Results tagged “Aristotle” from this Public Address 2.0

Thumb

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Thumb

*With apologies to J. Mascis

I was thinking about the Tom Robbins bit I used in class yesterday. I was thinking about Aristotle’s definition of definition.

For Aristotle, a definition was a proposition where the subject and predicate were completely interchangeable. Otherwise, the predicate is merely a property. Given Protagoras’ sophistic point of view, or the supposedly new postmodern one— definition is impossible. Examined under the light of speech-act theory, definition is similarly impossible. The act of speaking or writing is used to create an action— or at the very least, an effect. If an utterance isn’t novel— different in some degree from the state which proceeds it— there really isn’t a point to saying anything at all.

From the sophistic point of view humans are forever changing. Hence, an utterance that may be linguistically identical to another is perceived by a subject always becoming different hearing it the second time. We always become older, more experienced and bring a different context to bear upon extracting meaning. A rhetorical approach to definition is not to propose that an utterance is identical to another— but to control context as much as possible. Such control, from the postmodern point of view, is impossible— because repetition itself changes meaning.

While it may sound like I have my thumb up my ass here, I couldn’t stop thinking about the way Tom Robbins shifts the definition of “thumb” by the definitions he offers of other body parts which the thumb is not. It is not a brain— the fragile center of thought. It is not a navel— the scarred center of being. It is an organ of mobility, of movement.

I was thinking about blogs. I was thinking about the frequency with which many early bloggers screamed “I am not my blog.” I was thinking about how so many people would like to define blogging as a popularity contest, or a public rather than private thing— a blog is not a navel. I was thinking how people would like to define the blogosphere as a platform for ethical development, of intelligent discourse and thought— but alas, I cannot think of blogs as brains either. Too many of them are absent of the criteria of deep reflection connected with that mass of goo.

I begin to think that the blog is a thumb. An appendage, stuck out with the hopes of getting a ride. Sometimes, you stand on the corner navel-gazing. Sometimes you reflect on something you’re thinking about. But a blog is neither a navel nor a brain. A blog is a thumb.

But of course, any definition such as this is impossible, because definition itself is impossible. A writer is left with only endless predicates of properties, spinning toward definitions that they hope will be accepted without too much thought on the subject.

** Blame Stavros for my hitchhiking on this particular bit.

What it's not

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What it’s not

Aristotle is really clear in delineating the properties which may be used to describe something in Topics. The motive behind Topics is to identify the constituent parts of an argument. Arguments are derived from propositions that have both a subject and a predicate. If the predicate is interchangeable with the subject, then the proposition is a definition, otherwise it is a property. These properties are enumerated as quantity, quality, relation, place, time, position, state, activity, and passivity.

Having a variety of ESL students in both of my classes, I think it will be a good idea to review many of the descriptive words used to list these properties. I hate flowery description, myself, and there are usually more than enough properties for any given subject to provide a good description without resorting to them. That’s my biggest fear about teaching beginning composition— the “writerly” types who want to load up every page with a bunch of fru-fru nonsense. It’s always best to start with the literal, before you try to start building up chops. Literal description begins with simple properties. The first step towards knowledge begins with arriving at propositions such as these. However, in order to evaluate statements, properties must be compared with the subject to test their scope, their similarity, and their differences from the subject.

It occurred to me last night that it is easy to get stumped when trying to describe something— watching my students scratch their heads when I asked them to make a list of things about themselves to share with the rest of the class made me wonder about ways to overcome that mental-block. I decided that the best strategy I could think of to describe something when you run out of things to say regarding what it is— is to start enumerating the things that it is not.

To that end, I’ve decided to use this fragment of writing by Tom Robbins to illustrate one way of overcoming that block. It also serves as a nice bridge between the literal and the metaphoric, the territory I’ll be exploring next week. It’s always a challenge to come up with ideas for texts that aren’t hard— I like things that are hard, a fascination that not many college freshmen share. Hopefully, this won’t be too challenging to start out with.

Comp I

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Something Old

I was struggling most of last week trying to figure out how I might approach teaching Composition I. It came together today, on the first day of class. Strange how these things work. I was intrigued by Kiraki’s approach of using deliberatory and mediatory essays in Comp. I. One advantage is that it provides an easy way of introducing research as an invention strategy. However, the disadvantage is that first year students need to spend a lot of time on confidence building and using such complex targets takes away from the time you have to deal with the practical matters of style and diction. I wanted to incorporate some of her approach, but not all of it.

The problem is that arcing toward true negotiating skills requires the development of chops that first year writers usually don’t have— it would take a while to get there. I devised a plan, using five rather than the usual four essays assigned in Comp I:

  1. Descriptive essay
  2. Narrative essay
  3. Encomium
  4. Comparative essay
  5. Deliberative essay

When I was lecturing today, I backwards-engineered a great rationale for it. I like modeling the arc of a class against a classical method— in the case of Composition II I use the Ciceronian six-part essay, spending weeks on each of the sections. However, since the emphasis in Comp I is not usually on argument, that just didn’t seem right. Instead, I decided that my arc would be across the three branches of rhetoric— forensic, epideictic, and deliberative. Trying to give a short course in the history of rhetoric as a discipline today, it all began to make even more sense.

Not many first year comp teachers start with Corax and Tisias, but I did. The birth of rhetoric can be traced to the courtroom— the first trials by jury in Sicily in the fifth century BC caused a need for common people to be able to argue their case in front of their peers. Corax and Tisias set up schools to train them. The first rhetoric was courtroom rhetoric, and it was largely focused on the preservation of property in the present. A descriptive essay is classified as forensic because of its similarly present-directed argument. This is what it is— or isn’t. As the teachers (Sophists) spread further, the power of language to move people to political action became clear. One of the surest ways to move people was to stir them up over ancient battles and such, praising their heroes or blaming their enemies. Rhetoric begins to look back, telling stories of praise or blame. Stories are situated in the past— hence, the ability to write a narrative essay combines a talent for present description with the ability to arrange time in a coherent fashion. The most highly developed form of it is really the encomium— epideictic rhetoric in the public square.

To write a good encomium for something requires some research in order to really sing the full praises of your subject, but it isn’t totally essential. I can ease into it there— but as Aristotle enters the equation, the ability to compare things certainly means doing your homework. I want to do the comparative essay on a political topic, and ask them to be dispassionate about it. A deliberative essay should build on the comparison between two courses of action, so I’ll allow them to revise the fourth essay substantially into the fifth— I know how hard it is for first year students to be dispassionate about anything. But the ability to compare two positions is the essential stepping stone to deliberation on future action, and I think that is a nice note to close on— a sort of Isocratian landing spot for the whole class.

What I find the most fun about this is that it matches the historical development of rhetoric so closely— it begins with a need, moves into a fluffier sort of writing, and ends with a concerted look at future action. I love this stuff.

Captions

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Walker Evans, Hale County Alabama, 1936

Aristotle on Captioning

I was reading Aristotle’s Topics, and was struck by his puzzling over the correct use of phrases:

Sometimes a phrase is used neither homonymously, nor yet metaphorically, nor yet literally, as when the law is said to be the measure or image of things that are by nature just. Such phrases are worse than metaphor; for metaphor does make what it signifies to some extent familiar because of the likeness involved (for those who use metaphor do so always in view of some likeness), whereas this kind of thing makes nothing familiar, (for there is no likeness in virtue of which the law is a measure or image nor is the law ordinarily so called). So then, if a man says that the law is literally a measure or an image, he speaks falsely; for an image is something produced by imitation, and this is not found in the case of the law. If on the other hand, he does not mean the term literally, it is clear that he has used an obscure expression and one that is worse than any sort of metaphorical expression.

Moreover, see if from the expression used the account of the contrary is not clear; for definitions that have been correctly rendered also indicate their contraries as well. Or, again, see if, when it is merely stated by itself, it is not evident what it defines— just as in the works of old painters, unless there were an inscription, the figures used be unrecognizable.

The core values of Aristotle’s conception of metaphor are conflicted— as Paul Ricoeur has noted— he uses a model of metaphor as resemblance in Poetics and here, in Topics, but is not nearly so stringent about it in Rhetoric. But it is interesting to me that he invest a great deal in the power of a caption to clarify an image. I think the confusion reflected in this passage plays itself out well in the development of documentary photography in the 1930s.

Aristotle is concerned about obscure expression— is a picture without a caption more confusing? Not if it is metaphoric or literal— if its reference is clearly one or the other, then it seems unnecessary. But what if the usage isn’t so clear? It seems that according to Aristotle, without the caption there is no way to interpret the image.

I am reminded of the two extremes of the photographic books I’m considering— Doris Ulman’s 1933 collaboration with Julia Peterkin, Roll Jordan, Roll uses no captions; neither does Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. The strange thing is that Ulman’s photographs are meant to be clearly metaphoric— whereas Evans work is neither literal or metaphoric. Evan’s photographs fall into the strange zone that Aristotle is writing about here. Are his photographs obscure because of this? I think that is a point to ponder.

The cause for Evans’ avoidance of captioning was to avoid the rhetorical posturing in the interim works. However, what is the cost? Is it obscurity?

Ego where I go

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Ego where I go

Yesterday, I started thinking about the second writing class I took when I returned to college. I needed to take the second core course in writing, the same class I’ve been teaching for the past year or so. I signed up and found that because of a misprint I was in a class for English as a second language students. While I usually feel pretty foreign no matter where I am, they wouldn’t let me stay in that section. All the other sections were full. Several people in the department suggested that I take Persuasive Writing instead— it was a junior level class, but they assured me that it would be okay even though I was still a freshman. I signed up, but I was nervous as hell. The first day, the professor proclaimed:

All writers are self-absorbed, egotistical, and childish— and those are their good qualities.

The class was a trial by fire. The teacher constantly berated the writing of most of the students (which in retrospect, was pretty horrible). He was positively mean spirited about the whole thing. I felt largely ignored, though I was one of the few in the class who consistently got A’s on all my essays. It was good to be ignored in this situation. I’ll never forget the look of shock on his face when I told him it was my second writing class ever. I wrote the most scathing evaluation of his class that I’ve ever written, and cursed about it for years afterward. But the strange thing was, I learned more in this class than any other writing class of my undergraduate career. The professor didn’t avoid theory, as most writing teachers do— he taught straight out of Aristotle’s Rhetoric. It occurred to me yesterday that I’m doing much the same thing, though I tend to lean harder into Cicero and Quintilian. But I don’t berate my students.

I was reminded of this class for a couple of reasons. One of my students was trying to praise me for improving her writing. I complained that I really didn’t think I deserved that much credit— she was responsible for the improvement, not me. I was thinking of the classes I’ve taken where there is a palpable wall between the front half of the classroom and the back, and those that are more like discussion groups. I always got more out of the latter. The key to learning is doing, not spectating. I don’t say this to undercut the role of having good mentors, but rather to assign the credit where it is due. Some people forget all too easily. It’s part of that self-absorbed writer thing. When a “writer” stands at the front of a classroom, they can’t help but give themselves credit. That’s why I try to switch into a reader role when I’m there. The second reason was Luke’s prompt regarding the bashing of NaNoWriMo writers. Luke centers on this bit:

I am a writer. I just get terribly, terribly frustrated when something I have devoted my life to is treated in as cavalier a manner as Baty seems to be doing. To be a writer is not a right, it's a privilege. And you cannot buy that privilege by writing "50,000 words of crap" in a month. The price is much, much higher than that.

Let’s take this apart carefully. “I am a writer”— just what is this supposed to signify? To write is to send a message through a grapholect; a high percentage of the world can manage this communication skill. The arrogance of stating it as if it were somehow “special” reinforces my professor’s comment about the personality traits of writers. The easiest reply is to say “So what?” She might as well have said “I wash dishes.” A certain group, including AKMA and Jonathon might say that they don’t appreciate that some people treat the proper washing of dishes in such a “cavalier” manner. Writing, or washing dishes, is neither a right nor a privilege and to state it in these terms denigrates both rights and privileges. There is only one factual statement in this paragraph. To write is to communicate, and to communicate does extract a price: the price of being judged both for the quality of your coding (language) and your message (concept). How high the price is depends on the size of your audience.

Wood s Lot recently pointed to an article about the lack of readers. Pungent commentary by folks like Joe Epstein regarding “writers” and ranting like this about online novelists is on the rise. I like to believe that we are not moving to a time when everyone wants to talk and no one wants to listen. Sometimes, it’s hard to say. But I am heartened by my experiences with online writers. Everyone has links on their sidebar. They seem to both read, and write.

There is a difference between operating in reader mode and writer mode. Russ’s reaction hits the nail on the head: “Most offensive is the self-righteous, entitled sense of possession.” It’s a “writer” talking, not a reader. Those qualities are essential to writing, but positively destructive to reading. Let go. Live a little. Listen to someone else for a change. As Luke observed, a writer has to write a lot of crap to get better— that’s just how it works. The only one required to read the crap is the writer, that is, unless you’re in a class where a teacher can cut you to shreds over it. What makes a good writer is writing, not bitching. To read effectively, you have to quit thinking of how you would have written it and dig deeper into what the writer is trying to tell you. Hopefully, they’re not just putting their ego up on display— though a great deal of the time— that’s precisely what it is.

*Part of the divisiveness revealed in the two attitudes reflects the split between literature departments and rhetoric departments. Unlike what you might think, literature departments tend to underwrite this egocentric view of authorship. Though they are largely in the reading business, they treat authors as somehow above the crowd. This drives most literature students to desire this lofty, egocentric position. Rhetoric departments are focused on more practical aspects of writing. As one instructor of mine recently put it, “My students will change the world by writing grant proposals and influential documents. Will the poets you train ever do that?”

I sit in the middle between the extremes. I believe that the best poets can and do change the world. Not because they are privileged and special— but because they are sensitive, reading focused humans who force us to confront deeper truths. The best poets get past the necessary self-involved stages and look to the world, instead of just themselves, to convey a message.

Scared

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Scared

The more Judith Butler I read the more I like her. I picked up an oldie, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France which is a rewritten version of her doctoral dissertation that she refers to as her “juvenilia.” The way that Butler recasts Foucault and Derrida as bound to Hegel’s theories on desire is downright astounding. I find it to be clearly written, understandable, and to the point. I’m really scared. You see, Butler was the winner of the 1998 Philosophy and Literature Bad Writers Contest for this sentence:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Okay, so I agree that anyone who uses the words “hegemony” and “rearticulation” twice in the same sentence has got a problem. And I will freely admit that Pete Townsend wrote the same thought in a much more easily understandable fashion:

Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

But just the same, I’m really scared that I find Butler’s sentences quite comprehensible. What the hell is happening to me? Have I acquired the virulently pernicious academic gene? Maybe I’m even more terrified by the conversation I had today with the director of the graduate program here. We had a nice talk about my project, in post-structuralist terms that we were both quite comfortable with and she stopped to point out that our conversation would have been totally incomprehensible to most people in the department. I hadn’t thought about it. I was just talking. Now I’m struck by images of Jeff Goldblum in The Fly where I become reduced to some genetic mutant who drools on his food to digest it. Or worse still, I shrink to an imperceptible size like the Vincent Price version squeaking a nearly inaudible “help me . . . help me . . .”

Of course, it’s even stranger to think about the book I’m reading as juvenilia. Butler sums up Foucault’s position on history eloquently in two sentences. These are the sentences that I wish I’d used when I attempted to say (and was shot down for saying) that Foucault was obsessed with dominance and submission:

In effect, domination becomes for Foucault the scene that engenders history itself, the moment in which values are created and new configurations of force relations produced. Domination becomes the curious modus vivendi of historical innovation.

However, I must say that I made a big mistake last night. Never read Hegel before going to sleep. It causes nightmares. My advisor suggested that I try Aristotle’s Rhetoric instead to cure stubborn insomnia. She has a point. Aristotle has the same sort of droning sentences, and isn’t nearly as scary from a conceptual point of view.

Fuzzy Commercials

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From the Photo-secession to Commercialism

From 1913 to 1917, Karl F. Struss, the last photographer to join the Photo-secession, took pictures of interiors and model railroads for Harper’s Bazaar. He was among the first to promote photography as a commercial medium. In 1914, an unidentified author wrote:

The facility of its reproduction, the economic advantage it affords over other arts, its adaptability to personal expression, and its universal and understandable appeal are implements the intelligent users of the camera should employ in helping photography take its place in the world of illustrative art. For the illustration of stories and poems, there is no reason on earth why a photograph should not be desirable to a publisher.
[emphasis mine, from “Spheres of Usefulness,” Platinum Print May 1914, p.10]

By the end of the decade, there was a significant increase in the use of soft-focus photographs in advertising, pointing to the influence of the pictorialists. The world of commercial culture, disdained by Steiglitz, was nonetheless influenced by his circle. The rise in advertising over the course of the roaring twenties was also marked by an interest in using photographs to appeal to the public. Leonard A. Williams Illustrative Photography in Advertising was published in 1929. Williams stressed unity, with the logic of a modern day Aristotle:

Every writer of advertisements or short stories lives up to the rule— Have a single character, a single event, and a single emotion. Now, the illustrator, or pictorial publicity photographer, must have rules similar to the writer. His rule is— Every picture must have a border around the frame; within that frame a center of interest must be placed at what is known as the aesthetic center or A.C. point. Some call it the talking point.

Soft-focus commercial portraiture grew across the depression. The tension between the soft-focus work of pictorialists and the hard edges of modernism was strong. The industrial subject matter favored by modernists dovetailed with the emotional emphasis favored by pictorialists in the commercial universe of advertising. In 1933, the first Detroit International Salon of Industrial photography was held at the same time and in the same building as the cities second pictorial salon, drawing over 30,000 visitors. Leading pictorial photographers began to endorse photographic products around this time as well.

This material, abstracted from After the Photo-secession by Christian Peterson, provides an interesting subtext to the development of documentary photography during the same time period. The borderline between commerce and art seems to be much lower in the case of so called “artistic” photographers. No wonder so many people like Walker Evans felt the need to rebel against the theories flying around this age.

Representative Thoughts

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Representative thoughts

It never came together. I was too distracted by the rain and the rumbling thunder. But I’ve got to note the shards, just so I can come back. The chain began with “Spare Parts: The Surgical Construction of Gender” by Marjorie Garber. She considers the word “make” in its gendered connotations. A self-made man, compared with making a woman— to make a man is to test him, to make a woman is to have intercourse. I was scratching my head. To “make a man out of him” can also mean to have intercourse— I think the distinction is forced. I think the real power is in the contrast of “making” as a testing of sexual limits, and “taking” as an expression of dominion in the same sexual context.

Then the comparison occurred again in Richard Bolton’s introduction to Contests of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography. It contemplated “make” in the sense of making a photograph, compared to taking one. To express the sentiment of making implies the creation of an object, rather than stealing a view of one. Are photographs made or taken? Bolton’s article spins around this to land on a chord against “art for art’s sake”— for if art only makes, rather than participates in an interchange, a taking of the world in order to give it back with a point of view— it can have little practical impact. This made me think about the separation of rhetoric and poetics by Aristotle— art makes, rhetoric takes what is given in order to use it to advantage. Can they be separate? Is taking always an exercise of dominion?

Reading Paul de Man’s lecture on Benjamin’s “Task of the Translator,” he quotes Geoffrey Hartman’s thoughts on Benjamin’s paradoxical sense of history, a union of the rhetorical and the poetic, of hope and catastrophe:

This chiasmus of hope and catastrophe is what saves hope from being unmasked as only catastrophe: as an illusion or unsatisfied moment of desire that wrecks everything. The foundation of hope becomes remembrance; which confirms the function, as the duty of a historian and critic. To recall the past is a political act: a “recherche” that involves us with the usage of a peculiar power, images that may constrain us to identify with them, that claim the “weak messianic power” in us. These images, split off from their fixed location in history, undo concepts of homogeneous time, flash up into or reconstitute the present.

So it seems to me that those who take shelter in the idea of poesis, of making, ignore the true constitutive power of history. To take, in the sense of taking a photograph, is also to make history spiritual and present for us. To take is also to make, in the sense of testing assumptions of the present in the face of evidence from the past. The two words blur for me, and since power relations are defined entirely by context it cannot be said that to concentrate on taking photographs either subdues, rapes, or modifies the present. The reading of the past is outside the photographer’s hands, and resides in the viewer. I have always viewed working as a photographer as performing a real history, measured in fractions of a second, not as a rapist, harvesting the world for sinister purposes. Whether directed inward— as a personal history— or outward as a social one, photographs because of their position within time always constitute a history. Taking is making.

All histories always seem to carry with them a moral purpose. That’s why I wonder at the displacement of ethics from poesis, and the misreading of making as something disconnected from catastrophe. Is making just a test? Or is it intercourse with something larger outside ourselves? I’m still trying to figure out how to get this all together.

History

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History

The defining characteristic of the novel offered by Ian Watt is its realism. In a broad sense, the novel represents a shift in representation away from allusive generality into particularity. Watt suggests that this particularity is of a unique spatio-temporal type, tied deeply to a new sense of time. Citing John Locke’s contention that identity can only be defined in relation with memories of past thought and action, Watt draws a dividing line between the historical consciousness of Shakespeare and the early eighteenth century. His contention is that the world of ancient Greece and Rome, and that of the Plantagenets and Tudors, were so close that Shakespeare’s worldview was “a-historical.” This seems essentially incorrect. While the labeling of his plays, as “histories, comedies, and tragedies” is a textual phenomenon outside their first performances, historical consciousness was indeed a part of the English Renaissance.

Sir Philip Sydney, a prototypical aristocratic hero— soldier, statesmen, and poet— aligns himself with Aristotle’s Poetics by claiming that history is an “inferior form.” In his 1598 Apology for Poetry he denigrates the role of history as a moral teacher:

The historian scarcely giveth leisure to the moralist to say much, but that he, laden with old mouse-eaten records, authorizing himself (for the most part) upon other histories, whose greatest authorities are built upon the notable foundation of hearsay ; having much ado to accord differing writers and to pick truth out of partiality; better acquainted with a thousand years ago than with the present age, and yet better knowing how this world goeth than his own wit runneth; curious for antiquities and novelties; a wonder to young folks and a tyrant in table talk, denieth, in a great chafe, that any man for the teaching of virtue, and virtuous actions is comparable to him.

Histories composed across the seventeenth century are a peculiar blend of direct documentation and the sort of hearsay and reliance on previous histories that Sydney indicts. Poetic heroism is proposed as the antidote for unreliable history— “for the poet, he nothing affirms, and therefore never lieth.” Placing poetry above the obscure teachings of philosophy, Sydney rests heroism at the center of moral instruction:

But if anything be already said in in the defense of sweet Poetry, all concurreth to the maintaining of the heroical, which is not only a kind, but the best and most accomplished kind of poetry. For as the image of each action stirreth and instructeth the mind, so do the lofty image of such worthies most inflameth the mind with the desire to be worthy, and informs with counsel how to be worthy.

The “true history” which surfaces mid-century, based on supposed first-hand accounts recombines the heroic consciousness of poetry with documented authority. The spatio-temporal shift noted by Watt does occur, not as a move from an “a-historical” perspective to a historical one, but through a redefinition of what constitutes authority and heroism. The shift begins close to the middle of the seventeenth century, as Descartes places experiential knowledge, and thus human testimony, closer to the center of authority, and Milton redefines the Christian hero in Paradise Lost.

Romantic epic — the staple of Sydney, Spenser, and most medieval quest-romance— was focused on combat. Milton’s muse, in the opening lines of Book IX, denigrates the traditional celebration of “fabl’d knights / In Battels feingn’d” instead privileging the Puritan values of patience and “Heroic Martyrdom.” The exhaustion of the romantic model of heroism, anticipated comically by Cervantes in Don Quixote (1615), is complete. Epic heroism had long been constituted historically through genealogy, first originating from gods, i.e., Heracles, and Gilgamesh— two thirds divine, one third human— and later becoming genealogies of evil, such as the monster Grendel in Beowulf, descended from Cain. Romance and epic were authorized with the historic authority of genealogy, but not with direct temporal experience or realism. Allegory was marked by an oblique sort of linguistic genealogy, signaled by a typological similarity of naming. These conventions eroded, creating new temporal and linguistic modes of authorizing texts, new particularities in naming, and redefinitions of heroic status in the complex atmosphere after the restoration.

Romance and chivalry were dead, but they would not die without a fight.

Reason to Believe

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Reason to Believe

Reason to Believe: Romanticism, Pragmatism, and the Teaching of Writing by Hephzibah Roskelley and Kate Ronald promises to be an interesting read.

The subheading on the title page doesn’t match. It reads: “Romanticism, Pragmatism, and the Possibility of Teaching.” Perhaps this reflects an earlier working title. I like it better, myself. This situates the book in the continuing debate (since Plato) regarding the very possibility of education. Indeed, the title of the first chapter reflects concern over these issues— “Is Teaching Still Possible?”

What lead me to this book was its engagement with Romantic ideology. While the book is specifically focused on American Romanticism, Emerson in particular, the general principles are of importance to me. This book is the only rhetorical scholarship listed in the Bedford Bibliography that deals with Romanticism and pedagogy in a positive light. Elsewhere, Romanticism is a demon to be slain. Here, the authors propose that engagement with the issues debated during the Romantic period can be a redemptive force in writing pedagogy.


Preface — 7/10
Chap. 1 & 2 — 7/12
Chap. 3 & 4 — 7/13
Chap. 5— 7/15
Chap. 6 & 7 — 7/17

Chapter one opens with contemporary theory. Chapter two continues the discussion, and procedes into American history. The third chapter provides careful consideration of Emerson, Thoreau, Fredrick Douglass, and Margaret Fuller. The fourth deals with pragmatism, and the fifth, neo-pragmatism. Chapter six deals with the presentation of romantic pedagogy in Dead Poet’s Society, and the final chapter presents real world examples of teachers using the romantic/pragmatic method.