As of this week Kairoticast has been podcasting for one year. We want to thank you for your support in the last year and hope you’ll continue to join us in the year ahead. We’ve had a really good time thinking about public discourse and current events with you, and hope you’ll be an even bigger part of the podcast in the future.
I asked listeners what they thought we should do for our one-year anniversary and one savvy fan said, “Well, one year is the paper anniversary – why not do something like the rhetoric of paper or the importance of paper to rhetoric?” And I thought that was pretty clever. But instead of just paper, I thought I’d talk about writing and paper, since the two are so connected. So this episode goes out to John-Paul. You’re a clever guy.
If you think of writing as a technology, then paper and the alphabet are both major turning points in human history.
Consider the alphabet for a minute. There are two basic types of writing systems– phonetic alphabet and pictographic writing system. If you ask people which one is simpler a lot of people will say pictographic system because it seems so, I don’t know, literal? Straightforward? A bird is a bird, right? But think about that for a minute. How many different kinds of birds are there? Do you need a different symbol for all of those different kinds of birds? The issue with pictographic system is that each idea or each thing requires its own symbol, or variation on a symbol. That’s thousands of symbols to make an alphabet. That gets really complicated really quickly. Then think of the phonetic alphabet. The English one has 26 symbols. And we combine them in various ways to represent thousands of ideas. So which is more complicated? Memorizing thousands of symbols, or memorizing 26? The phonetic alphabet was a big step forward in writing and literacy because it meant writing and literacy was infinitely easier.
Paper gave us the ability to write easily, cheaply, and in a way that could be shared widely. It was a major leap in evolution from something like clay tablets, or even leather or parchment. Paper was an easy way to get ideas down in one place, keep them there, make them transportable, transferable, memorable, and shareable.
Writing actually has kind of an interesting history in rhetoric. It was actually pretty controversial in the beginning. Plato did NOT like writing. Plato felt that if you wrote something down you would cease to remember it and then you wouldn’t be able to master that knowledge. He wrote in the Phaedrus,
Here, O king, is a branch of learning that will make the people of Egypt wiser and improve their memories. My discovery provides a recipe for memory and wisdom. But the king answered and said, ‘O man full of arts, the god-man Toth, to one it is given to create the things of art, and to another to judge what measure of harm and of profit they have for those that shall employ them.’
And so it is that you by reason of your tender regard for the writing that is your offspring have declared the very opposite of its true effect. If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.
What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminder. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only the semblance of wisdom, for by telling them of many things without teaching them you will make them seem to know much while for the most part they know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellows.
He has Socrates say of writing, “It is the same with written words. They seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say from a desire to be instructed they go on telling just the same thing forever.”
The story goes that Thamus said much to Theuth, both for and against each art, which it would take too long to repeat. But when they came to writing, Theuth said: “O King, here is something that, once learned, will make the Egyptians wiser and will improve their memory; I have discovered a potion for memory and for wisdom.” Thamus, however, replied: “O most expert Theuth, one man can give birth to the elements of an art, but only another can judge how they can benefit or harm those who will use them. And now, since you are the father of writing, your affection for it has made you describe its effects as the opposite of what they really are. In fact, it will introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it: they will not practice using their memory because they will put their trust in writing, which is external and depends on signs that belong to others, instead of trying to remember from the inside, completely on their own. You have not discovered a potion for remembering, but for reminding; you provide your students with the appearance of wisdom, not with its reality. Your invention will enable them to hear many things without being properly taught, and they will imagine that they have come to know much while for the most part they will know nothing. And they will be difficult to get along with since they will merely appear to be wise instead of really being so.”
Plato was quite adamant that writing was a detriment to the human ability to master information and apply it. Basically, writing was going to make us dumber.
But there were other ancient rhetoricians who actually made their living by writing. Isocrates was a logographer, or speech writer. Isocrates was a hired courtroom speechwriter in Athens. In Athenian court rooms you didn’t have a lawyer, you represented yourself, so instead, they would hire people like Isocrates to write speeches for them. Isocrates developed his talent for speech writing partially because he lacked confidence in his speaking voice. His speeches were ultimately influential on the policies of the day.
Isocrates went on to have one of the most influential and successful schools of rhetoric of the early western world. While his name isn’t as well known as Aristotle’s or Plato’s, his legacy in the rhetorical world is long and quite profound.
So the appropriateness of writing was contested in early Greece. And this really gets to a question of what rhetoric is – and that has been at the heart of rhetorical theory since the beginning. For most of its history, “rhetoric” meant public speaking or oratory. It wasn’t really until the 1800s or later that people started of thinking of rhetoric as composition. And then things began to change – rhetoric and composition classes began to pop up in colleges and universities everywhere and rhetoric suddenly began to mean something other than just public speaking. We’ll get to that evolution more a bit later.
Paper was a Chinese invention that made it to Europe in the 11th century but didn’t really become widespread until the 1600s. During that time, the European printing press was invented so by the time paper was widespread there was a way to mass produce printed material on the paper. This made ideas accessible and spreadable. In that time there were some important ideological shifts. One of the most important, and one that was intimately connected to the printing press and the ability to spread ideas was the Protestant Reformation that began in 1517. At that point in Europe the Catholic Church was the seat of pretty much all power. The Church and the state were largely one and the same, the Church controlled money, institutional power, local life – everything. When Martin Luther began the Protestant Reformation by calling the Church’s power and authority into question, and when that movement began to take shape, it basically broke the western world. He wasn’t just questioning theology; he was questioning the entire social structure of Europe. He was challenging the most powerful institution in the world. And with the printing press and paper becoming more and more common, these ideas could be spread. The world was changing and at the heart of it was a nexus of writing, technology, and new ideas.
The power of writing and paper wasn’t limited to uprisings in Europe. We can look to my own American history to see how important the written word is in shaping history. The colonial pamphleteers, the most famous of which was Thomas Paine, that encouraged the colonists to take up arms and go to war with the British certainly made their mark on American history. Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence has stood the test of time as one of the most important pieces of American writing we have. And the Federalist and Anti-Federalist papers helped shaped the direction of our democracy. The power of the written word in early America literally cannot be overstated. Lin-Manual Miranda wrote a whole freaking rap-opera about it.
So perhaps it is not surprising that colleges and universities starting teaching composition as a serious subject. The Enlightenment had shown us just how powerful writing is, so writing had to be taken seriously.
The effect of this is immediately perceptible in schools today. In higher ed across the US students take a first-year writing course which is a rhetoric and composition course, generally that hase evolved out of the rhetorics of the 18th and 19th centuries. The early works of rhetoricians like Alexander Bain may not dominate the world of composition anymore, but the premise remains the same – you can teach a student to write persuasively, articulately, appropriately, and well. Many rhetoric and comp classes have an Aristotelian approach, with modern apperati, taking a neo-classical approach to rhetoric. This method of teaching composition has seeped into all levels of education. High schoolers on down to elementary schoolers are taught some level of rhetorical writing. What was once the purview of public speaking is now much more common in English Language Arts classes.
However, the expansion of rhetoric did not stop there. Quintilian may have defined rhetoric as “a good man speaking well” in the first years of the Common Era, but since then speakers have expanded beyond men, and rhetoric has expanded beyond speaking, and even writing.
In the 1970s people first began to consider that rhetoric might be beyond words themselves. People began to think in terms of visual rhetoric. We began to understand that people can communicate, and even argue, through visual symbols. Pictures speak to us – they send us messages.
Honestly, this isn’t a new idea. We’ve been using images to tell us things since the beginning of time. Consider something as common as a coin. What images do we put on coins? What images have always been on coins? Ancient cultures put symbols of the gods or other symbols of power on their coins. The Romans put their leaders on their coins. The English have the queen on the pound. Americans have a variety of past leaders on their currency. Nations choose to have pictures of power and authority on their currency. It is a reminder of the power and authority behind that currency. It says something about the actual values of the nation. Money is valuable, and that which is valuable is marked by the authority of the state. This is a powerful visual image from a nation to its people. We’ve always sent messages through images; we just didn’t always recognize it as rhetorical.
Consider also the ichthus, or the “Jesus fish.” It was adopted by early Christians as a secret symbol to identify other believers when they were being persecuted by the Roman Empire. The sign represented a number of things, including the story of the loaves and the fishes and Jesus saying he would make his disciples “fishers of men,” and it was an acrostic for “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.” It was a powerful symbol in the early church. The symbol became popular again in the 1970s among Christians in Australia and spread worldwide. It became very popular to put an ichthus on your car to show you were a believer. But what I would like to note is a piece of visual argumentation or rhetoric that is less popular but a more poignant example of visual rhetoric – the Darwin fish.
The Darwin fish is an ichthus with legs attached, and sometimes the name Darwin inside the body of the fish, to show a more “evolved” understanding of the world. It’s a clever, if smug or even snide statement about a set of beliefs in a single image. The ichthus is meant to say, “I’m a Christian.” Which implies a person believes in certain truths. The Darwin fish replaces Christianity with Darwin, or, by implication, science, making a statement about what kinds of truths a person believes in. It’s a somewhat derogatory statement about Christianity because it literally replaces Christ with biology, or science.
Understanding visuals as rhetoric allows us to look at images such as these as specific messages and arguments. There is a rhetor who is making a claim in this context. And with all the visuals all around us we can understand that there is a discourse that they are a part of.
But even this was not the end of the expanding understanding of rhetoric.
The digital world has brought about new ways of thinking about what rhetoric is and how we communicate and is combining media, speaking, visuals, and writing at an unprecedented rate.
The digital world is changing how we experience messages. And that is just the messages we read. Sites like Instagram or TikTok are no less rhetorical, but they are much more visual in nature. The same messages are being sent but they are being sent in wildly different way on wildly different media. The question is, how much does that change the message?
Obviously, the study of rhetoric DEPENDS upon the message itself. What is the argument? How does it build identification? How does it craft reality? What is the style? But there are so many ways to send these messages now and each way imprints itself upon that message. Rhetoricians of the digital age must confront how the medium affects their message, whether they are analyzing it or sending it.
One way scholars are thinking about this now is the idea of networked rhetoric. The rise of social networks has encouraged us to think about the ways rhetoric is connected. For example, on Twitter you can simply click a hashtag to see what hundreds to thousands of people are saying on a single topic. Rhetoric isn’t a straight line. It’s a map of scattered points, connected across time and space. Arguments, and communication in general, aren’t a simple line from claim to evidence to conclusion, but an interwoven web of ideas. If social media has taught us anything it is that we are communicating as a group, now.
So what started as a discussion of paper has ended up as a comment about social media. And all of this is to say – rhetoric is an ever-evolving creature. In its early years it evolved slowly, and it is often not a very inclusive or diverse evolution, but it does evolve. What was once just public speaking is now TikTok and memes, too.
So for our paper anniversary we hope you’ll think a little bit about where you get your messages from. And, more importantly, whether you are paying attention to them. It’s easy to recognize when a politician is speaking to us or when an editorial is written that someone is trying to persuade us of something, but what about the images that surround us in our every day lives? The social networks we are a part of? What are the messages we are embedded in and how are they affecting us?
Technologies like the alphabet, paper, the printing press, the camera, and the internet changed the world in ways we may not even understand. But it’s incumbent upon us to understand the messages that result from those changes. Because that’s how we, in turn, change the world ourselves.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.