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© August 2005
revised 26 June 2008
This is a companion exhibit to the forthcoming e-text of Hobbes’ A Briefe of the Art of Rhetorique (1637) in the LIBRARY, to the forthcoming GALLERY exhibits on Athanasius Kircher’s Ars Magna Sciendi (item CAT. 1 in the gallery catalog) and John Bulwer’s Chirologia: Or the Naturall Language of the Hand (1644), to the forthcoming ISSUES webessays on gender and language, and to the forthcoming IN BRIEF topic on critical pluralism.
Because rhetoric was almost always figured as female, there is a contradiction between the iconography for Rhetorica and the theory & practice of rhetoric as taught in schools described by feminist critics as a male-dominated ritual of agonistic debate that turns on probabilities and ends with a winner and a loser. In the words of Miriam Brody,
Furthermore, because women have too often been denied citizenship rights and the ability to participate in public life, such classical definitions of rhetoric as “persuasive argumentation practiced by citizens” are now seen as excluding women and women’s rhetorical activities.
While it is true that “the Adversary Paradigm” cannot account for large portions of historical populations and significant kinds of suasory activities, the iconographic tradition indicates that this has not been the only view of rhetoric to hold sway, even within elite, educated circles.
The emblem for Rhetorick, as adapted from Cesare Ripa’s canonical Iconologia (1593; illustrated, 1603), shows
The “open Way” of Rhetorick suggests an adaptability and sensitivity to the occasion for speech, a more nuanced situational response that allows for shifting contexts including, but not limited to, the rituals of the agon.
And Rhetorick’s “Charms of Eloquence,” along with “her Sway over Mens Minds,” suggest commonplace stereotypes about the power of women’s speech (since Eve) in leading men astray. It was such worry over the proven seductiveness of women’s speech that prompted the many injunctions to silence found in hundreds of early modern texts. Ripa’s emblem for Persuasione (Persuasion) embodies centuries of accumulated anxiety over our psychological susceptibility to the communicative arts:
Yet, despite the range of cultural pressures they confronted, early modern women “were not interpellated into a tragic female speechlessness,” as Ann Rosalind Jones has rightly noted, adding that women of all ages “need to be read in relation to the male writers and male-defined discourses of their time”:
When William Cavendish advised his prince, the future Charles II, to implement educational reforms for girls as well as boys it was because women’s dissenting voices had proven suasory power. “The Bible In English under Every weavers, & Chamber maids Armes hath Done us much hurte,” he wrote to Charles. Hence, England can no longer permit “weavers to teach petty Scooles, And Expound the Bible, which hath added much to our miseries.” “Scoolemasters, from the petty Scooles, to the Gramer Scooles” should be carefully screened to ensure that “they bee orthodoxe according to the Church of England, & so to Educate their Puples.”
One cannot help but wonder if Charles recalled his old governor’s advice during an exchange on 11 Jan. 1664 with a Quaker woman petitioning the court. According to Pepys,
Regardless of how her petition was decided, the woman effectively made her case to the king, adapting her argument to suit royal whim without compromising core principles.
Aubrey gives additional insight into women’s kairic eloquence (at varying social levels) by describing how the same sociopolitical forces that afforded the Quaker woman new rhetorical powers inhibited those of the nurse and maid who, for generations, had successfully used “the bogeyman” to modify the naughty behavior of children:
Clearly, Rhetorick’s adaptive strategies were exercised in all of women’s spheres, domestic and public.
In a very smart essay, Tony Davies has explained how Elizabethan grammarians, orthographers and educators all regarded speech as the primary form of language, and writing as a second, imitative mode. This was in keeping with the central humanist concept of eloquence (from the Latin, “speaking out”) that is, voice as the authentic sign of being. Or as the Renaissance poet and playwright, Ben Jonson, put it: “speak, that I may see thee.”
Davies believes that the social valuations of a Renaissance phonocentric culture disadvantaged a range of people, including women and men affiliated with the new science (such as John Wilkins), many of whom turned to writing:
To Davies, 17th-century women who invented “writing-systems” and “domestic” genres were engaged in empowering acts. And he warns against feminists’ tendencies to romanticize oral culture: “speech, with its dominating presence and its ineradicable social accents” favors men, he writes; in fact,
Even if we admit that what Davies describes as the humanists’ “ebullient masculinity” (tied to “picaresque performative vocality”) is not shared by all men, there is still a sense in which the “spoken world” in patriarchal societies remains “paradigmatically male.” Despite the traditional figurations of Rhetorica, in many cultures, authoritative presence still attaches more to stereotypically masculine than feminine bodies and voices. The politically astute Elizabeth I, for example, knew that her authority rested on her ability to present a hybrid sex-gender; hence, her famous remark in the speech before the Armada:
Since at least the early modern period, women have complained of not being listened to, and of having their counsels ignored. But the fact that “all male and female talk occurs within a regime of male supremacy” is beyond the frame of Rhetorica iconography, as is disputation in general (sometimes labeled “Sophistae” and almost always depicted by the chaotic, battling figures of men). Significantly, this framing removes rebellious or indecorous language which challenges privilege and power differentials, or makes demands for social justice and accountability, from Rhetorick’s purview.
This has meant that we lack rhetorically-guided, non-adversarial models of critical pluralism (as envisioned, for example, by Iris Marion Young in her call for “an openness to unassimilated otherness”). bell hooks has written at length about the need for new rhetorics that build from, without suppressing, deeply rooted differences of belief (e.g., about honing “strategies of confrontation” that allow us to “engage in critical dissent without violating one another”).
A recent example of this is John Trimbur’s “rhetoric of dissensus,” which serves “as a critical instrument to open gaps in the conversation through which differences may emerge.”
Another example is Miriam Brody’s recommendation that we “imagine the metaphor of our public conversations as a design rather than a battle”:
And new practices of critical pluralism continue to emerge over Internet discussion lists and through the medium of e-mail (the electronic republic of letters). Writing in a 24 July 2005 opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, Michael Kinsley noted that
While Kinsley bemoaned the fact that “most of the e-mail I get doesn’t realize this potential,” I would counter that much of the e-mail I get does.
In a recent dispute about “frame theory” with an e-colleague, Mick McAllister of dancingbadger.com, the following exchange occurred:
Our dispute, which has in fact caused me to change my mind about a couple of related issues, is far from finished. And I think Mick would agree that it has been a good exercise in “collaborative learning” of the sort Trimbur advocates.
This GALLERY exhibit juxtaposes various images of Rhetoric, Persuasion, and Disputation/Contention to illustrate the arguments I’ve outlined here with this preview. Canonical as Ripa’s handbook of symbolism was throughout the early modern period, there were still plenty of authors and artists who creatively deviated from it, such as Johann Amos Comenius and Athanasius Kircher.
TOPICS: the allegorical use of the female form; woman-centered rhetorical studies; folklinguistic beliefs about women’s “marginalization” and “silencing” by patriarchy; feminist theory; changing rhetorical models
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