Revolution Lullabye

May 24, 2007

May 24th Response

Filed under: Uncategorized — by revolutionlullabye @ 12:07 pm

            All the readings for today were from Victor Vitanza’s 1994 collection, Writing Histories of Rhetoric. As a whole, they were attempting to determine what a history of rhetoric is – what it looks like and what methodologies could be used to write it. Writing a history of rhetoric is more complicated than writing a “straight” history, the authors argue. It requires balancing multiple perspectives and voices from the past and paying attention to how language is used in the writing of a history.

Berlin, in his chapter, “Revisionary Histories of Rhetoric,” points out the importance of writing histories outside the traditional trajectory pursued in the history of rhetoric. This does not mean to just reverse the binaries of hero/villain; that is, to elevate the “losers” of history and turn them into the “winners” by focusing attention on them and vice versa. Rather, he argues that we must break down these binaries and instead of seeking a “unified, coherent, and univocal collection of texts stretching over time,” we must locate the moment in history and investigate all the rhetorics that took place at that time. Rhetoric is dependent on context, Berlin claims, and therefore good histories of rhetoric take into account the social/economic/cultural/historical circumstances of the past and reflect and “codify who and cannot speak…what can and cannot be said…who can and cannot listen and act…and the very nature of the language to be used” (116). These aspects of the past should be present in the history, for they reflect the power structures in play at the time. Since history-making is so contextual,
Berlin argues that it can never be all-encompassing or universal – a history can only attempt to explain a small, local truth. Histories that try to do more are ahistorical. However, it seems to be a human desire to have these universal truths and narratives that explain large concepts. If it is an innate desire to have coherence and understanding, does it make sense to write our histories with such disjuncture and interruption? How are these histories interpreted? Do they satisfy their audiences? What is repeatable – or to be learned – in situated truths?

            Schlib, in “Future Historiographies of Rhetoric and the Present Age of Anxiety,” picks up on the same thread as
Berlin when he argues that the “’task’ [of the writing of the history of rhetoric], if anything, is to make lack of ‘assurance’ a constructive partner in our work” (138). Schilib points out that negative critique, a popular tool of analysis taught in graduate schools and employed by current historians of rhetoric (as argued by Enos in his chapter), can be just as dogmatic and all-encompassing as “golden age” histories of rhetoric. Thus, we need a new methodology – we can’t just turn the hero narrative of Aristotle/Plato/Cicero upside down and transform it into another hero narrative of the Sophists and the other ignored figures throughout the history of rhetoric. Our methodologies must “question dualism itself” (132). Schlib wants to avoid all golden age thinking because it lends itself to supporting binaries in history, but again, it seems to be an innate human desire to create and revere heroes. Schlib mentions that during every revolution, the revolutionaries, right before they destroy their present world, which was built on a foundation of the past, turn to the past as inspiration, using slogans and names that reflect the traditional heroes of history. It’s a curious move to be sure, but I don’t think we should dismiss it as elementary or wrong – if it does occur, which it does, it must happen for a reason that shouldn’t be immediately critiqued and thrown out. Is there truth in common history? Is there a hope in universal understanding that doesn’t appear in small, situated, and individual truths?


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