It's been a busy and happy week here at the University of Illinois because we've been hosting Michael Leff, Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication at the University of Memphis. Sadly, Mike was the last of the Lincoln's Rhetorical World speakers and, as always, we're grateful to a variety of folks, including the Office of the Chancellor, the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Public Engagement, the Department of Communication, the Lincoln Bicentennial Committee, and the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities.
It was the latter, in particular, that helped to make Mike's reading group appearance possible. As is our norm for all visitors, he provided us with three essays and we spent an interesting hour and a half talking about them and eating pizza. Three issues stood out in the discussion.
The first was character. Mike's recent work explores the ways in which character flows through and structures public argument. Modern logic, of course, dismisses character as a consideration in the search for truth; the truth is what it is regardless of the person who says it. Thus, nearly all public speaking and argumentation textbooks still list ad hominem attacks as a fallacy. But as my mentor, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, has noted, arguments don't walk into a room by themselves. Inevitably, character plays a powerful role in public argument and our discussion ranged through various manifestations of that role, in addition to the normative element generally present in nearly any discussion of character.
From there, the discussion turned to a second concern, the relation between informal logicians and rhetoricians, as both dialectic and rhetoric, as it were, begin to explore what it means to have a counterpart. Mike has been impressed in particular with a number of Canadian scholars and this is the second time I've heard that school of thought invoked in the last six months (the other being the Zarefsky conference at Northwestern). After the meeting, I quickly requested a couple of different books from the library--time to learn something more.
The initial two discussions articulated nicely--informal logic does wish to explore character--and worked well with another of Mike's recent concerns, anecdote. To put it too crudely, an anecdote is something between a briefly cited example ("The Canadian health care system...") and a fully developed narrative, even myth ("A shining city on a hill..."). Contemporary politics reveals again and again the character work that anecdotes accomplish; the paper we read explored presidential debates, but I kept thinking of one of Obama's favorite campaign anecdotes.
Ashley Baia was a twenty-three year old white woman who organized for the Obama campaign in South Carolina. At one meeting, she told a heartbreaking story of her reasons for being there--her mother's illness and health care--and asks the others why they were there. The last to speak, an "elderly black man," Obama says in his 2008 MLK Day speech, states, "I am here because of Ashley." Obama acknowledges, in that telling of a now-familar story, that a "single moment of recognition between that young white girl and that old black man is not enough....But it is where we begin. It is why the walls in that room began to crack and shake. And if they can shake in that room, they can shake in Atlanta. And if they can shake in Atlanta, they can shake in Georgia. And if they can shake in Georgia, they can shake all across America. And if enough of our voices join together, we can bring those walls tumbling down. The walls of Jericho can finally come tumbling down."
The anecdote, I think, is Janus-faced. It looks closely to the particular, to the feeling of specific people and to that lovely concrete moment, but it looks outward as well, to all of us and to the walls of Jericho, to our faith and to the ideals of the nation. In that moment, Obama recast his rhetorical situation, from a particular speech at King's church in Atlanta, Georgia to the sweep of American history, to the African American faith tradition.
And that, in turn, was the third of our topics, to Mike's effort to rethink situation and tradition, along the lines suggested by a good deal of Jim Jasinski's work. In the example I used here, the African American faith tradition (Obama invokes Joshua to open this speech, too) frames his argument and elevates that moment and his people. His text transforms that context and that, too, marks powerful oratory.
A good discussion. And pretty good pizza as well. Thanks again to everyone who participated and to all those who made Mike's appearance and the series possible.