I timed an out-loud reading of this, and it clocked in at way too long, so I’m in the process of cutting it by about a third. The presentation, ten hours from now, will be the radio edit; consider this the extended dance mix. I’d be more than grateful for any gripes, critiques, disagreements, or suggestions.
[Note: links added to clarify references and make the essay a little more Web-friendly. Feel free to point me to additional sources.]
Empire and the Dissipation of Public Discourse:
Some Lessons from Tacitus for the World Wide Web
Plunderers of the world, after they, laying everything waste, run out of land, they probe even the sea: if their enemy has wealth, they have greed; if the enemy be poor, they are ambitious; neither East nor West has sated them; alone of mankind they covet poverty with the same passion as wealth. Robbery, butchery, rape they misname Empire: they make a wasteland and call it peace. (Tacitus, Agricola 80)
The epigraph is from Gaius Cornelius Tacitus, one of the foremost Roman writers of prose. Perhaps twenty years younger than Quintilian, Tacitus was a highly successful politician and orator who retired to write history after his consulship under the emperor Nerva. The attention to naming and rhetoric in the epigraph is worth notice, for the relations between language and power are a consistent concern of Tacitus, both in his Dialogus de Oratoribus and in his historical writings.
This paper will use the work of Tacitus on language, power, and rhetoric as a starting point from which to analyze the uses of rhetoric in imperial Rome, and apply that analysis to the contemporary rhetoric of the World Wide Web. The analysis has four major divisions: first, the examination of public rhetoric in imperial Rome; second, rhetoric and the self in imperial Rome; third, rhetoric and the self online; and fourth, public rhetoric online. These divisions work towards detailing how individual and social subjectivities are rhetorically and publicly constructed on the Web, and will ask as a final question whether such constructions have political consequences that were absent under the Roman empire.
2. Public Rhetoric in Imperial Rome
Rome under empire was radically different from Cicero’s republic. Deliberative rhetoric had waned in importance, since the senate was of little relevance and political decisions were made by the emperor. Forensic rhetoric still mattered for minor judicial cases, but the primary form of rhetorical expression was in the exercises of declamation, of which the controversiae and suasoriae of Seneca the Elder represent the most common and prominent. They are, essentially, a collection of different epigrammatic ways of addressing an oration, in their barest form. Educational rather than political, the controversiae and suasoriae were intended to help students come up with all the possible variations on a topic or theme, and to help them encapsulate their ideas and express them in as pointed a form as possible.
For their persuasive power, the controversiae rely more on felicity of style and epigrammatic force than on any argumentative rigor, and the hypothetical situations they involve (escapes from pirates, twice-adopted sons, and such) often border on the ridiculous. Though the suasoriae deal with somewhat more realistic situations, much the same holds true for them. The controversiae were the more advanced exercises, and the suasoriae, dealing with deliberative rhetoric rather than with the judicial or forensic rhetoric of the controversiae, were reserved for students at earlier stages in their educations, and we might assume that this was due in part to the fact that there simply was less of a space for deliberative rhetoric in imperial Rome: rhetoric had become not the necessary tool for citizens of a free republic, but simply a series of exercises with strange or controversial topics for the performance of lectures. M. L. Clarke notes that "Quintilian
bears witness to the rage for sententiae among the imperial rhetoricians," and suggests that "It was encouraged by the conditions of the declamation schools," where "The speaker having no other purpose than to entertain and impress would seek for applause as a comedian for laughs" (95).
When the powerful do as they please and political decision-making relies on force rather than deliberation, rhetoric has little use other than ceremony and servility. In CE 55, Nero and his domineering and politically dangerous mother Agrippina the Younger poisoned the emperor Claudius, and the ceremonial panegyric that Nero delivered for Claudius, "which was composed by Seneca [the Younger], exhibited much elegance, as indeed that famous man had an attractive genius which suited the ear of the time. Elderly men who amuse their leisure with comparing the past and the present [. . .] observed that Nero was the first emperor who needed another man’s eloquence" (Tacitus, Annals 246). As is customary in Tacitus, we see an attention to dissembling with the description of Nero’s "mimicries of sorrow" (247) during this funeral service, and throughout the description of the reign of Nero, there are references to and descriptions of the perpetual flattery of the senators.
Flattery, like the ceremonies of the funeral, is a form of epideictic rhetoric, concerned more with praise or blame than with considering future action or determining past action. In one of Nero’s celebrations, where there were games and contests and displays of skill, "No one gained the first prize for eloquence, but it was publicly announced that the emperor was victorious" (Tacitus, Annals 286). And the flattery did not cease: matters decayed to the point where Nero had Agrippina put to death, after which he returned to Rome, where "the centurions and tribunes [. . .] again and again pressed his hand and congratulated him on his having escaped a unforeseen danger" (Tacitus, Annals 280). So encouraged, Nero drafted a letter to the Senate, justifying his deed and condemning his mother.
Earlier, even into the reign of the emperor Tiberius, Romans had still possessed a degree of individual freedom. But with the ascension of the ambitious Sejanus, captain of the Praetorian Guard, the terror began. After his secret poisoning of Drusus, the only son of Tiberius, the role of delatores, or political informants who stood to gain a portion of the estates of those upon whom they informed, grew considerably in Roman political life. As Tacitus remarks, "every day a stronger and fiercer host of informers pursued its victims" (Annals 156). Sejanus cultivated a wide network of these delatores, who he used to take out his political enemies. Tiberius, in CE 27, retreated to his twelve villas on the island of Capri, leaving Sejanus effectively in charge of Rome, and "Never was Rome more distracted and terror-stricken. Meetings, conversations, the ear of friend and stranger were alike shunned; even things mute and lifeless, the very roofs and walls, were eyed with suspicion" (Annals 158).
But after the passing of Sejanus, the practices of the delatores remained unchanged, and constituted the most prominent and common use of rhetoric — other than declamation — in imperial Rome. "And this was the most dreadful feature of the age," writes Tacitus, "that leading members of the Senate, some openly, some secretly employed themselves in the very lowest work of the informer. One could not distinguish between aliens and kinfolk, between friends and strangers, or say what was quite recent, or what half-forgotten from lapse of time. People were incriminated for some casual remark in the forum or at the dinner-table, for every one was impatient to be the first to mark his victim, some to screen themselves, mostly from being, as it were, infected with the contagion of the malady" (Annals 170). In such a state, Quintilian’s ideal of the good man speaking well who might serve as a moral and effective guide for Rome was a fantasy and an illusion. As James Murphy states in his introduction to Quintilian, "there was no longer any safe public position in Rome for the outspoken citizen" (xix).
This was the environment in which Tacitus wrote the Dialogus de oratoribus. The stated intent of the Dialogus is to explore the reasons for the decline of oratory. To this end, Tacitus sets up his four interlocutors — Maternus, Aper, Messalla, and Secundus — in a situation clearly intended to echo Cicero’s dialogue on rhetoric. In terms of structure, 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” (Mayer 17). In fact, the form of the Dialogus comes directly out of Seneca the Elder’s controversiae (Luce). Furthermore, the dialogues “are set in the context of political strife, and the role of oratory within the Roman state is always the issue,” much in the manner of Cicero’s Brutus, and “the fate of oratory is seen to hang in the balance: despotism has once again silenced the forum” (Mayer 13).
The Dialogus offers as one cause for rhetoric’s decline the delatores, of whom Tacitus has Maternus remark, "The gain-getting rhetoric now in vogue, greedy for human blood, is a modern invention, the product of a depraved condition of society" (261). From the character Aper, however, we should understand that in Cicero’s time, "very few even of the orators themselves had made acquaintance with the rules of the rhetoricians or the tenets of the philosophers. But now that everything has become common property, what we need is novel and choice methods of eloquence, by employing which the speaker may avoid boring his hearers, especially when addressing a court which decides issues, not according to the letter of the law, but by virtue of its own inherent authority" (283). With "the loss of the senate as a venue for serious political debate" (Dominik 60), increasingly unequal relations of power intersect with the popular taste for the epigrammatic, and this profoundly alters the nature of eloquence. Under empire, rhetoric cannot look to the future, and can exist in the present only as hypothesis and speculation. Its most significant role is in rewriting the past to suit the whims of despots — but in this, it need convince no one, because of the very existence of imperial power. For politics, it is nothing but an ornament or a tool for the treachery of the delatores, and the only ethical use of rhetoric becomes the formation of character via rhetorical education.
3. Rhetoric And The Self In Imperial Rome
Richard Leo Enos notes that "historians of rhetoric — past and present — mark the death of Cicero as both the end of the Republic and the end of rhetoric as a political force in Roman society. The stabilization of politics and society under the Augustan Principate correspondingly signals a shift of rhetoric from a source of power through free speech to an educational subject, facilitating learning and synonymous with the acquisition of literacy and subsequently culture" (36). Furthermore, "In spite of the imperial patronage of rhetoric and its popularity the discipline did come under attack" to the point where it "had lost its relevance and now concerned itself with self-aggrandizement" (Enos 99). Without political agency, the sole use of rhetoric is in the public construction of individual subjectivity.
Historian Carlin Barton contends that the public display of emotion was a deeply important component of Roman life, to the point where an individual subjectivity could not be privately constructed. The outer lives of Romans, according to Barton, were what drove their inner lives: in place of our post-Freudian reliance upon private guilt as inhibitor, the Romans relied upon public shame. In a city without a police force, "the Roman body politic was regulated by the warm physical glow of the blush" (Barton 19). The work of emotion was always publicly performed, and in the republic, the political position of censor — the public shamer — was one of ultimate importance. With the importance we attach to privacy and the concomitant elevation of guilt as a motivating preventative moral force, we are less interested in how a society might shape its inhibitions around public shame. Guilt works via individualism, privacy, introspection, and ownership, while shame is communal, public, rhetorical, and shared. In Rome, the names of debtors were written upon a central public column, and bankrupt senators were consigned to a single and particularly conspicuous section of the Senate. The actions of Tiberius, isolated and hidden from public view on Capri, were scandalous because they were hidden: without a public before whom to perform a self, the emperor lost the self-control that made him human, and became bestial. In this cultural context, Roman rhetoric, while possessing no public political agency, served a private purpose in the public performance and construction of self.
4. Rhetoric And The Self Online
I turn now to a wholly different cultural context: the contemporary public rhetoric of the Web, and — in particular — the recent emergence of weblogs as a rhetorical genre. To use Jill Walker’s definition, "A weblog, or blog, is a frequently updated website consisting of dated entries arranged in reverse chronological order so the most recent post appears first [. . .]. Typically, weblogs are published by individuals and their style is personal and informal. [. . .] Since anybody with a net connection can publish their own weblog, there is great variety in the quality, content, and ambition of weblogs, and a weblog may have anywhere from a handful to tens of thousands of daily readers" ("Final Version"). Furthermore, many weblogs allow and rely upon sometimes anonymous comments from their readers, posted as visibly as the weblog entries themselves. Having seen how the function of rhetoric shifted under the Roman empire, how might we understand the rhetorical functions of weblogs today?
"Clancy" points to Lawrence Lessig’s
observation "that if you think through your opinions enough to write about them and make them public, you become more committed to your own perspective, your own ideals" and suggests that "weblogs are a beneficial tool for helping citizens become more active and thoughtful" ("Hmmm"). This suggests one parallel to Rome: on the Web, millions are publicly constructing private selves through rhetorical practice. David Weinberger remarks that on weblogs, "We are writing ourselves into existence," and argues that "the Web is a new public space and weblogs enable us — all of us, not just the Pepyses and Boswells among us — to construct public selves in that space" ("Blood on blogs"). Scholars in rhetoric and composition suggest that weblogs can help the self-constructive project of education in ways similar to the process movement’s journal-keeping practices, but also in helping students feel that they have a public audience for their writing, and therefore more of a personal investment in work performed for the classroom.
However, many of those who write on and about weblogs propose that the way discourse works online represents a radically different paradigm for rhetoric. Mark Federman contends that weblogs "are an instance of ‘publicy’ — the McLuhan reversal of ‘privacy’ [. . .]. Our notion of privacy was created as an artifact of literacy — silent reading lead to private interpretation of ideas that lead to private thoughts that lead to privacy. Blogging is an ‘outering’ of the private mind in a public way", and "Unlike normal conversation that is essentially private but interactive, and unlike broadcast that is inherently not interactive but public, blogging is interactive, public and, of course, networked — that is to say, interconnected" ("Blogging and Publicy"). The interactive and networked aspects of blogging differ radically from the rhetoric of the Roman empire, which both focused upon and derived any power it had from the figure of the emperor, and which had none of the freewheeling interactivity of weblogs. This difference should not detract from the usefulness of the comparison, though, particularly when we consider the outer-directed nature of Roman society in light of Federman’s assertion that "blogging is perhaps the most vivid example of publicy of mind that represents the outering of stream of consciousness or inner dialogue" ("Blogging and Publicy").
So far, I’ve been attempting to draw a careful distinction between two purposes of public rhetoric: first, rhetoric as a persuasive power for social action or change, and second, rhetoric as the public production of subjectivities. Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca
seek a rhetoric that exists somewhere between the "compelling" and the "arbitrary" (514), and I see a version of the distinction I’m drawing in these two extremes, with the "arbitrary" rhetoric of an isolated and solipsistic politically ineffectual self contributing to a diversity of subjective truths and the "compelling" rhetoric of irresistible imperial power producing a single monolithic truth. But where I set up a binary, Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca seek a middle ground. Certainly, the two purposes need not be mutually exclusive, and can even blur together, as Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri point out in Empire: "Power, as it produces, organizes; as it organizes, it speaks and expresses itself as authority. Language, as it communicates, produces commodities but moreover creates subjectivities, puts them in relation, and orders them" (33). To my binary, Hardt and Negri have added a third element: the way in which language produces commodities.
Indeed, the linguistic production of commodities is perhaps the most significant difference between imperial Rome and our contemporary culture. Today, both the production and consumption of commodities have become informatized, especially with our access to digital technologies, and that informatization is often realized in language. Furthermore, the contemporary self-production of the subject places considerable reliance upon consumptive practices: you are what you buy. The self-production of the subject through consumption, and through informatized production, has taken on an economic component, just as rhetoric — including both the societal production of a heterogeneity of truths and the public self-production of subjectivities — has taken on an economic component.
5. Public Rhetoric Online
The rhetoric of weblogs and of the information age is, by definition, a networked rhetoric, and the information economy is of course a networked economy, a moving-target total of the trillions of transactions that constitute our everyday life. Hardt and Negri’s use of the terms "empire" and "imperial" refer to capital’s global response to the political and cultural movements of the 1960s and 1970s, wherein "imperial sovereignty [. . .] is organized not around one central conflict but rather through a flexible network of microconflicts. The contradictions of imperial society are elusive, proliferating, and nonlocalizable: the contradictions are everywhere. Rather than crisis, then, the concept that defines imperial sovereignty might be omni-crisis, or, as we prefer, corruption" (201). Corruption means that the entity sustains its falling-apart from the inside via these often rhetorical "microconflicts" which actually define the space and the enactment of imperial sovereignty. The enacted microconflicts of declamation, whether they be the rants and counter-rants of political weblogs or of the controversiae and suasoriae, constitute power itself.
Such microconflicts are quite common on the Web. With comments enabled, readers can talk back to and argue with the weblog author, and webloggers will often post their own entries — sometimes incendiary in tone — in response to entries on other weblogs. Also, however, coteries of like-minded webloggers have formed; people who share the same politics or interests, who link to one another and follow one anothers’ weblogs, often agreeing with or amplifying a sentiment to the point where weblogs have been called an "echo chamber". Still, even this agreement usually stands in opposition to another position. As George Packer notes, "The entries, sometimes updated hourly, are little spasms of assertion, usually too brief for an argument ever to stand a chance of developing layers of meaning or ramifying into qualification and complication. There’s a constant sense that someone (almost always the blogger) is winning and someone else is losing. Everything that happens in the blogosphere — every point, rebuttal, gloat, jeer, or ‘fisk’ (dismemberment of a piece of text with close analytical reading) — is a knockout punch" ("The Revolution"). The style is often supremely agonistic and high-flown, and many who read political weblogs may find Cato the Elder’s cry "Cartago delenda est" to be disturbingly familiar. When we take this agonistic and pointed style in conjunction with Packer’s assertion that "Blog prose is written in headline form to imitate informal speech, with short emphatic sentences and frequent use of boldface and italics" ("The Revolution"), the epigrammatic style of Seneca the Elder comes again to mind.
Which begs the question: are weblogs a form of declamation? Do weblogs possess some political power that Rome’s declaimers did not? After all, there is much popular talk about weblogs as the new democratization of discourse; as the place where the words of individuals can drive political change and counter despotism. Can they? Are weblogs really the equivalent of Ciceronian speeches with the ability to subvert Caesar’s power, or are they our own leisure-time controversiae and suasoriae, where even in earnest argument there is nothing at stake, since neither side will listen to the other, from Calpundit to Instapundit? Packer remarks that weblogs are "so easy to consume, and so endlessly available," and adds that "Their second-by-second proliferation means that far more is written than needs to be said about any one thing" ("The Revolution"), in much the same way that much more was spoken about escapes from pirates and twice-adopted sons than was ever necessary. Rhetoric, in imperial Rome, had dissipated: shorn of the political power it held for senatorial orators under the republic, under empire it became popular public entertainment or private and solipsistic paideia.
Tacitus believed that under empire, the words of individual men and women could make scant difference. An enjoyment of the rhetoric of Cicero could be seen as evidence of the romantic hope that the words of great women and men can, in fact, make a difference. In our post-Foucault
age of Empire, many are not fond of such perspectives. There is, however, a third way; the way of Hardt and Negri’s contention that today’s imperial "power has no actual and localizable terrain or center" and "is distributed in networks, through mobile and articulated systems of control" (384). Rhetoric, truth, and representation carry economic value and political power along these networks, on weblogs and in the writing classroom. Hardt and Negri write not of individuals, but of masses, and technorhetoricians today speak often of networks. Perhaps, then, we might hope for weblog rhetorics that seek the speed of networked rumor and the angry hubbub of the mob too large to resist or ignore.
Such would seem to be Packer’s perspective, who eases away from his suspicions to suggest that the distributed rhetoric of weblogging has "affected political reporting, by forcing Washington journalists accustomed to the caution of the mainstream to follow less traveled tributaries — for example, the examination of President Bush’s National Guard service was partly pushed along by evidence laid out for reporters by Calpundit" ("The Revolution") and other bloggers and commenters. Packer also cites Lawrence Lessig’s assertion that "When they write the account of the 2004 campaign, it will include at least one word that has never appeared in any presidential history: blog. Whether or not it elects the next president, the blog may be the first innovation from the Internet to make a real difference in election politics" ("The New Road").
Somewhere in the space between the empty and solipsistic asseverations of the multitude and the coerciveness of the language of imperium, we might perform that blurring described earlier: the blurring of language and power, of the arbitrary and the compelling, of subjectivity-production and suasive force. In Packer’s words, "Part of the mystique of blogs is their protean quality: They work both sides of the divide between politics and media, further blurring the already fuzzy distinctions between reporter, pundit, political operative, activist, and citizen" ("The Revolution").
At the end of the Dialogus, concerns about political power and stability and their influences on rhetoric become overt. Maternus notes that, under empire, "orators [. . .] have [. . .] succeeded in obtaining all the influence that it would be proper to allow them under settled, peaceable, and prosperous political conditions," whereas, in earlier days, "without the strong hand of a single ruler, a speaker’s political wisdom was measured by his power of carrying conviction to the unstable populace" (329). The instability of the political situation in Cicero’s time made it possible for oratory to be the sine qua non for those who desired positions of influence, and this led to the growth of oratory as a practice. Furthermore, according to Maternus, the magnitude of the great and terrible events of unstable times required oratory on a corresponding scale: but now, we have peace, and we respond to the small disturbances of peace in small and private ways. Finally, Maternus links morality to rhetoric in a manner radically different from that of Quintilian:
"The art which is the subject of our discourse is not a quiet and peacable art, or one that finds satisfaction in moral worth and good behavior: no, really great and famous oratory is a foster-child of licence, which foolish men called liberty, an associate of sedition, a goad for the unbridled populace. It owes no alliegance to any. Devoid of discipline, it is insulting, off-hand, and overbearing" (Dialogus 343).
The statement sums up the gloomy end to which the study of rhetoric has come, and perhaps the best possible reading available is an ironic one detailing the devastating effects wrought upon oratory by the destruction of political liberty.
I can offer no answer to the question of whether we ought to understand the rhetoric of weblogs as the dissipated contemporary equivalent to Seneca’s declamation. Hardt and Negri offer an appealing perspective on the networked distribution of rhetoric and power, and the power of the multitude — and yet, for two Marxists, their theories of networked power are little more than Adam Smith’s invisible hand made new. Tacitus offers a hard and cautionary counter to Quintilian’s starry-eyed ignorance of the effects of power on rhetoric — and yet, while the FBI has lately announced that they will serve as our delatores by monitoring weblogs, we do not yet live under a Domitian or a Nero.
The counter Tacitus offers to Quintilian should, however, speak to those who teach and study rhetoric. We might take from the work of James Berlin an understanding that the study of rhetoric for solely individualistic and educational purposes gives aid and comfort to tyranny. So also might we understand that rhetoric performs its work and holds its value in its public circulation. Even in the university, any understanding of the study of rhetoric must extend beyond the model Quintilian offers of merely educational self-fashioning. This might recommend to us that we begin to attempt to make students’ written rhetoric more public. There stands available to students and teachers a multitude of free weblogging services, and while I bear considerable suspicion for technology cheerleading, I believe that online public literacies can help students to exceed the boundaries of the classroom, and in so doing, open up the barest possibility that the public words of Hardt and Negri’s multitudes might stave off tyranny.
Rhetoric, to Tacitus, was a technology of power. Today, it remains to be seen how the distributed rhetoric of weblogs will shape political life and the exercise of power. Still, both circumstances indicate to writing teachers and rhetoricians that our deployments of these technologies are always political, and that we ought to give thought to the ways in which the technologies we choose shape in turn our societal expectations and values.
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