Travels with Rhetoric
This past winter I spent a month in Greece, traveling and researching, something I’ve wanted to do for years. I have long been interested in the relationship between the material environment and ancient rhetorics, especially concerning Plato’s dialogues, but I never had the means to go and see the places I was reading and writing about. I was very fortunate to receive a research travel award from my institution, which made this incredible opportunity possible for me. My trip led to more discoveries than I can ramble off in one post, but I’m planning a series of future posts reflecting on parts of the trip and how it contributed to my thinking about rhetoric and writing.
Figure 1: The Greek Agora. Photograph by the Author.
I began dreaming of Greece when I was researching the role of place in Plato’s dialogues as a master’s student living in Auburn, Alabama. To me, the place seemed about as far off as it could be: temporally, spatially, ideologically, geographically. It was as different from my little hometown as I could imagine. That remoteness and difference made it special for me as a writer. Greece was, in my mind, endowed with a deep nostalgia that left it totally imaginary. This way of thinking about places might be considered a central part of the mentality of the tourist. I knew so little about Greece, and even after having spent some time there, still maintain an astounding level of ignorance about the place. That lack of knowledge left an empty space for me to invent.
Tourism and Solonism
Traveling gave me the opportunity to embrace a sort of tourism, what Gregory Ulmer calls solonism, a practice through which I was able to contend with my position as an ignorant visitor and perhaps even learn a thing or two. Ulmer recently retired from teaching at my university, but occasionally we meet for coffee and talk about theory, life, and the future. When Ulmer talks about theory, he means it in the sense of the theoria, an ancient group who traveled to learn, not only about the places they visited, but through the process, about themselves and their homeland. Theory was an embodied and emplaced practice, where individuals located and found themselves through travel.
Figure 2: Ulmer discusses theory and tourism in "The Ulmer Tapes."
Solonism takes its name from Solon, an Ancient Greek, who (as described in Plato’s Timaeus) rediscovered a lost history of Greece by traveling to Egypt (see Jones 2016 for more of what I have to say on that). In one of my favorite of his essays, “Metaphoric Rocks: A Psychogeography of Tourism and Monumentality,” Ulmer theorizes the solonist though a parody of a travel brochure (you can view the original images on his website). There, Ulmer writes:
In one of the founding works in the history of method, the Timaeus, Plato tells the story that is the origin of the legend of Atlantis. On his visit to Egypt, Solon learned from an Egyptian priest that the original Athenians had defeated the empire of Atlantis in its attempt to conquer all the Greeks. The story had been lost when Athens was destroyed in the same cataclysm that sunk Atlantis, and it is retold in the Timaeus as part of Plato's effort to understand how to put into practice the principles of a just state outlined in the Republic.
From here, Ulmer proposes a new kind of consultancy for the State of Florida. Rather than hire an expensive New York firm to rebrand the state’s image, Ulmer reasons, they could more affordably retain the services of the Florida Research Ensemble (the FRE), a humanities research group at the University of Florida. Rather than promoting traditional tourism, the FRE would market solonism, where visitors would attain phronesis along with their sun tans.
As a student of the Florida School of writing studies, Ulmer’s solonism was a major inspiration for my travels to Greece. Yet, I also felt apprehensive about tourism as a method for knowing a place. I’m by no means the first to feel ambivalent about being a tourist in Greece. In Heidegger’s Sojourns: The Journey to Greece, he reflects on his first visit, he expresses distain for the tourist-scholar, writing that “with the onslaught of tourism an alien power enforces its own commands and regulations” (55). For him, the trip to Greece meant confronting a reality that was wedged somewhere between the past and the future, and it meant getting beyond a nostalgic and imaginary experience with place.
I didn’t know this at the time. That's because I elected not to read Sojourns before my trip. I didn’t want my experience to be shaped so forcefully by a writer who is such a troubling and influential figure in thinking about place. I was, however, familiar with the sentiment Heidegger expresses, from his other writings and from many others who share his sentiments, especially Walker Percy’s essay “The Loss of the Creature.” Percy was influenced by Gabriel Marcel, who thought of humans as homo viator, as pilgrims or wayfaring travelers. In the essay, Percy claims that no one sees the Grand Canyon because it has already been built in our minds, rhetorically. According to Percy, the Grand Canyon is a trope, a topoi, a commonplace. He writes:
Why is it almost impossible to gaze directly at the Grand Canyon under these circumstances and see it for what it is—as one picks up a strange object from one’s back yard and gazes directly at it? It is almost impossible because the Grand Canyon, the thing as it is, has been appropriated by the symbolic complex which has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind. Seeing the canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic complex head on.
What place could be more difficult for a rhetorician to “see,” in the sense that Percy describes, than Greece? I wanted to see Greece as it is, as it was, and as it could be, but I was suspicious of that urge. I hoped that, as a solonist, I might discover something that I could bring home, even if I never saw the real Greece, whatever that could be.
When I proposed the travel grant, I was interested in investigating the notion of change in relation to a sense of place. How did the past shape my experience with the place? What function do ruins serve in the present? How did I change the place? How did the place change me? What future changes will reshape and transform the place? Athens is a palimpsest of ancient ruins and a changing contemporary culture. It was, I felt, the perfect place to think about these questions. Contemplating the ruins of Athens in a modern world, Bruno Latour writes:
I have often wondered, contemplating the mutilated frieze of the Parthenon through the black clouds of pollution in Athens or in the room in the British Museum housing the marbles stolen by Lord Elgin, what a contemporary Panathenaic procession would look like. Who would be our representatives? How many genres and species would be included? Under what label would they be arrayed? Toward what vast enclosure would they be heading? How many of them would have human form? If they had to speak, swear, or sacrifice in common, what civic or religious rites would be capable of assembling them, and in what agora? If a song had to accompany their march, or a rhythm were to punctuate their long undulations, what sounds would they make, and on what instruments? Can we imagine such Panathenaics? (483).
I too noticed the damage done to the various monuments around Athens, such as Zeus’ Temple which is bordered by one of the busiest streets in the city.
Figure 3: Zeus's Temple. Photograph by the Author.
It is strange to think about how anthropogenic changes like air pollution affects even the relics of the past. As the cars release carbon emissions on a large scale, they transform monuments which are supposed to remind of us the past. The pollution worked against my notions of the sites as confined, walled-off, and remote. Even then, such marks threaten to become a trope, a commonplace, another way to idealize and abstract place. Like the above quote from Latour, I wonder how a modern theoria can encounter and learn from place. Where could I find the real Athens? What could that possibly even mean? Even if I can’t get to it, how might I make sense of the place with and through change?
This Must Be the Place
On our penultimate night in Athens, my wife Jane and I got to eat at Diporto, a fabulous koutouki (basement taverna) in the old style, with a single waiter and a chef. It has been in business since 1887, and it has no sign or menu. Not that it needs a menu, the offerings are few, simple, and elegant: chickpea soup, beans, married fava, potatoes, and fish. Diporto means "two doors," tied to its use as a meeting place for revolutionaries in the 1800s. When soldiers stormed in one door, patrons would flee out the other.
Figure 4: Diporto. Photograph by the Author.
We made it just before they closed their many doors. Luckily, they had just one of each menu item left when we arrived (but plenty of restina as you can see!). After our meal, a woman from a table across the restaurant approached us and introduced herself, a journalist from Crete. She told us about the long history of the place, and how precarious the future of places like Diporto were. She mourned the thought of losing the restaurant, one of the only remnants of old Athens. We drank wine and mourned the passage of time, the loss of places and memory. Then, the waiter came and wrote out our bill on the paper tablecloth. As we paid and walked up the stairs, I knew I was taking something more than a full belly home with me. I had finally found the place.