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
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,
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.)