I mentioned in September that I was teaching a graduate seminar in classical rhetoric last semester. I gave it the subtitle “rhetoric under empire” because I tried to craft a syllabus that foregrounded the relations of power and materiality that seem too often absent from classical rhetoric as it’s taught in rhetoric and composition studies. Certainly, there’s some attention paid to Corbett’s closed fist and open hand (ratio and elocutio), or as the image I stole from the Internet to publicize the course and now can’t source would have it, the fasces and the flowers.

fasces and flowers

The course went extraordinarily well and did everything I wanted to, and the students even seemed to like it. Folks in rhetoric and composition sometimes tend to think of classical rhetoric as dry, dull, deadly boring stuff, and that’s mostly the fault of the way it’s too often taught, I think. There’s an impulse I’ve seen to abstract and to theorize and to alienate from context: to take Aristotle and ask what we can use from his Rhetoric in the composition classroom and wind up with a lot of FYC essays pointing out instances of ethos, logos, and pathos in Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”; or to ask undergraduates to identify rhetorical figures from the Ad Herennium and De Inventione in political speeches from the last election and wind up with a lot of etceterative taxonomies that offer scant sense of possible implications.

As admirable a volume as Bizzell and Herzberg’s Rhetorical Tradition is (and it is massively, wonderfully admirable: I’ve spent many hours lost in its pages), I think it’s partly to blame. The primary texts included in the volume can be categorized—with a few exceptions—as almost entirely rhetorical theory, and with that as one of our most well- and widely-known sources, of course it’s going to influence how we teach. So when I taught Cicero, I taught bits of the De Inventione and the De Oratore and the Brutus and Orator, but all in the context of his early speech in front of the dictator Sulla, all in the context of his bawdy and misogynistic oration for Caelius in conjunction with the love poems of Caelius’s rival Catullus, all in the context of his rhetorical judo with the Pro Ligario before Caesar as both judge and plaintiff. So, too, with Isocrates and the function of rhetoric during wartime and the debates over how literate the Spartans might have been; so, too, with Aristotle and Alexander and the paranoia and xenophobia; so, too, with those who enthuse about Quintilian without considering the imperial terror of Domitian and the indictment by Tacitus of “gain-getting rhetoric” — epideictic rhetoric as truly economic — when there was no space left for rhetoric as forensic or deliberative. To me, that sort of rhetoric understood in its material and social context is exciting and fresh and alive, not abstracted or theoretical or irrelevant: when you read his letter to Atticus, to Caelius, to his wife Terentia, there comes an entirely different human sense of who Cicero was that gives extraordinary vitality to his rhetoric.

It makes me think there’s risk in studying rhetoric, in that abstracting it into an object of scholarly exchange can lead to seeing only how it operates at that abstracted and theoretical level and missing completely the level of material and experiential consequence. So that’s why my classical_rhetoric_syllabus looked the way it did, and that’s why I’ll continue to teach it that way: it’s in a way the same thing I try to do in my emphasis on the economics of writing study; to look at the value of and motivation for the rhetorical labor we perform and the intellectual and affective capital we produce and distribute and experience and re-produce and re-value.

Graduate Seminar in Classical Rhetoric

I’ve loved classical rhetoric for a long time. This semester, I finally get to teach it.

I took Latin in high school and to fulfill my language requirement in graduate school, and had amazing teachers, including Bill Nickerson, Teresa Ramsby, and Elizabeth Keitel. To their credit, I now read Latin passably well, and have a little bookshelf of red-jacketed dual-language Loeb editions. Those instructors were all excellent at teaching not only the language but what was going on at the time, and their approach made classical rhetoric feel vital and alive in ways that it didn’t in some of the English-specific courses I took for my PhD. In the seminar I’m teaching this semester, I’ve tried to imitate their approach: this is ancient rhetoric in its amazing, breathtaking material context.


My Homework

The semester is underway, with lesson 2 of 40 taking place tomorrow. We had our academic convocation this afternoon, which was a pleasant enough ceremony in the Dean’s and Superintendent’s reminders that academic endeavor is of first importance in what we do. The need for such a reminder likely seems odd to those familiar with the environment of higher education, but here there are some who are occasionally eager to emphasize Sparta at the expense of Athens.

This semester I’m teaching EN101, our first-year composition course, and our course director has selected a new course reader. To increase our familiarity with the selections from the reader and our familiarity with one anothers’ interests and professional styles, and perhaps also to help remind us of what it is we’re asking our students to do, he assigned us homework: each member of the EN101 faculty was asked to choose one selection from the reader and write a two-to-three page summary and response essay. (I think assigning teachers to write at least one essay similar to what students are doing before the semester gets underway is a pretty good idea: I like that our course director did it, and wound up learning something valuable.) Two to three pages is not a lot of space, and I didn’t particularly cover myself in glory in what I wrote for the assignment: I’ve assigned summary and response essays in the past, and it’s not the most fair thing to ask of a student, since the genre almost demands that they respond with something fairly simple and basic.

That’s what I came up with, at least. This is some of the poorest writing I’ve done in a while; not really interesting or even original, with over-used analogies and recycled truisms that are likely familiar to most of us. I guess the thing I’m least unhappy with is the organizational device or trope, but even that is a bit of a gimmick. Why post this, then? For one, it’s a way to get me started blogging again after far too long a dry spell; for another, it’s a way to remind myself to carefully consider what I’m asking students to do, and what I expect them to get out of the assignments they complete. I’m not assigning a summary and response to my students this semester, and I’ll think hard before I do so again.

(And yes, it’s even got five paragraphs. Gah! What the hell is wrong with me?)

Cursus Imperii

In the Romantic view of Hudson River School painter Thomas Cole, civilization proceeds from an idealized “Savage State” and to a desolated version of that state ultimately returns. For Cole, as for Jos

Why We Need Tacitus

The recent Kairos Call for Webtexts has me interested. The CFW says, “we focus on the connections between classical Greek and Roman rhetoric and contemporary digital communication” — and yet the CFW’s three examples (Plato, Aristotle, Isocrates) are all Greek.

Composition doesn’t like the Romans, and especially not the Romans under Empire. (In our disciplinary literature, though not in Classics scholarship, Quintilian gets a pass for his collusion with brutality.) And I wonder whether seeing the rhetorical impulses of a massively powerful and deeply conservative agrarian world power makes teachers uncomfortable. The Greeks were about knowledge; the Romans, power. Questions of true and false versus questions of right and wrong. With such polarities, of course the Sophists might seem like more appealing allies with which to rhetorically align ourselves.

But if you look at Roman rhetoric under the stresses of imperium, you start to see a much more significant connection to the way words work in the world today. You start to see Leo Strauss as the contemporary theorist of the vicious and amoral Roman delatores, and the hopeful rhetoric of the Greek Sophists as an ultimate instantiation of contemporary critical relativism — and perhaps a reason why rhetoric as theorized in relation to power functions differently from rhetoric as theorized in relation to knowledge.

So what might we learn from imperial Rome contra democratic Greece? First: the Sophistic privileging of knowledge (and today as it functions in composition) is naïve under imperium. Like the later Romans — like Tacitus, like Juvenal, like Pliny, like Plutarch — we need a discourse that concerns itself with rhetoric’s relation to power. American rhetoric today carries an impulse towards stripped-down forthrightness characteristic of the early rhetoric under Augustus. Certainly, the style of Tacitus is glittering and pointed, breathtaking in its compression (ask any amateur who’s ever tried to translate him and for pages sought a verb), but unique for its time in its elisions. Most other imperial rhetoric carried a style that lectured and hectored and said what it meant, because it was able to, because it held no political importance. The rhetoric of empire was literary, and fraught with epideictic qualities, because — under imperium — it could not be deliberative.

I figure it’s clear where I’m going with this, and the parallel I’m drawing. The problem is just that imperium, now, is distributed and in fact enacted through distributed rhetorics. Could it be, though, that lecturing and hectoring in the American rhetorical mode that privileges so-called “plain speech” is forthright because it’s easy to oppose? What if we use Tacitus to turn Strauss on his head and argue for a difficult political discourse, an ambiguous political discourse, a problem-posing political discourse that asks questions rather than answers them?

But I’m a Vestal!

The first episode of Empire, ABC’s new miniseries about Rome during the time of Augustus, was silly, lurid, and chock-full of ridiculous inaccuracies.

I think the series is off to a damn fine start.

It’s a gorgeous spectacle, and the actors are immensely pleasurable to watch, especially the (OK, admittedly on-target) depictions of Brutus (spineless), Cassius (slimy), and Antony (brutal). They’ve definitely got me hooked for the rest of the series.

If you’re following it, the middle hundred pages or so of H. H. Scullard’s From the Gracchi to Nero are an accessible — and absolutely peerless — crib sheet for the times.

On Booth 3

Another brief recap: after Wednesday night’s characterization of Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Rhetoric as focusing more on the content of the rhetoric and the motives (which, Booth repeatedly asserts, must be pure) of the rhetor than on the style of the rhetoric and the character of the rhetor, I spent Friday’s post exploring connections in Booth’s book to the Roman rhetor Quintilian, who characterized the ideal orator as “a good man speaking well,” and wondering why — though both Booth and Quintilian are deeply concerned with ethics in rhetoric — Booth focuses on action’s doing, while Quintilian focuses on character’s being. I see Booth’s focus on ethical motives and rhetorical content particularly clearly in his “commandment” that

It is ethically wrong to pursue or rely on or deliberately produce misunderstanding, while it is right to pursue understanding. To pursue deception creates non-communities in which winner-takes-all. To pursue mutual understanding creates communities in which everyone needs and deserves attention. (40)

But I think implicit in that quotation is an idea that one’s rhetorical style should ideally be absolutely pellucid, although I’m not entirely sure: I mean, it sounds like he’s saying, “Be as clear as possible,” which implies a sort of super-style that presents the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — no?

Well, part of the difficulty is that I’m trying to separate style from content in the context of understanding. As anybody who’s ever hemmed and hawed when telling a lie knows, that’s difficult (if not impossible) to do. We need only consider recent presidential rhetoric (not just the Bush administration examples Booth relies upon, but Clinton’s “is”) for examples of this difficulty, but it’s one that exists throughout the history of rhetoric: Cicero, speaking of the Pro Cluentio, boasts that he threw dust in the jury’s eyes, and examination of the text demonstrates a stylistic reliance upon vagueness and insinuation coupled to a clearly deliberate bending of the facts. Neither one would be useful without the other.

One reason I bring up Cicero here is to begin making a point about rhetoric’s multiple audiences. Cicero began his career under the dictator Sulla and ended his career during the fall of the Republic and the beginnings of the principate, and his mature rhetorical theory is deeply concerned with how rhetoric ought to function and flourish for public purposes in a free state. The fascinatingly convoluted ethos he brings to bear in the Pro Ligario, given before the dictator Caesar (who, in a sense, was both plaintiff and judge) in the fallout following the the battle of Pharsalus, alerts us to the fact that the political conditions under which rhetoric is delivered do much to affect its style and content. Booth is certainly aware of this, in the examples he offers us of “Osip Mandelstam, in a Soviet prison, commanded to write a poem honoring Stalin” (54) and of George Mangakis (49), but his arguments seem to me to often constitute rhetoric as a two-party system: rhetor and (monolithic) audience. (Again, there are plenty of exceptions, as in his consideration of how the rhetoric surrounding Iraq played out with various national audiences.) But I’m thinking about how in Plato’s Philebus, the character Protarchus asserts, “I have often heard Gorgias constantly maintain that the art of persuasion surpasses all others for this, he said, makes all things subject to itself, not by force, but by their free will, and is by far the best of all arts.” Yes, it does that — but the free will, and the understanding Booth desires, go beyond its recipient. This is part of the reason, I think, that Booth is so worried about “rhetrickery” — but there seems to be a part of the equation missing. What if I convince an audience that a thing is dangerous, but my audience has a different reaction to danger than I do? What if my audience is willing to use force to make that thing subject to herself?

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On Booth 2

Brief recap: earlier, I offered several contentions regarding Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Rhetoric. First, Booth seems to me to be considerably more interested in the motives of the rhetor and the content of the rhetoric than in the character of the rhetor and the style of the rhetoric. Second, concerning motives, Booth feels very strongly that the rhetor have capital-g Good ethical reasons for using the rhetoric she chooses, and that said rhetoric be used in a capital-g Good way; the alternative to that use being what Booth calls “Rhetrickery: The whole range of shoddy, dishonest communicative arts producing misunderstanding — along with other harmful results” (11). For Booth, the ethics of rhetoric reside not in what you are but in what you do. Which makes it strange that Booth chooses a quotation from Quintilian — who famously borrowed the formulation of the ideal orator as “a good man speaking well” from Cato the Elder, and had a deep and abiding concern with the character of the rhetor — as an epigraph for the chapter in his book centrally concerned with ethics. (Acknowledgment: I admit it’s a little unfair of me to describe Booth as completely unconcerned with character, when he writes on page 99 of “The neglect of ethos, of character” — but I think the being/doing split is, for the most part, applicable.)

So: on to today’s topics. The second half of Booth’s definition of “Rhetrickery” — “The arts of making the worse seem the better cause” (11) — is familiar from Aristotle’s characterization of the rhetor Protagoras (and also from Aristophanes and Milton), and that fact, taken in conjunction with the aforementioned reference to Quintilian and the other references to Greek and Roman rhetoricians throughout Booth’s book, ought to indicate to us how much of a debt the book owes to antiquity. I know this is obvious to those of us in the field, but the book itself seems to be aimed at a lay audience, and besides which, I’m going to use that debt to antiquity as a foundation for what I say, as well.

I’m wondering if it’s possible that the Romans — especially Quintilian, but there’s a little of it in Cicero — were so concerned with the character of the rhetor because they’d seen (first in Sulla, and then in the Caesars) the perilous effects of concentrated power in a way that the Greeks, with their radical democracy, had seen very little of. (Consider that Demosthenes, a Greek whose rhetoric was deeply concerned with issues of character, was speaking directly about issues of power and domination.) Quintilian, who came to Rome in the entourage of the emperor who directly succeeded the scandalously depraved and brutal autocrat Nero, asserts that “Children have to be moral in order to be orators” and repeatedly re-emphasizes the importance of learning “not only what is eloquent, but, still more, what is morally good.” (I can’t find what I did with the cite for those two quotations, but I remember they’re early in the Insitutio, like within the first two books — anybody recall where?) Michael Winterbottom, in “Quintilian and the Vir Bonus” (Journal of Roman Studies 54 [1964]: 90-97) offers some possible reasons for Quintilian’s concerns with character in his discussion of Quintilian’s relationship to the delatores. The delatores were professional accusers who brought suit against other citizens for maiestas, or treason (the definition of which had been expanded, by Quintilian’s time, to include any talk against the emperor), and then stood to gain a significant portion of the estate of the accused, should the accused be convicted. (I’m thinking here of Booth’s consistent use of recent examples of “rhetrickery”, and the Swift Boat Veterans thing comes immediately to mind.) According to Winterbottom, “the outstanding fact about first-century oratory is that the only orators to achieve any prominence or influence by means of their oratory are the delatores” (90), and we see in relief Quintilian’s necessity for the moral orator in the characteristics Winterbottom describes as common to many of the delatores: “contempt for rhetorical rules, violence of language, increasing political influence, moral failings of the first order” (94). This was perhaps amplified by the problems brought about by rhetoric’s atrophy in the declamation rooms, whereby Quintilian had to work against the common conviction “that rhetoric was a mere knack, [. . .] a matter of ingenium schooled only by practice” (Winterbottom 96). Ultimately, in Winterbottom’s words, “Quintilian was [. . .] led to a moralistic view of the function of rhetoric by what he saw going on around him. He found himself disgusted by the way rhetoric was being misapplied” (96). Hence Quintilian’s focus on character, and his ideal of the rhetor as a morally good man, who speaks well so that he might better guide the state’s affairs.

Unfortunately, there are some problems with this.

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One for the Happy Tutor

“Do we put our faith in eloquence? There’s no one these days who will give Cicero two hundred, unless there’s a huge ring flashing on his hand. […] Eloquence in thin rags is a rare phenomenon. […] So this is the advice I have for anyone who comes down from the grove of rhetoric to fight for the tiny fee which buys his cheap corn coupon (after all, that’s the most lavish reward he can expect). If he’ll follow my advice, he’ll take early retirement and enter a different path of life. Find out the fees that Chrysogonus and Pollio receive for teaching music to the sons of the wealthy and you’ll tear up Theodorus’ Handbook of Rhetoric.” From Juvenal, Satire 7.

RSA Presentation

I timed an out-loud reading of this, and it clocked in at way too long, so I’m in the process of cutting it by about a third. The presentation, ten hours from now, will be the radio edit; consider this the extended dance mix. I’d be more than grateful for any gripes, critiques, disagreements, or suggestions.

[Note: links added to clarify references and make the essay a little more Web-friendly. Feel free to point me to additional sources.]

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The Uses of Metaphor

Carlin Barton cites Caligula’s remark to his grandmother Antonia: “Bear in mind that I can treat anyone exactly as I please” (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, 166), and concludes that “The will of the king was law, and the will of the king was [. . .] no law at all” (106).

In Guantanamo, we have a space where no laws apply, American or international: the prisoners there are subject solely to the whims of the princeps, and have no human rights whatsoever.

Suetonius writes of Caligula the following: “a gladiator [. . .] against whom he was fencing with a wooden sword fell down deliberately; whereupon Gaius [Caligula] drew a real dagger, stabbed him to death, and ran about waving the palm-branch of victory” (168).

George W. Bush, having entirely avoided combat in a time of war, lands a jet on the flight deck of a carrier, and in front of a banner proclaiming “Mission Accomplished”, declares the end of “major combat operations”.

Rome died from the inside, entirely corrupt. There were no invaders to destroy the empire: in CE 476, Augustulus simply turned over the keys to Odoacer, the army and empire having grown too much, and having assimilated those who were to have been conquered.

Instead, the assimilated overturned the empire.