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“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?


Filed under historiography exam


Long Summary: Might contain some plagarism (hah!)

In this section of Rhetoric and Reality in which James Berlin describes the changes in the field of Composition and Rhetoric from 1940-1974, Berlin highlights the influences the general education and general semantics movements had on the rise of communication courses, the revival and renaissance of rhetoric, and the major rhetorical approaches that evolved with modern interpretations of rhetoric. With the rise of the communication course came an emphasis on: individualized instruction, integrated instruction (reading, writing, speaking, listening), practical pedagogy, and a skills centured curriculum. With integrated learning came major influences from a variety of disciplines such as psychology, linguistic, literary studies, which caused a movement toward personal and creative writing as well as a strong focus on how grammar functions. During this time (1950s), rhetoric as a historical discipline worthy of study came into fashion as the composing process became significant to scholars.

Berlin signifies 1960 – 1975 as the renaissance of rhetoric, which is marked by the professionalizatin of composition teachers, the rise in graduate programs in rhetoric, the return of rhetoric to the English department, the rise of rhetorical approaches to literary criticism, and more focus on the composing process with the rise of new rhetorics. Major influences during the renaissance as identified by Berlin are Jerome Bruner—introduced process models of composing through introduction of cognitive psychology and emphasized writing as discovery and problem solving; Albert Kitzhaber—introduced concept of New Rhetorics, emphasized writing as thought, which designated writing at heart of education, and introduced writing based on rhetorical tradition; Wayne Booth—supported Kitzhaber’s propositions by pushing for rise in rhetorical studies and its value in writing instruction; Burke—pushed for restoration of rhetoric as informing the discipline of composition. During this time, Berlin notes, scholars struggled to define scope of modern rhetorical studies and called for an interdisciplinary nature of the field.

In the section in which Berlin describes the Major Rhetorical Approaches to the field between 1960 and 1975, Berlin classifies three movements: objective rhetoric, subjective rhetoric, transactional rhetoric. The major figures to influence what Berlin calls objective rhetoric are Bloom and Bloom and Zoellner. Bloom and Bloom based pedagogy on positive reinforcement, which only could be done if composing process was made visible to both student and teacher, and rubrics were established. Zoellner argued teachers must pay attention to the scribal act and called for instruction to be visible. Subjective Rhetoric was defined by expressionistic writing and instruction, which was based on belief that reality is a personal, private construct. Writing came to be seen as discovery of self. Interpretations varied from extreme notions of writing as therapy to writing as art which reaveals the self. Major figures here, Murray, Macorie, Gibson, Coles, and Elbow, thought writing can’t be taught, only learned. They pushed for learning environments that allowed students opportunities to arrive at their own visions of reality. Elbow, especially influential here, claimed the personal is political—enabling individuals to arrive at self understanding (of own perceptions, feelings, and thoughts) and self expression, both of which lead to better social order.

Transactional Rhetoric, identified by recognition of writing as act of interaction of material reality writer, audience, and language, can be divided into three rhetorics: classical, cognitive, epistemic. Classical rhetoric had strong commitment to rationality, but Corbett had major influence with his insistence on emotional and ethical appeals as well as holistic grading. Rhetoric of Cognitive Psychology was greatly influenced by Janet Emig—demonstrated ways students perform cognitively when writing in attempt to understand role of reality, audience, purpose, and language in rhetorical act—and Janice Lauer—encourage scholars to “break out of the ghetto” and look to other disciplines to inform our pedagogy and find possible valuable heuristics. The epistemic perspective views rhetoric as a philosophical subject that perceives knowledge (meaning) is a rhetorical (linguistic) social and historical construct. Since knowledge is dialectical, language forms through interaction and thus constructs ourselves, audience, and realities. Ohmann here played major influence by differentiating between old and modern rhetoric in explaining how old focused on persuasion, new on pursuit through communication, inquiry, self expression, and self-discovery which takes place in specific communities. Burke again was influential with his notion of identification—writer tries to establish identification with audience by understanding author’s perspective and trying to get audience to understand writer’s perspective. Young and Becker were influential with claim that goal of rhetoric is enlightened cooperation while Brufee introduced value of collaborative learning. Ann Berthoff developed idea of students as active agents and claimed function of language is to “give form to feeling, cogency to argument, and shape to memory.”

Despite these progressive pedagogies and theories, composition began to fade from universities because of financial strains, but when “Why Johnny Can’t Write” was published in Newsweek in 1975, a literacy crisis was identified and composition gained stability. Since

Favorite quotes:

“A language is a theory of the universe, a way of selecting and grouping experience in a fairly consistent and predictable way.”

Thoughts: I always say that I can speak from my own experience and this quote really sums that up for me. Languages, both verbal and non-verbal, are means to develop, articulate, question our realities.

“Human Differences are the raw materials of writing—differences in experiences, and the ways of segmenting them, differences in values, purposes, and goals. They are our reason to communicate. Through communication we create community, the basic value underlying rhetoric. To do so, we must overcome barriers to communication that are, paradoxically, motive for communication”
–Young, Becker, Pike Rhetoric: Discovery and Change

Thoughts: This quote will go on my course syallbus from now on. I think the purpose of communication gets forgotten when students write even though communication is the most obvious reason as to why we write. I have been working with my students to come to new understandings of why they write and this quote along with Burke’s notion of identification offer an enlightened purpose for them. I wonder how their writing would be different if the wrote with intention to identify the different way in which they see and understand the world so that their audience can understand their perspectives as well as better understand their own.

Favorite term:

Burke’s indentification

Sentences that raised skepticism:

Ohmann says rhetoric shifts emphasis toward cooperation, mutuality, and social harmony. Ideally yes, but in reality, probably not.

Corbett claims closed-fist rhetoric is irrational and coercive. Always??

Things of interest I didn’t know:

“Why Johnny Can’t Write” was so influential in comp history.

Articles in 60s and 70s about teaching to certain populations of students

Questions to Ponder:

How is field today a combination of overlapping theories and practices developed since 1900?

Has any one major movement really not influenced contemporary pedagogy in some way?

What new major rhetorical approaches have been developed since then?

When did media literacy come on the scene?

How would Berlin label 1985 – 2000 and 2000 until present?

Interesting that the word literacy is only found on three pages in entire book?

What does Berlin’s classification say about the way we conceive our field?

What role does Classical Rhetoric still play in first year comp courses?

What ideoligy drives Berlin’s historical account?

What social, cultural, historical events were left out?

What schools were excluded? Why?

What gaps exist in his historical account? What limitations exist in his narrative?


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