Sophists for the New Millenium Part 2

Ethical rhetoric respects people’s basic intelligence, powers of deduction and induction, imagination and ability to feel. It works with all these things. “Rhetrickery,” as Wayne Booth coined it, manipulates these things, banking on people’s vanity, pride and lack of critical thought. And, above all, it takes advantage of identification on the basis of absolutist beliefs – the shibboleth of the sophists. Evangelicals have risen as a political force over the past few decades for this very reason. They are easy to galvanize politically on the basis of specific, absolutist beliefs.

Identification, a speaker’s indication of a common ground with an audience, is important in all rhetoric. Identification contributes to ethos, a speaker’s trustworthiness. But rhetrickery goes further. It flatters its audiences for who they are and will even create a straw man doubter as a shared enemy against which the speaker and the audience may align. Flattery is made on the basis of audience characteristics and absolutist beliefs: “I look out here and I see people who believe in standing up for our country no matter what. [Patriotism = unwavering allegiance to one’s nation, its leaders and symbols] You aren’t fools. You know what’s going on. People who punch a time clock every day are hard workers who know the value of a dollar [Belief: Wage labor is VIRTUOUS]. But the liberal politicians out in Washington think you’re stupid [Inculcation of enemy]. They think they can trick you into giving up your hard-earned money. Will you be tricked?” Rhetrickery is especially pernicious as it blames others for doing what it’s doing, suggesting not only its own comparitive innocence but people’s need for a hero (ahem, the speaker) to fight the “bad” guys who are trying to trick them, hurt them, use them. Trump’s drumbeat allegation of “fake news” is a perfect example.

Why do I say we need sophistry now? In part because the sophist helps blow the screens off of simplistic rhetrickery. To simply take the ethical high ground in response to rhetrickery unfortunately doesn’t work. The people who have been flattered and taken in by the rhetricker just see this as further evidence of the other side’s elitism and lack of faith or interest in them. What’s needed is ethical rhetoric that engages and legitimately respects ALL people’s basic intelligence, powers of deduction and induction, imagination and ability to feel while challenging absolutist beliefs.

Americans are stuck in a rhetorically constructed false-binary world and we need sophistry to help break us out. The premise of the Dissoi Logoi, one of the earliest sophist texts, is that any rhetor should be able to offer arguments on a given issue from two sides. American voters’ rhetorical training has grown so weak that we no longer appreciate this ability and instead confuse “consistency” of message with strength instead of considering the ability to see and articulate multiple sides of an argument as a sign of strength. Sophists understood arguments as highly situational. Something can be true or right in a given context, but there are no absolute truths. As a nation, we have veered in the post 9/11 years toward demanding absolute truths, absolute right-ness which also makes us easier to manipulate. When you follow a set of “absolute truths,” you identify with those beliefs. You are thereby made vulnerable to flattery on the basis of those beliefs: people telling you YOUR beliefs are the RIGHT beliefs and you are a GOOD person, the RIGHT kind of person because you have them. Both political parties are guilty of this. And it’s a wonder Americans haven’t stopped to recognize how un-American this is.

A good way of assessing a given rhetor is to ask, “Is this person buying identification by flattering me or a target group? Is this person setting up a straw man enemy to deflect their own questionable ethics? Is this person showing the ability to understand and explain counterarguments? Is this person making an argument based on the relevant situation or are they basing their argument on absolute truths and flattering me/us in the process?” Sophists didn’t play the belief-flattery game and you’d think in the sophisticated, information-saturated, complexity-appreciating 21st century we wouldn’t either. You’d think that, but we’re currently held prisoner by someone who has played that game to great success. So, again, I call out for the sophists of the new millennium, the ones brave enough to shake off the hobgoblins of consistency, to be bold and to appeal to the intelligence inherent in the human mind, to be brave enough to live in 2018 as it is, not as we fantasize nor fear it to be. For inspiration, from the opening of Dissoi Logoi:

On the matter of what is good and what is bad, contrasting arguments are put forward in Greece by educated people: some say that what is good and what is bad are two different things, others that they are the same thing, and that the same thing is good for some but bad for others, or at one time good and at another time bad for the same person. For myself, I side with the latter group, and I shall examine the view by reference to human life, with its concern for food and drink and sex. For these things are bad for those who are sick, but good for the person who is healthy and needs them. Or again, lack of restraint in these matters is bad for those who lack restraint, but good for those who sell these commodities and make money out of them. And illness is bad for the sick but good for the doctors. And death is bad for those who die, but good for the undertakers and the grave-diggers.


Sophists for the New Millenium

As much as we try to conflate style of rhetoric with ethics, we cannot. As much as we would like to paste captions to every political utterance that label it true or false, and thus expose the “liars” and neutralize them, we cannot. Today’s political climate is not the result of the devolution of language so much as it is the result of a mass vacancy of people motivated to engage rhetorically. There is no reason why those with strong ethics cannot enter the sweaty halls of public discourse, nasty as the talk may be. They can and should; but they’re intimidated. Calls for civility have marked the panic of well-spoken liberals, especially academics. A hope that we could return civility to public discourse (and kick out the bad boys and girls) has motivated many well-meaning scholars and political figures (“When they go low, we go high.”) But I think that effort may be in vain.

So much comes down to courage. Trump has it. Civility and fact-checking are not going to take him down. We need sophistry now. We need someone who wants not to be more pure, more correct or to shine in the light of moral superiority, but who wants to get into it, the good, bad and the ugly. Contrary to Socrates, Plato and so many subsequent critics, the sophist is not without ethics. The sophist may flout social conventions, but for a purpose. The sophist is a trickster-enlightener. The sophist can be the rhetorical David fighting Goliath. As Susan Jarrat writes, the original sophists were disruptors who had the courage and skill to disrupt well-accepted narratives. Jarratt writes in Rereading the Sophists, “Each sophistic discourse disrupts a stable historical narrative” (16).

The sophists introduced rhetorical tools for challenging the truisms of a given society at a given time. Jarratt writes, “The sophists employed a verbal techne instrumental in effecting that critical, revisionary turn: antithesis. The stylistic device of setting in sequence opposing grammatical and lexical structures can operate at a deeper level of narrative construction and causal linkage as an instrument of rhetorical historical practice” (21). She goes on to explain that antithesis “is not a spurious trick for clouding the minds of the listeners but rather works to awaken in them an awareness of the multiplicity of possible truths” (22).

In the latest Pixar pic, the Incredibles 2, the happy ending hinges on Mr. Incredible’s ability to turn the rudder of a giant ship set to crash into a major city. I think America is at a similar moment. We are racing toward a crash and we must turn the rudder. One hope for doing that is shifting the intractable, conflicting truisms of both the left and the right. To do so, we need to see our story anew. We need sophists for the new millenium…. (to be continued)

Cherries in the Snow


Three cherries in the snow. That’s all I needed. On Thursday, I had had a big deadline for a fellowship application I was anxious about getting in. I had done many drafts and revisions, then locked myself out of my house the morning it was due. Sleep deprivation-addled from 6 months of night feedings with my second child, I was kind of hanging by a thread and it finally broke. By good luck, the former owners who live in town still had keys that worked in the back office door and I got in a couple hours later. I got the application carefully groomed and submitted before I had to pick kids up from daycare.

The next day, I decided, would have to be better. It was cold with a biting windchill, but beautiful with fresh snow limning all the branches in forest-y Eastern Connecticut. I walked campus with a heavy backpack that I made heavier when I picked up three books at the library. As I trudged across campus, I wrote myself a little poem:

Bag so heavy

Tail so bruised

I limp across the earth

Like any other animal

A self-tribute to persistence with some strong martyr undertones. The journey to the parking lot seemed so long between the weight of the bag, my (3-weeks) broken tailbone and the merciless windchill. Trudge trudge. But as I made the passage from the employee to the student section of the parking lot, I saw three maraschino cherries in the fresh snow. “Jackpot,” I thought, “That means jackpot!” I smiled and tried to take a picture but my phone died at that exact moment.

Sometimes private, unexpected encounters coax us on with allusions to victory, and whether they be augurs or mirages, they lift us up when we need it. Six more weeks of winter.

Creativity and Receptivity

Waiting collage
From top left, clockwise, 40 weeks and a day pregnant, my stomach, mid-contraction, a baby bird found on a walk on my due date, hanging out with my two-year-old, wild raspberry and cherry jello mold made to satisfy my fruit craving (and pass the time).

I’ve always been a creative person. At times, furiously so. As an elementary age child, I wrote songs, stories and poems constantly, revising my favorite ones, sometimes for years, in my mind. As a teenage person, I continued to write poetry, but also began acting, using my body and emotions as a creative channel. In college, I began to direct and write plays, expanding my toolkit to the whole theatrical realm: scripts, actors and design. It was exciting and challenging. As an adult in my late twenties and thirties, I continued to do theater and specifically pursued playwriting and producing. I was always swinging between the pendulum of imagining something and bringing it to life. I hated the idea of my words only living on the page, I wanted to see them spoken, I wanted to see them heard. In my thirties, I began working with other playwrights and helping them realize their work. Recently, I began seeking ways to merge that work with community writing work toward supporting a diverse culture and positive collective action at the community level.

A month ago, I produced an evening of monologues about food by community writers in Willimantic, CT. I had coordinated the project from its inception to the process of writing the monologues to rehearsing and performing the pieces for a public audience. It was a long journey and happened to coincide with my second pregnancy. At the performance, I was very obviously pregnant and more than one person said to me, “You’re so productive!” It felt good. Yes, I was producing!

But now, a month later, I’m in a different place. I’m a day past my due date, waiting for my baby to arrive and I’m processing interviews I recorded with the participants in Write Your Roots to help write my first dissertation chapter. I’ve entered a receptive state. I’m not striving to create something new right now. Now I’m receiving what has been created and taking the time to take it in. My baby will tell me who she is, not the other way around, and my work will be to receive it well. The writers in the Write Your Roots project have told me their thoughts and feelings about their experience and my work is to hear that authentically, not project onto it what I might like to hear.

The receptive stance is a new one for me. Often, when I’ve been receptive in the past, it’s been couched in a kind of opportunism. The director, for example, or the teacher, both professionals, listen to their students often in an opportunistic way, to hear the kind of thing that they know what to do with, that will signal them in which way to coach the student or actor to achieve an objective they intend for them. I know I can do this. I’m used to listening and then making a number of suggestions for forward action based on what I heard. I’ve taken pride in the ability to do that. But that’s not what’s called for now.

I recently came across a worksheet I made for a conference session I was leading on arts and activism two and a half years ago. On it was a quote from Wendell Berry that strikes a nerve for me now,

It may be that when we no longer know what to do,

we have come to our real work

and when we no longer know which way to go

we have begun our real journey.

The mind that is not baffled is not employed

The impeded stream is the one that sings.

A key to receptivity is being willing not to know. I see in this state the potential of growth, of shift, of nuancing or even unlearning some of the things I think I know. The time seems right. So I wait. I keep things quiet and listen.

Rhetoric, Theatre, Magic

tauris-full-cast-end-of-showOrigen (184-254 AD), called by George Kennedy, “the most important figure in Christian hermeneutics,” wrote “we must not be concerned about words and languages, for every nation has its own, but look to the meaning of the words, remembering at the same time that there are things that cannot be conveyed by words of human language and are made known directly through apprehension.” In studying rhetoric and its link to drama, this quote has given me so much to work with, a starting place for analysis. I want to borrow the term “apprehension” and use it more broadly than Origen intended when he spoke about scriptural interpretation. I think “intent,” on the part of the fashioner of language, and “apprehension” of that language on the part of the audience, throws a productive wrench in the millennia-old debate about rhetoric, veracity and audience. That debate, immortalized by Plato, centers on whether rhetoric is really rhetoric if it does not flow from knowledge, truth and logic. Intent and apprehension introduce a whole other aspect to the debate which is the power of words as a vehicle to convey supra-language sentiment, conviction and spiritual insight.

This is where I see drama come in, as proof that this spiritual communication through words is a very real part of rhetoric that is often left unaddressed. The process of realization of a dramatic script illustrates language working as such a vehicle. The most visually and aurally amazing Broadway play begins with words on pages. Those pages may contain some stage directions, but, for the most part, they are composed of dialogue: Human 1 says X, Human 2 says Y and on and on until the curtain falls. And yet through this dialogue alone, a director fashions an entire world and, working with designers, who create a set, lights, props, and sound, communicates that world spiritually to an audience.

A “faithful” interpretation of a script really means one that honors the spirit that lives behind the words on the script. “Faithful” means that the artists realizing the words of the play on the stage have done so in such a way that the audience apprehends the sentiment, conviction and spiritual insight of the playwright. As a playwright, I feel absolutely no qualifiers are necessary to give greater leeway to the other theatre artists, saying, for example, that the play is really “incomplete” until directors and designer bring their own insight to it. I think there can be a multitude of creative and visionary ways to amplify and nuance what is in the script, but to try to change it is a mistake. The most excellent theatre artists are also the most excellent, and creative, apprehenders of language. Some directors do try to co-opt a play and, in some ways, rewrite it, but this only leads to a murky outcome as the audience’s channels to apprehension are pulled in different directions. (For example, some of the really bizarre, wildly creative, but ultimately confusing Shakespeare productions).

In Magic, Rhtetoric and Literacy, William Covino builds very much on the understanding of the spiritual supra-communication of words, drawing the link between rhetoric and magic. He writes about the intersection of magic and rhetoric, distinguishing between “generative” magic-rhetoric which “creates novel possibilities for action” and “arresting” magic-rhetoric which “attempts to induce automatistic behavior, by inculcating rules and maxims that function like magic formulas.” I argue that socially-conscious theatre employs generative magic-rhetoric which works as a direct counter to “arresting” magic-rhetoric employed by marketers and certain politicians.

These are the early thought-machinations of my research into the relationship between rhetoric and drama and how making some of their most significant connections explicit may advance the power of those working in either medium toward facilitating positive social change.

Trump, from a Rhetorical Perspective

                                                     The Orator, Magnus Zeller

As a student of rhetoric, it is difficult not to react to the victory of Donald Trump as a kind of affront to rhetoric, or at least, to the belief that knowledge of rhetoric is important for anyone asking people to listen to them in public. Rhetoric always operates in speech, whether refined or rough, but we like to think that to succeed at the highest levels of power in a democracy, one must demonstrate both masterful and ethical uses of rhetoric, use founded on the understanding that words have power and carry responsibility beyond their utterance. Trump, however, has been ridiculed for his word choice, sentence structure and bombastic, careless rhetoric from the beginning of his presidential campaign. His seeming lack of rhetorical awareness was enough for people like myself to assume, foolishly, that it was impossible for him to be elected president. So how did it happen that he persuaded so many Americans to vote for him? A glut of anxious articles and news pieces have posed this question and tried to answer it from a voter identity perspective. But I think asking it from a rhetorical perspective brings up new potential answers.

Aristotle called rhetoric “the available means of persuasion,” but mid-century rhetorical theorist Kenneth Burke defined rhetoric’s basic function more specifically to be “the use of words by human agents to evoke attitudes or to induce actions in other human agents.” Burke’s more specific definition adds clarity to our understanding of the potential goals of rhetoric. Burke saw that action, even in supposed deliberative rhetoric, is often not the goal of a speaker. Depending on the political structure of a given society, it may be more fitting to evoke an attitude in listeners, an attitude of favorability toward whatever the speaker says is right. Burke writes “Persuasion involves choice, will; it is directed to a man only insofar as he is free. This is good to remember in these days of dictatorship and near-dictatorship. Only in so far as men are potentially free, must the spellbinder seek to persuade them.” Persuasion to action is more difficult than persuasion to attitude and it requires a system in which action is relevant, potentially purposeful. What an audience will respond to rhetorically is affected by their perceived freedom within the system in which they live.

We can see Trump’s success then not as resting in his persuasion of people to action, but in his persuasion of people to have a favorable attitude toward him and what he may do for the country. (You could argue that this is always the case for a presidential nominee, but I would respond that for Trump it was exponentially moreso.) His success can be counted as evidence for just how circumscribed by forces-beyond-their-control many Americans feel, however real or imagined. Trump has convinced the self-perceived powerless that he will represent them with a kind of strength they themselves do not have. In fact, for this audience, Trump’s rhetoric is better if it does not inspire action, but instead inspires the abdication of one’s own power to a perceived greater power (who will act on their behalf).

This feeling is uncannily well-summarized by a discussion in Bertolt Brecht’s play Fatzer about a band of soldiers who defect from WWI. The character Kauman reflects on the leader of their small band, defending selfish choices he’s made: “That’s what’s so good about  Fatzer, he has so much appetite that it’ll be enough for us too. And he’s such an egoist, that too will be sufficient for us all.” When I saw the play performed last June in Oxford, this moment seemed to flash and freeze in bright lights. This was the exact line of thinking, I thought to myself, of the Trump supporters.

Against my former notion that Trump is rhetoric-ignorant, if we look at our classical rhetoric, there is ample delineation of the kinds of tactics Trump has used in his speeches and debate. In De Oratore, Cicero provides a survey of rhetorical resources in oratory which include “raising of the voice even to the point of frenzy, for purposes of amplification; anger; invective; imprecation.”  While some have derided Trump’s critical words for his opponents, these are rhetorical choices that can be effective for the right audiences.

What Trump may have going for him more than anything is his embrace of kairos. People are sick of the “do-nothing Congress” and trust in our elected officials is at an all-time low. People are also still struggling with unemployment, stagnant wages and stagnant investments. At the Republican debate in Miami, Trump said, “I’m self-funding my campaign. Nobody is going to be taking care of me. I don’t want anybody’s money. I will tell you something. We’re going to go out to bid in virtually every different facet of our government. We’re going to save a fortune.” Trump has made these points loud and clear many times and the subtext, always, is that it will be better for the American people to go Trump’s way than to keep going the establishment’s way.

The Trump-believers will never be deterred by the rougher aspects of Trump’s speeches.  They have been captured by the promise of the new, the better, the, in a weird way, purer leader. Trump is not un-schooled in rhetoric, but his rhetoric is the kind that those who distrust the term often point to as their reason. Trump doubters fear that his rhetoric, like that counseled by Machiavelli, is aimed exclusively at attaining and maintaining his own power. While it remains to be seen who is more correct, it’s clear that Trump’s rhetoric is not intended to inspire citizens to cooperative action, but rather absolute faith in his actions.

And yet, in reaction, citizens who do believe their actions have an impact on our democracy have been spurred to quicken their movement and deepen their commitments. There seems to be a bifurcation then, defined more sharply by Trump’s election,  into people who want to embrace their freedom to act and their voice to be heard as democratic citizens and those who would rather abdicate their power to a loud, ambitious fighter who they trust to represent their best interests. The proof will be in the presidency.

A longer leash…exam reading


Exam reading is exciting, within limits. If we grad students are the academy’s dogs, it’s like going from one of those standard leather dog leashes to the retractable kind where you can range more freely, but can still be reeled in if the authorities deem it necessary. You’ve spent three or four years taking courses on every which thing, following obediently in a million different directions and now, at last, you get to pursue what you know will be your area of expertise and try to answer the questions you’re most curious about. Though major hurdles still loom, you start to feel yourself becoming a legitimate scholar. My field area is Rhetoric and Composition and my specialist list focuses on writing and performance in local contexts. I’ve been reading texts on the Sophists, on the history of American composition, on community writing centers, on pedagogy and on activist theatre.

Though I’m enjoying my reading immensely, I’m finding that one of the frustrations of exam reading is that unlike any other research experience, you cannot make adjustments as you go along. You have to stick to the list you created; this is another way the leash metaphor comes in. So despite the fantastic discoveries you make along the way that have you heavily thrice-underlining and making exclamation points in the margin, you can’t (or you better not) go and read that other thing you just found out about. When those moments arise, though, I remind myself how much great work I have sitting right before me to get through first.

I’ve heard of other grad students having well-planned reading calendars that follow some very logical scheme. I expected I would do this once it came time to really buckle down this fall. But I haven’t. I’ve found that what works best for me is to wander through my list, like a dog following good scents, making a decision about what to read next based on my response to the last text. If I’m getting bored with disciplinary histories, I’ll switch to something from the specialist list. If I really disliked a book, I’ll choose something I’ve been excited to read for a long time next. This system has worked well so far. My only problem is that I want to read every word and, realistically, I cannot. There is no way I can cram all the words in my 100 texts into the amount of hours I have before I take the exam. I would have to reduce my hours of sleep per night to something like four and, knowing my body chemistry, that is just impossible. I will learn to read intelligently selectively.

So, for the next few months, I’ll be blogging from time to time on my reading as a way to help me process and record some of my more forceful observations I make along the way. I’d love to find some fellow Rhet-Comp readers also blogging on their reading to follow and share the journey with, so if that happens to describe you, drop me a line!