This is the story of how one should not read a text; or, rather, how one should read a text, barring an initial mucking up of the process.
I was warned not to read Jasper Neelâ€™s Plato, Derrida, and Writing, that it would be a waste of time. Of course, that amounted to a challenge.
The first chapter alone sent me into fits, and I had to set the book down and come back to it two weeks later. I would advise anyone who wishes to read Neelâ€™s book to start with Chapter 4, grit their teeth when they hit Derrida, persevere to the end, and then go back and read Chapters 1-3. The reason for this will be clear momentarily.
I have been trying to develop a consistent system for marking texts. Currently, I use pencils and a notation similar to that used in chess, where !, !!, and !!! indicate good, great, and genius-level moves, ?,??, and ??? mark blunders of increasing severity, and !? reflect moments of temporary insanity. To this I usually add check marks as indications that some logical progression of thought is being continued.
There were a record amount of ?â€™s in my initial reading of the first few chapters, and I had to invent several other marks, which I will not describe, but all sufficed to express my sense of incredulity on my first attempt at reading the text. Mostly what set me off was that Chapters 1 and 2 create the impression that no one had ever noticed that Phaedrus was a deliberate mindfuck on Platoâ€™s part until the author came along.
Did I actually just use that term? Yes. I suppose I could have said â€œa narrative designed to elicit confusion and embrace dissonance with the aim of leading the reader to tangential and profound realizations,â€ but I wanted to make a point. Yes, Plato was a sneaky fellow, he knew what he was doing, and the Phaedrus, like Aristotleâ€™s Rhetoric and countless other texts on the nature of rhetoric, goes to bat in the field where philosophy and rhetoric meet, weâ€™re always in extra innings, and the umpires are bought and paid for. So letâ€™s move on already. I could hardly wait for the analysis of Derrida, it had to be better (and thatâ€™s not being facetious. There was a really good article on Derrida and composition by Brooke Rollins last year in CE that whetted my appetite). I can see where a classicist would lose interest immediately and never finish the book.
To generate some interest in starting to read again, I went and found four reviews of the book written in â€™89, by Charles Moran, Stephen Yarborough, Sharon Crowley, and William Covino, respectively, hoping I was not entirely off base. I discovered that I was, indeed, missing something. Moran buys the bookâ€™s premise but finds its voice stylistically inconsistent, Yaborough is ecstatic â€“ â€œEveryone who teaches writing should read this book,â€ and
So I went back to reading â€“ still grumbling, still scribbling.
Chapter 4 got me, when he drew an explicit parallel between student writing and a Platonic view of rhetoric. Maybe thatâ€™s where he should have begun, skipping the analysis of the Phaedrus or putting it off.
Chapter 4 has that V-8 hum. Well, maybe a V-6. In any case, Neel was much more convincing when getting into the mind of a generic student and in talking about teaching philosophies and assumptions, than he was when attempting to get into Platoâ€™s mind. He directly addresses the biggest problem of teaching composition â€“ the extreme reluctance of students to examine/question their own positions, how â€œtheir theological preconceptions prohibit the beginning of the play of meaning.â€ Attempts to shake this assuredness, to create a sort of dialectical sophistication ala Plato, fail because there is always an easy out, what Neel calls â€œanti-writing,â€ which is structurally sound and content-free. Iâ€™ve seen way too much of that.
After that I was hooked and read the rest, after which I realized Iâ€™d hoodwinked myself by reading the first three chapters too harshly â€“ Neel was just deconstructing Plato as he knew that Derrida deconstructed Plato – in an unsatisfactory manner. This becomes clear only after Neel summarizes and then trashes Derridaâ€™s position on writing with a similar gusto as to how he attacked Plato â€“ before bringing them together in the end to mutely shake hands. Then it all made sense. The banality of his analysis of the Phaedrus actually kind of clicked.
Neelâ€™s main position would seem to be that as Platoâ€™s quest for truth is an ideal, something unattainable, and Derridaâ€™s insistence on a meaningless universe subject to constant deconstruction is scary and empty, both positions are untenable and useless for writing. They are philosophies, not rhetorics â€“ or rather, they are both half of a rhetoric. Neel assigns proper ownership of a reasonable rhetoric to the sophists, as they avoid the Platonic trap of chasing unattainable truth or and Derrida’s wallowing in meaninglessness by taking a middle road that concentrates on pragmatic persuasion through probability.
The resulting â€œstrong discourseâ€ is fundamentally democratic and open to different ideas, empowering all with offensive and defensive powers, and it should be the basis of composition teaching (and has been for a few decades). It is not â€œantiwriting,â€ which seems to match up to current-traditional instruction in grammar and structure and creates a kind of content-free, teacher-pleasing discourse, or a neutral â€œpsophistryâ€ or â€œweak discourseâ€ which only persuades without any regard to ethics. This sophistic “strong discourse” is an effective compromise for sanity’s sake in an insane world.
Ok. Iâ€™ll buy that for a dollar. Iâ€™m not sure yet that assigning â€œdemocracyâ€ in the modern sense to sophistic rhetoric is tenable, though. As Herr Starr from Preacher once said, democracy is for ancient Greeks. I think a better starting point for the emancipatory nature of rhetoric is to be found in the early Christian era â€“ and that rhetoric is not democratic, either, as the power merely shifted from Greek/Roman aristocrats to believers (and then high-ranking believers).
Iâ€™m not even sure if our modern, American notions of rhetoric are emancipatory, as they are still largely for American citizens. We like to think so, to grant univerisal pluralism, certainly, but the miscellaneous bystanders that get killed in
Neel often uses the word â€œtheologicalâ€ to describe the positivistic, Platonic beliefs that students and even teachers have concerning knowledge. I perked up at that. And after reading his conclusion, I wonder if the only way to teach â€œstrong discourseâ€ is to soak, even drench, the teaching of writing in a secular bath. That might be my final bone to pick â€“ that Neel lets that â€œtheologicalâ€ adjective get away without explaining it further. â€œStrong discourse,â€ with its sophistical assumptions that truth is unknowable and that we live in a world of probabilities where only we can make meaning for ourselves, is more or less agnosticism with an attitude.
No wonder I like it.