On Rhetoric


Credit to St. Peter's List of 60 Philosophy Memes

Credit to St. Peter’s List of 60 Philosophy Memes

For Ancient Rhetorics this week, we read Aristotle’s On Rhetoric (one of our exam texts). I know this reading cannot account for the scope of the text (which I am curious as to how many re-readings it will take…), but I am dwelling here in a few points of interest in an attempt to discern something articulable/to connect them to our conversations in class about historiography and ways of knowing rhetoric’s history.

I was really intrigued by Chapter 7 of Book I: “The Koinon of Degree of Magnitude—Greater or Smaller—as Applicable to Questions of the Advantageous and the Good in Deliberative Rhetoric” perhaps because of an interest in scale. To explain simply, I attribute scale in part to Franco Moretti’s concept of distant reading (which I plan on applying to On Rhetoric to see what emerges as patterns…). Close and distant reading (Moretti) are not binaries or diametrically opposed on opposite ends of the spectrum:

close —————————————distant

but move along a spectrum of proximity in reading a text or collection of texts (“close” being the reading we as a human individual can do within individual text(s) and “distant” being reading humans + computation can do across text(s) ); this is differential reading. Differential reading, or reading at scales, defamiliarize texts, making them unrecognizable in a way (putting them at a distance or oppositely at a proximity) that helps identify features otherwise unseen, to make hypotheses, generate questions, and figure out patterns and how to read them (Tanya Clement, “Text Analysis, Data Mining, and Visualizations in Literary Scholarship”). I am playing with Aristotle’s koinon like differential reading scales. Aristotle identified greater and smaller as degree of magnitude of importance as a form common to all species of rhetoric in questioning possibility or fact. Koinon are degree of importance/unimportance and possible/impossible. He then outlines 41 conceptions of koinon, ranging from “things exceeding something equal to a greater entity are greater than it” (six), to “what is scarcer is greater than what is abundant, though less useful” (fourteen), to “what all people prefer [is preferable] to what all do not” (twenty eight) as all the sources of pisteis or proof, means of persuasion, belief (31). Aristotle divides pisteis (proofs) into artistic and non-artistic:

  • non-artistic: witnesses, testimonies, other proofs which do not need to be invented
  • artistic: need to be invented

I found myself wondering what type of proofs historical texts and historiographic research are categorized as—artistic or non-artistic and how this might change the way we see what is possible in doing historical work. If we see historiography as non-artistic proof, perhaps we are limiting what we can see as possible history even as we try to broaden our perspectives of history. Perhaps if we see historiography as artistic proof, needing to be invented, we might change how we look at history. Something like differentiated reading, made available through distantly reading texts with computer assistance, might bring to the surface details about history we have not focused or gaze upon.  Thus my fixation on differentiated reading with the koinon as illustrative of pisteis: historical work has ambient perspectives that have not been in the vocal spotlight. This brushed up against the idea of amplification or auxesis from Chapter 9 Book I: Epideictic Rhetoric (epideictic being demonstrative or fit for display). Auxesis is an overstatement to stress size/significance; it extends thoughts/statements to increase rhetorical effect, to add importance, or to make the most of a thought. To maximize or minimize elements through amplification seems to fit with the conceptions of koinon in proof. From limited reading about rhetorical amplification, it involves identifying parts of a text by a process of division, where each text can be amplified. Amplification is equated to inventio or systematic discovery that investigates the possible means by which profs can be discovered. Turning this thought thread back to historiography, I wonder how this might affect the ways in which historical work is done. Or perhaps, how we imagine it can be done. Which left me wondering about stasis theory (something that came up in a conversation with Collin last week—an accidental Aristotle connection) and its application to historical research. Stasis theory leads to knowledge building, or perhaps debate and re-building, through achieving stasis. Achieving stasis means that parties involved in a dialogue about a given issue have reached consensus on (or agreed upon) the information and conclusions in one or more of the stases:

  • Question of fact: did the person damage the item? (conjectural)
  • Question of definition: was the damage minor or major? (definitional)
  • Question of quality: was he justified in damaging the item? (qualitative)
  • Question of jurisdiction: should this be a civil or criminal trial? (translative)

Where does most research fall along the stases? How does this impact the ways in which we know the field (ways of reading and researching)? How might our perspectives change if we focus not on what we’re reading/researching, but how we’re reading/researching?


and how

In attempting to grasp topic modeling, I found it helpful to cluster together the readings from Andrew Goldstone and Ted Underwood, Meghan R. Brett’s introduction to topic modeling, and reviews/responses from Andrew Perrin and Laura Nelson to the Poetics special issue on topic modeling. My understanding of topic modeling is that within a large corpus of texts (huge, like 1000+), TM tools mine the texts by grouping words across the corpus into topics, or patterns of co-occurring words (a relationship of similarity). These topics are then examined by the researcher (who must know something about this text corpus to be able to understand the topics found) and illustrated as a befitting visualization that makes visible these topic relationships.

As I was reading, I noticed my questions seemed to echo questions I have had since I started reading about distant reading, text mining, and visualization a year ago. While I think my technical understanding of these methods is becoming more robust through engagement with work using such methods (and showing how they used the methods), the how is still obscure to me. I pulled quotes from these pieces (that are in ways at odd with one another in how they see TM as useful) that are helping me with the how:

Goldstone and Underwood: “The strictly linguistic character of this technique is a limitation as well as a strength: it’s not designed to reveal motivation or conflict” + “This technique can reveal shifts of emphasis that are more gradual and less conscious than the ones we tend to celebrate.”

TM, as advocated by Goldstone and Underwood, is rigorous enough that it should be considered evidence (product of research) to make claims/questions within a discipline. Their account acknowledges the limitations of this method in that it loses meta information within a text (does context still work at this scope? in these methods?), but affirms the method as a different way of seeing how knowledge has emerged within a discipline/disciplinary set of texts. The how might not have otherwise been visible.

Brett: “Topic modeling is not necessarily useful as evidence but it makes an excellent tool for discovery.”

Brett views TM as a part of research—making patterns visible to then pursue. I think this view of how TM is used, in comparison to that of Goldstone and Underwood, is a divide that emerges in differing scopes of text analysis. How this is determined, I am still uncertain other than varying engagements with the methods; but, what I do notice is how discovery through these methods is differently valued.

Perrin: “But culture is not just language, language is not just text, and text is not just words. Since these methods actually analyze text (not language and not culture) we need to attend to the processes by which culture becomes language and language becomes text.”

Perrin critiques TM because it cannot account for the context of texts—texts (as a collection of words) read through these methods cannot make certain relationships visible. This doesn’t appear to be the argument that I once thought existed between the values/constraints/affordances of “close” and “distant” reading (time with one text read closely v. time with a group of texts read for patterns—we have read much that complicates this) but an assertion that while these methods may make certain patterns visible, they cannot make others. Or, they might give the illusion of patterns that are distorted. Other than making this disclaimer in a methods section, I wonder how else we might account for contexts—especially in large corpora.

Nelson: [topic modeling] “It definitely will not magically help us understand the black box of culture. It’s science, not magic, and any science takes work.”

Nelson, who takes Perrin to task in arguing that understanding texts is a way to help us understand society (the context that Perrin argues is lost in texts that TM methods read). Nelson outlines what TM can and cannot do, making the usual disclaimers about understanding available options, methods as best fit for questions/data, and assumptions behind each method. What struck me in Nelson’s account (it should be noted that this is from sociology) was describing how these methods are science.

And How: I’m left wondering about how we see relations/patterns and meaning; this sounds simple, but what relations have our attention make for great variances in meaning. And while I think this is the point—the affordances and constraints of the methods—how are they (texts to topics, topics to relationships, relationships to patterns, patterns to visualizations, visualizations to relationships, relationships to meaning) considered?