Rhetoric: October 2002 Archives




A word is worth 1,000th of a picture— Ian Baxter

Look at any word long enough and you will see it open up into a series of faults, into a terrain of particles, each containing its own void. This discomforatory language of fragmentation offers no easy gestalt solution. — Robert Smithson

The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the “state of emergency” in which we live is not the exception but the rule. We must attain to a conception of history that is in keeping with this insight. Then we shall clearly realize that it is our task to bring about a real state of emergency, and this will improve our position in the war against Fascism. One reason why Fascism has a chance is that in the name of progress its opponents treat it as a historical norm. The current amazement that the things we are experiencing are “still” possible in the twentieth century is not philosophical. This amazement is not the beginning of knowledge— unless it is the knowledge that the view of history which gives rise to it is untenable.

Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History

No account of the history of philosophy can be oriented to history alone. The consideration of the philosophic past must always be accompanied by philosophical reorientation and self-criticism. More than ever before, it seems to me, the time is again ripe for applying such self-criticism to the present age, for holding up to it the bright clear mirror of the Enlightenment. Much which seems to us today the result of “progress” will to be sure lose its luster when seen in this mirror; and much of what we boast of will look strange and distorted in this perspective. But we should be guilty of hasty judgment and dangerous self-deception if we simply ascribe these distortions as opaque spots in the mirror, rather than to look elsewhere for the source.

Ernst Cassirer, The Philosophy of the Enlightenment

I say, then, that in hereditary states, accustomed to their prince’s family, there are far fewer difficulties in maintaining one’s rule than in new principalities; because it is enough merely not to neglect the institutions founded by one’s ancestors and then to adapt policy to events. In this way, if the prince is reasonably assiduous he will always maintain his rule, unless some extraordinary force deprive him of it; and if so deprived, whenever the usurper suffers a setback he will reconquer.

Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince




Teaching research writing has evolved for me in bizarre ways. Because it is an intro class that crosses many subject fields, it seems pointless to spend too much time on specific databases or tools. Communication isn’t only about tools; it’s about attitudes and strategies for dealing with other people’s attitudes. I make it up as I go along, but I thought I might write down some of what I’m doing now.

The first concept I try to explore is people’s feelings about genius. The majority always seem to agree with Harold Bloom’s attitude. There are some people who are just special— above the norm. More and more, I find this incompatible with the idea that “all men are created equal.” Equal is a valuation, as is genius, and valuing things quickly becomes complicated. What constitutes a genius? A shifting cultural celebration of some values over others. I can only fall back on one of the earliest definitions of genuis— similar to genii, it simply means spirit. Can one person have more spirit than another? I don’t think so. It’s just that some can express it better than others, and we find ourselves drawn to some spirits more others. Genius— like heroism— is a rhetorical concept.

If these things are established rhetorically, then it seems essential to examine how language works. To that end, I use Orwell’s Politics and the English Language and Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture. Orwell’s essay, despite its gross errors and conservatism makes an essential connection between thought and language, and the deadening nature of hollow political rhetoric. These days, in particular, I think this is an important issue to raise for anyone who steps into a voting booth. Morrison’s essay places control where it should belong, in the hands of the public, which must question in order to know. These first exercises are meant to get people questioning their beliefs about ideas that they take for granted— only “writers” should care about writing— that writing, like genius, lies outside what regular people should aspire to know.

After this, I examine some effective political rhetoric— starting with the US Declaration of Independence. This requires some deep historical context, to show that it isn’t a document that just emerged from the pen of a genius, but rather is built from an avalanche of commonplaces developed in other political precedents. It’s also a nearly perfect example of the syllogism, of inescapable deductive reasoning. Then, to show that imitation isn’t a bad thing, I teach the Seneca Falls Declaration of Sentiments. This one is far more accessible to students. It also shows just how long the fight for women’s rights actually took, and that freedom as they know it is quite a recent development.

The only weird thing about using this group of essays is that it can seem like I’m teaching political science rather than rhetoric. However, when it comes to ethical and logical arguments, political documents are a great place to turn for both good and bad examples. I teach them as arguments, not as politics. To counteract the heavy weighting on the political side, this time I decided to try something completely different when I turn the emphasis to pathetic argument— seduction poetry.

To this end, I use Christopher Marlowe’s The Passionate Shepherd to His Love and Sir Walter Raleigh’s The Nymph’s Reply and compare them with John Donne’s The Bait. The Donne poem, I hope, is even more effective in Arkansas. How many love poems are written with a fishing motif? The most common problem in arguing issues that students feel passionately about is that they alienate anyone who might feel differently, by assuming that their audience feels the same as they do— if this is the case, why write? Donne is incredibly shrewd in shifting the power to the maid he wants to seduce, rather than assuming that he has the power. I hope that this will encourage the writers to think about what they can gain by granting that their opposition has some power too.

What is a more common reason for persuasion than getting laid? Besides, it’s a great break from all the politics.

I am not teaching creative writing. I am teaching writing that works. Research writing begins with questions, and ends with actions— not answers. That’s the hurdle I’m trying to cross, and this is the twisted way I’ve chosen to get there. I’m sure I’ll change things every time I teach the class, but for now, I wanted to mark this down. I want my students to climb down off the ivory tower notion that only geniuses are worthy of writing, and learn to make reading and writing work for them. That’s the real equalizer.