Intro to histories of rhetoric: readings

Predictably enough, I approached the six readings for 5/24 in the order they were listed in the syllabus. As I was reading each piece, I kept wondering how the ordering of these texts would influence my initial understandings of rhetoric’s history — how they would add up to my initial metahistory – especially since I know next to nothing about classical rhetoric or historiography. And now that I’m done with the set, there’s no doubt that a rereading of all would shift my “horizon of expectation” (to borrow from Jauss). As I reflected on each piece, it seemed a bit strange to me that the first four readings – Kellner, Atwill, Berlin, and Schlib – seemed less accessible than Enos and White. But after finishing White, I think I’m starting to understand why.

In White’s 1978 seminal essay, he argues that histories are “verbal fictions” that use a process he calls “emplotment” to string together stories from individual facts (that I assume are less contestable or at least already subsumed into the collective consciousness of the culture to which it speaks). These stories (or “chronicles”) conform, however, to “specific kinds of plot structures,” akin to archetypes through the use of narrative tropes – metaphor, irony, metonymy, and synecdoche – in order to refamiliarize history for its readers so that they might understand traumatic events and, in turn, “make sense of [their] own life-histories.”

[If I can accurately relate this to my own experience with these readings, it would mean that since I did not have a strong history (narrative) from which to build (to refamiliarize), it would make sense why I would be frustrated by these other theorists. Without some device (call it schema, metonymy, etc.) to recall some kind of history, it’s awfully difficult to incorporate it into your own perspective. OR maybe that’s what makes the others strong – they avoid narrative through theory and therefore rewrite history through that genre? I don’t know…]

While it seems that although Enos and White are both dissatisfied with the quality of contemporary historical scholarship, they disagree on the reasons. Whereas White argues that it is not literary enough, Enos believes that it’s too literary, basing most its data on secondary texts. According to Enos scholars should be more concerned with basic/primary research – archival and field work, translations, actual digs in Greece, etc. – rather than “eliciting a reaction to secondary sources.” While Enos makes it clear that he’s not against criticism, he’s concerned about those texts working “independently from basic research and existing as ends in themselves.” At stake, he believes, is the history of rhetoric, which is dramatically captured in the last few lines of his article. Of course, the problem with the argument is one of traditional definitions – an issue indirectly called out by the texts five years earlier (I think?) in Writing Histories of Rhetorics. Specifically, what does “history” and “rhetoric” even mean? (Sigh.)

The weakness with Enos, however, is also his strength. And what I found strong (and personally relieving) about both the White and Enos texts is that they were more accessible because they offered an explicit methodology on how to approach histories. Though their ideas seemed incompatible, I at least felt that if I were to undertake a research project under their supervision, they’d tell me what I’d need to do. On the other hand, with Kellner, Atwill, Berlin, and Schlib, I felt lost in the postmodern slipperiness. Anyway, here’s a quick breakdown of those:

Kellner raises essential questions about the difference between history and rhetoric, admitting both terms “exhibit an endlessly bewildering double nature.” He goes on to argue that the textbook in which his article is being anthologized – and the textbook for many of these texts (Writing Histories of Rhetorics) – is actually “a struggle for power over the discourse.” He then characterizes some of the authors and the editor through a parable centered on a mother’s death. In the end, however, his point is to privilege rhetoric since its tradition is the “strand of meaning” formed by the historian. As he says in the last paragraph, “you are rhetoricians first.”

Berlin seems to agree with Kellner’s view when he argues, “the formulation of rhetoric is a product of the economic, social, and political conditions of a specific historical moment” and therefore histories will change as rhetorics change. Rhetoric is never unified and that we always already have a plurality of rhetorics. Berlin then offers a vague historiographic method that challenges all totalistic, grand historical narratives that builds off of Lyotard. I had trouble figuring out how his call for self-reflection would be used.

Both Atwill and Schilb take a more taxonomic approach to the history of rhetoric. Atwill uses Lyotard and Barbara Smith to sketch what she sees as three genres of history writing: semantic, pragmatic, and syntactic. Her purpose is to generate more terms that will help explain the “signifying functions” of history that take place in the present. Schilb, on the other hand, categorizes different anxieties historians face whenever they are charged to write a history of rhetoric. Each of the five anxieties evoked – taxomania (ironically?), espistemologia, canonia, Brumairism, and heterophobia – “reduces the complexity … we should pursue” as historiographers and we should, therefore, call them out.