Banish from your land the remains of slavery. Be consistent with your congressional declaration of rights and you will be happy. Remember there never was nor will be a period when justice should not be done. Do what is just and leave the event with God. Justice is the pillar that upholds the whole fabric of human society, and mercy is the genial ray which cheers and warms the habitations of man. The perfection of our social character consists in properly tempering the two with one another, in holding that middle course which admits of our being just without being rigid and allows us to be generous without being unjust.

Slavery and Composition: Some Economic Context

My current book project, still very much in the early stages, examines the interrelationships among the American 19th-century slave economy, the technological and economic advances of the Industrial Revolution and the corresponding expansion of literacy, and the growth of American higher education and the emergence of composition as a discipline. That means for right now I’m pulling together threads from a whole bunch of different sources and disciplines and noting correspondences while trying to resist the urge to assign direct causality—but even so, there are multiple intersecting narratives, and they feel like they have a shape to them that’s been emerging from the way I’ve looked at composition and economics in other contexts.

So here’s a very brief and partial early version of some aspects of those intersecting narratives, arguing that the origins of composition studies flows directly from the value of the labor appropriated in the early American slave economy.

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Nineteenth-Century Cognitive Capitalism?

Some of my research lately has been focusing on 19th-century technologies and economies and their relationship to the 19th-century birth of composition studies. I’m particularly interested in the ways that the economic transformations of the Industrial Revolution and American slavery intersected with composition pedagogies and the progression and development of higher education. I’ve also been teaching about the history of the digital and its relation to labor, and participating in a reading group working our way through Marx’s Capital volumes 2 and 3, and so there are a number of ideas coming together for me right now. I’ll share more on the topic of the economics of slavery later as I read further in that domain, but tonight I’m thinking about Marx’s concept of the “general intellect” from the Grundrisse and what 19th-century cognitive capitalism might have looked like, depended upon, and made possible. Already, of course, I’m anticipating the objection that I’m dehistoricizing and decontextualizing a 21st-century concept and thereby making a foolish category error. Well, fair enough. I’ll at least think through that category error. The first objection might be that there wasn’t enough of a “general intellect” (though Marx was imagining it) for there to be a cognitive capitalism in the days when capitalism itself was still young. (I date capitalism’s broad emergence and supercession of mercantilism from 1776, the year Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published.) The idea of cognitive capitalism and a general intellect rely both upon a widespread system (network?) of capital and a widespread system of educating a workforce or populace (the two are necessarily distinct in the 19th century).

So we have this intersection I’m imagining coming into being that for me comes out of the passage from Marx’s 1858 “Fragment on Machines” in the Grundrisse where he writes,

Nature builds no machines, no locomotives, railways, electric telegraphs, self-acting mules etc. These are products of human industry; natural material transformed into organs of the human will over nature, or of human participation in nature. They are organs of the human brain, created by the human hand; the power of knowledge, objectified. The development of fixed capital indicates to what degree general social knowledge has become a direct force of production, and to what degree, hence, the conditions of the process of social life itself have come under the control of the general intellect and been transformed in accordance with it; to what degree the powers of social production have been produced, not only in the form of knowledge, but also as immediate organs of social practice, of the real life process.

Machines are “the power of knowledge, objectified.” Elsewhere I’ve talked about imagining the classical economic factors of production—land, labor, and capital—transformed under cognitive capitalism (or, I think more precisely, under our present system of intellectual and affective economic activity) into material-technological capital (computers and algorithms and networks replacing land as the new sites of production), intellectual and affective labor (the work humans perform at those sites), and intellectual and affective capital (the relations and building blocks and books and documents and programs that humans work with and on at those sites). So Marx’s “Fragment” is where I imagine those transformations emerging from.

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