Historical Rhetorics/A Little Aristotle and the Other Socrates/Vitanza's ''Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric'', chapters 3 & 4

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Vitanza, Victor J. Negation, Subjectivity, and the History of Rhetoric. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 1997.[edit]

(Note- what follows is a mix of reading notes and lecture notes. It is messy.)

Relation to Welch[edit]

For class, I wanted to contrast two different readings of Isocrates. Welch acknowledges the racial and cultural shortcomings of Isocrates' project. However, she more values Isocrates' ability to articulate a metaphysical/ethical system (judgment) opposed to the Ideal unity of Platonic rhetoric (Reason). The fallible elements of judgment (such that we can never claim to universally know, but rather only--within the confines of a specific time--decide) form the basis for an ethical system that sustains, rather than synthesizes, difference. In simplest terms, we might say that, while Welch recognizes Isocrates' faults, she is not going to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Vitanza, however, would argue that Welch under-appreciates the fundamental significance of Isocrates' Greek/barbarian binary. That is, while Welch hopes to construct a new form of paideia sensitive to the margins, Vitanza would argue that the very act of social construction always, already negates the "outside." This, for Vitanza, is caught up in the term "negative essentializing." Whatever "we" come together and build, it is always built on the back of another. For Vitanza, Isocrates' cultural warfare represents the first step in the long, historic chain of Western oppression and violence. [Vitanza sees the philosophical cultivation of this synthetic oppression in Heidegger; despite all of the post-structuralist themes running through the later Heigedder, the early Heidegger, author of Being and Time, is searching for the one, true Being behind all being. Vitanza is extremely suspicious of this kind of searching (telos).

Of course, where Welch and Vitanza disagree sharply is on Isocrates' relationship to democracy. Welch sees Isocrates' rhetoric in direct opposition to the elitist-autocratic Socratic/Platonic philosophy. But Vitanza sees Isocrates' rhetoric, built off the cultural notion of paideia, as itself quite elitist and exclusionary (especially when compared to his achronological, inventive, representation of Gorgias.

Quick Primer on Nietzsche[edit]

From his earliest work, The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche has been highly critical of what he calls the "Apollonian" spirit (which we would call, via Socrates, rationalism). The Apollonian rationalist-morality, which Nietzsche argues enters Greek culture through its contact with Jewish/Christian culture, stifles the Greeks' Dionysian spirit, which follows our natural instincts. Think:

Apollonian -> nomos -> sex is wrong Dionysian -> physis -> sex is pleasure

Why, Nietzsche would ask, would we ever adopt a moral system that leads us away from natural pleasure? In his pivotal essay, "Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense," Nietzsche makes clear that a word like "wrong" is a strictly human conception, designed by the weak to tame the natural power and impulses of the strong. His concept of the ubermench, then, represents one who escapes the shackles of "civility" and embraces his natural instincts.

For a brief second this might sound like Plato, but... Plato is boring.

Vitanza's Purpose[edit]

In some ways I am resistant to spell out exactly what it is Vitanza is attempting to accomplish. Why? Because Vitanza's project is connected to learning how to write and read otherwise. Think, for instance, of Vitanza's critique of traditional historic chronological protocols (140) or his intentionally unclear clarification (or, a la Derrida, his repeated interruptions and postponements). I do feel it is safe to say: "Vitanza's post-structuralist, historiographical project is more interested in promoting in(ter)vention than (re)producing (disciplined/ary) knowledge. "Today in(ter)ventions! Tomorrow the whirl" (142). (See Rüdiger Safranski, Nietzsche: A Philosophical Biography p. 80; see also, again, Burke, closing paragraph to Permanence and Chance). What does it mean to be a post-structuralist historiographer? To keep your I in the present(ation of history). See Vitanza's discussion of Momigliano.

Toward the end of chapter 3, after depicting Isocrates' elitism as a will to control, Vitanza writes:

Instead of centering historiography and education around Dante or Goethe or Leavis's Blake, or possibly the so-called common human being, I would decenter them around such an uncanny character as a deoedipalized Oedipus, the so-called "criminal" and excluded element. (157)

"Oedipalization" doesn't refer to a pscyhological-medical issue, but a cultural one. The term is used by the philosophers Deleuze and Guattari to focus on the ways in which culture teaches us what to desire. Mark Seem has a concise discussion of the term published in the journal Substance; he writes: "Oedipus is the Family-Church-State in each of us, a belief injected into our unconscious through the application of the dominant system of signs and subjugation, it is what gives us faith as it robs us of power, it is what teaches us to desire our own repression."

Vitanza's Resistance to Isocrates[edit]

A cluster of terms: Hegemon, Paideia, Geschlect (147); Geschlecht is the truly troubling term, because it essentializes a higher, natural culture to which all subjects should aspire (the resonances to the Enlightenment are clear here).

What's up with the de-monster? Also monster. Rationalism can be thought cowardly, since its dedication to make apparent lies in opposition to the monstrous whirl (or, put in more familiar theoretical lingo, it prefers the stability of signifiers to the abyss of signifieds). Vitanza believes classical philology, and following it--almost all Western intellectualism, is dedicated to taming the wild signified (this, in turn, is inherited from Aristotelian metaphysics and ontology) (see 162). Remember Sir Ken Robinson: "there's one right answer. And its in the back of the book. But don't look." Except we don't have the book, so we make one(s). Vitanza writes: "in talking about logos, I am talking about the sun"(x). At first glance--as with Nietzsche--this might sound Platonic or Enlightenment (in terms of escaping the cave, etc). But Vitanza invokes a non-Platonic, non-rational, non-philogical sun, one that would melt all distinct/shuns (since every distinction is a distinct shunning of Other possibilities). This would be a poetry that "would make words burn, not simply destroying them, but destroying constructing them, turning over the various, heretofore, fixed or decorous meanings" (162). Hear Burke, "A Grammar of Motives," on the vocabularies we invent:

Men seek for vocabularies that will be faithful reflections of reality. To this end, they must develop vocabularies that are selections of reality. And any selection of reality must, in certain circumstances, function as a deflection of reality. (59)

And, Vitanza:

"My position is [...] that we are not at home in our world/whirl of language. Any and every attempt to assume that we are has or will have created for human beings dangerous situations." (157)

And, Vitanza, on our paradoxical home:

Our home is not the earth [nomos]. Our home is the sun. The philological sun. [...] Our home, rather unhome, cannot be nationalism (race, gender, class), cannot be Geist, cannot be the earth only. These are all based on a restrictive economy. Our un/home is the sun. Our general-libidinal economy. The earth (as the locus of philology-as-"necessity") is Capital, the worst decadence; the sun (as the radical loci of logos-as-"luxury") is our future-anterior beyond Capital. (161)

A Few Other Notes for Discussion[edit]

What Heidegger attempts to account for is what logos meant for the pre-Socratics and Plato and others. It is the Platonic view of logos that, according to Heidegger, inaugurates "The History of Being." (Which is really a series of histories of Being; for each new age redefines logos for its own ends and thereby constructs a Being.) My point is that when we study The History of Rhetoric, we simultaneously are studying The History of Being. What we have, however, in this joint study is the postmodern conditions of the possibilities for rhetorics unconstrained by Platonic or Aristotelian Being(s). After all, there are others' Beings, of which we have no histories/hysteries. To historicize is to place these Others' Beings under negation. Hence, my earlier calls for hystericizing and histories of Desire. (172)

(On Isocrates and logos as home, see 174; logos as speech or writing, 176)