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Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (Taylor & Francis Group)

Bakhtin, Phaedrus, and the Geometry of Rhetoric

Author(s): R. Allen Harris
Source: Rhetoric Review, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring, 1988), pp. 168-176
Published by: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (Taylor & Francis Group)
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Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Bakhtin, Phaedrus, and the Geometryof Rhetoric

Theobsessivequestionat theheartof Bakhtin'sthoughtis always "Whois talking?"
-Michael Holquist

This question, the engine humming at the center of Bakhtin's vision,

generating alien words like heteroglossyand polyphony, is one that rhetori-
cians do not ask. And our work is poorer for the silence. We make inquiries,
sometimes very probing ones, into ethos, and occasionally we investigate
some rhetor in great detail. But we take identity for granted. It is "Plato"
or "Socrates" or "Burke"doing the speaking. What we fail to notice is that
these labels do not designate autonomous, univocal entities. They designate
composites-collections of voices, some in harmony, some in conflict.
Mikhail Bakhtin, then, has something to tell us: listen. Listen and you
will hear a verbal carnival of such depth and diversity, of such extravagance
and exuberance, that your ears will never be the same again. The most imme-
diate consequence of this newfound affluence is that the traditional trian-
gular paradigm of rhetorical events becomes lopsided. The speaker's corner
becomes very heavy. But two questions, in parallel with Bakhtin's obsessive
probe, present themselves-"Who is listening?" and "What is being said?"
-and they find similarly multivocal answers. This additional plurality does
not so much balance the triangle as burden it. That is, as soon as we start
to listen more carefully, the paradigm proves hopelessly inadequate. It sim-
plifies interactions to the point of insignificance, it undervalues or ignores
essential elements, and it effects an artificial closure on an inherently open-
ended process. Applying it to any rhetorical event, once we are fitted with
our new ears, reveals this inadequacy, but, to keep things in the family, con-
sider how the paradigm fares in an examination of multivalence in the

The familiar iconic account of a rhetorical moment, from Aristotle via
Kinneavy (1971) and others, looks like this:

168 Rhetoric Review, VoL 6, No. 2, Spring 1988

Bakhin,Phaedrus,and the Geometryof Rhetoric 169


Generalizing right past the verbal chauvinism of the terminology-to the
point where I can speak on this page and you can listen-we can take the
first move in fitting Phaedrus to this geometry, and plug the dialogic ele-
ments into its categories. The obvious start is to put Socrates in the speaker
slot, Phaedrus in the listener slot, and rhetoric in the subject slot.



The problems have clearly started already-the most immediate being that
Socrates also listens. Phaedrus also speaks. Since their roles are literally
inverse, moment to moment, we can attempt to salvage the model by mak-
ing it graphically inverse as well:




However, the story is considerably more involved yet. There are, for
instance, a good many other nominees for the speaker's chair. Consider the
number of voices Socrates takes on, either by invoking some authority or
by invoking some fiction. He speaks the words of Ibycus (242), of Homer
(252), of Theuth (275), of "the musician" (268). He speaks for a reified
Rhetoric (261). He puts his first speech into the voice of "a certain cunning
170 RhetoricReview

fellow" (237), but later tells Phaedrus it "was spoken by you through my
bewitched mouth" (243). He attributes his second speech to Stesichorus
(244). And, on one of the many oddly reflexive passages in the dialogue,
he appears to speak directly for Plato, "the author who is to write our trea-
tise" (272). (All quotations are from Schmedley's translation [New York:
Bachus Books, 1942].)
Phaedrus is given to precisely the same heteroglossia. He recites Lysias'
speech (231-34). He speaks for Eryximacus and Acumenis (268), for Sopho-
cles and Euripides (268)-even, at one, revealing, self-referential moment,
for an irreal version of himself (236).
A roughly parallel pattern of listeners also shows in the fabric of the
text. Socrates addresses the several voices of Phaedrus (268-69). He
addresses Tsias (273-74). He addresses Thamus (in the voice of Theuth;
274). He apostrophises the Muses (237), Love (257), and Pan (279). Reflex-
ively, he even takes on other voices to address himself and Phaedrus (269,
272). And-in another, highly peculiar, reflexive moment-he directs his
first speech to "a youth . . . of great beauty" (237), a coy surrogate for
Phaedrus (243), in a speech he says originates with Phaedrus.
Phaedrus' appetite for listeners is less omnivorous than Socrates', though
(in yet another self-referential moment) he does speak Lysias' words to a
thinly veiled version of himself (230-34), he replies to the arguments of
Rhetoric (261), and he answers the challenges of "someone" for physicians
and poets (268).
In short, then, while the discussion remains low level and quite rudimen-
tary, the visual metaphor again needs revision, along the following spiro-
graphic lines:

This polyphonic rhetorical texture might at first appear to resolve itself if

we take the Russellian escape ladder up one level, making Plato the des-
ignated speaker (or meta-speaker). Clearly this ascension is necessary at
some point in the analysis, but the resolution is illusory. Plato is certainly
as involved in the rhetoric of Phaedrus as either of the principals or any
of their casually adopted personae, but attending only to the choirmaster
Bakhin,Phaedrus,and the Geometryof Rhetoric 171

does not silence the choir.In place of Socratestalkingto Phaedrusby pre-

tendingto be Theuthtalkingto Thamus,we have Plato talkingto you and
me by pretendingto be Socrates,pretendingto be Theuthtalkingto Thamus,
as he talks to Phaedrus.

More troubling:Even if we can manage the trick of shuttingout the
choir, we are left with the question,"who, exactly, is in charge?"Plato is
a speaker,surely,but he is also, in a very compellingsense, a listener.Pass-
ing over the generic fiction that Plato overhearsSocrates and Phaedrus'
exchange, reportingit directly to us, Plato was a man who listened to
Socrates,who repeated,refracted,remade Socrates'words for his fellow
Athenians,for posterity,for you and me. From this vantage point, up one
more level, it is not Plato speakingthroughSocratesso much as Socrates
speaking through Plato (speaking through Socrates (speaking through
Theuth)).With sufficientknowledge,time, and perversion,a regressionof
this sort could be extendedindefinitely,since Socrateswas also a listener.
We are what we hear. We appropriateand transformstrandsof language,
and the bits of thoughtspuninto them,and throwthemout again-hopefully
with enoughvelocity,direction,and adhesivethat they catch onto someone
else. Socrateswas fast,his aim was true,andhis glue was good:The Socrates
in the dialogue is, necessarily,part Plato, but Plato is also part Socrates.
This may be one of the messagesSocratesand Plato,in concert,are sending
us when Socrates speaks for "the author . . . [of] our treatise."
Among other implications,this means that there are at least two Soc-
ratesesin Phaedrus.One is Plato'sfictionalcomposite-part 'real,'partrhe-
toricalexigence,part ventriloquist'sdummy.The otheris an elementof the
intellectualcomposite, Plato. Both do a good deal of speaking. And, of
course, there were other Greek thinkerswho put the right stuff on their
words to get them to cling to Socrates,or Plato, or both. In additionto
the ones Socrates cites openly, like Ibycus and Homer, there are a good
many other influencesplaying in the dialogue. An obvious case in point
is the sophisticmovement.The voices who comprisedit, manyof them lost,
suffuse the Phaedrus.This is clear if we take Socratesat his iterationand
considerhis remarkson rhetoricas opposedto the sophists(thereis no oppo-
sition without a position) or if we notice such jabs at Gorgianicrhetoric
as Phaedrus'preoccupationwith copiousness(e.g., 234, 235, 236). It is also
clear if we notice the frequencywith which sophisticnotionsappearin the
dialoguestraight-faced,such as Socrates'remarkson opinion(doxa), on the
importanceof definition,and on audience analysis.And it is true at the
172 RhetoricReview

literal skin of the dialogue, where Thrasymachus, Theodorus, Evenus, Tisias,

Gorgias, Prodicus, Hippias, Polus, Licymnias, and Protagoras all make
appearances (266-67).
The most immediate consequent of this diversity is that the authorial
voice is a distillation of an untold number of prior voices. The difficulty
this consequence poses for an analysis which prescribes unity by plugging
Plato into the speaker slot is self-evident. Plato is legion.
And there are composites in the Phaedruseven more difficult to unravel
than its speakers: its listeners. They are troublesome enough in the low-level
interactions of the narrative. What, for instance, is the rhetorical effect of
Socrates' fictions and apostrophes? Why must Phaedrus listen to several lay-
ers of language at once? Why must he listen as Phaedrus and as Tisias,
as Phaedrus and as Pan, as Phaedrus and as "a youth of great beauty"?
The answers are not clear cut, but one of the motivations might be to set
a precedent for the higher level composite listeners, you and me, Plato's
We each listen with our own peculiar collection of strategies, biases and
desires, our own bundle of motives, and we understand only as a function
of that immensely complex bundle. One of the implications of this situation
is that we do not hear precisely the same things. There is sufficient scatter
and overlap of motives that you and I can trade language about what we
hear, but we are all inescapably idiosyncratic. Aristotle does not read Plato
as Jowett does. Weaver does not read him as Burke does. You do not read
him as I do.

The result of taking the model up one level from the narrative, then,
is stilling of one set of ripples by starting two more. Unifying the speaker
into "Plato" alters the focal range of the analysis. It obscures the diversity
of figures at play in the dialogue by looking past them, to the man with
his hand up their backs. But as soon as Plato comes under close scrutiny,
his seams begin to show. He collapses into a bundle of influences and
desires. And as soon as the mantle of speaker comes up out of the dialogue,
it brings with it a multitude of listeners, that is, a multitude of interpretations.
Notice that I've said very little so far about the third element, about
the subject of the Phaedrus.But now that the inevitable word, interpretations,
has reared its many heads, the subject of subject is unavoidable. It is, of
course, no more univocal than speaker or listener. A conservative estimate
of subjects in the dialogue easily runs to several dozen. Just on the surface,
these include love, reason, the nature of the soul, persuasion, ornamentation,
Bakhin,Phaedrus,and the Geometryof Rhetoric 173

art, science, dialectic, and writing.These are the subjectsthe dialogue is

straightforward about,the subjectsthat Socratesand Phaedrusacknowledge.
But thereis also a wealth of subtextualmatterplayingjust underthe literal
skin. For instance,the dialogue shows a more-than-passinginterestin the
diverse manifestationsof "influence"operatingon a man. Lookingonly at
Socrates,we notice thatPhaedrusthreatenshim physically(236), and threat-
ens him with oratoricalsilence (237). Phaedrusflirts with him (e.g., 234),
cajoleshim (e.g., 236), and flattershim incessantly(e.g., 238). Socratescom-
plainsthat he is underthe spell of Phaedrus(239), but also thathe is moved
by the Muses (237), that he is compelled by the desire for language and
knowledge(230), thathe receives"divinefamiliarsign[s]"(241) whichdeter-
mine his actions,that Love forces him to recanthis first speech (e.g., 257),
and that, like all men, he is the productof a battle between two primal
influences,reasonand desire(246f). The dialoguealso shows an interesting
concern for reflexive reference,for heteroglossia,and for the propagation
of wisdom.RichardWeaver(1953) founda subtextpreoccupiedwith seman-
tic theory.Josef Pieper (1964) found one concernedwith divine madness.
KennethBurke(1945) founda pathwindingthroughthe dialoguefrom sex-
ual intercourseto Socraticintercourse,from physicalinseminationto verbal
Speakingof Burkeand insemination,he writeselsewhereof panspermia,
a mystic confusion of all possible outcomes, and the term is not far off
the markas an accountof the subjectsof the Phaedrus,or of any discourse.
The same vast prospectthat opened up when I tried to nail a speakerto
the triangle,and again when I tried to nail a listener,is open again.
A familiartechniqueimmediatelypresentsitself:Might we not homog-
enize this diversityby appealingto one overarchingsubject,like rhetoric?
Unfortunately,the solutionalso bringsalong familiarcomplications.In place
of, say, a local disquisitionon how truepassionmotivatesthe soul, we have
rhetoric,explicatedby way of love, explicatedby way of an extendeddualist
myth,explicatedby way of the metaphorof the wing, spicedup with phallic
imagery.That is, when we look too closely at the subject,its seams begin
to show. In Plato'sfootsteps,it deconstructsinto a collectionof tropesand
And there is another,equally familiar,problem:what, exactly, is in
charge?What are the criteriawhich determinethe overarchingsubject?If
we apply the strategies,biases, and desires of rhetoric,the answeris fore-
ordained.Yet, if we don't apply that bundleof motives,we can only apply
a differentone-from philosophy,for instance,or psychoanalysis,or literary
criticism-and the reading is equally constrained.
174 RhetoricReview

Speaker. Listener. Subject. The terms are straightforwardenough in the

abstract, but any attempt to fit the traditional three-cornered hat onto
Phaedrus, no matter how sharp it looks from one perspective, looks silly,
and shabby, and inadequate, from another. Fixing a speaker entails fixing
a listener and a subject, but it also entails fixing another speaker, which
entails another listener and another subject. Fixing a listener entails fixing
a speaker and a subject, but it also entails fixing another listener. ....
At the very least, we have to adjust the model again, to reflect the range
of voices, ears, and topics at play in the dialogue, and their network of con-

It is increasingly apparent, however, that the model is inadequate in prin-

ciple, that no amount of manipulation will save it. Still, there is a clue. The
direction in which the modifications are moving indicates what its successor
should look like:

That is, the appropriatemodel for this rhetorical event is analog, not discrete.
Any attempt to find a clearly identifiable peg in the dialogue to hang our
hat on puts too much pressure on it, and it pulls out of the wall. But we
can still speak of rhetorical events, you say. We can still see trends in dis-
course. We can see themes and structures. We can label elements. We can

True. It is a maxim in language studies that for all the complexities,
all the idiosyncrasies, all the diversity and inconsistency, the successes of
Bakhin,Phaedrus,and the Geometryof Rhetoric 175

communication are more spectacular than the failures. One of the men who
has most ably charted these successes is Mikhail Bakhtin, and his voice has
already done a good deal of speaking in these pages. I have appropriated
his vocabulary, his concepts, and now his circle. He views discourse, indeed
language, as fundamentally dialogic:

When a member of a speaking collective comes upon a word,

it is not as a neutral word of language, not as a word free from
the aspirations and evaluations of others, uninhabited by others'
voices. No, he receives the word from another's voice and filled
with that other's voice. The word enters his context from another
context, permeated with interpretations of others. His own
thought finds the word already inhabited. (202)

This insight-that no word is an island-bears profoundly on all of the

three terms of our original triangular model. The speaker acquires his words
already populated by other speakers. When he sends them out again, he
sends those speakers along for the ride. Meanwhile, the listener has her own
crowded lexicon. When she listens, she has to map the voices manifest in
his words against the voices clamoring in her own lexicon. The subject also
has its words. Rhetoric, for example, is not only a densely populated term
in its own right, but it rarely goes anywhere without an entourage of simi-
larly inhabited words, like persuasion, reason, and argument.
Moreover, the three key terms-speaker, listener,subject-have a goodly
number of passengers themselves. The relationships among these terms are
more or less stable as a function of these voices, of previous interactions.
It is impossible, for instance, to conceive of a listener engaging in persuasion.
Insofar as he fits the designation listener, he is the target, not the source,
of persuasion. More subtly, it is very difficult to view the subject as an equal
partner in rhetoric. The speaker acts by creating, the listener acts by inter-
preting, but what does the subject do? This block comes from the voices
-echoing back to Socrates and his countrymen-populating the word.
Subject comes, via Old French, from the Latin subjicere, "to place under-
neath," and while this fits well with the Socratic/Burkean image of insemi-
nation, it connotes reception, not delivery. Bakhtin partially surmounts this
obstacle simply by sending in a substitute, a word with another set of voices,
hero. This term is dynamic where the former one is inert, active where it
is passive. It allows Bakhtin's listeners to see more clearly that rhetoric exerts
as much influence on Phaedrus by constraining the dialogue as Plato does
by speaking it, or as we do by listening. It allows us to see three concepts
whirlingaroundthe circumferenceof the discourselike three balanced satellites.
176 RhetoricReview

More significantly, his vision of the continuous, unending affluence of

language allows us to celebrate the polymeric nature of discourse. We are
not forced to hide it under an ill-fitting and awkward hat. The triangle might
appear to fit a simple, unmotivated, declarative sentence ("Lo, a rabbit"),
but Bakhtin makes it clear that there is no such thing. While Phaedrus is
unusually rich terrainfor such investigations, the Burger King menu supports
similar analyses. The difference, of course, is that fewer people care about
a Burger King menu, at least in the same way. The voices inhabiting the
menu chatter trivially. They do not engage us. But the voices that populate
the words of Phaedrus, voices prior and subsequent to its composition, are
voices of clarity, of power, and of wisdom. They are voices to care about,
to study, and now there is one more, one who joins the concert, who speaks
with them, who amplifies and supports them, and helps us to hear more
clearly: Bakhtin's.

Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Problem of Dostoevsky's Poetics. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Bloomington:
Indiana UP, 1984.
Burke, Kenneth. A Grammar of Motives. Berkeley: U of California P, 1945.
Holquist, Michael. "Answering as Authoring: Mikhail Bakhtin's Trans-linguistics." Critical
Inquiry 11 (1983): 620-41.
Kinneavy, James. A Theory of Discourse. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice, 1971.
Pieper, Josef. Enthusiasm and Divine Madness. New York: Harcourt, 1964.
Schuster, Charles I. "Mikhail Bakhtin as Rhetorical Theorist." College English 47 (1985):
Weaver, Richard. The Ethics of Rhetoric. Chicago: H. Regnery, 1953.

R. Allen Harris is completing his doctorate in Language, Literature, and Communication

at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute; working primarily in the rhetoric of science; and teaching
in R. P. I.'s Writing Center. He has previous degrees in literature, linguistics, and technical
communication; publications in neurolinguistics, linguistic pedagogy, and rhetorical theory; and
forthcoming papers on the connections between linguistics and technical communication
(Journal of Technical Communication), and on the rhetoric of linguistics. He is working on
The Linguistic Wars, a book exploring the Generative/Interpretive controversy in post-Aspects
Linguistics. The research for this paper was supported in part by Reader's Digest and the
Alberta Heritage Foundation.