Sunday, May 19, 2013

Toward an Understanding of Global Rhetorics

          As the title of this entry suggests, my argument here is tentative, and preliminary.  My hope is to inaugurate a discussion that resituates the content and practice of teaching first-year Rhetoric and Composition within a broader, global perspective.  In U.S. universities, first-year writing courses are almost universally taught from a ‘western’ perspective.  Although that cultural designation is rarely made explicit, the assigned and anthologized authors, and the theorists of rhetoric, are consistently European or North American.  This reifies a disciplinary identity and pedagogical practice that effectively excludes several significant traditions in reasoning, argumentation, and composition that have existed, in parallel, in other places.
          It is possible for me to make this argument, I think, because I am an outsider in the field.  My Ph.D. is in Comparative Literature.  I specialized in comparative colonial and postcolonial studies.  In other words, like many teaching writing today, I did not major in Rhetoric and Composition.  When I came to my current position, an Assistant Professor in a Writing Program, I had to learn about teaching writing.  I began to inform myself.  I looked through numerous anthologies and rhetorics and our own Writing Program Coursebook.  I read current journal articles to understand the state of the field and the practice.  And I saw that it all seemed very ‘western.’
          Everything always starts with Aristotle, you maybe move on to a bit of Cicero, occasionally you get a side of Bacon, and of you course end up at Kenneth Burke.  These authors are never explicitly labeled as  ‘western,’ but that is a silence which in itself reproduces the notion of the ‘western’ as being the norm, the standard, the canonical, without needing to say so.  In all these anthologies and articles, ‘other’ traditions are rarely talked about.
          But, these are observations readily made.  Other scholars in the field have identified these fundamental aporia and tried to move beyond them. Wendy Hesford's recent essay offers an excellent overview of this work, but in itself does not articulate a synthesizing argument or vision for answering the problem.   George Kennedy’s groundbreaking book, Comparative Rhetoric, presents an ambitious theory and surveys several rhetorical traditions; however, it leaves out the immense archives of Arabic and Persian rhetoric and textual theory, and includes an old-fashioned discussion of India and China.  For example:   
     India, where time often seemed to stand still, developed no strong historiographic tradition; until the invasion of     
     Alexander the Great in the late fourth century BCE, dates and details of political history are much more scanty than in 
     the early history of Mesopotamia, Egypt, or China.  There is a vast body of ancient Indian literature…most of this 
     literature is religious in nature and reveals little about public address in secular  contexts.
The Orientalist stereotypes, in a work from 1997, are shocking: a timeless, ahistorical India that learns history from Greeks and is religious essence.  A significant rhetorical tradition that dates back over three thousand years and continues to this day should be not be framed in these ways.
          Generalizations of this sort are largely absent from Carol Lipson’s and Roberta Binkley’s collection of essays, Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks.  Indeed, their work includes a compelling section on teaching global traditions in the context of composition, although the authors in their volume focus on Egypt, Mesopotamia, Israel, and China, so yet again, India is left out, as are the Arabic and Persian traditions.
          A consistent pattern that emerges from all of this work that has been done on ‘world rhetorics’ is that it frames the ‘global’ in terms of the ‘ancient.’  They take a fundamentally historical approach.   The ‘world’ traditions are in the ancient past, and the modern, living site of rhetoric is the West.
          This ‘ancient’ and dead framing is eschewed by the large and recent body of work on the rhetoric of the first nations, but the emphasis in many of those discussions is the writing that was produced in the contact zone when the first nations met the west.
          The emergent field of Cross-Cultural Rhetoric offers several models for approaching writing in global ways.  Alyssa O'Brien, a leading innovator in the field, emphasizes teaching  present-day intercultural competencies, but this may be at the expense of the genealogical and contextual conditions that produce the essays and collaborative discussions in which her students participate. 
          After noticing this absence of the global as equal and living co-creators of theories of rhetoric and composition, my postcolonial training kicked in and I began to think how to approach this, what insight can this structural blindness provide?  I’ve formulated three questions that I’m still working through.  Can scholarship on Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, and Chinese philological and grammatical      traditions create a space for understanding global rhetorics? Can the current framiing of rhetoric be understood as a ‘westernization’ along the lines of what Martin Bernal argued in Black Athena? How do we avoid an ‘anthropological’ approach, in the sense of this is what ‘the other’ does, this is how ‘the other’ writes?
          I hope to embark in a few different directions from what has preceded, by first opening up the definition of ‘global rhetoric’ so as to include examples from early modern philological and grammatical traditions.  These are: the Zahirites of Moorish Cordoba (Arabic), Yan Roju (Sino-Tibetan), Melpathur Narayana (Sanskrit), and Siraj al-Din Ali Khan (Persian).
          Philology might be a slightly vague and passé term, and it might not seem directly related here, but including  philology actually harks back to early conceptions of Rhetoric and Composition. Ross Winterowd, the founder of USC’s original Rhetoric program and inspiration to many who followed, always insisted on the tripartite: Rhetoric, Linguistics, and Literature formulation. More recently, Sheldon Pollock's defense of philology offers some compelling connections to think through.
          For Pollock, an Indologist, philology is more than comparative grammars and syntaxes, it is more than close reading, it is, “the discipline of making sense of texts – the theory of textuality as well as the history of textualized meaning.  philology is and has always been a global knowledge practice.”  In his essay Pollock discusses Yan Roju’s work in China, and Narayana’s and Siraj al-Din Ali Khan’s work in India, who were all writing around the 16th to 17th centuries, and the way he talks about them – their attention to context, their theorizing methods for interpretation, their attention to the reader-writer transaction, their connecting historicism and humanism – all suggest that these early modern philologists from around the world can inform the future of rhetoric and composition. Similarly, Edward Said's discussion of the Zahirites in Cordoba also includes a discussion of the theory of lanuage, and of grounding arguments, that applies to how composition teachers talk about rhetoric.
          So, although Pollock and Said are in very different fields – Comparative Literature, and Indology,  their discussion deepens the comparative contextualization of rhetoric begun by Kennedy, Lipson, and Binkley. Moreover, their examples restore some of the continuities and contentions between the global ‘ancients’ and the global ‘moderns.’ 
          Here I hope to apply and modify some of Martin Bernal’s arguments in Black Athena and postcolonial theory. Bernal’s work meticulously argues two points. First, there was a whitewashing of the ancient model  - the ancient Greeks recognized the influence of Egyptian and Semitic cultures on them, but, those influences were minimized and silenced in favor of the theorized Indo-European invaders from the north.  Ancient Greece was ‘moved up’ away from the Mediterranean, and into ‘Europe.’  This was done, ironically, by philologists of the 19th century. Bernal’s second argument flows from his first: the creation of the ‘classical world’ as we knew it up until a couple decades ago happened through modern racist frameworks.
          Put another way, the classical world, and by extension classical rhetoric came out of a very particular moment in the 18th and 19th centuries: the Enlightenment, the modern state, the institutionalization of law and rhetoric, and the imperial situation.  To understand global rhetorics, we have to understand these intersections.
          Global rhetorics are living traditions which still inform rhetorical and textual practices today. In looking at them this way, we can avoid the notion of ‘rhetorics of the world’ – which runs the risk of essentializing some sense of difference and ‘otherness’ inherent in various cultures and categories. My intention is not an ethnographic or anthropological survey of how ‘others’ did rhetoric.  I also don’t want to compare or map onto ‘other’ rhetorics the labels and terms that we use from Classical Rhetoric. Rather, my project seeks to explore the possibilities in diversifying how we learn and teach rhetoric and writing – not so that they can be labeled ‘Chinese,’ ‘Arabic,’ ‘Sanskrit,’ and ‘Western,’ but rather so that the various modes and methods can be understood on their own terms, and for their situational effectiveness. 
          Understanding global rhetorics in this way bears great potential in the first-year composition classroom.  Teaching global rhetorics will help students to recognize rhetorical situations that ‘western rhetoric’ doesn’t prepare them to see.  Persuasion, analysis, criticism, personal expression, there are indicative of a certain structure, approach and mindset.  But, comedy, healing, conciliation, silence, these are also rhetorical purposes that have their place in a composition course.
          Responding to the changing demographics of undergraduates, and preparing for the future of the American university and the future of Rhetoric and Composition will involve teaching students and teaching teachers in new, innovative, and inclusive ways.  The richness of intellectual diversity brought to American universities by foreign students and foreign professors should be embraced as generative resources for the future of Rhetoric and Composition, not anomalies which need to be remediated and compartmentalized.  In order to do this it is necessary to interrogate our discipline’s own constructedness and recognize the original forms of knowledge that emerge from a globally-informed episteme.  Working toward a new understanding of global rhetorics will force us to redefine how we assess the notion of ‘basic writing skills’ in international and minority students, interrogate what it means to normalize them into the ‘academic discourse community,’ and at the same time broaden the civic work of rhetoric and composition in such a way that expands the critical imagination and pluralizes social awareness. 
          I know all of this cannot be achieved by one person.  My hope is that more scholars will join this conversation, enrich it, and help in pursuing further questions: Would an understanding of global rhetorics alter the objectives and outcomes of a first-year composition course, or would it reaffirm its most fundamental principles? What would teaching global rhetorics look like in the writing classroom? How would a reading list be determined?  How would we teach process differently?  What would a grading rubric look like?  How would assessment work?