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Electronic text 2: Rhetoric reborn

February 23, 2010

Image: graffito on wooden board

Before the Greeks invented philosophy, they invented rhetoric. The rhetors or sophists were the West’s first professional teachers, wandering from city-state to city-state in the early 5th century BCE, teaching science, grammar, philosophy and whatever else people wanted to learn. Above all they taught the arts of discourse – reasoning, arguing and public speaking – which were suddenly much in demand among the citizens of these first democracies. The rhetoricians saw discourse as a tool for constructing social reality, and taught their students how to use it to construct themselves as social actors. They used language self-consciously, playfully, dramatistically.

The philosophical tradition founded in the late 5th century by Plato defined itself in opposition to the sophists, who were despised as materialist, frivolous and secular. Philosophers should be seekers after truth, which was fixed and universal. Language was simply a window onto reality, not a tool for manipulating it: hence poets were to be banned from Plato’s republic. Like Plato’s forms, the human self (the ‘soul’) was single and fixed. Appropriated by Christianity, Platonism became the default philosophical position in the West – and the sophists were airbrushed out of history.

According to Richard Lanham these two traditions are “the two great opposites of the Western cultural conversation,” and he sees the advent of electronic text – multiply-authored, multi-media, interactive, creative rather than just transmissive – as representing a late come-back by the rhetoricians.

The rhetoricians.. built their world on the logos, on the word, or more largely on what we would call ‘information’. It was there that they found their natural home, not in the ‘real’ world beyond language [or] in Platonic forms… The logos.. creates new meanings as does poetry, rather than simply communicating preexisting knowledge in a transparent capsule…

On the one side we have the semiotic view of language as self-referential, the dramatistic view of human self and society which the rhetorical paideia has always taken. On the other side we have the philosophers’ argument for a Platonic central self and intentionality, and a ‘reality’ which is somehow or other really out there. (Lanham R, 1993)

Lanham argues that when the word becomes electronic it begins to regain the self-conscious, playful, generative characteristics of sophist rhetoric. At the same time, the single, metaphysical reality of platonism breaks up into the urbane bricollage of postmodernism, and the fixed, central self fissures into something much more actorly, self-conscious and protean. “The computer turns out to be a rhetorical device as well as a logical one.”

In the resulting rhetorical online space, we can and do construct, morph and deconstruct our online selves almost as easily as posting status updates on Facebook or Twitter. In doing so we are playing with roles in a way the rhetoricians would have understood, for role-play and the modelling of multiple subject positions in an argument was a necessary part of an education in citizenship:

It is not two-sided argument per se that distinguishes rhetorical education, but the insistence that the same person take both sides, first one then the other. Civility requires the acceptance of imposture… (Lanham R, 1993)


Lanham R, 1993. The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology and the Arts. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. Available in part online at

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