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.

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IST 700: Next steps and Research Muddles

Project update: I’ve heard back from all of my core research participants and have been able to ask a few follow-up questions over the course of the past weeks. While some aspects of e-mail interviews have been tedious, as noted, I feel largely happy. I have a decent amount of stuff to work with and think through future problems.

I haven’t had much time to “do” next step stuff, as I’ve been trying to get a paper in this Monday, but that may be good, as I have time to think through the next steps.  I’m not sure whether I’ll do coding or not. I think I may go through and read the data a bit, trying to get a general sense of things, before making more specific moves. I also want to print out copies. Something about looking at a paper copy, instead of a screen, feels more appealing, like I may catch more or be less inclined to skim. On screen, I tend to have such an F-style reading pattern, which would not be good for research.

At this point, too, I’m trying to remain somewhat inductive in my approach, as noted in my last post for this class. I have my focus: intertextualtiy and the tensions created by openly intertextual work. I want to see what people are saying about this.

Shifting gears a bit, I’ve been thinking a lot this semester about presenting research in different ways. I think I often tend to “think” better in a PowerPoint setting sometimes. The way it breaks down units of thoughts into discrete slides helps me think more clearly about what those units are. In my head, they often get muddled. And though more long-term, free-writing thinking (much like this blog) helps me think through ideas, I have had trouble transitioning from that thinking into the presentation of thought in a paper. I can’t quite straighten out, simplify, and de-muddle.

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CCR 611: Avoiding Neutrality

I found a lot of rich material from today’s readings, so I guess I’ll just pick a thread and run with it: neutrality.

As Horton notes, “Neutrality is just following the crowd. Neutrality is just being what the system wants us to be. Neutrality, in other words, is an immoral act” (102). In this context, neutrality is immoral because structures remain in place–be they of racism, classism, etc.–that thrive on the status quo. Thus, to remain neutral, one perpetuates the problematic momentum that already exists.

This resonates with Kynard’s observation on the rhetoric of student “need” that often gets invoked by teachers and administrators in the face of more radical critique. As she writes, “the trope of what students need is usually claimed as politically neutral territory for
a rather conservative mode of curriculum and instruction” (93). Such needs, argues Kynard, “are for the monolithic student, the monolithic kind of college writing requirement, the monolithic argumentative essay, and the monolithic college assignment” (93). In this way, doing nothing, one is siding with the status quo.

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CCR 611: Citizenship, Affect, and Literacy

As Amy Wan highlights, citizenship is a messy word, a word that comes up in many discussions about writing but rarely gets interrogated or defined. It exists as a “ambient” term.

At its most reductive, it’s a legal status, as Wan points out. But it also has a cultural element infused with literacy. As Wan notes, “it [citizenship] is not simply a conferred legal status, but cultivated through a number of civil political, and social rights and obligations” (27).  Literacy training allows one to “cultivate” these abilities, letting people who lack literacy–like the immigrants whom Wan discusses–enter as “productive” members of society.

Here, once again, literacy instruction is tied up with gate keeping. Instructors of writing, as part of the ambient cohort of literacy training, do citizen training. And the roles of this citizen, while having many contradictory forms, closely align with economics in Wan’s view: “Through an emphasis on productivity and economic survival in literacy training, immigrants were taught the importance of literacy as a habit of citizenship and as a marker of productivity” (41). And this productivity was further aligned with the habit-training of literacy. “Good” citizens are not only literate and productive, but honest and clean.

And above all, this citizenship bore the odd paradox of becoming part of something–the state, the market, the culture, etc.–but had whil being individual. One chose to be productive, good-natured, and American, says the narrative, by pursuing literacy.

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CCR 611: Professionalism, Boundaries, and Theory

As an undergraduate, my first taste of “composition” was through a sort of disciplinary tension between three schools of thought. In a creative writing club on campus, I worked heavily with one set of professors: communication instructors with a penchant for creative writing and literary journalism. Most of the club was also journalism majors. But we were also poets, fiction writers, and and creative nonfiction writers.

In this camp, I found a practical outlook: write often, read often, experience widely. While one of the profs had an MFA–and later a PhD–in creative writing, he was skeptical of the MFA rout, thinking it to be little more than an expensive qualification badge. “Real” writing could still take place without this training.

Camp two was a literature professor who edited a poetry journal and was well-steeped in Literature and contemporary work. Without much taste for theory, he celebrated the passion of writing and reading. Reading my short stories, he encouraged me to pursue the MFA and didn’t have much feeling about composition beyond, “The job market seems better than literature.”

Finally, the rhet-comp faculty encouraged me to go the rhet-comp rout. I heard the job market argument, but they also asserted how it connected to my philosophy interest. And like the communications professors, discussed the difficulties of the MFA–although one of the profs was a published creative writer with an MFA.

Each of these camps intersected and fractured in odd ways. The communications side considered rhet-comp boring. “They can’t persuade the school to pass a writing major, even with rhetoric in their name,” one said. But the communications faculty also critiqued the Ivory-Towered literature profs talking themselves into circles over Derrida and Keats. For their part, the English profs disparaged the dirty hands of those engaged in the “dark arts” of PR or the slipshod quality of fast-paced journalism.

And most other departments had never heard of composition as a field, and those that did thought it dealt with things like comma splices and thesis statements. Even more bizarrely, our philosophy department taught the second required writing course, with many making it a class in symbolic logic and syllogisms.

All I knew was that I liked writing. But everyone talked about writing in different ways, caught in disciplinary worldviews.

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CCR 611: “In order to have a language remain fixed”

“[I]n order to have a language remain fixed, it is first necessary that those who speak it become dead.” –Thomas Lounsbury (qtd. in Harker 18)

“Reality is infinitely diverse, compared with even the subtlest conclusions of abstract thought, and does not allow of clear-cut and sweeping distinctions. Reality resists classification.” –Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The House of the Dead

Both Crowley and Harker pick up the “gate-keeping” function of composition and its role in erecting a “great divide” between the educationally privileged and others left outside the gate, sifted into basic writing classes through exams or excluded altogether.

Harker takes a more historical approach centered around the assumptions of literacy, particularly the literacy myth. Crowley takes a more contemporary, labor-focused approach, examining the problems associated with the universal composition requirement and making the “modest proposal” to make it optional for students, though she  grounds this in historical issues.

Crowley’s modest proposal to end the requirement did not seem as far fetched as I initially thought it would. Combined with Harker’s historical look at literacy and role it played in similar proposals, I found myself more responsive to the proposal. I’m not sure it would do all of the things that Crowley lists–like the erasure of intake exams or the creation of more equitable curricula and labor–and as she notes, “if you work in a corrupt system, you have to face the fact that making things better for people working
in one part of the system may make things worse for people who work in another part of it.”

But I think the “universal” nature of this requirement is worth considering, but to do so, I want to step back from the readings, focusing on the notion of “death” evoked by Lounsbury and Dostoevsky’s title, a reference to the Czarist prison he served time in. For Dostoevsky, the people “die” through their exile from society. Although many of his characters will face literal death via execution, their exclusion results in a sort of death-in-life.

In Lounsbury’s quote, I see a potential link with “dead” languages. Latin and Greek may seem more fixed than contemporary English because the speakers are all “dead”–though I think this stability is somewhat simplistic and wrong. But also, the “death” here is a similar exclusion from the influence of language. The language is both “fixed” (repaired) and “fixed” (made stable) as one “fixes” (sterilizes) the speaking public in a given context. Heteroglossia and utterance give way to print’s perceived permanence and longevity.

Thus the question of who and what get excluded from composition becomes the more salient question. Phrased another way, perhaps the difficulties of this “universal requirement” aren’t in the required part, but the universal. Needing to fit a unified goal across an institution or a set of institutions feels both impossible and oppressive. And in particularly top-down universalizing curricula goals–like in states like Colorado–I wonder how assumptions get made about students, institutional goals, and literacy.

I argue that these assumptions lead to the exclusions that “fix” language student voice, creating the gate-keeping that Harker and Crowley critique. In an ideal world, composition could be about opening gates or complicating gates, drawing from the embodied, enworlded, and contextualized “reality” of students and instructors, which remain frustratingly unfixed and non-universal.

But ever resilient and reified, myths of literacy persist and perpetuate power structures. Thus, I think the step may begin more basically by challenging these myths. Perhaps this may involve repealing the requirement, but it may also involve something more basic: checked assumptions, nomadic sensitivities, and a careful assumption to listen closely to both labor and student–not just as abstracts, but as ever-changing bodies.

CCR 611: Multimodality, Tinkering, and the Craft/Comp Border

When I was younger, I built things. Rolling out an industrial-sized roll of thick, white paper onto the cold floor of my parent’s glassed-in back porch, I drew grassy fields, rivers, mountains, and beaches that gave way to scribbled-on seas. But that was just the first step. Soon I took out slender wooden train tracks and blocks, building a set of towns and rail networks across my paper countryside.

In the summer, my neighbor and I made paper planes, folding for hours on my grandfathers weather-grayed table in the backyard. We also drew designs in notebooks: go carts, forts, a zip line to deliver notes between houses. My basement table was covered with LEGO models, K’Nex, Tinker-Tots–whatever sets I could find.

As we got older, we built robots, using a kit to construct and program them.  Inspired by the show Robot Wars, we mostly had them fight, filming them on my parent’s VHS camera. But they had other uses, like taking care of my rabbit or trying to go up and down a particularly difficult hill.

These days, I don’t build much. Except with my nephews. But even they often prefer videogames, kickball, and playing with their instruments.

So, considering multimodal composition–through both digital architecture and tactile 3-D printing–brought back a spirit of play and tinkering. The pieces also brought some helpful elements to draw from for concrete teaching moments and larger teaching philosophies.

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