My research, teaching, and even service have all been motivated by something best expressed in William Stafford’s “A Ritual to Read to Each Other.” He says, “And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy, / a remote important region in all who talk: / though we could fool each other, we should consider— / lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.” Certainly, rhetoric can be used to fool one another, but it isn’t clear that doing so ends up fooling only those other people; that is, we cannot mislead other people without also misleading the life we live with them.
In “Transcendental Etudes,” another important poem for me, Adrienne Rich worries about something similar—a potentially violent thoughtlessness that tears us one from another. As with Stafford, there is no possibility of finding out the perfect answer or absolute truth before acting; we must leap into transcendence. But for Rich, the answer is for a woman to leave “the argument and jargon in a room” and sit down by herself in the kitchen to weave together “the many-lived, unending / forms in which she finds herself,” whereas Stafford suggests that “the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—/should be clear.” For Rich, the answer is solitary contemplation, while for Stafford it is speech with others.
Hannah Arendt, like Stafford and Rich, is concerned with our ability to lie to one another and the violence that thoughtlessness does to our common life. But she advocates both solitary contemplation and argument; for Arendt, it is as though the woman walks away from the argument and jargon in a room to sit down and contemplate before getting up and walking right back into the argument and jargon. As Hannah Pitkin says about Arendt’s conception of free citizenship,
“she is surely right that thinking as a free citizen does include these apparently incompatible requirements: forming and following one’s own judgment, and yet listening to and respecting the opinions of one’s fellow citizens.”
My research has circled—wandered, perhaps—around the question of how to describe, prescribe, and encourage such thinking as a free citizen.
Contact Information:Office: Parlin 21
Phone: (512) 471-8378
Fax: (512) 471-4353
Mailing Address:Department of Rhetoric and Writing
1 University Station
Campus Mail Code B5500
University of Texas
Austin, TX, 78712-1122