“Revisionary Histories of Rhetoric” James Berlin

“Revisionary Histories of Rhetoric” James Berlin

Berlin reminds us that rhetoric is a product of the social, economic, and political conditions of specific historical moments; consequently, revisionary historians such as himself, constantly work to remind us that the history of rhetoric cannot be conceived as developing through a unified, coherent, and univocal set of texts evolving chronologically over time. Like Kellnar suggests, we must therefore always examine rhetorics’ interaction with others that exist at that moment and consider the conditions in which they were produced. We must always realize and try to locate those neglected texts that don’t carry currency in their own day, which means, since they are often created by marginalized people, we might only find fragments of documents.

The other important point Berlin makes is that we must own up to our own political agendas. We should foreground our own methods, as Atwill notes, as well as our intentions and their implications. Berlin suggests therefore that our scholarship must be reflexive. We need to understand and acknowledge the ideologies governinig our interpretations. After all, our decisions to write specific histories are based on our own loyalties in economic, social, political, and cultural considerations.

Difference then should be foregrounded. Also, as Lyotard argues, we must present a plurality of particular narratives, preferably perhaps from the bottom up. Perhaps, one of Berlin’s strongest points is that we can’t avoid totalities or contingent narratives; therefore, we must be aware and make use of the “’mediations, interrelations, and interdependences that give shape and power to larger political and social systems’” (125). We must also be aware that totalities are “’structures of difference and thus multiple, unstable, changeable arenas of contradictions and social struggle, which are open to contestation and transformation’” (126). Since totalities are shifting, they are never universal and ahistorical.

Historians must be candid and recognize this fact. Historians must be aware of their own ideological perspectives which guide their investigations into the texts originally produced and reinterpreted at specific historical moments.

This notion of foregrounding is obviously useful and important. I am cautious, however, of taking this idea a bit too far. I have read some texts where the entire first chapter is foregrounding and by the time the author felt as if she had divulged all of her ideologies, I was bored and did not want to read on. My question then is how do we go about foregrounding our political agendas, methodologies, theories, etc in a way that does not turn off our reader, seem overly contrived, or exhaustive? Also, in the postmodern sense, is there a risk in overcontextualizing a document to render all points you make about it meaningless?

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2 Comments

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2 responses to ““Revisionary Histories of Rhetoric” James Berlin

  1. Ralph Cintron saves the day again… As you write about the mediation of disclosing interests and making self-reflection THE task of the writing (to the point of audience boredom!) I think of Angels Town as the perfect balance. And, I must point out, this balance is achieved not just through ideological self-disclosure but through a dualistic purpose to 1)write “about” a community – aka ethnography and 2)theorize ABOUT ethnography in a meta-methodological way. Do you think (and you, too, Zosh) that Berlin might be describing the success of Cintron? Are there any other texts we can think of that work on the problem Berlin points out?

  2. Lois Agnew

    You’ve raised important questions in this post. In Thursday’s class, we touched on related issues. As you’ve pointed out, there are times when excessive attention to self-disclosure can become distracting to the reader. In addition, there is the question of what purpose scholarly self-awareness serves–and whether being aware of the ideologies that drives one’s work can always be assumed to function in the right way. Can being a self-aware scholar reify one’s position, as well as encouraging flexibility?

    I agree with Trish that Ralph Cintron is a good model of constructive scholarly self-disclosure. I hope we can discover other examples as we make our way through the assigned texts this semester!

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