Saturday, April 5

polished blades

people (probably not all people, but plenty of the people I hang out with these days) talk about their academic idols. the scholar they dream of meeting at this or that conference, whose every published word becomes a treasure, whose existence in the network of ivory towers gives them enough hope to keep inhaling and exhaling every long, long semester. most people have at least one of these names tucked in their pocket. as a pet academic talisman. a crush, even. even former professors of mine have them: role models who shine and resonate and pierce through the soggy, plodding pointlessness with something that seems worth caring about or worth working towards.

I never thought I really had one of those. of course dear Kelli from my undergrad days will forever be a precious mentor, but I haven't figured out yet if her published scholarship sets sparks off in my head. James Berlin and his earnest neo-Marxism was a brief fascination. there are plenty of writers whose style and bravery I envy, admire: Cynthia Haynes and what little I've tasted of Bakhtin, Derrida. Heidegger. beautiful sentences and admirable philosophies, yes. worthy of idolization? not so sure.

but this week, I may have discovered a just-right mix of sparks and fascination and loveliness and intrigue. his name is Richard Lanham.

I couldn't tell you my first meeting with this guy (he shows up in course readings every so often, and even here on the OWL), but I've had his The Economics of Attention on my reading list for at least a year. for my latest Classical Rhetoric paper I've found an excuse to carry the thing around with me and pick through it, enjoying his widely thrown net and all the wonderfully mixed things that are caught in it. I didn't stop there, either. he also wrote The Electric Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts. and a bunch of articles on writing and technology and history and style. I am nuzzling my little nose into all of it. it hardly even makes sense to me how enchanted I find myself. how enchanting I find all the thoughts this scholar has thought.

in the first chapter of The Economics of Attention, Lanham takes us back to Homer's epics with portraits of both Achilles and Odysseus. Achilles is brash, but thoroughly truth-bound. he will never lie to you or wrap his opinions in euphemism or diplomacy. he will speak what is. he does not need to flatter you; if you don't see things his way, he can slice your skin to pieces. contrarily, Odysseus tells the stories he needs to tell, using whatever pretty words might work to move you. he might not be so honest, but would you rather be lied to, or earnestly sliced to pieces?

I was thinking about this set of opposites the other day after listening to Rick distinguish between the sophists and the philosophers. when you study these classic ancient Greek thinkers, speakers, writers, and teachers, you can pretty much divide them all into two somewhat fuzzy categories: the savvy storytellers like Odysseus, and the unyielding truth-lovers like Achilles. both sophists and philosophers have sophia--truth--in their names, but each has a slightly different take on her usefulness.

somewhere else, I think it was, Lanham calls these "the two great opposites of the Western cultural conversation." philosophy and rhetoric. the other day Rick explained to us that we needn't choose sides. both truth and flattery are great tools, depending on what you're trying to do with them. but of course using both means you are a sophist, he joked. only a version of Odysseus would admit the benefits of drawing on both. if you aren't above bending the truth a little, you've crossed some line the philosophers aren't able to cross. they won't let themselves.

and this reminded me of a game. games, I suppose. The Resistance. Avalon. no doubt there are many others. these two are adaptations of the classic Mafia or Werewolf. your innocent party of townsfolk has been infiltrated by evil-doers masquerading as good-guys. they are tearing your idyllic community to pieces from the inside out.

here again we have two teams. two great opposites. what I find interesting is how the loyal townsfolk, or plucky resistance fighters, or knights of the round table, have only one choice. as the game proceeds, they must behave according to their good-guy status. they cannot do otherwise. they don't want to. they wouldn't. they won't let themselves.

but the spies, the impostors, the wolves--they can do whatever they want. they have the freedom to lie or pretend or change their minds. underneath that, though, they are just as driven by the role the game assigns them. they can lie or pretend or change their minds, but only if it serves their ultimate destructive purpose.

is that scary, in a way? or could it be enlightening, freeing, in another?

whatever you want will somehow sketch boundaries around whatever you will, whatever you do. it depends on what we're trying to get done here. I think we probably want to avoid slicing each other to pieces. at least I hope so. in which case the flattery, a few bendable truths, and some pretty stories might be very important tools.


Chris said...

'somewhere else, I think it was, Lanham calls these "the two great opposites of the Western cultural conversation." philosophy and rhetoric.'

That is a very interesting thought.

amelia chesley said...

related, perhaps!