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Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Rhetoric, Memory, Violence: The Medieval Theater of Cruelty

Rhetoric, Memory, Violence:
The Medieval Theater of Cruelty
by Jody Enders
p. 1999
Cornell University Press

   This is a book that achieves profundity almost in spite of it's stilted, heavily-influenced-by-french-cultural-theory style of writing.  Enders, a Professor of French and Medieval Studies at UCSB (Santa Barbara) comes close at times to a major contribution to the field of "history of ideas," but she's so caught up in her own specialty (French medieval manuscripts) and the "rules" of 90s era academia, that the interesting points of Rhetoric, Memory, Violence are almost hidden from view.  Certainly, reading this book was no pleasure- quite a chore, actually- it was so bad that I had an index card with the main theses written on it, and would then pull the card out every time I got confused and had to remind myself what the f*** Enders is going on about.

   The essence of Ender's argument in non-academic-jargony English, is FIRST: that the study of Rhetoric is embedded into the minds of recent scholars and influences their writing in both subtle and not-so subtle ways. SECOND: That the relative decline of the importance of Rhetoric in recent centuries has served to mask the important role that it played in justifying TORTURE during the middle age.  THIRD: That the link between Rhetoric and Torture continues to shape our thought processes, to the point where we, as a society, basically enjoy torture because it helps maintain (intellectual) order.

  If it sounds like something Foucault or Derrida would say, that's because Enders is obviously inspired by their work in the "archeology of knowledge."  From my perspective, she's on to something, but her omission of pre-Classic and non-written linguistics makes her final conclusions rather shallow.  At best, she's talking about a cultural trait that developed alongside the birth of Rhetoric in Greek/Roman times.  Surely, any link between order and violence in a modern state like America extends beyond the study of Rhetoric to the period when languages like Greek, Latin, German and Sanskrit were spoken, and not written.  Without integrating this piece of the puzzle, the insight that Enders can provide to,  "the roots of...cruelty lie in the language of some of the foundational narratives of Western Civilization." (p. 232.)

  Well, OK- but you didn't prove your point.

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