The Presence of the Rhetorical Body

In our conversations about historiographical work that reimagines rhetoric’s history, I found Debra Hawhee’s article to be a well crafted model of what such work can look like. The subject matter alone diverges from the (re)tellings of history and makes visible/audible perspectives overlooked or unheard—not just because it is a different perspective, but it is an embodiment of rhetoric in figures (physical bodies and semiotic ideas) otherwise excluded. Debra Hawhee’s “Bodily Pedagogies: Rhetoric, Athletics, and the Sophists’ Three Rs” serves as a model that explores ancient rhetoric in a connection not typically discussed in contemporary pedagogy—the masculine and agonistic roots of performing rhetoric in Greek culture. Hawhee traces sophistic activity to the gymnasia and palaestrae (private space for boys to learn wrestling and sporting activities) where rhetorical training and athletic training were bound together—a developing of habit production rooted in movement and rhythm.

Since athletic training and competition were already deeply politicized in Athenian culture (Kyle; Kurke),what better art to link to, strategically and methodologically, than the practices in the gymnasium, the place where the political, ethical body emerges? (145)

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Rhythm produces distinctive movements within a generalized direction; it combines fixity with variability (148). This wrestling treatise illustrates the three Rs of sophistic pedagogy: rhythm, repetition, and response. Hawhee meticulously uncovers the words used to describe attention, engagement, study, intensity, pacing and exertion in discipling the body and dispositions. Practice is not only transformative in developing, learning, but the body is envisioned as mind extension: fitness encompasses both (to counter: an opposing move weak:lacking strength claims).

Estenim actio quasi sermo corporis, by action the body talks (156)

Repetition in sophistic-style rhetorical training is always bound up with responsiveness within particular contexts; rhetoric is an awareness of time and place to continually repeat, transform, and respond. Instead of focusing on material (subject matter), the sophists focused on materiality of learning—the corporeal acquisition of rhetorical movements through rhythm, repetition, and response.

Aside from being struck by Hawhee’s careful illumination down to the word level in seeing differently a historical account of rhetoric, I was captivated by the connection in reading the chapter of Lakoff and Johnson’s Metaphors We Live By on “argument is war” (at least in a western context). Lakoff and Johnson trace through different expressions such as “your claims are indefensible” and “he attacked every weak point in my argument” to not only talk about arguments, but to win and lose arguments—performance in language is associated with physical performance. Although there is no physical battle, there is a verbal battle, and the structure of an argument—attack, defense, counter-attack—demonstrates this. It is in this sense that the “argument is war” structures the actions we perform in arguing. The argument is war metaphor seems very much rooted in this western model of rhythm, repetition, and response in shaping verbal/physical performance (I wonder how far the metaphor can be traced back…). I’m left wondering what other metaphors, histories, figures, have been bodied and disembodied and their implications on our ways of knowing.

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