Rhetorical Figures in Education: Kenneth Burke and Maimire Mennasemay

Ivo Strecker, Johannes Gutenberh University Mainz


Western education has always stressed the need for an intelligent use of literalness, especially in the fields of natural sciences. Plain style, clear expressions, transparent meanings, and methods of disambiguation were held in high esteem while tropes and figures like metaphor, hyperbole, irony, chiasmus etc. were viewed with suspicion, and their use was discouraged. Yet, in the writings of Kenneth Burke, especially his essay "Linguistic approaches to problems of education"(1955), and subsequently in other publications such as The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences (Nelson, Megill, and McCloskey ed. 1990), and The Rhetorical Turn: Invention and Persuasion in the Conduct of Inquiry (Herbert Simons ed. 1990), it has been shown that rhetoric pertains to all domains of teaching, learning and research. It is from here that the present paper departs in order to recall some of Kenneth Burke's flamboyant contributions to the study of rhetoric, which help us to better understand how figurative forms of expression are indispensible not only in educational practice but also when we think and argue about the discipline itself. Can Western forms of education claim universal relevance, or are they in other cultural contexts inappropriate - even destructive? The search for an answer will lead us to Maimire Mennasemay, an eminent Ethiopian scholar who more than anyone else has tried to figure out what the development of genuine forms of education in his country may involve.

Point of Departure

Western education has always stressed the need for an intelligent use of literalness, especially in the fields of natural sciences. Plain style, clear expressions, transparent meanings, and methods of disambiguation were held in high esteem while tropes and figures like metaphor, hyperbole, irony, chiasmus etc. were viewed with suspicion, and their use was discouraged. Yet, in the writings of Kenneth Burke, especially his essay “Linguistic approaches to problems of education” (1955), and subsequently in other publications such as The Rhetoric of the Human Sciences (Nelson, Megill, & McCloskey, 1990), and The rhetorical turn: Invention and persuasion in the conduct of inquiry (Simons, 1990), it has been shown that rhetoric pertains to all domains of teaching, learning and research.

In a recent article entitled “Revisiting the rhetorical curriculum” (2012), which was inspired not only by the work of Kenneth Burke, but also others, in particular Giert Biesta (2009, 2012), Kris Rutten and Ronald Soetaert have argued that “New rhetoric’s focus on the role that rhetoric plays in socialization and thus the creation of cultural or social rules and behavioral patterns” (p. 734) poses new challenges for the embattled ‘science’ of education. It “implies that we do not only look at education in rhetoric, but that we position education also as a rhetorical practice . . . Approaching the curriculum as rhetoric means that we not only look at the most effective ways of communication in or outside classrooms, but that we position education and the curriculum essentially as a rhetorical practice” (Rutten & Soetaert, 2012, p. 736).

Interestingly, this new and progressive approach to education harks back to the distant past. Biesta drew his inspiration from the German Classics (e.g. Wilhelm von Humboldt) writing that the concept of Bildung “brings together the aspirations of all those who acknowledge––or hope––that education is more than the simple acquisition of knowledge and skills, that is more than simply getting the things ‘right,’ but that it also has to do with nurturing the human person, that it has to do with individuality, subjectivity, in short, with ‘becoming and being somebody’” (2012, p. 731).

Rutten and Soetaert (2012), quoting Dillip Gaonkar, one of the doyens of the Rhetoric Culture Project (www.rhetoricculture.org), go even further back in time when they write that “new rhetoric becomes a constitutive art ‘that not only moulds individual personality but creates and sustains culture and community’ and the ideal of a new rhetorical pedagogy can therefore also be seen as ‘the preparation of the citizen and the formation of community [which is] reminiscent of the older sophists and their successors’” (p. 740).

It is from here that the present paper departs in order to recall some of Kenneth Burke’s flamboyant contributions to the study of rhetoric, which help us to better understand how figurative forms of expression are indispensible not only in educational practice but also when we think and argue about the discipline itself. Can Western forms of education claim universal relevance, or are they in other cultural contexts inappropriate—even destructive? The search for an answer will lead us to Maimire Mennasemay, an eminent Ethiopian scholar who more than anyone else has tried to figure out what the development of genuine forms of education in his country may involve.

The Continuing Relevance of Kenneth Burke

Kenneth Burke was a veritable Homo rhetoricus who had—and still has—a strong hold over his audience. I think this has to do with Burke’s skill to weld form and content together as he sought for an adequate way to speak about the world. It has to do with his genius to ‘size up’ issues, his capacity to imagine unheard-of phenomena, like the ‘terministic screen,’ and also his foible for hyperbole and his inexhaustible sense of drama.

At one time, inspired by “The Golden Bough” (1890), in which Sir James Frazer had explicated the workings of homoeopathic magic, Burke argued, “The poet is, indeed, a ‘medicine man’” who “would immunize us by stylistically infecting us” (1967, pp. 64–65). We can extend this image of poet as ‘medicine man’ to Burke the scholar, and use it to explain the spell he was—and still is—able to cast on his audiences. This involves: his imaginative ways of identifying and naming particular topics of discourse; his ingenious use of figuration; his labeling, sizing things up, identifying and finding key terms—a process, which he calls ‘entitlement;’ his Faustian ability to “conceal or reveal,” as one commentator says, “magnify or minimize, simplify or complexify, elevate or degrade, link or divide;” and last but not least his great delight in puns, paradoxes, contradictions, irony and the whole realm of the comic.

It is known that Burke read very widely (Homer, Aristotle, St. Augustine and Goethe being among his favorites), and the influences that impinged on him may be legion, but I cannot help thinking that two idiosyncratic modern writers were of special importance and energized his writing: Friedrich Nietzsche and James Joyce. To show some of the resonance between these three literary giants, I quote here what Burke wrote about Nietzsche and Joyce:

    In reading Nietzsche, one must be struck by the pronounced naming that marks his page. Nietzsche’s later style is like a sequence of darts…. His sentences are forever striking out at this or that, exactly like a man in the midst of game, or enemies. They leap with a continual abruptness and sharpness of naming, which seems to suggest so much as those saltations by which cruising animals suddenly leap upon their prey. (1984, p. 88)

    Language, of all things, is most public, most collective, in its substance. Yet Joyce has methodologically set about to produce a private language, a language that is, as far as possible, a sheer replica of inturning engrossments. His medium is of the identical substance with himself—and with this medium he communes, devoting his life to the study of its internalities. (1967, p. 44)

Anyone who knows him will realize that Burke has not only characterized Nietzsche and Joyce here, but also his own style of thought and writing. He shares with them the ‘pronounced naming’ that hits like ‘darts,’ and thoughts that ‘leap’ like lions, as well as the production of a new—and therefore private—language that is recklessly subjective and involves what Joyce (1944) has called ‘epiphany:’ the joy we feel when the ‘whatness’ of a thing or a situation, ‘leaps to us from the vestment of its appearance’ (p. 213).

Nietzsche, Joyce and Burke are certainly great educators. But they are also often extreme, at times elitists, and some times obscure. This is why people read them opportunistically and, as time goes by, in ever-new ways. Burke’s essay, “Literature as equipment for living” has, for example, recently had such a renaissance, and in fact the whole move of rhetoric towards education, which Kris Rutten and Ronald Soetaert are currently initiating at the University of Ghent, gets its impulse from a new and inspired reading of Burke.

‘Equipment for living‘ is a lucky entitlement, when paired with ‘literature,’ as well as ‘rhetoric.’ Also, it shows itself to be an educational topic par excellence when it is supported by a methodology, as well as theory, that says, “Art forms like ‘tragedy’ or ‘comedy’ or ‘satire’ would be treated as equipment for living, that size up situations in various ways and in keeping with correspondingly various attitudes” (Burke, 1967, p. 304). To better understand what is involved here let us read—not quite in full—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, which is a paragon of literature as equipment for living:

Good! The sorcerer, my old master
left me here alone today!
Now his spirits, for a change,
my own wishes shall obey!
Having memorized
what to say and do,
with my powers of will I can
do some witching, too!
Go, I say,
Go on your way,
do not tarry,
water carry,
let it flow abundantly,
and prepare a bath for me!
Look, how to the bank he's running!
and now he has reached the river,
he returns, as quick as lightning,
once more water to deliver.
Look! The tub already
is almost filled up!
And now he is filling
every bowl and cup!
Stop! Stand still!
Heed my will!
I've enough
of the stuff!
I've forgotten – woe is me!
what the magic word may be.
Oh, the word to change him back
Oh, he runs, and keeps on going!
He keeps bringing water
quickly as can be,
and a hundred rivers
he pours down on me!
No, no longer
can I let him,
I must get him
with some trick!
I'm beginning to feel sick.
Oh, you ugly child of Hades!
The entire house will drown!
Everywhere I look, I see
water, water, running down.
And they're running! Wet and wetter
get the stairs, the rooms, the hall!
What a deluge! What a flood!
Lord and master, hear my call!
Ah, here comes the master!
I have need of Thee!
From the spirits that I called,
Sir, deliver me!

This wise and multi-layered poem is precisely what Burke means by ‘literature as equipment for living,’ and it helps us to answer the question why Burke chose the seemingly simple and technical term ‘equipment’ to address such complex matters as the meaning and educational value of literature. Partly, the answer is that he delighted in vernacular terms, which, like a magician, he would turn into gold when he applied them to matters of learning. But there was also something else at the back of ‘literature as equipment for living:’ The dictionary defines the verb ‘equip’ as, “furnish (ship, army, person with requisites); furnish (oneself etc.) with what is needed for a journey etc. (from French equipper, probably from Old Norse skipa, to man a boat.’ The noun ‘equipment’ is glossed as ‘outfit, tools, apparatus necessary for an expedition, job, warfare, etc.”

So, when Burke spoke of ‘equipment’ he likened ‘equipment’ in his mind to manning a boat with individuals who help a skipper on his voyages to distant destinations. This includes that Burke also matched ‘equipment’ with his knowledge that rhetoric derives its power from countless devices, which serve well so long as the speakers are their masters. But all too often these devices turn into vices, means turn into masters, and the crew with whom the boat is equipped goes it’s own way. Rhetorical figures like metonymy, synecdoche, metaphor, irony, chiasmus, hyperbole and so on, are striking examples of such an unruly crew. Burke knew how much inappropriate, shallow and backfiring metaphors abound in everyday life. This is why, right at the beginning of his essay Linguistic approach to problems of education, he stressed that “Man literally is a symbol-using animal. He really does approach the world symbol-wise (and symbolfoolish)” (Burke, 1955, p. 260, my emphasis).

Burke was, of course, also aware that tropes may obscure as much as they reveal, which is an important fact that Stephen Tyler drew attention to when he wrote about metaphor: “There can be no doubt but that a good metaphor has a dual role in the imagination, for it both reveals and obscures. By emphasizing certain features in a comparison, for example, it draws our attention to just those features, pushing others into the background. When we see something as something else we see only the similarities and not the differences. A metaphor may mislead in exact proportion to the amount it reveals, but this is the price of any revelation” (1978, pp. 335–36).

The age-old suspicion—and often even outright rejection—of rhetoric derives from this willfulness; from the power of rhetoric to act like the spirits in Goethe’s poem. And are not all of us who choose rhetoric as ‘equipment for living’ prone to feel at times like the sorcerer’s apprentice who cried out “What a deluge! What a flood!”? Burke was acutely aware of this dangerously independent life of rhetoric, and yet he fought for a rhetorical mode of discourse. For even though we may lose control and open the floodgates of insanity, we have no choice but engage and cultivate rhetoric as equipment for shaping ourselves, and the social worlds we live in.

I had similar thoughts myself while doing ethnographic fieldwork in Hamar, southern Ethiopia, where I noted down the following:

    At the root of Hamar reasoning lies the all-pervasive practice of thinking and speaking metaphorically. People know from experience that metaphor is a useful cognitive tool. And in my view it makes sense that in societies like Hamar analogical, or rather metonymical and synecdochical thinking should abound. Where cause and effect, whole and part, etc., can not always be clearly distinguished, where many causal relationships in nature are still an open question, much analogical reasoning should be allowed. But the problem is that analogies often have limits, which are difficult to check. Therefore, even though they lie at the heart of discovery and are essential for an extension of knowledge, they do have their pitfalls and can become an obstruction to objective knowledge. (Strecker, 2013, p. 343)

Maimire Mennasemay: The Dekike Estifanos of Ethiopi

Kenneth Burke observed that the persuasive—even bewitching—power of rhetoric shows itself in all domains of human life but is most evident in the field of religion:

    The study of religion fits perfectly with the approach to education in terms of symbolic action. What more thorough examples of symbolic action can be found than in a religious service? What is more dramatistic than the religious terminology of action, passion, and personality? What terminology is more comprehensive than the dialectic of a theologian? What is linguistically more paradoxical than the ways wherein the mystic, seeking to express the transcendently ineffable, clothes theological ideas in the positive imagery of sheer animal sensation? (1955, p. 296)

Here we have again an example of Burke’s hyperbolic style. He does not say, “in the imagery of nature,” or “in the imagery of whatever is at hand in his habitat.” No, this would lack verve! Instead, “sheer animal sensation” is excitingly raw and primitive, counterpointing as it does the “transcendently ineffable.” The concomitant assertion that it is linguistically paradoxical to compare the ineffable with animal sensation is also hyperbolic, because we know that since time immemorial Homo sapiens or Homo rhetoricus has ingeniously used analogies drawn from nature to address the social and moral realm.

In an essay about Dekike Estifanos (2009), Maimire Mennasemay provides a striking example of how the rhetorical use of figures was central in the teachings of this heretical movement that flourished in medieval Ethiopia.

The Dekike Estifanos were most active in the fifteenth century and spread over all regions of the Ethiopian Empire. Although the “Ethiopian Orthodox Church was riddled with heresies at the time,” the Dekike Estifanos were persecuted—particularly by Emperor Zera Jacob—more mercilessly than other movements, because their heresy could be understood as “bearing within itself utopian, rational and political critique of Ethiopian society mediated through a religious discourse” (Mennasemay, 2009, p. 73).

Zera Yacob was a despot who used the Church “as an effective tool for strengthening his hold over his kingdom . . . (and) for imposing his will, for repressing dissent and subduing rebellious chiefs, and for penetrating the everyday life of his subjects” (Mennasemay, 2009, p. 79). Maimire argues that the Dekike Estifanos’ “critical stand against the absolute power of the Monarch” “bequeathed” Ethiopia in the process “a legacy of critical questions and ideas.” To fully recover this legacy, Maimire “deciphers” from the teachings and actions of the Dekike Estifanos “their criticisms of power, of institutions, and of knowledge” and in addition considers “the roles that reason, hope and imagination play in their critiques” (2009, p. 80).

The Dekike Estifanos “use metaphors, allegories, stories and dreams in their teachings,” which requires “that we go beyond their immediate meanings and disclose the unsaid, the ‘political unconscious,’ in what they say” (Mennasemay, 2009, p. 76). There is no room here to fully present what Maimire has said about the polysemic character of Dekike Estifanos discourse. It must suffice to provide a single—but very telling—example, which I quote here at some length:

    On the surface, the conflict between the Dekike Estifanos and Zera Yacob appears to be about religious matters. At the center of the debates are issues such as the mystery of the Trinity and of the incarnation, the adoration of religious images and the crucifix, and the nature of Debre Tsion or salvation at the ‘end of times.’ However, behind these seemingly theological conflicts gestate new ideas about power, law, institutions, and knowledge. Whereas laymen, nobles, priests, and monks address the Emperor by using the respectful ‘You,’ the Dekike Estifanos refuse to follow this practice and address the Emperor using the familiar ‘you;’ and whereas others prostrate themselves before the Monarch, the Dekike Estifanos refuse to do so. When the Emperor demands that they, like everyone else, should use the respectful ‘You,’ and that they should prostrate themselves before him, they respond that since they use the familiar ‘you’ when they address God in their prayers, there is no justification for using the respectful ‘You’ when they address a human being. As for prostration, according to them, it is due only to the Trinity; to prostrate themselves before the Emperor would be to treat him as the Fourth person of the Trinity, which is sacrilegious.
    Though couched in a religious language, these reasons harbor criticisms of the relationships between the Monarch and his subjects. Insofar as the Monarch’s demands imply a qualitative gap between his humanity and that of his subjects, and insofar as the Dekike Estifanos’s refusal to accede to his demands implies a rejection of such a qualitative gap, the implications of their refusal go beyond the conflicts between them and the Monarch. Theirs is a challenge that desacralizes the Emperor and affirms the notion of equality between the Monarch and his subjects. (Mennasemay, 2009, pp. 80–81)

It is plain that two rhetorical strategies were employed here. One was non-verbal and literally “embodied” by bodily posture: The Emperor demanded that his subjects prostrate themselves before him, and the Dekike Estifanos refused to do so. The other was verbal and pertained to the term of address, the Emperor demanding the respectful ‘You’ while the heretics granted him only the familiar ‘you.’ This in turn provoked the wrath of the ruler who then took recourse to yet another embodied rhetoric, which was meant to let everyone see what he thought of them: He had them “flogged, thrown down ravines, their hair torn out, their faces and bodies lacerated with knives; they were speared, dragged on the ground until their skins peeled off, tortured by fire, their tongues pulled out, their ears and nose cut, their eyes gouged out and hot rods inserted in the sockets, their limbs chopped off, beheaded, their corpses dismembered and burnt” (Mennasemay, 2009, pp. 73–74).

Here Maimire terminates his horrific litany of the Emperor's figurative rhetoric, which, as we can see, involved not only the destruction but also the disfiguration of the bold Dekike Estifanos, who in their deeds and writings wanted to teach him the ethos of equality.

Figures in Maimire's Discourse about Education.

Maimire's essay about the Dekike Estifanos has the subtitle, “Towards an Ethiopian Critical Theory” and is meant to show how an ancient Ethiopian tradition—the teachings of the Dekike Estifanos—“bequeaths us questions, ideas and ideals that could provide the intellectual resources for developing an Ethiopian critical theory capable of illuminating the potentially possible routes to a modernization productive of freedom, equality, justice, and prosperity” (2009, p. 64).

Again there is no space here to do justice to the complex argumentation of the author, especially as he musters a host of historical and cultural details. So I will focus on only one rhetorical figure—chiasmus—which Maimire uses three times to structure his text and propel his argument about education and the emancipation of Ethiopia:

  1. Individuality without individualism versus individualism without individuality. The following is what Maimire writes about this chiasmus as it emerges from a confrontation between Western education and the teachings of the Dekike Estifanos:
  2. The Dekike Estifanos are not individualists avant la lettre. To think so is to misunderstand them, for they value life in a community: ‘He who lives in a community fulfills the hope of God’s word.’ Yet, the Dekike Estifanos also claim that one should ‘follow one’s mind’ and struggle until ‘one reaches one’s goals’ or ‘summit.’ When these apparently contradictory statements valorizing community life and individual autonomy are mediated through their challenges to the Monarch’s absolute power, their notions of ‘litigation,’ mutual accountability and ‘not being an insult to Ethiopia,’ one sees the emergence of something new: ‘individuality without individualism.’ This is a unique understanding of individual identity that emerges from within Medieval Ethiopia as an immanent critique of the subjugation of the individual to the absolute power of the monarch (Mennasemay, 2009, pp. 92–93).

    From here Maimire goes on to envision a future Ethiopia where “‘Individuality without individualism’ makes possible identification with collective projects and harbors the potential of society-transforming actions. In the Dekike Estifanos . . . the notion of ‘individuality without individualism’ has a critical dimension: it points to a society-oriented vision that avoids the pathological closures of both the atomistic and collectivist conceptions of the individual that now confront Ethiopians. It offers an alternative to the atomistic conception, spawned by modernization in Ethiopia, which breeds a culture of indifference to injustice and to the suffering of others” (Mennasemay, 2009, p. 93).

  3. The future is a critical moment of the present, and the present is a critical moment of the future. In the interest of their rulers the Ethiopian clerics conjured up “Debre Tsion as a place outside time and space: an abstract utopia that detaches hope for a better life from earthly possibilities and projects it into another world separated by an unbridgeable abyss from the present” (Menassemay, 2009, p. 100).
  4. The Ethiopian heretics, however, opposed this view and defined Debre Tsion “in terms of a dialectic of immanence and transcendence that points to its emergence from within the here and now” (Menassemay, 2009, p. 101). Asked if they believe in Debre Tsion, they responded that for “the holy, Debre Tsion is already here, and for those whose holy work is in the future, Debre Tsion will be there.” Maimire adds, “The interesting point is that whereas Zera Yacob’s understanding makes a radical gap between profane time and the holy time of Debre Tsion, the Dekike Estifanos interrelate dialectically profane and holy time and see Debre Tsion as immanent in the present. For ‘the holy’ they claim, ‘it is already there’ . . . Unlike Zera Yacob, the Dekike Estifanos do not devalue the present in their conception of Debre Tsion. One could say that for them, the future is a critical moment of the present, and the present is a critical moment of the future. As such, they see the present as a historical site within which gestates a ‘concrete utopia,’ Debre Tsion. This has important implications for an Ethiopian critical theory. Modernization in Ethiopia treats Ethiopia as a tabula rasa in that it is premised on a rupture with the past and the lived present, making it a free-floating phenomenon that comes from above (experts, foreign aid, international institutions). But were we to consider modernization from the perspective of the ‘concrete utopia’ gestating in the present, following the Dekike Estifanos’s conception of Debre Tsion, it has to be conceived as a utopian grasp of the future informed by empirical judgments” (Menassemay, 2009, pp. 101–102).

  5. Reason cannot blossom without hope and imagination, and hope and imagination cannot speak without reason. I quote again at length to show how Maimire uses this chiasmus to articulate the emancipation of Ethiopia, which he envisions as follows:
  6. The Dekike Estifanos conception of Debre Tsion brings out the role that hope and imagination play in their critique of power, institutions and knowledge. According to them, hope drives man to that which is essential to him as thirst drives one to water . . . Their religious terms should not obscure the important critical idea—that hope and imagination are the militant partners of reason in the quest for an emancipated society (Debre Tsion) . . . In the discourse of the Dekike Estifanos, hope and imagination interpenetrate, and the latter takes the form of tales and dreams. Where there is hope, the imagination is active; and where there is imagination, hope emerges. To paraphrase Bloch, reason cannot blossom without hope and imagination, and hope and imagination cannot speak without reason. Imagination unveils the emancipatory possibilities of the future by going against the grain of the present, while hope breaks down the firewall between the present and the future by inseminating the present with the semantic contents of the possible emancipated future. The conjugation of the two revolutionizes the symbolic realm, reinvents the very modes of anticipating the future, and makes it possible to envision an Ethiopia beyond the actual, to see that which in the present is ‘more’ (the concrete utopia) than the present itself, prefiguring an alternative future. Hope and imagination provide new resources for context immanent social critique. They are, to adopt the poetic language of the Dekike Estifanos, the critical eyes that could see what is not yet visible and the critical ears that could hear what is not yet audible. Without hope and imagination, critique would be, to borrow again from their poetic language, like ‘clouds without rain, fruit trees without fruits.’ Hope and imagination could see and hear what reason's power of conception cannot: that Ethiopians could be ‘more’ than present conditions permit (Mennasemay, 2009, pp. 102–103).


In the present paper I have tried to fathom some of the implications of Rutten, Soetaert and Biesta's invitation to rethink education as something “more than the simple acquisition of knowledge and skills.” As a first step, and in order to evoke what this more might mean, I recalled Kenneth Burke's seminal texts on rhetoric as ‘equipment’ for living in general, and for education in particular. This led on to reflections on the unruly nature of the orator's (or writer's) rhetorical ‘equipment,’ and the risks we take when we use figures to articulate our rhetorical will. Tropes—as for example metaphor—are prone to simultaneously reveal and mislead, and we can never be in full control of them. But to get the work of the world done we cannot do without them. True, certain situations demand strictly univocal forms of expression, but this does not mean that univocality, i.e. discourse reduced to literal meanings, should be our universal maxim. Particularly in education, Stephen Tyler's dictum applies: “To ask for mathematical exactitude in our everyday rules is to ask for disaster, the very destruction of the form sought rather than its fulfillment” (1978, p. 396).

In the second part of the paper, I moved on to show firstly how an emerging Western interest in new—or rather, very old—forms of education is also found in other parts of the world. Although Maimire Mennasemay did not refer to Burke, who noted that “the study of religion fits perfectly with the approach to education in terms of symbolic action” (see above), he was of the same mind when in his essay “Towards an Ethiopian critical theory” he enlisted the teachings of the Dekike Estifanos, a religious movement in medieval Ethiopia, to call for a retrieval and new cultivation of an old ethos not of individualism but of individuality in his country.

Secondly, I chose Maimire's text to exemplify how rhetorical figures are used in teaching. The Dekike Estifanos applied rhetorical means of evocation, that's to say a host of polysemic figures, to nudge their pupils, including the Monarch, towards understanding the issues at hand. But their efforts also fueled situations where social confrontations and threats were involved, and the despot Zera Yacob reacted by teaching the heretics a lesson, not simply killing them, but using gruesome bodily disfiguration.

Thirdly, Maimire's essay provides an intriguing instance of figuration in the discourse about education. As we have seen, at crucial junctures in his text Maimire uses chiasmus to propel his argument forward. In this way he captivates the mind and emotion of his readers and leads them to imagine what he has in mind. His key chiasmi are (1) individuality versus individualism, (2) future in the present versus present in the future, and (3) reason depending on hope and imagination versus imagination and hope depending on reason. The “versus,” which I have written here in italics, represents what George Kennedy (1998) would call the “rhetorical energy” of the figure. That is, like other tropes (metaphor, hyperbole or irony), chiasmi carry rhetorical energy that causes the mind to ‘turn’ from one direction (or one semantic domain) to another, leading to a cognitive and affective oscillation that only comes to an end when reason and desire have been satisfied (or exhausted).

The rhetorical use of figures—so well understood by Kenneth Burke and so convincingly demonstrated by Maimire Mennasemay—is indispensible in education. As long as teaching aims exclusively at technical knowledge and skills, education may confine itself to a strictly literal use of language, but when it comes to questions of nurturing the person, of Bildung, of individuality, hope and imagination the limits of literalness and the need for figural uses of language become apparent.

Here the new conception of ‘education as rhetoric,’ which is advocated by Biesta, Rutten, and Soetaert, is surprisingly close to postmodern ethnography and anthropology. Ever since its inception, anthropology has had a wide-ranging educational mission. No matter how far we go back into the past, be it to Antiquity (Herodotus), the Renaissance (Giambatista Vico), the Enlightenment (Wilhelm von Humboldt), Modernity (Franz Boas) or Post-modernity (Stephen Tyler), anthropology has aimed to learn from “Other Cultures” (so the title of John Beattie’s influential introduction to anthropology). By providing a “Mirror of Man” (as Clyde Cluckhohn called it) anthropologists have helped to create trans-cultural visions that reflect the complexity of the human condition and allow us to better know and, however imperfectly and provisionally, ‘improve’ ourselves.

In his provocative essays assembled in The unspeakable: Discourse, dialogue, and rhetoric in the postmodern world (1987), Stephen Tyler has envisaged this ‘improvement’ as an urgently needed resistance to the hegemony of literalness in the scientific discourse of Modernity, “that inappropriate mode of scientific rhetoric which entails ‘objects,’ ‘facts,’ ‘descriptions,’ ‘inductions,’ ‘generalizations,’ ‘verification,’ ‘experiment,’ ‘truth,’ and the like concepts which, except as empty invocations, have no parallels either in the experience of ethnographic field work or the writing of ethnographies. The urge to conform to the canons of scientific rhetoric has made the easy realism of natural history the dominant mode of ethnographic prose, but it has been an illusionary realism, promoting, on one hand, the absurdity of ‘describing’ nonentities like ‘culture’ or ‘society’ as if they were fully observable, though somewhat ungainly, bugs, and on the other, the equally ridiculous behaviorist pretense of ‘describing’ repetitive patterns of action in isolation from the discourse that actors use in constituting and situating their action, and all in simple-minded surety that the observer's grounding discourse was itself an objective form sufficient to the task of describing acts” (p. 207).

After he has argued against the hegemony of science, Tyler urges us to realize “the ethical character of all discourse, as captured in the ancient significance of the family of terms ‘ethos,’ ‘ethnos,’ and ‘ethics’” (1978, p. 203). Part of this is to acknowledge the creative role of rhetorical figures and to accept evocation—the process that “makes available through absence what can be conceived but not represented” (Tyler, 1978, p. 199)—as a key term in the epistemological repertoire of anthropology (and by implication also education).

Evocation is of such importance and yet so difficult to grasp that in a paragraph entitled Free voice: Postmodern ethnography Tyler has tried twice to articulate what he means. Convinced as I am of the value of parallelism as a means for emphasis—and also to provide food for thought beyond my conclusion—I quote both passages here in full:

  1. A postmodern ethnography is a cooperatively evolved text consisting of fragments of discourse intended to evoke in the minds of both reader and writer an emergent fantasy of a possible world of commonsense reality, and thus to provoke an aesthetic integration that will have a therapeutic effect. It is in a word, poetry—not in its textual form, but in its return to the original context and function of poetry which, by means of its performative break with everyday speech, evoked memories of the ethos of the community and thereby provoked hearers to act ethically . . . Postmodern ethnography attempts to recreate textually this spiral of poetic and ritual performance. Like them, it defamiliarizes commonsense reality in a bracketed context of performance, evokes a fantasy whole abducted from fragments, and then returns participants to the world of commonsense—transformed, renewed, and sacralized. (Tyler, 1987, p. 202)
  2. Postmodern ethnography is a return to the idea of aesthetic integration as therapy once captured in the sense of Proto-Indo-European ‘ar’ (‘way of being,’ ‘orderly and harmonious arrangement of the parts of a whole’) from which have come English ‘art,’ ‘rite,’ and ‘ritual,’ that family of concepts so closely connected with the idea of restorative harmony, of ‘therapy’ in its original sense of ‘ritual substitute’ (cf. Hittite tarpan-alli), and with the poet as therapon, ‘attendant of the muse.’ A postmodern ethnography is an object of meditation which provokes a rupture with the common sense world and evokes an aesthetic integration whose therapeutic effect is worked out in the restoration of the commonsense world. (Tyler, 1987, p. 211)


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