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January 31, 2008

the space for individual creativity in Bakhtin

I was really interested in the tension which I seemed to find in Bakhtin between a place for individual creative expression and the fact that all expressions are socially determined. He seemed to be saying that certain speech genres allow for more individual expression than others (which would imply at all utterances have this component to a greater or lesser degree). At the same time, he discounts ideas from figures such as Tolstoy, who want to put creative individual thought to the fore, saying that such individual expression is also determined by social milieu and audience. Taking his ideas to their conclusion could lead to a social determinism, it seems to me. Every utterance is dependent on every other and on the limitations of its particular speech genre.

His theory of language as socially constructed has implications for many fields. In studies of Language Acquisition, it would pit him against the innatist school and Chomsky. "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously" is a sentence which uses the tools of language creatively, but as an utterance it is non-existent, except in the social context of trying to prove Chomsky's theory. In Literary Criticism, a figure like William Blake would be seen as a product of his time (the utterances that came before him) rather than a genius ahead of his time, who has only recently gained his real audience. In Composition Studies, language as socially constructed clearly puts Bakhtin in the camp of Friere, Giroux and other critical pedagogues who claim that written expression always exists within a social (political) context and for a particular audience, rather than with Elbow and the expressivists who would claim that writing is for self-expression and therefore fall in with Tolstoy.

I am just curious as to whether Bakhtin would see himself with the folks in the paragraph above, or if he is simply emphasizing the social aspect of language to the extent that he does in order to correct a previous imbalance. Does he believe that individual creativity is a romantic myth, or does he simply wish to downplay its influence on rhetoric?


I found Bakhtin interesting. A lot of the questions that he raised made me think about things that I was aware of but had never paid that much attention to. The issue of how language is inseparable from human interaction is a sharp reminder of how the social aspect of our species has shaped our evolution.

I thought some of the insights on page 1215 were fairly striking. The reminder of how important a shared context is to communication stuck in my head. It made me think of a Star Trek reference that I will, due to what seems to be a popular aversion, refrain from illustrating here. I find it impossible to disagree with his statement that there is no such thing as an abstract addressee.

I do think Bakhtin is guilty of a recurring sin common to people who write about about communication. On pages 1223-1225 he wants to impose a very hard and unwavering analysis on how people interact with one another. I think that this is a doomed effort when a person is writing about something that is as ever-changing and amorphous as human communication. What he says is certainly insightful, but I don't think that is as absolute as he makes it out to be.

Bakhtin and intercourse

Logie endorsed an informal blogosphere....

Bakhtin is all about speech as intercourse. OK. "The actual reality of language-speech is not the abstract system of linguistic forms, not the isolated monologic utterance, and not the psychophysiological act of its implementation, but the social event of verbal interaction implemented in an utterance or utterances" (RT 2dEd. 1221). The purpose of language is to commune, not express. He calls it verbal/social intercourse. Interaction is the basic reality of language (1221). Meaning is not an internal process but a social product. I would like to understand better what he is saying about the different strata of behavioral ideology (1219) and the role of individual experience. Is he saying that experience is shaped by social circumstance and so even the inner private experience is based on interaction? From inner experience to outward objectification, "the whole route lies across social territory" (1218). It's late....

January 30, 2008

Bakhtin and rhetoric

Is Bakhtin rhetorical? Does he belong to rhetoric?

This is the main focus of this post for two reasons: one, Bakhtin is generally categorized as a linguist, linguistics being an endeavor that is (usually considered) distinct from rhetoric. Thus, the connections between rhetoric and linguistics will be the first thing that I explore here. Secondly, I’m writing to this question because the version of it that Logie gave us on the first day seemed to be fruitful, so perhaps it will be so again. As such, the second part of what I will explore here will look specifically at Bakhtin’s linguistic writings vis-à-vis conceptions of rhetoric I’ve set up in the first part.

I generally understand rhetoric to be, broadly, one of four things. First, rhetoric is the skilled construction of written or spoken discourse directed toward a delimited, socio-historical, cultural situation. I think this the most dominant conception of rhetoric and it seems to me that you can find some version of it in nearly any theorist from Isocrates to Bitzer and Black in the mid-20th century. Secondly, rhetoric is conceived as an educational practice. This is began in Isocrates, was made robust and canonical in Quintilian, and continued as a practice throughout the middle ages in the foundation of universities all over Europe, into the early modern/modern western world by scholars like Erasmus, and, we now know, Whately. Thirdly, the more marginalized conception of rhetoric, but nonetheless significant one in the history of the field, is philosophic rhetoric or rhetoric and dialectic or the view that language is crucially constitutive of ideas that are otherwise labeled as philosophy. This conception of rhetoric has been.. (I won’t say popularized, but advocated, perhaps?) by Ernesto Grassi and Hans Georg Gadamer in the 20th century. This third conception of rhetoric has historical antecedents in Vico, Italian Humanists, Erasmus, Cicero, and Isocrates. Fourthly, and finally, there is the entity that Ed Schiappa quite conveniently called ‘big rhetoric’. It is a rhetorical development that is confined to the last half of the 20th century and is characterized by ‘rhetorics of…’, the rhetoric of inquiry project, out of which comes the rhetoric of science, etc.

That being said, what then is linguistics? I understand it to be the scientific study of language-the principled, methodical, analysis of what it is and how it works, with, crucially definitional intentions. Linguistics breaks down language into discrete units that can be analyzed and categorized. A passage of Bakhtin’s “Marxism and the Philosophy…? seems to illustrate the methodical, definitional basis of linguistics, a quality that would putatively differentiate it from rhetoric. On p. 1212 (2nd ed), Bakhtin sets out to define the sign. He says “The understanding of a sign is after all, an act of reference between the sign apprehended and other, already known signs; in other words, understanding is a response to a sign with signs. And this chain of ideological creativity and understanding, moving from sign to sign and then to a new sign, is perfectly consistent and continuous: from one link to of a semiotic nature…we proceed uninterrupted to another link of exactly the same nature. And nowhere is there a break in the chain, nowhere does the chain plunge into inner being, non-material in nature and unembodied in signs?. This definitional treatment of discrete units that come together to make a structure called language seems to me to be decidedly different from what rhetoric historically or currently, is (see 1223). The concern with method, also, exemplified on p. 1222, seems to differentiate linguistics from rhetoric (except, during a short period of time beginning in the early 20th century and continuing into the mid-late when most of the humanities, rhetoric included became deeply, crucially concerned with method as a legitimating basis). Thus, in terms of his ostensible treatment of his subject, Bakhin’s thought in seems to belong to an area of inquiry that is methodically and conclusively different from rhetoric.

However, contrary to, say, Sausserian linguistics, Bakhtin is deeply concerned with the social, with language as a social phenomenon that acts on (through ideology) and is used by (in utterances) human agents. This idea of the social, of language use being a distinctly social activity, is absolutely foundational to all of the four conceptions of rhetoric I laid out. It might, in fact, be the only feature that aligns those otherwise disparate four conceptions of rhetoric. He seems to theorize an audience, so foundational to rhetoric, though his formulation of it (1212) is theoretically different that much of what would be found in the conceptions of rhetoric. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, he assigns a blankness or flexibility to language that is crucial for rhetorical notions of invention (1213).

However, again, there are ways in which it seems that his theories make anything we understand as rhetoric, impossible. For example, he says, in (section? Part?) II of “The problem of speech genres? (1232), “Still current in linguistics are such fictions as the ‘listener’ and the ‘understander’ (partners of ‘the speaker’), the ‘unified speech flow’..these fictions produce a completely distorted idea of the complex and multifaceted process of active speech communication…the fact is that when the listener perceives and understands the meaning…of speech he simultaneously takes an active, responsive attitude toward it. He either agrees or disagrees with it, augments it, applies it, prepares for its execution and so on. And the listener adopts this responsive attitude for the entire duration of the process of listening and understanding from the very beginning-sometimes literally from the speaker’s first word. Any understanding of live speech, a live utterance, is inherently responsive, although the degree of this activity varies extremely….?. I think this statement, while not actually making rhetoric impossible, might complicate how we think of rhetoric. Bakhtin, here is not going so far as to suggest communication is impossible in his theory but he is denying a certain transparency, or directness of communication (the ‘transmissive rhetoric’) that rhetoric, or the ‘rhetorics’ I’ve defined at the beginning of this essay, often rely on.

Thus, at the end, I’ve arrived only at a revision of my original question: How do we need to conceptualize ‘rhetoric’ so that Bakhtin fits in? Is it necessary to reconceptualize?

January 29, 2008

Results of experience in Campbell

I found it interesting that for Campbell, the results of experience seemed to inevitably point toward predictability. "As we advance in the study of nature, we daily find more reason to be convinced of her constancy in all her operations. That like causes, in like circumstances, always produce like effects..." He goes so far, it seems, as to include the human spirit or soul and psychology within this natural realm.

My experience of experience, so to speak, is the opposite. It often shows me that few things in life are predictable. How would Campbell respond to this? At what point do philosopher of rhetoric deal with experience as evidence of the absurdity and unpredictability of existence?

Campbell and memory - continued

Jumping off of what Meg said, I think that public memory scholars have indeed taken what Campbell wrote and pushed it one more step. Campbell’s initial conception of memory is what we might term “individual memory,? or memory that is obtained by individual experience. He writes, “Memory, therefore, is the only original voucher extant of those past realities for which we had once the evidence of sense? (914, 2nd Edition). Experience, and indeed repetition of experiences, makes an imprint on one’s mind. One can then assume that similar circumstances may result in similar ends (915). Campbell does expand memory to relate to collective experience as well. Memories that one did not experience oneself comes from past experiences that are accepted as general truths. For example, he writes, “Whereas sense and memory are conversant only about individuals, our earliest experiences imply, or perhaps generate, the notion of a species, including all those individuals which have the most obvious and universal resemblance? (916). Those species of memory, when investigated, often exhibit unique characteristics. It is at this point that public memory scholars have taken Campbell’s work and critiqued the rhetorical power of “species? of memory.

For many, public memory is the understanding that certain memories exist that hold one shared meaning for a population. In other words, memory can be understood in similar terms and can share similar assumptions within a given population. Memory scholars have fought to dissect public memories in order to expose their individual nature. For example, Abraham Lincoln is considered to be an American hero, and images of patriotism, heroism, and virtue accompany his legacy. Scholars have recently begun to delve into his own past, to take apart that universal, “official? memory narrative. Lincoln has since been critiqued as a racist and investigated on his sexuality. In my understanding, the point of public memory studies is to attempt to delve more deeply into memory, in order to discover each individual memory’s uniqueness, as Campbell suggests. Public memory scholars critique the fact that not enough of society does this.

Campbell’s notion of “experience,? might then be linked to what contemporary scholars might term “collective memory,? or memory that links individual experience with the experience of a group. Campbell finds this particular link in his discussion of “testimony.? He asserts that we must have faith in memory in order to understand any sort of evidence we might use (921). He writes, “As on memory alone is founded the merely personal experience of the individual, so on testimony in concurrence with memory is founded the much more extensive experience which is not originally our own, but derived from others? (919). We trust the testimony of others because we trust their memory. This is the point where memory can become rhetorical. Just as Campbell writes extensively about how to persuade certain audiences, he also writes that the speaker himself must be “wise and good? in order to have the most influence (937). Speakers should engage the help of memory. If the speaker is trusted enough, it might be assumed that memory can be used to the speaker’s rhetorical advantage, leaving the interpretation of its significance and meaning up to him/her. If audiences then absorb that interpretation, it might become universally understood “pubic memory.? This can be controlled by the orator. Once memory is controlled, it can become “official,? and turned into rhetorical public memory.

January 28, 2008

Memory per Campbell

I am intrigued by Campbell's suggestion that we have nothing better, or more, than memory: "the whole of evidence is reduced to the testimony of memory" (770). He rebukes the validity of axiom or Truth, and, in essence, seems to question whether anything is indeed "real" and reflects the fundamental proposition that the "real" is rhetorically created and then remembered. Even mathematical axioms, for Campbell, are but memories. Out of what memory, then, was meaning first formed? What was our first memory?

It seems that we all come together in communication with both individual memories as well as shared memories - is rhetoric the means by which these are reconciled with one another to agree upon meaning? Is persuasion a way to convince audience's that their memories are not as they seem? A current example: the Bush administration wants us to remember 9/11 a certain way. They need to recast what happened, what it means, and how it is related to other policy decisions. Perhaps whether or not we accept their telling of the story depends on both our individual memory and public memory.

A closer look at the public memory literature would be interesting in light of Campbell's view.

Richard Whately

I thought Richard Whately offered something a little different from our other readings thus far. This may just be me, but it seemed like a lot of the previous writers spent much of their time justifying rhetoric and explaining the need for it to the point where it became rather distracting. The basic sermon, preached again and again across the centuries, that humans are not completely rational creatures and that emotional manipulation through stylized speech is a necessary evil in steering opinion is one that I have become abundantly familiar with.

Whately, however, did not seem as tortured by the ethical questions surrounding rhetoric. There was not the same frontloaded argument concerning whether or not rhetoric was a "good" thing. His more objective analysis of how rhetoric works and the opinions of various iconic individuals regarding it was like a breath of fresh air. I felt I was finally being shown the tools for how to use rhetoric rather being subjected to abstract arguments concerning it.

A passage I particularly liked was on page 1008. Whately talks about how an important part of being a successful rhetorician is seeming like you're not especially trained in deploying rhetoric effectively. No matter how people are swayed by the manner in which someone says something, they still want to believe that it is what he or she is saying that is swaying them. I think this popular reluctance to recognize emotion's capability of overwhelming logic is one reason that emotional manipulation will continue to be so effective.

January 26, 2008


First, I must comment on the irony of the title of Locke’s treatise. He calls it “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,? yet the majority of what he discusses (at least in the excerpt we are provided by Bizzell and Herzberg) are the causes of human misunderstanding. Interesting…

As I understand Locke, he seems to outline a hierarchy wherein nature serves as the basis of human understanding: nature generates ideas in the mind, which are signified by words. The fewer ideas that are signified by a word, the less opportunity there is for one person to misunderstand another person. On the other hand, the more ideas that are signified by a word, the greater the opportunity for misunderstanding to exist. Nature, for Locke, seems to be the realm of simplicity and the standard back to which we must refer when misunderstanding occurs. The words people use to signify ideas vary, sometimes greatly, so nature must be appealed to as the standard for clarifying significations of ideas by words.

Another aspect of Locke’s essay that intrigues me is the socially constructive aspect of human understanding, and ultimately of reality. Locke puts forth his conception of how words signify ideas, sometimes simple ideas and sometimes complex ideas. However, he mentions several times how people can be in agreement or not in agreement about the ideas signified by words. For example, at one point he says, “Where shall one find any, either controversial debate, or familiar discourse, concerning honour, faith, grace, religion, church, &c., wherein it is not easy to observe the different notions men have of them? Which is nothing but this, that they are not agreed in the signification of those words? (819). Later, he says that, “There is no knowledge of things conveyed by men’s words, when their ideas agree not to the reality of things? (825). As I read Locke, he seems to be saying that language is a social construct that shapes reality. In general, I am intrigued by the intersection of language, meaning, and reality in Locke’s theory.

January 25, 2008


Reading Vico, I was struck again by how interminable the central controversy around rhetoric is. The fact that how one says something seems to be just as, if not more, important than what they are actually say is a wound that never seems to heal. People seem endlessly desperate for the kind of the truth that will blast through all the nonsense obscuring reality.

Vico is not immune from this. Unlike the sophists, he appears to believe in an eternal truth which he refers to on page 872. His defense of "eloquence" is partly rooted in the belief that it is through a knowledge of how to be eloquent that one comes to arrive at the truth.

But Vico's view is also shaped by pragmatic concerns and recognitions of the weaknesses within human nature. On page 868 he derides the idea that transcendent truths should be the focus of study for young intellectuals. They won't be able to get much out of such a pursuit and it will stifle their development. He goes on to point out that simply relying on truth to carry arguments is a demonstrably poor strategy for winning them.

This is because the human being, as he makes clear on page 873, is not an inherently rational creature. To be sure, there is a side of our personality that can be swayed by rationality. But there is another side that is governed by emotion that must also be appealed to. Eloquence is the way in which one does this.

Vico's ideal rhetorician, which he describes on page 872, is the one who is aware of both the the transcendent truth and the means by which people are convinced of things. And knowing how to construct a winning argument is as essential as being aware of the eternal truth. Eloquence, as Vico state on page 877, is a wisdom in itself.

January 24, 2008

The Exemplary Syllogism

All men die.
Socrates is a man.
Socrates is gonna die.

Testing . . . testing . . .

Is this thing on? CHek, 1-2, CHeck 1-2.