William Covino (1994) places magic at the formative center of discursive knowledge-making ushered in by advanced literacy. Tracing support for constructs of literacy as rational, critical, objectively studied and taught, and part of the apparatus of power, Covino argues that “magical thinking” has been used to expunge ideas from current traditionalism, support Frierian “critical consciousness,” and help usher in “an appreciative emphasis on contributions to developmental literacy from science and social science” (4). He points to the ways modern rationality cast magic as “unstable and dynamic, spirited and licentious” (6) quoting Royal Society of London member, Thomas Sprat, as representative of rational modernity. Sprat warned against “ornaments of speaking” that “that give the mind a motion too changeable, and bewitching, to consist with right practice” (qtd. in Covino, 6, italics in original).

Yet, as Covino also points out, “Making language has long been regarded as, in some sense, magical; as a spell” (5). Etymologies of both spelling and grammar attest to their intertwined growth from the same roots as spell and grimoire. Our contemporary emphases on scientific thought, questioning, individual autonomy, and rejection of dogma connect much of composition’s history for Covino in ways that align its disparate strands along an axis of fear about “magical thinking that disallows alternatives to authorized knowledge.” For Covino,

Magic is, in another sense, the practice of disrupting and recreating articulate power: a (re)sorcery of spells for generating multiple perspectives. As we will see, generative magic is a dialogical critique that seeks novelty, originating at a remove from the mass culture it would interrogate. However, insofar as generative magic seeks social and cultural change, it enters the world it questions. Thus generative magic is at once private and public, occult and common, an esoteric critical discourse of ‘specialist’ communities that define themselves in opposition to the mainstream, and an amplification of possibilities for action” (9).

For Covino, the magic of language admits for radical possibilities passed over by scientific rationality and objectivity. Our modern “nonmagical society” has adopted an epistemology of science and logic “entirely removed from ancient origins in ritual consensus, where time and space were ‘played out’ in drama that attempted to establish our place in a universe driven by a cosmology of deities” (13). Thinking from a different epistemological stance affords one opportunities to see what is missed.

Covino exploits the fact that astrology was, along with rhetoric, one of the ancient and classical disciplines of knowledge. Their roots are intertwined and so we see characteristics, perhaps latent, perhaps muted, across each of them, much as we recognize grandma’s eyes in a new generation. As Paul Magdalino (2002) puts it, “Although the black sheep of the academic family, astrology was nevertheless one of the family” (37). Prior to the Enlightenment, objections to astrology were not due to any rational skepticism since, as Magdalino sums up the thinking, “If the sun’s rays could determine the seasons and the life cycles of all living things, how could the other celestial bodies fail to exert their influences?” (34). Magdalino argues that “astrology was a product of the Hellenistic world in which rhetoric and philosophy acquired their identity as academic subjects” (38). Moreover, he asserts a connection between Roman astrology and the Second Sophistic. “Like rhetoric,” he argues, “astrology used the language and concepts of philosophy, blending Stoic cosmology with Aristotelian physics. Despite the reservations of Plotinus and Iamblichus, the marriage between astrology and Neoplatonism was, so to speak, made in heaven under their successors” (38). Following the Roman decline, at least in the Byzantine east, “astrology, again in common with rhetoric and philosophy, perpetuated a complete and self-contained system or principles, concepts and techniques which had been worked out in their essentials by the third century A.D.” (38).

It is this Neoplatonism that Ryan Stark (2009) points out as a key factor in seventeenth century’s scientific rejection of both astrology and rhetoric. Referencing Ann Geneva’s Astrology and the Seventeenth Century Mind, Stark admits that gentlemen like Sprat “lumped astrologers together with other types of diabolical orators, associating their astrological vocabularies with the less than plain styles of charmers and witches” but also makes the distinction that “Astrologers were and are rhetorical readers of the cosmos: the issue of true or false rhetorical hermeneutics is a separate one” (111). This hermeneutics was changing in Stark’s estimation and, as Geneva also argues, “when the Neoplatonic world began to collapse in the circles of modern experimentalism, astrology also collapsed” (111).

Stark also argues, from his reading of Dryden and other Royal Society members, that the “plain style” of rhetoric, which would be codified by the likes of Hugh Blair and George Campbell, arose from the exigency of creating “a style, a philosophy of style, by which the esoteric could be talked about, but not invoked, intimated, or otherwise involved” (204). The canon of style, then, “became for the modern sensibility a mere adornment for the life of the mind, an incidental decoration, rather than a substantiation of content” (205). As Sharon Crowley (1990) has shown, around this time invention and memory are similarly removed from the canons as scientific reasoning becomes the paradigm of truth and faculty psychology imposes its ideas of dispassionate recollection of stimuli. We are thus left with “mere rhetoric,” a limited notion of discourse that has been challenged in academic circles for the last several decades.

Stark, for his part, wishes to reconnect rhetoric to a pre-Enlightenment ontology with his pointing “directly to the traditional biblical understanding of God as the Word, the Creator who made ‘the heavens’ out of ‘the breath of his mouth’ (Ps 33:6) and who, moreover, gave humanity the world-shaping power of rhetoric” (205). Yet, this is not the only direction to turn after rescuing rhetoric from rational scientism in order to put it back into the world more fully. Indeed, the irony may be that Royal Society Members may find contemporary scientific discourse as occult as they saw their Neoplatonic forebears. For example, Joshua Gunn (2010) like Covino, shows how language can create insiders and outsiders but that discourse, particularly complex or obscuritanist discourse in the form of the shibboleth “underscores the ways in which cipher links human expression to real bodies in space, with real consequences” (xix). Language “participates in numerous circuits of power (authorial, authoritative, and otherwise)” (xx), and while we may live in an age where our mundane language, images, and gestures are uploaded and broadcast across a global medium, “language and its use easily lend themselves to mystery” (xxi) and ineffability rather than a more Burkean turn where only the supernatural and religious is truly ineffable. For Gunn, all manner of occult and complex rhetorical practices exist as mysterious to those “outside” the discourse and which help enforce barriers of participation.

Theodor Adorno (1994) recognized how such complex discourse could be fertile ground for irrational beliefs and practices in an otherwise rational society. As complex discourse comes to signify insiders and outsiders, Adorno posits “a climate of semi-erudition” where people are beyond the naïve acceptance of wherever scientific progress happens to be but are “also driven by the narcissistic wish to prove superior to the plain people” (). Such a conception of social order and development is certainly more dimensional than binaries between scientific and mystical arrangements. Indeed, it appears to combine them, putting one in relation to the other and seeing how they cast both light and shadow upon the other.

But what does this really tell us about rhetoric? Certainly, its connections to non-representational metaphysics are legion. As we turn toward the ontological, the affective, and the ecological materialities of discourse, we can see multiple avenues from the past to follow. And we can also see multiple futures, perhaps predicting, albeit with some uncertainty, how reviving and responding to these past arrangements might affect the development of our present state of affairs.

Adorno, Theodor. Stars Down to Earth and Other Essays on the Irrational in Culture. Stephen Crook, Ed. London: Routledge, 1994.

Covino, William A. Magic, Rhetoric, And Literacy : An Eccentric History Of The Composing Imagination. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994. eBook Collection (EBSCOhost). Web. 26 Jan. 2017.

Magdalino, Paul. “A” Literacy, Education, and Manuscript Transmission in Byzantium and Beyond. Eds. Catherine Holmes and Judith Waring. Boston: Brill, 2002.

Stark, Ryan. Rhetoric, Science, and Magic in Seventeenth-Century England. Washington: Catholic University of America, 2009.


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