Jasper Neel’s 1988 Plato, Derrida, and Writing

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 Neel’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 Neel’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 ?’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 Plato’s part until the author came along.

Did I actually just use that term? Yes. I suppose I could have said “a narrative designed to elicit confusion and embrace dissonance with the aim of leading the reader to tangential and profound realizations,” but I wanted to make a point. Yes, Plato was a sneaky fellow, he knew what he was doing, and the Phaedrus, like Aristotle’s Rhetoric and countless other texts on the nature of rhetoric, goes to bat in the field where philosophy and rhetoric meet, we’re always in extra innings, and the umpires are bought and paid for. So let’s move on already. I could hardly wait for the analysis of Derrida, it had to be better (and that’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 ’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 book’s premise but finds its voice stylistically inconsistent, Yaborough is ecstatic – “Everyone who teaches writing should read this book,” and Crowley hails it as a fine champion of deconstruction. Covino’s review, which is the last of the four, chronologically, drew out my two of my concerns quite well, namely: 1) Neel can get awfully shrill about Plato’s real and apparently nefarious motives, which are frankly unknowable; 2) the many interpretations and uses of the Phaedrus through history are generally ignored in favor of summarizing it as a “hallowed text.” But Covino endorsed it nonetheless, and his summary of Neel’s claims clicked on some level.

So I went back to reading – still grumbling, still scribbling.

Chapter 4 got me, when he drew an explicit parallel between student writing and a Platonic view of rhetoric. Maybe that’s where he should have begun, skipping the analysis of the Phaedrus or putting it off. Crowley’s review hints at this when she says Chapter 4 is the key.

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 Plato’s mind. He directly addresses the biggest problem of teaching composition – the extreme reluctance of students to examine/question their own positions, how “their theological preconceptions prohibit the beginning of the play of meaning.” 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 “anti-writing,” which is structurally sound and content-free. I’ve seen way too much of that.

After that I was hooked and read the rest, after which I realized I’d hoodwinked myself by reading the first three chapters too harshly – 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 Derrida’s position on writing with a similar gusto as to how he attacked Plato – 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.

Neel’s main position would seem to be that as Plato’s quest for truth is an ideal, something unattainable, and Derrida’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 – 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 “strong discourse” 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 “antiwriting,” 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 “psophistry” or “weak discourse” 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. I’ll buy that for a dollar. I’m not sure yet that assigning “democracy” 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 – and that rhetoric is not democratic, either, as the power merely shifted from Greek/Roman aristocrats to believers (and then high-ranking believers).

I’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 Iraq every day – the only thing they’re getting freed from is existence. The supposed protections from poor ideas that “strong discourse” was supposed to provide broke down ‘round these parts when the Bush administration engineered a pointless, bloody war and won re-election in spite of it. Then again, the sophists didn’t save the Greek city-states, either.

Neel often uses the word “theological” 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 “strong discourse” is to soak, even drench, the teaching of writing in a secular bath. That might be my final bone to pick – that Neel lets that “theological” adjective get away without explaining it further. “Strong discourse,” 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.

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