Graff, Richard and Michael Leff. “Revisionist Historiography and Rhetorical Tradition(s).” In The Viability of the Rhetorical Tradition. Eds. Richard Graff, Arthur Walzer and Janet Atwill.

Summary: This piece is a response to two waves of revisionist history in the field of rhetoric, which while offering necessary critique to a received version of the history of rhetoric in Western culture often pose the problem of undercutting the possibility of maintaining a collective history and collective identity for the field. Graff and Leff begin with a brief overview of what they identify as the first and second waves of revisionist history. They characterize the first of these waves as responding to a received tradition that separated the legitimate rhetoric of Aristotle to the less reputable work of the Sophists, that characterized rhetoric after Aristotle as being in a state of decline, and that emphasized historical research on issues related to the influence of rhetoric. Graff and Leff argue that the first wave of revisions to this received tradition focused largely on the philosophical foundations of rhetoric and, influenced by the way philosophy is studied, argued for an understanding of rhetoric that trades the picture of a unified tradition located in Aristotle to a more systematic understanding that looks at the work of different rhetorical theorists as distinct and also values historical differences in rhetorical systems. Graff and Leff characterize the second wave of revisionist rhetorical history as a specifically critical wave of historical work responding to the uncritical methods, exclusions, commitments to historical continuity, and narrow focus on intellectual history present in the work of previous historians of rhetoric. These critical revisionists are opposed to grand narratives of the history of rhetoric and recognize that any history is always partial and never politically neutral. Looking for points of continuity in the history of rhetoric that will still resist the tendency towards closure and exclusion that has been a problematic feature of received histories, Graff and Leff ultimately argue that focusing on the tradition of teaching and the development and practice of rhetorical pedagogies in the history of rhetoric can simultaneously offer a necessary shared identity for the field while also resisting closure.

Quotable Quotes:

“[T]he revisionist position opposes itself to any grand narrative about the history of rhetoric constructed from a supposedly fixed and neutral perspective. It privileges the local instead of the universal and directs attention to sociopolitical contexts and how they influence both the theory and practice of rhetoric. The new historiography is to be, above all, critical; it searches for biases and exclusions, for disguised tactics of repression and marginalization, and it applies that critical sensibility to the act of writing history itself.” (21, emphasis in the original)

“The teaching of rhetoric is a point of continuity in Western history, but teaching practices themselves vary and change. Thus, the teaching of rhetoric as a practice offers a stable referent for a historical tradition, but it does not lock us into grand narratives or perspectives that move us outside a local context.” (27)


Bernal, Martin. Introduction to Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Vol 1 The Fabrication of Ancient Greece 1785-1985.

Summary: In this introduction, Bernal explains and responds to the differences between the Ancient and Aryan models of classical civilization. The Ancient model, named so because it was the model used in Ancient Greece, is premised on the belief that Greek culture arose after the area was colonized by the Egyptians and Phoenicians–cultures the Greeks continued to be influenced by. The Aryan model, however, views Greece as being essentially European, having been invaded by the north. Bernal ultimately argues for a revised version of the Ancient model that incorporates the hypothesis of a northern invasion into an understanding of Ancient Greek culture that assumes a real basis to the influence of Egyptian and Phoenician colonization of the area.

As he sets up his project of arguing for a revised version of the Ancient model, Bernal offers two significant ideas about the writing of history. One, he suggests that disciplinary outsiders, while seemingly lacking the expertise we would expect from someone contributing to historical work, can use their position to productively challenge perceived histories because they do not share the same disciplinary investment in the maintenance of those histories. This idea is related to the other, perhaps more important point he makes about history which is the suggestion that the Aryan model emerged as the product of 19th and 20th century racism and was supported by a scientific model of history that emphasized proof as a way of proactively de-legitimizing alternative accounts. He thus challenges this scientific model of history by instead suggesting that historical accounts need to be based on “competitive plausibility” rather than scientific-like “proof” (8).

Quotable Quotes:

“If I am right in urging the overthrow of the Aryan Model and its replacement by the Revised Ancient one, it will be necessary not only to rethink the fundamental bases of ‘Western Civilization’ but also to recognize the penetration of racism and ‘continental chauvinism’ into all our historiography, or philosophy of writing history.” (2)

“The paradigms of ‘race’ and ‘progress’ and their corollaries of ‘racial purity,’ and the notion that the only beneficial conquests were those of ‘master races’ over subject ones, could not tolerate the Ancient Model.” (32)


Response: In many ways, the historical tradition Bernal is responding to (a tradition that assumes the Aryan model as truth) seems to align with the tradition the critical histories Graff and Leff write about are also responding to, especially in the sense that Bernal is calling for more reflective research methods and for people to think about the political exclusions that can structure the ways histories are written. But I think Bernal’s work, while tracing out in depth a series of linguistic influences that can hard to follow, also encourages us to think more deeply about where we locate the beginning of rhetoric and to think more about the confluence of cultural forces that might undergird its emergence. Bernal also speaks to the Western-centric focus that emerges as a point of concern in each Octolog. How much of the way we characterize classical rhetoric and its history is influenced by the Aryan model? Or at the very least, can we see the influence of racism that Bernal identifies operating at all in histories of rhetoric and how, if at all, have critical histories worked to rectify any of that racism?