The Most Divine Works

It’s been interesting this week to watch Academic Twitter chew over Nicholas Kristoff’s assertion in the NYT last week that, gosh darn it, academics are just too tied up in their ivory towers and their wanky, inaccessible writing to make any damn difference in the world these days. If only (he wrote) scholars would spend more time on Twitter and other social media platforms producing texts that real people can understand and less time chasing our own academic tails, the world might–just might–be a better place.

While it’s true that there are a host of telling presumptions about academia’s relationship with the “real world” that are at work in Kristoff’s column [you can read some excellent work on that front here and here], I’m most interested in Kristoff’s implicit assumption that for academic work to “matter” to the general public, it has to affect social or political policy.

This strikes me because a lot of scholars in my own unruly discipline–that of rhetoric and writing studies–feel the same way.

I don’t.

Here’s why.

For many rhetoric and writing scholars, the notion that “rhetoric is action—past, present, and future” is fundamental to their understanding of the purpose of their work (Kirsch and Royster 653). Implicit in classical discussions of rhetoric is its potential, when wielded by a skilled orator, to facilitate change. As Susan Jarratt observes, the sophists–a motley collection of Pre-Socratic teachers and speakers who practiced rhetoric before the discipline itself existed–embraced this potential; they “concentrated on the power of language in shaping human group behavior explicitly,” and regarded rhetoric “as an instrument of social action in the polis” (10). Little wonder, then, that Aristotle was wary of rhetoric’s potential to do of “great harm,” of what he saw as the ills that could “be done by unjustly using such power of words” (36).

Although this fear of the “unjust” use of rhetoric persists in contemporary popular culture where, as David Coogan and John Ackerman argue, “doing rhetoric is akin to menacing our fellow citizens with lies and misdirection,” for many rhetoricians, the ability of their work to affect what Lloyd Bitzer calls a “positive modification” within the social realm continues to be central to their understanding of rhetoric’s purpose [emphasis original] (Coogan and Ackerman 2; Bitzer 6).

But the precise terms of such modification–what “counts” as social change, both in terms of content and scale–is a matter of debate.


Like Cicero’s Crassus, many contemporary scholars believe that rhetoric has the potential “to raise up those that are cast down, to bestow security, to set free from peril, to maintain men in their civil rights”—a belief reflected in the discipline’s pedagogical practices since its reemergence in the 1960s (qtd. Miller, “Should We” 19). First, central to what James Berlin calls the “renaissance of rhetoric” was the notion of writing as a form of personal empowerment; such an approach of the teaching of composition found its fullest expression in the Expressionist movement in the 1970s and continues to influence writing pedagogy to this day (Rhetoric and Reality 138).

Second, the emergence of the cultural studies approach to teaching writing in the 1990s shifted the stage of empowerment from the individual to her or his community or society at large. The cultural studies model, a “product of postmodern thought coupled with progressive politics” sought to teach students how to “penetrate” what Berlin calls the “semiotic codes” at work in the university, “the workplace, and […] the media”; students would leave the classroom freed from their false consciousness and fully aware of the ideological oppression that ruled their everyday lives (“Postructuralism” 24).

Together, these two approaches have informed much of the discipline’s collective discussion as to the relationship between rhetoric and social change over the past 40 years: rhetoric can, and should [this argument goes], be a force for what Bitzer called “positive modification” in society, and scholars in the field should approach both their teaching and their research accordingly.

However, others–like me–question the social, economic, and class-based presumptions that are often inherent in such an approach. As Ellen Cushman argues, in assuming that we as scholars are in the best position to determine what “changes” need to be made within a particular community, and assigning our research and scholarship the task of enacting that change, we risk “paint[ing] ourselves as great ‘liberators of oppressed masses” (23).

Building on questions raised by Cushman’s “The Rhetorician as Agent of Social Change” (1996) and Thomas Rickert’s “Composition in a Post-Oedipal World” (2001), for me, one way of navigating this apparent tension–of resolving my desire to see my academic work as having an impact in the world without slipping into what Cushman calls a “missionary” mode of scholarship–has been to turn to the sophists; specifically, to their ex-post facto leader, Gorgias of Leontini.

In the pre-Socratic age, sophists like Gorgias understood rhetoric to be a timely, potential force for social change.[1] In general, the sophists were “interested in a whole group of intellectual materials and social actions, the common feature of which was language” (Jarratt 11). In “Towards a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric,” John Poulakos argues that these interests were guided by sophists’ belief that “speech must take into account and be guided by the temporarily of the situation in which it occurs” (39). That is, sophistic rhetoric is invested in a particular concern with what Poulakos calls “the possible,” with man’s “desire to be other and to be elsewhere,” particularly when “actuality […] binds him to where he already is” (43).

Although man “functions daily in the world of actuality, he often finds himself concerned with his situation not as it is here-and-now but as it could be there-and-then”; a sophistic rhetorician, then, is invested in “the possible because he refuses to keep people in their actual situation,” and believes that his exercise of timely and appropriate rhetoric can help his audience to explore what “could be” (43). Indeed, although a sophistic rhetor “must initially address them [the audience] as they are and where they are, he subsequently […] tries to lift them from the vicissitudes of custom […] and take them into a new place where new discoveries […] can be made” ( 43-44).

The sophists, then, understood the relationship between rhetoric and social change as one, first and foremost, of possibility. As Poulakos puts it, it is “[i]n and through the speech of the rhetor [that] the seed of the possible is planted in the ground of actuality” (45). Importantly, however, it is upon individual members of the audience themselves who must translate the seed of social change into being. In this regard, the rhetor’s agency ends with his speech; hence the sophists’ investment in, and careful attention to, the kairotic context of rhetoric.

Fundamentally, however, Poulakos argues that, despite Aristotle’s later discomfort, the sophists understood social change not as a collective, radical force whose transformative potential could be freed by rhetorical prowess; rather, the change they sought was to dislodge their audience “from accepting actuality uncritically” (46). For the sophists, rhetoric was a means by which a speaker could encourage an audience to “reexamine […] their actual situation”; it was up to the audience itself to translate the fruits of that reexamination into change within their everyday world (Poulakos 46).

As a scholar, then, I take both great comfort and great power in Gorgias’ notion that “[s]peech is a great power, which achieves the most divine works by means of the smallest and least visible form” (155). The sorts of change that my work might have on the world will not, I am sure, be on the sort of grand, policy-driven scale to which public intellectuals like Nicholas Kristoff believe that I should aspire.

This is in part because I study on the small scale–online communities, fanworks, the way small groups of women write and talk and think amongst themselves. But it’s also because I’m dubious of the causal relationship that Kristoff, like many of the scholars in my own field, seem to draw between academic conversation and theory and changes in the “real” world. To me, the relationship is correlative at best; diffuse and meandering and very, very far outside of our control as scholars. To my mind, what I do is put ideas out there, for a variety of different audiences; at my best, I try to dislodge in the minds of my readers and listeners ideas to which their mind may be settled, and I accept that it’s up to them, the individual members of the audience, to “translate” that unsettledness into their own kind of action.

In fact, this is my approach to teaching as well: I’ve long since accepted that my students are not molted metal eagerly awaiting my forge; I can offer them alternative pathways or put a well-placed crack in their mold, but it’s up to them to change their shape, if they wish.

Perhaps I would feel differently were I in a more “practical” field like those to which Kristoff gesture–economics or sociology or political science. Indeed, no doubt there are many in my own field who would take my “smallest and least visible” approach as a copout, an active sort of surrender to my own inefficacy, a willing secession of my own potential power as a scholar. Be that as it may.

But for me, as a nascent scholar–as a graduate student still, always, and seemingly forever–I think there is something to be said for re-reading the efficacy of our work as scholars in terms of  “the smallest and least visible form,” rather than searching endlessly, aimlessly, for the means through which we might achieve social change on a large scale.

[1] It’s worth noting that there is some critical disagreement over whether one can make general statements about the features of a “sophistic rhetoric.” Edward Schiappa, for example, famously argues that the organizing principle (to borrow Foucault’s phrase) of ‘“sophistic rhetoric’ is, for the most part, a mirage—something we see because we want and need to see it—which vaporizes once carefully scrutinized” (5). However, within the context of this review, I will admit my bias towards the utility of making such generalizations and, as Jan Swearingen suggests in Octalog: The Politics of Historiography, posit that “[b]ias is value; it’s not always a bad thing” (29).


works cited

Aristotle. On Rhetoric: A Theory of Civil Discourse. 2nd ed. Trans. George A. Kennedy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

Berlin, James. “Poststructuralism, Cultural Studies, and the Composition Classroom: Postmodern Theory in Practice.” Rhetoric Review 11.1 (1992): 16-33.

—. Rhetoric and Reality: Writing Instruction in American Colleges, 1900-1985. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. Print.

Bitzer, Lloyd. “The Rhetorical Situation.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 1:1 (1968). 1-14. Print.

Coogan, David J. and John M. Ackerman. “Introduction: The Space to Work in Public Life.” The Public Work of Rhetoric: Citizen-Scholars and Civic Engagement. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010. 1-16. Print.

Cushman, Ellen. “The Rhetorician as Agent of Social Change.” College Composition and Communication 47.1 (1996): 29-41. Print.

Gorgias. “Encomium on Helen.” Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. Ed. Kathleen Freeman. 1996. 131-133. Print.

Jarratt, Susan C. “Toward a Sophistic Historiography.” PRE/TEXT 8.1-2 (1987): 9-27. Print.

Kirsch, Gesa E. and Jacqueline J. Royster. “Feminist Rhetorical Practices: In Search of
Excellence.” College Composition and Communication 61.4 (2010): 640-672. Print.

Miller, Carolyn. “Should We Name The Tools? Concealing and Revealing the Art of Rhetoric.” The Public Work of Rhetoric: Citizen-Scholars and Civic Engagement. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2010. 19-38. Print.

Octalog. “The Politics of Historiography.” Rhetoric Review 7.1 (1988): 5-49. Print.

Poulakos, John. “Towards a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 16.1 (1983): 35-48. Print.

Rickert, Thomas. “‘Hands Up, You’re Free”: Composition in a Post-Oedipal World.” Journal of Advanced Composition 21.2 (2001). 287-320. Print.

Schiappa, Edward. “Sophistic Rhetoric: Oasis or Mirage?” Rhetoric Review 10.1 (1991): 5-18. Print.

2 thoughts on “The Most Divine Works

  1. Karen Ractliffe

    I can see the attraction of Supernatural in this context, presenting as it does such polarized viewpoints that the viewer is, at the very least, forced to choose between them but, at best, led to appreciate both the validity and subjectivity of each. I confess that one of my hopes for the serial is that the continual alternation between POVs that set up expectations that are frequently defeated when the perspective changes will do just what you suggest in this article, i.e “dislodge in the minds of my readers and listeners ideas to which their mind may be settled”.  Or, to put it another way, I hope that readers who don’t already do so will be encouraged to read critically and get used to the idea that any given narrative is never the whole story.

    Does that make me a rhetor? Or a sophist? 😛

    >________________________________ > From: cute girl discount >To: >Sent: Monday, 24 February 2014 4:49 AM >Subject: [New post] The Most Divine Works > > > catchclaw33 posted: “It’s been interesting this week to watch Academic Twitter chew over Nicholas Kristoff’s assertion in the NYT last week that, gosh darn it, academics are just too tied up in their ivory towers and their wanky, inaccessible writing to make any damn differen”

  2. Ah–I hadn’t made that connection at all! Interesting and very smart.

    Oh hell yes, you’re a rhetor! As for whether you’re a sophist, well, to your point about the purpose of your serial, here’s the last line from Gorgias’ “Encomium on Helen”: “I have tried to destroy the unjust blame and the ignorant opinion, and have chosen to write this speech as an Encomium on Helen and an amusement for myself.”

    With that in mind, you sure sound like a sophist to me…

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