Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.2.7

Steven B. Katz, The Epistemic Music of Rhetoric: Toward the Temporal Dimension of Affect in Reader Response and Writing. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996. Pp. xiv + 350. ISBN 0-8093-1903-9.

Reviewed by Wilfred E. Major, Loyola University, New Orleans.

The ancient Pythagoreans popularized the belief that the celestial machinery of the universe produced harmonious sound. This music plays around us continually, but we are desensitized to it. Steven Katz also believes music surrounds us, in the rhythm and tones of the texts we read, write, and see everyday, especially in the classroom. In The Epistemic Music of Rhetoric, Katz (henceforth K.) aims to recover our aural sensitivity and lay the intellectual foundation for hearing, studying, and teaching the distinct brand of knowledge that the experience of this music conveys.

According to K., prevailing methodologies for researching, constituting, and communicating knowledge are predominantly visual, because they are logocentric (expressed in a language of visual symbols) or spatial (predicated on visual description). Symbiotically related to this state of affairs is the dominance of visually-based metaphors with which we shape knowledge. K. wants to expand our store of methods to include metaphors based on aural and temporal experience. To do so, K. invokes the rhetorical tradition of the ancient sophists, Isocrates, and Cicero. I will return to focus on this phase, but first I will outline his project as a whole.

K. begins in the first of the six main chapters with the thesis that will propel the book: an aural, phonocentric theory can describe and make comprehensible affective (emotional) response better than can a logocentric model. Reader Response criticism provides the vehicle for the new theory and approaches. K. concedes that Reader Response is moribund as a mode of literary criticism but defends its use for his purposes by charging that New Criticism and postmodern theories have lost sight, so to speak, of orality. Reader Response, meanwhile, with the attention it pays to the reader (or listener), is uniquely suited to studying affective response.

The second chapter documents a parallel development in literary criticism and science. In both fields, claims K., researchers have run up against the harsh limits of formalistic, empirical, rational epistemologies. The New Physics and Reader Response have come to recognize the importance of the subjective presence of the researcher or listener as an active participant in the dynamic process of developing knowledge. On the heels of this recognition comes the need to recognize the inherent degree of indeterminacy of knowledge resulting from the role of affective response. K. suggests that models and methods for pursuing knowledge which rely less on visual, spatial metaphors will better be able to accommodate this indeterminacy.

Chapter 3 turns back to classical rhetoric to find precedents and models for dealing with affective response. K. uses recent scholarship which casts the ancient sophists as intellectuals in an oral culture. He then goes on to contrast Isocrates with Plato in terms of their use of orality. Isocrates still writes with a keen sense of sound and affective response while Plato retains an oral mode in his dialogues but divorces knowledge from language (because knowledge resides with the forms). Aristotle then makes language but an imperfect vehicle for knowledge rather than a direct source of knowledge in itself. In Cicero, however, K. finds the mature culmination of the theories of the sophists and of Isocrates. Cicero operates in oral modes of thought but with the tools of literacy and thus in his rhetorical works he insists on delivery and style as fundamental modes of thought and communication. This insistence combined with Cicero's acute recognition of audience reaction make him essentially a reader response critic.

The fourth chapter shifts to the theory and study of language as a musical experience. K. concentrates on models, such as that of Victor Zuckerkandl in Sound and Symbol: Music and the External World (New York: Pantheon, 1956), which describe language and music as experiences in, indeed manifestations of, time. Doing so, argues K., opens the door to a more holistic experience of language rooted in physical experience.

The fifth and climactic chapter explores some ramifications of theorizing language as an aural, temporal experience. Leonard Mayer's Emotion and Meaning in Music (Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1956) provides K.'s most important model here. Applications include describing emotions as learned, cultural constructs and defining emotional categories of cognition.

The final chapter is a postscript on the potential pedagogical applications of Katz's thesis, including how to teach epistemological uncertainty, performance, and emotion as a vehicle of meaning. Four appendices follow, including K.'s rough schema connecting the sophists to Cicero. In the main text, the appendices, and footnotes (lengthy but relatively few in number), K. dilates and digresses on a variety of topics. Despite this intentional discursiveness, the book reads comfortably and engagingly when approached with some patience and interest. Scattered errors appear but it is the substance of K.'s project which readers will find inspiring or infuriating.1

K.'s recourse to and application of ancient rhetorical sources, which extends beyond Chapter 3 and runs through much of the volume, will likely engage Classicist readers most. K. at times reveals an unnerving habit for too readily assigning statements made by scholars in the conclusions of their works directly to the ancients. This tendency affects the material on Greek sources especially, so many of K.'s interpretations rise and fall with the quality of the scholarly work on which he relies. For the sophists, he invokes principally scholarship on ancient orality and literacy, notably that of Walter Ong and Tony Lentz, which recognizes the early sophists as intellectuals in an oral culture and Plato as a transitional figure to a more literate culture.2 In doing so, K. aligns himself generally with much recent positive revisionism of the sophists, especially since G.B. Kerferd's work, notably The Sophistic Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1981). He does well for his thesis when he argues that although the sophists, most notably Gorgias, did not believe in a reliable interface between language and the external world, they did still link language with experience and more importantly, language with thought. In other words, the sophists did believe in the ability of language to constitute and communicate knowledge, but the correspondence of language and thought to the external world could not be relied upon. For K., this model provides a precedent for the type of indeterminacy he feels visual based heuristics deny and aural based heuristics can explore. K. struggles, however, when he supposes that the sophists conceived of oral style as communicating sensuous, emotional knowledge. K.'s reliance on secondary material may here have distracted him from finding material which could bolster his suggestion. For example, Antiphon is described using logoi to heal people (e.g., at fr. 87A6 DK), an account which, if it has any historical veracity, may document affective response to speech, in this instance therapeutic. A close look at Gorgias' Helen might also provide fresh primary evidence. K. would still, of course, have the task in establishing a link from style per se to conveyance of knowledge in the form of emotion. But as it is, K.'s sophists seem to be in opposition to the very rationalism (which K. associates with visual literacy) they famously, and notoriously, propagated at Athens.

K.'s scheme finds Isocrates continuing the more truly oral epistemology of the sophists. Thus Isocrates is a sophist putting writing in the service of orality. K. sensibly points to Isocrates' careful use of a style attuned to aural effects but is less successful when imputing oral-based aesthetic theories to Isocrates. To put Isocrates in the oral camp, K. can do no more than invoke Jaeger's model of the rivalry between Isocrates and a Plato who marches toward literacy by stripping rhetoric and style of its innate capacity for containing and transmitting knowledge. Separating Isocrates from Plato via their different styles and pedagogies is one thing, but imputing to Isocrates an intent to use style to convey knowledge through emotional reaction in performance, when Isocrates himself admits he lacked the vigor for public performance of even his own compositions, is quite another. K. might have found a more suitable candidate in Alcidamas, who preached a more oral, spontaneous mode of composition. Cautious use of Neil O'Sullivan's Alcidamas, Aristophanes and the Beginnings of Greek Stylistic Theory might have enhanced K.'s conception of the wrangling over oral modalities which occupied the fourth century.3

K. engages Cicero more directly and the sparing use of others' conclusions makes this section to my mind more provocative and, with the caveat that Roman rhetoric is not my specialty, more convincing. He focuses on Cicero's mature rhetorical works, especially De Oratore. K. situates Cicero in a Roman Republic which is still fundamentally an oral culture. Much as Cicero endeavors in his philosophical treatises to use the technical and linguistic sophistication of Greek philosophy to forge a distinctly Roman philosophical corpus, so in the rhetorical works Cicero puts the literate tools available to him from Greek rhetorical theory in the service of a Roman conception of the orator and oratory. K. compiles a number of individual arguments as he gradually makes his case. He argues, for example, that Cicero traces rhythm and modulation of speech to an ultimately physical source. In addition, the music of spoken oratory is critical not for reading or writing but for delivery. Cicero accordingly assigns different styles (plain, middle, grand) to different purposes in delivery, and significantly the grand is also the most musical. Crucial to K.'s case is that for Cicero style is in itself epistemic. Eloquence in turn lies in properly uniting form and content in order to convey full knowledge -- both rational (via content) and affective (via style). K. further suggests that such a conception of Cicero as a theorizer of orality harmonizes with Cicero's philosophical pedigree and yields a Cicero who is truly a Reader Response critic. Cicero's adherence to the scepticism of the Academy corresponds to the indeterminacy of knowledge inherent in an oral, reception-based model of communication. The unity of verba and res which constitutes eloquence aligns Cicero with the sophistic tradition of equating language with thought and experience while considering sensory perception of the world imprecise. Within this model, moreover, persuasion is not peripheral or a mere path to knowledge but the foundation of knowledge. Finally, emotional response is not to be suppressed but forms the basis of perception and knowledge; it is even a form of knowledge. For K., Cicero actually surpasses modern Reader Response by providing a phonocentric foundation for experience and by establishing a teleological goal (eloquence), lacking in modern theory. Along the way, K. holds up the De Oratore as the ultimate expression of Cicero's ideals. The dialogue rejects mere schematics of rhetorical techniques and explores all sides of the issue. Ultimately, the character of Crassus fails to subject oratory to analysis and interpretation, precisely because of indeterminacy, K. claims. Crassus' failure to do so is Cicero's own success in presenting a philosophy of experience based on orality. The success is short lived, for a torrent of formal rhetoric washes away the importance of affective response so critical to Cicero's ideal. Even Cicero's devotee Quintilian filters the Ciceronian legacy into a formal, analytical, Aristotelian form.

Taken as a whole and in many particulars, K.'s project merits attention, revision, and expansion. K. takes an important step forward in roughing out philosophical "bloodlines" for the intellectualization of orality in Greco-Roman antiquity. I have suggested above some shortcomings in K.'s characterization of the Greek material, and about Isocrates in particular. K. is not out of line (or original) in aligning Cicero with the Isocratean tradition, but even he acknowledges his scheme is reductive. A broader and deeper appreciation for the end to which Cicero puts his diligent polymathy is in order.

Scholars often treat Cicero's philosophical and rhetorical works as important repositories which preserve much information about the intellectual ferment in Greece and Rome during the first centuries B.C. Sometimes such treatment brings with it explicit denigration of Cicero's own synthesis or the implicit assumption that Cicero's contribution is not so worthy of investigation. K. may in his study find a Cicero with much to offer in his own right. If K. is right to discern affective stylistics at the root of Ciceronian metaphysics, then, with the recent resurgence of appreciation for Cicero's philosophy, and with recognition of the need for an understanding of Cicero's rhetorical works in conjunction with the philosophical treatises, we may learn to revere Cicero as the capstone to a tradition of a powerful intellectual philosophy of orality, style, and affectivity.4

As rich as the research potential yet more commendable is K.'s push to restore aural and effective sensitivity to respectability in the classroom. Appreciation for style and the sonorous qualities of writings -- or rather of those writings when delivered aloud -- is a hallmark of classical studies. K. scarcely falls short of calling Cicero to the rescue to revive the teaching of writing and oral expression in modern education. He defends the presence and teaching of delivery, style, and emotion in writing without making it seem subjective, idiosyncratic, or simply romantic. The masterful expression of language, so important to understanding the richness of many ancient authors, here has simple legitimacy in unequivocally modern terms. And while K. considers mainly prose composition, his models of language of music in time find links with studies of qualitative patterns of word shapes which compose classical meters. In sum, K.'s thesis finds a number of applications in the ground of traditional philological studies and points to ways to update and expand the reach of classical studies.

Clearly, then, K. has produced a provocative and stimulating book. K.'s book is not without the vices to which provocative works can easily fall prey, but, as a book by a professor of English and aimed toward an audience well beyond classicists, I nonetheless find it refreshing, engaging, and on balance it has already repaid the time spent on it several times over in inspired reflection, curious engagement, and continued investigation.


1. Most annoying of the typographical errors is the misspelling of Thomas Cole as "Coles" on page 85 and in the bibliography. At times K. under- or overinterprets. One example encapsulates both problems. On page 102, K. quotes Jaeger, "Oratory which knew no more than these [schemata] would be as sounding brass and a tinkling cymbal." K. points out the musical metaphor, but surely Paul 1 Cor. 13.1 is more in Jaeger's mind than music here. So, on one level K. misreads the passage, but on another level K. misses an opportunity in that there may be some significance in this famous simile which equates music with unintelligibility.

2. Less felicitous is K.'s use of R.L. Enos' work, especially the disappointing Greek Rhetoric Before Aristotle (Prospect Heights: Waveland, 1993). K. would have been better served by the more rigorous work of Thomas Cole and Edward Schiappa, both of whom he cites, but only incidentally.

3. O'Sullivan in fact works at somewhat cross purposes to K., as O'Sullivan tends more to read fourth century literate, technical thought back into earlier texts. Cf. Ralph Rosen's review in BMCR 4.4.12.

4. See J.G.F. Powell (ed.), Cicero the Philosopher: Twelve Papers Edited and Introduced (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995) for recent trends in scholarship on Cicero's philosophical works. A.A. Long's essay on Cicero's reception of Aristotle comments on the hazards of ignoring the rhetorical works and notes especially the importance of style for Cicero philosophically. Cf. Andrew R. Dyck's recent review in BMCR 96.4.34.