Written centuries apart, one would not automatically connect Plato’s Phaedrus with Liz Lane’s “Feminist Rhetoric in the Digital Sphere: Digital Interventions & the Subversion of Gendered Cultural Scripts.” However far apart they appear in subject, time, and space, they do contain some similar qualities worth noting. Essential to each piece is the definition of rhetoric and rhetoric’s place within society; however, each text focuses on rhetoric in different ways.
In Phaedrus, Plato speaks through a dialogue between Socrates and Phaedrus, who discuss the art of rhetoric. This one-scene play incorporates example speeches and discourse to examine the definition of rhetoric, its purpose, and how one uses it. The beginning is filled with a rhetorical challenge in which Socrates refutes the value of a speech by Lysias. The resulting speeches by Socrates create a bit of a cumbersome beginning in which the knowledge that comes later in the text is needed to fully understand and appreciate. Readers are forced to read the text several times in order to comprehend the intricacies presented by Plato. Filled with examples and comparisons, it explains the role of rhetoric in a society, which history tells us, limited participation based upon gender and class.
Liz Lane directly addresses the gender gap of Ancient Greece touching upon the history of rhetoric and how women have been excluded from this realm in her text, “Feminist Rhetoric in the Digital Sphere.” Lane continues into the present day discussing how women are still culturally excluded from rhetoric. When women enter the public debate, they are often threatened and abused. She examines how women are using digital technology to increase feminist rhetoric and open dialogue surrounding women’s struggle for voice. As with Plato’s dialogue, the reader must pay close attention to Lane’s presentation; she jumps around between examples, names, and details, which are relevant to her particular points, but require a diligent reader.
Both authors use the same techniques to make their arguments work. By clearly defining the terms with which they are working, the authors keep their arguments clear, and make sure their audience is with them before moving forward. Throughout each piece, questions are asked and examples are provided.
Ancient Greece was the birth place of rhetoric, therefore, Plato’s Phaedrus is the foundation of all rhetorical texts that have come after. While Socrates and Phaedrus never openly exclude women, and Socrates does mention women in his line “Ancient sages, men and women, who have spoken and written of these things…” (Phaedrus by Plato), we know through historical studies that women were typically excluded. Therefore, Liz Lane’s text, while an extension of Plato’s work is taking the argument for rhetoric in a different direction, imploring the access of women to public dialogue.
Lane also explores technologies that Plato could never have imagined. Socrates states in Phaedrus that he thinks writing is detrimental to memory, one of the five canons of rhetoric. I wonder what Socrates would have to say about the internet and cell phones? Apparently, however, Plato did not share Socrates’ opinion, since Plato wrote Phaedrus. Lane examines the use of the written word, but in a modern sense where the written word is accepted and expected, and has gained a new level of audience reach through the Internet. The spoken word also has renewed vigor in this digital age with cameras and video dissemination online. Therefore, I would define “Feminist Rhetoric in the Digital Sphere” as a contemporary extension of Phaedrus, taking the definition of rhetoric and applying it to the standards and struggles of today.
Both authors are concerned with the embodiment of rhetoric. Lane examines this in the context of women, linking body and voice, “Digital representations of the body (profile pictures, usernames, biographies,) cannot be divorced from the speaker’s voice, and even when a speaker’s presence is seemingly neutral, gendered attacks are hurled at an assumed body” (Lane). Rhetoric is the embodiment of voice, and the body is the figure of the voice; therefore, rhetoric represents not just the words but also the person that puts forth those words. Historically the only bodies with the right to speak where male, but Lane addresses the growth of female voice and the rise of feminist rhetoric as “Increasingly, feminist activists have begun to explore disruptive technologies and to assert a powerful voice in commonly exclusive public spheres” (Lane).
Plato, through the character of Socrates, is concerned with truth in rhetoric. He attempts to clarify the use of rhetoric by philosophers (inspired truth seekers, such as Socrates himself) versus Sophists (speech writers for hire who sell lies and sow evil), and the appropriate ability of each to use the art. Socrates states, “who being ignorant of the truth aims at appearances, will only attain an art of rhetoric which is ridiculous and is not an art at all” (Phaedrus by Plato). Those who seek and know the truth can possess the art of rhetoric, and those who peddle words are deemed ridiculous; therefore, it is philosophers who embody rhetoric.
Plato used the term Sophists as an insult in Phaedrus, whereas Lane looks upon the teachers and speechwriters a bit differently. She sees the Sophists as trying to open up rhetoric and social dialogue, no longer keeping it exclusive to rich men—“The Sophistic movement, for example, was rooted in teaching commoners and those outside of the realm of traditional education how to speak and defend themselves in courts of law” (Lane).
This is one of many differing viewpoints between Lane and Plato. What they do have in common, though, is the presentation of a well-formed argument and a desire to understand rhetoric’s place in the society in which they live. Lane has the benefit of knowing about and learning from history, whereas Plato is history.
Whether Ancient Greece or twenty-first century United States, rhetoric is crucial to fostering dialogue, defining terms, establishing common ground, and shaping society. I think both Plato and Lane could agree to that.
Lane, Liz. “Feminist Rhetoric in the Digital Sphere: Digital Interventions & the Subversion of Gendered Cultural Scripts.” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology. University of Oregon Libraries, 2015. Web. 23 Jan. 2016.
Phaedrus by Plato. Trans. Benjamin Jowett. The Internet Classics Archive, 2009. Web. 23 Jan. 2016.