CCR Ancient Rhetorics: History Telling

The main takeaway I had from the readings this week is the ecological and complicatedly situated mode of discussing history. I remember back in middle school, my history teacher discussed the “story” of history, largely framing things in a linear line of causation.

Michelle Ballif critiques this somewhat, though, with”Writing the Event,” in which she draws from Derrida’s notion of “the event” to complicate this often linear approach. As she writes, “Events event all the all the time. Happenings happen all the time. But . . . the writing of history coopts happenings, events, and subjects them to sequences of progression and regression, making them evidentiary to greater paradigms (of ‘time’) and thus fulfills a chronological notion of temporality” (246). The sense that “events event all the time,” in unpredictable, rupturing ways reminds me of some pieces of read about recent history, how people make sense of the now only after the fact–something Heidegger also argues. Reading this en rout to the March on Washington, I couldn’t help but think what “events” or “happenings” will history remember–and where will these current events and happenings go. As Ballif notes, we are “historicizing the so-called present.”

Moreover, the way these breaks into unpredictable possibility get subsumed under an almost Hegelian sense of time and passing, I think, lulls us into a sense of security. It also brings up the question about what is “new” and what is a larger recurring pattern. But I’m not sure if I fully followed Ballif’s closing turn toward performance–rather than writing “of” and event. While I think it’s honest to consider things with an uncertain possibility, I also think deeper notions of place and identity often challenge that.

I think this came through in Baca’s “Chicano Codex” and in Villanueva’s “Rhetoric of the First ‘Indians,’ though in very different ways. In Baca’s piece, revisionist history gets a dynamic model through the 2000 Codex Espangliensis. In the Codex, more ancient traditions of symbolization, doubles, and jarring pairs uses modern icons and symbols, like Wonder Woman, to re-tell and re-frame the colonization of peoples by Columbus and more contemporary pop culture. In a sense, this connection aligns two parts of a colonial project, but subsumes the usual chronology into a more symbolic or thematic context. In this way, it links events, one could say, but it doesn’t do so in a chronological, linear path of cause and effect. European colonialism both echoes in the present and modern day pop culture revives elements of the past.

For Villanueva, I got a strong sense of the role of origins and the role of history and culture when discussing the Taino people. As he writes, “The people, the Taino, created a culture. There was an origin story” (17). Parts of their language and culture, like their valuing of the good and noble or their diets in fish, which Villanueva notes, come to us as historical fragments. This piece, to me, recognizes the complex work needed to recreate a culture that, temporally speaking, is historical–is not longer “alive” in a contemporary sense, though traces of their culture, language, and history is, almost like a rhetorical DNA stitched into contemporary fabrics. As he writes, “The memory cannot be killed, even when the people are” (19). Such recovery work, while a “bringing back” or “bringing to light,” as one might put it, also is grounded in the present in terms of how we are grounded in our inquiries.

Kellner’s “Is History Every Timely” takes this distance up squarely with the notion of chronoschisms, breaks in time–distances–that are inherent to the telling of history. Just as Ballif seems to point to, events are happening all the time, and the historian often has to pick and choose events through a particular method or lens. This inevitably creates gaps between where the historian stands and between events themselves. Even language, as Kellner points out, contains chronoschisms. As he writes, “The simplest words like ‘yet’ or ‘still’ contain within them a unusually unnoticed division between the moments represented and the expectations of either a narrator or the reader” (239-40). To draw from Barthes, a historian is a bricholeur of sorts, not only translating “events” into language, but arranging that language–whether as symbols or words.

And on the other end, in terms of audience, history also also has a rhetorical dimension as Martin Bernal’s Black Athena shows, with certain stories–in this case of Greece and “Western Civilization”–have different traction. While different “models” exist of how we conceive of what may have happened may coexist at any time, cultural and methodological trends may favor some models and disparage others, often with political and cultural motives. This is especially true in a “crisis” as he notes, where particular origins (European) are more valued than others (non-European).

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