Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Rhetoric of Now: Memory

Update: In the comments, John points out (rightly) that I've misremembered some details of the Simonides legend. Specifically, although there's a forensic aspect to the case, it's really about identifying the bodies. Thanks to John for alerting me to this. Corrections are marked below: deletions are marked by strikethrough and additions with underlining.

Apologies for the long delay since the last installment. This entry, for Memorial Day, is on memory.

In classical rhetoric, skill in memory was considered essential to good speaking and good citizenship. Memory is one of rhetoric's five parts or "canons" (the others being invention, style, arrangement, and delivery). Memory supplied the speaker with anecdotes, examples, and maxims that could be brought to bear in a variety of situations. It allowed the speaker to connect with his or her audience, bring forth detailed examples, and energize a dry or abstract discussion.

Our current administration does not seem to share this exalted view of memory. Consider the U.S. attorney firing scandal. In his March 2007 testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee, Kyle Sampson "used the phrase 'I don't remember' a memorable 122 times," according to the Washington Post's Dana Milbank. Alberto Gonzalez couldn't quite match that in his testimony: he only "said 71 times that he either could not recall or did not remember conversations or events." President Bush responded to this attack of amnesia with sympathy, noting that the Attorney General "answered every answer he could possibly answer, honestly answer." Well, if you're only talking about honest answers . . .

What I want to address here is how the administration, for all its forgetting, uses and abuses memory as a central tool of policy.

In the Institutes of Oratory, Book 11, Chapter 2, our old friend Quintilian notes how memory comes and goes:

Most . . . are of opinion that certain impressions are stamped on the mind, as the signets of rings are marked on wax. But I shall not be so credulous as to believe that the memory may be rendered duller or more retentive by the condition of the body. I would rather content myself with expressing my admiration of its powers as they affect the mind, so that by its influence, old ideas, revived after a long interval of forgetfulness, suddenly start up and present themselves to us, not only when we endeavor to recall them, but even of their own accord, not only when we are awake, but even when we are sunk in sleep. This peculiarity is the more wonderful, as even the inferior animals that are thought to lack understanding, remember and recognize things, and however far they may be taken from their usual abodes, they still return to them again. Is it not a surprising inconsistency that what is recent should escape the memory and what is old should retain its place in it? That we should forget what happened yesterday, and yet remember the acts of our childhood? That things should conceal themselves when sought and occur to us unexpectedly? That memory should not always remain with us, but sometimes return after having been lost? (Emphasis added)
Memories get classified and categorized in a variety of ways. One type of memory viciously exploited by the Bush administration is the so-called "flashbulb memory." This is the memory (often recalled in vivid detail) of a major traumatic event, sometimes a public one like the Kennedy assasination, the Challenger disaster, or September 11. For a time it was thought that flashbulb memories were quite accurate because the trauma fixed the memory very quickly. More recent research, however, has shown that flashbulb memories change over time. A 2004 study by Weaver and Krug (published in the American Journal of Psychology) examined flashbulb memories of September 11. The authors found that people have high confidence in their 9/11 memories but that memories declined in accuracy over time. What this means is that later surveys found that recollections of September 11 matched less and less with what the subjects reported in the first 48 hours. (The abstract and citation info are here; I can send you a PDF of the whole article if you drop me an email.)

Interestingly, memories of September 11 reported a week or more after the event remained consistent. Weaver and Krug refer to this week-long period as consolidation:
During this consolidation processes [sic], memories are especially malleable. Information can be added to the memories (such as watching the video of the first plane hitting the World Trade Center). Even more likely, details can be lost; recall that at one time on the morning of September 11 there were reports of a car bomb exploding outside Capitol Hill. For most of us, this information is no longer a part of our memories of that morning. Some events whose significance is not apparent at the time occupy a greater role in our memories than they may have occupied during the actual event. Other events that appear to be significant turn out not to be and therefore are discarded. (Weaver and Krug 526)
I bring this up because the memory of September 11 is one of the favorite images of the Bush administration. Unlike the Attorney General's memory lapses, Bush's invocations of "the lesson of September 11" are beyond counting. I have no doubt he will invoke it today, Memorial Day 2007. Yet even in this slight shift — from memory to lesson — we see the transformation of image into emblem, of was into ought, of fact into mission.

For President Bush and his enablers, every new death is a memory to be exploited, a confirmation that we should never forget "the lesson of September 11" — even though whatever lesson September 11 offers is a lesson President Bush has never learned.

We must resist this transformation. We must refuse to consolidate the memory of the newly dead in Iraq with the events of September 11.

But does this do any good? In his heartbreaking op-ed in the Washington Post, Andrew J. Bacevich thinks not:
Not for a second did I expect my own efforts to make a difference. But I did nurse the hope that my voice might combine with those of others -- teachers, writers, activists and ordinary folks -- to educate the public about the folly of the course on which the nation has embarked. I hoped that those efforts might produce a political climate conducive to change. I genuinely believed that if the people spoke, our leaders in Washington would listen and respond.

This, I can now see, was an illusion.

The people have spoken, and nothing of substance has changed. The November 2006 midterm elections signified an unambiguous repudiation of the policies that landed us in our present predicament. But half a year later, the war continues, with no end in sight. Indeed, by sending more troops to Iraq (and by extending the tours of those, like my son, who were already there), Bush has signaled his complete disregard for what was once quaintly referred to as "the will of the people."

(If you haven't read Bacevich's op-ed, please stop now and read it. Come back only when you've stopped shaking.)

For all of us who want to end this war, this past week has been profoundly disappointing. But I think Bacevich sells himself short. All our voices have not (yet) stopped this war. But our voices, added to the memory of this grim time, may help those who come later build a country again.

One of my favorite lines in Apocalypse Now is spoken by the crazed Lt. Col. Kilgore, played by Robert Duvall: "Someday this war's gonna end..." That he does not finish the sentence suggests both that he is happy with perpetual war and that he has no idea how to deal with peace.

Listen folks: Someday this war's gonna end. All our voices together may or may not hasten its ending. But the memory of what we said and did will help us complete that sentence for ourselves and for each other.

Did you know that the art of memory was invented? Yes, it's true, or so they say: by the Greek poet Simonides of Keos. But get this: the art of memory was invented to investigate the murders caused by aftermath of a collapsed building. Here is how the Renaissance rhetoric scholar Thomas Wilson tells it in his The Arte of Rhetorique, Book III. I've modernized the spelling a lot and the punctuation just a bit.
The invention of this art is fathered upon Simonides; for when the same man (as the fable records) had made in behalf of a triumphant champion called Scopas for a certain sum of money a ballad such as was then wont to be made for conquerors: he was denied a piece of his reward, because he made a digression in his song (which in those days was customarily used) to the praise and commendation of Castor & Pollux (who were then thought being twins, & got by Jupiter to be gods) of whom the champion willed him to ask a portion, because he had so largely set forth their worthy doings. Now it chanced that whereas there was made a great feast to the honor of the same victory, and Simonides had been placed there as a guest, he was suddenly called from the table and told that there was two young men at the door, and both on horseback, which desired most earnestly to speak with him out of hand. But when he came out of the doors, he saw none at all: notwithstanding, he was not so soon out, and his foot on the threshold, but the parlor fell down immediately upon them all that were there, and so crushed their bodies together, and in such sort, that the kinsfolk of those that were dead, coming in, and desirous to bury them every one according to their calling, not only could they not perceive them by their faces, but also they could not discern them by any other mark of any part in all their bodies. Then Simonides well remembering in what place every one of them did sit, told them what every one was, and gave them their kinsfolk's carcasses, so many as were there. Thus the arte was first invented. And yet (though this be but a fable) reason might beat thus much into our heads, that if the like thing had been done, the like remembrance might have been used. For who is he that sees a dozen sit at a table, whom he knows very well, cannot tell after they are all risen, where every one of them did sit before?
Let me translate: Simonides gives a poem in praise of Scopas, but wasn't paid fully because Simonides had also praised Castor and Pollux in the same poem. Simonides gets called out of the banquet room by two young men; nobody's there when he checks, but the building collapses right then and kills everybody; the bodies are unrecognizable. Simonides, however, remembers who sat where, and by careful examination, identifies the bodies. he determines the killer to be those who survived. In other words, Simonides used memory evidentially. , to find the perpetrators.

The Bush administration has used memory in precisely the opposite manner: to obscure rather than discover; to create fantasy enemies rather than to locate those who have already attacked. For the Bush administration, it is not only the victims who are unrecognizable; it is also the attackers, who bloat and swell into a phantasmagoria of Muslim evilness.

We must not allow our anguish over this week's vote to blur our memory of what happened. Not all Democrats voted to capitulate; not all Democrats who did are unredeemable otherwise. Let's not consolidate too quickly; let's be subtle and forensic, and let's contribute to the memory we can use to recover.

In ancient rhetoric, memory was an oral art, meant for use in legal and political speech-making and debate. Now, of course, we have memory systems: libraries, archives, and — oh yeah — the internets. Little of what we say or write will affect deliberation today or tomorrow. But someday this war's gonna end. And when that happens, we have to remember what was good about this country, and bring it back.

A small note in conclusion. We don't have many of Simonides's own poems: those we do have are fragmented. One well-known epitaph on a tomb reads: "Stranger, bring the message to the Spartans that here / We remain, obedient to their orders." For me, the power of this poem is the distance between its "we" (the dead who speak it) and "their orders."

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Another fragment reads: "Not even the gods fight against necessity." I can imagine every Senator and Representative who voted for a blank check reciting these lines. But they are wrong in two ways: a blank check is not a necessity, and elected officials are not gods.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Mr. No Corruption

I won out over Bono
To run the World Bank
Then Saha she said "Oh No
My job is in the tank"
I placed a few quick calls
To some old friends at State
Diplomacy's all right
Only when it gets you laid

Now it's come back to bite me
My bank life ends too soon
Retirement's come early
I'll leave the end of June
I managed to hang on
Just long enough to lance
The boil I call multi-
Lateral finance

I'm Mr. No Corruption
Top fox in the henyard
Excuse me while I play my
Golden parachute last card.

for Paul Wolfowitz, with apologies to Warren Zevon

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Some Missing Poets

Ron Silliman's blog is remarkably good. He just turned me on to the Eclipse archive, and for a lark I clicked on the archive label to see what I'd missed. Through this, I found two sites offering competing versions of UK poetry. Silliman compares as follows:
Archive of the Now is, on day one, the most significant new site for poetry I’ve seen in well over a year. It is a perfect complement to the Archive of the Then, Andrew Motion’s slick gathering of so much that is kitsch, the Bathos of Britain into which he & his colleagues have dropped a few token gems to dress the dross, with its megalomaniacal “world's premier online collection” claim on its home page.
Let me note that neither site contains anything by Basil Bunting, Austin Clarke, or David Jones. None of these would reasonably be expected to appear in Archive of the Now. But the Poetry Archive (Motion's site) should have all of them. Indefensible.

I've long thought that these three poets had a lot in common. A few commonalities:
  1. They were all interested in carrying on Modernist projects in contexts hostile to Modernist poetics.
  2. They were all interested in alternative prosodies that drew from minority traditions in English. Clark and Bunting, for example, were both interested in schemes
    of assonance prevalent in earlier poetries. (And not in the
    decorative way such prosodies were exploited by Auden.)
  3. All operated on the margins of publishing, and all shunned traditional career paths.
  4. All, but especially Bunting and Clarke, had publishing histories marked by extended silences (much like George Oppen in the US.)
There's a whole book to be written about these three. By someone with more time than I have.

Friday, May 04, 2007

Must ... resist... blogging ...

I really appreciate those who have commented here and at Kos about the Rhetoric of Now series. I'm pretty jazzed about it; it seems to satisfy something at the core of me, and it's profoundly moving to have so many notes of appreciation over at the Big Orange. But there will be a brief delay; I've got to wrap up another project, and so I won't be posting a new installment until at least the middle of next week.

National Clearinghouse on Academic Worklife

Via Zuska, we learn of an excellent new website for academics: the National Clearinghouse on Academic Worklife. A description:
Today, college and university faculty members face many challenges, including an increasingly diverse workforce and new models for career flexibility. The National Clearinghouse on Academic Worklife (NCAW) provides resources to help faculty, graduate students, administrators and higher education researchers understand more about all aspects of modern academic work and related career issues, including tenure track and non tenure track appointments, benefits, climate and satisfaction, work/life balance, and policy development.
An important resource, especially for young academics.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The Rhetoric of Now 3: Ethos (George Tenet edition!)

This is the third entry in "The Rhetoric of Now," my series on how we can change our current political climate by understanding and employing concepts from the rhetorical tradition. The first entry was on stasis or framing of questions; the second was on kairos or rhetorical time. This entry will be on ethos.

Let's start with something George Tenet said on 60 Minutes this past weekend:
You know, at the end of the day, the only thing you have is trust and honor in this world. It's all you have. All you have is your reputation built on trust and your personal honor. And when you don't have that anymore, well, there you go.
George Tenet is a Greek American. I'm not sure how these concepts -- honor, integrity, reputation -- would be expressed in modern Greek. But in ancient Greek rhetoric, they all lead toward the crucial rhetorical concept of ethos: character, reputation, trustworthiness.

At some point in your education, you may have heard the term ethos, probably accompanied by its constant companions logos and pathos. But what do they mean? These three terms are what Aristotle called pisteis, or means of securing persuasion. Here's how Aristotle lays them out in the Rhetoric, Book 1, Chapter 2. (I'll highlight the parts about ethos).
Of the modes of persuasion furnished by the spoken word there are three kinds. The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker; the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind; the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself. Persuasion is achieved by the speaker's personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible. We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided. This kind of persuasion, like the others, should be achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of his character before he begins to speak. It is not true, as some writers assume in their treatises on rhetoric, that the personal goodness revealed by the speaker contributes nothing to his power of persuasion; on the contrary, his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses. Secondly, persuasion may come through the hearers, when the speech stirs their emotions. Our judgements when we are pleased and friendly are not the same as when we are pained and hostile. It is towards producing these effects, as we maintain, that present-day writers on rhetoric direct the whole of their efforts. This subject shall be treated in detail when we come to speak of the emotions. Thirdly, persuasion is effected through the speech itself when we have proved a truth or an apparent truth by means of the persuasive arguments suitable to the case in question.

Roughly speaking, ethos, or character, is a term used for arguments that rely "on the personal character of the speaker." Pathos, or emotion, is used for arguments that depend on "putting the audience into a certain frame of mind." Logos, or reason, is used for arguments where the proof is found in the words themselves. And so we speak of logical proof, ethical proof, and pathetic proof. (I'll deal with pathos in a future post, and logos over several entries -- including the intriguing notion of "apparent proof." But it's worth pointing out that in rhetoric, saying an argument is pathetic doesn't mean it's bad; it only means that it relies on eliciting emotion.) So when Tenet complains about having had his trust, honor, reputation sullied, he's talking about what has happened to his ethos.

George Tenet has written a memoir about his work at the CIA. The book has been trashed by everybody from the astute (Larry Johnson et al.) to the insane (Christopher Hitchens). Yesterday I listened, twice, to Tenet's interview with Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air, and I almost felt sorry for the guy. In less than an hour, Tenet had to engage in an impossible amount of dissembling, backtracking, hair-splitting, and goalpost-shifting. Every interview he gives, his digs a little more deeply into his own grave.

What's happened to his ethos? And why does Tenet seem to think he can salvage it in a memoir of this sort (along with the interviews)? It might be helpful to know that there are two kinds of ethos. One is articulated in the Aristotle quote above; this is the ethos deriving from "the speaker's personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible." When the speech is so spoken -- this is ethos, in other words, understood purely as a product of discourse.

Let me give an example. Of all the 120,000 registered users on Daily Kos, only a few have met me personally. When I post something on Daily Kos, and people there read it, they have to make a number of decisions about it based, in part, on how my writing allows them to imagine my character. Do I seem trustworthy? Do I seem fair? Whenever you read, you have to imagine a person who wrote those words and ascribe intention to that person. Probably the person you make up, the person you mentally construct out of these words, has something like a psychological consistency. Much as in the classic Turing test, you have to make up the person on the other end of the screen.

Rhetorically, I can construct an effective, trustworthy ethos in many ways. For example:
  • I can treat my sources respectfully.
  • I can write in a way that assumes you're intelligent.
  • I can be consistent in the way I treat friends and adversaries.
  • I can do my homework and not spout off without thinking.

Constructing an ethos of this sort is a never-ending task. My students in writing classes sometimes misunderstand this; they say, "I'm going to add some ethos to my paper." My response is to say, "no, no; your writing always has ethos. It's your choice whether that ethos indicates someone readers want to trust or not."

Aristotle is concerned that ethos exists only within texts. (Note: I'm using "text" here to mean both oral and written discourse. The ancients assumed that rhetoric was the art of oratory, but rhetoric became much more concerned with writing in the last few centuries -- and is currently expanding to treat visual and multimedia formats.) With Tenet, he seems to think that every speech is a new chance. And certainly the door to recovering a damaged ethos is rarely shut entirely. But Aristotle's view is challenged by later writers, such as Cicero and Quintilian, who argue that the orator must be a good person. (Clearly, this view was already present in Aristotle's time, or else Aristotle would not have to argue against it. Also, it's worth mentioning that the Roman orators didn't use the Greek term ethos,)

In Book XII, Chapter 1 of the Institutes of Oratory, Quintilian writes that "I not only say that he who would answer my idea of an orator must be a good man, but that no man, unless he be good, can ever be an orator." He goes on:

A good man, doubtless, will speak of what is true and honest with greater frequency, but even if, from being influenced by some call of duty, he endeavors to support what is fallacious (a case which, as I shall show, may sometimes occur), he must still be heard with greater credit than a bad man. But with bad men, on the other hand, dissimulation sometimes fails, as well through their contempt for the opinion of mankind as through their ignorance of what is right. Hence, they assert without modesty and maintain their assertions without shame, and in attempting what evidently cannot be accomplished, there appears in them a repulsive obstinacy and useless perseverance, for bad men, as well in their pleadings as in their lives, entertain dishonest expectations. It often happens that even when they speak the truth, belief is not accorded them, and the employment of advocates of such a character is regarded as a proof of the badness of a cause.

Why is Tenet having such a hard time fixing his reputation? To put it another way, why is all his writing and speaking insufficient? Because he seems to think that the ethos of the speaker is created anew every time he speaks. This is an Aristotelian view. In the real world, however -- which in this regard, at least, Quintilian seems to understand better -- Tenet's endless explanations display "a repulsive obstinacy and useless perseverance."

Thanks, by the way, to those who have encouraged me to press on with this series despite the limited response. I seem to have quickly developed a small but eager readership, for which I'm quite grateful.