Saturday, August 25, 2007

Stopping to Do the Dissertation

My dissertation committee has kindly approved a very long prospectus. And a few others have generously read and graciously commented on this blog. Now it’s time for me to focus my time and effort rather exclusively on the writing of the dissertation itself. (This is the announcement of my sabbatical from the blog, a synopsis of the project). So what is my dissertation?

Here’s a five-paragraph summary statement of what I’m doing.

The spoken and written language of the ancient Hellenes is, I believe, the kind of communication that feminists today, especially Nancy Mairs, would call “woman’s language” and “feminine discourse.” (We all might agree to call that rhetoric.) In such language, in the Greek of Helen, Aristotle wrote what he himself called Περὶ Ρήτορικη, the treatise we translate the Rhetoric.

The big irony, of course, is that Aristotle’s method (which we call Aristotelianism) is not woman’s language, is not feminine discourse, and is neither very rhetorical nor very like Helen’s Greek at all. Aristotle’s method is to define specifically and to classify generally any given subject in nature. Indeed, Aristotle’s procedure forces a definite “either / or” binary on the subject of investigation in order to sort it onto the hierarchical map of knowledge. (And, in fact, by Aristotle’s scheme, “man” is above “woman,” “logic” is above “rhetoric,” a “master” is above “natural born slave,” and “Greeks” are different from and above all others, all “Barbarians.”) Such Aristotelianism is what Mairs calls “the fundamental structure of patriarchy,” “the language of opposites,” and “the dominant discourse” of our western culture ever since Aristotle.

So let’s be clear about the irony. Aristotle had to use woman’s language (i.e., ancient Hellenist Greek) in order to erect the fundamental structure of patriarchy (i.e., Aristotelianism), which, in turn, attempted to subjugate woman and her language.

This irony has been lost on translators. Furthermore, translators of the Rhetoric (i.e., from the written Hellene into written Latin or written French or written English) have merely employed the dominant discourse method (i.e., the language of opposites). As a result, many feminists have (rightly) rejected Aristotle’s Rhetoric – and even ancient Hellenist rhetoricS – as propaganda for the kind of logic that founds misogyny. Nonetheless, Aristotle could not get around using feminine discourse, the rhetorics of Helen. Of course, certain individuals would not have missed the irony: Pythias Aristotle’s wife and Pythias their daughter and Aspasia his friend (or at least his friends’ or his teacher’s friends’ friend).

We might try, today, to read Aristotle’s Rhetoric the way Pythias, Pythias, and Aspasia might have read it. My dissertation is an attempt to retranslate the treatise into English from the language of Helen (i.e., the language of Sappho, of Homer, of Hesiod, of Gorgias, of Aspasia). And, rather than resorting to Aristotle’s dominant binary method, I’d like to translate his statement on Greek rhetoric Hellenistically, rhetorically, feministically by a method Aristotle could not get around, by (what Mairs calls) “an absolute and radical alterity that enfolds the other . . . [that] shelters and nourishes . . . [in] a babel of eroticism, attachment, and empathy.” We might entitle it, we might translate it Περὶ Ρήτορικη, Around Speakerly-ness.

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