Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Project for a Whole Human Discourse: A Brief Summary

This post is a brief summary of A Brief Summary of Chapter 13 in Reclaiming Rhetorica: Women in the Rhetorical Tradition. The chapter was written by James Oldham and is called “The Telling: Laura (Riding) Jackson’s Project for a Whole Human Discourse.” 

In the essay, Oldham argues that Jackson’s The Telling offers a theory of epideictic rhetoric as the grounding of human discourse.

He begins by stating that all human beings are dependent on language, an axiom for Jackson, who began writing poetry to express the human experience: “A poem,” she wrote, “is an uncovering of truth of so fundamental and general a kind that no other name besides poetry is adequate except truth” (qtd. in Oldman 248). Later, however, Jackson abandoned poetry because it tended to focus more on the individual and not enough on the common ground between individuals, common ground that she believed was important that we not forget in our quest for individuality and understanding.

Her long essay, The Telling, corresponds with modern theories of language and rhetoric, though she never called it rhetoric because of her pejorative understanding of the term. The Tellingpromotes the idea that language is central to all that human beings do and are, and that human beings are therefore “both able and obligated to use language honestly and well” (249). We must therefore use good judgment and “exercise self-discipline in our use of language” (249). In other words, The Telling might be called an Isocratic approach to rhetoric because it is more about exercising good judgment in using language than it is about cataloging all means of persuasion. In addition to language as being central to human experience, The Telling also discusses major problems that rhetorics in general deal with, such as the problem of a speaker’s method and character, and the relationship between the one and the many. All of these things deal with Jackson’s “vision of a world in which women and men are collaborators in the project of telling” (250).

So what is language for Jackson? She believes language is a gift. It is immanent, it has a purpose and therefore a proper use, which is the advancement of Being, including human being, and it should be appreciated by all of us. Each of us ultimately comes from the same source, Being, which is synonymous with the universe, “whose animating spirit is manifest in the human mind” (qtd. in Oldman 251). When we find ourselves in the universe, it’s our responsibility to Tell, and our uses of language in these acts of telling should be true. On short, as human beings, we experience truth and then reflect that truth, through language, to each other. The standards for this act of telling are, needless to say, very high, but people often tell a version of their self that is not wholly true, and distorted. There is unfortunately a selfish kind of self which greedily attempts to get gain, prestige, and fame through the use of words. But this is not the true self, which is really concerned with its “common identity with other selves” (252).

When we over-emphasize our differences, we begin to desire the triumph of our wills over the wills of others. And that’s a dangerous position. For Jackson, this is what many disciplines, such as science and history do—they can’t explain us because they doesn’t tell us who we are, where we came from, and where we will go—even though she admits that they have done much for us (traditional religious stories, for example, do remind people that they are lost without remembering their origin in Being). But individual disciplines tend to only have parts or pieces of the whole, and are even known to be “more loyal to themselves than they are to the whole” (257). In short, “all of them fail to recognize that they depend, radically and ultimately, on the human capacity to produce, understand, and care about discourse” (257).

So speakers should be true to their real self, not a distorted version of it. Telling is not about ambition, and it is not about gaining fame at the expense of the audience. Individual people should genuinely search for truth and not impose what they discover onto everybody else. Oldham writes that for Jackson, “Discourses that lose sight of our essential commonality will always be false to the community on which they depend for their existence” (259).

So how does one perform an act of telling? Oldham writes, “The teller’s method must also help her to recover and represent her memory of original Being, and it should help her to avoid competing with others to tell better than they do” (253). A teller seeks to tell, by way of memory, imagination, and reason, the origin of human beings within the origin of Being—as well of our ongoing existence. Reminiscent of the Phaedrus, Jackson invites us to remember “the Before,” which is a time “back beyond one’s physical ancestors, and beyond the entire material ancestry of our bodies” (qtd. in Oldham 253). “By recovering this origin, . . . we will be able to overcome false stories of our Being” (253). Each individual person has his or her own “individual vestige of this original identity, but before we can tell it, we must recover it through memory” (253).

Telling seems to mean the sincere use of language to describe an individual’s search for truth and relate it to others without imposing one’s individual beliefs on others.
But this whole discussion of a search for common ground is precisely what epideictic discourse does. Hence, The Telling is epideictic discourse because it asks us to seek common ground: “to remember our common origin, common being, and common destiny” (254). So, Oldham comments, “our ultimate motivation should be the happiness of the Whole, a happiness we can achieve only through bringing our attention to Being, the only source of the Good. We can bring our attention to Being only by telling” and thus “epideictic [should] be adopted universally as the foundation of all discourse” (255). From this perspective, telling becomes a healing act whereby we realize that both women and men need one another.

Telling thus enables us to “overcome the habit of insisting on the triumph of our differences. If we do not believe that we are, at our core, one kind of being, one Being together, then we have only selfish reasons for survival, and no reason to be concerned for one another’s existence. If we do believe that we are one people, and that our common good is the only good we can know, then we have a rational basis for discourse that confirms that universal value, rather than enslaving and silencing one another” (260-261).

In conclusion, Oldham writes, “Jackson reminds us that there is some general Good in our being, in our existence here together, and that it is up to all of us to tell the story of our commonality and to hear one another’s telling. No one of us alone can tell the story completely, and there is neither competition for doing it better nor punishment for doing it worse” (261).

A Brief Poem From a Japanese Teamaster Who Lived from 1158-1237

Fujiwara Iyetaka writes,

“To those who only pray for the cherries to bloom, 
How I wish to show the spring
That gleams from a patch of green
In the midst of the snow-covered mountain-village!”

In other words, while there are some who anticipate the coming of spring, Spring in its entirety is implicit in a tiny, seemingly insignificant “patch of green.”

Daisetz T. Suzuki comments,

“Here is just a feeble inception of life power as asserted in the form of a little green patch, but in it he who has an eye can readily discern the spring shooting out from underneath the forbidding snow. It may be said to be a mere suggestion that stirs his mind, but just the same it is life itself and not its feeble indication. To the artist, life is as much here as when the whole field is overlaid with verdue and flowers. One may call this the mystic sense of the artist” (Zen and Japanese Culture, 26).

Some Larger Way, Path, or Errand

“The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

“‘That sounds like a bit of old Bilbo’s rhyming,’ said Pippin.

. . .

“‘I don’t know,’ said Frodo. ‘It came to me then, as if I was making it up; but I may have heard it long ago. Certainly it reminds me very much of Bilbo in the last years, before he went away. He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,” he used to say. “You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?” He used to say that on the path outside the front door at Bag End, especially after he had been out for a long walk.'”

(The Lord of the Rings, one volume edition, p. 73-74)

A Short Story from a Book about Technology

The book is called User-Centered Technology: A Rhetorical Theory for Computers and Other Mundane Artifacts, but don’t let the title turn you off–it’s a pretty good book. But while theory books seldom have short stories in them, here is one of the ones in this book, written in first-person by the author, Robert R. Johnson:

“I don’t think that I could have been much more than ten or eleven years old, but the memory is nevertheless pungently clear. I was standing on the corner of Fifth and Broadway in Gary, Indiana (the town where I was ‘born and bred’ as they say), waiting for my father to come out of the building where he had an office. As I waited, I watched a man dressed in a doorman’s uniform step from the front door of the First National Bank with a large push broom in his hand. Once out on the sidewalk, he began sweeping and continue to do so until he had whisked a significant amount of white-gray, dusty material out to the curb. He then pushed the dusty residue down the length of the sidewalk, off the curb, into the street, and finally into a storm-sewer grate where it fell quickly out of sight. The doorman returned to the main entrance of the bank, and with the broom still in his hand, held the door for a customer who stepped out onto the temporarily clean sidewalk.

“Not long after the workman was done sweeping, my father appeared and we began walking to our car. On the way, I asked my father, ‘Why was that old man sweeping the sidewalk in front of the bank?’ ‘He does it to keep people from tracking the dirt into the bank,’ my father replied. ‘It helps to keep the carpets in the bank from getting dirty so fast.’ Still not completely satisfied with the answer, I continued, ‘Why does the bank sidewalk get dirty so fast?’ To answer this question, my father stopped, turned, and pointed his finger toward the north–directly at the main ‘Works’ of U.S. Steel that lay a scant five blocks away. ‘You see the smoke coming from the “Works?” [sic] There’s a lot of dust and dirt in that smoke, and it falls like rain on the downtown sidewalks every day and night. It’s especially thick when water is dumped on the hot steel after it comes out of the blast furnaces. The man at the bank is kept pretty busy keeping that dust out of the bank lobby.’

“Just then, I saw a large white-gray cloud appear over the ‘Works,’ and it was followed by a muffled roar. ‘There . . . there it is now. They’re pouring the water on the hot steel–thousands of gallons of it. There will be plenty more dust for him to sweep soon enough,’ he said as we turned back in the direction of the car. As we continued down the sidewalk, I noticed that the sky was changing color, to a sort of white-gray.”

An Imaginary Conversation with Someone from an Earlier Era and a Journey Through a Cave

“Suppose you were able to travel back in time and have a conversation with people who lived a thousand or even a hundred years ago. Imagine trying to describe to them some of the modern technologies that you and I take for granted today. For example, what might these people think of us if we told them stories of jumbo jets, microwave ovens, handheld devices that contain vast digital libraries, and videos of our grandchildren that we instantly share with millions of people around the world?

“Some might believe us. Most would ridicule, oppose, or perhaps even seek to silence or harm us. Some might attempt to apply logic, reason, and facts as they know them to show that we are misguided, foolish, or even dangerous. They might condemn us for attempting to mislead others.

“But of course, these people would be completely mistaken. They might be well-meaning and sincere. They might feel absolutely positive of their opinion. But they simply would not be able to see clearly because they had not yet received the more complete light of truth.”

From Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Receiving a Testimony of Light and Truth,” Ensign, November 2014, 20. See this link for a video clip of the entire address.

Whenever we teach someone to do something new, we assume a similar perspective–we assume that we see more than our students. Say we are teaching students how to write. We see something our students can do to improve, so we tell them about it. They may become frustrated and angry. It is never easy to be asked to change. But if we are going to help our students become better writers, then we must point out what they can do differently. In short, we assume that we see more than they do.

It is like this classic story that you’ve all heard or read at some time or another. Two people are discussing education, and one says to the other:

“Next, I said, compare the effect of education and of the lack of it on our nature to an experience like this: Imagine human beings living in an underground, cavelike dwelling, with an entrance a long way up, which is both open to the light and as wide as the cave itself. They’ve been there since childhood, fixed in the same place, with their necks and legs fettered, able to see only in front of them, because their bonds prevent them from turning their heads around. Light is provided by a fire burning far above and behind them. Also behind them, but on higher ground, there is a path stretching between them and the fire. Imagine that along this path a low wall has been built, like the screen in front of puppeteers above which they show their puppets.”

“I’m imagining it.”

“Then also imagine that there are people along the wall, carrying all kinds of artifacts that project above it–statues of people and other animals, made out of stone, wood, and every material. And, as you’d expect, some of the carriers are talking, and some are silent.”

“It’s a strange image you’re describing, and strange prisoners.”

“They’re like us. Do you suppose, first of all, that these prisoners see anything of themselves and one another besides the shadows that the fire casts on the wall in front of them?”

“How could they, if they have to keep their heads motionless throughout life?”

“What about the things being carried along the wall? Isn’t the same true of them?”

“Of course.”

“And if they could talk to one another, don’t you think they’d suppose that the names they used applied to the things they see passing before them?”

“They’d have to.”

“And what if their prison also had an echo from the wall facing them? Don’t you think they’d believe that the shadows passing in front of them were talking whenever one of the carriers passing along the wall was doing so?”

“I certainly do.”

“Then the prisoners would in every way believe that the truth is nothing other than the shadows of those artifacts.”

“They must surely believe that.”

“Consider, then, what being released from their bonds and cured of their ignorance would naturally be like, if something like this came to pass. When one of them was freed and suddenly compelled to stand up, turn his head, walk, and look up toward the light, he’d be pained and dazzled and unable to see the things whose shadows he’d seen before. What do you think he’d say, if we told him that what he’d seen before was inconsequential, but that now–because he is a bit closer to the things that are and is turned towards things that are more–he sees more correctly? Or, to put it another way, if we pointed to each of the things passing by, asked him what each of them is, and compelled him to answer, don’t you think he’d be at a loss and that he’d believe that the things he saw earlier were truer than the ones he was now being shown?”

“Much truer.”

“And if someone compelled him to look at the light itself, wouldn’t his eyes hurt, and wouldn’t he turn around and flee towards the things he’s able to see, believing that they’re really clearer than the one’s he’s being shown?”

“He would.”

“And if someone dragged him away from there by force, up the rough, steep path, and didn’t let him go until he had dragged him into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be pained and irritated at being treated that way? And when he came into the light, with the sun filling his eyes, wouldn’t he be unable to see a single one of the things now said to be true?”

“He would be unable to see them, at least at first.”

“I suppose, then, that he’d need time to get adjusted before he could see things in the world above. At first, he’d see shadows most easily, then images of men and other things in water, then the things themselves. Of these, he’d be able to study the things in the sky and the sky itself more easily at night, looking at the light of the stars and the moon, than during the day, looking at the sun and the light of the sun.”

“Of course.”

“Finally, I suppose, he’d be able to see the sun, not images of it in water or some alien place, but the sun itself, in its own place, and be able to study it.”

“Necessarily so.”

“And at this point he would infer and conclude that the sun provides the seasons and the years, governs everything in the visible world, and is in some way the cause of all the things that he used to see.”

“It’s clear that would be his next step.”

“What about when he reminds himself of his first dwelling place, his fellow prisoners, and what passed for wisdom there? Don’t you think that he’d count himself happy for the change and pity the others?”


“And if there had been any honors, praises, or prizes among them for the one who was sharpest at identifying the shadows as they passed by and who best remembered which usually came earlier, which later, and which simultaneously, and who could thus best divine the future, do you think that our man would desire these rewards or envy those among the prisoners who were honored and held power? Instead, wouldn’t he feel, with Homer, that he’d much prefer to ‘work the earth as a serf to another, one without possessions,’ and go through any sufferings, rather than share their opinions and live as they do?”

“I suppose he would rather suffer anything than live like that.”

“Consider this too. If this man went down into the cave again and sat down in his same seat, wouldn’t his eyes–coming suddenly out of the sun like that–be filled with darkness?”

“They certainly would.”

“And before his eyes had recovered–and the adjustment would not be quick–while his vision was still dim, if he had to compete again with the perpetual prisoners in recognizing the shadows, wouldn’t he invite ridicule? Wouldn’t it be said of him that he’d returned from his upward journey with his eyesight ruined and that it isn’t worthwhile even to try to travel upward? . . . “

“They certainly would.”

That’s from C. D. C. Reeve’s revision of G. M. A. Grube’s translation of Book VII of Plato’s Republic, 514a-517a.

Music and Its Influence According to Shakespeare’s Lorenzo

On a calm evening with a bright moon, “When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees / and they did make no noise” (Merchant of Venice, 5.1.1-2), Lorenzo sends for musicians, who come and begin to play for him and Jessica. 

Title page from Wikipedia Commons.

Then Lorenzo begins to comment on the influence of music on its listeners. He says that when a herd of wild colts, whose natural tendency is to pretty much just go crazy, neigh loudly, and anxiously race about, whenever they hear “any air of music,” they immediately stop to listen, and their nature is changed by its sweetness. Indeed, Lorenzo continues, the poet Ovid once wrote a fictional story about the legendary musician Orpheus who had such musical power that he could allure trees, rocks, and waters. Here is the passage:

For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood,
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music. Therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods,
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature. (70-81)

But it gets even more interesting. Lorenzo then concludes with the famous statement that the person who has no appreciation for good music and cannot feel its harmonic melodies must therefore have affections as dark the place of shadow between the earth and Hades, the Greek Erebus:

The man that hath no music in himself, 
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music. (82-87)

For Lorenzo in these passages (which are actually just two parts of the same passage) music has a massive amount of influence on humans and on animals. Could we translate this into modern speech? Let’s try to do it.

First, what exactly does Lorenzo mean by music? Well, his statement in line 82, “The man that hath no music in himself,” is repeated in different words in line 83, “Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds.” In other words, to have music in oneself means something like having a capacity to be “moved with concord of sweet sounds.” So, just hearing music, what Lorenzo is calling the “concord of sweet sounds” is not enough. The word moved is important. One must be moved by music. 

Next, what does it mean to be moved? To move is to go from one place or state to another. In this particular case, I think we are not talking about moving in the physical sense, but moving in a symbolic sense, where symbolic, could mean emotional or spiritual. I use the word spiritual because Lorenzo uses the word spirit in line 85 when he says that the person that isn’t moved by music has a spirit whose motions are “dull as night.” And I use the word emotional here because Lorenzo says that this person who isn’t moved by music has “affections dark as Erebus” (86 emphasis added). 

Let’s also briefly discuss “concord of sweet sounds.” Concord means harmony. So “concord of sweet sounds” would become something like “harmonious or melodic sweetness.” We left out the word sound just now, but the word melodic denotes sound, so we’re good. Harmony is the one in the many and the many in the one.

While we’re talking about harmony, let’s cite Paul Woodruff, who teaches philosophy and ethics at the University of Texas at Austin. In his book First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea he writes that harmony is the agreement that human beings make to live together even though all of us are not exactly the same. In terms of music, “Harmony,” he says, “is not singing one note; it is singing different notes in a way that makes one texture of music” (99). Musical harmony is symbolic (or synecdochic) of political harmony. 

So, we can now translate Lorenzo’s Elizabethian iambic pentameter to modern day speech this way: “The person that is not emotionally moved by harmonious or melodic sweetness is dangerous to society because that person cannot feel–and thus cannot understand–the necessary political principle of harmony.” That person is hence “not to be trusted” and is thus “fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils.” Furthermore, if we recall the herd of wild colts that Lorenzo mentioned earlier, we note that the herd is actually better off than this person who has no capacity to be moved by music because the wild colts, though their natural condition includes a savage gaze and untamed craziness, at least understand–and submit to–the principle of harmony. 

Communication and Mysticism

To what degree is an act of communication also an act of mysticism?

And what do I mean by asking that question?

At the very least, when we communicate we have to, to some degree, get outside of ourselves. When we listen, we think the thoughts of another person, and the degree to which we understand that other person depends on the degree to which we feel what they feel and see what they see. Communication is about cooperation and acting in common. It is about finding common ground. Otherwise the speaker will not transmit a message, nor will the hearer receive what the speaker is trying to give.

Communication is verbal and also non-verbal, so we can define communication as symbolic action. Rhetorician Kenneth Burke writes that a “symbolic act is the dancing of an attitude” (Philosophy of Literary Form 9, Burke’s emphasis), and “The dance,” he continues, “was originally religious” (qtd. in Hawhee Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language 43). Dancing is conscious and deliberate. It is intending to do what is being done, and it is done in and with the body.

This helps us understand the following post, where Burke writes about his dog as a dancer . . .

A Dancing Dog

“My dog,” Kenneth Burke writes, “is a dancer . . . in the surprising way he conjugates, let us say, the verb ‘to eat.’ For the present tense he uses, quite literally, the act of eating. But for the future tense, to say ‘I will eat,’ he sniffs at his plate, glances ill-naturedly at the cat, and salivates. And to express the perfect tense of this astoundingly irregular virb, to say ‘I have eaten,’ he picks himself a cool spot under the porch, curls up, and goes to sleep” (“The Dance: The ‘Problems’ of the Ballet.” Nation 140 (March 1935): 343-44.)