Revolution Lullabye

May 24, 2007

Notes from Writing Histories of Rhetoric

Filed under: Uncategorized — by revolutionlullabye @ 12:08 pm

These are just my own notes – probably not anything comprehensible to anyone else.

Schlib “Future Historiographies of Rhetoric and the Present Age of Anxiety”

Lists the anxieties of historians of rhetoric – “taxonomies, philosophies, canons, heritages, and disciplines” (135)


Histories of rhetoric that rely on negative critique have just as much “assurance” as traditional histories. “The ‘task,’ if anything, is to make lack of ‘assurance’ a constructive partner in our work” (138)


When we categorize, we begin to focus too much on the differences between the categories instead of the differences within the categories (129)


We like dividing things into three categories (129)



Rhetoricians have an obsession with establishing canons – “rhetoric encompasses a wide range of discourse: not only scholarly texts, but also the transactions of everyday life” – then why do we want to make a canon of classics? (131)


“One of deconstruction’s most illuminating moves is, in fact, to avoid simply reversing classic ethical dualisms and instead to question dualism itself” (132)


We should also be wary of drawing on the past (golden age thinking) when we want to revolutionize – battle cries, names invoked, etc. But why do we do that? Isn’t there something human about that? What if we didn’t do that?


What did students learn from the classics of rhetoric? What are we missing? (134)


Enos “Recovering the Lost Art”

Graduate students’ contributions are “often judged by how telling the criticism is; that is, the quality of a student’s performance is adjudicated by how well he or she can deconstruct the work of another rather than an orientation that encourages students to advance their own findings, to make their own contributions” (14)


“Much of our current work in the history of rhetoric is based on the idea of ‘close readings’ of works, confusing this act with the philological labor of textual criticism or the painstaking scholarship required to provide a careful translation. Analysis as ‘close readigns’ that presuppose the text to be the only source of knowledge has attractions. The work is facile, one does not need to go across the world seeking evidence, but only to slide one’s chair over to the book case and reach for a volume. Most scholars agree, however, that works are best understood when viewed not as isolated and autonomous events but as intertextual, that even discrete texts are part of a diachronic chain of being” (14)


Cool! Figure out the arguments of the British side of the Revolutionary War (16)


It is essential that we start to do historical research.


“All that is necessary for ignorance to prevail in our discipline is for historians of rhetoric to forget their primary job of doing history” (19)



How to enact all this rhetoric? Kellner provided an example, but pointed out that it was impossible to duplicate exactly – there is no method.





All history is hero-making – who is your hero?


Rhetoric breaks down the documents like parts of an atom.


History is a projection of the historian.


A good history of rhetoric contains the individual historian.


We learn most from a history that reflects an individual’s own ideals and perspectives; what matters is not the chronicle of the past displayed, but rather the interpretation of what is important, for human truth can be found in small circumstances.


Three ways of viewing history.


“All forms of historicization, and their number is legion, mythologize their subjects, either by showing how unnatural a discursive system is in order to transform it, as in the case of Marx, or to show how adequately it conforms to the ‘order of things,’ as with Ranke or John Quincy Adams” (Kellner 28).


“Still, we should not fail to note that, whatever its flaws, the victorious antirhetorical professionalism of the mid-nineteenth century historiography won out because it made it possible for scholars of very limited gifts to make usable (or, as historians like to say, ‘solid’) contributions to the enterprise. Rankean history was not all built by masters like Ranke. Nor were all Ciceronians geniuses like
Cicero. A program needs a method; charismatic sub/version, although it can be imitated, cannot be built upon” (Kellner 29).

What good is knowledge that cannot be built upon?

What is the aim of historiography? Can only a few people do it right? What does that do to multiple perspectives?


How historians read: “This mode of reading sees the text as a document, a piece of information in a mass of knowledge, a thread in a ‘strand of meaning’ that must be untangled, straightened out. To do this, the first step, almost inevitably, is to repress the textuality itself, to eliminate the rhetorical joker from the deck” (Kellner 31).

Rhetoricians must look into the context and how the text was made, not just what the text is about. Looking only at content is like having only one leg on a three-leg stool; atom analogy


“Rhetoric and reality, as everyone knows, are oil and water; rhetoric is precisely the existential projection of our inability to apprehend reality. If we had reality, if we could hold and share it, why would we need rhetoric at all? Or history?” (Kellner 36).


“Historiographical progress does not take place through the amassing and ordering of an ever-broadermass of information, or ever-more-refined theories of social or political development. Historical discourse progresses, if that is the right word, by producing classics, in all their individuality and, often, wrongness” (Kellner 34).

What makes a classic?


Berlin  “Revisionary Histories of Rhetoric”

Narratives outside of the traditional trajectory of the history of rhetoric: “Disruptions in this trajectory, of repeating the past while discovering the already prefigured new in it, are historical aberrations, temporary displacements. These are to be explained away as the products of failed cultures – the most frequently named being that of the Middle Ages and the nineteenth century” (112)


Berlin tries to resist making the heroes villains and the villains heroes when writing history (114)


“The mission of the revisionary historian of rhetoric I have in mind is to resist the notion of rhetoric as a unified, coherent, and univocal collection of texts stretching over time, texts that support either truth or virtue on the one hand, or error and vice on the other” (115).


Instead, we must locate the moment in history and investigate all the rhetorics that took place at that time – dominant and repressed.


Good historical study of rhetoric realizes that rhetorics are created in a specific historical/economic/social context, and “they reflect and, of equal importance, refract the conditions of their creation and functioning…They codify who can 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 decisions are made by the power structures in play.


The problem with the traditional history of rhetoric (Corbett, Kennedy): they present their history as if the “reader need look no further” (119) They are incomplete and the reader needs to know that.


The historian needs to “acknowledge the principles – primarily ideological in nature – that are to govern [his] interpretation” (121) It’s about the historian as much as the history. That’s how we decide what’s important, what to include, exclude, etc.


“I am arguing finally for a dialectic between past and present. Our conceptions of the present guide us in looking at the past, but in looking for our other we discover disruption in our conceptions so that past and present are simultaneously reconceived” (123) This process never ceases – it is always necessary, as the present changes, to reconceive the past.


History cannot be sweeping – it is only local, offering small local truths. “Postmodern turn” (124)


“Any investigation of human behavior must be historically specific in its methods and materials, never resting secure in any ahistorical, universal mode of thought” (127)


Berlin’s historiographic method: It “demands honesty of the historian, a candid acknowledgement of her ideological stance, her conception of perfect economic, social, and political arrangements, her vision of utopia. The historian is never simply writing an account of the past. She is also writing an account of the present and, of equal importance, a hope and vision of the future. In telling us what happened, the historian is telling us what ought to happen now and tomorrow” (127)

That’s what all historians are doing, though. Is
Berlin just arguing with the politics of the traditional historians, who probably disagree with his view of what’s important – now and in the past? What good is small, situated truths?



Atwill “Contingencies of Historical Representation”

“Histories do not simply provide windows on the past; rather, they perform signifying functions in the present” (109)


“Alternative histories of rhetoric will not be written until alternative subjects begin both to define the function of those histories and to alter the conditions in which they are produced…WE will only begin to redress the silences created by histories when we are willing to allow our own disciplinary idioms to be challenged” (110).


These histories will not and cannot be stable or give stability. They only rock the boat further.


She uses the disciplinary categories of semantics, pragmatics, and syntactic to describe three ways to write history. Semantic = traditional; Pragmatic = context-driven, Syntactic = language


Semantics focuses on the relationship between sign and referent (content)

Pragmatics focuses on the relationship between the text and its users (audience) – it is not objective

Syntactic focuses on the language being used by the addressor (ethos) and how that establishes authority. The subject changes constantly. Customization. Subversive. Individual.



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