From Ancients to Internet

I was very much looking forward to the panel on “New Vistas for Rhetorical Inquiry: From the Ancients to the Internet”, and was disappointed to hear that Kristine Potter was unable to give her presentation on “Liberating Technology: What Paulo Freire Can (not) Do in a Computer Classroom”. Still, I enjoyed Erica Frisicaro on “Naming Rights: Establishing Ground for the Foreign in the Origins of Classical Rhetoric”, Alice Gilliam on “From Page to Screen: Using Film Adaptations to Teach Visual Rhetoric”, and Virginia Kuhn on “Avoiding the Cracks: Visual Literacy and the Digital Divide”. None of the presentations were quite what I might have expected from their titles, but each did unique and powerful work, and what I most enjoyed was the Q & A session, where there were some genuinely interesting connections made. Of course, I’m biased, since the paper I’m presenting on Monday is one that attempts to make precisely those sorts of connections between classical rhetoric and contemporary technologies, but still, I thought it was a great panel. Even though I got the totally wrong idea when I saw that Erica was from the University of St. Thomas.

(Aside regarding sexism or the risk thereof: in my previous post, I referred to all three of the presenters — all male, all older — by their last names, having had no interaction with them whatsoever. I’m going to refer to Erica, Alice, and Virginia by their first names here, because I had the good fortune to chat briefly with them over a beer out on the patio after their presentation, and they were really pleasant people, and friendly: it’d feel weird and rude to refer to them by their last names.)

Erica’s presentation began with Corax and Tisias, the rhetorical tradition’s alleged discoverers of the discipline, and the myths and narratives that surround them. She quickly moved to an analysis of the ways in which rhetoric’s origins were historically valorized by Greek cultural narratives as the essential functions of democracies — or at least that’s as best as I can piece together out of my notes. She was moving fast, and I was trying to listen and transcribe at the same time, which makes for the worst of both worlds for me: poor understanding and incomplete notes. I hope she’ll forgive me any misrepresentations of her ideas. In any case: Erica asks us to consider the ways in which Greek colonial expansion served as a context for the ways Greek rhetorics and forms of governance affected other non-Greek communities. In the turmoil of territorial expansion and the overthrow of tyrants, rhetoric was born out of chaos, “discovered” by the Sicilian foreigners Corax and Tisias, and was subsequently named by authority as a device with which to create or restore order. The narratives of Athenian power, in other words, made rhetoric a hegemonic force, so that — for the dominant perspective of Athens — rhetoric creates a political order which permits colonial expansion.

There is, however, another way to see matters. The narratives about Corax and Tisias concerning the origins of rhetoric might actually display an unease on the part of the dominant culture at the creation of such a political force by a subjugated foreign people. Rhetoric’s origin in Sicily, a perpetually colonized community, might demand that we re-think our narratives of rhetoric as a function of emancipation, and understand rhetoric as a function of colonization. If you’ve read my writings on Tacitus, you can probably understand why such a grim perspective might appeal to me, but it also offers a useful counterhegemonic narrative. Needless to say, Erica’s presentation fired off for me all sorts of excited ideas about the political possibilities offered by rhetoric under power.

Alice began her presentation with a caution: we ought to take care when we suggest that students will have differing reactions to words and pictures, she suggested, because the visual and verbal incorporate aspects of one another that break the bounds of their binary construction. While the visual and verbal do entail differing modes of communication, they overlap as well, and can be read with and against one another, particularly in multimodal texts. Alice then moved to her focus, an examination of the multimodal qualities of the graphic novel Ghost World and its film adaptation by Terry Zwigoff, and performed a careful analysis of the ways in which both the graphic novel and the film incorporated graphical, typographical, gestural, and other literacies of design and redesign, making a strong case that the interplay of the multimodal elements between the two texts offer rich possibilities for helping students to become more carefully literate in their own consumption and production of such texts.

Virginia began by contending that competent control of images in writing instruction is crucial to our discipline. While those schooled primarily in print literacies are often suspicious and contemptuous of the use of images, to the point where rhetoric and composition has created large hurdles for itself to overcome in attempting to incorporate visual literacy into our teaching, text online is often deeply visual, and so understanding visual literacy is essential to our overcoming the digital divide. Without visual literacies, it’s impossible to understand the edited contemporary visual construction of life that we take in via the Web, via the increasingly ubiquitous phone cams and web cams, via movies, television, and advertisement. Composition’s focus on invention, arrangement, and its alienation from speech, has led to a dearth of understanding of today’s increasingly important focus on delivery.

After their presentations, there were some interesting questions. One audience member asked whether the concept of multimodality was a recent invention of our digital age, and Alice responded that earlier cultures had certainly combined image in text in complex and engaging ways, and I added that Ann Vasaly’s Representations demonstrated the ways in which gesture, geography, setting, and imagery were essential to Cicero’s rhetoric, with his delivery of the oration against Catiline at the temple of Jupiter Stator (and his closing apostrophe to that same Jupiter “Stayer” who had halted the Roman retreat at the hands of the Sabines) perhaps the most well-known example. Kathleen Welch, in her work, has provided other examples of multimodality in contemporary and classical rhetoric.

As I noted above, my question asked the panelists to make explicit some of the connections among their presentations: rhetoric and literacy are themselves technologies, and Virginia’s work on the digital divide and the rhetorics of the digitally colonized, as well as the construction of visual rhetoric as a democratic or peoples’ rhetoric, seemed to echo some of the arguments Erica was making. Alice suggested that their varying focuses may have sprung from disciplinary differences, and Erica suggested that all three presentations pointed to ways in which the construction of narratives of hegemonic power — of rhetoric, of print media — can be productively countered. Unfortunately, we ran out of time, so the questions of colonization in relation to visual rhetorics didn’t quite get answered, but I suppose it leaves plenty of good room for future explorations.

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