Susan Jarratt –“The First Sophists and the Use of History”

In “The First Sophists and the Uses of History,” Susan Jarratt identifies the historiographical “othering” of sophists that began with Plato and Aristotle, was reinvigorated in the nineteenth century by Hegel, positivists, German idealists, and English conservative intellectuals, and has since continued with both literary study and composition scholars who tend to reify the binaries of Plato/Sophists, truth/probability, philosophy/rhetoric. In an effort to interrogate what kinds of histories scholars are re/creating in the 20th century stage of rediscovery and establish a link between these histories and the field of comp and rhetoric, Jarratt explores current reconsiderations of sophists at play in the academic arena across disciplines. Self-consciously succumbing to the Aristotelian tendency of taxonomizing or what Schilb calls taxomania, Jarratt identifies three versions of sophists created by contemporary scholars: analytic, performative, and pragmatic.
Some historians, Jarratt explains, value sophists for their analytic, highly philosophical ways of thinking which are opposed to Plato in terms of logic, epistemology, and metaphysics. Sophistic ways of analytical thinking ironically serve as the foundation to some degree of “epistemic” rhetoric and a sophist composition pedagogy, which maintains that meaning/reality is created in/through/by language. Historians focusing on the performative talents of sophists create possibilities of linking literacy studies with composition by redefining the sophists as “acrobats” of literature, who elicit emotional responses from their audience through stylistic power of their language rather than contribute in epistemologically meaningful ways to construction of knowledge or reality. Historians adopting a pragmatic view of sophists value sophists for their problem-solving abilities and social organizing mechanisms. They offer the sophists up as an alternative to Platonic/Aristotelian systems of political theory, communication, epistemology, and pedagogy and thus provide links for composition and political science and anti-foundationalist philosophy. In terms of composition and rhetoric, Jarratt believes the latter views of sophists show the most promise for elucidating how disciplinary discourse is comprised of “literary” features or “to what degree ‘scientific knowledge’ is shaped by social and aesthetic forces as they are manifested in discourse” (75).
After reading Schiappa’s “Sophistic Rhetoric: Oasis or Mirage,” it is difficult to buy into any of the views of sophists that Jarratt identifies in this article or comment on what value the sophists may have for the field of composition and rhetoric. For as Schiappa argues, “sophistic rhetoric” is a fiction created by Plato that we continue to reconstruct for our own contemporary purposes. Furthermore, in looking back to the sophists for what contributions they may have for our contemporary field commits what Schilb calls Brumairism, or evoking past rhetorical traditions to respond to present day conjunctures in our field. As Jarratt explains, however, the present conjuncture in which composition and rhetoric finds itself at the time this article was written and still finds itself even today is the perhaps self-imposed pressure to overcome the hegemony of literary criticism as well as the lack of fixed status, content, and disciplinary location of composition courses. Therefore, in light of this real anxiety, it is understandable why historiographers in the field of composition and rhetoric are reconsidering sophist contributions to our field; as Jarratt notes “sophistic rhetoric,” with both its performative and pragmatic natures, can in a sense validate and help “fix” the field of composition and rhetoric in the present day academy. What interests me in both Jarratt’s article and in Vitanza’s article “Critical Sub/versions of the History of Philosophical Rhetoric” when he calls for “an expressive, literary rhetoric” is the idea of marrying literature to composition and rhetoric in order to divorce itself from foundationalist philosophy—a move scholars obviously feel is necessary in order to stabilize our own discipline. I understand the postmodern desire to deconstruct objective truths, uncover the rhetorical nature of all knowledge, free up language, and, as Vitanza writes, “expel the influences of philosophy” from rhetoric all together, but why employ literature in the effort? Why not divorce rhetoric from literature as well as foundationalist philosophy? Why elucidate how disciplinary discourse is comprised of “literary features” rather than rhetorical strategies? Why create “an expressive literary rhetoric” rather than just “an expressive rhetoric” in and of itself?
The rhetorical scholar side of me wants to divorce rhetoric from literature all together. For I see the two disciplines as two very different enterprises and despise the elitist, hegemonic, belletristic nature of literature. I blame the rise of literature for the absence of rhetoric from contemporary K-12 public education—a condition which I think contributes to the obscene domination of corporations and the ruling class in our society, not to mention the ever-growing totalitarian administration that currently has upset the checks and balances system initially set up to ensure a healthy U.S. democracy (ouch!). Yet, the creative writer side of me thinks Jarratt and Vitanza are right in that embracing the “sophistic” tendency to employ literary features in order to move an audience would be in our field’s best interest for a number of reasons.
One, embracing literacy devices in our own scholarship would make our writing and our students’ writing much more interesting, stronger in terms of appeals, and more in line with authentic writing done outside the academy. Two, embracing literary criticism as Vitanza notes, would make the field of rhetoric less disciplinary and more diverse in terms of the theories we employ in our field. I wonder how productive it would be to join forces with literary critic scholars in an effort to obtain some of our educational, social, and political goals. Three, embracing a literary notion of rhetoric might open our eyes to different kinds of rhetoric employed both historically and currently across cultures. If we really want to enlarge our conception of rhetoric, as Enos and others have suggested we must do, then why not open the canon to literary texts clearly armed with rhetorical strategies and written with rhetorical aims? Lastly, embracing rather than distancing ourselves from literature might in fact elevate Rhetoric to its rightful position (hah!) and subsume literature as a type of rhetoric that uses specific literary/rhetorical devices employed to achieve specific aims. Big ideas with many political problems, I know, but isn’t it time we begin to complicate and deconstruct the great literature/rhetoric divide? Or is the only way to preserve composition and rhetoric as a field/discipline to divorce ourselves from literature? Jarratt certainly seems to think establishing a stronger link between literary studies and composition is a good idea. Although she wrote this article in 1987, I would be curious to see how she feels about this idea now…


1 Comment

Filed under historiography exam

One response to “Susan Jarratt –“The First Sophists and the Use of History”

  1. lpagnew

    You’ve raised some really interesting questions in this entry, Laurie. In some respects, uniting rhetoric with literary studies seems to involve restoring a historic link between the two. I certainly agree that there is value in recognizing that rhetoric is grounded in both style and performance, and this recognition could certainly be enhanced through acknowledging our connections with what is known today as literary studies. On the other hand, it’s important to acknowledge developments subsequent to the classical period that have altered the way in which the academy perceives each field. As Crowley points out, and as you’ve suggested here, the entrenchment of literature in the nineteenth century was in part responsible for rhetoric’s eclipse as a discipline. Like you, I wonder whether seeking a closer connection between the two could jeopardize rhetoric’s strength, even as I agree with you that there are compelling reasons for exploring the possibilities underlying such a connection.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s