Inaugural lecture or academic ritual?

11 July 2002
DISTINGUISHED Professor in Humane Letters in the Centre for Rhetoric Studies, Philippe-Joseph Salazar's inaugural lecture raised interesting questions about a familiar tradition

"No literary authors, no erudite quotes, no technical references, no scientific authorities, no show of slides my medical colleagues are so fond of. None of the trappings of a lecture. Just two folktales and a picture."

These words, taken from Professor Philippe-Joseph Salazar's recent inaugural lecture perhaps, best capture its essence. Titled Life Inc., the Distinguished Professor in Humane Letters in the Centre for Rhetoric Studies presented a tableau of scenarios to present lessons on rhetoric and humane letters. The broad title, he explained, was derived from his statement that "in a scholar's life everything is incorporated. Life Inc. Nothing is left fallow".

By highlighting events in the Christian liturgical calendar, Salazar opened his lecture with the Ascension of Christ, reflecting on its effect on humane affairs and rhetoric studies. Salazar spoke of the difficulties the Apostles would have experienced when they were asked to go into the world to spread the Gospel, an "extraordinary mission to talk plainly about Christ", disseminating Christ's "inspired language" in man-made dialects. "However, from the historical reality of the phenomenal spreading of this message across the Roman and Greek world, we can draw a lesson regarding rhetoric and humane letters as well.

"What the Apostles had to acquire was not a skill in languages – with a view to realise conversions. When they stepped on that road and began to preach at road forks and on market places, the culture they were dealing with was unused not only to their message but to the very notion of a divine Word."

The cultural world they engaged was profoundly rhetorical, explained Salazar. "Cities, from Asia Minor to Britannia, from Mauritania to Germania, were run along lines of civic and popular decision-making that stressed the necessity of public deliberation, the cultural display of public speaking, the popular contest of judicial rhetoric, alongside the shows of ceremonial rhetoric, and the culture of letters, literature, science, philosophy, all produced to enhance a vision of man as a measure of all things. Rhetoric and humane letters went hand in hand in such a secular culture."

Christ's Word had to become incorporated in public life. "This encounter between a prophetic world and a rhetorical world, between two cultures of communication, set into motion the conflict between opinion and truth, reason and faith, belief and science, in sum between the mild voice of what is arguable and the harsh voice of what is inarguable. The Romans called that respect for man's ability to argue without resorting to violence, humanitas or humanity."

The importance of this is borne out in civic life, he added. "The process of persuasion cannot be limited to this politician or this situation or this audience, but must be reproduced by others. To learn to make an argument is a process by which we gain true empowerment. Unless we are able to grasp why an argument works and to perceive a regular link from cause to effect, the speaker has failed us. An argument that cannot be reproduced by us, in out own words, is a bad argument. I may have fulfilled the given end, but it has failed in the guiding end."

Thus democracy had "little need for imagination and vision". "But it has a much greater need for its citizenry to be trained in the wheres and hows of making a point, and conceding a point," Salazar added. "And accepting that, however you believe you are right, the very fact that you have to argue shows it is merely a viewpoint. The Apostles learnt this rhetoric the hard way."

Describing Miró's enigmatic sculpture, The Pitchfork ("Le Fourche"), perched on top of a labyrinth on the Foundation Maeght near Nice, Salazar used the example to sketch a scenario of the possible beginnings of rhetoric.

"To tell scenarios and study scenarios is the very subject of humane letters. In fact, rhetoric terminology, argument and scenario are exactly the same word and have the same intent. That is: to open up discussion and make people realise that for any event, fact, happening, there is a slate of possibilities, scenarios, fictions, ready to spring up. That is why argument is crucial: your view is for me a fiction, yet when you cast your ballot, that argument and that scenario may well become my reality."

In conclusion, Salazar presented another but more familiar scenario: the "academic ritual" of the inaugural lecture, a tradition to which UCT's official history had yielded no reference. "Strictly speaking this is not an inaugural. I have been lecturing in this specific Distinguished Chair, as it is graciously titled, for two years. Rhetorically speaking, what is it that I am doing here tonight? What we are faced with here is a standard question in rhetoric studies: how rhetorical traditions come to be incorporated into the life of an institution and remain in place although their intended effect has vanished. This, I was told, is our 'tradition'. Do you see the paradox? Tradition glorifies memory. But, in most cases, no-one can explain why."

One of the pointers was the "trappings" of the event, the "robes and bonnets and gentle words". "The University is presenting to 'the public' its ethos and she expects the lecturer to embody the values of the institution.

"This is a rhetorical turn: even if I don't praise the University in this speech, my giving the speech is in itself a celebration of the institution as I apply my very best skills at showing what a UCT professor does. Rhetorical acts must never be left to exist at random."

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