The West, Part I


“If practical knowledge is identified in some way with “acting,” then productive knowledge is concerned with “making.” It is a poesis distinguished by instrumentality as well as epistemological and ethical indeterminacy. Aristotle explains in the Nichomachean Ethics: “All art is concerned with coming into being, i.e. with contriving and considering how something may come into being which is capable of either being or not being” (EN 1140a 10-12). In contrast to both theoretical and practical knowledge, the end of productive knowledge is always “outside itself,” residing not in the “product” but rather in the use made of the artistic construct by a receiver or audience” (99).

This passage evokes a sort of deva vu for me. It reminds me Geoffrey Sirc’s treatment of writing as a happening, that is, engaging in a composition that has no predetermined goal or form. It is this form of unsure and artful making, and the space where that happening happens, that has been forgotten since the free-form, expressivist approaches to composition in the 60s. But Aristotle is so very opposite from Sirc (or I suppose, the ideas of Duchamp). The way I interpret this passage, it seems that Aristotle views that productive knowledge is measured by the products use value. Further, through my postmodern frame, I view the process of making as the most important marker of productive knowledge.

My reading of Aristotle and Isocrates is influenced so much by my values, and the lens through which I understand rhetoric, action, and making; I struggled through Aristotle as I wanted to see less categorization and more statements about the power of rhetoric and what he really hopes to achieve through his treatise, and in Isocrates I saw a political agenda through which he distanced himself from the Sophists, in turn promoting his school that only privileged males could attend. However, I realize that my reading of these classical rhetoricians is unfair (after all, Antonius called Isocrates “the teacher of all rhetoricians” (Walker, 5), and they wrote in a different time, different context, and for a different purpose than my activities of teaching and researching writing—yet these are all the same reasons why I wish to question, over and over again, how our field has continued to rely on these classical rhetoricians and their philosophies.

I’m intrigued by the ongoing need to use pedagogy as a means to rescue the value of rhetoric, but don’t get me wrong, I often explain rhetoric as vital to the teaching of writing. Whenever I’m asked about what the work of rhetoric and writing entails, I stumble, eventually settling on something like: its writing about writing, how to teach writing, and rhetoric is a means to inform how we can do (teach or write) that more effectively, rhetoric as a way to study discourse and the way it operates in social contexts. But however I respond to such questions, let’s be real, it surely depends on when you ask me and what mood I’m in. Walker writes an entire book on pedagogy as central to rhetoric, effectively saving rhetoric again in the name of teaching. I find it interesting that he even suggests a theory-practice binary while providing a definition of rhetoric in his preface to The Genuine Teachers of This Art: Rhetorical Education in Antiquity:

“[…]”rhetoric” can be defined as (4) the teaching of persuasive discourse or the cultivation of rhetorical capacity (speaking/writing ability), the “prescriptive” counterpart to the “descriptive” activities of criticism and theory” (Walker, 1).

I often find myself caught in the theory-practice binary that Atwill interrogates, and I even feel that I have constructed a teaching philosophy based on that very binary. However, I have never questioned the institutional forces and their power in shaping this binary for the study of rhetoric and writing. I enjoyed reading Atwill’s piece as it helped show me where some of the influence of that binary comes from, and it also allows me to gain a greater grasp on how Aristotle’s ideas continue to profoundly shape the work we do in our field (as both teachers and researchers).

I am interested in learning more about what is meant by praxis. I once thought that praxis was simply a term to encompass theory and practice, but I’d like to learn more about how that can be unpacked a bit. If all productive knowledge is based on making and the products created, then teaching is an excellent example of my (admittedly limited) understanding of praxis. Teaching isn’t all practice, and it isn’t all theory, either. Sometimes the practice is more visible than the theory, but sometimes the theory is visible, too. Oftentimes, I want students to not worry about the theory so much as effective processes of making, so that way the theory is transparent for them. And, as I ramble, I realize that all rhetorical action, teaching or otherwise, is marked theory and practice—sometimes the theory is named and made clear, and other times it merely provides a frame for the practice.

What I view us doing – in this course and where it resides in the field as a whole – is engaging in “making” (poesis) as a process of disrupting preconceived notions of the theory-practice binary and, of course, the canons as well. We may not have a set goal for what that process might entail, yet the end product is sure to be shaped by that process. Isaac presents just one instance of what a decolonial readings/treatment of history looks like; and in Enos, a challenge to Athenian rhetoric as the unquestioned, ever-important canon that must be studied. As we engage in constructing units of the syllabus for our project, we become part of that process of making, disrupting, and possibly “decanonizing” the histories of rhetoric.