This morning I had an interesting discussion with one of my colleagues who is a rhetorician and who just presented a paper at a local conference on what rhetoric should be. Like many in the world of literature department, he is dissatisfied with the way in which rhetoric programs these days seem so focused on “high-brow theory”, and have abdicated their traditional focus on pedagogy. That is, when he reads rhetoric journals and attends rhetoric conferences, the papers are more about figures such as Bakhtin, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, or Burke than about the actual practice of rhetoric. As such, he has adopted an “anti-theory” stance and has begun to focus his research on actual rhetorical practices such as you might find among ministers, teachers, and public speakers. From his point of view, rhetoric programs need to return to their roots and focus once again on figures such as Quintillian, Seneca, and Cicero.

I, of course, am of the view that one’s practice can only be as good as ones theory and that there is no such thing as a practice that doesn’t already embody a theory– no matter how underdeveloped –of some sort. Nonetheless, I sympathize with a number of the points that he is making. As I see it, the problem with rhetoricians is that they talk with rhetoricians, the problem with philosophers is that they talk to philosophers, and the problem with literature people is that they talk to literature people. What I have in mind here is the thesis that the rise of the modern academy, beginning in the 19th century, has been a disaster for practice in the humanities insofar as it has cut us off from engagement with the broader social-world within which our practice takes on meaning and purpose. It seems to me that this renunciation of theory is symptomatic of a crisis within our respective fields, borne of a sense that what we do does not matter. And in many respects, those of us who sense that what we do is an intellectual game more centered around building our vitae than anything of real consequence in the world are right. We perpetually get caught up in games, striving to formulate the most radical thesis, the most provocative reading, struggling for position in the academic world, without these debates and theoretical productions making much of a difference. At least this seems to be the case in the American academy.

I think that traces of this historical outcome could already be sensed with the founding of the first academy by Plato. Why did Plato found the academy? I’m only speculating here, but my theory is that the academy was a way of preserving the pursuit of philosophy, the cultivation of the soul and preparation for death that he speaks of in so many dialogues, while protecting philosophers from the fate of Socrates. I use the term “philosopher” loosely here to refer to anyone engaged in research, whether in the sciences, mathematics, the social sciences, rhetoric, or the humanities. Socrates, in his speech and practice, was a politically potent figure. The last thing we want is a Socrates on every street corner. Consequently, the best solution to this problem is to lock the philosophers up, even give them a comfortable living, so they’ll talk to one another and engage in their pursuits, without disrupting the social and political world outside the walls of the academy. I jest, but not much.

Rhetoricians sometimes like to claim that we need to return to the rhetorical tradition preceding the Enlightenment. This, for instance, is one of Sharon Crowley’s theses in a book that I highly recommend. However, in my view Crowley fails to examine the Enlightenment thinkers in context or to analyze the relationship between these thinkers and the great Greek and Roman rhetoricians. Figures such as Cicero and Seneca were almost deified by thinkers like Hume and Diderot because of their great commitment to civic life and engagement with the public sphere. Indeed, Hume was extremely euridite where ancient philosophy was concerned, having encyclopedic familiarity with the Greek and Roman rhetoricians, and the Enlightenment thinkers modelled their own conception of philosophy on the Romans. Their philosophy was a very public practice, premised on social engagement, combatting superstition, and devotion to civic life. Each of the texts written by the Enlightenment thinkers was a rhetorical grenade designed to draw lines and open a space where new social formations might be possible.

The anxiety that constantly haunts me is that our grenades no longer have any targets save in sterile intellectual debates that only impact others in the academy. We have lost any sort of engagement with an outside to the walls of the academy, and therefore experience a sort of melancholy where our work is meaningless. I take it that the rejection of theory is symptomatic of this discontent and sense that more direct engagement is necessary. In the mean time, figures such as Stephen Jay Gould, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins, Georg Lakoff, Frank Luntz, Frijtof Capra, etc., become the real motors of social engagement. The importance of agora such as the blogs is precisely that they function to break down these walls, enabling new discourses and forums that are no longer so myopically focused on academic debates. It is for this reason as well that intellectuals such as Zizek publish articles in newspapers. What other forms of engagement are possible that would break up this impotence?