Politics and Play

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged, and an especially long time since I’ve blogged “for fun” outside of a class requirement, but with the semester starting up again, I wanted to start off with positive habits, creating a space to think through things. For now, I’ve been thinking a lot about politics and what my own interest in play can bring.

Wary of becoming another “It’s Time for Some Game Theory” guy or the writer of a naive think piece that praises some creepy gamifying tactic, I nevertheless think that play, games, etc., have a lot to offer how we consider politics.

Game theory
Image from Know Your Meme

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Computers and Writing Talk (2017)

When discussing games, composition scholars have long described the “literacies” that they highlight. James Paul Gee’s What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Language and Learning (2003; 2007) acts as one of the anchor texts to this conversation, and Jonathan Alexander and Jacqueline Rhodes’ On Multimodality (2014) provides a more recent example. Using classroom experiences with World of Warcraft, Alexander and Rhodes “argue that gaming offers a rich venue to see multiple literacies—the visual, the technological, and the textual—at play” (129). Doing so, they make some central additions, noting the social and contextual literacies that students draw from, “as students work collaboratively on one text” (146) and pointing to the critical and rhetorical literacies that students may develop as they critique games and the world views they present. The chapter also provides some concrete approaches to working with games in the composition classroom, like literacy narratives and examining games as rhetorical artifacts, fresh additions to the conversation on literacies and videogames.

This work on the practical application of gaming literacies in composition pedagogy—which includes work from Richard Colby, Alice Robinson, and others—offers potential, which I want to build on with this presentation. While many pieces point to the literacies offered by gaming and gamers, game integration with composition tends to rest on simply using games or talking about games in the writing classroom, despite broader models and concepts afforded by games and game studies. Or many pedagogy-based treatments of this nexus require extensive labor. Battlelines, for example, a brilliant multi-authored text on Kairos, offers one of the most complete treatments of gaming and pedagogy by detailing a whole class built on an alternative reality game, but the overhead required likely exceeds the abilities of most adjuncts, grad students, and teaching-heavy faculty positions. Instead, I want to offer a brief way to approach gaming literacies more generally, how they have affected my own pedagogy, and how one can create a reasonable synthesis between composition scholarship and game studies without a major knowledge base in gaming—particularly as these build from deeper ideas from game studies and not games themselves.

(Lit)eracy Review

Before moving fully to practical experiences, I do want to note some of the literacies exemplified in games, as outlined by scholars. On the surface, much of this work connects squarely with transfer approaches to composition pedagogy. As Gee argues, for example, language use is always situated in a particular context of practice, meaning, modalities, etc., which he calls “semiotic domains,” and each of those domains requires different literacies, different “practices” or knowledge to “communicate distinctive types of meanings” (17). With this situated approach, Gee argues we should teach a more reflective, critical set of skills to students, giving students a meta-awareness or flexibility to adapt across situations—not mere content knowledge—with videogames providing a solid model. As he writes, “video games are potentially particularly good places where people can learn to situate meanings through embodied experiences in a complex semiotic domain and meditate on the process” (25). The game makes the player engage, forcing them to work with and within a particularly designed system in order to succeed. And for a person to truly master this interaction, to become a “critical learner” in Gee’s taxonomy, one must learn “to think about the domain at a ‘meta’ level as a complex system of interrelated parts” (22).

Alexander Galloway (2006) puts this process clearest, I think, when discussing Civilization, a nation-building game: “The gamer is. . . learning, internalizing, and becoming intimate with a massive, multipart, global algorithm. To play the game means to play the code of the game. To win means to know the system.” (90). As Galloway shows, Gee is not alone in this outlook: learning to play a game, particularly if one masters the game, requires systems-level thinking and short-hand familiarity with sizing up situations and reacting appropriately, despite the unpredictable nature of those situations. In Half-Real (2005), another example, Jesper Juul argues that experienced players often have the ability to transfer familiarity with certain mechanics between situations, distinguish between valuable information and noise, and “chunk” information together into larger ideas to ease recall. And Alexander and Rhodes also describe the “transfer” ability and “critical” dimensions possible in gaming literacies.

Collectively, game studies has long noted the paradoxical nature of games that create a unique, emergent situation while carrying the same “rules” or “practices” across situations. Unlike a film or book, which always has the same words as one comes back to it hours or years apart, an individual gaming session can vary wildly, depending on the players involved, the algorithmic input, or the way rules and pieces get mustered in a single situation, despite being the same “game.” Note, I am not saying that books and other related media are a one-way street—reader-response theory and scholars like Michel de Certeau have complicated this fully—but games are uniquely interactive and ephemeral. As John Alberti (2008) writes, for instance, “From the perspective of print-based theories of literacy, gaming is an inherently dialogic discursive space, one that problematizes the distinction between ‘reading’ and ‘writing,’ ‘process’ and ‘product’” (267).

This interactive, uncertain element to gaming, and the literacy it requires, lies at the heart of what gaming can offer composition pedagogy. Games tend to value an adaptability and exploratory outlook, with players testing boundaries and “playing” within more rigid possibilities. This outlook has impacted my own pedagogy, and I want to briefly highlight two assignments drawn from this outlook.

In the Composition Class

The composition classroom is often in an odd, liminal position, where disciplinary genres, audiences, and exigencies mingle in artificial ways. As Elizabeth Wardel’s “Mutt Genres” observes, “When, in a classroom situation, students are asked to write genres outside of those genres’ natural contexts, those genres become pseudotransactional; they no longer do the same work in the world.” Abstracted and muddied by this abstraction, student writing in the composition classroom lacks the reality of writing “in the wild,” as Wardle and others argue, but for games, simulation has never been an issue. So the first obvious approach to writing in a composition class, particularly with genre, is to pursue simulation. In some ways, this approach captures some of the “deep gamification” in models like Battlelines, but one can downsize simulations. As scholarship shows, particularly work by Clay Spinuzzi and David Russell, writing occupies systems, and games, through their procedural nature provide ideal ways to model systems.

In my own pedagogy, this systems modeling takes two main forms. First, for a set of classes—often 2 days—I may put on a particular persona, like a project manager, a client, an administrative authority, a P.R. person, etc., communicating in the genres of a particular system and having students do the same. For a time, they must work with(in) the procedural simulation of a “real” system. In the P.R. example, I give students a few basic texts on the industry and the style of writing. I then give them (in groups) stories to write, one that often requires an exchange over e-mail or a call and a familiarity with University issues. They must write in genres mindful of the situation—professional e-mails, press releases, in-class conversations with “co-workers,” etc. Though it was a bit clunky at first, role-play has a strong tradition in game studies, starting with Huizinga’s emphasis on “disguises,” moving to Roger Caillois’ “imitation” play, and including Bernard Suits’ multiple examples of role-playing. The key, though, is to construct—and therefore simulate—a system.

Also involving the procedural nature of genre, I have also considered what Bernard Suits calls the “institution of a game,” elements of a game that carry across individual game sessions, as this echoes the genre’s own flexible persistence. For this, I employ an activity that often informs a unit project based on genre analysis, having them construct a genre for a particular situation or exigency, giving them a task and situation like a specific speech or application. To do this, much like any design problem, I have them actively consider the purpose, the users, the form the genre may take, etc. Unlike programming or actual game design, students can often employ similar UX and design-based thinking without the computational literacies—or proficiencies—those require. Doing this, I often employ teams, just as one may design an application, and increasingly employ an AGILE approach to design, which involves task management and checking in. As each team designs its “genre” for a particular situation, I have another team analyze it and provide feedback. At the end, we then discuss what populations the genre may be leaving out, what limitations it may have, and how genres are purpose-based and situational, not category-based and universal. My one stumbling block with this is trying to think further how to better contrast the messy ecological formation of genres in the wild with this designed one.

In any case, I am at time and would be happy to discuss this further in Q&A or e-e-mail.



Aspasia and the Methods of Recovery

Rereading Aspasia’s funeral oration–as well as the scholarship and controversy of Glenn, Jarratt and Ong, and Gale that surrounds Aspasia–I noticed the similar tensions with past work surrounding the role of interpretation, accuracy, and recovery. In general, I kept coming back to the standards we use to judge the accuracy of our recovery.

When it comes to Aspasia’s oration in itself, I couldn’t help but think of rhetorical accretion, though Vicki Tolar Burton (Collins)’s term does not come up in the scholarship. Considering the layers of (inter)textual sediment, encountering the image of Aspasia through Plato’s treatment of Socrates’ recreation of Aspasia feels almost comical. Like Conrad’s Lord Jim or Oxymandius’ column from a past post, the distance between the source and the recovery makes Aspasia and elusive figure, which is why I appreciated Ong and Jarratt’s approach to looking at the “discursive space” of Apsasia, not the “real” flesh-and-blood figure.

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History, Shelley, and Letters in a Bottle

Reading Kermit Campbell’s “Rhetoric from the Ruins of African Antiquity,” I thought of letters in a bottle and Percy Shelley. In general, Campbell hopes to challenge what he sees as the overly general treatment in comparative rhetorics, particularly George Kennedy’s  taxonomy between “Ancient Societies Without Writing” and “Ancient Literate Societies” from his seminal text. Campbell argues that many ancient cultures have a complex mingling of oral and written practices, and rhetorical studies of ancient societies often don’t dive into their “variegated and deep” traditions and histories.

Challenging this, Campbell studies artifacts from Axum, Nubian, and Mali cultures, reading examples from the period paired with historical and geographic elements, including stele from Nubia, inscriptions from Axum, and manuscripts from Mali. Overall, he points out the mindful use of ethos and pathos in the works, their variety, and the role they seem to point to in recording events and organizing the society they spoke from.

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Rhetoric and Ritual, Particularly Death

Of all the tombs I visited in Egypt, the “Bent Pyramid,” featured above, was my favorite. Pulling up to the monument, we parked in a barren lot beside a single guard listening to his radio and sipping tea. He approached with a gentle wave before turning back to his small hut. A cyan blue sky arched above, trimmed with a gentle haze to the north, and the Sahara’s dusty gray skin withdrew into flat horizon lines, warbled with gentle hills. Wind kicked up sand, disturbing the silence.

The Bent Pyramid likely marks the transition between the early step-pyramid approach of some rulers and the more recognizable models, like the Great Pyramids at Giza, a design also shared by the Red Pyramid nearby. Archeologists guess that the initial incline proved untenable, requiring a last-minute shift toward the tip.

But I remember the isolation of the pyramid most of all. While the Great Pyramid accompanies the throaty calls of merchants selling overpriced trinkets and Coca Cola to tourists, themselves snapping pictures and gawking at the monuments in a range of languages, the Bent Pyramid–perhaps from its crooked birthmark–remains isolated. And while Giza, itself sprawling from Cairo, continues to fill the desert around Khufu’s great tomb, the Bent Pyramid stands largely alone.

Obligatory Great Pyramid pic, Giza

Outside the tomb, my fellow teacher Dea and I sat underneath a rocky archway, overwhelmed by the silence. I listened to the “heartbeat” of the desert, as I then wrote.

But throughout my time in Egypt, I experienced many tombs. Going to and from Cairo, our taxi passed “The City of the Dead,” a nickname given to a still-used necropolis of Muslim tombs inhabited and cared for by poorer families. A series of road- webbed grids, walls, tarps, and low-slung rooftops spilled into the distance, pierced by the spires of the occasional mosque. At sunset, the haze-infused orange of the setting sun timed with the muezzin’s call proved overwhelming.

A “neighborhood” in the city of the dead, Cairo

I also experienced the quiet, bleached streets of Coptic Cairo, where churches held the relics and clothed caskets of saints and religious figures, icons of St. George covered walls, and fans spun slowly from high ceilings over long rows. In Cairo, the bodies of Muslim royalty remained concealed behind the arabesque of mosques, while in Alexandria we wandered the Roman-Egyptian catacombs of Kom al-Shoqafa. In the deserts, beyond the pyramids and their localized buildings, we walked inside the boxy tombs that housed non-royal figures and stood atop the ruined Greek town of Karanis, now little more than blanched stone under a relentless sun.

Outside Egypt, I’ve always been interested in death, from the Roman mummy masks that I perused while lingering in Oxford’s Ashmolean, to the various graveyards and grave sites in Europe in America. But I’ve never thought about the rhetorical power of ritual and death.

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CCR 634: Legalism, Quintilian, and Structure

Reading Han Feizi, Quintilian, and Arabelle Lyon’s treatment of Daoism, Legalism, and Confucianism, I kept coming back to the role of the individual rhetor and the larger context, as well as the role of different genres and different types of “persuasion.” But I will likely just focus on the first of these.

With Han Feizi, I often noticed the limits of rhetoric, particularly when he discusses how good words–or a good orator–can still end up in trouble. As he writes, after a litany of violent examples, “Why could these worthies and sages not escape death penalties and evade disgrace? It was because of the difficulty in persuading fools. Hence every gentleman 37 has to remain diffident of speaking. Even the best speech displeases the ear and upsets the heart, and can be appreciated only by worthy and sage rulers” (Book 1, Ch. III).

Here, I couldn’t help but think of Socrates–and to a lesser extent Cicero–as well as the book of Ecclesiastes railing against the efficacy of knowledge. What good is knowledge or eloquence when your audience doesn’t care? I feel like this is a question that doesn’t show up as much in other texts that we’ve read.

Countering this, I think feminist rhetoric tends to point to problems with the “available means of persuasion” when unwilling audiences and cultures are critical. Introducing their anthology Available Means (2001), Joy Ritchie and Kate Ronald, for example, describe “women’s rhetoric” as “a tradition that has existed only in the shadows for centuries because women’s writing and speaking have not been gathered together as ‘rhetoric’” (xvi). And while many of the speakers they include were trained rhetoricians or employed deliberate rhetorical tactics, their anthology also includes “women’s writing that may not meet and that may even defy traditional rhetorical criteria and categories— especially concerning ethos, or the appeal of the speaker’s ‘character,’” as this reflects the often marginalized position where women spoke (xviii). They also include many alternative texts, like letters, and topoi that differ from Aristotle’s traditional conception of rhetoric and how people have taken that up. Without tradition audiences, many women rhetors had to use different “available means.”

And I think that’s where “shih” comes in, as Han Feizi, describes, which I gather is a sort of authority from institutional structure. Through shih, people are forced, or forcibly attuned, to listen. Order gets maintained regardless of “who” is governing.

This trust in order felt really interesting, because although Han Feizi also values “tact,” which reminds me a bit like Confucian ren as an ability to read people and navigate governing in a shrewd way, the roles of shih and fa (laws) are extrinsic to the rhetorician at some level.  As Han Feizi argues, the rhetorician does not need to be “worthy” to have this authority, as most people are “average men,” not particularly bad or good. Rather, one should construct a strong structure that can give rulers their authority and not allow them to disrupt things too much if they are not good.

This contrasts a bit with Quintilian who describes rhetoric as the “good man speaking well” and continually emphasizes the moral character of the rhetor, even noting in the later chapters that this is something that they must practice continually. Furthermore, individual training and a close relationship with individual teachers are important, almost forming a familial relationship.

And without being too reductive, I find this to be a more common thread in Western v. Eastern rhetorical traditions as we’ve encountered them. Again, this is not meant to be a totalizing generalization, but many of the traditions we have read–Legalism, Doaism, and Confucianism–seem to value how one relates to elements beyond the individual, while the Greeks and Romans tend to value how the individual navigates certain points as an individual.

On the one hand, the Daodejing values how one aligns with the Way; Dong Zhongshu emphasizes the relationship between emperor, Heaven, and the people; Confucius emphasizes the role of ritual and alignment with tradition and public harmony; and Han Feizi emphasizes the role of law.

Meanwhile, Isocrates values the individual abilities of the student, and Aristotle emphasizes the rhetor’s individual ability to read and intervene with the situation or wield their ethos in a productive way. Cicero and Quintilian also have a similar focus. With Cicero, trying to evoke the emotions of the audience becomes central, and Quintilian recognizes the potential individuality of the speaker as well.

Obviously, complications exist, though. For Confucius, it seems that the individual must spend a lifetime cultivating inner virtue, much like Quintilian’s ideal rhetor. And many on the Greek side, from the Dissoi Logoi onward, recognize the contextual nature of rhetoric, particularly how rules change. More generally, then, I think these readings emphasize the perennial tug-of-war between the individual and kairotic or contextual elements of rhetoric. As Thomas Nagel argues about philosophy, there is no “view from nowhere;” for rhetoric, even as we craft forms and heuristics, this seems equally true–if not more so.


CCR 634: Cicero, Part 2

Reading Cicero this week, with the emphasis on arrangement, memory, style, and delivery, I found a few threads that struck me.

First, particularly with Crassus’ interlude, I noticed the return of philosophy. Again, Crassus’ ideal orator feels like a polymath who can also vary their delivery depending on their situation. They have the knowledge of the philosopher, but can also convey that knowledge in ways that philosophers cannot. As Crassus concludes:

“if we are looking for the one thing that surpasses all others, the palm must go to the orator. If they [philosophers] allow that he is also a philosopher, then the quarrel is over. If, however, they keep the two distinct, they will be inferior  in that their knowledge is present in the perfect orator, while the knowledge of the philosophers does not automatically imply eloquence” (266).

While Crassus does seem to treat the ideal orator as somewhat Platonic, a goal we can strive toward more than attain, the role of knowledge feels particularly significant. His tracing of philosophical schools tries to tie his own (rhetorical) craft into these deeper traditions. The space his seeming “digression” takes up is substantial. And, this theme comes up regularly in the overall text. So, I want to focus on the role of knowledge.

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CCR 634: Cicero, part 1

While reading Cicero’s De Oratore, I noticed a few tensions. First, the dispute on the “ideal orator.” Crassus and Cicero seem to value an ideal orator with a sound knowledge of all things (particularly law in Crassus’ case). For example, Cicero says the following:

“In my opinion, indeed, no man can be an orator possessed of every praiseworthy accomplishment, unless he has attained the knowledge of every thing important, and of all liberal arts, for his language must be ornate and copious from knowledge, since, unless there be beneath the surface matter and understood and felt by the speaker, oratory becomes and empty and almost puerile flow of words.”

This seems to echo some of the dialogue in Gorgias and Phaedrus, as well as some of what Isocrates says about needing to know something to speak about it effectively–if I remember correctly. Crassus’ focus on law and his elevation of it, considering the Twelve Tables the most important books the orator needs to know, emphasizes a civic component, but he, too, also values a general knowledge. And as the discussion moves forward, the content of this knowledge ranges from more philosophical wisdom, to psychological insight, to the various subject matters one may speak on, like military strategy.

But Crassus still seems to emphasize psychological insight and customs or laws, as when he says, “For the proper concern of an orator. . . is language of power and elegance accommodated to the feelings and understandings of mankind” (20). Or, more definitively, when Crassus breaks up philosophy into three parts–physics, logic, and “the “knowledge of life and manners”–he assigns the third discipline to orators. This theoretical knowledge, deep as well as wide, seems as essential for Crassus as the knowledge of rhetoric that he discusses, such as the Five Canons and the anatomy of a typical speech.

Antonius tends to take a more practical approach, emphasizing early on that he’s not drawing from books but from his own experience in the courts. He seems to value eloquence in itself, though in Book II he also emphasizes that one should study and learn the content of a particular case or disputation. Antonius argues the Crassus’ ideal may be too difficult for most orators, turning them away or getting them stuck studying philosophy outside the forums and courts of more relevant experience. He also values exposure to various things–“that the orator should be a knowing man”–but again, this doesn’t require the rich knowledge that Crassus desires (66).

Instead, Antonius defines the orator in one of my favorite definitions as “one who can use words agreeable to hear, and thoughts adapted to prove, not only in causes that are pleaded in the forum, but in causes more generally” (64). I love the subtle richness of this definition. “Agreeable to hear” points to the role of style and eloquence, which Antonius views as essential to oration. This ability to produce agreeable language sets the orator apart from other experts. And the “thoughts adapted to prove” connects well to the sort of invention practice that Antonius discusses later on. As he notes, he always tries to clarify–in a stasis-like manner–what the issue is, the nature of it, the area of doubt, and how he can best make his proof. This also includes how he wants to emotionally predispose his audience, describing how he leads them through emotional arcs, seeming to ripen them for persuasion.

Indeed, Antonius shows that just because one knows things, like Socrates, one isn’t necessarily persuasive. He points out that the “dry” and “concise” language of the logician differs from the orator who must speak “to the ear of the multitude” (127). And, as he puts it:

“in oratory, whether it be an art or an attainment from practice only, he who has acquired such ability that he can, at his pleasure, influence the understandings of those who listen to him with some power of deciding, on questions concerning public matters, or his own private affairs, or concerning those for or against whom he speaks” (101)

This emphasis on eloquence and “practice” leads to another major tension in the piece: what the “art” of oration is. Here, Crassus makes a nice dichotomy: if dealing with general content, it is not an art; but in terms of methods about speaking, it is. Antonius seems to secure himself more on the latter with his emphasis on eloquence. But even among this, emphasis of art as method, other questions arise, like the role of knowledge as discussed above, the role of genius and natural ability (which both Crassus and Antonius value), the role of humor (a long discussion in Book II), the “labor” of training one’s voice and body (44), the role of model cases and writing (42), or the sort of training one should get more generally.

For example, Antonius  argues that his “first precept” is for students, who have ability, to find someone they want to imitate, but he also discusses that some have a natural originality and don’t sound like others (107-110).

Reading these texts, I’m always struck by their connection–despite differences–between past and present. In light of my focuses above, I find the question of content and the role of individual ability particularly relevant, as both continue to carry into the discipline today, though they are framed more through questions of assessment and not philosophy and art. The qualifying and meta-discussions of rhetoric that characterize many of these texts and scholarship in the 20th and 21st Century seems to thread, like Daedalus’ golden spool, through the often serpentine labyrinth of what Lauer called our “dappled discipline,” past to present.

CCR 634: Aristotle & Isocrates

The two things that stuck out most to me from reading Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Isocrates’ “Against the Sophists” and “Antidosis”: (1) the role of style v. something deeper when it comes to rhetoric and (2) the role of “nature” and the link between speaking well and having a good character.

When reading Gorgias and about Gorgias last week, we discussed the value of style, like the role of meter and the poetic quality of language and how this can almost bowl over an audience. In English, I often come back to Swinburne and Tennyson: for me, regardless of whatever content lies in the poems, a certain musicality permeates their language. The ending of Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” for example, has always stuck out to me for its elegance, despite being a (dangerous) poem about imperialism:

“. . . and tho’
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Its almost marching rhythm, its careful alliteration, the uses of breaks and pauses, and the balance and repetition of the final line carry a certain rhetorical power. Or as Jacobson argues about the slogan “I like Ike,” its “poetic” quality has a potent power. Today, I think we may say this capacity of the sound and feel of language can lend to its virality.

So I appreciate that Aristotle melds views on the style (lexis) and arrangement (taxis) in Book III of Rhetoric with the more psychological and purpose-driven advice in Book I and II. The role of psychology, particularly through ethos and pathos, as well as Aristotle’s grounding and insistence on proof (logos) through enthymemes provides a backdrop that can then further (and be furthered through) style and arrangement. And his taxonomy of speaking purposes–deliberative, epidictive, and forensic–can also have a similar relationship.  To me, a certain core toolkit or meta-scaffolding informs the content or brunt structure of a speech, while leaving a range of possible variation and polish, though I can see how Aristotle discusses the role of style more in Poetics. I can almost see a similarity with Aristotle and genre theory, in that one can apply a core of possible considerations to a variety of recurring situations.

Moreover, with Aristotle, his grounding on persuasion, while limiting, also felt gratifying. Drawing on the centrality of proof in his rhetoric, Aristotle early on says, “Rhetoric may be defined as the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion” (I, 2). Reading this, I was initially thinking about rhetoric as a sort of modality or mood, in that one is trying to persuade regardless of context. Persuasion becomes the purpose or characteristic of a particular moment, as opposed to comfort or inform, for example. These other elements–like comforting or informing–may be part of what one is doing or saying, but ultimately one wants to persuade, making this the ultimate end (or telos) of the language one uses.

Thinking about Aristotle’s Categories, for example, I ended up considering more of what Aristotle next says: “Every other art can instruct or persuade about its own particular subject-matter. . . But rhetoric we look upon as the power of observing the means of persuasion on almost any subject presented to us” (I, 2). Although the particular of medicine may have its own means of proof or persuasion, the general category of persuasion itself, as the telos of the situation, fits under rhetoric. But I am still thinking through this. For the most part, though, I found Aristotle’s moving between particulars and larger, more abstracted concepts, like pathos or deliberation, helpful, as well as his inclusion of style and arrangement.

Moving to Isocrates, though, I found the concern with nature and rhetoric interesting, albeit a bit contradictory in my (admittedly fast) read. In “Against the Sophists,” he writes:
all wise men, I believe, will agree with me, that many, studious of philosophy, have led a private life; but that some others, tho’ they never were the scholars of sophists, were skilled both in eloquence and governing the state; for the faculty of eloquence, and all other ingenuity, is innate in men, and is the portion of such as are exercised by use and experience.
He goes on to say that educating them can improve them, polishing their ability to draw from this “great store,” but a certain innateness seems to be important. And I am not clear how universal innateness is here. In this quote, it feels more inclusive–though some may have it more–but later on, he writes:
Let no one think, that I imagine justice can be taught; for I do not think there is any such art which can teach those who are not disposed by nature, either temperance or justice; tho’ I think the study of popular eloquence helps both to acquire and practice it.
Here, latent abilities feel less secured–or that the virtue acquired through training is not as inclusive. Reading the piece as whole, I get the sense that training does need to draw on some innate skill or abilities, though these may be fairly widespread. One can’t simply implant ability into someone, or at the very least, a sound understanding of eloquence beyond a parroting of forms requires extensive and thoughtful training. Moreover, Isocrates seems to place increased emphasis on the instructor, who must be a master of this art, and shows skepticism toward the large and financially motivated promises of the typical sophist.

But in “Antidosis,” I found he was a bit more inclusive about the power of learning to speak well, which is where I felt the potential contradiction. For example, he writes about how someone wanting to convince others of his character may strengthen his character–which Aristotle does say may make things easier, though it is not necessary. He also notes how people learning rhetoric would study great deeds and heroic exploits, likely absorbing them–a sort of connection I see with belletristic rhetorical theory. He also argues that such people will likely want “speak or write in discourses which are worthy of praise and honor,” furthering their conversion into a positive character.

In Isocrates, perhaps to defend his own teaching and distance it from the Sophists, I get stronger sense of rhetoric’s connection to character or nature. Phrased another way, I see a stronger link between how one speaks and who one is–what sort of nature of character they are. And his rhetoric, unlike the Sophists, with their own dubious character, is the most self-improving. In Aristotle, though character and nature may be a variable, rhetorical method seems more neutral and applied, though this may be more about how they are presenting their views on rhetoric.

Still, I think, these readings evoked in me a stronger sense of some of the ongoing conversations that continue up to today, somewhat evoked by Plato, particularly this question of rhetoric/speaking and character or nature.

CCR 634: Doing things with Words

When reading Plato’s Gorgias and Phaedrus dialogues, as well as the Dissoi Logoi and Gorgias’ “Ecomium,” three motifs struck me: the role of relativism, the act of teaching rhetoric, and the power of language. I also couldn’t help but meld some of these readings with where my head is at lately, so I think I’ll start there.

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