Month: February 2005

On Booth 3

Another brief recap: after Wednesday night’s characterization of Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Rhetoric as focusing more on the content of the rhetoric and the motives (which, Booth repeatedly asserts, must be pure) of the rhetor than on the style of the rhetoric and the character of the rhetor, I spent Friday’s post exploring connections in Booth’s book to the Roman rhetor Quintilian, who characterized the ideal orator as “a good man speaking well,” and wondering why — though both Booth and Quintilian are deeply concerned with ethics in rhetoric — Booth focuses on action’s doing, while Quintilian focuses on character’s being. I see Booth’s focus on ethical motives and rhetorical content particularly clearly in his “commandment” that

It is ethically wrong to pursue or rely on or deliberately produce misunderstanding, while it is right to pursue understanding. To pursue deception creates non-communities in which winner-takes-all. To pursue mutual understanding creates communities in which everyone needs and deserves attention. (40)

But I think implicit in that quotation is an idea that one’s rhetorical style should ideally be absolutely pellucid, although I’m not entirely sure: I mean, it sounds like he’s saying, “Be as clear as possible,” which implies a sort of super-style that presents the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth — no?

Well, part of the difficulty is that I’m trying to separate style from content in the context of understanding. As anybody who’s ever hemmed and hawed when telling a lie knows, that’s difficult (if not impossible) to do. We need only consider recent presidential rhetoric (not just the Bush administration examples Booth relies upon, but Clinton’s “is”) for examples of this difficulty, but it’s one that exists throughout the history of rhetoric: Cicero, speaking of the Pro Cluentio, boasts that he threw dust in the jury’s eyes, and examination of the text demonstrates a stylistic reliance upon vagueness and insinuation coupled to a clearly deliberate bending of the facts. Neither one would be useful without the other.

One reason I bring up Cicero here is to begin making a point about rhetoric’s multiple audiences. Cicero began his career under the dictator Sulla and ended his career during the fall of the Republic and the beginnings of the principate, and his mature rhetorical theory is deeply concerned with how rhetoric ought to function and flourish for public purposes in a free state. The fascinatingly convoluted ethos he brings to bear in the Pro Ligario, given before the dictator Caesar (who, in a sense, was both plaintiff and judge) in the fallout following the the battle of Pharsalus, alerts us to the fact that the political conditions under which rhetoric is delivered do much to affect its style and content. Booth is certainly aware of this, in the examples he offers us of “Osip Mandelstam, in a Soviet prison, commanded to write a poem honoring Stalin” (54) and of George Mangakis (49), but his arguments seem to me to often constitute rhetoric as a two-party system: rhetor and (monolithic) audience. (Again, there are plenty of exceptions, as in his consideration of how the rhetoric surrounding Iraq played out with various national audiences.) But I’m thinking about how in Plato’s Philebus, the character Protarchus asserts, “I have often heard Gorgias constantly maintain that the art of persuasion surpasses all others for this, he said, makes all things subject to itself, not by force, but by their free will, and is by far the best of all arts.” Yes, it does that — but the free will, and the understanding Booth desires, go beyond its recipient. This is part of the reason, I think, that Booth is so worried about “rhetrickery” — but there seems to be a part of the equation missing. What if I convince an audience that a thing is dangerous, but my audience has a different reaction to danger than I do? What if my audience is willing to use force to make that thing subject to herself?

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My Mission in Life

I had dinner with a good friend tonight, and described my Father-Ong-as-Army-Chaplain dream to her and my thoughts on its likely provenance. Wayne Booth mentions Ong (83) as one of rhetoric’s “Major Rescuers,” and Ong’s spirit is certainly present throughout the text in Booth’s attention to the importance of audience in rhetoric. The other source, I think, was in some disturbing video footage from Iraq I came across this week: it definitely left an impression.

I related this to my friend, and — having seen the video footage, and knowing my abiding interest in the uses of rhetoric — she was quiet for a moment. “So what this dream is telling you,” she said, “is that, subconsciously, you’ve linked your life’s pursuit to tipping over outhouses.”


“And you’re OK with that.”


On Booth 2

Brief recap: earlier, I offered several contentions regarding Wayne Booth’s The Rhetoric of Rhetoric. First, Booth seems to me to be considerably more interested in the motives of the rhetor and the content of the rhetoric than in the character of the rhetor and the style of the rhetoric. Second, concerning motives, Booth feels very strongly that the rhetor have capital-g Good ethical reasons for using the rhetoric she chooses, and that said rhetoric be used in a capital-g Good way; the alternative to that use being what Booth calls “Rhetrickery: The whole range of shoddy, dishonest communicative arts producing misunderstanding — along with other harmful results” (11). For Booth, the ethics of rhetoric reside not in what you are but in what you do. Which makes it strange that Booth chooses a quotation from Quintilian — who famously borrowed the formulation of the ideal orator as “a good man speaking well” from Cato the Elder, and had a deep and abiding concern with the character of the rhetor — as an epigraph for the chapter in his book centrally concerned with ethics. (Acknowledgment: I admit it’s a little unfair of me to describe Booth as completely unconcerned with character, when he writes on page 99 of “The neglect of ethos, of character” — but I think the being/doing split is, for the most part, applicable.)

So: on to today’s topics. The second half of Booth’s definition of “Rhetrickery” — “The arts of making the worse seem the better cause” (11) — is familiar from Aristotle’s characterization of the rhetor Protagoras (and also from Aristophanes and Milton), and that fact, taken in conjunction with the aforementioned reference to Quintilian and the other references to Greek and Roman rhetoricians throughout Booth’s book, ought to indicate to us how much of a debt the book owes to antiquity. I know this is obvious to those of us in the field, but the book itself seems to be aimed at a lay audience, and besides which, I’m going to use that debt to antiquity as a foundation for what I say, as well.

I’m wondering if it’s possible that the Romans — especially Quintilian, but there’s a little of it in Cicero — were so concerned with the character of the rhetor because they’d seen (first in Sulla, and then in the Caesars) the perilous effects of concentrated power in a way that the Greeks, with their radical democracy, had seen very little of. (Consider that Demosthenes, a Greek whose rhetoric was deeply concerned with issues of character, was speaking directly about issues of power and domination.) Quintilian, who came to Rome in the entourage of the emperor who directly succeeded the scandalously depraved and brutal autocrat Nero, asserts that “Children have to be moral in order to be orators” and repeatedly re-emphasizes the importance of learning “not only what is eloquent, but, still more, what is morally good.” (I can’t find what I did with the cite for those two quotations, but I remember they’re early in the Insitutio, like within the first two books — anybody recall where?) Michael Winterbottom, in “Quintilian and the Vir Bonus” (Journal of Roman Studies 54 [1964]: 90-97) offers some possible reasons for Quintilian’s concerns with character in his discussion of Quintilian’s relationship to the delatores. The delatores were professional accusers who brought suit against other citizens for maiestas, or treason (the definition of which had been expanded, by Quintilian’s time, to include any talk against the emperor), and then stood to gain a significant portion of the estate of the accused, should the accused be convicted. (I’m thinking here of Booth’s consistent use of recent examples of “rhetrickery”, and the Swift Boat Veterans thing comes immediately to mind.) According to Winterbottom, “the outstanding fact about first-century oratory is that the only orators to achieve any prominence or influence by means of their oratory are the delatores” (90), and we see in relief Quintilian’s necessity for the moral orator in the characteristics Winterbottom describes as common to many of the delatores: “contempt for rhetorical rules, violence of language, increasing political influence, moral failings of the first order” (94). This was perhaps amplified by the problems brought about by rhetoric’s atrophy in the declamation rooms, whereby Quintilian had to work against the common conviction “that rhetoric was a mere knack, [. . .] a matter of ingenium schooled only by practice” (Winterbottom 96). Ultimately, in Winterbottom’s words, “Quintilian was [. . .] led to a moralistic view of the function of rhetoric by what he saw going on around him. He found himself disgusted by the way rhetoric was being misapplied” (96). Hence Quintilian’s focus on character, and his ideal of the rhetor as a morally good man, who speaks well so that he might better guide the state’s affairs.

Unfortunately, there are some problems with this.

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Army Dream

My Army dreams always only come when I’m feeling stressed. No exception, this one — only academia and the Army are starting to blur in really weird ways in my dreams.

Pretty simple, really: I was in the Army again, and we were in the desert, in Iraq. I had my woodland camo BDUs on, my rucksack, gas mask, M16, and I was driving my old 724 HQ6 humvee.

Mike the soldier in front of his humvee

And Walter Ong was the battalion chaplain, and I was driving him around looking for the footlocker full of bibles that had fallen off the back of the humvee, and he was being really kind.

Let me say that again:

Walter Ong was the battalion chaplain.

Moments like that, I look at my subconscious and ask: what the hell?

On Booth 1

What’s interested me most in reading The Rhetoric of Rhetoric (if you haven’t been following the discussion, it’s Wayne Booth’s popular-audience “manifesto” on the applications of rhetoric in contemporary mostly-American culture) has been in following which aspects of rhetoric Booth’s analysis seems to favor and which aspects of rhetoric his analysis seems to pass over. Of the five canons of rhetoric, Booth seems most interested in discussing invention (which he calls “discovery”) and — to a lesser extent — delivery, to the point where style and arrangement (not to mention memory) seem sorely neglected. Furthermore, Booth’s own typology — win-rhetoric, bargain-rhetoric, and listening-rhetoric — is all about motives, about the intent of someone who might use rhetoric for, as his sub-title suggests, “Effective Communication.” Rhetoric seems to be about what the rhetor wants, what the audience wants, and how the content (again: not the style) of what is communicated negotiates between the two, with one consideration to be placed above all others (Booth calls it a “commandment”):

It is ethically wrong to pursue or rely on or deliberately produce misunderstanding, while it is right to pursue understanding. To pursue deception creates non-communities in which winner-takes-all. To pursue mutual understanding creates communities in which everyone needs and deserves attention” (40).

The why — the motive — and the what — the content — are all-important here, to the apparent exclusion of the how and the who.

First, the how: the question of style. Is it not odd that in a book that so clearly owes a profound debt to classical rhetors, the attention to style is so scant? Cicero devoted two volumes, the Brutus and the Orator, to the canon, and Quintilian — well, let’s just say that Quintilian certainly doesn’t neglect the topic. But for Booth, style seems not worth discussing, and in fact, the above “commandment” seems to imply that the possibility of perfect communication might exist, or at least the possibility (necessity?) of a style entirely pellucid. In this, Booth seems to me to pass over a possible alternative view, the view expressed in the axiom that ars est celare artem (“true art is to conceal art”).

Second, the who: the question of character. While Booth is deeply concerned with the ethics of rhetoric — in fact, the book’s heart seems to me to be Chapter 3, “Judging Rhetoric,” which is all about moral evaluations — he’s much more concerned with rhetoric in action, and not so much with the character of rhetors as actors. This may strike some as hair-splitting, but I think both concerns — the how and the who — are deeply connected to the ways in which Booth sees rhetoric as functioning in the world. My scant experience of Booth — I read his seminal The Rhetoric of Fiction when I was just starting work on my MFA in fiction — tells me he’s a through-and-through rather Aristotelian (see comments), and that may be coloring my opinions some, since the emphasis on character in Book 2 of Aristotle’s Rhetoric is not on how the speaker is, but on how the speaker seems: for Aristotle, rhetoric is neutral, to be used for good or evil, and character is only as represented. In the Nicomachean Ethics, “the virtues are modes of choice or involve choice” (II.6), and exist in action rather than in being.

So here I want to argue: for Booth, the ethics of rhetoric exist in what you do, not in what you are. And this is important, because Booth makes some very strong value judgments about the various types of rhetoric he sees. But I also want to suggest, as Collin has, that some of Booth’s judgments are deeply connected to various contexts, and that there may be additional contexts beyond Booth’s perspective. I’d be a straight-out fool, however, to propose that Quintilian is beyond Booth’s perspective — yes, there are five cites in the back — which is why Booth’s apparent neglect of any concern over the rhetor’s character struck me as strange, especially when Chapter 3 (again, which I see as the heart of the book) begins with something close to the aphorism that Quintilian borrowed from Cato the Censor: namely, that the ideal orator is a vir bonus dicendi peritus, a “good man speaking well.”

I’ve got a way to go with this train of thought, so I’ll leave off here, for tonight, with a question: who is (and who isn’t) Booth’s ideal rhetor — and in what situation?

Unstable Rhetoric

I’ve got my little red Loeb editions left scattered all through the apartment. I’ve been scouring the Web for references by Pliny and by Cassius Dio to Domitius Afer. I’ve compared three different versions of Quintilian. And I still got nothin. But I’m getting there: I’m working on my response to Wayne Booth’s book — specifically to the intersection of ethics and rhetoric — for the rhetorical carnival at Collin’s place.

My angle, mostly, has to do with how rhetoric intersects with power and the production of individual subjectivity, and how rhetoric serves as a technology of the self and as a technology of alterity under political relations that offer varying degrees of individual freedom. I want to use Roman rhetors and rhetoricians to suggest that Booth’s subtitle “The Quest for Effective Communication” may unnecessarily limit the domain of rhetoric and also to suggest that a deeper understanding of the material and political contexts of Roman rhetoric might help us, today, to move beyond attempts to apply Quintilian’s bland feel-good pronouncements to our various pedagogies, and instead imagine a more diverse array of theoretical contexts for the enactment of a sophisticated and politically engaged rhetoric — one that might even go beyond some of Booth’s suggestions.

But I’m not there yet. Right now, all I got is a few dozen Post-It notes scattered through a bunch of books, and an observation from Shadi Bartsch’s brilliant Actors in the Audience that seems to me to apply extraordinarily well to the rhetoric of The Happy Tutor:

[T]he strategies that enable flattery to be used as blame render all praise ever more suspect, helping to create conditions of reception in which such eulogy becomes increasingly unstable, increasingly prone to be taken as its opposite by emperors and audience alike.

Desperadoes Under the Eaves

It’s a sad day: Hunter S. Thompson killed himself.

These successive MetaFilter comments sum up the emotional response better than I could:

With Cash, and now Thompson, gone — what’s the fucking point of being an American?

The list of living people I admire is growing smaller and smaller.

I don’t usually say, out loud, “Oh my God!”, but I did when I saw this. This is very, very sad.

Holy fucking fuck.

“And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—the place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

He’ll be missed.

UPDATE: More here and here. And from the 400+ comments of the MeFi thread:

CNN screen capture: Hunter Thompson carried off by giant bats

“Hunter Thompson was Deep Throat!”

One for the Happy Tutor

“Do we put our faith in eloquence? There’s no one these days who will give Cicero two hundred, unless there’s a huge ring flashing on his hand. […] Eloquence in thin rags is a rare phenomenon. […] So this is the advice I have for anyone who comes down from the grove of rhetoric to fight for the tiny fee which buys his cheap corn coupon (after all, that’s the most lavish reward he can expect). If he’ll follow my advice, he’ll take early retirement and enter a different path of life. Find out the fees that Chrysogonus and Pollio receive for teaching music to the sons of the wealthy and you’ll tear up Theodorus’ Handbook of Rhetoric.” From Juvenal, Satire 7.

Friday Cat Blogging

Tink and Zeugma are past the screaming freak-outs they were having a while back, which is an immense relief. Still, Tink’s very protective of her individual space, to the point where she’ll growl or hiss if she spots Zeugma creeping too close. And the word is, yes, ‘creeping,’ because Zeugma’s figured out — bless her poisonous little feline heart — she likes yanking Tink’s chain. So she’ll wait for Tink to get settled down in that prime early-morning sunbeam spot and then get hunkered down low to the ground a few yards from Tink and — in full view of Tink — start waggling her hind end like she’s fixing to pounce. And of course Tink will wail and hop up and go run and hide at the top of the cat tree, leaving the sunbeam spot for Zeugma.

Which isn’t to say that Tink’s a complete chicken. I was typing up some notes on Booth’s Rhetoric of Rhetoric last night, with Zeugma curled up near my chair, when Tink dashes into my office, cuffs Zeugma twice on the head, and dashes out.

And so yeah, all this has a point, said point being why I went into campus with one soggy foot today. The girls have figured out what time my alarm goes off in the morning, and Tink is usually quick to sit on my chest if I’m not out of bed fast enough, and I’m usually half-awake before it goes off anyway, listening to the morning business of the restaurant downstairs (now that Bob Edwards is gone, NPR’s Morning Edition ain’t got nothin on the six-o’clock smell of home fries), and listening to the girls on their morning apartment prowlings. This morning it was cat-tag, and before my alarm goes off, Zeugma comes tearing across the bed in hot pursuit of Tink, a quick circuit around the bedroom, and then Tink’s skidding across my chest in the other direction and taking a header off the nightstand. The nightstand atop which the glass of water I’d gone to bed with rested, and on the far side of which — knowing today would be a cold day — I’d placed my boots.

You got it. Glass and water, thirty inches and one hundred and eighty degrees into the right boot: nothin but net, sports fans. I don’t think she spilled a single drop on the carpet. Like, I had to search for it, I mean I knew there’d been a spill, but where was the glass? Right there, upside-down and intact, its base barely below the top of my boot. Which is why, for most of the morning, I was in a pissy mood, and making a squishing sound with every other step.

Feedback Requested

I’ve been tinkering with the layout some, trying to get that tall skinny graphic on the right side to line up flush with the top box; unfortunately, I’m bedeviled by the fact that all these browsers interpret the CSS box model differently. Basically, the top black area has some padding so that the left menu and middle body text don’t butt flush up against it, so I’ve tried to remedy that by giving the right box a negative top margin. Unfortunately, what this seems to mean so far is that in Safari, OmniWeb, and Konqueror-based browsers, a minus 12 pixel top margin gets the picture flush, and gets it with just a one-pixel line in Mozilla-type browsers. Unfortunately, it winds up looking like crap in Opera (which is really weird: is the rest of the browser industry wrong, or is the W3C’s Håkon Wium Lie wrong?), and even worse crap in Macintosh MSIE (which isn’t weird at all).

According to my site statistics, most of the pageviews I’m getting come from Mozilla-type browsers. So I’d like to ask you for feedback: how does the layout look now, in your browser, especially with how that right-side graphic lines up with the black top box? Much obliged, dear reader.