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.

Continue reading “History, Shelley, and Letters in a Bottle”

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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.

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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.

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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.

Continue reading “Rhetoric and Ritual, Particularly Death”

CCR 634: Comparative (Cultural) Rhetorics

The tension between more “objective” knowing and more “subjective” knowing has often followed me around. Lately, I’ve been thinking about it in terms of filter bubbles, as this post explores, but I think it also has more general connections, including to the task of comparative rhetoric from the readings.

Before diving into the readings, though, I wanted to start a bit where I generally come from: essentially, Kant and the question of metaphysics. With Kant, I’m always preoccupied with his argument that most knowledge is “synthetic” and therefore arrived at through experience, and furthermore, we experience things as phenomena through the “synthetic a priori”of our experience, not as the noumena of the “thing-in-itself.” I think this basic framework–that we never experience “Reality” except in a subjective sense–is productive beyond Kant, as one can layer up more lenses between the thing-in-itself and our experience of it. Language, culture, our prior experiences, cognitive biases, our senses, etc., color our perception, making the sort of transcendental knowledge of the Rationalists impossible. As Nietzsche put it, in Kaufmann’s translation, there is no “immaculate perception.”

And as someone who is trying to think about the world and “produce knowledge” (though the phrase knowledge production has always felt off to me), I am constantly faced with the ethics of knowledge. A certain hubris can come from a transcendent view of knowledge, as well as a potential violence. Even if one isn’t actually trying to produce a totalizing model for stuff or a transcendent theory, the deductive and inductive dance of explaining and knowing in most Western models still has a certain tendency to want to stretch beyond individual contexts.

And I think that’s where the readings come in: trying to find ways to ethically and responsibly theorize across different contexts, particularly different cultural and rhetorical ones.

Continue reading “CCR 634: Comparative (Cultural) Rhetorics”

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).

Bethena, Cracking open a nut

I’ve been getting into Joplin lately, playing and listening. He’s know for “The Entertainer,” which my mom always calls “The Sting” after the movie of that name, and “The Maple Leaf Rag.” These are fun pieces, but he wrote a lot more. Many are similar, like “Binks Waltz,” as these were his primary money makers, but then one has “Bethena.”

Joplin published “Bethena” in 1905, shortly after his wife Freddie, of two months, died from pneumonia. Between the death and early 1905, we don’t know much about Joplin’s location and actions, but finances were tight. The piece also fell into obscurity for some time, and we don’t know how successful it was when Joplin was around. We also don’t know who Bethena was. Some speculate it was a nickname for Freddie. And the figure on the cover of the original cover is also a mystery, though she is often considered Freddie as well.

The song showed up again in Benjamin Button, with NPR doing a little write up, and it has garnered critical attention on its own. For one, it’s a beautiful piece. Wistful, simple, and ultimately affirming. Joplin uses that initial coda and shifting key changes to weave a powerful emotional journey.  His use of the coda, in particular, reminds me of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata’s first movement, grounding a roving piece in sad reflection. But it doesn’t have the drama of Beethoven, replacing it with lyricism. “Cantible,” say the directions, “like singing.”

It’s also rhythmically complex, mixing a baseline from classical waltz with the subtle syncopation found in cakewalk and rags, itself slightly altered. But the contrast is elegant, gently carrying the piece along, almost invisible.

I say all this for two reasons. One, I love finding these little gems–moving pieces that are not well known. And in this particular case, I find it sad that one of America’s best composers remains a bit obscure. I can easily YouTube Beethoven and Messiaen, finding loads of videos, but Joplin generally yields player pianos, ragtime enthusiasts with poor microphones, or still images with songs in the background. Not professional performances.

Second, I find the (inter)textuality of this music fascinating. For one, there’s the obscurity of the piece’s origins and its possible connection to Freddie’s death. Then, why did it disappear? How did it get rediscovered? Who is Bethena, if anyone? Why did Joplin write this? Was it to make money like most of his work, or was it like his failed opera, something more serious?

And the layering of classical waltz with cakewalk and rag also has a lot to it. The privileged, ritzy connotations of classical waltz rubbing elbows with the folk rhythms of plantation slaves doing cakewalk and player pianos grinding out rags.

And then the piece’s use in Benjamin Button, interlacing and helping to build a film in a completely different context.

Music is much like poetry, presenting a nut that may be beautiful on the surface but gets more beautiful and complex as one cracks it open. One listens to the melody and rhythms, the weaving tonalities and structures, the counterpoint and traditions, the forms and genres, themselves dancing, interlaced with stories and affect, and the piece transforms.

One of my poetry teachers once wrote that good prose is like good beer and good poetry is like good gin, more distilled and compact. Exceptions exist–Joyce and Wolfe have pretty ginny prose, I think–but the distinction has stuck with me. Only now, I’m not sure where music falls. Maybe wine. Taking the time to let the flavors waft over you, with little recognitions gathered in new ways. Each playing a slightly different experience, a slightly different piece of ephemeral craft.

Whatever the case, I’m glad I found this piece a few years ago and that it comes along still, at least now and then.

 

 

Progress

With the recent Scotus ruling, many have celebrated a sense of “progress” throughout social media. Rainbows have popped up on skyscrapers and online interfaces. Pictures pepper Twitter feeds and Tumblrs showing same-sex couples embracing, cheering, smiling, and waving flags. Some backlash is inevitable. But for the most part, most media outlets celebrate.

Certain words, like “conservative” and “reactionary” or (on the other side) “progressive” often make me wonder about progress–in effect, what it is and whether it exist. Personally, I think that the ruling is a sign of “progress,” but that progress is more complicated than we often give it credit for.

Take this situation. If a conservative is, by definition, someone who opposes changing the status quo and prefers more “traditional” values over more “progressive” values, then we have some odd alternatives. Either he or she is always (by definition) on the losing side of history. Or progress is not necessarily linear or inevitable.

The second of these hits to the sticky heart of progress, as one may have a harder time arguing against the raw progress of time and history–that it progresses–but we can easily argue that such progress is not some rosy, life-improving series of events. WWII, The Holocaust, the potential threat of climate change, the Arab Spring’s undoing, ISIS–such things complicate ideas of progress. “A Century’s Decline” by Wislawa Szymborska captures the feeling well:

Our twentieth century was going to improve on the others.
It will never prove it now,
now that its years are numbered,
its gait is shaky,
its breath is short.
 
Too many things have happened
that weren’t supposed to happen,
and what was supposed to come about
has not.

Continue reading “Progress”

Rain Check

So, I’ve been grading a lot this weekend and a bit last weekend, so I haven’t been able to post. I apologize. Since I am a bit brain drained at the moment, I don’t trust my writing. But I do trust my usual millennial acumen to share something from the internet,an interesting PBS documentary about the Buddha:

Enjoy!

Dada, anyone?

Dadaism may be one of the slipperiest and most deliberately annoying movements of modern art. It’s the sort of”art” that draws the rolled eyes, shaking heads, and remonstrating fingers of skeptics. One can see Rodin’s Gates of Hell as “Art,” but making the same case for this “sculpture” is a little difficult:

1964 Replica of Duchamp's "The Fountain" (1917) [Image from the Tate.org]
1964 Replica of Duchamp’s “The Fountain” (1917) [Image from the Tate.org]

This piece is from Marcel Duchamp, representing his Dadaist “ready-made” art. For these pieces, Duchamp simply took everyday objects, here a urinal, and slapped them with a signature or set them up as art with little to no effort.

Other pieces, like this collage by Hannah Hoch required more effort but resulted in a mishmash bricolage dissolving into irreverent chaos, not a balanced aesthetic masterpiece:

Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, (1919) [Image from Wikipedia]
Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, (1919) [Image from Wikipedia]

As one can expect, the Dadaists challenged conventions. But why? As one can see from the dates of these pieces, 1917 and 1919, respectively, Dada was an early 20th Century movement of avant-garde, in the midst and aftermath of WWI.

This timing is no coincidence. The “War to End all Wars” created a climate of despair and anxiety for many intellectuals. High death tolls, mutual destruction on both sides, little political gain, and an economic depression that brutalized Europe–these cracked the facade of meaning and progress that had kept Europe pumping through the 19th Century.

Artists responded by doing the same with art. New pieces were deliberately anti-aesthetic, challenging and breaking rules of taste or logic. Meaning crumbled into collage. The artistic genius simply found readymade pieces or compiled cut-and-paste poetry. Irreverence, obscuration, and the subconscious–not reason –became guiding principles. The name itself, though of uncertain origins, signified this, with its playful sound and French meaning of “hobbyhorse.”

Many Dadaists, especially in Germany, were also political. Manifestos, public gatherings, and magazines, like the infamous 291 by Francis Picabia, spread the message and hoped to change the world, redrawing it in more Dadaist lines. It was a way of life for many, not just a style, and influenced many fields.

Inevitably, this leads to the “so what” question. Here, one could put it even more bluntly: Were the Dadaists a bunch of overly educated cranks or heroic geniuses?

While they proved instrumental to the avant-garde, still felt in art and philosophy today, Dadaism’s deeper relevance, I think, came from their inclusion of irreverence and counter-discourse into the public sphere. In a modern world that often tries to articulate what something is, like art, the Dadaists tried to show art that was both art and anti-art, voiding traditional categories. This matters because categories can often oppress or limit.

Here, the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu helps clarify. Bourdieu’s work often references the role of “doxa,” a term he draws from another sociologist, and  aesthetic taste. Doxa are habits that fly below our scrutiny because they seem so natural and obvious–even universal. But as Bourdieu argues, they are socially constructed.

Matters of taste, i.e. a person’s ability to discuss beauty in a seemingly disinterested manner, provides an example. People in wealthier, upper- and middle-class homes gradually acquire the correct doxa to make aesthetic claims through exposure to art, etiquette, criticism, and general conversation about elite topics. Others don’t. Then, as adults, those with the doxa can make rules about sophistication or taste–whether in language or movies–excluding those who can’t. And since such doxa remain invisible, they have no reason to doubt their perspective.

Pierre Bourdieu [Image from thefrailestthing.com]
Pierre Bourdieu [Image from thefrailestthing.com]

But as the Dadaists and other irreverent composers show, such rules are often transient and empty. They can be broken, sometimes to brilliant, comical effect. With this in mind, we shouldn’t try to impose matters of taste on those who “lack it,” flaunting a refined love for theater as a passport for pretentiousness. Instead, we should strive to see what’s aesthetic in the non-aesthetic. Or, as some argue, we should just see it as a form of pleasure.

Along with this, the Dadaists also vitalize humor. The role of humor, can be a key tool in moving an audience and inspiring social change. As Mark Twain said, “Against the assault of laughter, nothing can stand.” Moreover, humor can breakdown the seriousness of a debate so an agenda stalls. At times, this is a problem, but having a plurality of discourse, including anti-discourse, can challenge power structures, keeping them from too dominant.

For example, as I noted in my post on hashtags, the #McDStories campaign suffered after irreverent composers took this readymade hashtag to mock McDonalds with stories of bad experiences. This brought to light a fuller, more truthful “story” and challenged the authority of McDonald’s, a huge company, with the irreverence of scrappy Tweeps.

Or, at the very least, the Dadaists are simply fun and fascinating to learn about, as this documentary, Europe after the Rain, shows. Just as their pieces are the dappled, awkward rebels of the art world, their own story proves colorful and oddly insightful.

“A nice cup of tea”

I’m trying to post more during the week–mostly shares and little reflections–and maintain the longer Sunday posts I generally had. I think I finally have a routine I can can sustain which lets me. For today, I’m thinking about tea.

[Image from olivenation.com]
[Image from olivenation.com]

It’s a rainy day where I live, a resilient patter like the crackles of a dozen small fires. Now and then, a cold breeze blows through my window. The sky is deep grey, like faded blacktop, thick with clouds and no prospect of sunlight, even as a dim, filmy outline. Just perpetual twilight without the colors.

Such a drippy day begs for a cup of tea. In particular, black tea with milk. Normally I’m a green tea person. I like the sweetness, nuttiness, refreshing astringency, and floral levity of it. The way a judicial steeping doesn’t infuse it with too many tannins. I also like how it doesn’t stain as much and contains less caffeine.

But on a day like today, I recall what Orwell said in his essay “A Nice Cup of Tea“: “Anyone who has used that comforting phrase ‘a nice cup of tea’ invariably means Indian tea.” This needs some explaining.

Indian teas often used the Assamica variety of the original Camellia sinensis, the tea plant that supplies all the different types of tea, including black, green, white, yellow, or oolong. Herbal teas like rooibos or mint are actually “tisane,” not tea. To my knowledge, only the French, tea producers, and tea lovers (or snobs) respect this difference.

The British used the Assamica variety throughout India, particularly in the Assam region, because the original tea plant that China and Japan used suffered in the swampy, tropical heat. The same Assamica variety made its way to other tropical locales, as when Thomas Lipton started growing tea in Sri Lanka.

Tea being picked in Assam [Image from Wikipedia]
Tea being picked in Assam [Image from Wikipedia]

Thus, most “Indian tea,” and consequentially most of the tea drunk in Britain, came from this Assamica tea plant, which are generally more robust and malty. Moreover, transportation and tradition had most English drinking black tea, not green, which capitalize on Assamica‘s malty flavor and heartier mouthfeel.

So on a day like today, when I make a cup of tea “to feel wiser, braver or more optimistic,” to echo Orwell again, I pull out my Assamica black tea and add a dash of milk. Something about this combination–the rainy day, the black tea, the milk–wields comfort, like a warm fire on a winter day. I’m not sure where that comes from, but I’ve always felt it. For instance, a few years ago I made a list of “Things I can look forward too” and number one said, “black tea with milk.” I haven’t changed my mind.

In the end, it is a question of taste. But every taste has some interesting history behind it.

Why be better?

I said to myself, “Look, I have increased in wisdom more than anyone who has ruled over Jerusalem before me; I have experienced much of wisdom and knowledge.” Then I applied myself to the understanding of wisdom, and also of madness and folly, but I learned that this, too, is a chasing after the wind. For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief

-Ecclesiastes 1:16-18

I once acted in a series of one act plays, and when I wasn’t running lines or rehearsing, I watched the other shows. One particular line has stood out from the experience: “Why be better?” I almost missed it, but hearing that line over and over, I finally realized how nihilistic it was. Yet, some days, I ask myself the same thing.

For the most part, it seems to be a modern question. Ennui, hysteria, and melancholy became common, even expected, medical diagnosis for the growing middle class in the 18th and 19th centuries as prosperity and public reform democratized leisure. Prior to that, some historians argue, people didn’t have the resources for ennui.

Couple this with growing cities, rising industry, increased skepticism for religion and morality–Darwin’s work being one cause–and one can see the anxiety and hopelessness that spurs such questions, especially by the start of the 20th Century.

19th Century Middle Class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
19th Century middle class at its finest. [Renoir image from artinthepicture.com]
Continue reading “Why be better?”