Monday, April 28, 2008

The Sound (of the) Opening Line

Let me start my little commentary on the first line of the Rhetoric of Aristotle and its feminist translation by saying something personal about me.

I have some awful affinity with Aristotle: I'm privileged (or right at the top of the heap) by virtue of my society’s values of gender, race, class, religion, education, profession, nationality, language, literacy, and technology.

The personal irony is this: I am no authority on the subject (i.e., “rhetoric”); I'm not a woman (if a “feminist”); and I speak and write only by living languages (such as “English”). When I do speak or write (for instance here on this blog), I can be difficult, weird, or downright intimidating. And what's more, as often as I can, I perpetually enjoy reminding myself that we are all outsiders to what Aristotle wrote; he wrote neither to us nor for us. He wrote for the special class of literate Greek boys who were forming and expanding the world for Pan-Hellenism.

From where we sit, here then is what I say:

Aristotle's feminist subject is ῥητορική. He’s got a serious problem when he opens a treatise by writing these words:

ἡ ῥητορική ἐστιν ἀντίστροφος τῃ̂ διαλεκτικη

But we’ve got a serious problem when we translate those words with these:

Rhetoric is an antistrophos to dialectic.

(Our academic translation, here, we get from rhetoric scholar George A. Kennedy).

Should we talk about Aristotle’s problem first, or ours?

Aristotle’s problem is this: He can’t define and classify this subject called ῥητορική (or “rhetoric”) without abandoning his big tool “logic” as the only big tool.

Oh, logic is his baby; really, he invented the word and the method: he calls it λογική. It’s a refining of the method for truth seeking of Plato, his teacher; Plato’s method is διαλεκτικη, which we’ve called “dialectic.” Logic is Aristotle's famous defining binary: X = X, but not NOT X. Aristotle is less interested in what the ideal truth and reality might be and is more interested in what his logic can tell him nature IS. By using logic, before he turns to his feminist subject, Aristotle has already defined and classified the following: dialectic, sophistic, philosophics, metaphysics, physics, ethics, poetics, politics, analytics, topics, sophistic fallacies, biologics, theologics, meterologics, motion, categories, and interpretation. By logic, Aristotle defines and classifies his privilege: males over females, Greeks over nonGreeks, free men over natural born slaves, and dialecticians over sophists.

But to define and classify this subject called ῥητορική, Aristotle has to use it.

Now our problem: our traditional academic translation (above) is snobby. It requires a dictionary, or a graduate education in rhetoric or in Greek classics or in philosophy or in some other such discipline. And even then, we just learn all the arguments over each of the technical terms--we're never sure we really get it, and that matters. For the common person, however, rhetoric is mainly just what the politicians and the lawyers and the used-car salesmen and the tv preacher and the madam in the brothel uses.

Our academic translation gives us no clue that Aristotle would have a problem. Our translation doesn’t even hint at the fact that “rhetoric” and “dialectic” are undefined. They are, at the very least, newly defined neologisms for Plato’s male students only. They are coined words. Everyone outside the academy—even girls and women—would know that a ῥητορ is a speaker and that διαλεκτος is “talking through” or “deciding on” something. But not everyone outside Plato’s academy would read Homer and Hesiod as ancient poetic stuff to despise, though all might hear the “-icky” suffix that is Homer’s and Hesiod’s rare play on the word “virgin”: Homer and Hesiod made a kind of sexist word when they said and wrote παρθενικῇ, something like “virgin-esque.”

Our academic translation provides no clue that “antistrophos” is a term used in poetry. Aristotle uses it, undefined, a couple of times a lot later in the Rhetoric when he’s disparaging the poets. The poets are as slippery with language as the non-dialectic, the non-philosophic, the non-logical sophists. They are as common as the uneducated classes, and as they women. In fact, they dupe the common people with language. Remember Homer’s and Gorgias’s plays on words around Helen, who went with the Trojans?

So listen to how rhetorical Aristotle’s opening line is. Hear how undefined and untechnical and unsnobby and uneducated and how feminesque and how common it is:

ἡ ῥητορική ἐστιν ἀντίστροφος τῃ̂ διαλεκτικη

The speakeresque is a creative turn taking different from truth through talkesque.


Daniel Olson said...

For the first time, I understand why you named your blog the way you did and where speakeristic came from. Rhetoric and dialectic seem less stuffy now.

J. K. Gayle said...


People who are rationalists, NTs (i.e., of INTPs of the MyersBriggs Type Indicator) tend to ask "Why," don't we? Funny, Aristotle, like Ms. Myers and Ms. Briggs had his four types of people (as noted in De Anima. Scientists, according to Alan Lightman, tend to name. Feels a little boxy for me nonetheless. There's something to "growth" and "maturity" and "relationship" and "love" that gets us people out of this named boxes. Ken Pike, the great linguist anthropologist rhetorician, said that whether we're observing from the outside (i.e., "etic") or inside ("emic") makes a world of difference. And he insisted that each individual one of us has much agency. We are all above logic, even if we have this propensity towards the rational, towards naming. Pike saw in the scientist Einstein the choice of perspectives: "particle" (like logical rational naming); "wave" (the flux that Heraclitus talked about); and "field" (the thing the Gestalt psychologists depend on)--light can be viewed as a thing, a dynamism, or in relation to velocity or time or matter. Pike also observed that language, at any level of observation, is N-dimensional. You can talk about it all day long, and then some. Observing and talking about anything actually changes us the observers. This is in the order of much good feminism.

So when you say you understand why I've named the blog "Aristotle's Feminist Subject" and why speakeristic, then I get why you say that. Warning: such observation changes you and now my blog. (I guess the scientist Heisenberg said things like this too). It absolutely freaks absolutists out. Plato and Aristotle and probably Socrates were a little freaked out by the sophists and poets (and women).

I'm yammering on, but this makes such a difference in translation.

I’m still playing with speakerist, speakerism, speakeresque, speakerness. How the term sounds, how sexist it might be, is no little thing.

The suspicion of Victorian transliteration of Greek terms as (distant and snobbish) “translation” dates back at least to 1573, when one Ralph Lever published “The Arte of Reason, rightly termed, Witcraft.” Lever translates “dialectic” as “witcraft”; “rhetoric” as “speechcraft”; “astronomy” as “starcraft”; “preface” as “forespeech”; and so forth.

One today who’s doing something similar with the New Testament is Willis Barnstone. I’m sure you know that Barnstone believes transliterations like “Jesus” and “Christ” and “Mary” rob the English reader of the gospels of the Jewish senses in the Greek translation of the gospel narratives. (I've blogged on Barnstone a bit).