Thursday, July 01, 2004

as the queen begins her approach, I should try to jot down a bit of what I learned from her during her last visit.
first, some short notes on Plato's Apology.
The element of this work that most caught me on the first read is Socrates's rhetorical stance. The dialogue has Socrates on trial for corrupting the youth with his life on the line, speaking in his own defense. Now Socartes makes clear that he is very aware of the conventions and circumstances of his rhetorical situation--he makes sure everyone knows that he is aware of his audience and what they want to hear, and even explicitly cites several persuasive techniques that he thinks he COULD use to gain his aquittal. And yet he presents these techniques only to inform the jury that he intends to use none of them. So Socrates knows who he is, and knows who is audience is, but what is his goal? He states that his goal is not to avoid the death seems like he intends to use the courtroom as a forum to continue his life's mission to the last, to challenge other people's pretensions to knowledge and truth.
Yet his approach strikes me because it is so different from what I have been taught about persuasion and argumentation, in writing and speech. Both as a student and as a tutor of argumentative writing, I have cultivated an archetype of the writer/speaker as warm and compassionate guide, taking the reader by the hand, affirming and supporting the reader, helping the reader back on their feet when they trip on a tangle of argumentative roots, leading the reader along the argumentative path in a quest of mutual exploration.
Socrates crafts himself in quite a different model--he does not say kind and compassionate and affirming things to his audience. He challenges them directly, he tells them they are wrong, he throws arguments at his audience in ways that would rile them, perhaps even make them angry and insult them. His archetype of a speaker more closely resembles a duelist, slapping his audience across the face with his glove, throwing it on the ground, and daring them to be compelled by his sword.
I can't bring myself to take such a combative stance--I feel wedded to writing with compassion...creating a positive and affirming relationship with the audience has always felt the best way of teaching and learning,
or maybe the only way that I feel comfortable with
I worked with an editor on the indy who wrote pieces whose rhetorical stance much more closely resembled that of Socrates in the apology--he knew very well what the reader would feel comfortable with, what the reader would want and expect, and he chose instead to address his readers in ways that would inflame them, insult them, disorient and confuse them, and generally make them uncomfortable.
At the time, I explicitly rejected his approach, in as many ways I could censor it as his managing editor. Now, looking back, I am more conscious of what he was trying to do, and perhaps why he was trying to do it.

In last week's parsha, chukat, moshe is told to speak to a stone, and by speaking to it, bring forth water for the people. instead, moses hits the stone to achieve the desired effect. for this, he is not allowed to lead the nation into the holy land. Rashi proposes here that Moses's action here carries so much weight because the entirety of the nation was witness to it. According to Rashi, Moses talking to the rock and having it bring forth water was to teach the children of Israel something about themselves. For if, by channeling a few words, the divine could spring from inside a simple rock, then kal vechomer (all the more so) each of the children of Israel must be capable of being a divine spring, bursting forth at the invitation of a few words. Who better to manifest this realization of the divine potential in all things but Moshe? The man who watched and contemplated a desert bush for who knows how long, realized its persistence amidst the flame, and removed his shoes at the realization that this was the introductory gesture in a divine relationship?
And yet here, Moses does engage in conversation with the rock, as he did with the bush...Rashi, in his explanation, puts forward a vision of a Jewish leader that could reveal even the most mundane object as engaged in conversation with the divine, and thus unleash the prophetic potential of the entire nation--the nation of prophets that Moshe envisions just a few portions earlier.

I have started reading GEB, Godel, Escher, Bach, and Eternal Golden braid. It is enormous--in ambition, in scope, and in physical weight. I have been cutting off morsels of this very rich fudge piece by piece, knowing that if I were to try eating any significant portion of it in one sitting I would make myself terribly sick.


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