Narcissus and Medusa

Often, I feel weird reading yet another “history” of rhetoric, or “state of the discipline” roundup. Since Quintillian, or even before, it seems that rhetoricians love to write about what they do— which often amounts mostly to writing about what they do. I sometimes wonder if most rhetoricians really do much of anything besides access the progress (or lack of it) from previous incarnations of this reflexive pursuit. Are all rhetoricians thinly disguised historians? If rhetoric is a “subject” then perhaps the answer is yes. However, if rhetoric is a “method” then the answer might be different.

I suppose what I’m really wondering is if “rhetorical history” might be forcibly separated from the “history of rhetoric.” I’m interested in the first pursuit far more than the second. However, getting out the hose to spray down these dogs is fairly difficult. The justification for multiple his and her stories of rhetoric is compelling. In Rhetoric Retold, Cheryl Glenn compares histories to “maps” which we take out of the glove compartment and unfold to get us somewhere. But where does each new history take us?

Rhetoricians are quick to submit that each history is constructed rhetorically to fit certain disciplinary aims. Recent feminist histories call attention to the broad cracks in the mirror we have used to view the “subject” of rhetoric. But skepticism has distinct limits. The multiplication of histories places a crown of snakes on the head of rhetoric—which like Medusa, is truly a fearsome sight—injustice layered upon injustice, and opinions repeated so often that they become doctrinal facts. But it seems to me that the constant gazing in the mirror results in an unproductive paralysis. Faced with history, rather than traveling, we become frozen where we stand. Isn’t rhetoric capable of something more than simply admiring (or condemning) itself in the mirror?

It is tiresome to live in a constant state of self-reflection—it matters little if it leads to self-congratulation or self-loathing. Perhaps this is a major source of burnout among writers. It seems like something a person/discipline should grow out of at some point. Re-reading Hayden White’s Metahistory lately makes me think about the essentially ironic nature of modern historiography—historians are detectives that propose to tell you what it really means. But no person or discipline can claim to know themselves that well, although they continually study themselves in the cracked funhouse mirror of mortal existence.

1 thought on “Narcissus and Medusa”

  1. Amen. Hence, the cul-de-sac that is postmodernism, whose quintessential art is–must be–rhetoric. Navel gazing. Critical reflection. Deconstruction, reconstruction. Maybe it’s not the (fake) end of history, but the end of the humanities, forced now to sharpen their introspective eye until they’ve dissected themselves to intracellular level and then are forced to watch helplessly their own decomposition.
    I agree with your criticism. That is why, when people ask me what I “do,” what I “study,” and what is “rhetoric,” I’ve been having an increasingly difficult time explaining. Only a field that’s in a total state of disarray can spend so much time trying to prove it’s still viable and proceed, for the umpteenth time, to showcase its past glories, hyperanalyzed into dust.
    Which probably brings us to why we’re getting a degree in this field. Ummmmm….
    Ah, it’s probably the dissertation blues talking again!

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