Electric Rhetoric – An Isocratic Literacy Theory

I contend that we do not now know Isocrates’ rhetorical theories well enough, because we have not understood classical Greek rhetoric and writing practices for our electrified time. (33)

Welch, Kathleen E. Electric Rhetoric: Classical Rhetoric, Oralism, and a New Literacy. The MIT Press, 1999.

In this Chapter 2 of Electric Rhetoric, Welch argues that the classical rhetoric set forth by interpretations of Aristotle and Plato is “categorical and highly ordered” (p. 33) and does not account for our “electrified time.” While it may be categorical and ordered, that helps for classification. She also contends that Isocrates’ rhetoric is by nature misogynistic and exclusionist. While this may be true, that was an unfortunate condition of the period. Applied today, Aristotelian and Platonic rhetorical theory need not be exclusionist or misogynist. This is a point Welch understands well, as she goes to great lengths to vindicate Isocrates’ rhetoric and find application for it in the “next rhetoric” (Chapter 4) that she proposes.

To address this downfall of Aristotelian and Platonic rhetoric, Welch discusses the period prior to them, returning to Sophist rhetoric. From this stance, she affirms that the re-elevation of Sophist thought tends to accompany drastic rhetorical change such as that of the current electronic era, and I would extend to include, or even be represented by, the digital era.

For Isocrates, rhetoric consists of language as it constitutes part of thought (that is, interior discourse) and language as it constitutes one’s negotiations with the world (that is, exterior discourse). Writing, speaking, and thinking are mutually dependent for him and, I contend, heavily conditioned by the technology of writing. (34)

Because this concept, according to Welch, accepts the relationship between private and public, interior and exterior speech, it is critical in forming the Next Rhetoric. However, this does not appear to be a large break from the perspectives of Aristotle and Plato. As I’ve discussed earlier, Plato’s concern was that writing was an assimilation of speaking, which was an assimilation of thought. This too suggests that writing is an independent action, yet the other two heavily influence it. True also is the fact that having become literate in writing and reading, one’s thoughts and speech are affected by this knowledge.

In this way, one can see that tools are interdependent on writing. Even the telephone, which is not unlike the immediate conversation, could not exist were it not for the writing that went into its design and the network design. This is true also of the interface – we interact with it textually in order to use its oral aspects. Therefore, this Isocratic Literacy theory may be the best frame for this discussion of the interactivity of oral/aural and writing in regard to digital orality and the online video conversation (OVC).

Perhaps the interdependence between thought and articulation is another excellent example of why the OVC is particularly beneficial (and even superior in ways) to the face-to-face classroom. It provides the student the ability to work through responses before stating them. In the classroom setting, a posed question or live discussion has a number of factors that make it less than ideal. There is the student’s social discomfort or even anxiety of being put on the spot and having to state an opinion in front of the entire class. Even for the student comfortable with speaking, with the topic, and with that given environment, “being called on” is unexpected and produces a certain level of anxiety. Also, the need to respond immediately, perhaps without working through an entire response, will generally produce an argument a bit less concise, clear, and accurate than would an oration that one had time to work through. In the OVC setting, there is no unexpectedness of being called upon; the student can watch a video prompt, take some notes, perform any research necessary for the response, and then present a quality, well-thought response to the prompt, question, or discussion.

Welch asserts that Isocrates’ pedagogical theory provides an alternative to discourse education that focuses heavily on books, rote learning, and static formulae for discourse. She also elaborates heavily on Ong’s concepts of primary orality, literacy, and secondary orality, since she sees great potential in these concepts for the Next Rhetoric she proposes. For Ong, secondary orality is characterized by the emergence of electronic communication devices that ‘electrify’ the spoken word.

Our position now is in secondary orality, in which there is a new emphasis on the ear and a change in the emphasis on the eye. The spoken word is now electrified, instantaneous, repetitive, and so familiar that we have normalized it. (58)

Important for Welch is the fact that secondary orality depends on the first and second stages as identified by Ong bridging the above mentioned binary that has been such a focus of classical Greek rhetoric and as such has let to discrimination against cultures in the stage of primary orality. Welch states that “Ong… does not construct a binary opposition between orality and literacy, making them mutually exclusive, competitive, and reductive; rather, he emphasizes their mingling and the tenacity of established forms as new ones occur” (59). This is a tie-in to applying this theory to the classroom–that as the current form of distance education has arisen, one can look to the ways that orality and literacy mingle. One possible point Ong may be making here is that it is better to learn about oral discourse through oral discourse (or at least a combination of this and writing) than it is to learn about oral discourse solely through writing.

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