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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Blogging Summer Teaching -- Ancients and Moderns

The general catalog descriptions of this course (103A) emphasize the reading of texts from Greek, Latin, and early Christian antiquity, and the course is paired with another (103B) that promises to tackle, among other themes that preoccupy contemporary theory, the question of modernity. Although these terms do not determine the pairing, there is an almost unavoidable danger that students come to this course fancying it the Ancient Rhetoric course coupled to another Modern Rhetoric one. I mean it when I describe this as a "danger" and I will take some time to disabuse students of the prejudices that inhere in such a preliminary mapping. For one thing, if students come into this scene with the comfortable -- or more usually disgruntled -- assumption that this is the (probably one) class in which undergraduates in the Rhetoric Department are forced to tackle "The Ancients," they will be at a disastrous disadvantage to grasp the extent to which and the force of the sense in which for many of the Romans we will be reading in the course the Greeks we will have read in the course are the Ancients Roman Moderns are reviving, adapting, or reviling in their own variations of the quarrel des anciens et modernes, not to mention the ways in which the differences between Homeric rhetorical agency and Thucydides rhetorical agency tend to get smudged away when one fancies a continuity or monolithic Ancientness conjoins Homer with Augustine.

To this I will add the fact that we will not be reading the Egyptian Ptahhotep's Instructions, a practical manual about discourse predating Plato. We will not be tackling Vedic discourse, nor closely reading the vicissitudes of debate in the Upanishads. We will not spend a week reading Confucian theory and the later legalisms arising from those foundations. Why these Greek and Roman ancients and not others, and what are the modernities implied by these choices? As I will point out, this is not a matter of confining rhetoric within arbitrary constraints -- inasmuch as the choice to call the discipline "rhetoric" in the first place, the name this Department the "Rhetoric Department" already imposes many of those constraints. "Rhetoric" is probably a Platonic coinage, rhetorike, derived from the very historically specific and quite idiosyncratic institutionalized figure of the rhetor. Our use of the term defies the more common usages logos and techne logon with which even most Greek contemporaries of Plato would have denoted the discipline and its objects. The use of the word "rhetoric" is far from a neutral point of departure, but puts us already and always deep in a skirmish over a terribly narrow construal of thought as a terribly narrow construal of theory as a terribly narrow construal of philosophy. The power of this intervention is not only to draw attention to the exclusions on which this course is premised as a way to draw attention to the costs of these exclusions to which we might otherwise remain altogether oblivious, but to draw attention to the actual stakes at hand by recognizing the stakeholders in their specificity.

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