Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Reading :: Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity

Rhetoric and Poetics in Antiquity
By Jeffrey Walker

Jeff Walker, who is one of my colleagues here at UT, is well known in the field of classical rhetoric. I can see why. This book lucidly and concisely makes the case that rhetoric and poetics emerged together, or to put it differently, that rhetoric encompasses poetics and that a solely pragmatic understanding of rhetoric doesn't fit how rhetoric was developed or used in antiquity. Separating rhetoric from poetics, he says, is sort of like separating business and technical writing from the rest of English, then referring to the entire field of English as "business writing" (pp.33-34). That is to say, a pragmatic subfield has been allowed to stand as the entire field, and the result has been no little confusion.

Part of that confusion is that rhetoric has been thought to have "declined" during the Hellenistic and Roman periods, even though rhetoric clearly developed in the legal arena during that period. This confusion stems from the fact that scholars have assumed rhetoric thrives only in a democracy. But, Walker says, this gets the causal relationship backwards: it's not that rhetoric is made possible by democracy, but democracy is made possible by rhetoric (p.134).

Another part of the confusion is that "the idea that poetry in general and lyric poetry in particular 'makes arguments' has typically been foreign, even counterintuitive, for Western literary-criticial thought for most of the twentieth century" (p.168) -- something that seems completely bizarre to me, but I'll have to take Jeff's word for it. Jeff does a stellar job of demonstrating that lyric poets did in fact make arguments grounded in their sociocultural environments. Along the way, he explores the notion of the enthymeme, demonstrating that the enthymeme is not a truncated syllogism (in the Toulmin mode), but rather an antistrophos (differing sister) (pp.170-171). Walker comes down hard on modern efforts to teach enthymemes here, and I'm not quite willing to agree that the conventional way of understanding enthymemes "have had little impact on the actual teaching of practical argumentation in modern times" (p.170) -- I've had success using these sorts of enthymemes as heuristics to help students shape arguments, and so have others, judging from the wide use of Toulmin logic in the composition classroom -- but I agree with the larger point that such heuristics aren't in themselves sufficient for teaching argumentation.

In any case, I learned a lot from this book, and I wish I had read it before my recent reading of Aristotle. I've said it before, but I'll say it again: what a pleasure it is being on such a well-rounded and accomplished faculty.

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