[Air-l] Plato meets the Blogroll

Charles Ess cmess at lib.drury.edu
Tue Jul 8 14:21:36 PDT 2003

My gratitude, in turn, to John Logie for continuing the discussion!

I would only note that Derrida is not the only one who has observed or
written about the ostensible paradox / irony that Socrates' critique of
writing is available to us via - writing!
Au contraire: before Derrida - a long time before Derrida, on some accounts
- is the tradition (now affiliated with Leo Strauss) that _Plato's_ use of
writing, mirroring Socrates' own (in)famous use of irony, was an intentional
pedagogical (indeed, political) device.  The intention of such paradoxes and
other forms of ostensible contradiction is to trigger awareness and
reflection on possible, more subterranean layers of meaning in the dialogues
- and thereby to turn the responsibility for critical reading and
argumentation over to the reader, who thereby becomes an active participant
in the dialogue, rather than a passive recipient duly noting "Socrates
Such ways of reading often go very much against the grain of more common
ones.  Socrates' infamous critique of poetry in the Republic, for example,
becomes complicated by the observation that the Republic is itself a poetic
work - thus shedding a very different light on the explicit critique, one
that suggests that poetry and philosophy are indeed complimentary and
compatible, rather than quite as hostile as many of my friends and
colleagues in literature departments often assume.
By analogy - the critique of writing, offered within a literary/dramatic
context, might likewise suggest a more nuanced view than the surface
critique.  Indeed, I like to think that it would be a view similar to the
one I suggested - i.e., that the issue is not a matter of a Socratic form of
ludditism, one that would insist that we drop all forms of writing and
return to pure orality.  Rather, somewhat like Plato's own use of writing on
this approach - our use of orality / literacy / electronic technologies
might involve complementary approaches that recognize the strengths and
limits of each?
This would be quite different from the more characteristic postmodern
enthusiasm for "the secondary orality of electronic culture" (Ong) as a
communication technology so revolutionary as to mean the overthrow of
print-literacy (a view, whether he intended to or not, Derrida contributed
to).  But as we seem to be moving beyond such revolutionary forms of PM in
any case, perhaps it's a fruitful reading and approach for us to consider?

Now, back to what my beloved Dean thinks is my real work...


Charles Ess
Distinguished Research Professor, Interdisciplinary Studies
Drury University
900 N. Benton Ave.                          Voice: 417-873-7230
Springfield, MO  65802  USA            FAX: 417-873-7435
Home page:  http://www.drury.edu/ess/ess.html
Co-chair, CATaC: http://www.it.murdoch.edu.au/catac/

Exemplary persons seek harmony, not sameness. -- Analects 13.23

> From: Logie <logie at umn.edu>
> Reply-To: air-l at aoir.org
> Date: Tue, 8 Jul 2003 15:44:26 -0500
> To: air-l at aoir.org
> Subject: Re: [Air-l] Plato meets the Blogroll
> On Tuesday, July 8, 2003, at 09:35  AM, Ed Lamoureux wrote:
>> This is not too different from what Plato said/wrote in the PHAEDRUS
>> concerning what would happen to the Greeks due to the full
>> establishment of writing (away from oral).  "It [writing] will cause
>> us to forget" (roughly) . . .
>> and in a way, it did. In the oral age, "literate" Greeks had
>> encyclopedic memories. Within 250 years after Plato, teachers of
>> rhetoric had to teach memory systems.
> I've thrilled to the running discussion of Plato's _Phaedrus_ on this
> list. Rhetoricians claim the _Phaedrus_ as a foundational text (as do
> those in a lot of other disciplines) and I've always seen Socrates'
> inveighing against writing as presenting a wonderful paradox, given
> that we have it only because Plato wrote it down (Derrida makes this
> point, among others, in the remarkable and intense "Plato's Pharmacy").
> I often assign the dialogue in classes addressing technology and
> literacy, and in addition to Socrates' complain about writing's effect
> on the Greek art of memory, I also am fond of a passage in which
> Socrates' complains about writing's ability to distance words from
> their inventors.
> In the terrific Nehamas and Woodruff translation, the passage reads:
>> Socrates:  You know, Phaedrus, writing shares a strange feature with
>> painting. The offspring of painting stand there as if they were alive,
>> but if anyone asks them anything, they are solemnly silent.  The same
>> is true of written words. You¹d think they were speaking as if they
>> had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been
>> said because you want to learn more, it gives just the same message
>> over and over. Once it has been written down, every discourse rolls
>> about everywhere, reaching  just as much those with understanding as
>> those who have no business with it, and it does not know to whom it
>> should speak and                         to whom not. And when it is
>> faulted and attacked unfairly, it always needs its father¹s support;
>> alone, it cannot defend itself or come to its own support.
> I always follow this passage by asking students whether they believe
> Internet texts are more or less distant from their "parents" than print
> texts. In the early days of hypertext hype, most students were
> initially persuaded that hypertexts, especially link-rich web texts,
> were far more responsive than print texts. Today they are more wary.
> acknowledging that the "rolling around" has reached high speeds, but
> uncertain as to whether web texts are significantly better at defending
> themselves when interrogated.
> My hope is that collective interest in the _Phaedrus_ will prompt
> Penguin to again print its pocket-sized version of the (perfectly
> serviceable) Hamilton translation, which was available in the 1990s for
> the exceedingly fair price of $1.49. Alternatively, a scanned version
> of the Jowett translation hovers at:
> http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/jod/texts/phaedrus.html
> Enjoy!
> Best,
> John Logie
> Rhetoric
> University of Minnesota
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