Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Blogging to My PhD: Plato, Community, and Knowledge

For this post in the Blogging to My PhD series, I'm looking at Plato's Phaedrus. Since last night was the second presidential debate, and since Mitt Romney flat out lied about his stance on birth control in the debate last night, I thought about looking at this passage and connecting it to our current political debates:
Phaedrus: there is no necessity for the man who means to be an orator to understand what is really just but only what would appear so to the majority of those who will give judgment; and not what is really good or beautiful but whatever will appear so; because persuasion comes from that and not from truth
But that just seemed too easy. Also, this.

So, instead I want to turn my attention to a different part of Phaedrus: the part that discusses the nature of our writing pasts.

At the beginning of Phaedrus, Socrates comes upon Phaedrus in the countryside and asks him to recite a speech that he recently heard given by Lysias. Phaedrus feigns incompetence in his ability to recite it, but Socrates notices that he has a scrap of paper in his hand that has the text of the speech on it. He tells him: "I suspect you have the speech itself. If you have, you must know this about me, that fond as I am of you, if Lysias is here as well, I am not really inclined to offer myself to you to practice on." 

I know that these lines are really just a set-up to get the text of Lysias' speech into the dialogue, but isn't it telling that a scrap of paper with some words on it is equated to having Lysias present? I mean, if you printed out this blog post and took it on a date with you, I wouldn't suddenly be there, would I? To what extent do our words represent us? 

Do Not Write on the Grass !

Who among us wants to be held accountable for everything we've ever said or written? Before you get too confident, think back. Did you have some weepy Myspace poems you posted when you were fifteen? (I know I had more than a couple angst-filled AIM Profile descriptions I wouldn't want held against me.) Did you ever write a letter to a grade-school friend that had some embarrassing revelations about your immature state of mind? There are almost certainly things in your past that don't represent who you are today. You've grown; you've changed; you've matured. 

Phaedrus mentions the risks of writing: "you know yourself that the men with the most power and dignity in our cities are ashamed to write speeches or leave compositions of their behind them, for fear of what posterity will think of them."

That fear, today, is well-founded. With employers and college admissions boards scouring Facebook for incriminating evidence against applicants, your past may certainly come back to haunt you. 

But Socrates reminds Phaedrus that writing is a way to become "immortal," and--as such--is a powerful tool that no powerful person should shy away from. 

We can't take anything Socrates says in this dialogue at face value, however, because he is constantly contradicting himself. Even in this very piece of writing, he has given a speech that he is ashamed of, so ashamed that he covers his head while giving it and then insists that it wasn't his speech at all, but a product of being possessed by the Nymphs, a condition he blames (tongue firmly in cheek) on Phaedrus. 

With so much spinning around about the importance of writing, the denial of authorial responsibility, and the fact that a good speechmaker must know the full truth of his/her topic before speaking or writing on it, it's hard to pin down a firm stance on the nature of the written word from this piece. 

In the introduction to the Penguin edition of Phaedrus, Christopher Rowe writes this:
So perhaps the message is: Even though it was all well done, we shouldn't take it too seriously (for I, Socrates/Plato, don't). Socrates gives no indication as to what he got right and where he went off (maybe) in a wrong direction; but his general message is that we always need to move on and should never be content to be identified with anything we have written
That message (as slippery as it is) would fit with the overall messiness of the text as a whole, but how does it fit in our current society. Are we able to casually dismiss our past writings as being no big deal? In an age where there are records kept of virtually everything we do online and sophisticated video technology in the hands of virtually every passer-by, can we hope to escape the representations of ourselves we've given through words in the past?

If Phaedrus carried in his pocket the text of Lysias that allowed Lysias to be present, how many places am I right now? Where are you reading this? Your bedroom, the public library, on your phone while you take the train? Am I there?

Perhaps Rowe's interpretation of Phaedrus' message is the only one that makes sense in our current rhetorical landscape. Don't get caught up too much in being identified with what you've said in the past--there's too much of it out there to keep track of anyway.

I'm most interested in how this tension between records of our thoughts through video and writings intersects with our different personas. Is there a real us? If so, is the real Romney the one who last night said he cared about 100% of the people or the Romney of the secret video where he cast of 47% of them? Is the teacher who was videotaped bullying a student always the cruel person the recorded record of that exchange makes him out to be, and--if so--should we be thankful for the technology that allowed the abused teen to prove that identity? When are we ourselves and how long are we accountable to the selves that we were in the past?

Am I still secretly that 16-year-old quoting The Used lyrics in my AIM profile? God, I hope not.

Next Up: Debra Hawhee's Bodily Arts

Photo: Pictr One X

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