Revolution Lullabye

June 21, 2007

June 21 Response

Filed under: Uncategorized — by revolutionlullabye @ 3:04 am

Laura J. Davies

CCR 720: Agnew

Response for June 21


Aspasia excerpts from The Rhetorical Tradition, eds. Bizzell and Herzburg.


Gale, Xin Liu. “Historical Studies and Postmodernism: Rereading Aspasia of Miletus.” College English 62.3 (Jan. 2000) 361-386.


Glenn, Cheryl. Rhetoric Retold: Regendering the Tradition from Antiquity through the Renaissance. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP.


Glenn, Cheryl. “Truth, Lies, and Method: Revisiting Femninist Historiography.” College English 62.3 (Jan. 2000) 387-389.


Jarratt, Susan C. “Rhetoric and Feminism: Together Again.” College English 62.3 (Jan. 2000) 390-393.


Jarratt, Susan and Rory Ong. “Aspasia: Rhetoric, Gender, and Colonial Ideology.” In Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition. Ed. Andrea A. Lunsford. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh Press. 9-24.


            I was fascinated by the methodological debate between Gale, Glenn, and Jarratt that took place over thirty-two pages of the January 2000 issue of College English. This debate seemed to be the next chapter of the Octolog, as all participants were debating what counts as evidence, what is legitimate history, and what are acceptable methodologies for historians of rhetoric to use.

The historical character of Aspasia has been the focus on much recent feminist rhetorical history scholarship. There are no known texts of Aspasia’s that survive; what we know today about who she was is limited to mentions of her by other classical authors like Plato and Plutarch. Some feminist historians, namely Cheryl Glenn, Susan Jarratt, and Rory Ong, have worked to reintegrate Aspasia into the Western rhetorical canon, a project that challenges historiography because there is so little hard evidence to back up the claim that Aspasia was an important and influential person in the development of 5th century Athenian philosophy and rhetoric.

Xin Liu Gale, in her January 2000 College English article, argues that Glenn and Jarratt have gone to far in their recovery efforts of Aspasia. Glenn names her method both “postmodern and historiographical,” thereby emphasizing her own agenda and historical/rhetorical situation as the historian, giving her, according to Gale, leave to abandon traditional historical methods and imagine and create connections between the known facts and the unknown (365). The problem, Gale points out, is that Glenn has so little evidence to go on – a few passages from Plato’s Menexenus and cursory mentions in a couple other classical texts – that the celebratory story she creates for Aspasia (she was a central figure in 5th century Athenian philosophy and rhetoric, the composer of Pericles’ speeches, and a teacher of rhetoric to both Socrates and other women) is necessarily fictionalized (the facts are imagined and injected), but presented and defended as historical truth. You can’t have it both ways, Gale argues. A feminist historian cannot string together a few quotes and add her own imagined ideas, no matter how careful they are thought out, and call it true history, positioning Aspasia as a forgotten genius of rhetoric. Gale claims that Glenn just doesn’t have the evidence to back her retelling of Aspasia; it’s mere conjecture.

Gale also argues against Jarratt and Ong’s feminst/sophist methodology they use to recreate the history of Aspasia. That methodology is problematic, says Gale, because it is rooted in the postmodern belief that all is relative and that there is no truth, only small situational truths that suddenly appear and then disappear according to different contexts and historical/cultural situations. Without the ability to agree on some sort of truth, Gale argues, it is impossible to evaluate the validity of one methodology over another, leading to a breakdown in rigor in scholarship. It seems to Gale that Jarratt and Ong are reading their own perspectives and modern feminist agendas into Aspasia, using her at times as an historical construct created by classical authors like Plato to make a point about women or foreigners or sophists in general and, at other times, claiming her as an actual historical figure to prove such claims like she was Socrates’ teacher who taught him the inductive Socratic method. Again, Gale argues, you can’t have it both ways – your methodology must be consistent and your history must be based on facts, not fragments excerpted out of context to fit your preferred retelling of a story.

I think Gale is right – Glenn and Jarratt and Ong crossed a line in historical scholarship. They appropriated the scant textual evidence on Aspasia to a larger feminist agenda. It bothers me when scholars delve through the historical record to find a character that, if properly handled and packaged, will work to primarily further their modern arguments. Do we really need Aspasia? Can’t we believe that women, even in 5th century Athens, were smart? Can’t we acknowledge that it was a different reality 2400 years ago, and that it makes sense that women’s work was not recorded, for women did not have a place in the public sphere? It seems a little absurd for us to obscure that fact by digging around to try to find a woman like Aspasia to fill the hole that is necessarily there. It’s almost as if feminists are desperate for an Aspasia, an intelligent classical women, to legitimize women’s role in the rhetorical canon, and they will go far beyond traditional, evidence-based historical methodology to invent that character. Is this really necessary for the success of feminism?

Oh – interesting note – the Johnstone article opens up with that anecdote about Edmund Morris’ biography of Ronald Reagan, which was later exposed to be largely fictionalized. Morris was condemned by fellow historians for his blatant use of imagination to recreate the life of Reagan and his insertion of himself as a fictional character in Reagan’s life story. Have you read that biography? Are Glenn and Jarratt and Ong allowed to use their imagination to recreate the history of Aspasia because they are feminist historians (Gale’s question on whether or not just stating that they are feminist/postmodern historians gives them leave to fictionalize where there are holes in the evidence), and Morris is not, because he is a traditional historian writing about traditional things, like presidents? Double standard?

   Notes for June 20, 2007 

Aspasia excerpts from The Rhetorical Tradition, eds. Bizzell and Herzburg.

 Gale, Xin Liu. “Historical Studies and Postmodernism: Rereading Aspasia of Miletus.” College English 62.3 (Jan. 2000) 361-386. 

“I believe that feminists’ reconstruction of alternative rhetorical histories has brought to the fore important and interesting questions concerning truth and method, the role of interpretation, the definition of history and historiography, and the influences of postmodern theory on historical research.” (361)


“I wish to help develop a sensitivity to the complexities of writing alternative histories in the institutional context and, meanwhile, provoke and challenge feminists to search for more productive, more coherent, and more convincing ways of reconstructing women’s rhetorical histories in the male-dominant academy” (362).


“It is a paradox that feminist historians have to find a way around: they have to challenge the traditional masculine assumptions about women and women’s ways of thinking and writing and at the same time seek their colleagues’ acceptance of the legitimacy and credibility of their research and scholarship” (363).


In the process of writing Aspasia into the rhetorical canon, feminist historians “have to address a series of questions concerning truth and evidence, interpretation and representation, and other theoretical and methodological issues in their historical studies of the Miletian/Athenian woman. In doing so, feminist historians make these questions the subjects of inquiry in their own right” (363).


Gale is looking at Glenn’s, Jarratt & Ong’s, and Henry’s treatment of Aspasia. They all try to resurrect Aspasia from the scant mentions she has in historical texts to an accomplished rhetorician and philosopher who had tremendous influence in 5th century Athens.


Glenn’s celebratory retelling of Aspasia’s story, as a women whose status as a mistress and a foreigner allowed her to transcend the traditional male/female roles in Athenian society, is what Richard Rorty calls “Geistegeschichte” – an imaginative construction for a contemporary purpose. “Read as a feminist tale of a talented woman whose intellectual and political accomplishments were erased from male history, Glenn’s Aspasia story is exhilarating and inspiring, for, after all, according to Rorty, one of the best things about contemporary feminism and about feminist writing is its abandonment of notions of objectivity and reality” (364).


Glenn’s history is “postmodern and historiographical” which emphasizes the historian’s own agenda and situation, allows the historian to abandon traditional historical methods, and imagine and create connections between the known facts and the unknown (365).


“[Glenn] aims at establishing a series of historical truths about Aspasia’s accomplishments and, by moving the focus away from the Athenian woman’s identiy, Glenn attempts to establish what Aspasia ‘really’ was in history as opposed to her (unfair) portrayal by men. But this concern with historical reality brings Glenn’s historiography closer to traditional historical studies than to the kind of history writing that Rorty describes” (366). Glenn uses modern and historical sources to try to prove her telling of Aspasia, when it’s apparent that there is no true history about her. But is the evidence Glenn presents valid enough to support her claims about Aspasia?


“Should we eschew the traditional concern about validity, reliability, and adequateness of historical sources when we purposefully turn away from the traditional way of doing history? Does the postmodern view of history and of doing history necessarily entail an abandonment of the traditional concern for truth and evidence?” (366) Can you read history through your lens if you’re a feminist – does that give you a right to do that?


“while Glenn’s allegiance to postmodernist and feminist theories and methodologies is articulately announced, her Aspasia stories nonetheless reveal a deep contradiction in thinking: on the one hand, we are asked to accept the postmodern belief that we are never able to obtain objective truth in history; on the other hand, we are asked to consider the reconceived story of Aspasia as a ‘truer’ reality of women in history, a rediscovery of the obliterated ‘truth’ independent of the existing historical discourse of men” (366).


The retelling of Aspasia is neither complex nor problemitized – she is a female hero. The male/female hero/despised is just reversed.


Plutarch called Aspasia’s school a school for young courtesans – Glenn called it “an academy for young women of good families” (167). Glenn is taking fragments out of historical texts with no regard to their context and twisting them to suit her own agenda.


It’s not very valid to take random mentions of Aspasia, written hundreds of years apart from each other and for different purposes, times, and by different authors, and throw them together without a careful examination of these competing rhetorical situations and use them to paint a rosy coherent picture of Aspasia.


“Those who have read Donald Kagan’s study of Pericles’ life and learned about his philosophical training and political convictions would likely demand more than three brief quotes to convince them that Aspasia wrote Pericles’ speeches and influenced his political policies” (168).


Gale’s point: “Had the story of Aspasia been written as a feminist fiction, we would not have to take truth-claims in the story seriously. But if the truth-claims are presented as historically true, we inevitably require that these truths be supported with adequate and validated historical evidence, even when we are postmodernists. When a historian intends for a semifictional work to be read as less distorted history that reflects a truer historical reality, he or she undermines the validity of the argument” (368).


Without a willingness to agree on the existence of truth, we cannot debate or evaluate research methodologies – postmodernism cripples us. (369)


“The assumption that because the story of Aspasia benefits women it is necessarily good is actually a rhetorical strategy that should be viewed with skepticism” (371). It’s not enough that Aspasia is a women’s interest (like section C of the newspaper) – Aspasia needs to be valuable to the communities of history, philosophy, rhetoric, classics, feminism, and gender studies.


“We need to resist rather than allow partisan or community interests to dictate our research method and research outcome” (371).


We can’t get away with privileging our own agendas and views by just stating that we are feminists or some other group – to do so would mean becoming just as narrow-minded as the male traditional historians the feminists claim they are countering.


Jarratt and Ong do acknowledge that all cannot be known when it comes to classical rhetoric, and Aspasia or others might have influenced the creation of the Socrates method – do not hold her up as the one and only, but “their study depends so heavily on interpretation and speculation, with a preoccupation for their feminist goals, that it accentuates the question of the roles that interpretation and speculation play in writing history” (373).


Jarratt and Ong use the same Plato passage from Menexenus to show that Aspasia was a construct created by Plato to poke fun at people who are ignorant enough to listen to sophist outsiders instead of “true” rhetoric AND to prove Aspasia is a historical reality who was Socrates’ teacher. (373)


Can a “satirical text with fictitious scenes” be treated “as historical evidence?” (373).


Jarratt “is intent on writing women into the history of rhetoric for the purpose of exposing male oppression and exclusion in order to liberate and empower women” (375).


“Jarratt advocates changing the genre of history to accommodate ‘literary’ or ‘mythic’ quality” (376). Her feminist/sophistic historiography rejects any grand narrative or Truth – she believes only in the situated truths of particular times and circumstances.


Jarratt is equating women with the sophists – they both are outsiders, marginalized. Her new history is still exclusionary – it excludes men and does not allow for moments when women can be in power and men can be marginalized. (377)


Good questions: “Should a feminist historian consider acceptable only women’s texts that reflect only the feminine traits, female syntactic structures, and other characteristics attributed to owmen by men? Should a feminist rhetorical history include women rhetoricians who wrote in the mainstream rhetorical tradition and whose works reflect the male rhetorical traints and dominant ideology?” (377).


Henry, according to Gale, does it right – she traces how Aspasia has been taken up through history, starting with the classical texts and Heloise in the 1100s. She has “written a social history of an ancient woman who has fascinated literary artists, historians, philosophers, pornographers, women, and men alike for centuries” by combining feminist scholarship with traditional historical methods. Henry’s “meticulous treatment of historical sources is the main reason for the success of her Aspasia study” by tracing how Aspasia has been constructed over time (379).


Henry bases her argument on Aspasia on the “examination of the histories, fictions, art pieces, and scholarly works in the seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries.” Her argument is that “nearly all the later works are amplifications and exaggerations of the characteristics identified in Aspasia’s bios in the first centuries” – that as the years go on, authors add their own spins to who Aspasia was to further what they want to be (380).


Henry: “When we need Aspasia to be a chaste muse and teacher, she is there; when we need a grand horizontal, she is there; when we need a protofeminist, she is there also” (qtd in 381).

 Glenn, Cheryl. “Truth, Lies, and Method: Revisiting Femninist Historiography.” College English 62.3 (Jan. 2000) 387-389. 

Glenn charges that Gale is setting up a binary – credible truth on one hand and feminist/fictional subjectivity on the other.


“Every history writer faces this missing link. Thus, the text of history writing initiates a play between the object under study and the discourse performing the analysis. And even the most conscientious, ‘traditional’ (however that word resonates), and conservative history writer plays this game” (388). Paraphrases White – history is narrative-making, representation, interpretation.


Histories are active: “they fulfill our needs at a particular time and place…they never and have never reflected a neutral reality. In choosing what to show, how to represent it, and whom to spotlight, all these maps subtly shape our perceptions of a rhetoric englobed” (388).


History should not ask what is true or false but rather questions of knowledge, ethics, and power (389).


These new histories won’t always be understood or welcomed (389).

  Jarratt, Susan C. “Rhetoric and Feminism: Together Again.” College English 62.3 (Jan. 2000) 390-393. 

Says Gale misquoted her and skewed what she said. Why begin with a petty thing like that instead of offer a counter to how Gale says history should be done? Why not show why your history is good?



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