Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Aristotle's Hellenistic "rhetoric": (p)resuming "feminisms"

Aristotle makes no provision for the intellectual woman, except for his nod to Sappho: “Everyone honours the wise . . . . [T]he Mytilenaeans [honour] Sappho, though she was a woman” (Rhetoric 2.23.1389.b). Otherwise, Aristotle denied any philosophical or rhetorical contributions by women.

--Cheryl Glenn, Rhetoric Retold

h `wsper Sapfw,

`oti to apoqnwiskein kakon: `oi qeoi gar `outw kekrikasin: apeqnwskon gar an.

[as says Sappho,

To die is an evil. The gods, in fact, have so judged; otherwise, in fact, they would die.]

--Aristotle, The Rhetoric

For this project, I’m making (if also contending for) two assumptions. (Let's call them presumptions.) First, rhetoric is already inherently feministic. Second, the key terms (the very rhetoric) of the Hellenist language of the Rhetoric are much more “feminine” than previous English translations suggest.

(And I’m not just referring to Greek grammar but also to lexis and to what Helene Cixous might say is embodied femaleness in writing, “l'écriture feminine.” Isn't the body of Helen what Homer and Sappho and Gorgias, in Hellenistic poetic rhetoric, wrote of? Who inspired whom? Cixous’s feminisms might embody Nelson Goodman’s insistence on radical relativism within rigid restraints. Her feminisms should get at what Alan Lightman must do when he quotes Richard Feyhnman as saying: “What we need is imagination, but imagination in a terrible straightjacket.” And we might try to see, as Lydia H. Liu does, translation as more collaborations between “guest language” and “host language” and less as a “source language” perverted by a “target language”). So, rhetoric is already inherently feministic (if also masculinistic). This view is not unlike Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s starting points: that the public sphere, legal rights, and spiritual life are natural for women (if for men also). She, of course, re-reads rightly-enough and resistantly-enough the Declaration of Independence and the English-translated Bible; so she writes the Declaration of Sentiments (with her colleagues who elect her their spokesperson) and The Woman’s Bible (which is too feministic for some of her more-traditional co-suffragists).

With respect to Aristotle, I will assume that “rhetoric” was not his usual (masculinist) “project” of defining and classifying the subjects of his study. That is, for all the (man-ish) defining and classifying he does (or tries to do) in the Rhetoric, he was theorizing what others (including women, even Sappho) were doing when they did rhetoric; and what they did as rhetoric may actually have un-done Aristotle’s typical (male-oriented) project. (It has provided the means for the equal citizenship of women and the abolishment of slavery, two things the misogynistic, dominant Aristotle clearly wrote against outside of the Rhetoric).

To go on with this assumption, I have juxtaposed the two epigraphs above—Glenn’s and Aristotle’s quotations. Glenn’s quick conclusion seems to be that Aristotle only “nods” to Sappho “though she was a [mere] woman.” (Really, maybe that’s all Aristotle actually wanted to do; or maybe our English translations reinforce such a masculinist reading). Glenn in her correct recognition of Aristotle’s general position against women fails to say that the quotation she excerpts from the Rhetoric is ambiguous in Hellenistic Greek: that Aristotle may actually be quoting another male writer (i.e., Alcidamus) who gives the (Mytilenaeans’s) view about Sappho. In fact, Aristotle (a few lines beyond his quotation of Alcidamus that Glenn incorrectly attributes singly to Aristotle) goes on himself to call Sappho “wise.” Moreover, Aristotle then quotes Sappho herself in the context of his quoting Plato, Isocrates, and other exemplary (albeit male) rhetor(icians) (Rhetoric 2.23). Furthermore, earlier in Book I (chapter 9), Aristotle quotes Sappho, who rebukes (the male) Alcaeus for his silence due to his evil and his own shame. Likewise, Aristotle himself (in Book III, Chapter 3) rebukes the very same Alcidamus who seems to have given some praise to Sappho (through the Mytilenaens) “although she was a woman”: Alcidamus (with several other men) is charged with four counts of using language poorly. Aristotle, in contrast, only praises the rhetor(ician) Sappho as noteworthy.

If female-and-male rhetoric is not Aristotle’s typical project (i.e., both misogynistic views and masculinist binaries, in his works other than the Rhetoric), then one could ask whether Aristotle as a fledgling rhetorician became more of a rhetorician later in life than he was a scientist-philosopher. After reading Reclaiming Rhetoric, Rhetoric Retold, and Available Means, I can’t help but wonder how much rhetoric Aristotle learned from women.

What must his (male) mentors and friends have said to him as he ventured into theorizing (dame) rhetoric, the (untruths and uncertain) means of sophists? What had Phaestis taught her little Aristotle before they moved to Athens, before he learned to read Sappho’s poetry (grappling with issues of love and persuasion as did Homer and Hesiod and, later, Isocrates and Gorgias)? What had his mother taught him to prepare Aristotle to hear (of) Aspasia’s speeches (written for Pericles and written up by Plato) and Aspasia’s dialectic method (taught to Socrates and attributed only to him)? Once Aristotle’s mother passed away, what did his aunt Arimneste teach him when he lived in her home? Why did Aristotle ultimately move with his wife, Pythias, and his daughter (also named Pythias) to the island of Lesbos (of Sappho) to set up his academy? Had he not invariably and elsewhere theorized (these) women as lesser than man (in his blatantly misogynistic writings)? Thus, did he not have to reconcile his Rhetoric, on the rhetoric(s) of man (and woman), with his other writings? In his second paragraph, does Aristotle not depart from (undertheorizing, male) rhetoric(ian)s when he writes: Enqumematon . . . esti soma thj pisteoj? More personally now, have I (a man) not learned enough of the art of language, from (women’s) rhetoric, to see how (such a small beginning to) Aristotle’s Rhetoric can be (re)translated (i.e., feministically as: “The things of the heart . . . are the body of belief”)? Still, as Elizabeth Cady Stanton rightly says, “man cannot speak for her.” Thus, she would insist on the equality of woman and man, such that even a man can speak for him (what he’s learning from her).

Even if Aristotle never budged from misogynism or from his masculinist epistemology, even if he did not sometimes see himself more as a rhetor(ician) or didn’t become some sympathetic to the feministic of rhetoric), then the Rhetoric still shows, I believe, two important possibilities for reformations of the document by its (womanly) rhetoric therein. First, (even) Aristotle’s rhetoric (i.e., as not only theorized but as also employed in his Rhetoric) is wonderfully different from (Plato’s) philosophy and from Aristotle’s other defining and categorizing works (as works of a dominant, anti-woman, pro-slavery male). Specifically, rhetoric tends to be more inclusive of (gendered) persons (i.e., both women and men) while philosophy (and Aristotle’s epistemology and philosophic methodology) tends to work in exclusive (perhaps male-like) binaries. Second, with dramatically different results, a person may “do” philosophy (or any other discipline) rhetorically or may philosophically “do” rhetoric.

A second of my theses is that key terms of the original language are much more feminine than English translations have suggested. In Aristotle’s notes on rhetoric (i.e., the Hellenistic Greek language treatise, the Rhetoric), he works much more inclusively (i.e., with riveted attention to his audiences) than in his other works, and his rhetorical methodology is more than (mere bifurcating and classifying) philosophy. For example, Aristotle leaves key terms in the Rhetoric —such as our transliterated “rhetoric,” “dialectic,” “enthymeme,” “pisteis,” and “topoi”—undefined. (Okay, he seems to start with the definition of our transliterated rhetoric as the antistrophos of dialectic; and he later says, “let’s suppose rhetoric is the viewing of what might be considered the available means of persuasion.” But how sloppy are those definitions! Full of undefined terms!) Aristotle was not being careless; instead, I believe, he was to a large degree enacting (perhaps unconsciously, sloppily) the very rhetoric he theorizes. That is, by leaving central words without definition, Aristotle calls on his audience to co-create meanings with him. Furthermore, from the get go, he explicitly says that rhetoric is something “all people” do; but he also makes particular notes to individual audiences (such as his students, other rhetoricians, the person on the street, and so forth) in different sections of the document.

To read it differently, or rhetorically from a feminist perspective, the result is changed. Translation of the Hellenistic Greek can help or hinder. What if, as Jan Swearingen seems to exclaim, pistis has to do with the (womanly) qualities of belief and expression(ism)? What if en-thymeme had more to do with what is in-the-heart than with some “counterpart” to a formal method of logic? What if antistrophos was understood more as a “differing sister” (as both John Freese and Jeffery Walker suggest independently) or as a “different sort of turn” in which “turn” recalled something a human body (maybe even a woman’s body) had to do? What if topoi were “places,” even metaphorical, that connote the context of the physical body, of a non-abstract, fleshly situation? What if techne, as Janice Lauer understands it, is “skill” as generative, “productive knowledge” and not necessarily something in the middle between “theory” and “practice”?

A review of some of the regard women rhetoricians have for (feminist) rhetoric is important to show the need for the project of translating the Hellensitic language of the Rhetoric in ways understood (or marked) as womanly. Different rhetoricians have contributed and developed various aspects of women’s rhetoric. At the risk of essentializing their ideas, I summarize some of the central thoughts below.

Andrea A. Lunsford has stressed the need for women to reclaim rhetoric since rhetoric is a woman (i.e., Dame Rhetoric). Cheryl Glenn has emphasized work that is “tethered” to the (masculine) tradition (“Position”) but also regenders and remaps the entire history of rhetoric (by employing historiography, feminism, gender studies, and postmodernisms). Susan Jarratt has focused on memory and re-membering in her recovery of rhetor(ician)s such as Sappho. Michelle Ballif regards “little narratives” as ways to read resistantly and to undo the “master narratives” of the likes of Aristotle. Patricia Bizzell welcomes all the above mentioned methods and adds that emotion and subjective care plays an important role in feministic rhetoric. Helene Cixous critiques phallo-logo-centrism by calling women (and men) to l'écriture feminine or the writing of the (woman’s) body through awareness of embodiment. Nancy Mairs builds on the notions of embodiment by exploring multiple dimensions of the body, or poly-morphing as feministic. Charlotte Hogg embraces Montaignian essaying as (feministically) including the mundane in writing. And each of these scholars regards the other, the audience.

Aristotle’s Rhetoric is as feminine as the art of rhetoric and as womanly as the history of (even) classical rhetoric. Hence, through translation, it can be . . .




regarded as not so grand and as not so authorized and as not so canonized;

And, through translation, it can. . .

include subjective, emotive elements;

refuse abstraction far beyond the human body;

be polymorph-y if also binary;

be mundane if regarding style;

relate sensitively to various readers.

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