Octalog. “The Politics of Historiography.” Rhetoric Review 7.1 (Autumn 1988): 5-49.


Overview: The published proceedings of the first Octalog include a prologue from James Murphy, followed by brief statements from each of the panelists (originally printed on a handout given to those who attended the panel), and then the three minute “philosophical statements” delivered by each participant during the actual panel. These statements are then followed by the transcript of the question and answer session, as well as post-conference reflections written by each of the panel participants.

James Berlin, “Dialectical Histories of Rhetoric”: Histories of rhetoric cannot claim to present objective accounts because histories emerge out of particular contexts and always endorse, even if unconsciously, a particular ideology. Thus, we must maintain a self-reflective stance as historians and acknowledge that there will never be one history of rhetoric but we must always allow for multiple histories that act as checks on one another. Having these checks from multiple histories is key because our understanding of history impacts the politics and power dynamics inherent in our present-day work as writing teachers.

“In brief, historians must become aware of the rhetoricity of their own enterprise.” (6)

Robert J. Connors, “English Composition as a Social Problem”: Connors extends Berlin’s insistence that historical work plays a significant role towards improving present circumstance, as well as the idea that history is ultimately a rhetorical enterprise. More specifically, Connors argues that truth is created through consensus and that the historian must acknowledge that they are working to persuade and audience to assent to the evidence and ideas they present as a part of a continuous, communal effort to arrive at shared truths “by the exchange of good reasons” (13).

Sharon Crowley, “Pedagogical Goals”: In her statements, Crowley focuses on one of the problematics of writing history, namely the risk of reification that comes with identifying traditions, figures, practices, etc. in history. She suggests that because histories written within rhetoric and composition are always aimed at practical ends (for example, to answer in some the question of how a history should impact our present work) there is always the potential for what are meant to be tentative, multiple, or even highly contextualized histories to get trapped in exam-question status–that is, treated as though they are closed truths rather than situated interpretations of history.

Richard Leo Enos, “Lurching Towards Mt. Olympus: The Polis and Politics of Historiography in Classical Rhetoric”: Enos introduces the question of how we evaluate historical research methodologies and what is introduced as proof in historical writing. He argues that conservative understandings of historical work offer a limited and fixed perspective of what constitutes adequate proof in historical study. Warning against the closing off of possibilities that comes with this conservative “arm chair” approach, Enos suggests the discipline try out a more archeological approach to historical research in rhetoric and to work towards creating and testing new historical research methods that meet the needs and concerns of the discipline.

Victor J. Vitanza, “Politics and Historiography”: Vitanza’s philosophical statement ends with the words, “Let’s get of of here!”–a rally cry to continually resist the closure of rhetorical history and tradition. Framing his statements in the language of French post-structuralist resistance to the “phallologocentric” tradition, Vitanza calls for ongoing resistance to any linear, unified accounts of the history of rhetoric and instead focus on “Hysteries” that function as a constant, laughing disruption closure-focused logos of traditional history.

Susan Jarratt, “The Politics of Text Selection in History of Rhetoric”: Jarratt addresses the politics of canon formation, arguing for the need to return to and rethink the body of texts that has come to represent the “rhetorical tradition.” Building on the example of the absence of women from the rhetorical canon and her own attempts to find selections from women to include in a class on the history of rhetorics, Jarratt asks us to think about what it will take and where we will have to go to find texts that correct some of the political exclusions that have historical characterized the rhetorical canon.

Nan Johnson, “My Ideological Stance”: Johnson argues that history is both rhetorical and archeological. Using the metaphor of the archeological dig, Johnson characterizes historical work in rhetoric as an enterprise that continually “unearths” new questions and directions, while also having an epistemic dimension in the sense that evolving research methods become the means of knowing. Thus, to say that history is rhetorical is not to say that there are no facts and that all stories (all accounts of history) are equally plausible, but that historians and their audiences engage with history as a persuasive act in which some accounts are held to be truer than others.

Jan Swearingen, “The Institutionalization of Rhetoric and the Inscription of Gender”: Swearingen begins with what she identifies as two significant omissions from received histories of rhetoric. First, the spread of literacy that coincided with the institutionalization of rhetorical pedagogy in classical education. And second, the fact that women were excluded from education and rhetorical practice as rhetoric and literacy were becoming more common. As she considers these omissions, she troubles the potential apathy that can arise from the assertion that all histories are fictions, arguing that in order to challenge the ideology of history, you have to have a history to address. Thus, we cannot let a postmodern critique of historical work stop us from these pursuits or the problematic ideologies represented in received histories will go unchallenged.

Response: What seems shared across all of the panel participants is both the belief that historical research in rhetoric is connected to the political goals of the field and that these rhetorical histories are (or should be) instructive in our present (and inherently political) work as writing teachers. Beyond these shared beliefs, the crux of the debate taking place in this Octalog seems to surround epistemological questions that emerge from historical research and critical historiography–What can we know in terms of rhetorical history? How do we come to know it? Are there historical truths? Are these truths fixed or contingent? Connecting this to the overarching political and pedagogical concerns that run throughout the Octalog, the exchange seems to suggest that how we understand history is not merely instructive for how we understand our current context or for how we position ourselves as an academic discipline. But also, epistemology is political and ideological, and thus what we believe it means to know and our methods for knowing when it comes to historical research are intimately tied to what we can know about our present circumstances.