When I was a grad student in Minnesota I had a persistent difficulty with Aristotle’s framing/criteria for three genera causarum (general causes) for speech. On the surface, it seems easy. The first general cause for speech is forensic, or legal. This goes back to the earliest writings on rhetoric surrounding the story of Corax and Tisias and the usage of speech to defend property in the courts. At issue, in that case, is just who had owned particular pieces of property. It makes sense, then, that forensic rhetoric tends to look to the past: did they do it or didn’t they, to put another legal twist to it.

The other distinctions are harder for me to grasp. Later authors complicated thing by adding more nuanced treatments of general causes, and that really muddies the waters. Aristotle’s neat usage of three categories is certainly generic– adding more primarily makes the distinctions more specific. They also seem to sort well along a continuum of past/present/future. Legislative rhetoric, for example is easy: should we do it or not? Obviously, the general cause is arbitrating future behavior. But where i always got tripped up is present-directed rhetoric, usually labeled as epidactic rhetoric or more recently, rhetorics of display. At issue, at least in the classical framing of the problem, are matters of praise or blame.

Yesterday, I think I figured out my problem. You see, I always wanted to class speech directed at praise and blame as focused on the past. All evidence marshaled for praise or blame resides there, but the desired action rests in the present. However, the same could be said of forensic rhetoric– one can’t lobby for past action. The distinction shows cracks in its foundation here. As rhetorics of display, present focus is defensible as the bringing forth in the present both past and potential future actions to make people see. Remember that the focus here is on general causes, hence to decide past/future action is obviously different than simply showing something to an audience. Here, action must be framed as praise or blame, adherence or separation from a proposed view in the present. This seems confusing to me, so I always got it wrong.

This popped back into my head when i was thinking of a different sort of causation– material cause. I’ve been obsessed by that for a few years now. When I taught a photography class years ago I structured the fundamentals as time, space, and light. I tend to think of light as the best candidate for a photograph’s material cause, but photographs definitely have a proscribed relationship with time as well. Space will have to remain outside the discussion or I will never get this composed. The time of photographs, casting aside for a moment the mundane issues of shutter speeds or motion pictures, seems to me to be a perpetual past.

Makes sense– photography, the form of display that I am most familiar with, is always directed at the past. In fact, in a profound sense photographs generate what can only be described as a perpetual past. The “news” photograph is an oxymoron because whatever it displays always occurred in the past. You cannot photograph the future. The act of photographing something always arrests its subject like an insect in amber, dooming it to be a sort of curiosity. Good photographers embrace and work through that. It’s photography’s most commonplace trope. I was reminded of that today when reading a vivid description of recreating Britannia, that irrepressible panegyric figure, updated for the recent olympiad:

In any photographic situation where there is a danger that it might go all wrong, where the execution can be way too literal, I always try to steer it back towards the one element that is the most important: spirit. In this case, Laura Trott is a 20 year old girl from Hertfordshire. A week earlier no one, including me, outside of the world of track cycling had heard of her. In seven days she, among several others, had come to embody an ideal of how we would like our country to be. Hard working, modest, humorous, good at stuff and very much alive. Binding her up with spears, shields, togas and chariots would drag her down more than anything. How to make it work?

I close my eyes and I think of the canon. The canon are the photographers I draw on in times of doubt. They give me comfort, solace and inspiration. They include Richard Avedon, Helmut Newton, Bruce Weber, Lee Friedlander, Sally Mann, Corrine Day, Glen Luchford, Erwin Blumenfeld, Harry Callahan and, in this case, Irving Penn. I close my eyes and I go through the rolodex in my head thinking of them all until I find the one that instinctively feels like the inspirational match for the task at hand. That’s not to say I set about slavishly ripping them off. I use them as my starting point, my jumping off point. They are my photographic moral compass. They show me the light, guide the way and keep me company. Once I push off and get underway I’m then going forward under my own steam. By the time I get to the other side I will have, hopefully, added enough of my own ingredients to the dish for it to taste new and different.

Rule Britannia

It makes more sense to me now why i am perpetually confused by the idea that rhetorics of display are primarily present directed. They always transport me to the past.

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