Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All
Sunday, October 09, 2016
Fifteen Minutes of One Of My Lectures
Recuperating and feeling a bit better today, still coughing and sore and trying to take it easy before embarking on the rigors of mass transit and public performance looming ahead. The following transcibes the first fifteen minutes or so from my lecture Thursday at Berkeley in my Patriarchal Convention and Conviction in Greek and Roman Antiquity course. Sometimes readers express curiosity about my teacherly practice compared to my bloggity practice. I don't read from notes, but expound from bullet points I usually scribble in the hour before lecture just detailed enough to remind me of my key points and the order I think I should make them. These remarks were spun from nine bullets:
Since we met last I have caught some kind of bug, so you will forgive me if I am not my usual effervescent self. In my lecture in the City earlier today my voice gave out a couple of times, so fingers crossed that doesn't happen today. We have a lot to cover today, in fact I would say today is one of three key turning points in our course. You'll remember from the first lecture that this course is making a semester-long argument or telling a semester-long story, and today we turn a page in that story.
In any of our Department's four Core classes, whatever else the course is doing, the course will always be interrogating a set of basic questions: What is rhetoric? What is rhetoric good for? In our course, a related question is why exactly are texts from Greek and Roman antiquity especially illuminative of those questions?
We are reading many texts in this course that are best described as philosophy, or history, or literary texts -- and I think it may seem very reassuring to fall back on familiar categories like these, especially when the texts we are reading seem at once so alien and yet so resonant and so freighted with canonical authority. But I have to insist that rhetoric is not philosophy, history, or literature, and reading these texts rhetorically is something rather different as well. In part, in our course we are telling the story of the emergence of this difference and in part, in our course we are modeling and provoking forms of reading that materialize this difference.
This is a course that takes place in a Rhetoric Department. The substance of rhetoric -- what I have called interested, occasional, figurative practices of persuasion -- heck, ever the TERM rhetoric derive in a crucial sense from the Platonic project of philosophy. Forming the backdrop against which Platonic philosophy elaborated its anti-rhetorical project we engaged first with a Homeric agentic imaginary of public words and deeds -- and we went on to observe the way that Homeric agentic field was further elaborated and even subverted by figures like Sappho and Thucydides. That Homeric agency, I have repeatedly reminded you, is indicatively patriarchal, at once assertive and insertive.
Now, for the last few weeks, we have focused on a trilogy of key anti-sophistical dialogues by Plato, each staging a contest between between Socrates and a famous sophist -- Protagoras, Gorgias, Lysias -- and used by Plato to define his own philosophical outlook as well as market his method in competition with rival schools and intellectual movements to his own Academy.
The Socratic or Platonic aspiration to form a community of True Friends, fellow inquirers into Virtue and Truth, affirming a True Politics that doesn't seem very much like actual practices of politics and a True Rhetoric (Philosophy) that doesn't seem very much like actual practices of rhetoric may seem like an inspiring and abstract vision but I have insisted that it served competitive interests in the thriving and contentious world of Athenian intellectual life, and I have also emphasized that it was fueled by specific and ferociously critical position on and within the contemporary Athenian political scene between the Persian Wars and the Alexandrian conquests, the period of the Peloponnesian civil wars and the norms and forms of Periclean Athens.
I have drawn your attention to the recurrence of the figure of Pericles in Plato's philosophical critiques, the foreigners and rhetoricians Pericles welcomed into the city (many of whom are Socrates chief interlocutors), his children, his partner Aspasia (Plato lampooned her, you will remember, quite egregiously in the early dialogue Menexenus which included a clumsy parody of Pericles' famous funeral oration, a portrait that intriguingly seems to have been a dress rehearsal for Socrates tale of Diotima in the Symposium we read for today), and so on:
Glimpsed in the fragments of surviving sophistical texts and in the speeches of Socrates' opponents in Plato's texts we elaborated a sophistical worldview of openness to outsiders, of celebration of provisional compromise and collaboration, of resignation to the inevitable contingency of human affairs, of recognition of the partial and fragmentary character of truths communicated by the imperfect but still beautiful instruments of public words and deeds.
We are about to turn our attention next week to the ambivalent embrace by Plato's most famous student, Aristotle, of the politics and rhetoric of Periclean public life which sets the stage, in turn, for Cicero's adaptation and glorification of that vision in his failed alternative to Caesar's revolution in the dying days of the Roman Republic. But first, let's talk a bit about one last Platonic dialogue, my personal favorite, The Symposium, and put it in coversation with an extraordinary comedy by Aristophanes called Wasps….