Laura J. Davies
May 23, 2007
CCR 720 – Agnew
Short Paper 1
In his chapter, “After the Fall,” in the collection Writing Histories of Rhetoric, Hans Kellner maps out what he sees as the three paths a historian might take in writing history. Through his discussion, he argues what a history of rhetoric might look like, but whether or not that vision is possible (or repeatable or teachable through a method) is debatable; history writing is rhetorical, and therefore context-specific and shaped by the constraints of purpose and audience. The first type of historian is the traditional one, who approaches the past with reverence and attempts to fit together textual evidence like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. The completed puzzle is a finished, comprehensible picture that tells a contained story of the past. This historian seems primarily concerned with his audience, as his aim is to create a narrative that can be understood. The first historian trusts his ability to translate the reality of the past through language. The second type of historian, on the other hand, approaches the reality of the past more hesitantly and critically. She sees the sources used by the first historian as markers for the untold stories, much like the tops of glaciers signal a much vaster, more complex structure beneath the waterline. This second historian is interested in recovering the repressed histories of the people who are not represented in the first historian’s chronicle. This historian is driven by her present purpose, and her ideological agenda shapes her reading of the past – what she looks to include in her history, what she ignores, and what she celebrates. However, even though the second historian might see herself in direct opposition to the second historian, Kellner points out that “all forms of historicization, and their number is legion, mythologize their subjects” (28). The cultural critic, in writing a history, does participate in hero-making just as much as the traditional historian; the difference is only who those heroes are and whether we now in the present designate them the winners or losers in history.
The third type of historian, who Kellner likens to Victor Vitanza, is a rarity: it is an academic who sheds the stiff and serious academic style and instead finds truth through playing with language in a subversive discourse. This history, unlike the first two, relies almost completely on the individual historian and focuses on how language of the sources tells a story not contained in the overarching narrative of the history. It is a performance, whether it is written or proclaimed, and therefore, is not repeatable. It is like a play: the actors in the theater create meaning with each other and with the audience, but after the two-hour show, the magic in that space that led to profound meaning-making disappears. The truths that were understood in that dark theater cannot be captured in a bottle; what happened was an experience that cannot be repeated, only recalled by those who were there. The heights of what can be known through this third type of history cannot be reached by the other two historians, but because it is so unique and specific to the performer (the historian), a method cannot be made from it. And that is why, according to Kellner, “the victorious antirhetorical professionalism of the mid-nineteenth century won out because it made possible for scholars of very limited gifts to make usable (or, as historians like to say, ‘solid’) contributions to the enterprise…A program needs a method; charismatic sub/version, although it can be imitated, cannot be built upon” (Kellner 29).
Kellner goes on to celebrate Erich Auerbach’s Mimesis, which contains a chapter that discusses the history of the Dark Ages through a reading of Gregory of Tours’ History of the Franks, as an example of this third type of history. Auerbach was not just interested in what was happening in those chaotic times; he paid attention to how Gregory made meaning of that world – how Gregory used rhetoric to build a reality for himself and for his audience. Gregory’s prose showed, according to Kellner, “in its diction and syntax [his] struggle between the old and the new social worlds” (33). By focusing on the words and the construction of his history (on not just what he wrote about, but how he wrote it), Auerbach breaks through the barrier of evidence that holds back the first and second historian from seeing the depths that their sources contain. It is as if the first and second historians see the text as the lowest common denominator of evidence, like scientists who believed that matter could only be deconstructed to the point of the individual atom. The third historian is like Niels Bohr, who showed that the atom could be further dismantled into a dense nucleus circulated by tiny electrons. The third historian breaks down the text and sees it not as straight evidence, to be linked with other texts to form a chain of meaning, but rather as a history in itself, to be analyzed and understood rhetorically. For texts are not objective; they are shaped and formed purposefully by their authors, and contain worlds within their words.
But can historians of rhetoric take Auerbach’s history as a model? Or should they strive to fashion themselves as clones of Vitanza? This road, though it might seem logical, is illogical for future third historians. Only Auerbach can read Gregory as he does; only Vitanza can write as he does. Instead of looking at their words in the hopes of deducing a method to repeat their genius, historians of rhetoric should, in the spirit of the third historian, look to “read crookedly,” as Kellner says. Kellner doesn’t want an all-encomopassing history of rhetoric, whether in the traditional or in the critical model. He sees the future of the history of rhetoric as a collection of spectacular, individual contributions that see truth not in wide expanses of the past but instead, in small, perhaps seemingly unimportant or mundane, but completely human moments. 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.