Monday, July 5, 2010

A Material Marcus Tullius

As part of my summer research campaign, I am reading Anthony Everitt's biography of Cicero, Cicero. Reading it, I am amazed but not surprised by Cicero's material rhetoric, by which I mean his persuasive efforts through spatial and temporal action (as opposed to oratorical efforts). I am not surprised because as a successful orator, politician, and advocate, I assume Cicero did more than give a good speech. I am surprised by the extent to which Cicero marshaled space and time in his persuasive efforts. I attribute this to the fact that much of we (in rhetoric) know of Cicero we know through his speeches or writings, which exist, to a certain extent, outside time and space. I might also attribute it to a certain privileging or understanding of rhetoric as purely or only discursive.

A few notes before I proceed. I do not mean to discount speeches or other discursive efforts. I mean only to mark the rhetoric that occurs other ways. Indeed, much of Cicero's effectiveness in the case I will shortly describe comes from his speeches and how he arranged them. I would also acknowledge here that "material rhetoric" is, as with most things, a concept currently under construction. In brief, it concerns the rhetorical force of materiality (spaces, bodies, etc) and the rhetorical constitution of things such as spaces and bodies. Finally, it is probably also true that the material and the discursive are not polar opposites or even mutually exclusive. Speaking and writing are surely also bodily (and technologically mediated) acts.

The trial of Caius Verres, former governor of Sicily, and about whom there is a Mountain Goats song, showcases Cicero's material rhetoric. Cicero, who apparently rarely acted as prosecutor, was constrained by several (material) factors. First, at this point in Roman history juries were composed entirely of senators, making bribery and peer pressure of a sort more common. Second, Verres and his allies went to great lengths to delay the trial both to allow them time to stack the jury and to draw out the trial (over Roman holidays and other conventions of the time) in order to weaken the impact of the evidence.

To combat these material rhetorical moves, Cicero enacted his own robust rhetoric, both discursive and material. Primarily, Cicero worked to speed-up the trail to force a decision before a long break. As a result of his own detective work, Cicero had an "air tight" case, but the longer the trial took the less likely it became that a conviction would be secured.
It was crucial that Cicero finish his presentation before the court went into recess with the opening of Pompey's games on August 16. In the event, he managed to set out his material expeditiously as well as comprehensively. On August 13 he rested his case. (79)
Cicero's move to speed up the trial was accomplished by augmenting the traditional order of the trail. Securing permission to do so, Cicero began with his evidence against Verres rather than his opening remarks.
Cicero's coup was devastating for the defense and had immediate consequences. (79)
By virtue of what we could call a rhetorical move that addressed the material conditions of the trial, Cicero reversed what had been a foregone conclusion: Verres acquittal. Because Cicero forced the issue, the senate had no choice but to convict Verres.
Today the eyes of the world are upon you. This man's case will establish whether a jury composed exclusively of Senators can possibly convict some who is very very guilty--and very rich [...] No such excuses can extenuate the number and scale of his offenses. (79)
Surely a great speech that played an important role in convicting Verres; however, it was Cicero's material rhetoric which forced such a scrutinous gaze upon the Roman Senate.

Cicero's success had, then, its own material consequences. His actions, including composing and distributing speeches "he might have delivered had he had the chance" (80),
made a powerful case for reform of the courts and the jury system [...] Later in the autumn the Senatorial monopoly of juries was rescinded and their share of the memebership reduced to one third. (80)
Cicero well understood that oratory takes place in space and time, and that if these are stacked against you your words have little chance of achieving any effect. Cicero, as Everitt demonstrates, understood that the rule of law and the various institutions that uphold it are vital to the law working at all.

As a figure for and of rhetoric, Cicero and his victory in the trial of Verres marks rhetoric's materiality.

1 comment:

  1. I assume that under umbrella of material rhetoric Aristotle's distinction between inartistic and artistic would be challenged. Secondly the following examples migth fit under material rhetoric. The decision in the O.J.Simpson trial NOT to have the trial in i believe Marin county but instead to have it in LA. Or the voir dire decision that led to a large black and FEMALE jury. Likewise on most accounts Washington's presence and sheer size was part of his persuasiveness. And lastly there is somethign i have referred to as the physiognomy of teaching. It is not enough to know your stuff or pedagogy or care-- it is also critical that you have a presence that is rooted in the body (now this can include much from voice to eyes to height to movement but it is to some extent bred in the bone.