Thursday, March 20, 2008

Lucy, you've got some 'splainin' to do!

This week, one of you kindly emailed me to explain a little better what I’m doing in my dissertation. This week, there are other good reasons to clarify feminism, rhetoric, and translation as I work with a text of Aristotle. So this is not going to be my 30-second cocktail party answer to “So, what’s your paper about?” I’ll just invite you to sit more comfortably now if you really want to know.

In the past few days, there have been some very unclear statements, weird and assuming statements, about feminism, about rhetoric, about translation. It’s as strange as those new DVDs of “I Love Lucy,” which have been dubbed over with Spanish, while Ricky says “splainin” and Lucy speaks even stranger bad Spanish in the episode “The Ricardos Visit Cuba.” It’s as unfortunate as Jay Heinrich’s 2007 pop rhetoric Thank You for Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson can Teach us about the Art of Persuasion, in which only 2 of the 25 chapters are written around women, and those particular 2 women are “Orphan Annie” and your “mother-in-law.” Weird assumptions on feminism, rhetoric, and translation.

Allow me to rehash those assumptions in light of current events: the U.S. presidential candidate news. Then I’ll get to my project.

Weird "Feminism" This Week:

Third-wave feminist Karen Agness writes “Gloria, Geraldine and NOW Do Not Speak for Me.” In this article, Agness is saying that she must speak for herself and that others do not, namely second-wave feminists Ms. Steinem, former VP candidate Ferraro, and the National Organization of Women. The weird thing about their feminism, for Agness, is that it has two characteristic weaknesses: victim mentality” and “nasty rhetoric.” And Hillary Clinton should not be like these feminists: To be truly equal, female candidates must accept criticism and defend their policies [without nasty rhetoric], just like the men and not [with victim mentality] cry foul and bias anytime they are criticized.” This, of course, reveals a weird assumption about rhetoric, perhaps: that rhetoric is characteristically “nasty.”

Weird "Rhetoric" This Week:

David Hoff (with an MA in Professional Writing and some experience as a Teaching Assistant for a Literary Studies course) writes on “Obama's ‘Yes, I Did’ Speech.” In this essay, Hoff does “a little rhetorical analysis” which deserves its own analysis. Rhetoric, assumes Hoff, includes a message that is “carefully crafted” as a “literal message” that’s a “reflecting (and refracting)” of a figurative message “fashioned” so that it “merges” some “many stories” that are “embedded” one within another. Such is “what copywriters in advertising call a ‘Dog Whistle’ message: terms that appear ordinary may be packed with significance for a certain intended audience with the ears to hear the Word (like an ultra- or sub-sonic frequency).” So Hoff gives us his “explicit translation by playing the [rhetorical message] backward.” Translation,” then, is characteristically a decoding of “nasty rhetoric.” Weird.

Weird "Translation" This Week:

Andrew Ferguson a senior editor of a conservative American op-ed magazine writes on “The Wit and Wisdom of Barack Obama.” In this piece, Ferguson says of the candidate, “Rhetorically, he is a master of le baloney,” the translation of which the writer helps us decode. Ferguson turns to “a French journalist…consulted” to help bloggers translate Senator Obama’s statement “We are the ones we've been waiting for”; then Ferguson begins to conclude, to decode the ostensibly nasty rhetoric of Obama as the American journalist quotes the Frenchman: He ruled summarily that, translated into French, ‘the Barack Obama sentence [le sentence de la Barack Obama] sounds weird to me’.” The assumption is that to decode what’s lost in translation, finding the original source text solves everything. So Ferguson finds the original text for us, in order to decode it as Obama's and his supporters' nasty rhetoric: The origins of the phrase aren't nearly so glamorous or exotic.” No; Obama's phrase originates from “the left-wing-radical-feminist-lesbian novelist Alice Walker [who] published a book of essays and called it We are the Ones We've Been Waiting For” and before that “from a poem published in 1980 by the left-wing-radical-feminist-bisexual poet June Jordan.” So there we have it. Nasty rhetoric in translation as decoded from the original by an editor of a conservative magazine: When Obama's supporters say ‘We are the ones we've been waiting for,’ what they mean is that in the long roll call of history, from Aristotle and Heraclitus down through Augustine and Maimonides and Immanuel Kant and the fellows who wrote the Federalist Papers, we're number one! We're the smartest yet! Everybody--Mom, Dad, Gramps and Grandma, Great Grandpa and Great Grandma, maybe even the Tribal Elders--they've all been waiting for people as clued-in as us! Did you catch Aristotle at the top of that orginary roll call? I did too. Don’t we need to say Weird all over again?

My Dissertation:

My assumption is that all men and women are created equal. First-wave feminists, rhetors, and translators such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Isabella Sojourner Truth, and Julia Evelina Smith Parker believed that too. Creation, as I understand it, is a kind of egalitarian humble speech act, a translation so that we can become and so that we can get where we are, who we’ve come from, and where we’re going.

So we don’t start with Aristotle, as the creator. He believed that females are naturally inferior to males; that rhetoric is inherently inferior to logic; and μὲν οὐ̂ν that a non-Greek translation is inferior to an original Greek text.

And yet many of us men and women realize how we must struggle with Aristotle as profoundly and unavoidably influential. Given Aristotle’s fundamental “ancient sexism,” some have, on the one hand, “found much to disparage and little to salvage in his philosophy”; others, on the other hand, “enter into new, creative, and subtle dimensions of inquiry about Aristotle…look[ing] more deeply into his influence and question[ing] the possibility of escape from it.” Among the others in this latter group are those who have written Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle. (And the quotations in this paragraph are from that book.) The presence of these women writing is fundamentally important because “[t]hough women are omitted from the canons of philosophy [by the likes of men such as Aristotle], these [male-only authored] texts inscribe the nature of woman.” Do we see irony? A woman created equal to man but silenced by a man can speak for herself about the silence.

But when Feminist Interpretations of Aristotle comes to rhetoric, the book stops short. It stops short not because there’s nothing for a woman to say about Aristotle’s rhetoric, but for another reason. The woman writing about rhetoric acts like Aristotle before we can take up the question of translation. Of the twelve writers, the only one who takes up the question of Aristotle’s rhetoric is the only one who is a rhetorician. She takes a different turn from all the previous writers. And she literally gets the last word in the book. She says: We do not need to justify feminist rhetoric by adumbrating its extremely tenuous lines of filiation with Aristotle. Feminist rhetoric can stand on its own as a legitimate project without authoritative male antecedents and to do so must bring into the light histories of the pedagogical traditions rather than leaving pedagogy obscured in the shadows of Aristotle’s Rhetorica.” In a footnote, she adds as tersely: I think that feminist approaches have little to contribute to our understanding of Aristotle’s Rhetorica and that Aristotle’s Rhetorica has little to contribute to feminist rhetoric.”

Now our problem with such a weird feminism, such a weird rhetoric, such a weird translation, is that it silences when it should listen and should allow the other to speak and should even invite the other to speak. A “feminist” and “rhetorician” who would “translate Rhetorica by Aristotle as something that might as well stay in his ancient Greek hands. Now that’s nasty backwards baloney.

My other assumptions are these. Feminists, like the one mentioned above, sometimes do not get past Aristotle’s behavior. That is, they are as snobby as he is sexist; they use his logic for their rhetoric; and they see as little value in his Greek texts as he sees in their womanly barbarian language. Likewise, hacks doing rhetorical analyses of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or Jeremiah Wright or John McCain or Martin Luther King Jr. or Jesus or Sojourner Truth often resort to Aristotle’s philosophy, to cold objectivism, which puts them high above. Similarly, some translators (even well meaning translators of the Bible) would silence women, will use Aristotelian logic, and do get so worked up about the “original” “source” text that they forget that it’s much a translation in the first place and that “person is above logic” (as one famous Bible translator puts it).

However, here’s what Aristotle could not get around. Aristotle the misogynist man could not get past the women created equal to him. Whether he likes it or not, he learns from his mother, his aunt, his wives, and his daughter, and from the women who’ve impacted his teacher Plato (Aspasia, Diotima, and Sappho, to name a few). Aristotle the logician could not get around rhetoric, which he acknowledges that women and non-Greek barbarians also use often better than men (and not in nasty ways). Aristotle the writer of Greek language could not do without translation as a generative process that doesn’t just decode his original Greek. Aristotle was not the original man or woman either. Hence, much overlaps in these three: 1) in feminism (assuming men and women are created equal); 2) in rhetoric (assuming that the logic which leads to sexism is not enough) and 3) in translation (assuming an ostensibly original text really depends on a respeaking in an other’s mother tongue).

What would it mean if Aristotle had to hear a barbarian woman reading his Rhetorica in her language, and if she knew his equally to hers? This is not like either Lucy or Ricky speaking English or Spanish badly once in the “original” language now more “lost” in the “target” language on a CD with voiceover dubbing; rather it’s more like a group of bilingual friends viewing the show together and laughing aloud as they talk about it—if you have to, you can videotape their party and put that on youtube. But no one is going to mistake English for Spanish or Aristotle for feminism. Rhetorical translation that’s feminist is like what Lydia H. Liu says translation really is: not a target text and a source text with the latter less equal to the former; but an older guest welcomed in by a younger host, where politeness and humility and good ambiguity are all the rage. Rhetorical translation that’s feminist is like what Kenneth L. Pike presumed it is in language learning; one of his teachers wanted the ideal of one meaning per word, and young Pike asked how then they could learn the other person’s language. And, so, our goal and method is more equal understanding.

(PS: Speaking of more equal understanding. Yes, my university’s divinity school has moved the event honoring a certain in-the-news personality off campus. What a weird mix of feminism, rhetoric, and translation this week! Next week I hope you won’t have to come back here, and I’ll be busy with the project again. Thanks again for stopping by.)


David Hoff said...

You must have followed a link to my portfolio to find that I've t.a.'d for Lit courses. Was it meant as a put-down to say I've T.a.'d for a few "literature" classes? You seemed to neatly exclude that my B.a and M.a are both in rhetoric and professional writing, and that I listed being a T.a.'d for a few courses on genres in business and academic writing. But I didn't include my Phd experience on the resume, considering, until the dissertation is done it doesn't count for much, does it? Did you see cute little "forest path" cartoon I made for Showalter's work charting the "wilderness" of feminist criticism?

"Dog whistle" is a common term in advertising as well as academic analysis of advertising--see James B. Twitchel's work, professor of English and Advertising at University of Florida.

Keneth Burke, the rhetorical theorist, coined the phrase "terministic screens" to describe the way words select, reflect, and deflect meaning. I've used "reflecting (and refracting)" to convey it without the isocolon, but if I was writing in a scholarly genre, I'd be sure to squeeze in more citations to please the academic crowd. Are you saying that language does not "reflect and refract" meaning? Or that Burke's notion of terministic screens is somehow antagonistic to "rhetoric"? Please correct me.

The pun, about playing two lines of Obama's speech backward, refered to: "the american people are hungry for this message of unity. Despite temptations..." (In other words, 'despite temptations...we hunger for the message of [Trinity United] unity". I'm sorry my irony wasn't stable enough. But as Wayne Booth writes in A Rhetoric of Irony, irony must always have victims, but “the building of amiable communities
is often far more important than the exclusion of naïve victims”.

You use a lot of quotation marks, so that your "irony" can't be distinguished from citations. I know I've ever used the phrase "nasty rhetoric" in my life. Are you refering to the common treatment of rhetoric as "mere rhetoric"? Maybe your scholarly instincts lapsed. At least you spelled my name right.

People might start to think Obama's an elitist or something, if it's "weird" to write about his sermonic rhetoric in anything but scholarly style. I don't advocate a view of rhetoric as "mere rhetoric", but I do think it's meretricious to imply, "I'm a Phd. candidate, and therefor an authority on the meaning of 'rhetoric'".

I guess my question to you is, what is rhetoric in your mind? Is it Aristotle's definition? Cicero's? Quintilians? Isocrate's? St. Augustine's? Francis Bacon's? I.A. Richard's? Richard Weaver's? Wayne Booth's? Lloyd Bitzer's? Jacques Derrida's? Andrea Lunsford's? Marc Fumaroli's? It's hard to tell because the deserving "analysis" you promise was just a jumble of quotes mixed with your ironic "quotes".

Good luck on your dissertation, Gayle. What the world needs now is more scholarship on Aristotle and Feminism that defies being "weird". I know that blogging is a way to break writers block and even to "vent", because Phd. life can be crazy. If you want to chew on something, I just started a longer version of the Obama article...check back in a week or so:

David Hoff

J. K. Gayle said...

Wow, David!

Thanks for coming over here and blowing your dog whistle.


I get it. Bravo. Really, I'm quite impressed with your comment and your question, and take your pokes back at me with much admiration. Literary, rhetorical, and a great example of good writing.


Thanks for declaring yourself as thenakedwriter (even if you're like the emperor with clothes on). Sincerely, that's a spectacular web site. Congrats. I look forward to your longer sermon on Senator Obama. (Did you see my longer riff on Professor Lakoff? Is he intentionally "professer" (sp.?) to you?)

Now, you've made me rethink "weird" all over again. But I do hear you about the needs for a less weird feminist rhetoric definition qua definition. Pondering at the moment how far down your "forest path" to wander.

Thank you very much for visiting here. Makes me think I'd like to hear more from you. All the best, and again, sincerely!

Dave H said...

Thanks. Sorry if I was strident and saucy. I used to hand out business cards with "Phd Candidate" written on it...perhaps he doth protest too much. Irony, and humor, has gotten me into enough spats that I refuse to use MSN or instant messangers.

To be honest, I was just surprised anybody read the article, let alone commented on it! :)

No, I did not intend to call Lakoff "professer" (with an 'e'). You might have noticed my tendancy for typos. My hand-writing is even worse. But I've survived this long on discovery by happy accident (serendipity), so why cry over spelt melk?

I really like web development, and collaboration tools. The Naked Writer site started out of a desire to try hosting my own Wiki. It's taught me that it's much harder to expose your writting to the public than I imagines--I have more respect for journalists who work under tight deadlines.

dave h said...

Speaking of which, I was going to start a Rhetoric Wiki (Rhetoriki) and collected 100 pages of notes from the comprehensive exam, and another 100 pages or so from an excellent survey of Rhetoric, which would be useful for seeding the wiki. It's already set up but hasn't been transfered to it's own domain yet:

I'll read your riff on Lakoff, and if you are interested in the Rhetoriki Wiki, send me an email and I will forward the notes I have, and maybe we can collaborte on getting them "seeded". We can talk more about it...

J. K. Gayle said...

Strident and saucy is rhetoric, David. Thanks for visiting again. Yeah, I love the idea of reading more of what we're doing (I've got the wiki too for translation). And yes let's talk about possible collaboration. Fun!