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).

What Speech Reveals, According to a Chinese Philosopher and a Few Rhetoricians

Kung-sun Ch’ou asked Mencius, the Chinese Philosopher, how he was better than Kao Tzu, another Chinese Philosopher. 

Mencius said, “I understand ‘what can be put in words.’ I am adept in the cultivation of the ch’i.

But this answer didn’t satisfy Kung-sun Ch’ou. So he said, “Might I ask what you mean by ‘the ch’i’?” Then Mencius replied,

It is difficult to express in words. The ch’i [often translated as “physical vigour” or “passion-nature”] in this sense is the greatest, the most durable. If it is nurtured by rectitude it remains unharmed and permeates the entire universe. The ch’i in this sense is the fit recipient for Justice and the Way. Without it, man is ill-nourished. It is begotten of the sum total of just deeds. It is not to be seized and held by incidental just deeds. If an act of ours does not meet approval with the heart, then [the life force] is ill-nourished. That is why Kao Tzu has never understood Justice. He thinks it is external to man. One must render service to it; one must not regard it as an objective criterion. The mind must never let it out of its sight, but we must not try to make it grow. Let us not be like the man of Sung who, worried that his young plants were not growing, tugged at them [to help them grow]. He returned home, full of fuss, saying, “What a busy day! I have been helping my plants to grow.” His son hurried out to the fields to look, but the young plants had withered already. There are few men in the world today who are not “helping the plants grow.” Some neglect their plants, thinking it useless to weed them. Some help their plants by giving them a tug. But this is not merely useless; it is actually harmful.

But this somewhat cryptic answer still wasn’t enough for Kung-sun Ch’ou. So he asked what Mencius meant when he said that he “understood what can be put into words.” Then Mencius responded,

I understand what hides the other half of a half-truth. I understand the pitfalls that lie beneath extravagant statements. I understand the emptiness that lies behind evasive statements. Engendered in the mind, they cause harm to government. When they result in governmental action they cause harm to public affairs. If a Sage were to rise again he would agree with all I have said. (Mencius 2.1.2.11-17)

Stephen Owen has interpreted Mencius’ statement this way,

Mencius’ knowledge of language is a knowledge of what the words reveal about the speaker, what they make manifest. . . . Words become only a surface whose shape reveals what lies within. Mencius’ list of different kinds of language shows that the trained listener can make fine discriminations. Most important, what the speaker reveals in his words is involuntary–perhaps not at all what he would wish to have revealed. Error and deception are not autonomous categories here, but are subsumed under understanding the person: they are nothing more than manifestations of ignorance or the desire to deceive and as such become important pieces of evidence for us when we listen to someone speak, recognizing the truth or accepting error, being deceived or not being deceived rest with the capacities of the listener. (Readings in Chinese Literary Thought, 1992)

In other words, speech is a subset of action. Ways of speaking are ways of acting, and speech patterns reveal thought patterns. All of this suspiciously sounds like Isocrates, who wrote in his Nicocles that “We regard speaking well to be the clearest sign of a good mind . . . and truthful, lawful, and just speech we consider the image of a good and faithful soul” (171). 

That capacity that Owen reads into Mencius–the capacity to listen well and to listen responsibly–is what we as human beings all strive towards. Wayne Booth, at the end of his book that was subtitled The Quest for Effective Communication, wrote that the quality of our lives–not just individually but also collectively–largely depends on the quality of our capacity to listen and respond, in short, our capacity to actually communicate (The Rhetoric of Rhetoric 171-172).

But there is a difference between actually communicating and merely thinking that we are communicating. Actual communication does not happen between beings who do not try to listen with their hearts as well as their heads. Listening is more than merely hearing words, and understanding another human being is more than simply getting enough information that will make me sound cool when I open my mouth.