e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


in time and out of time

When should a good piece of writing be timely and when should a text be timeless? I used to buy into a dichotomy between "rhetorical" writing versus "belletristic" or "aesthetic" writing, a dichotomy informed by faith in genre boundaries. Political speeches and op-ed pieces rely on showing awareness of the current context and siezing the kairotic moment. Literary texts concern themselves with broader themes and abstractions that transcend a particular time.

Of course the dichotomy's bunk.

We appreciate political speeches from two-thousand years ago and study their broad themes and ideas. In fact, we apply methods of literary analysis to "great" speeches. We understand literary texts in their social contexts, sometimes to the chagrin of great books proponents. What of a novel like The Jungle that can only be understood as a piece of rhetoric, a timely and purposeful critique of meatpacking at the turn of the twentieth century.

A great moment from The West Wing, itself a series of its time (comfort food for liberals during the George W. Bush years) and timeless (the capital-t Themes like civic obligation). Communications director Toby Ziegler is resisting hiring Will Bailey to help him write the president's second inaugural address. Toby critiques Will's past work on the grounds that he uses pop culture references, thereby lessening the "shelf lives" of his speeches. I like what this scene suggests about the ambitions of rhetoricians, or the possible ambitions anyway. Work can transcend.

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