“Revisionist Historiography” Graff and Leff

In this literature review, which describes multiple waves of revisionist historiography, Graff and Leff illustrate early attempts at defining systems of rhetoric by scholars working within speech communications that were based on different categories. While Duhamel categorized rhetoric based on philosophical traditions, Walter categorized rhetoric by its various starting points, including the metaphysical, epistemological, psychological, educational-ethical, theological, esthetic, and social. Ehninger, on the other hand, identified three types of rhetoric: grammatical, psychological, and social—a rhetorical move that Blair criticizes for being biased and for preventing our ability to use history as a resource for rhetorical theory. Blair claims theory ought to be object of historical inquiry—something that works through tradition and allows mediation between present and past—but according to Graf and Leff, in explicating theory’s ontological status in the history of rhetoric, Blair ultimately produces an overlydetermined theoretical critique of existing historiography. Unlike Blair who in working within the tradition of influence scholarship claims the rhetorical tradition is suffering from what Schlib calls Brumairism, which preserves a monolithic, linear classical canon, Howell presents a progressive narrative of rhetoric and thus privileges new rhetorics. Unlike Baldwin who was a preservationist of classical rhetoric, Murphy emphasizes rhetoric’s ability to adjust to new circumstances and thus illustrates how the rhetorical tradition is not inert and reactionary. Instead, Murphy claims the rhetorical tradition facilitates change by connecting theoretical resources to present day rhetorical tasks and emphasizes the value of teaching rhetoric, which serves as a site for this mediation.

The second wave of revisionist historiography is labeled critical historiography. Berlin, Jarratt, Vitanza, Schlib and other critique earlier attempts at historiography for producing biased, unreflective efforts to present objective histories unaware of own rhetoricity; an exclusionary, narrow scope of histories of Western traditional texts; a grand, continuous, coherent master narrative of rhetorical tradition; a narrow focus on intellectual history with no regard to political, social, cultural influences at work when texts are written and received. They called for localized studies and focus on sociopolitical influence on rhetorical theories and practices and most importantly a critical sensibility of the act of writing histories. Two common sorts of study became popular: rereading and recovery. Rereading entails the construction of binary oppositions became structure for dividing rhetoric between “Aristotelian and sophistic values, between foundational and productionist orientations, between rational, orderly surface and troubled depths that reproduce systems of cultural oppression” (22). Also binary opposition of what is in and what is outside of canon—recovery of texts. In doing so, a single strand of rhetorical history is blown wide open and new methodologies are utilized. Essentially, with the second wave and the scholars unsentimental attitude toward the history of rhetoric, the rhetorical tradition became the object of critique.

Miller, perhaps, the most outspoken second wave rhetorical historiographer said a shift should occur from tradition of rhetoric to the rhetorics of tradition. Thick descriptions of social contexts become necessary from Miller’s standpoint; therefore, the need for social histories of rhetoric also arises. The focus shifts from first wave focus on rhetorical system to second wave focus on cultural exigencies that spark various rhetorical responses. Hence, the Tradition versus multiple traditions.

Graff and Leff claim we must be careful of losing tradition altogether because it in some sense holds our discipline together. We should think of tradition as a set of practices transmitted through time. Graff and Leff claim these practices should relate to the teaching of writing and speaking; thus pedagogical histories should be reread and recovered. They claim even though other traditions should be explored, the “teaching of rhetoric as a practice offers a stable referent for a historical tradition, but it does not lock us into grand narratives or perspectives that move us outside a local context” (27).

Several questions arise for me when reading this essay:

1. What other traditions make up or should be included in the rhetorical tradition?
2. What constitutes “rhetoric” as a subject of study? What does it mean to teach rhetoric, in say, non-Western settings? Would this teaching occur in school settings only? Or would we begin to research how various local cultures “teach” “rhetoric” through other means than formal school instruction?

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