Monthly Archives: April 2004

Why I Love Tacitus

Let me offer some background: Cornelius Tacitus was a successful politician and orator, about 20 years younger than Quintilian, who retired to write history after his consulship under the emperor Nerva. The stated intent of the Dialogus de oratoribus, as Tacitus indicates from the outset, is to explore the reasons for the decline of oratory. To this end, Tacitus sets up his four interlocutors — Maternus, Aper, Messalla, and Secundus — at the house of Maternus, in a situation clearly intended to echo Cicero’s dialogue on rhetoric. James Mayer and Michael Winterbottom both attest to the difficulties of dating the composition of the Dialogus: the best consensus available seems to be sometime between 101 and 104 AD, during the reign of Trajan, the second of the five “good” emperors (moviegoers: in Russell Crowe’s Gladiator role, Marcus Aurelius was the last of the five “good” emperors, succeeded by Commodus, about whom there was indeed a scandal involving a gladiator, if memory serves), though there are other arguments. In terms of form, Mayer points out that the Dialogus “comprises a trio of paired speeches. Each of the three interlocutors speak twice. The set speeches, six in all, have single themes, and are adversarial in form, since the dialogue parodies a trial. In each of the three pairs, the second is shorter” (17). However, Luce takes the same observation a step further, to point out that the form of the Dialogus comes directly out of Seneca the Elder

On Starting Tacitus

I’ve gotten up through Book III of the Annals of the imperial Roman historian Tacitus. A couple years ago, I read the Dialogus de Oratoribus for my exams, and loved it, and the more secondary material I’ve read on him, the more I want to know. Composition has completely ignored him, choosing to focus — from the Romans — on Cicero and on the starry-eyed (and frequently blind to political context) educational-theory idealism of Quintilian. Tacitus is much more dark and spiky and gloomy than either of the two, and has a great deal to say about the uses and abuses of rhetorical and imperial power that Quintilian simply ignored. Still, to cut comp some slack, I think he’s largely ignored because he’s a historian rather than a rhetorician or an educational theorist. However, he does have a great deal to say — by implication — about rhetoric, and about the contexts for rhetoric, and what he has to say is worth listening to.
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Economics to Classics

As I noted yesterday, I’ve finished Varoufakis. Having now read three introductory economics textbooks, and six general-readership introductions to economic thought, I’ll say that Foundations of Economics: A Beginner’s Companion is by far the most careful, critical, evenhanded, and accessible introduction to the field that I’ve encountered. While I was a little disappointed by his ultimate outing of himself as a Marxist (not that I have anything against Marxists; it’s more that I wanted to see someone from the neoclassicist camp making such a strong and apparently fair-minded critique of mainstream economic assumptions), I have to say that he’s a lot more evenhanded than most of the Marxists I’ve read, and he’s very clearly got a deep familiarity with neoclassicist chapter and verse.

For a last quotation, I’ll offer his indictment of the individualist underpinnings of freeper economics, which dovetails nicely with the ways some folks (including me) have begun to problematize the rhetorics of individualist working-class authenticity:
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Friedman’s Scarcity

I’ve finally finished Varoufakis. Lots of Post-It notes on the pages, which I’ll have to decode in the coming days, but I suppose the most interesting (and, well, expected) thing was that Varoufakis finally comes out of the closet as an orthodox Marxist. I mean, all the way through the book, I was going, “Why, with such devastating critiques, is there so little Marx in here?” Turns out he was saving it for the last chapter.

It’s a little disappointing to discover that what appeared to be a relatively evenhanded and insightful critique of the conventional economic wisdom comes from the only place that one might expect. Makes me wonder if anybody’s ever done a Derridean reading of the neoclassicist/Marxist binary.
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Messy Philosophy

This is gonna be a big, long, rambling post that tries to put together some ideas — often poorly grasped on my part — about philosophy, economics, and class. I hope you’ll bear with me, and I hope you’ll tell me where I’ve got it profoundly wrong.

Some problems with Rawls and the veil of ignorance: first, and perhaps most obviously, “we cannot liberate ourselves from the norms and prejudices which have formed our being simply by convincing ourselves that our social role (and even body) could have been different” (Varoufakis 270). In other words, despite the notion of an original position and a veil of ignorance, the fact is that a bigot who performs the thought experiment Rawls offers will still likely say, “Well, even if I’m somehow born the wrong color, I’ll just have to know my place.” An intellectual experiment can’t entirely overcome the values into which we’ve been socialized, and so it will still be difficult — or impossible — for a society to imagine what a more just society might look like.

Second, and more seriously, the intellectual experiment Rawls offers is synchronic rather than diachronic: in attempting to offer a rational argument for a just society which a group of people at any given time might agree on, Rawls ignores history and change. Varoufakis suggests that we “consider a society 1000 years ago (or even 300 years ago) trying to devise the best social distribution of roles, privilege and money based on Rawls’ scheme. All the options they would consider would involve some sort of slavery!” Ultimately, Varoufakis suggests, “alternatives to the current social arrangements are created by historical change and cannot be anticipated in advance” (271). I don’t agree with this last part — I think that imagining change is what opens up the possibility for change — but his point regarding the historical situatedness of values is well-taken. He also points out, quite rightly, that Rawls’s construction of the appropriate and just distribution of privilege in a society according to the original position and the veil of ignorance fails to answer the question: what happens after that distribution? What happens when the distribution changes?

But isn’t that asking a utilitarian question of a philosophy that critiques utilitarianism?
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Ignorance: An Introduction

In Chapter 9, Varoufakis finally gets around to mentioning philosopher John Rawls. To be fair to one of my favorite targets of obloquy, Bush administration sock puppet Chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers N. Gregory Mankiw, Mankiw’s introductory economics textbook mentions Rawls and his maximin criterion “that government should aim to maximize the well-being of the worst-off person in society” (Principles of Economics 448) in his book’s Chapter 20, but quickly dismisses Rawls with the twin canards that (1) increased equality of incomes diminishes the willingness of people to work hard and (2) increasing equality of opportunity is more important than increasing equality of outcomes. I won’t go into the problems with either of those flimsy excuses for maintaining positions of privilege here, since people at other weblogs dealing with economic and social issues have done a much more intelligent, detailed, and graceful job than I could. Anyway: Varoufakis summarizes Rawls nicely, starting from the point that as a society, “we are far too caught up in our own self-interest to be truthful in our assessment of what society should be like” since “History has repeatedly shown that those who end up as rich and powerful soon afterwards manage to convince themselves that they deserved to become so and, therefore, that the society that brought them riches, power and fame must have been just and beyond criticism or reform” (256).

Rawls finds a way around this problem of blinding self-interestedness via what many are by now familiar with as the veil of ignorance.
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Two Equally Good Ways

Via email comes a question from a prospective composition teacher in California. She notes that she’s interviewing for jobs, and one institution has asked her to write an essay comparing two equally good ways of teaching composition. What sorts of things might she say?

I was a bit flummoxed, and when I asked a couple other teachers today, they weren’t quite sure how to respond, either. It’s certainly an interesting question, and something I imagine I ought to think about before going on the job market. I think the impulse behind the question is to ask you to show that you have a fairly broad theoretical grounding and an awareness of how different theories imply different pedagogical practices, and it sounds to me like there’s an opportunity there to offer specific practical examples as a way of differentiating theories. And I think that another goal might be to ask you to demonstrate some flexibility as a teacher who theorizes your own classroom practice.

But what would you say? Would you talk about asking students to write reflective essays that attempt to identify the complexities of their individual relationships with broader forces in the world as an enactment of a Freirean critical pedagogy, and contrast that with an emphasis on the “contact zones” and close readings of transculturation associated with a cultural studies composition syllabus? Such a comparison — like any comparison — seems to beg just as much attention to the commonalities and overlaps as it does to the differences, which suggests that those who framed the question may be interested in precisely those commonalities as a set of “best practices”, and perhaps in having the respondent acknowledge the process-pedagogy practices that seem to undergird so much of what we do, no matter what our theoretical preferences are.

And there are so many other ways to go, too: what are the differences between teaching with a rhetoric (say, for example, Corbett’s Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student) and a reader (Bartholomae and Petrosky’s Ways of Reading, perhaps). Does anybody even use rhetorics as texts anymore? And the mere act of mentioning such texts doesn’t preclude using them in, say, a collaboratively-oriented classroom, or a feminist classroom.

What do other folks think?